A couple years ago we held a get-together at our house for the the families at our sons’ day-care. We did it in part as payback for the quite lovely get-together that had just then recently been hosted by the parents of a graduating kindergartner of Chinese heritage and an Old Testament given name. This get-together had been held at a high-end Mexican cantina on the main pedestrian party strip at the East end of our neighborhood, and featured basically endless amounts of guacamole and bottomless margaritas. It struck me as a generous parting gift to the staff, who I’m sure don’t get paid enough to routinely enjoy that sort of entertainment. These parents had also recently gifted our son a pair of brand-new cast-off sneakers — it was unclear precisely why they were giving them away — that our son didn’t grow into for more than a year, and he is not exactly a slight young man.
During our get-together, the husband gestured toward the built-ins in our living room and asked me, point-blank, “have you read all of these?”
I’m sure his wife kicked him for the callousness of this remark later that evening.
I remarked that no, I hadn’t. But those books that I hadn’t read, my parents had. As I had inherited what was on the shelves when we bought the house from them and slotted in my own contributions as time permitted.
My spouse did not kick me for the arrogance of this remark. In fact, he didn’t even remark on it.
I thought about that night when I was walking the dog. Reflecting on the bargain that the Republican Party has made: to elect a buffoon so callous in his disregard for others that he is happily prepared to let 400,000 people die so that he can be re-elected. A bargain struck all so that they can pack the judiciary. Well congratulations: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead, and you can have your super-majority on the Supreme Court — only we’ll have children in cages while we’re at it, and no actual changes to abortion law, no alteration to the status quo regarding gay marriage, nothing except more poverty more death more fire more flood and now more plague.
And then I thought: what do I want — or hope — to be remembered about this age? Ancien Regime France is probably best remembered now as much through Rostand’s Cyrano is it is through the Versailles put on by Canal+. England has so many works of literature (and film) to remember its various grand ages (Elizabeth, Victoria, Edward) as to bury the mind in an avalanche of nostalgia.
What will we remember this age by?
Not our governing institutions. Those have long since been shown, publicly and in the most shameful of ways, to be fig leaves that paper over what amount to scrawny and beshriveled exercises in money-grubbing. I’ve seen democracy in action, and when it happens right it is that most magical of things, a process whose end you can’t quite predict but because you have faith in its workings you can have faith in its outcomes. And we can’t have faith in the workings any more. Not since Bush v Gore, not after what Hilary did to Bernie (much less what Vladimir did to Hilary), honestly not since and for a long, long time.
Surely not our architecture. Mid-century Modern? Glass houses with no room for books and no intention to last even a generation. Prairie? Maybe, except Frank Lloyd Wright built flat roofs for places where it snowed, and couldn’t engineer his way out of a paper bag. Craftsmen? Maybe, but they were sold out of the Sears+Roebuck catalogue, and so can never escape the whiff of the outhouse. Victorian? Please — neo-colonial trash. Get yourself a second-tier nonconformist Oxford college if you want that sort of thing.
Not our cuisine, and not our manners. And not, I’m very much afraid, our written word. Perhaps our dance. Perhaps. By which I mean not the Merce Cunningham or George Balanchine, not the Isadora Duncan or Martha Graham schools of dance. But Fred Astaire, Michael Jackson, and any one of the endless line of pop stars of the last generation (Shakira, Janet, Justin, Beyonce, the list just never ends). Like I said, perhaps. And maybe our theatre. Meaning, really, the musical.
But all those books that I’ll bequeath my kids? Assuming the levees don’t fail and carry our home down the river with my body stashed in an upstairs room and some unspeakable slur scrawled on to the wall?* All those coins carefully hoarded over decades by my grandparents (the last touch: my step-grandmother carefully pressing masking tape onto each album with an inscription so that my brother and I would remember who gave us that ultimately only minorly valuable pile of silver)? That carefully curated set of pieties, heresies, and hypocrisies we call Mainline Protestantism?
Hard to say. Though not so hard to imagine. Which is itself a bizarre frame of reference — the pre-nostalgic. Not the saccharine taste of every high school romance every filmed, where the hero knows as he’s catching the touchdown pass that this very moment is the best he’ll ever have. Not the Bachelorette and all its spinoffs, where in the back of our minds we’re always already calculating the precise length of time before the heroine chucks the nice guy and goes into business for herself as a motivational speaker.
Not any of that. But the moment where you look out at the horizon, see the smoke of the hordes (or the tundra burning, or maybe they’re riots — really, dealer’s choice), and have to consider what to carry, what to bury, what to leave for looting.
So I guess that’s my new rude cocktail party question: when they look back at our age 200, or 500, or whatever number of years into the future, what do you hope they’ll remember us for?
*Whence these echoes in my head? Who’s the Jim in this scene?