Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Start All Over Again

As this is written, the country honors its soldiers who have died while serving in the military. It’s a hot, sunny day in Richmond Va, but the flag hanging over the front door undulates in a cooling breeze, rocking the flagpole in its metal wall mount. This flag flies every day of the year in memory of two citizen soldiers that fought in a war many years past, who were among a generation that is leaving us at a rate of over 1,800 a day.

The Greatest Generation, indeed. They lived through a time when one-quarter of the working population was unemployed, an entire region of the country suffered an ecological disaster caused by drought and land mismanagement, and the world was at war. Because today we know how it all turned out, it’s difficult to imagine the fear and uncertainty experienced at that time. Those fifteen long years of existential crisis shaped the modern character of a nation and provided lessons for future generations to learn.

In the past couple of years, while the country has suffered a serious recession, our industry has suffered a depression; construction-industry unemployment has exceeded that of the Great Depression. Environmental disasters like Katrina and the Gulf oil spill tax our resources, our country is engaged in two expensive wars, and our future is uncertain. So there are a few parallels.

For those of us who came of age during the Vietnam War, we know that bad times come and go just like good times. But in 2008 a twenty-five year period of robust economic growth and mild recessions came to an abrupt end, and the current mood is as close to the existential angst of the 30’s and 40’s as any we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Maybe that’s just because we have more to lose than we did back in our youthful days of massive social transformation and violent protest.

Certainly we’re exposed to more detailed information about what’s wrong in the world, at a greater speed than were our parents and grandparents. We have a far greater number of entertainment choices, which fragments our collective attention instead of focusing it. During the Great Depression the entire movie industry set about to improve the country’s morale, producing films that featured lighthearted stories – usually in an aspirational setting of affluence if not wealth. In the mid 30’s, Jerome Kern wrote a song called “Pick Yourself Up” for a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film called “Swing Time.” The dancing was fabulous, of course, but the song’s upbeat melody and lyrics spoke to a generation having to cope with devastating financial burdens:

Nothing's impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
Start all over again.

Don't lose your confidence if you slip,
Be grateful for a pleasant trip,
And pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again.

Work like a soul inspired,
Till the battle of the day is won.
You may be sick and tired,
But you'll be a man, my son!

Will you remember the famous men,
Who had to fall to rise again?
So take a deep breath,
Pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again.

Be grateful for a pleasant trip.” A lot of fine music has been made since the 30’s and 40’s, but can you imagine this song being written and performed without irony in today’s culture? There was a shared innocence, an authenticity, in the expression of ideas and feelings back when most people didn’t enjoy the quantity of material pleasures that many take for granted today. There may be a correlation.

More to the point, though, can we view the challenges we face today with the historical memory of having overcome greater ones before? We should never forget the courage and optimism of the Greatest Generation, and strive to model the example they set. We would honor their memory every day if we did.