The Obama Years
By Stephen MarcheNovember 30, 2016
The end of an era is like a face you stare at, trying to remember for the future. It is Obama’s face we stare at now, trying to see him before hindsight kicks in, before the Obama years are shadowed by the Trump years. Even as the world is beginning to tote up his legacies for the great pissing contest of op-ed history, I doubt anyone will be able to capture his saturation of our imagination. My son, who is 10, has never known a world in which the president of the United States is not black — what does that mean? What does he mean? For eight years, the images have been piling up, but the most miraculous images of Barack Obama’s presidency are the ones that don’t exist. There was no swaggering “Mission Accomplished” in Top Gun gear, no “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” while bodies floated in the New Orleans floodwaters, no shifty-eyed paralysis during the reading of My Pet Goat. For that matter, there was no footnote from a special prosecutor outlining anal-oral contact with a zaftig intern, no dubious memory lapses during Congressional hearings into arms deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran, no deflated confession of American malaise. You can hate Obama, and God knows he was hated, hated beyond all reason, hated not just for who he was but for a series of livid fictions conjured out of vapor by men and women he refused to identify as his enemies, but the most scrutinized man in history didn’t embarrass himself.
During his entire two terms, no comedian has successfully made fun of him — another unprecedented absence. The halting lilt of his speech, the loose gait of his stride, the lanky mannerisms which are not that far from adolescent gawkiness, have not submitted to parody. Key and Peele came closest, but their funniest Obama bits were the ones that celebrated him most openly — his lack of anger, his fluidity between black and white cultures, his poise. He was too lovable to be mocked. He was also too hateable. He was a black man whose middle name was Hussein and who did not act the way black people were supposed to act and who did not look the way a president was supposed to look. Therefore, the persistence of birtherism. Obama’s enemies required his invalidation, not the recognition of his human frailty. His enemies and his followers both needed him as an emptiness they could fill with their hope or their rage. They needed him as an icon not a person.
I am no different. When I look around my own life, when I look at the lives of those around me, I see in our lived images and our imagined lives — more than any other instinct or thought or impulse — the desire not to make mistakes, not to embarrass ourselves. Obama has lived that collective dream to the fullest. He has been The Man Who Did Not Screw Up. That’s what’s made him so hard to see and so intimately bound up with us all.
I was 32 when Obama danced over the green sea of raised phones at his first inaugural ball. I will be 40 by the time he stands beside Trump at the swearing-in.
I too did not screw up, or not too badly anyway. During the Obama years, I bought a blue house in a quiet neighborhood in Toronto and my father died and my daughter was born and I called my mother to check in and I hired a nanny for a while. I wrote a piece about loneliness and Facebook for The Atlantic and bought a used Hyundai Elantra with the proceeds — a reliable car with a top safety rating. When the children were sick, I set them up with flat ginger ale and cartoons and kissed their foreheads and worried. I regulated my son’s screen time although I was not so good with my own. Over toasted Challah and scrambled eggs with smoked cheddar, I discussed with my wife the precise qualities that went into a great lead of a second nut graf. My son and I memorized and frequently recited the speech Dr. Evil gives in the therapy session of the first Austin Powers movie — the one that begins “the details of my life are quite inconsequential.” I discovered, to my embarrassment, that the drink I really enjoy is bourbon with ginger ale. I played chess nearly every day on my phone and didn’t improve even slightly. I changed my daughter into her swim suit, and threw her in the air in the pool till she howled with glee, and then insisted, despite her fussing, that she shower to flush the chlorine from her eyes. I signed the children up for gymnastics lessons through various new Byzantine online systems and attended black-tie affairs to celebrate culture generally. I learned that I was relatively competent with money.
In short, the Obama years were the years I became a man, although these were also the years when no one could have told you what that meant. Masculinity was a term inevitably preceded by the phrase “the crisis of,” and adulthood was to be avoided if at all possible. You had better act like a man but you better not act like a man. The strategy I employed, a common one at the time, was to fulfill all the traditional obligations of manhood — making a living, owning property, raising children — while maintaining an ironic distance about the whole business. “Can you believe how much work I have to put in to keep up with the neighbors?” I would say to my neighbor Jon as I aerated my lawn with a pitchfork in the spring. “Lets go see the Jays,” I offered Randy, a professor of literature with four daughters. “That way you can tell your father you’ve done a traditionally masculine activity for the year.” Randy laughed. He played the same game.
Words mattered so much less than images during the Obama years. We lived by images. We lived by Kim Kardashian’s ass and by the Hubble’s panorama of long-dead galaxies in the farthest reaches of space and by 93 million selfies a day and Obama. By these images, we knew that we had lived in a time. We knew what it meant to live in our time.
We lived by images and our guts. At the Massimo Bottura thing at Buca, I will always remember, Rob Gentile served trout four ways: as roe, as live hatchlings, as a filet, and smoked. The whole dish was beautiful but the hatchlings were more than beautiful — the nastiness of the wriggling fry on the plate, their furtive flurry on the palate, the shameful cruelty of consuming animate beings. Disgust was enfolded into more intense pleasure. The dish was an imitation of the cosmos, a recreation of the cycles of birth and death through the act of sourcing the living ingredient, a commentary on abjection and preservation — no novel or poem or film produced in the past eight years contains more sense of the world as it is now than that meal.
Over the Obama years, taste expanded and contracted, outward and inward, into ever greater elaboration, line-caught tuna helicoptered in from Pacific trawlers, hundred-course tasting menus with 60 sips of wine, shaved velvet from the antlers of reindeers served on a bed of scavenged moss, and then, as countercurrent, a long dive into the comforts of street food, perfected fried chicken, tripe sandwiches, tacos, ramen, roti, the bread remembered from a tiny village on the outskirts of Lucca, the treasured sustenance from the glamorized peasantry of the global back alleys. We wanted to eat everything, everything that could be named or conceived.
Images were the lies we told about ourselves. The truth of us was what we ate, what we shat out. We live in a time of some fantastic shits. Plump, glistening, healthy, expensive shits. We make them better than we make anything else. The succulence of the earth, harvested through sophisticated logistical chains, refined through educated imagination, tongued with discrimination, swallowed with force, processed in well-regulated bowels, and squeezed neatly out of our assholes, to be flushed through the magnificent underground rivers of the cities out to the sea. The past left ruins. The present leaves dumps.
During the Obama years, my job was understanding the Obama years. I spent my time writing about the times, mostly for Esquire magazine. It was a strange business: to try and describe time while you are in it is like trying to tailor a suit you are wearing. It felt a bit like sticking a leaf on the surface of a stream and letting go and watching the leaf drift away. Trend pieces offered a kind of escape from the vacuity of the moment, reckoning from a projected future a present significance — little different from cracking turtle plastrons on hot stones, or parsing the flight of swallows across a distant field, or rustling a sacrificial liver out of a lamb’s guts. I had the ancient job of flailing toward meaning, finding patterns in the mess.
The aesthetics of the period were consistent at least. Twenty or 30 years from now, when the movies want nostalgic coming-of-age post-collegiate comedies set between 2008 and 2016, the designers will have no problem resurrecting the look. Remember? There were so many Starbucks everywhere. And tech guys in hoodies. And tattoos of literary quotations and elaborately waxed moustaches and little shops that sold, like, six dresses or grass-fed steaks or jams. Remember Canada Goose jackets? And EDM? And kickball leagues? And Tinder? And the man-bun? And Candy Crush?
All our scrambling for distinctions, for the new and the different, tended only toward homogeneity. At one point, for Esquire, I was profiling the greatest ad director of the time, a man called Tom Kuntz — this is the kind of article that appears, seemingly by law, every 10 to 15 years or so. He had done a cool music video for MGMT and also a bunch of brilliant 30-second spots for Skittles. So I spoke with him and the people he knew and the people he worked with. Kuntz lived in Los Angeles. His friends were mostly in London. The ad company he worked for was in Portland. I was in Toronto. My editor was in New York. Ten to 15 years earlier everyone in the equation of that profile — editor-in-chief, editor, writer, subject, and ad company — would have worked within 50 blocks of each other in Manhattan. But when I met Tom at a coffee shop near his house in Silver Lake — I think it was Intelligentsia — I realized that it was exactly the same as the coffee shops in my neighborhood in Toronto or the coffee shops in London or New York or Portland. The diversity of the new world is patent fraud. The world has never been so much the same.
It all seemed like a costume party, held in some indeterminate future, on the theme of the current period, the reenactment society of the present. The representative culture of the Obama years was disciplined, as he was, obedient even in its rebellions. There were punks during the Obama years, hanging around, but they were punks obsessed with being real punks, with not being unpunk, punks that insisted on upholding the best traditions of punk. It’s not just that we were obedient, it’s that it was impossible to figure out how to be disobedient. Terrorists — the radical outsiders to the system — sourced their rebellion to antique religious submission. You had to serve somebody. You could serve well or poorly, politely or rudely. But it was better to serve as politely as possible.
One of the most dispiriting features of the Obama years was that every writer and artist had a business plan — even the smallest up-and-comer had a social media marketing strategy; the biggest of the big started streaming services. And everywhere, in ersatz dive bars and in university cafes and imitation osterias, poets and drummers and video artists discussed the decline of digital ad revenues and online pledge systems and merch. I did not meet a single artist, in any field, who was not, when you got right to the bottom of their lives, pursuing the crudest form of personal material security. The principal question of the life of the mind was how to make a living at the life of the mind. It was unfathomably anxious and boring. There was no end to the writing of business plans.
The Obama years were the years in which nobody’s tattoos were surprising but everybody insisted on showing theirs anyway. Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga — they were all rich kids whose families had connections in the business. This is how you became the voice of your generation during the Obama years: mommy and daddy bought it for you.
There is a story that I wish everyone alive or dead knew. It was already ancient by the time Ovid put it in The Metamorphoses: the myth of Erysichthon.
An atheist named Erysichthon, in a fit of inexplicable rage, hacks down a sacred grove of trees. Demeter, the goddess of plenty, punishes him with permanent, ravenous hunger. For a kind of compensation, Erysichthon’s daughter is blessed at the same moment with the ability to transform herself. So to feed his insatiable hunger, Erysichthon sells his daughter, and every time she is sold, she changes into a bird, or a deer, or whatever, and returns to her father to be sold again in turn. Erysichthon’s hunger grows. The transformations accelerate. The story ends when the father, utterly famished, dies from eating his own guts. Ovid never mentions where the daughter flies off to.
This is the story of our time. “Move fast and break things” is the motto written on the wall at Facebook, written on every wall. The inner abysses shred and sustain our everyday significance. We have built waste into every aspect of our economic life. We don’t even notice it anymore. In the 1950s, the manufacturers of potato peelers learned from their research that the majority of potato peelers were lost from being accidentally swept away with the peelings. Therefore they made the handles the same color as the peelings so they would be swept away, with a resulting increase in sales. The lesson the Buddha learned when he stormed from his autumn palace and encountered a sick man, an old man, and a dead man on the road, now must be learned every time you purchase a dishwasher: nothing lasts forever. Obsolescence and fashion are the basis of everything, because wealth increases with consumption, not savings.
All those centuries, the meaning of the myth of Erysichthon nestled like a seed under soil for the moment of its fulfillment: now we eat our own guts, conjuring magical realities to feed our insatiability. No one and nowhere may hide from our hunger to eat ourselves out of whatever we are so desperate to eat ourselves out of. There is no need for candles along the bar, the phones light our faces. Hunger grows on what it feeds on.
Checking the phone was the defining gesture of the Obama years. Checking the phone was shooting cuffs, lighting a cigarette, the everyday human movement. The purpose of checking the phone was to see how the images of the world were fluctuating and how the self-image reflected in those fluctuations was refracted, and what if anything you might do about it. Americans checked their phones eight billion times a day in 2015. The average person spent 23 days a year on the phone. So the phone was our collective historical experience; our collective historical experience occurred to each of us alone.
The traditional technique of establishing an underlying trend or spirit to an era or period — postmodernism, triumphant secularism, the supposed ubiquity of one vague philosophical schema over another — could never apply to the Obama years. There were new technologies, new modes of consumption, new databases, but no new ideas, no grand visions. Instead of ideas, we had meals and television shows and the cities in which we lived. Or rather the images of meals and television shows and the cities in which we lived.
One was not an existentialist or a Marxist during the Obama years; one was a vegetarian or a whole animal consumer. One did not debate the merits of Sartre against Camus against Heidegger. One debated Park Slope against Greenpoint against Boerum Hill. The end of the world didn’t matter nearly as much as the end of The Sopranos. Restaurants became books and movies became rollercoasters. There were drugs, certainly, but they were the drugs of maintenance, not exploration. Toward the end, mindfulness was a trend, which was a form of temporarily not having a mind, which seemed to be the ideal.
I am old enough to have met seekers from the ’60s, explorers of consciousness, men and women whose lives took radical turns into various experiments with psychopharmacology and exotic religions and utopian political visions. They were historical figures by 2008, like World War II veterans. By 2016, they were embarrassing ghosts. The seekers of the Obama years were seekers after jobs, or seekers after better jobs, seekers after jobs with benefits. Other periods generated movements and -isms — EST or free love or the hippies or Communism. Theory was strictly schoolboy stuff for us. We were superior to grand visions. We were superior to grandeur.
Everybody knew how to cut things down to size. We had all been well trained in critique. In art, we found fashion, and in fashion business, and in business daddy, and in daddy the O, the zero, the round mouth that blows, the hoop to be jumped through.
Obama jumped through every hoop to become president and he jumped through every hoop as president. His life is the greatest college application essay ever composed. Enough teenage rebellion not to seem weird, then Harvard, Harvard Law, Harvard Law Review, then community organizer, then Illinois state senator, then US senator, then president. On the way he didn’t fuck anybody he shouldn’t have. He didn’t owe money to people. He didn’t even have any truly embarrassing family. Obama was the hoop-jumper-in-chief. He was Lord of Hoop-jumpery.
He could not have been the first black president if he hadn’t been the lord of the hoop-jumpers, obviously. If he had fucked somebody he shouldn’t have, if he had owed people money, if he had made ordinary human mistakes, his blackness would have automatically precluded him. But his position in the United States’s history of racial politics has obscured rather than revealed him in several key ways. The controversy around terminologies of “black articulacy” has camouflaged the fact that he is easily the most articulate American politician since Kennedy. If he were white, and he had written the books he has written, he would be known as the writer president. If he were white, he would be known as the well-traveled president, the cosmopolitan president, the modest president, the president with the sense of humor. But even if he were white, he would still be the rule-following president, the obedient president.
Obama lives his obedience. Unlike Clinton, Obama plays golf without mulligans. He stopped playing basketball when the players in his White House game went soft, worried about injuring him; the game was no longer fair; therefore it no longer interested him. “If you work hard and play by the rules, you should succeed” was the dominant theme of his 2008 campaign. “If you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules, President Obama will never stop fighting for you,” he tweeted in 2013. At the 2014 State of the Union, the phrasing had only shifted slightly: “What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all — the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.” Elizabeth Warren tries this line out sometimes: “I want people who work hard and play by the rules to have real opportunities to get ahead.” But it doesn’t quite fly. The line belongs to Obama.
Working hard and playing by the rules are Obama’s grand argument about American existence. The presumption of the right to opportunity connects the rural white factory worker, victim of free trade, with the inner city teenager being pulled over by the police for no good reason, with the intern schlepping bagels around new media outfits in Manhattan, and it unites them all against the nebulous spirit of out-of-control 21st-century hypercapitalism which takes rules, like the material world, as obstacles to profit.
The Obama years were years of American recovery. Unemployment fell from 10 percent to five. The stock market surged. Real estate stabilized. But the sensation that never came back after 2008, and which will probably never come back, is the sense of standing on solid ground. Gig life or the 1099 economy or precarious labor or the decline of social insurance or disruption were technical terms for a more than technical experience — the sense of jumping from iceberg to iceberg in the shifting river of money with no riverbank in sight.
I have only ever made a living inside crumbling institutions — I know no one who feels differently. I began the Obama years teaching the humanities just as jobs in the humanities vanished, and writing novels as television replaced novels. Then I started in journalism, just as it was imploding. Sometimes I wondered if it was just me, that my curse fell upon an industry as I entered it, tumbling its pillars. Paranoia is a brand of self-importance, I am old enough to recognize. Besides the lawyers were all scrambling too, and anyone in manual labor had lost all control over their work life. Even the techies seemed to be in a constant foment of businesses created and destroyed in agonies of futility and accidental good fortune.
There lay the key contradiction of Obama’s politics: His prophecy of hoop-jumping rang out over the United States even as its premise lay in ruins. The bluff of “work hard and play by the rules” had been called, after all. The markets were rigged and everybody knew it. As for the rules, the Supreme Court was a joke, Congress was less popular than cockroaches. To anyone who cared to look, the American way of life had devolved into a rentier economy whose statecraft was controlled completely by propertied interests. This fundamental corruption only increased the drive to work hard and play by the rules. The fix was in. Better get in on the fix.
The ingrained turbulence of economic life generated ingrained obedience, and that obedience generated the spirit of entitlement which so many have noted as the defining condition of those who came of age during the Obama years. For the simpler souls, the hoop-jumping entitlements were material — cars or vacations or interesting restaurants, the things their middle-class parents took for granted. But a deeper entitlement motivated most, I believe. Its logic was inescapable to anyone who consciously recognized it: if I jump through the world’s hoops, if I follow society’s rules, if I obey, then I deserve a sense of a meaningful life, a sense of place and belonging. During this period, you could give a kid a title — executive content manager or senior associate editor were popular — and they would work for rent and food, or not even. So long as they had a name to give their parents, a stamped ticket that proved they weren’t wasting their time on earth, they could manage without property.
And so, jump higher, jump faster, jump more often. Look at us, we are the hoop-jumpers. Has anyone ever been better at jumping? Look how high we can jump. If there are not enough hoops, we beg: More hoops! More hoops! Everyone must get a degree because knowledge is a hoop. Patriotism is a hoop in the Middle East. You jumped through a hoop on the moon? We will jump through a hoop on Mars. Look at me, daddy, mommy, history, look at me jump — look at me! Look at me!
And these hoop-jumpers, who had been stropped of any promise of economic security, who could not afford houses, all attended, as a matter of course, all the latest rituals of the new restaurants. Of all the -isms, Epicureanism alone survived.
At this moment in history, anyone younger knows more than anyone older about food. It’s automatic. I know more than somebody 10 years older than me; anybody 10 years younger than me knows more than I do. My six-year-old son had to explain to his grandmother the difference between an izakaya and a sushi bar once, just as I had once explained sushi to my grandfather. “You mean they eat it raw?”
Hunger grew on what it fed on.
It would be a grave error to categorize the obedience of the Obama years as a mere affectation, as a question of style. The discipline, the sense of leading a controlled life, ran so deep it was fleshy. And because we lived this obedience in our own lives, we insisted on obedience in others. “Political correctness” was a precise enough term to describe the intellectual environment of the Obama years, but it was never applied broadly enough; it was used almost exclusively to describe certain critiques of the identity politics left. The Tea Party operated exactly the same levers and pulleys, excluding almost all policy discussions to pursue the question: what and who was truly Conservative? Now the right has found a new quest for purity that is also an old quest for purity: who and what is truly American? They mirrored the obsession of the left: who and what were truly oppressed? The question, yet again, was how to purify the image.
The Obama years were years of public shaming. Public shaming was both impersonal and intimate. It was impersonal when you were doing it to others and intimate when it was being done to you. There were grand examples, world-conquering acts of public shaming, but everyone had his or her little experience with the ubiquitous passive aggression. For me, it was an encounter with Jeb Lund, at the Guardian Christmas party one winter in New York. Lund was a kind of semi-professional public shamer, attacking, under the Twitter handle @Mobute, anyone who made any kind of public appearance he noticed. Meeting in the flesh people who had attacked you on Twitter — this too was one of the peculiarities of the Obama years. Anyway, I was polite. “Always forgive your enemies,” like Oscar Wilde said. “Nothing annoys them so much.” I mentioned how much I liked an article he had written about his wife’s struggles against digital stalkers. He was pleased, clearly not a man used to compliments.
We chatted amicably enough. Eventually, I think he slowly woke up to the sense that, since he had attacked me so much on Twitter, if he were not confrontational with me in person, he was being a hypocrite.
So he asked me: “Why are you and Chris Jones so bad at Twitter?” Chris was one of my fellow writers at Esquire, also a man who received regular bursts from @Mobute.
“You don’t think Chris is a good writer?” I asked. I mentioned a bunch of his pieces that had won awards, that no sensible person could deny were quality work.
“Those are great pieces,” Lund said. “But why are you both so bad at Twitter?”
“Well, what do you think is being good at Twitter?” I asked.
“Correctness,” he said right away. Instantly. Before he had thought about it. Then he started spluttering like he had said the wrong thing. But it seemed so right at the same time as it seemed ridiculous. Correctness for whom? Correctness by what standard? If you want to write correctly, why write at all? Why not just stop writing so you’re sure you’re not saying the wrong thing? If you want to live correctly, why live at all?
I almost said to Lund, well why don’t you kill yourself? But then I looked at him and I thought, this is actually the kind of man who does kill himself. Lund glistened with flop sweat from social anxiety. I am not particularly sensitive to these matters but he was wearing a suit that a character in a 1980s movie would have worn to signify eccentricity. In his writing, he wavered between a savage indictment of everyone else and a demand for intense pity for himself. So he was just like everybody else.
We didn’t argue after that. What’s the point about fighting about the basic facts of your time? The fish can’t argue about the water in which they swim, or at least not for long. Instead, we drank in the way you can drink only among British journalists who are homesick for London in New York at Christmas time.
The Obama years possessed a kind of accidental nihilism. We weren’t looking for the void; we just happened to stumble on it. The encounter with the void provoked no abyssal horror even. We just thought, “Well, I may as well get the marble countertop.”
In the absence of large shifts, small things mattered. So, for instance, the rise of the exclamation point. At the beginning of the Obama years, a typical thank you email after some party would read: “The party was great. Thanks for inviting me.” And that would have meant that you were politely expressing gratitude. By the end of the Obama years, that same message would arrive by text and it would have to read: “The party was great! Thanks for inviting me!” Because if you wrote, “The party was great. Thanks for inviting me,” it could have meant anything. It could have meant that you hated the party. It also could have meant that you loved the party. The reason for the rise of the exclamation point was obvious — the exclamation point signified “I mean this.” And as the Obama years progressed, “I mean this” needed constantly to be reasserted at the end of every sentence. Digital text began to resemble an Archie cartoon.
It was these tiny changes to etiquette that defined our passage through time. New etiquettes, both of style and of politics, were constantly developed simply in order to give young people a chance to master them sooner than their elders. Obedience to minor fluctuations in the orders proved who knew how the world worked.
The only relief was the children. They were the sole reprieve from the constant overturning of appetite and image. My fatherhood was synonymous with my adulthood — a common enough connection. The real substance of the Obama years, for me, was watching the children become the bodies they would inhabit: my daughter on my wife’s breast, my son running across a baseball field in his bare feet daring the grass, the children’s faces upturned to the screens at their first movies. Obama, too, appeared to understand the vital fixity of the family as a guard to meaninglessness in the time he was overwhelming with his image. Every president before him had been father to the nation. He insisted on being the father to his children. He famously ate dinner with them every night. The Obama years were years where everyone defined themselves first as a father or a mother, or as a non-mother or non-father. And yet the meaning of parenthood, of having children, because of its stability, was useless. It didn’t explain anything about the time in which we lived. That was its blessing.
I remember I was driving back from a reading in Kingston with the writer Sheila Heti, heading back to Toronto through the bland farmland of Eastern Ontario, and we had a conversation about children and meaning I cannot stop thinking about. It, too, will be the Obama years to me.
Eastern Ontario is Alice Munro country, a hard place with bad soil that produces people suspicious of ambition or the attempt at grandeur. A few days earlier, Munro had won the Nobel Prize and the local paper had reportedly put the news as a sidebar to a house fire. Sheila sat beside me, casually glamorous as usual in a vintage YSL jacket, eating red licorice from the Stop-N-Go.
“Motherhood,” she said. She was planning to write a book about motherhood.
“You’re going to have kids and write about it?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. I want to think about whether I should become a mother. Use the book to find out whether I should be a mother, how motherhood works with writing.”
In other writers, the problem would have been called work-life balance but for Sheila it would actually be an answer to a real question. And it does seem like a great question for a book. Can a person, or rather a woman, or rather Sheila Heti, be a fulfilled writer and a fulfilled mother at the same time, if indeed there are such beings as fulfilled writers and fulfilled mothers.
“I’ve always been amazed by the way the boomers abandoned their children,” I offered.
“What do you mean?”
I cited a few cases that I knew of — a prominent journalist who kissed her daughters in the middle of the night and ran away for what she believed to be a more glamorous life of arts organization galas and celebrity interviews. And then there was Alice Munro herself, who tired of living in Vancouver and being the subject of newspaper stories entitled “Housewife also finds time to write stories” and moved back to the fecund emptiness of Wingham, Ontario.
“I can’t imagine it,” I added.
“What can’t you imagine?”
“I can’t imagine leaving my children for anything. Certainly not for a bunch of stories. I can’t imagine caring that much about art.” I have a son and a daughter. I am a father. That is the difference between Sheila and me, one of the differences.
“But it’s never been that much of a problem for men,” Sheila said. “Men leaving children for their careers isn’t exactly a rarity.”
She was of course correct. For men, the abandonment of women and children is a variable in the antique equation between the asshole and the artist; for many male artists, it’s one of the primary reasons to become artists in the first place. But I wasn’t lying when I said I couldn’t understand it.
Being a writer and being a parent, I have found, are in conflict but not for the reasons most believe — the loss of time, the sleeplessness, the responsibility for another life, the fixedness in place, the need to make money to support them. Having children, like losing your virginity, changes the nature of meaning. The physical changes that occasionally transpire with women after birth — eczema disappearing, once intractable allergies going away — have a psychological equivalent. The flesh of little children is the cure for self-importance. Everything matters less. Having children does not necessarily make writing harder, but it makes it a lot harder to pretend that writing matters.
I could not express this to Sheila. There is a reason nobody writes critiques of all those books that defend having no children.
“It’s like sex,” I tried. I told her the story of a mutual friend of ours, Howard, a novelist, who once asked me if he should have kids. “I told him it’s a lot like sex. If you were to ask somebody ‘should I have sex?’ the answer would be no. It’s messy. People get hurt. But why be human and not have sex?”
This was the point where Sheila couldn’t disagree in any way other than directly.
“That can’t be true. Sex can just be sex,” she said. “Children are other people.”
“I just think you’ll get curious,” I said.
That was my excuse, by which I avoided a more than social awkwardness. There was nothing more to say anyway, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. Sheila and I spoke about other things — a magazine where we had both worked when we were younger, her wedding to her first husband Carl, the lineup at the International Festival of Authors. I wish I could have explained to Sheila, but how could I when I can barely explain it to myself? Let me try again: the Obama years chewed up meaning. Images chew up meaning. Life chews up meaning. And children are, very simply, more life. Children don’t give you a more meaningful life, and certainly not a better life. They are more life. More life means more meaning, and it also means more collapse of meaning. When others have meaning for you, when the bodies of people attach themselves to your body, you must constantly face the unraveling, meaninglessness, disattachment.
Let me try it another way, again: English possesses many words for those who survived the death of the beloved. We have “orphan.” We have “widow” and “widower.” But there is no name for parents who have lost children. That condition is nameless.
I look forward to Sheila’s book, although it’s probably already changed, or I have misunderstood it. All I know for certain is that there is no sensible advice in this world.
I do not believe that history will be kind to the Obama years, even in the context of what will follow. We lived by images and our guts, but the chasm between the two was absolute. We certainly believed we were better than the past. On Facebook and Twitter, history was just ignorance and violence to be overcome, a bunch of statues of Confederate generals to be torn down. But then there was the shrimp. We ate so much shrimp. In 2015, US shrimp consumption rose 11 percent, by nearly half a pound per American. And virtually all shrimp in the United States was produced by slaves in South East Asia, in places of deep evil half a world away. We forgave ourselves so easily for our own crimes. Everybody knew it. The fact was widely reported. Everybody still feasted on tempura and po’ boys.
The sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners were able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood and chat on smartphones whose cobalt had been mined in African slave camps by children as young as 13. Ten percent of the natural world has disappeared in the past 20 years. Who the fuck are we to judge the past? We quested to purify our image but not our bowels. All our virtue was shit, pure pretense.
So of course our politics became obsessed with correctness, with campus microaggressions and the ephemera of pop culture. How else could we excuse ourselves from the fact that we were eating the world whole? Waste is the human thing. Every tribe has its potlatch. Every cult has its sacrifice. The first feasts trace back to the Paleolithic period: piles of turtle and wild cattle to feed crowds, their bones under the Middle East soil, the way a memorable meal lives in memory. But we are living in the middle of the grandest potlatch of them all, and it is everyone’s. The horror of the 21st century is that we find out what we do when we can do what we want.
No one can unhack the sacred grove. And nobody knows where hunger’s daughter flies to. Obesity is the generational trait, obesity in every sense. We are the first group of humans to die from overeating more often than we die from starvation. And the future will ask only one question of the present: why couldn’t we stop ourselves?
To see Obama — to see him plain — has become nearly impossible as the Obama years come to an end. The sheer bulk of accumulated imagery obscures him like thickening smoke. There were the extraordinary, unforgettable scenes: his upturned face in the situation room assassinating Osama bin Laden, or smacking an annoying fly in a pre-interview like a cool high school teacher. There was standard presidential material: pardoning turkeys with his charmingly exasperated daughters, growling along with the characters in Where the Wild Things Are at the Easter egg roll in the White House Gardens. There was capital-H History, the postcards from American power in the world: Obama at the Brandenburg Gate, Obama at Cairo University, Obama at the Door of No Return, Obama everywhere, anywhere.
The Obama years were eight years of uploads to Facebook, while we ate ourselves sick. We all lived in shifting galleries of ourselves, our choices curated and displayed whether anybody was paying admission or not, great halls inside which we feasted alone. The worst was this: Despite the obedience, despite the confusion and the deflated expectation and the public shaming and the unoriginality of the culture and the desperate pursuit of an impossible financial security that underlay every decision, all the hoops we craved, all the hoops we carried with us, all the hoops we jumped through, all the hoops we expected everybody else to jump through, these were the good years. Politically and personally, these were the years of beauty and plenty. They were the years of reason and temperance. Nobody knows what will follow them.
We lived by images but they didn’t save us from time, despite their promise. Images faded just like everything else, as Obama is fading already, the man who did not screw up. The truth of the Obama years is that they were pre-something. And nobody knew what. Their meaning would be worked out later. It was endless crisis but no apocalypse. The apocalypse was arriving with no Revelation. Maybe that is what every time feels like. Or maybe that’s what it means to live by images and your guts.
When I say that we live in a time of some fantastic shits, I mean that literally. A recent report from a mining consortium revealed that the amount of gold in the sewage systems of the developed world is roughly comparable to that found in goldmines — one to three parts per million. A sewage treatment center in Nagano removed 1,890 grams of gold per ton of ash. London is about to begin its own recovery program.
In the myth, the daughter may change at will into any form, into the inconceivable glories of variegated nature, but everything is the same in daddy’s guts. All the shit comes out the same.
My daughter plays with a plastic Obama figurine in her dollhouse sometimes. I don’t know where it came from. We must have scavenged it from some garage sale or other. Sometimes the president rides a My Little Pony. Sometimes he holds a Lego goblet from a broken-up Harry Potter set in an unmoving straight-armed toast. Lately, I’ve noticed the girl has taken to placing the president delicately in a corner. I see him lying beside the fireplace under the picture of a maritime scene. I wonder how long he will rest there, given the darkness approaching.
The Obama years, unlike the ’60s, have a definite end date. January 20, 2017. No doubt the man will not simply vanish — hopefully he will write an elaborate, gossipy memoir — but it was never Obama himself who defined the Obama years. It was the fact that such a man was in power. It was witnessing him daily move with and inside and around the machineries of the world. His legacies are sizable no doubt, on the scale of LBJ or FDR: the salvation of the global economy, the reintroduction of the idea of government initiative as a positive force in American life, the first US commander-in-chief to refuse to serve as the world’s policeman. But the significance of those legacies will be established 50 or a hundred years from now. His legacy will be determined by human fate, not policy. Besides, his policies could never mean as much as his grace. Obama did that thing: he moved like nobody was watching even though the whole world was watching. No one could tell if it was the most natural thing in the world or if he had just mastered the steps.
Everybody was trying to reach that grace. And I was like everybody else. I was trying to achieve a series of appropriate poses without looking like I was posing, hoping that with enough practice I could learn to move in the predetermined way as if it were what I had always wanted.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and an essayist.
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