Postcards From the Other Side
A fuse bead I made during art at the after-school program. I really do hate fuse beads.
“Kids waste a lot,” she remarks, sweeping errant beads, toy accessories and scraps of paper and crayon up with the dirt. It’s a veritable cornucopia of childhood and mess blended together as a perfect little ball of waste.
“Everyone wastes a lot,” I reply, thinking of the three layers of wrapping CDs and toys come in, of the inability to recycle greasy cardboard pizza boxes, of the masses of trash and consumer society I’m readily part of without reflection.
“Yeah, I guess that’s true.” She dumps the dustpan into the trash, marking our last duty for the day, the cascading waterfall of wax, plastic, crumbs and dust echoing gently off the blank cafeteria walls where the after school program we run resides. “It shouldn’t bother me. These are Boulder kids. They’ll all grow up to recycle anyway.”
I laugh at the thought, thousands of little fingers separating the tons of waste into piles of segregated components, each with its own bin, its own pile, its own little machine melting it down and reforming it into usefulness. “If only recycling were more efficient,” I say, the hope of the statement lost in my smirking chuckle.
She shocks me with her response: “What is it about men in their thirties that makes them so cynical?”
I’ve been thirty for barely two months, a new decade of life so poorly defined that I’ve barely noticed. I wish I could comment with authority on the sudden sense of mortality, the overwhelming sense of a ticking biological clock, the days it takes to heal from injuries stupidly incurred, the mature sense of responsibility that shivers up my spine. This is the mythology of aging, one targeted through advertising and media, one pushed through jokes and tales, one fostered by the collective fears of an entire generation.
Sadly, I not only have no expertise on being a thirty-something, I haven’t even begun to have the professed experience. The halcyon veneer that coated life faded long ago and the heartfelt idealism Winston Churchill warned would ebb was compromised years before. My collegiate bachelorhood is nowhere near its end, and career is simply a fabled word describing a mass hallucination propagated by previous generations.
And yet, somehow, I have this aching urge to speak for men in the decade I’ve only just entered.
I want to claim with certainty that our sudden sense of mortality is envy, emphasized by sagging skin, growing aches, and the constant reminder that the young are still beautiful and enjoy a success we cannot. I want to tell people that our staunch cynicism is built on a decade of idealistic failure in the face of reality, on pillars of painful effort, where our hearts were on our sleeves and yet desire, hope and the unstoppable belief in our own greatness was crushed again and again by uncaring masses. I want to exclaim to the heavens that if only someone had made clear the time we were wasting in years prior, we would’ve done more, seen more, and made the differences we never truly had the chance to make.
But these are all my personal foibles. They may be universal or they may be solipsistic in their existence, but I simply am not equipped to confirm nor deny them as anything but assumptions and axioms.
“It’s weird,” she continues, ignoring my contemplative silence. “Men in their twenties think life is amazing, and when they hit forty it’s like everything is wonderful again, but every guy in their thirties I know is cynical.”
“Maybe it’s you,” I chide playfully.
“Maybe,” she laughs. “I’m just saying that it doesn’t seem to happen with women. Just men in their thirties.”
Perhaps appearances simply deceive.
I’m still staunchly in favor of the same ideals I argued for in my youth. I just feel as though I’m more pragmatic. Disillusionment with the American Dream can be wholly blamed on having to reconcile tales of success with the reality that making a large difference is both rare and difficult. Instead, I aim for small steps in the direction, knowing that the end I aim for will still be on the distant horizon the day I die.
I’m at one with the idea that no matter how much I do, it’ll never be enough. My hope for change paints me the butterfly, the hurricane on another continent a result eons away. I make small efforts, fighting the sense of futility, and argue with those younger than me to set their sights lower if only to know the joy of success. This is the cynicism I have adopted, one built of hope and idealism at its root. Those who are not cynical have either never had a dose of reality, spending their life in privilege, or have never thought to dream big.
As I climb aboard the two-wheel, leg-powered transportation device and roll through the parking lot homeward bound, thoughts of her hypothesis swirl in my head. I’m perturbed by her postulate and, more so, by my readiness to confirm it.
I see her steadily traverse the parking lot in front of me, heading for her fossil-fuel burning beast of burden, its imminent extinction ignored by a populace too focused on the now to think of the future. Briefly, I wonder if we are simply a black hole collapsing in on itself until destruction.
“See you tomorrow,” she calls with a smile, waking me from my reverie.
“You know, I’m not as cynical as I come across,” I reply as I coast past her.
“We’ll see,” she says.
I certainly hope so, I think.
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