I already know how I will answer the question, “Who is better? The Eagles or Fleetwood Mac” when I’m on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast. I’ve been listening to every episode since August and since then, my goal as a writer has shifted from “Write a Best Seller” to “Be in The New Yorker” to “Be invited to the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast.” Of course, a few things have to happen before I go on the show, primary among those, I need to finish writing my book Penny Bomb.
“Set a reward for yourself,” is common advice for people taking on a daunting challenge. “Buy something you’ve always wanted,” or “Go on a big vacation!” Both of those rewards add more anxiety which gets in the way of writing because I’ve been trying desperately to get out of debt for years. Raising two kids on one salary is no joke, especially when you are attached to certain ideas about how they should be raised, with sports and a dog and a yard. I certainly could have, and probably should have, downsized after my divorce in 2012 but I didn’t want my kids to suffer because of the adjustment. I wanted to do all the suffering, evidently, so I took on some debt. I’ve had a couple years now with some relief as they are old enough now to be left without babysitters, day care, camps when they aren’t in school. It looks like I might be able to pay off my credit card just in time for them to start applying for college. All that is to say, setting my sights on a purchase, is less reward than torture. But the idea of going on Bret Easton Ellis’ show thrills me.
I first listened to his podcast on September 9. I’d downloaded it to my phone and listened through the night as I drove myself, my kids and my dog to my parents house as I was evacuating from Hurricane Florence. If you think adrenaline is enough to stay awake with very little sleep in forty hours, you might be surprised. It wasn’t enough for me anyway. After a day of prepping to ride it out, followed by news it would be a category four, then panic, then packing everything valuable we couldn’t live without in the car and coming to terms with the possibility we would lose everything else, then loading the car and driving out of town at dusk, I ran out of adrenaline around 1 AM outside of Lumberton. All motels were full and I was exhausted. I parked in bojangles and we all tried, but failed, to sleep in our seats. If I was going to be awake, I might as well have been driving, so I put the van in gear and listened to Bret Easton Ellis have the kinds of conversations about art, film, literature and society that I used to try to have twenty years ago in college. I was hooked. If I couldn’t have those conversations, I was satisfied enough to listen in on them.
In recent episodes, Bret, (can I call him Bret? Or do I call him Ellis or Easton Ellis? Or Bret Easton Ellis, every time? I have no idea. I will ask him when I’m on the podcast) has been discussing whether growing up with privelege has afforded him and other artists the freedom, especially in youth, to explore darker, more transgressive topics.
Being of the same generation as Bret Easton Ellis, and also being raised in an upper middle class family with private schools, summer camps, free time and access I feel like I know what he’s talking about. When your life is pretty ordinary, you seek excitement. For me and apparently for Ellis, and many of our generation, we were drawn to subcultures, darkness, risk. We listened to punk and metal and then grunge yet we lived in suburbs and shopped at malls and the Gap. He asks, “Did our privilege allow us to feel safe enough to explore more transgressive ideas?” Because we weren’t threatened by worse than bad grades and getting grounded in our daily lives, did that allow us a creative and emotional liberty to explore dark ideas like violence, drugs, subcultures?
I wonder, if our lack of real threats didn’t so much allow us, but pushed us to these subjects because there is always an inclination to seek to overcome. Especially when we are growing, we seek resistance because resistence refines and shapes. If you don’t have resistance, or a challenge, you can’t grow. So because we didn’t have a natural, ingrained resistance in our lives, no wars, no poverty, no violence, no struggle, we had to seek out that resistance. The easiest way to find it is to look in dark corners.
The other possibility, of course, is that it was just part of our times. Our generation, generation X, had a fascination with gore and spectacle even. We listened to punk and metal, music genres that had an extreme theatricality. We sought out the edges of acceptability, we pushed boundaries, we challenged stereotypes because that was part of the culture of the time. We were “edgy.”
We were also, many of us, “feral” as his recent guest Laura Bickford described herself. We had no boundaries. The world was relatively safe, our parents were sufficiently clueless about the dangers anyway, and so we had the freedom to explore it. And we did. Staying out all night in our teens, unaccounted for, irresponsible, daring, wild, trying everything, doing everyone. We had no limits beyond where we could push our bodies and minds and we pushed them with everything we could get our hands on: fast cars, psychedelics, danger, sex, music, lack of sleep, lack of daylight.
We didn’t have curfews, rules, restrictions or boundaries. So to be edgy in a culture with very few boundaries, we had to go way out to the extremes to find our resistance. For some of us, those extremes consumed us, but for others, we got to play on the edges and then find some balance inside the boundaries.
Now, we are all raising kids and facing challenges of a different sort. As Laura Bickford said, we know what’s out there because we saw it, and with hindsight we know how much danger we put ourselves in, so we are raising our kids in bubbles. They have help with everything. And strangely enough, they aren’t as fascinated by the edges as we are. They love the protection. They are in no hurry to grow up and get away like we are. Why is that? Is it because they seem to have the world at their fingertips, literally, in their hands via their phones that can connect them to all kinds of people and ideas? We had to leave the house and go to unfamiliar places to be faced with unfamiliar people and ideas. Our kids can just do a google search to look up nearly every piece of information in history, or log on to a social network to meet a complete stranger.
Did we crave danger or newness? Perhaps we didn’t seek danger, but danger came with newness and novelty, so we accepted it as part of the deal. Maybe our kids don’t have to make that deal?
The main character in my novel Penny Bomb isn’t seeking danger, but in leaving home, she can’t avoid danger. The other runaways she meets are running from danger, or as with Jasmine, running from boredom. It occurs to me now that while my novel takes place in 2016, I may be applying assumptions from my own youth, my pre-digital adolescence, onto these characters who have an entirely different experience around escape and exploration. I better work on that…
Thanks for reading.