“I really like the artwork in this building.”
Sitting on the late night bus headed home, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Our base is famous for how awful its artwork is. There are comments you hear not infrequently–how best to eject the art from the premises, whether or not to deface it on the eve of retirement… my driver friend continued. “Like the pictures that look like the old TVs, where they look staticky. I really like those.”
“Are you being serious or sarcastic?”
“No I’m being serious! I feel like I shouldn’t like them but I do like them.”
“Okay. That’s good to hear, I’ll look at them with a new perspective.”
“No, I’m terrible at picking artwork.”
“It’s all good!”
“But I see those and I just think, my kids’ll never see that.”
“You know, that’s a good point. They’re not gonna know what white noise is, visually. Wow. Wow. Or fast-forward or rewind on the VCR.” The first time I saw fast-forwarded video I almost died laughing.
“Yeah! Like the pain of finding the right spot!?”
“Exactly! Or the sound of a television bein’ turned off. You know, the old tube TVs? That weird little high frequency noise you would hear when you turned the TV on or turned it off?”
“When it kind of zapped shut?”
“Or like, winding a cassette tape with a pencil!”
“Yeah, when it got all pulled out, hoping it still worked. And sometimes you didn’t have a pencil and you had to uncomfortably wedge the tip of your finger in there.”
“i know exactly what that feels like. Those little prongs.”
“There was a time when my pinky was the perfect size for doing that. Yeah those little things that, you meet somebody that doesn’t know how to read an analog watch!”
I was incredulous. “No way!”
“Sure. In schools, they’re all digital now.”
“Okay, I spent decades looking at that second hand and minute hand waiting for it to get to the hour mark! Trying to see how much the minute hand would move per second. Or the little pencil sharpener in the corner of the room, and you’d get up and go sharpen your pencil?”
“I think they still have those. ‘Cause those were the industrial ones,”
“Dude. Those would annihilate a pencil, if you wanted it to. Shoot, I haven’t thought about these things in years!”
“I’m happy to bring up quasi-bad art–”
“Please do! I will now appreciate that art in a way I never did.”
What will be endearing to today’s youth? What will be cute? Will they talk about the quaintness of going to the store to buy a movie on disc, or signing a legal document by hand? The fact that some cars required keys to ignite? That headphones once had wires, and people sent emails? Will the pervasiveness of selfies one day be more kitschy than fun? With the first signs of Facebook and Twitter losing relevance, how long before they’re chuckled over the way MySpace and Napster are now?
I was flipping through a copy of Dickens’ 1853 Bleak House and came across a passage where two older gentlemen share sentiments almost exactly the same as those above; the elderly lamenting the passage of time and change. They also recite the familiar refrain of the mystery of youthful behavior they’re convinced they themselves never engaged in. They’re not talking about teens in 2016 or even 1968, but 1853! The words are interchangeable. The conversation will be had by every generation, has been had by every generation since the advent of agriculture.*
I think a more crucial view is noting how generally minimal the effect these superficial shifts have on what doesn’t change. Picture a Vietnamese rice farmer working a terraced paddy, before the war; an aging bank executive in Geneva, reflecting on lost family; a wayward girl in an American trailer park, forced to grow up quick. Never mind which one of them uses Twitter. Do they not all feel the same sting of a broken heart, of dashed hopes, the bent frustration of dreams unfulfilled? Are they not compelled by the same loneliness, thoughts of death and belonging, the ever-elusive vision of permanence in a world of constant flux? Love. Self-worth, accomplishment.
Do those people not yearn for what you do too, in the solace of a warm embrace?
Everything changes, and everything stays the same.
*Human life really was quite different prior to this turning point. Permanently situated societies, the concept of property, subjugation of women, homogenous diets and resulting malnutrition, monogamy, hierarchies and city-states, populations large enough to contain strangers and the resulting shifts in relationships and decision-making, and much more all stem from the birth of agrarian societies. These changes occurred relatively rapidly in the last 11,000 years, when considered against the previous 6,000,000 years of bipedal humanoid development, which was largely static by comparison. Learn more here.
Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.