My hipster-child-of-immigrants dinner was coming along nicely. The rice and beans were a little burnt, but they were still edible. I allowed some garlic and onion to join the brown rice grains and canned black beans I bought at the hipster market down the road. Think Whole Foods, but more whole with less food.
Excuse me, did I say hipster market? I meant “aspirational class” health food purveyor (ACHFP). In the New Republic this week, J.C. Pan reviews
two books — one by economist Tyler Cowen called The Complacent Class
and another by public policy scholar Elizabeth Currid-Halkett called The Sum of Small Things
. I have read neither book, but of the two, I look forward to enjoying Halkett’s book over my next plate of ACHFP-mart rice, beans and chicken.
Reading through Pan’s analysis, I could feel the white hot spotlight of the zeitgeist begin to move in my general direction. I, like the aspirational class members described in the piece, have an NPR tote bag, and I am likely known around Palo Alto for whizzing around on my Raleigh cruiser, yoga mat in tow. (Gotta’ get my spot!) Then there’s my local ACHFP.
As Pan writes:
"On its face, this approach to conscientious living may look like a rejection of the uninhibited greed associated with the ’80s. But the new aspirational class shares more with its predecessors than it wants to admit. As populist surges in the United States and Europe make clear, rising economic inequality has made it more critical than ever to rethink and uproot the status quo. Yet, as Cowen and Currid-Halkett both find, for all the new elite’s well-intentioned consumption and subsequent self-assurance, they have no intention whatsoever of letting go of their status.”
This paragraph made me pause mid-chicken bite and sneak a paranoid look over my shoulder. Was I, the child of two immigrants with my ACHFP-mart produce, the problem? Probably, but I switched to another article to distract myself.
I came across The Atlantic’s piece on the post-Millennials (or iGen)
. It induced flashbacks to my own childhood almost immediately. I remembered the hours spent on the computer. I also remembered with far less joy doing even more hours of homework (which were oddly more numerous in the summer months). Then came memories of the outfits that weren’t even hand me downs from the Joneses, the impossibility of even thinking I could get a prom date or a date at any point in adolescence or young adulthood (women’s institutions don’t really endorse making that a priority), and a young life lived on the social outskirts until well after puberty had let go its relentlessly cruel grip on my mind and body.
No, I found myself whispering defiantly, I do not want to let go of my status; I worked hard for it and so did my parents. I earned this farm-raised chicken!
I resumed my meal and my reading, not as comforted by my defensive rationalizing as I wanted to be. I dove back into The Atlantic’s iGen piece.
Today’s teenagers are, by my read of Jean M. Twenge’s piece
, homebodies who spend hours managing a robust social life via their phones. They barely talk to their parents or even one another and are content to go without a diver’s license well after the age of sixteen. After all, you don’t need to go to the mall to stay abreast of the latest gossip. Social media has you covered.
I couldn’t help but think I was a prototype for this generation. But, as Ned Beauman writes in his essay for Aeon
, I was succumbing to the power of a permutation. We lose ourselves in them, Beauman writes, “because we are permutations too.”
The fact of the matter is, my generation’s manifestation of the latest yuppie variation or the next generation’s device habits are merely the latest evolutionary step in a long line of past steps and steps yet to come. Individual actions are what truly matter, but they are so small they’re boring. The key is to be fascinated by those more boring things. As Beauman writes,
"Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.’”
My individual actions are these things — small things that add up over time to have large impact. For example, the act of choosing chicken over steak (which I should do more often than I actually do), or better yet, beans over both is what should have my rapt attention. As James Hamblin writes in The Atlantic
, if every American replaced beef consumption with beans:
“...even if nothing about our energy infrastructure or transportation system changed—and even if people kept eating chicken and pork and eggs and cheese—this one dietary change could achieve somewhere between 46 and 74 percent of the reductions needed to meet the target.”
Speaking of mundane things. Let’s give the humble bean a moment. There are so many ways to make beans. The NYT Cooking app
shows 1,383 recipes for beans alone. They pack an incredible amount of protein per unit and, when made well, rival any meat dish. They have long been looked down upon as working-class food. Those who have looked down their nose at them are missing out.
Speaking of missing out (brace yourself for the whiplash on this one) did you know The Bachelorette is black? Were it not for Donna Britt over on The Undefeated
, I’d never have known. Were it also not for Donna Britt, the importance of this otherwise high fructose corn syrup pop-culture candy moment would have failed to get the attention it was due. As Britt so expertly writes:
"Grown women are supposed to at least pretend they’ve completely outgrown their vulnerable inner child — like mine, who felt barred from the culture’s narrow interpretation of who and what was worthy of love. Everyone wants to be seen. And even women who know they have far more to offer than their ever-changing outer packaging may find it hard to shake the old whispers that once diminished them. Like every child, the girl-I-was deserved to be valued for her all her innate beauty, including her hair’s complex texture, her nose’s roundness, her skin’s warm darkness. Part of me agrees with the male friend who calls The Bachelorette “the fakest thing I’ve ever seen.” But if Rachel being swooned over by men of every shade offers even a tiny corrective to black girls’ general feelings of invisibility, I can’t dismiss it. Pop culture is a festival of falseness. But it teaches kids — and more than a few adults — what to love (and hate) about themselves. The Bachelorette is silly and manipulative. But this season, it suggests to black fans of all ages a little-acknowledged truth: Sisters, too, deserve to be desired and cherished by every type of guy.”
Thank you, Donna.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is right. I, with a childhood full of beans, brownness, dreams of Prince Charming, seemingly endless homework assignments and an adulthood navigating the tricky waters of a world increasingly rife with fear and division will not let go of my status. I will carry my NPR tote bag proudly, confidently brandish my yoga mat in the morning on my hipster antique bicycle and happily cook my ACHFP-mart food and read Donna Britt. Because it is not about letting go of my status, it’s about standing proudly on the shoulders of those who worked hard to let me be here. It’s about the small acts I must do every day to help other people stand on my shoulders as well. I can always do better, and one bean at a time, I will.
P.S. I tried something different this week. Let me know what you think!