The Times, they are Un-Special
Anna Karenina does not hurl herself in front of a train. Instead, she and Vronsky start a small online tee-shirt business using transfers of his portraits. The business flops. Our story ends with Anna sharing a borscht recipe with Dolly that’s lower in sodium and trying to get Annie into Saint Petersburg’s most exclusive pre-school.
When I was a kid, I loved Les Misérables. In fact I blame it somewhat for my career choice. One of the things I most loved about the show, and the book, is that the story got my juices flowing. How amazing is it to rise up with your fellow men and women, in an unwinnable battle, storming the barricades to take back a little of the dignity, if not wealth, that has been stolen from you by the treasure-hoarding elite. Where can one do that nowadays?
I hear you shouting, “Occupy Wallstreet!” and in a lot of ways, it’s true. I’m excited to see what happens with this movement and its aim to put economic fairness in black and white terms. Why should bankers who knowingly took huge risks with other people’s money be saved by government money, while the millions of us who weren’t so lucky find ourselves clinging to measly jobs in a shrunken economy. Instead of just watching Wall Street gear up for a big bonus season, why not squat on their turf and see if we can get some spillover. And even if we did have to bail out the banks, do we now really have to sit here and listen to people tell us the only solution going forward is to tear down government, to get rid of all regulation and let the market do its thing, when that’s how we got into this mess? That’s like going into New Orleans after Katrina and saying the levees were too high—“We have to remove them completely so we never get into this mess again.”
As much as my juices are flowing over Occupy Wallstreet, though, handing out flyers and joining a committee, then going to Starbucks to warm up isn’t quite as special as moving all the furniture and carts on your street into a massive pile-up and then fighting to the death from atop it, till the bullets of the gendarmes pierce your sackcloth and you topple from its height, clutching the tricolore as you fall! Remember when General Lamarque, the last people’s representative, was fading, and it was time to rally the people to arms? Marius, the student, complains about being lovesick (feeling overly Special), and Enjolras rebukes him with my favorite line: “Who cares about your lonely soul, we strive here towards a larger goal, our little lives don’t count at all…Red, the blood of angry men….” Can you imagine those brave revolutionaries, marching to their deaths, firing their last bullets, singing Les Miz. Well if not actually singing Les Miz, singing something and thinking a lot of those thoughts.
The times today just don’t feel as special. You can’t just go storm the barricades and die in an after-ripple of the French Revolution once Lamarque dies anymore. No royal guard will come riddle you with bullets and crush your rebellion, though you might get arrested. These days, you’re supposed to do things like work a job. Change diapers. Sign up for Netflix. Maybe, on the weekend, go Occupy Wallstreet. But it’s just a lot harder to feel that rush in your veins, that massive upswell of the people—the camaraderie and rush of what it is to belong to a massive movement that will burn fast and brilliant.
In a tribute to this frustration, I present a few scenarios of some great characters of very special times, and what they might be reduced to in today’s unspecial ones. Please feel free to add your own favorite book!
Ahab learns that whales are no longer huntable unless you want to be the villain of a reality show, “Whale Wars,” and hated by schoolchildren everywhere. Instead he gets a job working for big oil where he helps draft Senate Resolution 112-16 to preserve tax breaks for owners of currently dormant off-shore drilling sites. He is heard late one night muttering “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee,” but it turns out he’s just talking to his blackberry that has lost its signal again.
Odysseus is trying to get back to Cornell where he is King of the Teaching Assistants and has 20,000 papers to grade. There is no island of the Lotus Eaters, nor Sirens, thus he has no problem with those. Fearing that he will be tempted to purchase the new i-Pad, however, when a newer version is about to come out, he has his men strap him to his current computer and plug his ears with headphones. This plan backfires, however, when he lands on an internet porn site and stays there for seven years. In the end, he does make it back to grade all 20,000 papers, only to find his Graduate Student Union is striking again.
Hamlet can’t decide whether or not to get a second graduate degree at Wittenburg, this one in Systems Management. Without his father to ask for guidance, he turns to his mother, who tells him, “In this economy, you might as well go to grad school, hide, then crawl out in a few years and see if things are better.” Still not trusting her, though, and frustrated with his own lack of ambition, he swings his sword wildly, and stabs the Cable Installer. This means that they can’t schedule another appointment for two months. Since basic TV no longer works either, everyone in Elsinore misses “The Good Wife.” A bloodbath ensues.