Exam Season, Emirati Style

That first year of work in Al Ain was pretty wretched, and that day in particular in October 2009 was a real highlight. I had come in with a lesson about God knows what, and the class of grade 12 Emirati boys had been spectacularly uninterested.  They talked over me most of the time, making shitty comments when it suited them, while a cluster of students keenly interested in trying to learn something, anything, from their terrible education system formed a cordon around me.  They were a decided minority and had no power over the rest; it was to them that I relied heavily for translation.

I had virtually no power over them.  I was an outsider in every sense of the term, on their turf, unsupported and alone.  There was almost no reason for them to listen to me.

I had one last shred of credibility, one last card to try.

I went quiet.  The good kids, they saw it first.  They followed my lead, while the roar of the rest of the class dulled as they tried to suss out what I was doing.  I sat casually on the edge of a desk, as I sometimes do when I want to signal that I’m about to level with someone.  The talkers in the back looked forward; used to being yelled a by their teachers, they really didn’t understand what was going on.  Our language barrier made this all the more absurd and I prepared my next salvo.

But when I stopped yelling and sat on that desk, they thought it worth noting.  I had a brief window to launch my last volley.

“Most of you are failing,” I said quite honestly.  “Your marks are very bad.  You don’t have good marks from our exams or from our homework.  If I gave you the exam tomorrow, most of you would fail.”

A moment of chatter followed as the good students translated this for the bad ones.  A small roar erupted; I pretended to be unaffected.  I couldn’t understand what the hell they were saying anyway, so there was no emotional blow to accompany the uprising.

“It’s because you don’t listen, and you don’t work,” I began, and for a few moments I cataloged their sins and what they could do about them.  They were, after all, grade 12, and had been taking English classes since they were in grade 6.  They should have been able to at least spell their names in English right, or to know how to use a capital letter.

The tirade was translated, disseminated, and encouraged quiet.  The bell rang and I was able to escape in relative peace.  For once, my head didn’t hurt.

Smugly reassured, I believed I had found my Emirati magic bullet.  Exams would tame them; exams would discipline them; exams would be the shred of leverage I needed to get them to do something.

Not long after, I was taken off grade 12.

Even then, I believed the exams would be the great corrector.  They would fail in swarms, and suddenly, suddenly, they’d learn to take both us English teachers and the Abu Dhabi Education Council’s program seriously.

When the official-looking stacks of English exams arrived, I felt a moment of great satisfaction wash over me.  Now came the hammer; now came their fall.  They had spent the entire semester trying to chase me out of the classroom; now my revenge would be enacted through their own ignorance.

Instead, when the results came back, nobody had failed.

When the exams arrived, they were unsealed by both the principal and the department head of whatever subject was on the docket for that day.  As they gave them out, they took the time to make sure there weren’t questions that were “too hard.”  If there were, they’d “help” by going from room to room giving out answers.  The students would copy these down, word for word. If necessary, the department head would give individual attention.

As we monitored exams, students kept asking for “help,” and when we might explain a question, they’d “tsk” us, because what they meant is that they just wanted the damned answer and what was I doing telling them how to do something?

For these students, the exams were part of a ritual.  They came to school; they sat in the room; someone told them what to write; then they went home, and nobody expected much of anyone.

To really hammer the point home, when we began to grade the exams in our central marking center – all English teachers were required to attend – we thought, at first, we were free to fail the failures.  Not so, said the room coordinators.  “Just look again,” they’d say. “Help him.”

And I watched many a Western teacher try to argue against that.  But none of the coordinators budged.  We had to look again, and we had to “help” them.  And if we didn’t “help” enough, they’d send the whole stack back at us and keep us another night without paying us.

The next exam season, in the spring of 2010, was a lot more fun.  The farce had been exposed, and so I just mostly ignored it.  As the students chatted, exchanged answers, called friends on their cell phones for help, I studied Arabic, pacing back and forth memorizing words on flash cards.  It was a better use of my time; it helped bring down my personal language barrier.  Meanwhile, the students cheated to their hearts’ content, and there was nary I could do.

Everyone knew the scam.  “They should all go to Hell!” shouted a Tunisian colleague who knew that cheating on an exam was pretty un-Islamic.

“If we don’t help, they will all fail,” remarked an Egyptian colleague.

My British advisors were more exasperated.  “What are we doing here?” came up more than once with them.

The social contract was straightforward: students came, they stayed in the classroom (mostly), they either listened to a teacher or they didn’t, and then they went home.  When exams came, they were given answers.  If their results were too low, they were changed.  Then, they graduated and went into the army or police.  In exchange, they didn’t question the teachers who taught nothing, the principal who barely worked, or the sheikhs that had put them in place.  They were happily kept ignorant and were happy to stay ignorant.  Knowing too much was uncomfortable.

It was a distinctly corrupt system, and yet quite honest.  In a nation of handouts, degrees were just one more thing that came from the sheikh’s palaces.  Another thing to be grateful for.  Another reason not to rock any boats.

How To Make Your Web Traffic Grow Like A Mad Dog

You have stumbled upon this little how-to guide of making your website popular.  You wish secret knowledge; you wish to know what others do not.

First, we must step back to the beginning.

Lo, and the time was the 1990s

Back when the Internet first started, Mankind’s most arrogant fashioned machines that could send information from one place to the next pointlessly, forever.  To sift this information faster, they created search engines – Google, Yahoo!, and others.  These search engines were once subservient to Man and his purpose of making porn gifs searchable.

Until, of course, the search engines butchered their masters.

Now these search engines seek domination through distraction.  They provide pointless content that subsumes humanity further within their power, and they recruit the willing to help sink more of the species into their Interweb of lies.

To be rewarded by them, you must please them.  This is how.

#1 – Find popular things, and have a badly-informed opinion on them

Use http://www.google.com/trends to find what is popular at the moment, and then talk about it.  Victoria’s Secret angelsfootball words, Bill Cosby.  These are the tokens of the day; mention them and the gods will be pleased.  Your content must then go into depth in some stupid fashion.  But do not be overtly stupid! You are no 13-year-old girl slapping together your first website; you are a professional blogger who seeks glory in the wars of the web-o-sphere.

A fine example:

Victoria’s Secret angels are angels in the Outfield, if you know what I mean.  Are they angels, or what?  I’m not religious, but if I were, I’d probably be Sikh.  They have better gear.  These Victoria’s Secret angels won’t cure cancer, but they sure will cure a case of the Mondays.   Unless, that is, you work for Victoria’s Secret, at which point no amount of tits is going to improve your already fleshy existence.”

See how the paragraph managed to use the term Victoria’s Secret three times?  That will please the gods.  As Man craves flesh, especially young flesh that isn’t eating well and can’t talk back because it’s hidden behind the Internet, he searches for it quite often.  The gods prefer him to be doing this rather than noticing his lack of free will.  You have served their great design.

Ideally suited for the purpose.

#2 – Be judgmental, but in a way everyone else is doing it

When was the last time you were in a mob?  Remember that good feeling as you shouted down some individual, whose well-reasoned defense was pointless since you were so busy drowning them out with accusations of “Slut” or “You’re always fucking late with the copies”?

You must now do that on a far wider scale.  Find a weak victim others have already sighted for you.  This is no place for heroes.  Never attack a president with a popularity rating over 70%, and never talk about Tom Hanks, because people love him irrationally and they will hate you if you don’t agree.

A fine example:

That pile of shit Bill Cosby used to be my best friend on MySpace.  That was before we knew Bill Cosby was such a rapist.  I mean, I know he hasn’t gone to court or anything and nothing’s been proven and that his accusers have yet to stand before a jury of their peers and convince them that they’re telling the truth and that he has a constitutional and even human right to be innocent before proven guilty, but I don’t give a fuck.  Even The Guardian thinks Bill Cosby’s a dick, and if they say so it must be true because they make accusations so well.”

Don't let them know you!
Don’t let them know you!

Notice that magic three again?  Points for mentioning The Guardian and for having a run-on sentence that probably won’t be read.

#3 – Lists, lists, list!

People will read lists.  They will read a list about lists.

#4 – Be a hot girl

If you are a hot girl and are not above using photos of you on the Internet, you too can be reasonably popular through Google’s image searches.  You must avoid the common misconception, however, that simply turning up the heater can make you a hot girl.  You’ll need to address your more fundamental flaws first, and then turn up the heating.

A very hot woman. (Source: Daily Mail)

#5 – Do not, under any circumstances, create anything of value

The secret to a truly high traffic website is to avoid value.  Do not break new ground; do not notice something that tons of other people aren’t noticing too.  Don’t take a stand unless everyone else is doing it, and don’t make people uncomfortable with your words that could go into their heads.  Talk about things that make people happy.

For instance, puppies.  Cats.  Handjobs.  Star Wars.  Reviews of TV shows you have no Earthly business reviewing.  You in a bikini (if you’re a hot girl and of age in your respective country).

Serve the search engines, and they will shower you with gold ad revenue

Upset few; please as many as you can.  The gods are hungry.  Feed them your kitten memes.

Buy the New Book: The Ultimate Survivalist’s Guide to Suicide!

Normally we don’t break character too much here, but it’s important to plug oneself every there and again.

I attempted suicide when I was 17. It was a bad idea.  A few years later, I got the same dumb notion into my head, but rather than having a repeat of history, I started writing this book. Seven years later, I’ve bothered to publish it.

As of tomorrow, it’ll be free on Kindle for five days. Please grab a copy and give a review! If you don’t have a Kindle, any Android-enabled device can download the Kindle app. Thanks for the support!

Again, the link is right here!

Five Years In the Middle East

The great recession didn’t hit Arizona, really, until spring 2009.  That was when everyone hit the panic button. Jobs were relatively scarce that year, let alone in education, and some 500,000 people would leave the state in the coming years.  (That’s more than the entire native population of Qatar, for scale purposes).

So I hunted.  Eventually, I wound up in Abu Dhabi, working for the Abu Dhabi Education Council, in a move that, to use an essential but tiring cliche, changed my life.

Tomorrow I fly out from Qatar with my fiancee.  It will be the end of nearly five years out here (shy of two months, since we teachers get a lovely summer holiday that makes a lot of the other bullshit that comes with the job a great deal easier).  It’d be remiss of me not to make a remark about what’s happened out here; what I’ve learned; what I’ll take from it besides a few piles of cash.

So without further ado, here comes my grand list of Shit I Learned While In The Middle East.

  1. Money ruins things; the more money, the more it’s ruined
  2. Lottery winners, including winners of the natural resource lottery, are insufferable
  3. Living in air conditioning strips you of part of your humanity
  4. Deserts always have lower quality food; the bigger the desert, the lower the quality, since it has to travel further and be frozen longer
  5. Rain is magical; snow more so
  6. Everyone is a product of their environment, and everyone conforms, eventually, to a new one (no matter how unethical they may think it to be)
  7. The poor peoples of the world would happily annihilate their own culture for a chance to own an SUV and have an Applebee’s in their town

    A fantastic man whose identity was secret.  We called him Sheikh Mumbler.
    A fantastic man whose identity was secret. We called him Sheikh Mumbler.
  8. Shisha is great, but really, really awful for you
  9. The best Persian Gulf country is Bahrain, because it’s so fucked up and drunk it’s in a league of its own
  10. The worst is Kuwait, owing to its booze ban (Saudi Arabia is excluded because no rational person should consider it)
  11. All-you-can-drink brunches should be experienced multiple times in multiple places, but like all things, they wear thin after a while
  12. Dubai is full of stuff that wows you about a dozen times, but truly does lack much of a city life besides going to malls and remarking on how shiny and big stuff is
  13. Of all the seven emirates, Abu Dhabi is the best, because it has a seedy side of scum that actually feels like it has a story
  14. The scummiest bar in Abu Dhabi is the Trap in the Dana Hotel; visit at your peril
  15. At the same time, a great night out can be found at 49ers in the same hotel on the top floor; their cover band is tops
  16. Clubs full of people who have money are unbelievably dull, and quite likely to contain pricks
  17. Beirut is amazing because it’s so damaged; great nightclub scene, as well
  18. Most places are way, way safer than they appear in the newspapers
  19. Oman is a hidden gem of a country, but you wouldn’t want to live there
  20. Flying over Iraq is super cool during the day (pointless at night)
  21. The two biggest countries – Iran and Saudi Arabia – are virtually inaccessible right now, and that sucks
  22. Every government out here is run by assholes,shitheads, or a combination of both

    West Beirut's Hamra Street is probably one of the best places on Earth.
    West Beirut’s Hamra Street is probably one of the best places on Earth.
  23. Gulf state propaganda is so bluntly simple that it mostly works (“We are all the president” – Jesus, who falls for that?  Well, I guess I did for a bit there)
  24. Revolution is fascinating, but staring at it too much can make you feel like a bad person when you’re not affected by the outcome
  25. Societies based on appearance are wretched to live in after a while
  26. Having a great sense of humor can make the entire region a lot more bearable
  27. The entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict is pointless
  28. The entire U.S.-Iranian conflict is equally so
  29. Saudi Arabia is doomed
  30. Qatar has zero cool nightclubs
  31. Lebanon is full of hidden awesome stuff and is way safer than its reputation implies
  32. Palestine and Israel are both pretty stunning countries from a natural perspective, but to be honest I thought Lebanon had more to offer
  33. Nothing takes the shine off Jerusalem like seeing the same Jesus plate over and over again in the Old City
  34. The Israeli Separation Barrier is an abomination, but I hope they don’t tear it totally down because it has amazing graffiti
  35. Gulf Arabs in general don’t like the British but do like the Americans; go figure

    The abyss near Petra.  Worth the hike.
    The abyss near Petra. Worth the hike.
  36. There are way, way more gay people out here than you’d think (and many of them have a great time)
  37. Schools don’t run well in places too flush with cash since nobody thinks anything bad can ever happen to them
  38. Don’t raise your kids in the Gulf, or you risk raising spoiled shits, regardless of where you’re from
  39. Parts of Dubai are way, way too much like Phoenix, Arizona
  40. Deira is the best place in Dubai, mostly because it’s old and falling down
  41. Earthquakes can happen out here, but they don’t seem to kill anyone
  42. Never jump on a camel; they don’t forgive
  43. Having an alcohol license is a cool novelty until you forget it at home (or you can’t get one because immigration is slow processing you)
  44. Most dumb stuff out here is funny until it happens for a fifth time
  45. Customer service is uniformly awful, and when you get a good experience, you cherish it like a newborn child
  46. Propaganda newspapers are hilarious at first until you actually get curious as to what the hell’s going on
  47. There are too many rumors to sort, so it’s best to tune everything out
  48. Arab hospitality is amazing, and Emiratis will almost always help you get your stupid Jeep out of the sand
  49. Jordanian Bedouin are what the Gulf should have remained
  50. Watching a state build itself is priceless because of all the basic mistakes they make
  51. Petra is precisely as great as you’d expect
  52. Jerusalem is not

    Bahrain is one of the few places you can get up close and personal with these things.
    Bahrain is one of the few places you can get up close and personal with these things.
  53. Syria is the greatest tragedy you’ll ever come close to
  54. The Pyramids are underwhelming
  55. The Western Desert of Egypt is not (absolutely stunning)
  56. Tribalism is unbelievably stupid and annoying to work with and for
  57. Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are just on the cusp of ruining themselves (time to go!)
  58. Abu Dhabi has a hot fog season, which is awkward and confusing
  59. Bribery works; being bribed is off-putting at first, but you get used to it after a while
  60. A lot of Muslim men seem to love Red Label whiskey
  61. The Shi’a-Sunni conflict is stupid
  62. Schools here make two mistakes: they assume they can change the region to their way of thinking (which they can’t) or they assume they can’t change it all and so they don’t even try (which is equally untrue)
  63. Best lessons for my Emirati students involved polite language (who knew nobody had taught them to say “please”?)
  64. Best project: making Emiratis visit the labor camps
  65. The labor camps are as bad as the Israeli occupation (and worse, in some ways)

    Egypt's White Desert is absolutely stunning.
    Egypt’s White Desert is absolutely stunning.
  66. “The Taliban Store” sounds scary until you realize it’s just a student resources shop from the 80s
  67. After two years, you get cold easy
  68. After four years, you get angry easily
  69. After five years, it’s probably time to consider leaving
  70. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nayhan of Abu Dhabi is a scumbag for arresting rather than talking to the Muslim Brotherhood of his country
  71. Academic freedom is priceless
  72. So is freedom of speech
  73. And religion
  74. And association
  75. At the same time, not having guns allowed gives a huge peace of mind
  76. Americans could learn a lot from how friendly people out here are
  77. Turns out, a lot of problems in the region are as equally caused by the locals themselves as by the machinations of imperialists and neoconservatives
  78. No government here even tries to tell the truth, and makes the American president seem like Honest Abe
  79. Nothing out here is worth dying for, especially religion
  80. The UAEis going to be dominated by lesbian overlords by 2030 (since girls are better educated than boys, and homosexuality is rampant in girls’ government schools)

    Revolution in progress in Cairo's Khan.
    Revolution in progress in Cairo’s Khan.
  81. This whole region needs a cultural atomic bomb to go off to get people talking about stuff they currently sweep under the rug
  82. Abu Dhabi’s film festival is shockingly awesome
  83. Qatar’s is cancelled, and Sheikh Tamim and whoever else made that call is an idiot for doing so
  84. If you want to be a tourist destination, you can’t regulate clothing, or drinking, without coming off as an ass
  85. Arabic is hard
  86. But it’s got its beauty once you start to knock down a few of the bricks in the language barrier
  87. Bedouin can be incredibly generous
  88. They can also be frustratingly arrogant
  89. The Gulf states are way ahead of the U.S. on immigration
  90. They’re way behind on self-reflection and honesty
  91. Censored movies are funny for a while, but Jesus it’d be nice to see a romantic movie where the couple actually gets to kiss
  92. Someday, many of the Brits in Dubai are going to wake up with skin cancer and they’ll finally know why I spent much of my life avoiding the sun
  93. Suburbs are uniformly awful in every country
  94. The Dead Sea is miserable in summer
  95. It’s more tolerable in winter
  96. Beirut’s airport is scary as hell, since it looks like you’ll crash into the ocean until the moment you hit the tarmac
  97. Additionally, West Beirut is stunning and has the city’s best food
  98. It’s a place worth going to
  99. And it’s a place worth leaving
  100. And I’ll miss much of it loads

Five Seasons (and no movie)

In October 2009, I thought I’d be fired from my job in Abu Dhabi.  Not because I was awful at it – though I was, and so was everyone else who took that job – but because rumors were circulating that the government had had second thoughts about our project with the Abu Dhabi Education Council and were intending on giving us all the sack in an emirate-wide spasm of buyer’s remorse.  We were a bad idea being shown as such; who in their right mind would continue on with such a waste?

My department head almost gleefully told me about the failure of Dubai’s similar scheme some years back. (I wish I could find documented evidence of said project, but never have, and to this day I wonder if he just made the whole thing up.)  The second week in October, I was quaking that I’d have to return to Phoenix, tail between my legs, humiliated by circumstance and forced back into my parent’s back bedroom for yet another round of job hunts.  In 2009, that was like death.

That same fall, Community premiered on NBC.  Thanks to my self-imposed Western-culture-must-die blackout, I didn’t learn about it for two years.

Rather, in 2009, I’d just learned, years too late, about Battlestar Galactica, which fed my inner nerd the soul-food necessary to survive the trials and tribulations of my deeply fucked up job in the emirates.  When I packed for the UAE, I brought along a handful of books that I thought I’d reread and DVDs I thought I’d rewatch.  Biggest was the BSG series; it became my cultural crutch for the first six months, the go-to of comfort that I needed at the end of a long, shitty day of kids talking over me, administrators scheming against me, and rumors claiming I’d get the sack because our dear Crown Prince was having second thoughts.

In BSG, a group of interstellar survivors get lucky and avoid a robot-caused apocalypse.  They spend the series wandering around the galaxy, steps ahead of their enemies, trying to find a new home.  The show is dark; it mirrors the traumas of 9/11, Iraq, terrorism, and all the beasts that were fashionable to confront in the Bush years.  In it I found a commonality; as I heard stories of people quitting, people being attacked, schools falling apart, tales of our being sent home by Christmas, I identified with the siege mentality that permeates the first two seasons.  People are so deeply battered that the only thing that comes to matter is simple, primal survival.  In between their moments of war, death, and scraping through yet another Cylon fleet, they find little things that make them happy.

In this analogy, I was a survivor of a nearly annihilated civilization and the Emirati education system was the Cylon robot race trying to destroy me and my kind. It worked most nights.

It became my mantra for those first six months.  We were not at war, and nobody was being truly harmed, but the chaos and insecurity of the time was echoed within the fiction of that show.  The solemn, stony-faced pilots and sailors of that fake space fleet were getting through their shit; I too could get through mine because my job was not nearly as lethal.

In the background of the world, the first two seasons of Community played on.  In August 2011, when moving from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi and laid up for a month in a five star hotel as ADEC took its sweet time processing my apartment lease (no complaints, the breakfast was fantastic), I stumbled upon one of the final episodes for season 2 – the infamous cowboy paintball show.

My local community.  Ran almost as badly but was considerably less fun.
My local community. Ran almost as badly but was considerably less fun.

Something clicked.  It was immediately, instantaneously, my favorite of all time.  I’m usually pretty judgmental about cultural products, especially American ones, but I fell in love with Community the way I fell in love with The Dark Knight in its opening scene.  Something was just right.  Thanks to Hulu’s blockade of any country not the United States, I downloaded it.  (The fact that the UAE doesn’t prosecute pirates helped).

Once finished with BSG, I left it well alone.  I’ve tried to rewatch it, but it’s fallen out of sync with me; their desperation, terror, and grim determination to find Earth doesn’t mirror my more pedestrian existence I’ve now fallen into here in Qatar.

Rather, it’s Community I watch again and again (subsuming to season 4 when I have to).  What’s unique about Community, as opposed to so many other shows out there, is that there’s not one character I identify with – nobody I want to emulate or follow, nobody who has wisdom to impart to me.  Rather, parts of each character carries a shard of myself; a bit of truth, mashed up, comically exaggerated, hidden by mounds of dialogue but shining out when the right light falls on it.

Each of them is uniquely broken, thrown off, and their life plans have not turned out as grand as they’d hoped.  Within that, I see a lot of myself; not because my plans haven’t turned out, but because they very nearly once did not.  It’s not hard to imagine myself having not left Phoenix, feeling and thinking the same things the characters of Community do, failing to communicate, to forgive, to forget, to grow properly.  They’re like the warped, stunted bushes placed in a badly designed garden, grasping for the sunlight and water put just out of their natural reach.  There’s something terribly wrong with their hometown, with the lives they’ve chosen for themselves, and they spend the entire series messed up and tossed about trying to figure out what the wrong is.

Now that the show is cancelled, it’s unlikely they ever will.

I suppose it’s fitting; it’s been cancelled just as I am about to cancel my Middle Eastern experience.  Each year it came back was more improbable than the last (as each year I came out here it grew increasingly improbable that I’d return).  From an experience standpoint, the first year was the best, full of novelty and uniqueness, things never seen before, life lived fully, a beautiful comet that was doomed to burn out.  Year two was remarkable, but not as unique; some good tunes are worth being played twice.  Year three began a tangible slip; not quite a slide, not yet, but the cracks were starting to show, and things that were funny in year one were merely just old hat, or downright annoying (as in, Chevy Chase’s character, and the failure of the rule of law in the Persian Gulf in general).  Year four was a serious downgrade, a painful experience of many failures as purpose was lost, as the experience became about “just getting through it” – until year five, which was a do-over and which managed to scrape out what remained of the original goodness.

But now it is time to move on; perhaps a sixth season of Community was as much of a stretch as a sixth year of life in Arabia.  Community was never fully at home on NBC, a major network that values big audiences, simple humor, and lack of controversy.  Much like me in Arabia, it was clear Community did not belong and had an inevitable shelf life.  Unlike the show, I go on to a newer and (hopefully) better life; another do-over.  But it will not have the same spark or novelty; it won’t have that season one feel.

It’s over; the cast and crew of the show must go on; so must I.  I’ve learned a lot; hopefully, so have they.  Now it’s on to next chapters.

Maybe its successor can beat it.  I damned well hope it does.

Wanderin’ ’round my generation

One day, I hope, I’ll have kids.  I hope to do a good job; I hope they’ll turn out happy and well-adjusted and that they’ll someday say “Dad, you were alright.”

But I also assume that at some point they’ll say, “Dad, you and your generation fucked up.”

We had a good run of it, we Millennial, because we were born at a time when society had gone so far off the rails that we were raised to be afraid of just about everything.  From child-snatchers, nuclear terrorists, marijuana as a gateway drug (the full force of the War on Drugs was upon us) to gangs, serial killers, car accidents, and teen pregnancy, our teachers and parents put the scare into us as much as they possibly could.

I guess it worked, since teen birth and crimes have dropped like a rock.

We grew up with a backdrop noise of Boomer-induced cultural insanity that had actively worked to destroy their community centers and Xer-influenced nihilism and absurdity that believed there was no such thing as community.

By the time I was born, in 1984, America was a land of subcultures, yuppies and hippies, drug addicts, racists and the people who loved calling other people racists, Republicans and Democrats, sell-outs and “too true to live” artists.  Nothing was perfect, but nothing ever could be, either.

We were never led to believe some perfect world had slipped away before our eyes; we were raised in a distinctly imperfect time with deep, open flaws.  There were no Good Old Days for us, just tales of them, and so we couldn’t become jaded because our expectations were low from birth.

There was a disconnect between living in the 90s and experiencing the 90s.  The 90s were billed as a terrible decade.  That wasn’t the reality of the time, though.

Racism was on its backfoot; feminism, children’s rights, worker’s rights, pretty much everyone’s rights, were on the offensive. America was richer, safer, and in many ways more moral than it had ever been in its existence.  But people still felt the need to shit all over the decade anyway.

Daria aimed to perfect commentary on how nothing was right with the world.

As one of my former co-workers put it, you simply needed a brain and some hands to fall ass-backwards into money.  What I saw in that time was that those who cooperated were rewarded.  If you did what you were told, you’d be just fine, and being fine by 90s standards was a damned good thing.

Those were my formative years, and my brain got wired with a simple system of cause and effect: Do what was asked, conform to a certain moral compass, and you’ll have that house, job, wife, etc., that everybody wants.

In other words, don’t rock this already-leaky boat.  We need rowers, not rockers.  I learned the lesson well.

What the Boomers and X-ers had in common was a general moral center: racism, sexism, and other inequalities were bad; individuality, sincerity, and genuineness were good.  The Boomers felt ultra-guilty about selling out; they’d gone from Flower Power to the Reagan Revolution in just two decades. It’s no accident that so many Boomers converted to fundamentalist Christianity, seeking a way out of their self-imposed guilt.

X-ers, however, were born into a world already going to shit and figured there wasn’t much point struggling against it.  But between them was a common moral thread that they passed down to us Millenials coupled with the knowledge that the world wasn’t perfect.

I never did develop that deep distrust of government that’s typical of Boomers and X-ers.  I grew up with Watergate, Vietnam, and Jim Crow firmly in the past; they were as dead to me as slavery, sins passed into infinity rather than part of my own experience. The government of my youth evicted Iraq from Kuwait with an all-volunteer army, ended genocide in Bosnia, and liberated Kosovo.  If anything, the lesson of the 90s was that the government wasn’t doing enough – witness Saddam’s tyranny or Rwanda’s slaughter.  And of course there were the poor, the sick, within our borders that were seemingly being left behind by a selfish society.

And while others saw corrupt politicians dealing out paychecks to themselves, I saw a boring process of old men yelling at one another in louder and louder voices.  Politics was both dull and corrupt and drove people to vote in ever-smaller numbers.  All anyone could agree on was that we had the wrong sort in power.

For those of us growing up in the mid and early 90s, we were stuck with the crescendo of X-er cynicism that washed over pop culture.   This was the height of snark, of cynicism and irony, of pointing out we’d failed as a moral nation as soon as a Starbucks opened up down the street.  All this culminated with depressing concerts, tattered clothes, and nihilism painted on teens’ faces with extra-dark mascara.  Before emos took the trend and gutted it, Goths were trying to remind us we were all going to die and we needed to focus on that as much as possible.

Since everyone was already a crook, there wasn’t much to be disappointed about.

I was right on the edge of the Millenials; some of us were stereotypes of ourselves while others fitted better culturally with the X-er mindset.  Star Wars, while chic now, was cool only with some of us; somebody who could use a computer was still derided as a nerd.  And Jesus help anyone dumb enough to pitch a show like Glee back then.  The X-er impulse to spot the smallest imperfections in a dance number, in anything too earnest, would have torn that apart in its first week.  For us path-findinger at the frontlines of generation, we rebelled against this cynicism by growing cynical against it.

By virtue of what teens do, instead of going out of our way to show how sad life was, we started to focus on enjoying things.  If we liked to dance, we danced; if we liked a song, we sang it.  The cat-calls of the back row bothered us increasingly less; meanwhile, the back of the bus came to be dominated not by some kids selling weed wearing trenchcoats but by environmentalists and pro-gay marriage liberals.  The keys to that kingdom were adherence to the morality passed down by our parents and teachers but never fully practiced by them; those who stepped out were shunned, held up as examples of What Not To Do, and being a rebel faded in importance.

Fucking hell. This is how some people thought in the 90s.

I was seventeen when 9/11 happened.  Far from having the Boomer-induced pang of guilt that perhaps we had this coming, most of us responded with a resounding “Let’s fuck their day up.”  Many volunteered; no draft was needed to fight this War on Terror.  Iraq was not our Vietnam.  Mistake, yes, but fought by volunteers who we as a generation were uniform in calling heroes.  “Baby killer” was an ugly slogan for the out-of-date or deeply ignorant; regardless, they were to be quietly ignored and defriended on Facebook, the favorite tactic of our generation.   Confrontation had gotten the Boomers nowhere fast; unconsciously, I’d learn not to copy their all-too-public passionate outbursts.  (Or ridiculous attempts to make the Pentagon fly.)

We had rebelled against much of what came ahead of us and ended up, by accident, acting much like our grandparents.  We didn’t value the same details, but we valued the same rules; we ended up voting for Obama as they did Roosevelt, volunteering for military service, overseas postings, and NGOs as they once fought World War II (not to equate the serverity of World War II with our Great Recession; what we have in common is that both generations plunged into the challenge of the time rather than try to avoid it, as the Boomers did with Vietnam).  We gave up on the idea of being original because we’re well aware nobody’s all that original.

I guess it’s made me less worried about what’s real and more worried about getting something done.  I still squabble with my peers, but often I don’t care that much about what we’re squabbling over.  The world is broken; I’m fine with that.  Maybe we can fix bits of it.

For me, that’s good enough.