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On finding meaning & self-actualization in the little things

As GenXers, we come from an era still defined by cinema, TV, and music hit lists blasted on the radio over and over. Some argue we have lost something important —call it aura, romanticism, enchantment— when the golden era of pop culture gave way to cable fragmentation first and internet personalization algorithms later.

Yet those who grew up in the pre-sixties era acknowledge that what followed was nothing but content canned for the masses in short, easy to digest fragments to fit long plays, whereas the previous generation who knew the war also associated music and art with live events like live radio orchestras and Broadway shows. The romantic argument of lost authenticity goes back to the beginning of mass media like a set of Russian dolls.

Say Anything (Cameron Crowe, 1989)

For us, growing up doesn’t have much to do with reflecting on the fact sports stars and a growing number of influential people, especially in entertainment and digital culture, can appear younger than anyone born in the late seventies. Experience makes you appreciate reality with your own perspective; something is rewarding in appreciating subtleties that won’t be self-apparent if you go faster and split your attention a bit too much.

When playing music was a conscious task

In our early respective teenage, each in two Mediterranean places half a world apart, the Bay Area and Barcelona, analogic entertainment offered fewer choices at a higher cost, especially for youngsters who could not dream of, or even imagine, models of subscription to libraries offering instant access to virtually all recorded music one can imagine. (Though this was a long, long time ago, according to our oldest daughter, who just turned fifteen.)

Back then, music enjoyment had to rely on older brothers and cool friends to borrow the right vinyl records or videotapes to record the music, movies, and TV shows we liked. The pre-digital era may have created a minor aristocracy of music and movies smartypants, and the coming of age was a process comprised between John Cusack’s boombox exaltation in the movie poster of Say Anything (1989, with Ione Skye as his girlfriend) to Cusack showing the morosity of a music lover approaching middle age who relates vinyl records to broken relationships (High Fidelity, 2000).

Things seemed easier, content finite, and modernity had not entered yet the process of liquefaction that comes with repositories that aspire at hosting all the entertainment there is, and then more: as a successful youtuber, Kirsten contributes with others to create independent content that, unlike “indie” in the mass media era, creators themselves can produce, mix, and broadcast. It took six years to go from John Cusack’s trouble growing up in High Fidelity to Time magazine declaring users posting content on YouTube (founded one year before, on February 14, 2005) Person of the Year.

Teens then and now

Digital information did indeed transform distribution. “Information wants to be free,” we heard from Silicon Valley, “Not that fast,” answered a music industry with its own intestine wars (like Pearl Jam fighting Ticketmaster). Soon, it was clear that the digital revolution would have no mercy with legacy systems, and melomaniacs began complaining about the canned experience that represented playing music once churned through digital compression.

With all the controversy around who was going to get paid in the transition from analogic to digital, the transformation boosted content sharing (sometimes illegally), remixing, and creation from scratch, as digital cameras, computing power, and software became accessible. Smartphones, which came when our first daughter was born, made the transition unstoppable.

Like any couple associated with media, Kirsten and I have used musical and cultural references since we met. I can recall a recurrent conversation we would have around the possibility of moving from video freelancing to independent production when sites such as YouTube did not exist yet.

High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)

It took us a few years to create consistent self-produced short documentaries we wanted to post for “internet streaming,” and, by the time our oldest daughter Ines was five and the youngest among the three siblings was a baby born, Kirsten would get sometimes recognized in random places, which would prompt Inés to wonder and ask why that had happened? “So you post videos, and then people watch them, and then they know who you are, huh? Are you ‘famous,’ mum?”

We were already in the ‘2010s, and internet content creation was already mainstream.

Searching of purpose

By 2014 we were traveling for days or weeks at a time, taking advantage of any smallish or big school holiday to get on the road with the “family crew”: two parents and three toddlers trying to create the markers of a “home” anywhere we went, which translated back then in a lot of productions in which one of us stayed with the children while the other took the responsibility of performing interviews.

Some parents find their children’s presence as something sharply incompatible with their professional endeavors, though for us, it came naturally; we thought the alternative of leaving our children aside was a pooper decision, and it would have felt as perhaps a conscious deprivation of an opportunity of being into the world, seeing how their parents meet and interview people from all walks of life.

Both Kirsten and I come from relatively big families, and some parenting routines came naturally, whereas others became challenging but never insurmountable, thanks in part to the blessing and the curse of controlling our own schedules since we married in 2006. Flexibility comes at a cost, and we soon saw how the best moments to enjoy creative working would happen at odd hours, when the children were at school or asleep; solitary work suited our personalities, but others may find more challenges in what for us seemed to make sense from day one, so we sometimes would wonder if we were more an exception than the rule when we realized the Parenting Industrial Complex was a massive business encouraging young families to cope with chaos and angst.

In the summer of 2013, before the #vanlife frenzy, we decided to take to the road as in the previous years, though this time we would carry the house around. We explored Craigslist for opportunities, and we found a potential match on one early ’80s, air-cooled VW Vanagon with a functioning propane kitchen and fridge. Only the 4×4 Synchro models (thanks to owner enthusiasts such as Tom Hanks) were valued in 2013 since only surfers and modern-day hobos would take the pain to trade the modern comfort and power for a small campervan that on the upslope would keep you on the right shoulder gasping for build-up inertia or, at least, the aerodynamic protection of a long-hauler.

Promise at dawn: a family endeavor

We made new friends on the back of the pack and blended alright. The clunker not only resisted a demanding five-thousand-mile trip across the U.S. West but got us back to the San Francisco Bay Area on a decent shape and with minor additional damage. We ended up selling it two days after posting the ad for the same price; it did not make much sense to keep the camper for a few weeks a year.

It was around then that we began to notice people commenting in Kirsten’s videos where the children would show up here and there as a part of the background. There was something odd for them: impermanence was getting in the videos they were watching since the children were noticeably growing up. “I can’t believe how your children have grown;” “your oldest one speaks so well now;” “is nice and sad at the same time to see how your children are growing, it makes me think about time…” etc.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

I can recall a conversation with Kirsten in which we talked about the meta-story that the videos were organically building up about us: even though Kirsten does not show up in the videos and we don’t follow the talking-head classical YouTube format, but a documentarian style where the people we interview take center stage as in Direct Cinema or Cinema Vérité, we would drop behind-the-scenes takes where any of us would appear in the background, asking a question, etc. So, when Kirsten would edit a particular story, videos would appear on the channel unmatched from chronological order.

Sometimes, the children would be younger than previous videos, and some people would notice. Some other times, it would be us who would notice them growing up by editing or watching/rewatching the videos to get any goof, like cinema assistants would do (sometimes unsuccessfully) to avoid bloopers or continuity errors before release. Time slips away unnoticed when related to everyday events, only perspective makes it easy to reflect on impermanence, so any comment about how our children were growing made us think about our family story as if we were distant relatives telling us they have grown so much since the last reunion.

Impermanence and online content

Internet culture does not consider continuity errors the same way that mass media used to, and memes emerge, disappear and reemerge irrespective of any real or imaginary chronology. Our lives are not ephemeral, returning meme, nor our lives could be considered “public,” but only known to those familiar with the topics we cover.

Around a year ago, we received an email from a young theologian and Aristotelian scholar named Johannes, who defined himself as “a priest by trade” fixing a twenty-thousand euros “run down rustico” high in the Italian Alps. He had decided to turn the little derelict building, the only shelter in a derelict, very steep farmstead, into “a habitable hermitage with chapel and all,” and he received us as promised, at the top of a mountain trail. After welcoming us, he mentioned to us how, depending on the video the algorithm offered him, he felt our kids changed their age (sometimes by years at once) from one day to the other, an unintended consequence of sharing a world repository in which we retrieve documents asynchronously.

Curious about what writers and philosophers had to say about impermanence and other big questions around growing a family and being human, we enjoyed discussing philosophies of life and books carrying timeless wisdom, but we also found it in landscapes, conversations, travels, children’s books, graphic novels, movies, online videos, songs. As a family in between two continents and several intermingled cultures and references, we found solace in visiting other people’s lifestyles and interviewing them like a modern-day version of Jack London’s hobo-days short writings.

We were not hopping freight trains nor fooling people to get a rough sleep here and there like London in the ‘1890s but felt we were not to settle easily in one place and call it our only home. “Home” and “belonging” are markers that accommodate to experience and mindset, and we liked the sense of unease and opportunity each new travel brings at its beginning as if leaving or arriving at places would make us appreciate an expanded version of belonging that refuses to reduce experience to one exclusive interpretation of country and tradition.

‘Boyhood’ and our relationship with time

In many ways, we were not interested in the flawless, risk-free version of middle age professional families, yet we had become a family business without even trying. So, when Boyhood, the movie by Richard Linklater about a young family growing together and shot with the same actors between 2002 and 2013, we could relate like so many others on how the film celebrates the messy, unsung quotidian moments that make up for existence. We were not dealing with divorce, economic struggle, or health issues, but the story’s conventional honesty felt fresh in a context where secular dissatisfaction was reaching its next stage —the gamification of hamster-wheel, canned happiness formulas.

We also wondered about the behind-the-scenes stuff Linklater may have collected. We have been commenting ever since watching the movie, half-joking half-serious, about doing a real-life version of Boyhood with us on it. Each time the conversation comes up, we dismiss it for many reasons. We are not sure our story can sound like something out of Jack London or Joan Didion’s still-life depictions of life in the West, of the sense of opportunity that comes when one is enjoying where she is but the road is also calling. From the place we call home, there is always a little window that makes us wonder, and the effort of reaching others has always been worth it.

Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016)

Our children don’t seem that excited about such an idea, and we respect their opinion. Some people ask if we live on the road, whether we homeschool or not, or whether we took an increasing stand against rigidities with some sort of unschooling formula. Making mistakes is alright, not being perfect is alright —especially growing up— having challenges is alright, wanting privacy is also a part of growing in a world that has built a digital layer tapping into the information of the world and the information we opt-in to share with others.

Like any children, ours like stability and appreciate having the structure, responsibility, friends, and sporadical setbacks that come with growing up. They also liked, and learned from, stories such as Little House on the Prairie and movies such as Captain Fantastic (they also enjoyed and learned from stories now some parents think they are too painful to allow around their children, and we disagree with this perspective), though they are not interested in living within a reality show.

Kids exploring conjectures

As for Captain Fantastic‘s life, well, we are not that interested in following the steps of the movie’s family by no means. Though these are references that belong to the world of their parents, just as the eighties’ coming-of-age classic Say Anything and the nineties’ mid-life crisis High Fidelity, and despite the fact we GenXers have a déjà vu feeling when we see the clothes today’s teenagers choose to signal their rebellious character.

We are not interested in prefabricating superstars or philosopher-kings. Yet, we like a story explained by Karl Popper, a philosopher who acknowledges the importance of developing a sense of critical rationalism in a world on the verge of forgetting its ability to separate facts from opinions and experience. Wary of the flaws and fallibility of human knowledge and the potential of regression in open societies, Popper traced the roots of critical thinking to a moment among the Greek Presocratics. Unlike other peoples and their cosmogonies, very attached to the “sacred,” given word and therefore “authentic,” the Milesian school encouraged their own disciples to develop their own theories if they made sense, even if they contradicted their teachers’ own theories: Anaximander, a disciple of Thales, grew wary of his master’s theories, and Anaximenes parted ways with his own teacher, Anaximander. According to Popper:

“It cannot be a mere accident that Thales’s disciple, Anaximander, explicitly and consciously developed a theory which departed from his teacher’s, nor that Anaximander’s disciple, Anaximenes, departed in an equally conscious way from his teacher’s doctrine. The only plausible explanation is that the founder of the school himself challenged his disciples to criticize his theory, and his disciples turned this new attitude of his teacher into a tradition.”

Understanding that knowledge is temporary and can be improved is something that can give more power to any child than any well-furnished bank account. Popper was fond of this story about the origins of rationalism in Western thinking, though it is a challenge to any parent to casually explain how the never-ending, partial process of conjectures and refutations can be a part of who we are since the creative urge is also related to a search for better personal models.

A discrete sense of awe

Paternalizing and condescending were not viable options in our trips. We like to see how our children’s autonomy grows as they age and they face their first challenges and learn how to find and share their own references, how to interpret others, how to overcome frustration and many other things; it’s interesting to see from the perspective of our generation how they develop on their own a desire to build some privacy around an online activity they consider as natural as water (or wireless signal).

There is no black swan event if we are ready to cope with the sudden consequences of profound, unattended transformations, from the economic difficulty that emerged when our children were born to political radicalization, the impact of extreme weather events in places we visit and where our friends and family live, or the consequences of a zoonotic pandemic.

We like to think we didn’t need to radically adapt our lives or expectations for any of such events since we didn’t take any best-case scenario for granted. There’s no better way to adapt to situations when things change than comprehending the fact that things can change (and, in fact, do change) and coping with it by relativizing their externalities.

When flexibility is a necessary part of a relationship, adapting to things that individuals cannot control (such as inflation, climate events, civil unrest, political sentiment) never comes by surprise. Self-actualization doesn’t need to rely on strict, rigid preconditions such as sticking to unmovable versions of what our lives should be, nor on a particular culture, a particular house and car, a particular lifestyle. All we could share with our kids was one somehow generalistic though honest toolbox of fundamentals: getting to know and respect people and places would lead them to dig deeper in their own sense of purpose, and then they (maybe) would appreciate and give a “meaning” to their days. Existence would then manifest itself with all its tranquil though inexorable awe.

Those who build their daily routines by remaining open and flexible to change around them, understanding that preconceived ideas can reach obsolescence (how much of the current supply chain setback is a consequence of dogmatic teaching in prestigious business schools?). We never felt more righteous than others, nor did our philosophies of life trickle down into perfectly marketable, airheaded “wisdom” pills of self-help.

Ciaroscuro

To a well-informed fifteen-year-old, a GenXer is the closest thing alive to a boomer they can think of, and they are probably right. There is also a charm, if not an opportunity for wisdom, in settling up to focus on the essentials of life when we are already liberated from the hyperventilating-prone, self-destructive tendencies of early youth —the ability to spot patterns, to be patient, to enjoy the little things, to appreciate the beauty (and sparks) of dutiful creation. Reaching mid-life, it’s easier to understand why War and Peace‘s protagonist Pierre Bezukhov, exhausted and prisoner of war, appreciated something as apparently inconsequential as sharing a dry and moldy bread crust with an older prisoner, a miserable moujik, finding it the most exquisite delicacy for the soul.

We can find a bit of the same magic of appreciation (a call to cultivate our attitude and awe towards existence if we prefer) being recalled by Jack London in his days as a hobo. In the short story Hoboes That Pass in the Night, Jack London writes:

“Snow was beginning to fall. A cold night was coming on. After dark, I hunted around in the railroad yards until I found an empty refrigerator car. In I climbed —not into the iceboxes, but into the car itself. I swung the heavy doors shut, and their edges, covered with strips of rubber, sealed the car air tight. The walls were thick. There was no way for the outside cold to get in. But inside was just as cold as the outside. How to raise the temperature was the problem. But trust a ‘profesh’ for that. Out of my pockets, I dug up three or four newspapers. These I burned, one at a time, on the floor of the car. The smoke rose to the top. Not a bit of the heat could escape, and, comfortable and warm, I passed a beautiful night. I didn’t wake up once.”

What if self-actualization depends on attitude and “perception” (the way we look into the world) than on the usually praised or signaled social markers associated with superficial status? In the same way, no parents have to play into the freedom clichés of Captain Fantastic or Little House on the Prairie to appreciate what they can offer as inspiration; there’s no need to follow a virtue-signaling self-help regime to find meaning around us.

There’s no simplistic formula, and that’s part of the magic, as we learn to appreciate in chiaroscuro paintings or baroque songs (with permission from the previous High Fidelity‘s GenXer business): dark tonalities reinforce the light strong enough to manifest through them and, ultimately, prevail.