Jaded

In December 2008, I stared up at one of the great marvels of the world, the gleaming Taj Mahal. And I felt – nothing. Curiosity about its fabled history, yes. But other than that, all I felt was ambivalence about posing for pictures in its imposing foreground and a certain reluctance to leave my shoes unattended as I toured the palace itself.

I should have been awestruck. The Taj Mahal is stunning, a brilliant feat of engineering and craftsmanship, design and artistic grandeur. But the problem was, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, or even the second. Over the years, I’d seen the iconic structure in countless photographs, documentaries, and movies. By 2008, I’d encountered the great edifice so many times from the comfort of my couch that now, having traveled halfway around the world to gaze upon it, I was wondering what we would have for lunch.

It’s shameful, I know. But I suspect I’m not the only guilty one.

Recently, a friend told me why she couldn’t stand modern literature. “I hate the descriptions,” she said. “They’re flowery and over-blown and just plain weird.” Although I enjoy contemporary fiction, I knew what she was referring to. While authors of the past could devote full paragraphs to describing fields in bloom or dank urban alleys, they generally used concrete, sensible words. Contemporary writers tend to rely heavily on metaphors, or else they describe things in odd, non-literal ways. In her novel A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore uses the term “a papery caramel of leaves” to describe the wet waste that lined the roads. Whoever thought of soggy, caked leaves as caramel? And yet I think the description gives us something – a sense of color, of texture, and a fresh perspective.

It occurred to me that modern writers are faced with an interesting challenge, namely jaded readers who have seen (if not experienced) it all. Readers like me who can look upon the Taj Mahal without being awestruck. Not only are we more well-traveled than days of yore, but we’re exposed to places all over the world by way of screens large and small. In movies and through television we have seen rainforests and polar expeditions, villages from Scotland to Africa to Guatemala, Texas rodeos, Manhattan sex clubs, Roman amphitheaters, ocean floors, mountain peaks, and even the surface of the moon. No wonder we’re jaded. And no wonder fiction writers today have to sweat and toil to describe the world in a different way if we are to take note of it at all.

I’m torn about the vicarious exposure we get to our world through TV and movies. It’s a strange sort of life without living, experience that is like reality without actually being real. On the one hand, it gives us access to other places, times, and ways of life, showing us things we may never otherwise see. It can educate us, but I think it also steals something from us – the freshness and newness of discovery. I don’t want to be jaded, so I’m going to take this as a challenge. I’m going to push myself to experience each new surrounding fully, to open my eyes and look. More than that, I’m going to challenge myself to touch, taste, and smell the world around me. As yet, technology doesn’t stimulate those senses in our living rooms and movie theaters, which means the real world has got that market cornered.

Dumb Kids

I had an unpleasant experience in the car today. For the first time, I listened carefully to the lyrics of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. You know, the one requested by brown eyed girls everywhere and played at dances as a romantic upbeat song. I could sing all of the lyrics, but had never really listened to what I was singing.

Here’s the last verse:

So hard to find my way,
Now that I’m all on my own.
I saw you just the other day,
My, how you have grown!
Cast my memory back there, Lord
Sometimes I’m overcome thinkin’ ‘bout
Makin’ love in the green grass
Behind the stadium
With you, my brown eyed girl
You my brown eyed girl.

It’s a break up song! Some of you may have known this, but my fiancé and I were shocked and saddened. He said I’d ruined the song for him. We moved it to a different, sadder playlist. How could we have sung lyrics we’d never even listened to?

I had a similar discovery about the 80’s song Second Chance by 38 Special. The clearly-enunciated bridge contains the following lyrics:

I never loved her
I never needed her
She was willing and that’s all there is to say.
Don’t forsake me;
Please don’t leave me now.

She was willing? The song went from nostalgic to disturbing. I still listen to it, but with much less glee.

It’s true of movies too. I knew all of the lines to The Breakfast Club growing up but didn’t realize until adulthood that it wasn’t cigarettes they were smoking and that they didn’t get silly just because they’d become friends. And I didn’t figure out that there was an abortion in Dirty Dancing until years afterward.

It got me to wondering: how could I have loved these movies and learned the lyrics to these songs without understanding what they were about? And not even understanding that I didn’t understand?

It occurs to me that kids can’t get too hung up on what they don’t understand. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to enjoy most of what they saw or heard. They make sense of what they can and move on, oblivious and happy. That’s why Disney can sneak adult humor into movies without children noticing. And that’s why it wasn’t until today, in the car, that I learned the truth about the brown eyed girl.

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