Sunday, December 31, 2017

Messages from the Lost Generation to Generation X: A One Year Journey

Gen X's Connection to the Lost Generation

While the late wave of the Lost Generation experienced the last years of their lives, Generation X experienced their earliest years. They were the red leaves that had hung on through the worst heat of summer, while we were the green blades of grass shooting up toward the sun, only just realizing how cold the coming winter would become. As I've been on a one-year journey to find the Lost Generation, I have sought their wisdom. And I have realized that these leaves, this generation, even as they fell, were often trying to protect us or give to us in whatever way they could. When I was a small child, my Lost Generation great-grandfather had brought me a seedling tree from Illinois, down Highway 35, and across I-40, and planted it in our front yard. In the summer, it had shadowed me as my pinwheel blew in the soft breeze and, when fall came, it dropped its leaves in the street like little treasures.

When Ethan Hawke's character picks up the phone in Reality Bites and says, "Hello, you've reached the winter of our discontent," he isn't just alluding to the crisis that Gen X remembers as kids, he is reaching back in some way to Steinbeck.

Sinclair Lewis summed up the experience of the Lost Generation: "Winter is not a season, it's an occupation." As generations go, every four cycles is a 'lost generation', and the history that goes with those cycles is always winter, always discontent. This was life for the Lost Generation, this has, in many ways, been life for Generation X.

Why it matters to understand a previous generation is that it helps to better understand our own. Why it matters to study history is so that we don't keep repeating the same mistakes. We are still very much affected today by issues of the Lost Generation. History, as we experience it, is even continuously altered by WWI. One all too real example of this is that many bombs, designed to explode on impact, were left behind in the fields of Europe as the tired arms of soldiers sometimes laid them in the grass and walked away. Today, as farmers plow fields, or as people walk by, those bombs sometimes explode and those people are sometimes injured or killed, even though it is now a hundred years later. This is known, darkly, as the Iron Harvest.

Another chilling example of our connection to the Lost Generation is H1N1. In the winter of 2009, this virus was constantly in the news as a potential pandemic. We stood in line at a clinic for shots in the freezing cold, while volunteers handed us warm blankets. The Red Cross sign on the side of their truck had me thinking about the way they had helped relief efforts during WWI, but I did not know that what we were about to get immunized for was a variation of the same flu that wiped out a large number of the world's population a century before. Sadly, the Lost Generation was born during years that made them more susceptible to this horrible virus because of a different flu they had gotten as children. 

If you are Generation X, you may have known and loved people from the Lost Generation - I surely did. One thing that became more and more clear to me through this year of searching for them, for their wisdom, for their messages left to us, is that they saw our suffering, and knew our suffering because it was painstakingly familiar to them. Their lives were coming to an end as ours were beginning so they were often unable to intervene in our lives or help us in a way they could have if they had been younger, though I think they often did what they were able to in the time they had left.

The Lost Generation lived through a similar pattern of history, and therefore had a similar struggle that Gen X has now, and any wisdom or hope they left behind helps us on our own long journeys. Some of those messages are quoted on this blog over the past year. Beyond that wisdom, these are the two messages I found from them that have affected me the most....

How to Fight

One of those messages is the example they left us of how to fight. There were two well-known truces that took place during WWI: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (which would have been a day that would have the most meaning to soldiers on the Western Front) and the Easter Truce of 1916 (a day that would have the most meaning to soldiers on the Eastern Front). In both cases, soldiers stepped out of their trenches and broke bread with the other side, an act that included both risk and profound love. Many other small, localized truces took place during the war as well. This was a powerful message from the Lost Generation to us: we should always take a moment to see those we consider an enemy as truly human, or even if just for a moment, as brothers and sisters.

How to Have Hope

C.S. Lewis, one of the brightest voices of the Lost Generation, told us the reason our heart yearns for something earth can't supply is proof that heaven must be our home. This is the ultimate hope and the ultimate explanation for why we feel lost, because we are not yet home. This image of hope and light shows up in different ways in the writing of the Lost Generation - it was the green light that the Great Gatsby reached toward over the water, it is the lighthouse that Virginia Woolf told us to look toward.

Here's to the coming new year, when we look toward hope. It will be exactly one century from the year that WWI came to an end. In November of 2018, a centennial memorial for American WWI veterans will finally be opened. Up until now, the veterans of every other major war have been given a monument in Washington D.C., the Lost Generation has not. This is exactly what it means to be a lost generation.

May the Lost Generation rest in peace. And while we've said it for generations, it is always worth saying it again:
Peace on earth.

(c) writing by Chloe Koffas 2017, photos by Chloe, Portland, Oregon


Time Magazine: Solving the Mystery Flu That Killed 50 Million People
WWI Centennial Memorial Info and a link to donate
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Wikipedia: Iron Harvest 
An Easter Truce, 1916: Gateways to the First World War

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Speed of History - Finding the Lost Generation: A One Year Journey

The Lost Generation (born about 1883-1900 or soon after) lived through momentous world history and enormous change - like they were on a speeding train as the years of their lives went by. They saw the New York subway open the same year as the Trans-Siberian Railway (1904). They experienced the first wireless transmission making it across the Atlantic (1901) and they experienced the tragedy when the Titanic did not (1912).

They experienced the first World Series (1903). Norman Rockwell painted moments of their lives that we still remember them by. The second wave of the Lost Generation would have, with small hands, colored with the very first Crayola crayons images of an unfolding modern world that seemed like wonderful things might be possible, at least at first....

As they came of age, if they did not lose someone they loved from the Balkan Wars (1912-13) or WWI (1914-18), they lost someone from the flu pandemic of 1918 which took away a substantial piece of the world's population and even shortened the Lost Generation's life expectancy.

WWI veterans came home to America, Britain, and other places to become disillusioned with a post-war society that did not always welcome them back. Many of them, including some of the most well-known Lost Gen writers, became expatriates and were known in France as Generation au Feu - the "Generation in Flames." For many, a war's impact on their body and psyche lasts a lifetime. And it goes far beyond that. I have seen that trauma get passed down through multiple generations. WWI soldiers felt a hatred for their leaders who had sent them into the trenches to die and this was, and is, a piece of the bigger picture of how each lost generation loses hope in leaders and institutions.

In the early days of the Lost Generation, Russian Czars still ruled over snow-covered villages. Immigrants from around the world came in waves through Ellis Island as Orphan Trains transported children from poverty on big city streets of Eastern American cities across golden plains to farms in the Midwest. Some of those Lost Generation orphans found themselves in good families and some went through terrible abuse. Some of those orphans grew up to become well-known and successful, some eventually had to leave the Midwest Dust Bowl and head west once again to look for work during the Great Depression.

The Industrial Revolution's long, dark shadow was still casting itself across the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of cities in the Western world and many of the Lost Generation worked in factories as children and could not finish school. Yet, in their adulthood, many of them fought for public benefits, specifically those that were part of the New Deal, even knowing that most of them would never be the recipient of those benefits themselves. They had suffered enormously under the Great Depression, and didn't want future generations to experience this again. Any lost generation becomes the clear-eyed managers for the older generations ahead of them and the selfless protectors of the younger generations coming behind them.

The skyscraper became the icon of the Roaring Twenties, even while people lived in 'poor houses'. As teenagers and twenty-somethings, the Lost Generation built American railways and rebuilt San Francisco from the devastating 1906 earthquake.

The Lost Generation bought their first radios to hear George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin gracing the sound waves. By the late 1920's they were gathering around their radios to listen to westerns, soap operas, and detective shows. In mid-life, they would have sat by those same radios to hear FDR's fireside chats.

While Al Capone and Mae West became household names, and speakeasies popped up in back alleys during Prohibition, and while the parties of the 1920's were known for being big, elaborate, and full of champagne, not everyone lived a life of the nouveau riche. Many people worked in sweat shots in 'valleys of ashes' or lived simple lives in small towns. If having fun during the Roaring Twenties was a response to WWI, then eventually living a life of simplicity with a disdain for over-indulgence became the Lost Generations' regretful response to the 1920's.

After a long struggle, women in the West filled out their first ballots (1920). Women like Golda Meir, Dorothy Parker and Virginia Wolfe began to find their voices. Flappers pushed the boundaries of social class, which ultimately paved the way for Gen X to be known as the first generation to exist outside of social class.

In the early years of the Lost Generation, the first Nobel prizes were given and society worked to push itself forward. All the while, as if a strange shadow of the Dark Ages still reached over them, they suffered in Hoovervilles, in TB clinics, in asylums. So many books have been written about their suffering and a thousand of their stories still wait to be told.

While many of them were born just as X-rays were invented, they eventually saw the first PCs making their way into their younger neighbors' homes. As the Lost Generation came of age, they experienced WWI and then the Roaring Twenties, followed by The Great Depression and WWII in their midlife. In their older years, they saw both the building and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. While they watched Amelia Earhart fly solo over the Atlantic ocean in their youth, as their hair began to turn gray, they saw the first moon landing. No wonder they were tired by the time we met them.

While I have been on a one year journey to find the Lost Generation and have written month-by-month of their lives, this has all just been a small slice of their experience. I have looked at their art deco furniture and their San Francisco skyscrapers. I have spent time with their writers.

 I have remembered those from the Lost Generation that I loved. As I began this journey a year ago, there was one last known Lost Generation soul still alive in the Western World named Emma and she passed away in Italy in April 2017. The Lost Generation soul who had the biggest impact on my life was also named Emma, who had survived the Great Depression by leaving Oklahoma and going West, which is where I met her as a child. The last Lost Gen soul in America was the adorable Susannah Mushatt Jones. The oldest living Lost Gen man is Celino Jaramillo in Chile, while the Olympics were held in Athens -- he is believed to be 121. I am in awe in of how much history he has experienced. The last Lost Generation woman now still alive is Nabi Tajima,Nabi Tajima born in 1899, the year of the first Hague Convention. I send her my respect and love over the Pacific from California to Japan. I can hardly imagine what memories she must hold in her heart and mind. She and Celino are the last known people in the world born in the 1800s. Here's to the wisdom and beauty of Nabi Tajima, here's to the amazing Lost Generation.

(c) 2017 all right reserved - writing by Chloe Koffas - all photos taken 1923 or before: fair use, other historic photos - public domain, newer photos by Chloe: Downtown San Francisco, Rockaway Beach, Oregon, Downtown Boise  


Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe (c) 1991
(All other sources are linked to within the piece) 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Purple Dusk (Finding the Lost Generation: A One Year Journey)

Whenever I find myself in crisis-filled life situations, I have this reoccurring dream that takes place in the front doorway of a couple in their 80's. It is becoming stormy outside as a heavy, purple dusk falls quickly. They want to give me a meal on their red and white checkered tablecloth and a place to sleep upstairs, but because of time and human limits they cannot. Tired from their own long journey and out of resources, they send me on my way into the night. They are sorrowful, even regretful, because they know my journey will be as excruciating as theirs was. I am left alone to face my own path, unlit, and full of jagged stones. After decades of this reoccurring dream, I finally recognized these people as my maternal great-grandparents and I recognized the door on the house in a photo.

Memories of that door, and house, and town found me again when I was in high school, in a different decade and 1,200 miles away. In one of my art classes there was a book on photo-realism that sparked something strangely familiar in my heart. The artist, Richard Estes, used Kewanee, Illinois -- the small town of my maternal
great-grandparents -- as the subject of some of his paintings. His photo-like images reflected the little downtown restaurants I had walked by and peeked into on warm summer evenings as the smells of grilled steak and fried potatoes wafted by, and the shops I had gazed into on cold winter afternoons, looking at furred coats, tinseled-trees and wind-up music boxes when I was very small. It's strange the way life leaves you little clues, little doorways, to find your way on the path, so that the unfound doors of your life become found.

Even as a very small child, I knew that my time at my great grandparents' Kewanee home was very limited. I knew to be fully present in that moment when I was playing with my toys upstairs, looking through the window, when a soft, late afternoon wind blew the sheets on the clothesline like ship sails, and rays of sun came streaming like dripping honey onto a peaceful farmland-earth, the smell of sweet green grass in their summer backyard, where a million leaves cast a million shadows on the warm, solemn ground. I looked out the window and told myself, "never forget this moment."

Of memories of my paternal Lost Generation grandfather - the clearest one is of him holding me in his mid-century kitchen when I was very small. The last time I remember his wife - my great grandmother - was around Christmas when I was in college, and she asked everyone in the family to stand in a circle and sing Amazing Grace. I got choked up as we did because I could sense that it was the end of something. And it was.

All of my memories of all of my great grandparents' homes from the Midwest to the Southwest take place in the middle of a humid, scorching summer or during a torrential snowstorm. And in my Illinois memories, I always fell asleep to the sound of trains. Sometimes in this life we can sense when the end of the line is coming, sometimes, we cannot. Sometimes we idealize people because we only knew them for a brief time, and then we hear stories that give us a completely different, even saddening perspective of who that person was. It can be hard to know a person, maybe that's why it is easier to know a generation instead. We have more in common with our great grandparents than we do with other generations in our families. As the cycles of history go, we have lived through similar struggles, and we have similar collective personalities. My strongest memory of my maternal great-grandparents' home will always be of their sun-drenched back yard by day, and at dusk, the light from the fireflies, rising and falling like time and the ages.

Telephone Booths (1968) Oil on canvas. Painting by Richard Estes, pioneer of
photo-realism, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (Fair Use)

As the ages go, I lived out my childhood in a previous century, and within that century is when I knew the Lost Generation. And in the paintings that looked like photographs, in the photographs that were like paintings, I will keep looking for them. In the reflections of the metal edging of phone booths and chrome on bumpers of cars, in lock and key boxes of antique stores, I will keep looking for the messages of their generation, because my generation is a lost one, too, and any sign they left behind may get us just a little further down the road, where the light of day slips away from us and the heavy, purple dusk falls too quickly.

I forget the faces of Lost Generation people I have loved until I dream, or until I open an old, analog album that smells of dust and time, and the way we humans cling to hope even in the worst of our sorrows, even when the world would have us believe we are forever lost.

"A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces."
-Thomas Wolfe

(c) 2017 Writing by Chloe Koffas

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Of Flappers and Fitzgeralds - Finding the Lost Generation: A One Year Journey

In the opening lines of her book, Save Me the Waltz, Zelda Fitzgerald mentions the cycles of generations - I wonder if she sensed that four generations after her own, there would be what is considered another 'lost generation'. She was a good writer, profoundly insightful from having lived a full life, and many of her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald's most well-known words actually originated from her.   

Many of the Lost Generation tried to recover from WWI. Those that had survived the war had seen too much - many turned to alcohol or whatever would distract them from a world that made no sense. It was also an era of hedonism, though excess is often forced to an end when the times become darker - or may be exactly what causes the times to become darker. The Roaring '20s and the flappers that made that decade roar subsided after the Crash of 1929. When the Great Depression began, diamond bracelets went to pawn shops and evening gowns were hung in the back of closets.

And as it turns out, all that glitters is not gold, or even silver, it's usually all just costume jewelry.

I think the theme below sums up a lot of what we learned from the Roaring 20's written by Fitzgerald, but more likely came from his wife:

" can't have anything, you can't have anything at all. Because desire just cheats you. It's like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it - but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you've got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone."

F. Scott called Zelda the first flapper. From that subculture came images we now associate with the appeal of that era and why we love to wear Halloween costumes from that time: champagne, strands of pearls, opulent parties, live jazz, and speakeasies. Art deco, city lights, and sky scrapers emerged as symbols of the wealth. While there has been a fascination with the 1920's in the century since, what I'm more interested in is what was left when the party was over. Anyone can get by when times are good, but how humanity survives through hardship creates the most profound history of all. Looking back on the glamour and the aesthetics of the '20s is compelling, but it was the grit and the aestheticism of the 30's - of those who survived the Great Depression and took history forward - who made it so another generation, and many more, could exist.

The heart of history should be with every lost generation - with all the people who went from war, to loss, to feeling lost - with all those who have had to live through crisis after crisis. No generation wants to be forgotten. Here's to a shaft of sunlight on the story of the Lost Generation - those who lived a century ago, because their collective experience was not, and is not inconsequential. Their lives affect who we are today, their will to keep going made it possible for us to exist.

"And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

(c) 2017 writing and photography by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Finding the Lost Generation: Steinbeck Still Lives Here

When you live somewhere and leave, you leave a piece of yourself behind that never really goes away. Others have moved in and out of this house, but it is on some level, still Steinbeck's house. In his book Cannery Row, Steinbeck wrote, "It is the hour of the pearl - the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself." When Fall comes to California, it is the season of the pearl. This past weekend, a mid-September afternoon laid itself softly on the West Coast near the Santa Cruz Mountains, and leaves turned red over the crawling vines in front of Steinbeck's house in Monte Sereno, California. I stood there for a moment realizing that the dust on my feet was the same dust that was once on his own feet. John Steinbeck is one of the great writers of the Lost Generation. This is the house where he lived when he wrote Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.

It is one thing to write beautiful words, it is another to use those words for social justice. From Steinbeck's time until now, those that don't suffer need to be reminded that there are those that do. And something about the soft light in the trees and shadows on his driveway make it seem like he is peering over the fence from the other side, not only at this driveway, but at these modern times. As the cycles of history go, we are once again in an era similar to his as war creates refugees and environmental disasters leave people homeless, forcing them to live as migrant workers to survive. There are people now, today, who live identically to the characters in Steinbeck's writing - living on the road, going hungry far too often, looking desperately for work for the day, and shelter for the night.

Steinbeck felt that many trips continue long after movement in time and space has ceased. I believe, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the human soul does, too. And so does the legacy of a generation. We should try and give all that we can to those who are in the apex of crisis. And afterward, we should try to give for as long as we can to those whose lives are forever changed by a crisis....

(c) 2017 writing and photos by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved

An article that connects the struggle of the last Lost Generation to these modern times:
The Depictions of Poverty in Steinbeck's writing are timeless...

Monday, August 21, 2017

Finding the Lost Generation: The Turnings of the Universe

The last eclipse to span the U.S. from one coast to the other happened in 1918 and, once again, Generation X has another cosmic connection to the Lost Generation as we live among the same turnings of history, and the the same turnings of the universe they once did. I picture people from that generation, the same age as myself an entire century ago doing just what I did today and feeling the same awe that I did. They looked through smoked glass, and we look through solar viewers, and our generations are not so different from each other.

The world is strangely similar in many ways in 2017 to the world a century ago. The Lost Generation looked up to the sky in June of 1918 and for just a moment they were able forget a war, and for just a moment, so did we. 

A few weeks ago, after a long, hot summer day, I was looking up tiredly among the swaying palm trees as dusk gave way to the light of the stars and it occurred to me that it is possible everyone we have ever loved and lost is only just beyond, just barely beyond us, which really isn't that far away.

I felt that again today.
Pinhole box with tiny moon shaped images made by a fellow Gen Xer

I saw the eclipse from Santa Clara, CA in a parking lot while standing among a bunch of amazing people, mainly Gen Xers.

I hope that when my time is over on this little planet that the moments that my shadow blocked the light were few and far between, I hope that I was a source of light much, much more than shadow.

When an eclipse happens, when the light between shadows and the bursting sun-flares become shaped like little moons, I get this feeling like anyone I've ever loved is truly just a short reach away, that anything I ever gave up on being possible once again becomes possible.

I want to breathe in that atmosphere, I want that electricity to fill my veins so that I  have strength to keep going. I spent as much time outside today as I could so that it did not slip away from me.

Moon-shaped sun flare shows up above the sun

Of all that constantly changes, I am grateful for certain patterns of the universe, even if it means waiting a century for those patterns to emerge.

Today in America, we stood on our side of this earth, this 'pale blue dot' and watched an eclipse unfold with the eyes of immortal souls. Meanwhile the eyes of  immortal souls, of other lost generations, watched over us.

Northern California sunset after the eclipse

(c) 2017 Writing and photos by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Finding the Lost Generation: To Walk Where They Walked

One of the strangest, most mystical things I have experienced in the places I have lived, worked, or visited, is the way a space is filled with the history of the people who were there before. People sometimes talk about this when they tour some place of historical significance - especially if people once suffered there. To walk through Flanders Fields, so I have heard, is a haunting experience. No doubt, the WWI soldiers of the Lost Generation were among those who suffered the most of their time. 

Walking through old city streets, well known for the generation that once lived there, you sometimes feel the weight of their everyday hopes and fears, even if you don't know what their specific stories were. Sometimes you experience the presence of their stories like you feel humidity - you can't see the dampness, but you can definitely feel it rising off the sidewalks.

The Lost Generation was raised in a world of shadowbox signs lit with Edison bulbs and made their way in the world as adults when neon lit up behind glass window panes. Similarly, Generation X was raised in an analog world and came of age as the digital age began taking over. We are also called a 'lost' generation. We are, as generations go, their kindred spirits.

When I go walking through a neighborhood once lived in by the Lost Generation, I think of the childhoods they had, some beautiful and idyllic, some dark. I picture some of them growing up on farms in small Midwestern towns and some working in cities in factories at a far too young age.

I picture those with good childhoods visiting candy stores like this one, filling up a brown paper bag and riding their little wooden scooter home.

I picture the conversations of the Lost Generation in alleys surrounded by red brick buildings on early summer evening nights. If their generation was also nomadic generation - a 'lost'generation - then what message did they have for Generation X? Since they already lived through a similar time in history, made it to the other side, and are collectively similar to us,

that's the question I keep asking on this one-year journey as I look for the Lost Generation.

What we don't realize as we move through time, as we quietly revolve with the Earth, is that we are leaving a legacy, not just with each passing day, but with each passing hour, in our thoughts, in our intentions, in the words we speak, in the words leave unspoken. We leave a legacy by what we survive, from what we break ourselves away from, by the way we overcome.

I have a few memories of those who were very old when I was very young, though there are too many Lost Generation people in my family that I never got a chance to meet.

The same way the tall flowers in yards once leaned toward turn-of-the-century kitchens to eavesdrop on dinner table conversations, is how I am searching for the words and wisdom of the Lost Generation. Sometimes, beyond the words of T.S. Eliott, or E.E. Cummings, I wonder about those who never were able to put their thoughts down on paper, those whose lives are now just documented by a couple of photographs, some passed on stories, or a digital copy of their 1920 census information.

I remember the fireflies that would dance in the humid summer air in the yard of my great-grandparents' house in Illinois. When the day would come to an end for the Lost Generation, night would fall quietly on their houses, and stories of their lives would lean in golden light against their window panes. That light would slowly make its way to the sidewalks, to the streets, hoping to make its way into the world, wanting to be heard. 

The streets still hold that glow, that golden light, the streets still hold the story of the Lost Generation. 

(c) 2017  Writing by Chloe Koffas all rights reserved, color photos by Chloe (c) 2016, Boise, Idaho 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Finding the Lost Generation: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

A lot of  us Gen Xers, especially Second Wave Xers, have memories of our youth sprinkled with the songs of The Smashing Pumpkins in the background. I started listening to them roughly halfway through high school. I had this little red and orange patch attached to my backpack, Pumpkins posters around my room, and Siamese Dream often found its way into my CD player.

As I blog my way through a year-long journey to find the Lost Generation, (those born around 1885-1900 or soon after) I've noticed that a lot of Gen Xers, also known as a 'lost generation', have a fascination with The Gilded Age (from about the 1870s - around 1900) and the Roaring 1920's. For some, that fascination overlaps with the Victorian Age (1837-1901). This era is seen in the art of the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness album. The imagery from the "Tonight, Tonight" video is from the 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans la LuneBilly Corgan, who wrote almost all the music on the album, drew sketches of his ideas for John Craig, the artist who designed the collage images. Craig was influenced by Dadaism which began around 1915. Inspiration for many of the songs came about while Corgan was on his 1920's era piano.

While two volumes of the album - Dawn to Dusk and Twilight to Starlight - fit on a double CD,  it is actually takes up 3 on vinyl. Mellon Collie was released October 24, 1995 - my freshman year in college and became album of the year. "1979" was the band's biggest hit single ever. We are quick to turn up the volume when it's charming rhythm comes on the radio, though the melancholy side of it is the way our Gen X youth and our mortality are intertwined.

When the band went on tour for the Mellon Collie album in 1996, I was a sophomore at University of Houston. It was a balmy early December when my friend and I went to see them at The Summit. It was an amazing show and I needed a memento to take with me - my zero shirt.

1996 was a year when the yuppie values of the older generation felt like they still overshadowed us as we tried to make our way into the adult world, causing many of us to think more about what we could give the world than what we could take from it. For me, wearing this shirt was an antithetical rebellion to their narcissistic success. Boomer businessmen, some of them my relatives, would look at me when I'd wear this shirt with expressions ranging from confusion to pure disdain. Fellow Xers would see wearing this and give me an approving nod. I'd walk down the street with that School House Rock song stuck in my head, "My Hero, Zero."

I'd borrowed my friend's CD set of this album around the time of the Mellon Collie tour, and the music from that album will always hold the memories of those mid-'90s days, but I never got my own copy of the album until the 2012 reissue. One afternoon when I lived in Portland, Oregon, I took the train to Everyday Music, a small, local music store, because I knew the album would be there. Standing in line to pay, I waved the album in the air and excitedly made an announcement to the entire store that after waiting for years, I was finally buying the Mellon Collie album. Flannel-clad Gen Xers from around the store clapped for me, Gen Xers squatting down looking at bins of retro vinyl stood up and and cheered for me. Everyone in the store from other generations looked at me blankly.

I'm thankful to my fellow Xers in Houston for the approving nods during the Mellon Collie tour when seeing me walk by in this black, long sleeved shirt with Doc Martens in 90 degree heat. And thanks, fellow Xers in Portland, for cheering me on when I finally bought the album reissue over fifteen years later. Your cheers and applause brought an enormous smile to my face as I went outside the music store to tear the cellophane off this album under the misty clouds, walking toward the Willamette River....

Some have called this an 'end of an era' album, some have called it The Wall for Generation X. What I can say is that there is something significant about this album, culturally, generationally, and otherwise.

While this album is full of justifiable rage and sorrow, there are bits and pieces of hope. Referring to the song, Tonight, Tonight, in the sleeve of the 2012 reissue that I have, Corgan said "That's just one of those songs that really connects with people - the chords, the message, everything. And somehow the song continues to hold that power."

These words have held a lot of power for us as a generation, they elevated us through the '90's when a changing millennium was at our door, and when the wounds of youth were still fresh on our skin:   " can're not stuck in vain."

One of the many things this expansive album captures is the residual pain of growing up in the most anti-child phase in modern history. Billy Corgan's childhood was an excruciating one, it was full of a lot of the same abuse and agony that a lot of Gen X knew in our most impressionable years. To take a look at his online blog from several years back is to walk down a dark, familiar alley of a common Gen X childhood. Some of the most heartbreaking and most resonating words I've ever heard from a Gen Xer are contained within the song "To Forgive:"

...I sensed my loss before I even learned to talk
And I remember my birthdays
Empty party afternoons won't come back...

When I hear earlier songs of Smashing Pumpkins, I get that pulsing energy of my earlier 1990's teenage years in my veins, when I hear Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,  I feel this deep sense of loss in the lyrics of this album. My first look at those lyrics in the mid-90's was when I first just began to realize that loss was a collective loss - a generational one. Maybe the reason many of us felt a connection to Billy Corgan is that he expressed our own grief. He was as angry and tired as any of us, and yet he has still given to us words of hope, even through the most mournful of his music. And maybe we Gen Xers need that message now as much as we needed it in the 1990's:

Life can change, we're not stuck in vain. 

School House Rock: "My Hero, Zero":

(c) Images: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness 2012 reissue album liner by 
The Smashing Pumpkins/Billy Corgan, John Craig, Virgin Records. 
School House Rock (c) Bob Dorough, 1973

Writing by Chloe Koffas (c) 2017 


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Saturday, May 27, 2017

An Open Letter to U2: Their Impact on a Lost Generation

To Bono, Adam, Edge, and Larry:

Each night throughout The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, as the colored stage lights shine like sun through stained glass upon the crowd, the majority of us will be from Generation X. Taking The Joshua Tree back on tour is not only significant, it is truly epic -- specifically to a generation of Americans who grew up in a Crisis Era. From the days you were a garage band, Generation X has watched society fall apart -- from corporate greed to recession, from scandals to toxic meltdowns, from riots to war -- it has all been part of continued Crisis for us.

A few years ago, I visited the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California -- a testament to the suffering of Gen X owing to the turbulent events of his presidency that spanned our formative years. It was a painful walk through a wasteland of our youth. Within this building were images reminding me of living my childhood under the threat of nuclear annihilation, an exhibit reminding me that as a five-year-old, I had to try to understand what the term "assassination attempt" meant, and a picture with a few poetic words reminding me that America had hand picked seven heroes to send into space for its children to love, and then let us watch them perish on live TV. It was Mourning in America in our youth and, strangely, it feels a whole lot like that now. In recent years, whenever I hear Mothers of the Disappeared, I think about how all those children who disappeared in the 1980's were Generation X.

If Reagan was the grandfather we didn't quite understand, but tried to love because our family told us we should, Trump is the stepfather we hoped would never unpack his bags in our house. Reagan was inaugurated when many of us Gen Xers were still too young to vote, and most Gen Xers I hang out with voted for anyone but Trump. You understand we are dealing with resurgent issues our generation first confronted in the 1980's. You already know that in some ways, it feels that our society has taken a step backwards.

On this tour, as your fervent voice fills the stadiums and the ethereally pure sound of the Edge's guitar sends lightening through our cells, for many Gen Xers, The Joshua Tree is still playing in the background of our lives. As you know, some say Still Haven't Found is the anthem of our generation. For a lot of us, you have been our favorite band for as long as anyone can have one. The rifts of Adam's bass are forever etched into our consciousness. The rhythms of Larry's drums formed a musical foundation during our most impressionable years. Thank you for creating the soundtrack of a generation.

If we were raised with a weak moral compass, your music helped us calibrate it. You opened our eyes to those around the world who have suffered even more than we have. If we were taught to value 80's materialism, you opened our eyes to famine and suffering around the world. In a decade when it was tempting to be consumed with fashion and image, you shifted our thoughts to the pain of The Troubles in Ireland, to the wounds from Apartheid in South Africa, to the injustice and suffering in Latin America. Even now, your messages of women's rights, extreme poverty, and ending HIV in our generation encourage us to keep raising our voices, to keep fighting the good fight. In 2013, I did a photographic pilgrimage to the Mojave Desert about The Joshua Tree album. What it got me thinking about is that we should do all we can as a generation to leave this desert a better place than we found it, to work to alleviate the suffering of others, to pass on glimpses of hope as we get glimpses of it ourselves.

The tragedy, beyond Gen X growing up in a Crisis Era, is that we have always lived in one. And all the while, as the story of our lives unfolded, your music played on the radio, on our record players, cassette players, CD players, and eventually our MP3 players and smartphones. You played your music for a 'lost' generation, a fatherless latchkey generation, a 'throwaway' generation. And that agony we felt is essentially what punk is a response to, and what your roots are, which may be why you understood us so well. If there was nothing consistent in our lives, at least your music was. Thank you for giving us the full circle of this music, especially if we missed it the first time around....

When the first Joshua tour took place, I was just a kid in New Mexico who didn't have enough allowance money for a ticket, and no one to drive me west to Tempe or south to Las Cruces. That's part of why this tour, this second chance is so incredible. And for those Xers who can't make it to any of the Joshua concerts this time because of the weight of life, perhaps you could perform spontaneously in some city as they commute home from work. As you did in  LA or here in San Francisco in 1987... maybe rock and roll can stop the traffic once again.

It took a few miracles, but I somehow found my place up front during your recent Santa Clara show. As I stood between the branches of the Joshua Tree shaped stage, the show was everything I hoped it would be. More than once my veins were filled with adrenaline. More than once my eyes were filled with tears. It was worth the 30 year wait.

Our cell phones will be lighting up arenas like ten thousand candles - a reflection of the light you brought to us. And if the last three decades have worn us down, if your performance of some song or another is not quite as strong as before, know that the rhythm and chords of our lives will lift like incense to the top rows of stadiums in these upcoming summer nights and we will sing the words for you. We know those words well, because those words have carried us, you have carried us, let us carry you.

To second chances and grace,

Chloe Koffas
San Jose, CA

(c) Writing and photos by Chloe - The Mojave Desert, 
U2's The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, CA