santa barbara

Six months later; or, on being young

It’s been six months since I left the East Coast for sunny southern California.

This evening I celebrated a childhood friend’s birthday with a picnic potluck in the public Santa Barbara rose garden. The roses, my namesake flower, were blooming in a big way. Behind us, the arcaded hall and facade of the old Mission, which dates back to 1820, glowed a buttery gold. My Catholic middle school held services there. As 8th graders in blue graduation robes, we posed for pictures out front after the Baccalaureate ceremony.

But there were no blue robes tonight. The sun set; the full moon rose; the candles were lit; and I met some of my generation’s version of hippies as we sprawled on picnic blankets in the gathering dew. They were creative and eclectic young people bedecked in unusual jewelry, flowing with talk of reiki healing and energy systems and the challenge of finding your way. Laugh all you want, but I love it.

That’s because I can relate to the challenge of finding your way. It’s been my primary life focus for the past half year. It’s driven me to seek solace and self-realization in endless yoga classes (and endless downward facing dogs); in long runs on the trails that crisscross my neighborhood’s citrus orchards and oak groves; in tall stacks of critically acclaimed novels; in hours spent mindlessly clicking through the wormhole of the Internet, jumping from food blogs to news sites to daunting job listings. It’s a challenge that has taught me the importance of talking things out with friends and family, and taking the time to ask for advice. It’s also taught me the importance of figuring things out for my self, and not letting the lives and opinions of others outweigh my own intuitions.

And the thing is, I’m pretty different in background and schooling from the alternative young people I hung out with tonight. But we all have this in common: We all worry about our futures. We all don’t know what America will look like for us anymore. We are open to so many different kinds of dreams.

Halfway through the night, in a lull in the conversation, my friend sidled up to me and asked: “What inspires you lately, Rais?” I was momentarily flustered. What inspires me? What a question! Who even asks that!

But it’s a good question. What does inspire each of us? Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to that on a daily basis?

After a minute of floundering for ideas, I started telling my friend about this NYT story on youth unemployment in Europe. The story is great, but it’s this multimedia feature that I found incredibly powerful, and that’s been haunting me ever since I read it. The Times introduces us to a slew of young people from southern and eastern Europe, all highly educated, all highly relatable, all trying hard to find their way. These were the kids I’d be friends with, had I been born in Milan or Dubrovnik. These are the young adults who I would have been. And they’re struggling: they see no future in their home countries; they see no future in the new ones they’ve adopted—for the time being—for the purpose of subsistence employment. They are a generation confused, depressed, uncertain of how to envision a long-term when the short-term is hard enough.

Laura, an Italian with two masters degrees, says:

“In general, the situation is quite depressing because young people don’t look at the future with hope. They see only a big black hole, and that’s it. It’s very scary. Sometimes I think it’s like the beginning of the last century, when people were forced to go to America because there was literally nothing here.”

Their quotes and stories haunt me, and, yes, inspire me. To do what? I don’t know. Maybe just to recognize the fairly universal experience of being a young person, of trying to figure out how to plan for a future you can’t fully envision. Of trying to decide what you want for yourself—and how you want to go about getting it. But unlike Laura, I am already in America; I am steeped in the privileges of health, family, citizenship, elite education—and rational hope. In this season of thanksgiving, cheesy as it is, their stories inspire me to appreciate my relative luck. American Millennials like me, despite a grim job market and grimmer economic prospects, are still fairly swimming in luck.

I’ve been lucky, over the past 6 months, to meet and interact with a motley collection of young people from outside of my college world—surf instructors, yoga addicts, artists, tutors, chefs, young professionals, students, waiters, organic farmers, tour guides—and it never ceases to amaze me how much we’re all the same: swaggering our way towards something, but (some secretly, others less so) second-guessing our decisions. It also amazes me how little it matters where we came from. College, with all of its pressures and concerns, seems pretty far away from where I sit.

I’m not sitting here for much longer, though. In fact, by next weekend, I’ll be in deep in the midst of college in all its Game weekend glory. I’ll be looking seriously at my future and career, and even considering making a more permanent life on that other, colder coast—or at least another, probably colder, city.

On one hand, I can’t wait.

On the other, I don’t think a 22-year-old (or anyone!) can ever be ready to plan for the future.

You just have to jump.

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On teenagers (& the field of cultural agency)

The other day I went to get a smoothie at a popular downtown smoothie bar in Santa Barbara. I (stupidly) went during lunchtime on a weekday. School around here has just started, and the place was packed with teenagers from the nearby high school.

Five years ago I would have thought that these kids—long-legged super-tan girls in their tiny cut-off shorts and Converse, guys in their skinny jeans and tanks and sun-bleached hair—were totally cool. They would have intimidated me, even as I was one of them (minus the long legs; I’ve always been short).

They still intimidate me.

What is it about adolescence that remains mysterious and foreign, even once we’ve gone through it? I knew I was like them once; I wore my eyeliner like that, talked in those shrill tones, clustered just as they did in a giggling group of five, each girl so careful of the way she stood. What changed about me? When, exactly, did I grow up? And why do teenagers now seem like an impenetrable and opaque species, their motives and thoughts distinct from anything I can now imagine, yet everything they do so clearly dictated by a group dynamic, each one of them hardly distinguishable from the rest? More importantly, would I have ever actually worn shorts that tiny at their age?

These are questions for the ages. I often wonder if I had been born at a different time how different I, too, would be—how much place and technology and fashion and cultural assimilation play into my personality, and how much of it is something I developed for myself. Or maybe everything we call “Self” is a reaction to the outside force of culture; nothing, after all, can be created in a void. I don’t know. I don’t feel like delving into the nature-nurture debate today.

Instead I was looking for the easy way out: a good quote to illustrate and theorize my thoughts. So I flipped open my boy Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production and landed by chance on this gem:

“It would be futile to search for the ultimate foundation of this ‘fundamental norm’ [‘cultural legitimacy’] within the field itself, since it resides in structures governed by powers other than the culturally legitimate; consequently, the functions objectively assigned to each category of producer and its products by its position in the field are always duplicated by the external functions objectively fulfilled through the accomplishment of its internal functions.”

Lost? That’s fine. Breaking it down, we have “teenagers these days” = the “fundamental norm” that creates “cultural legitimacy” within the field of adolescence —in other words, they are the producers and, simultaneously, the product of the field that they are positioned to act within, their functions both limited and dictated by their very identity as teenagers. (That is, they accomplish the “internal function” of “being teenagers” by fulfilling the “external function” of “looking like teenagers.”)

That was fun!

No, really, it explains a lot. The opacity of adolescents is a cultural identity production/performance—a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. Teenagers seem weird to those of us who are no longer teens because we are, well, no longer teens. We no longer live and act in their field of cultural production. Comparing myself to the girls in the smoothie shop isn’t comparing apples to apples, or even apples to oranges. It’s apples to, I don’t know, stuffed animals. Different fields, different categories, different purposes, different everything. And difference, we know, is scary. That’s what’s so intimidating.

The lesson being: we move ceaselessly through invisible but all-powerful fields of cultural constructs as we age, changing and growing as we move from one to the next, shedding selves and taking up new ones to fit the space we enter into. Sometimes we fit comfortably; sometimes it’s a squeeze. Either way, it’s not always under our control. (At least not until we get older, have access to a broader variety of fields, and can choose where we want to situate ourselves. Teenagers in small towns don’t generally have that luxury.)

Not that I’m excusing the teenagers for anything. I will never tolerate up-talking.