“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
A few years ago, upon reciting these lines from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” I tried to impress my younger son by telling him Gray’s poem was so popular during the French and Indian War that British General James Wolfe reportedly said he saw more glory in creating such lyrics than even in winning the critical battle for Quebec.
The boy, maybe 10 at the time, nodded his head. “I know exactly what he means,” he said in hushed tones. “I feel the same way about the words to ‘Mm Bop.’ “
For those of you who either don’t know or have blissfully short memories, there were not many words to the U.S. pop hit, “Mm Bop.” Mostly just mms and bops. Once again, I had tripped on that eternal schism between parent and child, the generation gap.
My Japanese wife feels this gap too. Yet, her gap and my gap are not quite the same. Though shorn from the same two children, our gaps fall from different cultural backgrounds. In short, we are a multi-gap family.
“Hey, Mom?” the same son calls to my wife. He lies on the floor watching TV, his bottom half stuck under the kotatsu and his top half munching Doritos — a living portrait of the bicultural child.
“Who’s this coot ruining the Ricky Martin song?”
“Coot!” My wife steams — after I explain the meaning. “Why, that’s Hiromi Go! He’s not old! And he probably had a dozen hits before . . .” She pauses while our son repeats the name.
“. . . Ricky Nantoka was even born!”
There comes another pause as the boy licks crumbs from his fingers. “Whatever,” he proclaims with adolescent insight. “He still stinks.”
Later the other son shuffles to me for help with a homework assignment. He can barely stand it for he knows how much I love to babble about history and literature. His topic: The American Civil War.
I rub my hands with delight. “OK! What do you want to talk about? Lincoln? Lee and his generals? Gettysburg?”
He taps the table with impatience. “No, just tell me what battles you were in. And, if you have any bayonet scars, can I take Polaroids to school?”
He is only half facetious — the proud product of an MTV generation that has always known VCRs and CD players, but has no memory of any events before 1990. It’s a generation with whom those twin needles of forefather spite, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” and “People who choose not to read are just as uneducated as those who can’t,” prick no reaction whatsoever. If an event is not promoted on video or ballyhooed on disc, then it struggles for temporal reference, often condensing into one mysterious hunk of unlayered existence, commonly known as “The Past.”
The spark behind most generational fire is that one side values that past too much, while the other has trouble focusing beyond the bullet-paced present.
“Hey!” the boy shrieks, the subject once again turned to music. “Who’s this rippin’ off ‘American Woman!?’ “
I spin from my stereo with the quadraphonic sound. “This is The Guess Who!” I screech back. “The real McCoy, not the current copy-cats! It’s a Vietnam War tune, packed with social innuendo that . . .”
“Oh, please!” He clamps his hands over both ears. “I don’t want to hear about Lincoln anymore! Or ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ or any of it! Just put on the good version, OK?”
A child to the right of them, a child to the left of them, into the valley of stress stride the two parents.
Yet occasionally there rise plateaus within our individual gaps, where one of us can share with the children while the other cannot.
For my wife one such plateau is food. Whenever she wants to unite with her sons, all she need do is serve some Japanese goodies. Suddenly the boys are at her side, wiping drool on their sleeves. Not only are they willing to listen, they are willing to do anything she says. Rarely does Dad feel so left out as when watching the rest of the clan gorge themselves on something he himself would never consider a delicacy, like, say, buttered clams.
My own plateau perhaps comes in discussing film, especially “Star Wars,” a video-logged slice of culture my wife can never comprehend.
“I don’t get it,” she fumes. “May the fourth be with you!? What does that mean? And why not May the fifth? That’s Children’s Day. Wouldn’t that be nicer?”
Children’s Day . . . they say it comes but once a year, but that’s only for people who don’t have kids. For the rest of us, everyday is Children’s Day.
Unlike blushing flowers, most kids don’t share their sweetness in the desert. Instead, they tend to share it in your face. Joys and sorrows, pouts and panics — children stake a claim to each and every hour and at the same time make all parents, international or not, look forward to that glorious moment when every gap shall be leveled.
That is, when the kids one day have kids of their own.
“Tell me, how did you and mom deal with this generation thing?” maybe one of our boys will someday ask.
I’m already practicing my ribbing response. Two tiny words, a simple reminder from the shadows of the well-shaped past to the glare of the formless future: