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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

And Know They Love You

The New Generation Gap

It was the Memorial Day weekend in America. Observed in honor of those who served in the armed forces, the last weekend in May is widely considered the start of summer, though it is still weeks away. But “led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dancing beneath the brilliant canopy of spring,” you begin to anticipate summer.

Granted you can see nymphs but you don’t really see shepherds on New York’s Lower East Side nor hear the sound of bagpipes. But then we don’t write sonnets like Vivaldi; nor put them to music as concertos as Antonio did in his masterpiece, “The Four Seasons” from which the quote is taken. Regardless, it is heart warming to see young people hanging out, enjoying themselves under blue skies, starry nights and warm temperatures.

We were “cruising the hood,” my younger daughter Maya and I. She lives in and swears by the Lower East Side. My older daughter Pia says her sister never leaves her precinct if she can help it.

And so there we were, the two of us, late on a Friday afternoon, wandering the streets, stopping at bars and cafes to drink boutique beer and admire the arrondisement. We had a reservation for dinner at a wonderful restaurant, a few meters down Orchard Street where she lives. We got there a bit early and sat at the bar.

I thought to have a martini and promptly told the bartender, who was stirring the cocktail, that I preferred it “shaken not stirred.” Everyone laughed so I was tempted to introduce myself as “Bond, James Bond.” But seriously though, how do you explain to twenty-somethings that a shaken martini tastes different than the other? I let it go because our table was ready. Now there’s news that indeed there is a difference. You can Google it: just type martini, shaken, not stirred. The study clearly concludes that a martini is better shaken than stirred.

But I digress… it’s the Memorial Day weekend and I am spending it with my younger daughter at her apartment in New York’s Lower East Side. She is my shepherd through the urban meadows surrounding Delancey Street, showing me the pastures and the drinking holes. Where we stop, mostly everyone seems to know and be fond of her, including bartenders and maĆ®tres de.

Just so everyone understands, these are crucial relationships in Manhattan. I can remember one time; she managed a table for us at short notice at a choice restaurant that takes reservations days in advance because she knew the chef. She can mostly get served anywhere she wants in her neighborhood; plus they hug and kiss her. No wonder her sister calls her “Fluffy.”

We topped off the evening at a little restaurant to have dessert. She knew everyone there and the house served me bourbon so rare that even I, an aficionado, hadn’t heard of it. “Yo Dad,” she says to me over the general ruckus, “like it?” I was almost in tears…my little girl introduced me to a rare brand of my favorite drink. In the patois of the time, I could only think, “How cool is this!”

As we walked the streets through the afternoon and evening, late into the night, my thoughts wandered back to the time of my first visit to New York. I fell in love instantly: it was human and real, very different from the orderly, manicured Midwest where I went to school. It felt more like a world city, a polyglot of cultures; eons away from the smiley-face cities I lived in, with what Ernest Hemingway memorably called “wide lawns and narrow minds.”

A generation later, my little girl has established herself in what is indisputably the coolest precinct in the world’s most vibrant city. She laughs at my Midwestern experience of America. To her, the Midwest is unreal. “Dad, people actually smiled and said hello,” she told me about her recent visit to Chicago. She was struck by its “other worldly” air. “Look, Dad, some white dude in Brooks Brothers smart casual actually offered to take a picture” of her and her older sister as they walked in downtown Chicago. Yes, it was nice and all, she admitted but he did it even “without our asking?”

Just like I did years ago with yuppies, my daughter has a problem with “hipsters,” who are gentrifying her neighborhood. This is a new species of yuppies with rich parents. “They feel they are slumming it on the Lower East Side. They spend hours and lots of money trying to look as if they’d just rolled out of bed,” my daughter said by way of explanation. “They push off to their parents’ home in the Hamptons on long weekends,” a bartender told me in affirmation of her comment.

In her perspective, I saw much of my worldview. I was a hirsute hippie, who wore oxford shirts and penny loafers. While I bristled at the inequities in the world, I also worked hard at graduate school. I thought I knew America when I lived in distant India and found when I got there that there was a difference in the image and the reality. My biggest learning was that the cutting-edge thinking in America had more to do with purpose and commitment than with lifestyle.

On the other hand, my American-born daughter lives easily, mixing lifestyle with commitment and purpose. Nothing seems to faze her in any way; she is equal to situations in a way that I simply could not conceive at her age. She deals with Manhattan and its formidable ways as though she was born to live there; not just to make a living but a life. She took me to places that most people would never find and showed me things that are off the beaten track.

Wandering the streets of the Lower East Side, we popped into establishments that were so cool I felt like I was in a Woody Allen film. We chatted mostly about her neighborhood. She sounded not so much like a tourist guide but a proud resident of the coolest “hood” in Manhattan. On the other hand, she reminded me she cooks Gujarati khichri and Goan fish curry but mostly gets by on pastas and salads.

For me the walk around the block was an education. Not just about the buzzy Lower East Side but about my younger daughter. She is a full grown young woman making her way with great aplomb in the world’s most happening city. “If you can make it here,” sang Frank Sinatra, “you can make it anywhere.” And she’s making it in her job as a production assistant in a startup venture that does stuff I don’t really understand. All I know is she “hearts” it.

To see parts of yourself in your adult children is satisfying. My older daughter, who works with me in New Delhi, is organized and incisive and can get anything done. She is the family’s chief operating officer. I am learning from her to see things in the cold light of pragmatism. Over the Memorial Day weekend with the younger one, I found her to be a sophisticate, who is humble but purposive. She is the family wit, ready with a humorous insight and a caustic turn of phrase. I am learning from both my girls that the pursuit of cool is a major behavioral pattern in the 21st century.

This fundamental issue of cool is emerging as the new generation gap. While I admire my daughters’ state of being cool, I do feel a twinge of “been there, done that.” Poor dears: my generation defined the state of cool forever: Kerouac and Miles Davis, Dylan and Timothy Leary, The Beatles and Woodstock are the icons of cool. Deep in their hearts, they know that cool was invented by their parents’ generation. As such, they must know our cool is cooler than theirs.

But we never tell them why, instead, as the cult band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, sang, “just look at them sigh and know they love you.”

copyright rajiv desai 2008