On Coming of Age in a Tertiary Economy and The Tyranny of Bespoke (or How to Clean a Stove Top)

By Travis M. Andrews and Kaylee Park Hammonds

A Conversation

Travis M. Andrews: So, Kaylee, last night we were discussing the invention of the American teenager in a post-World War II economy (we’re cool). As we all know, those teenage years have slipped into this extended adolescence that publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic love to discuss in conjunction with the quarter-life crisis and what kind of peanut butter sandwiches Millennials are posting to Instagram these days. Much as I’m joking here, though, we both kind of realized we’ve had a few moments that would make our Baby Boomer ancestors roll their eyes with frustration while we feel like kings of the world.

A prime example: My tub was clogged the other day (sidenote: did you know tubs get clogged?) from a buildup of soap, apparently. I blasted Sinatra’s “My Way” after I plunged it and had a working tub again. Anyhow, we’re both young(ish?) adults, and I think both of us have these sorts of “victories” on a regular basis. Do any come to mind for you?

 

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One of the authors, basically. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Kaylee Park Hammonds: Some days, I’m pretty damn impressed that I’ve managed to dress myself. The day after I got my master’s degree I wandered around all day in a celebratory mood, only to realize twelve hours later that my underwear was on backwards and my shirt was inside out. Naturally, there was a Facebook post about it, because, you know, pics or it didn’t happen–but that’s another axe to grind. Given that, some days putting on (clean, unwrinkled) pants feels like a victory.

 

TMA: I’m not even going to ask about what pics you posted after realizing your underwear was on backwards. But I get what you’re saying about clothing. I’ve reached a point where I don matching socks, and I’m proud of myself every day. For a while there, I was mixing and matching sock patterns and calling it a “style.” Which, I guess it was a style, but for some reason Esquire wasn’t knocking down my door for an interview. It probably didn’t help that most of those socks were my girlfriend’s.

Clothing aside, though, two particular things make me feel like an adult: When I correctly cook something with medium difficulty, and when I fix something mechanical. Part of this probably derives from studying liberal arts in college while also being on the crew team with a bunch of mechanical engineers. To this day, I have friends that can literally build a steam engine, while I’m proud to know that my usage of “literally” there isn’t a malapropism. Meanwhile, I’m still struggling to figure out how to clean my stove-top heating coils.

 

KH: Sartorial accomplishments aside, I’d like to note here that on a recent evening, all of the lights in my car’s dashboard went out. Naturally, this makes driving at night somewhat perilous and required immediate attention. So I grabbed the owner’s manual out of the glove compartment and studied it until I figured out was wrong (nothing was wrong, I’d just accidentally dimmed them all the way with my clumsy fat hands), and RESOLVED THE ISSUE. LIKE AN ADULT. ‘Course I’d like to say I only knew the owner’s manual was there because my father held it up to me and said, “look, I’m putting the owner’s manual here.” Also, it was full of pictures.

In terms of cooking … that’s the only adult thing I can do. But that begs the questions, is it adult to spend a disproportionate amount of your income on posh cooking equipment, making meals that aren’t meals until, of course, I’ve Instagrammed them?

And even within the food forum: Sure, I can make a pastry in my sleep and cure salmon and make fresh pasta, but if you asked me to cook for a family of four and gave me a budget, I’d be lost. I know how to “cook” but I have no idea how to cook.

 

 

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The other author, basically. Photo courtesy Lain Buchanan/Flickr.

TMA: Beyond impressed at your usage of the owner’s manual, even if it does bear resemblance to a Waffle House menu. I’m terrified to lose the instructions to my rice cooker—which include the water-to-dry-rice proportions—because the day I do is the day I no longer eat rice.

 

All of this is making us both sound incredibly incompetent, but we’re not. We’re both relatively good at our jobs and can handle electronics like nobody’s business. I mean, look at the site we’re posting this on. So, where is the disconnect between the generation before us and, you know, us?

Part of it seems to be the ease of having these things done for us. I’ve lived in apartments since I left the dorm room almost ten years ago. The AC breaks, the fix is free. The tub incident could have been taken care of by maintenance, but I’d been watching an old WWII movie and my great-grandfather was on my mind. No way did he ever call someone to fix his bathroom.

But there seems to be something more here, too. You’d think with easy access to information, we’d be able to do all these things, but that easy access has two aspects: 1) A distrust in most of what I read online. 2) Ease in finding someone else to do it.

In the zombie apocalypse, those not addicted to the Internet live, I think.

 

KH: These are the woes of coming of age in a tertiary economy, Travis. The thing that bothers me isn’t my inability to dress myself or you struggling to clean your stove, it’s that I’m worried everyone else knows how to do this stuff. But maybe they don’t, maybe they just don’t talk about it.

But no, to be serious (and frank) for a moment, your reference to your great-grandfather strikes me, because we’re not so much losing our institutional memory as we are jettisoning it off for whatever’s new and next. The thing I think about all the time is (and I’m glad you brought up the zombie apocalypse), if the dystopian novels and movies that we love become true, and only a few of us are left … who is going to re-invent stuff like internal combustion engines and phones and, like, thermometers? They did away with shop class and home ec to teach us how to use computers—and we poured our minds and memories into that, away from physical things. Think about it: I mean, I have zero photos but a ton of Instagram posts. No letters, lots of emails. They taught us to disconnect from things with the advent of other things (another effect of the tertiary economy).

It isn’t a cheery thought, but Travis, when the zombie apocalypse comes, we are screwed.

 

TMA: And now I’m spending my weekend concerned about a zombie apocalypse. Does that mean I’ve decided to learn some new skill, such how to create a flamethrower out of a lighter and a can of aerosol spray (thanks Arachnophobia!) or figuring out how to MacGyver a lock open with nothing more than bubblegum and scotch tape? Of course not. Instead, I’m Googling “zombies” to learn of the various film portrayals of the monsters over the years.

It’s interesting you bring up institutional memory, though I do think some of us are losing it. Perhaps intentionally, but I think much of the “Brooklyn hipster” movement is a reaction to that loss. People buying record players (guilty) and learning how to make their own Switchel and build their own fixie bicycles etcetera ad nauseam seems like a reaction to a world where manual skills are lost for more philosophical pursuits, such as writing articles showing folks with their glasses both on and off.

So maybe the real question is where these two things meet, and what it looks like when we retain that institutional memory while moving fully into a digital world. And, perhaps most importantly, why those things always seem so divorced from each other.

 

KH: Whelp, we’ve got ourselves a (admittedly annoying and somewhat trite) paradox, folks. But we backed ourselves into this corner, or maybe this conversation was going to lead here, anyway.

I agree with you re: Brooklyn hipsters and the tyranny of “bespoke,” but I’m not sure that we can retain that institutional memory while moving fully into a digital world. Perhaps that depends on your definition of “fully,” and I don’t want to get into that, because knowing the two of us, we’d be here for hours arguing over that one. I think it’s a combination or a balance or some bargain to be struck, but we’re not going to unravel it here, so I think I’m going to leave your last sentence and the paradox on the table for someone else, because, unlike you, I am fully invested in surviving the zombie apocalypse. I’m getting shooting lessons and trying to figure out how to grow my own food.

 

TMA: Sounds fair to me. Anyway, I’ve got to go clean those little coils on my stove, and that’s enough of a mystery to keep me busy for weeks.

 

KH: If you need me, I’ll be trying to figure out how to make a grocery list.

 

Travis M. Andrews is a co-founder of Or Something, an editor for Southern Living and a pop culture contributor for Mashable. Follow him on Twitter @travismandrews

Kaylee Hammonds is a Birmingham, Ala. and New York City-based writer who specializes in food, shelter, and garden writing. She holds an MA in Food Studies from NYU, which she’s pretty sure qualifies her to eat a lot of cookies. She can be reached at kaylee.hammonds@gmail.comor on Twitter at @kayleehammonds.

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