WHAT’S TRENDY and current and cool? What’s everyone watching and doing and talking and thinking and listening to right now. Do you know, and do you care?
I gather that Justin Bieber has become the second person to get fifty million followers on Twitter. The social media are a good illustration of something I want to discuss with you today. I call it the Big Boxers versus the Mom and Pops. Most of us are in one camp or the other, and although we may find ourselves among the opposite camp from time to time, we’re more comfortable with our own. This conversation is about finding our own.
Justin Bieber is in the Big Box Store. The thing about the Big Box Store is that it’s everywhere. You’ll never say, “What is the Big Box Store, and where is it?” You don’t have the luxury of not knowing this: the Big Box people spend a lot of thought and time and money making certain you know. The goal of the Big Box Store is to have a presence on every corner. The Big Box Store shouts HERE I AM, PAY ATTENTION.
I’d say at least 80% of the people out there are Big Boxers, if not more. Big Boxers are happy to be told what’s new, interesting and worthy of their money and time. It’s efficient and easy, and it works. I mention social media because Twitter and Facebook are designed for followers and followings. This is a thoroughly Big Box idea. Think of the store as a huge omnipresent place full of only the things that everybody, or as near to everybody as possible, wants. Medieval French Romances and anthologies of ancient Roman lyrical poetry are definitely not going to be in there. The principle is: unless everybody wants it, nobody is going to get it.
Then there are the Mom and Pops. They’re relatively few in number, no more than a few in every hundred, and probably less. They have what the world considers to be odd-ball passions, like old black and white foreign movies, contrapuntal music, good bad novels, and dead languages. They tend to be into a wide range of interests that on the surface have no relation to one another, and they know a lot of useless and obscure facts about things like the Hasmonean Dynasty and the layout of cities they’ve never visited – places they have been only in their imagination, like Bucharest and Bishkek and Bruges. They didn’t discover any of their interests in the mainstream commercial media, and the media will never promote them. Mom and Pops are impelled by an inner curiosity, and they take it as a given that only self-directed effort is going to help them find the Mom and Pop Shops and the other Mom and Pop people.
You might conclude that what I’m describing is the cool kids versus the nerds. That’s a superficial view – it’s not untrue, so much as it is incomplete and simplistic. As I’ve suggested, the main difference between the camps is that one is self-directed and the other is other-directed. Big Boxers see everyone else doing something, so they do it too, because it looks genuinely fun. Soon it’s a meme, inescapably emblazoned on every magazine cover and splash page and YouTube ad. Whatever the Big Boxers take up next, you can be certain it will be a T-shirt and a dance craze and a Simpson’s trope and a campaign slogan and a monologue punchline and a Google Hot Trend and an anthem.
The Mom and Pops will mostly ignore the trends, unless they somehow fit into the self-directed narrative of their passions. Authenticity is their guiding principle, so Mom and Pops tend not to feel the pull of a social trend, which is above all else an affectation – an outward show of solidarity, not only with the crowd but with the machinery of conformism itself. Because they are creating their own story from their own inner resources, Mom and Pops stand apart from the crowd, not out of spite but out of respect for authenticity. They’re loners, until they’ve found their own. And that takes some dedicated work.
Only it’s not really work, it’s a love labor that is also a compulsion and a human necessity. Everyone, after all, is trying to find her own. For the Big Boxers it’s easy (or at least seems so) because there are so many of them in the world and it’s their human nature to form a society. They are called by various names – conventional, normal, outgoing, cool, average Joes and Janes. The Mom and Pops, for reasons that are likely a combination of hereditary inheritance and upbringing, feel a need to explore the corners of the world and to learn as much as they can about as much as they can. They have a secret fear of overlooking or missing out on something amazing. They know they’ll die before they’ve even begun to mine the richest treasures of the world, and so they are in a race against human limitations. The Big Boxers and their noise are a distraction and a nuisance.
And yet when they’re young, the Mom and Pops envy the Big Boxers. It all looks so effortless for them. Their interests are laid out before them. Their ideas and beliefs and music and careers arrive on a platter for easy consumption. They always seem to “fit,” and they instinctively follow the rules. Their teachers praise them, and their guidance counsellors say they’ll do fine in the world, because the world needs people who know how to do as their told. Big Boxers make employers, social engineers and marketers happy. Mom and Pops think the rules are irrational and ridiculous, and they struggle against them. They have a hard time fitting in, and a harder time following along. But then they get a bit older and they come to understand something profound: because they are the authors of their world, their world is limitless, unbounded, infinite.
So they go on grand and unscripted and insane adventures. They throw away the map and the brochure and the rule book and the comfort of knowing someone will show them the way. They follow their gut and their principles and their passions. They have no idea where the Mom and Pop shop is, so they go looking. Most definitely it will not be on the corner. There will be no road sign, no well-trod footpaths. Their shop may not even exist. Chances are good they’ll have to build it themselves, which is both the worst and best thing about being who they are. When they find their own, the relationships that result are strong and rich and deep, founded on a mutual awareness of how improbable it all is – of how much the world has been arranged for contrary purposes, and to other ends which offer absolutely nothing to the Mom and Pop soul, but stagnation and death.