Culture

[Essay]

Boomer bust

The demise of The Great Indoors reminds us of how the Dr. Spock Generation blew it

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Photo Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh
H. Lee Barnes

In 2001 tons of rock, a scattering of rabbit brush and a few dozen yucca, some as tall as 12 feet, populated the undisturbed acreage on the southeast corner of Alta and Rampart. For those in charge of progress it was an opportunity, for me a simple pleasure to pass by. I’m fond of desert plants, thorny things whose beauty lies in their ability to survive harsh, dry weather. Soon enough progress arrived at the intersection in the form of a metal fence surrounding the vacant lot and a sign announcing the coming of The Great Indoors. “The Coming of the Great.” I searched the eastern sky for a star and the horizon for three men on camels. All that was to be seen was a high-priced development of homes owned by yuppies about to lose their view of the mountains.

To no avail I wrote a column appealing to the developer to allow citizens the privilege of salvaging the yucca. Bulldozers and graders arrived and plowed them down and sent off yucca, decades in the making, in the buckets of dump trucks. I was never on a mission to kill progress; I just wanted to save two or three plants. See, I’m not the kind to tie myself to a tree and defy a lumberjack to chop me down from a limb. And the Mojave is not Sequoia National Forest; nevertheless, a desert habitat and its life-forms are precious enough to preserve.

A year or so later The Great Indoors, minus the star and wise men, opened, and people waving credit cards flooded in. The management knew its clientele. The store had a Starbucks kiosk. Everywhere you turned you saw a latte or frappuccino in someone’s hand. As they chatted on cell phones, soccer moms and Barbie-doll women pushed carts up and down aisles. Fifty-year-old men dressed like Justin Timberlake used MasterCard to soothe the hearts of their 30-year-old trophies. Shoppers ran fingers over yards of fabric as they pondered draperies for their about-to-be-remodeled Summerlin mansion. On any given day you could spot a quarter-million dollars’ worth of plastic surgery hunting for bargain-priced ice-cream makers or gold-plated faucets. From refrigerator to bathroom fixture the merchandise was meant for the monied Baby Boomer. It was yuppie paradise—$3,600 stoves for people who ate out six days a week, 150-bottle wine coolers for those who couldn’t tell a Malbec from dessert port; California king-size beds for couples who slept in separate bedrooms; cheesy oil paintings of Paris in the rain for those who couldn’t bear the sight of a bare wall; and a 40-inch flat screen for the “bathroom.”

Now The Great Indoors has gone the way of the yucca it replaced, albeit the pace of its demise was slower. What’s ironic is that, as The Great Indoors fades into recession death, the intersection of Rampart and Alta is still under development—One Queensridge Place, a multimillion-dollar, high-rise condo tower, on one side (some units sold and occupied), and Tivoli Village, a shopping center featuring million-dollar loft homes, on the other—all this as property values spiral and plummet like a three-legged mule on skis.

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Beyond the Weekly
The Great Indoors

Despite the fact that its empty aisles were better suited for bowling, for most of 2008 The Great Indoors clung to high-end pricing. In part, it kept the doors open because contractors obligated to jobs for a handful of flush clients carried off inventory. By December the contractor work and the clinging came to an end. Sears, the parent company, took the store off life support and signed the death certificate. Pull the plug. Put up the “Nothing Held Back” sign.

I’m reminded of Guy de Maupassant’s story The Necklace, in which Mademoiselle Mathilde, given the choice of Madam Losell’s finest gems, chooses instead a necklace of paste. Her inability to distinguish between what is genuine and what is fake leads to her downfall. Fast food. Image. Glitter. Pick the downfall. Here’s what few “get” and why the demise of The Great Indoors speaks to so much about America’s current situation—inevitable given all the predictors no one seemed to see. This nation fell prey to Mathilde’s fate.

Much of what was on the shelves at The Great Indoors was paste in the first place, faux stuff with “Made in China” taped on it somewhere. If not China, Indonesia or India. A lot of glitter. For a while, the price reductions on items ranged from 10-30 percent, but eventually the scavenger hunt began in earnest, and the store was invaded by lollygagging credit-card parasites who pawed over the once-precious merchandise and wrung out last-gasp discounts from department managers.

Who’s responsible?

Some blame Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae; others, the banks or the global market. That’s because the analysts are looking at the hands on the clock of fate. I say, look at the face of the clock. If you look closely, you’ll see the face of the Baby Boomer. Yes, Dr. Spock’s generation, the generation that was rarely held accountable; the generation that embraced sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll; the generation that got naked at Woodstock; the one that protested the Vietnam War; the one that created the hippie movement that in a decade transformed into the yuppie movement (if you can call opening a wallet and thumbing through credit cards a movement); the generation reared on television, and consumption, and pleasure, and vanity and vanity and vanity; the generation of readers who drove Look, a magazine about people, off the shelves and made a success of People, a magazine not about people (unless you believe celebrities are human people); the generation that promoted the fast-food culture, the know-it-all culture, the a-pill-will-fix-everything culture; the generation enslaved to fad and pop culture; the one whose parents won a war against fascism and endured the hardships of the Great Depression.

How, you may ask, can a writer make such a sweeping indictment, especially without offering an array of studies and statistics? It’s easy. The writer is an observer and a participant and has been since that wonderfully self-centered generation emerged. Herein lies the basis for my thesis. What generation produced the current leaders in business, industry and politics, those who have held the reins of power for the past decade and a half? We need look no further than the last 16 years in the White House, the terms of Clinton, who represents his generation at its hedonistic best, and Bush, who represents the same generation at its my-way-or-the-highway best. Still, I’m a touch less cynical about them than the media who reported on their administrations. I see neither man as motivated by evil intentions. How can we blame Clinton for saying he “never had sex with that woman” or Bush for his weapons-of-mass-destruction argument for invading Iraq? After all, both were part of the generation reared on Dr. Benjamin Spock’s grand theories, children counseled and coddled, rarely punished for being wrong or irresponsible or held accountable for lying.

I can’t pin dates of birth on all the leaders of industry and finance, but the current CEOs of the big three in Detroit were born post-WWII, as were Jeff Skilling, Michael Milken and the guy who ran Home Depot into the ground and walked away tens of millions richer. Governor Rod Blagojevich, that Baby Boomer wunderkind from Illinois, took office in his late 40s and by his early 50s wore waders in his office to navigate the swamp of corruption he’d built. Boards of directors hand out bonuses to CEOs for demonstrating ineptitude, engaging in irresponsibility or practicing outright deceit. Did I mention the ends-justify-the-means generation?

But the leaders are only partially to blame. Baby Boomers, look in the mirror. What do you see? Someone figuring out how to turn a house after two years into a 50 percent profit? Or use its equity as an ATM? Someone who borrows against his home to pay cash for that BMW in the driveway, the one he really doesn’t need? Our system of politics and business encourages self-serving irresponsibility by rewarding it.

True, the Boomer generation gave us its share of accomplished, legitimate entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and inventors, but even achievements such as “Hotel California” and the wonders of the dot-com aren’t enough to overcome the vapid aspirations of those who idolize Madonna and her ilk. Now that they have plunged the country into a financial crisis that may end up as epic as the Great Depression, the Boomers can hand matters over to their offspring, who hopefully will be prove themselves the next great (well, good) generation.

Even as one of their own, Barack Obama, prepares to tackle this economic crisis, don’t be optimistic those in their early 40s will do better. They have been long misguided, ferried as they were from school to soccer games to karate lessons. The wisdom best passed on to Gen X is that there is no Great Indoors and never was. Not even the bones of a Swell Indoors will be left as a metaphor for Baby Boomer failure. Start change by ridding the language of the word “great,” discard it along with “awesome” and all words associated with the Dr. Spock syndrome. Revive the language of the generation that won WWII. Restore humble words such as “grit,” “integrity,” “diligence,” “honor,” “responsibility,” “sacrifice” and especially “accountability” to the social vocabulary. Let Boomer hyperbole vanish along with the merchandise the scavengers fled with when The Great Indoors finally closed.

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