My Misspent Youth, an Essay by Meghan Daum

You can read Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth here.


“My misspent youth”.

The words resonated with me immediately. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m still in my twenties and hardly at a vantage point from which I can holistically evaluate my circumstances and the decisions that have brought me here. I’m finding, though, that the self-assuredness so plentiful at eighteen tends, for most people at least, to dwindle right around now.

I am no exception, and apparently, neither was Meghan Daum.

Daum wrote My Misspent Youth in 1999, when she was twenty-nine,disenchanted, and on her way out of New York. In it, she writes frankly of the price tag dangling from her youthful dream, and nineteen years later, her sentiments could not be more relevant. This is a tale that most Americans have lived or are currently living.

After graduating from Vassar College, Daum began the merry chase for her dream in Manhattan. It was a place that represented everything she aspired to as a young woman. A global center steeped in culture and intellectualism, where creatives like herself could – no, must – be in order to actualize their professional goals.

What she didn’t realize at the time (and what young person does?) was that every dream we have dreamed has been dreamed before – and someone’s already put a price on it. When we’re young, we see dreams as mere concepts, but then we grow older. We see more. We struggle. And many of us come to realize we never truly understood what we grew up envisioning, that once the logistics come into play, a dream looks very different in the real world than it had in our heads.

And so it is with my own life, as I’m sure it is in most everyone’s. As soon as I grew old enough to imagine the future, I began deciding for myself the ideals and people and things that would be in it. And of course, I never realized that these these fantasies weren’t just given to me for free. They were being sold to me.

I think most people come to experience what Daum describes in her essay. This absurd moment when you’re halfway toward reaching your goal and instead of congratulations, you’re given a bill.

I like how Daum puts it here:

These days, being a creative person in New York is, in many cases, contingent upon inheriting the means to do it.

Except it seems to me that New York is no longer unique in this.

In a way, it’s hilarious, as this revelation would be particularly soul crushing to anyone who thrives on creative work.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. As bleak as her financial situation must have been, Daum ends her piece on a rather positive sentiment, one that I’m inclined to agree with. Yes, people will always find ways to profit on the dreams of others. Yes, dreams are never as simple as they are when first conceptualized. But as we grow and learn, we sometimes find ways to get around these realities.

And who better to find them then creatives?

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A Hanging, an Essay by George Orwell

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working–bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned–reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one world less.

George Orwell wrote A Hanging in 1931. You can find it here, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.

Wow.

It’s not necessarily the quality of the writing – though it is superb – that I marvel it. Rather, it’s the sheer emotional confusion Orwell’s essay has left me in. More than I ever have with any other essay, I truly feel as if I had walked alongside Orwell through his experience.

Let’s start with some context. The essay retells one morning during Orwell’s service in the British Imperial Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927. At the time, Burma was a province in Britain’s Indian Empire. Burma gained its independence in 1948, and today, the sovereign state also goes by the name of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

Orwell’s essay tells the story of a man in the last moments of his life. The man is a prisoner – for what, Orwell never says. We know neither his name nor his history. All we know is that he had been imprisoned, until this particular morning when he is walked down to the gallows, where a bag is placed over his head and he is hanged.

From the beginning, there is a stark contrast between the tension Orwell feels and his companions’ blatant sense of dehumanizing urgency. It’s clear from Orwell’s description of the man that cared enough to humanize him:

He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the moustache of a comic man on the films.

Compare that to the words of the jail’s superintendent:

“Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.”

This contrast creates a heavy feeling of conflict within the reader, and it emulates, it seems to me, the conflict Orwell felt at the time. This feeling is amplified when, along the way, the procession is halted by the joyful antics of a dog let loose. The dog even jumps up and tries to lick the prisoner in the face. Here, glee and dread intermingle, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least.

Orwell manages to restrain the dog, and they continue until the man makes it to the gallows and a rope is noosed around his neck. The man begins to cry out in a chant of sorts:

“Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”

The chant goes on for what feels like forever, and as a reader, I felt just as uncomfortable as Orwell writes he and the surrounding crowd did.

And then the floor drops from beneath the man’s feet. He dies, as we knew he would from the start. And as soon as he’s confirmed dead, Orwell and his companions are hit with this palpable sense of relief and, weirdly enough, joy. The strangest part of it all is that I felt it too. Orwell notes the absurdity of it all, of the jolliness in the air and the laughter that follows, and he never makes an attempt to explain it.

I won’t either. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.