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Hanging With Mr. Cooper

I was on Tybee Island earlier this week, sitting in my usual spot on the 17th street crosswalk just after dawn, when a young man carrying an ocean going kayak trudged out of the surf and started making his way across the beach. I said “good morning.” But his reply had an odd amount of exuberance in it for seven a.m., so we went back and forth, trading small talk, until he laid his kayak down along the bench opposite the one I was sitting on and sat down across from me. Little did I know that we would still be there almost half an hour later.

As it turns out, the young man’s name was Matthew Cooper. He is from Illinois. He will be graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design this weekend with a degree in industrial design. These are the kinds of things you normally discover in a brief conversation with a stranger. I learned a lot more than that, though. Our conversation started with speculation on why the dolphins no longer came to feed near the beach and meandered into a discussion of the British Petroleum oil spill. It wasn’t until we got to talking about Haiti after the earthquake that I realized just how much the world depends on the vitality and enthusiasm of youth to truly move civilization forward.

When Matthew told me about his contribution to the effort to rebuild Haiti—a compost toilet he had designed utilizing a 55 gallon drum as its main structural element—he had me going. I peppered him with questions, but he was unfazed, projecting a certain sense of knowingness without crossing the line that separates the buoyancy of inner spirit from arrogance. I was particularly struck by his evocative use of imagery in his language when he began to describe, an initiative designers and humanitarians are using “to create, collaborate, and utilize ideas to better the paradigm of Haiti”, according to their website.

“This is how an artist talks,” I said to myself as I listened to him, contrasting his descriptive patter with the succinct and often tartly efficient exchanges most of the rest of us endure during a day at the office. 

I was actually a little envious.

One of the good things that seems to have come out of this world wide recessionary period is a realignment of values among our nation’s youth that has placed greater importance on how they see themselves in relation to society, and how they feel about other people in general. John Zogby, who is president and chief executive officer of the marketing and research firm Zogby International and has been conducting polls for more than 20 years, says college administrators should keep in mind the priorities of “America’s first global citizens”—those now 18 to 30 years old. Fifty-six percent of people in that age group, he says, have passports and have traveled abroad: “They are as likely to say they are citizens of the planet Earth as they are to say they are citizens of the United States.”

To the Matt Coopers of the world, those twentysomething youths whom marketers want to turn into a demographic, a cohort to be sliced, diced and dissected so they figure out how better to sell something to you, I say defy them. I say rebuke their efforts to turn you into a human consumption machine.

There are hundreds of overused metaphors that get pulled out of storage during graduation season—“soar like an eagle” or “blow like the wind” or “the sky’s the limit”—and while all of them are vaguely appropriate, it is in a sort of “one size fits all” kind of way.

To the Matt Cooper’s of the world, whether they are sculptors or painters or poets or singers or photographers or designers or just plain old visionaries with no particular discipline they have mastered yet, I say to you, “right now is happening right now.”

I think Matthew gets it. When I asked him what he was going to do after graduation, he didn’t shake his head from side to side, or shrug his shoulders, or grin sheepishly and tell me the name of a worldwide brand name corporation where he was going to be working. He had a laundry list of options, from living and working for Unaka Environmental or a similar type of community in Asheville, NC, to spending some time working for Pablo Eduardo doing bronze casting work, with the intention of shoehorning as much whitewater kayaking and surf kayaking as possible in along the way.

What Matthew doesn’t know is that for me, a middle-aged man, who is at the cusp of so many crossroads in his life these days, this episode of“hanging with Mr. Cooper” was like going back in a time machine, back to when the world seemed to offer so much promise and possibility it literally boggled my young mind. The zestful sound of this young man’s voice stayed with me that day long after he was gone.

Hanging with this up—and—coming Mr. Cooper made my day.


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