Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Perfect TV Family

Those weren’t the days.

The man in a business suit pulls his car into the driveway, and before he even gets out of it his children want his attention. He doesn't tell them to go away. Instead, he listens attentively as he enters the house, where dinner is being prepared. Without changing his clothes, he rolls up his shirtsleeves and helps his wife make dinner. Before the meal is ready, he attends to several other issues about the household; he multi-tasks with ease. When not at the office he is 100% committed to helping his wife and kids. He assumes authority only to the extent that it protects his family.  He does not yell or lose patience or ask for alone time. He does not bully his way to authority, and he never tries to intimidate or guilt-bate his family by being the patriarch.

This is a summary of an episode I happened upon of the 1950s sitcom, Father Knows Best. This program is one of several from TV’s so-called Golden Age that, depending on your point of view, showed life as it used to be—and in a good way—or shows life as it never was—and in a bad way.

There’s no point pretending that these shows were about “everyone,” and possibly they were not about anyone. The families were solid middle class WASPs, with gainfully employed fathers, housewife mothers, and children without serious mental or physical issues. Minority ethnicities—even Jews or Catholics—virtually did not exist. Women accepted that men were in charge. From time to time there would be an episode in which a tomboy learned that her true happiness came from nylons and make-up and acting stupid or weak to impress a certain young man.

In real life, Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, had to fight the network to broadcast a show about white woman married to a Cuban bandleader. My Three Sons, for most of its seasons, featured a single parent, and Bachelor Father saw John Forsythe raising his orphaned niece. Recasting necessities caused Danny Thomas/Williams on Make Room for Daddy to have a second wife and a stepdaughter. This program and I Love Lucy were set in New York apartments. But for the most part these shows featured intact, white, nuclear, suburban families.

There were no money problems to speak of, Lucy Ricardo’s bad spending habits notwithstanding. No one lost a job or got divorced or had an affair. The children didn’t talk back to their parents, drink or do drugs, or have premarital sex. There were no unwed mothers. In fact, I saw another Father Knows Best in which eldest daughter Betty, a high school student, says goodnight to her date at her front door. He asks, “May I?” and she meaningfully nods her head. He kisses her once on the cheek, and then goes back to his car. Sitcom kids sometimes got into mischief or made mistakes (as youth are prone to do), but nothing caused anyone serious harm. Life lessons were things like boys standing up to bullies, or girls learning not to be selfish. Daughters had a bad habit of bursting into tears and running off to their bedrooms, but Mom or Dad could fit whatever troubled the girl with a few wise words.

There were of course serious problems both here and abroad, but politics did not enter into the TV family perfect universe. At the dinner table, no one argued about Republicans vs. Democrats, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, or much of anything else.

As the 50s gave way to the 60s, these shows ran their course. People who wax nostalgic for them may forget that these programs did not disappear by magic or a Communist plot; their ratings went down. Baby Boomers got exposed to new ideas and new conceptualizations of “reality,” and stopped watching or caring about these relatively trivial picture-perfect families. In fact, I think that breaking away from these perfect sitcom families was a rite of passage in the mid- to late 1960s. The world—not to mention one’s own family—did not match the perfection seen on the small screen. Shows that lasted to the end of the decade, such as My Three Sons, went from seeming cool to reactionary. Latecomers like The Brady Bunch wanted to be cool, but if you were cool you knew The Brady Bunch wasn’t. Only in hindsight does a show like The Brady Bunch seem campy fun.

It is not a coincidence that the most timeless of these shows, I Love Lucy, featured less than perfect characters. However loony Lucy and Ethel’s escapades were, and even if Ricky and Fred got the last word, this was a show essentially about wives not obeying their husbands. Lucy didn’t have a career, but she spent the run of the series wanting one. And she’d go to any lengths to try and make her mark. A few episodes intimate the threat of what we would now call domestic violence, though it never occurred. Still, it is worth noting that even in the so-called traditional 1950s people were ready to embrace a woman who rebelled against the limitations of what society expected of her.

The 60s has been characterized as a time of youthful nonconformity and racial unrest, but popular culture frequently lagged a few years behind. Many rock songs now considered classics did not actually top the charts when first released. And few TV shows succeeded in capturing the temper of the times. People of color were brought to the small screen ever so slowly and ever so carefully. The youth culture was captured in only the most superficial of ways, like those stick-on flowers people used to put on their cars. Marcia Brady was a far cry from Janis Joplin, though in real life some of the young actors who played these perfect children suffered addiction, depression, poverty, and even suicide.

Yet for all that was limited or fake in these older family shows, I think they need to be looked at as products of their time and place. The post-World War II suburban boom was (whatever its flaws) something new and exciting in many people’s eyes. The mere fact of living in a pristine suburb was seen as modern. It gave the Cleavers and the Nelsons a built-in dimension of cool. In fact, Ricky Nelson became a singing teen idol, and other TV kids (such as Donna Reed’s) had hit records, too. Of course, television itself was a new toy in the 1950s, so even the fact of being a TV show was in itself something special.

Additionally, I saw an interview with a former star of one of these shows that made me think twice about some of the assumptions that are made about them. According to this ex-child actor, the players and producers of these programs knew that real-life families did not achieve perfection. So these series were intended to provide good examples for people to follow.

Looked at from this perspective, the old family sitcoms had a little more going on in them than we often remember. Even just the titles sometimes seem telling. Father Knows Best was a pun, because the original saying was that mother knows best. So while it is possible to view this title (and the program thereof) as sexist cooptation, it also possible to look at it as trying to provide a positive role model for men. Robert Young (playing Jim Anderson) knew as much about his children as his wife did, and lived for no other purpose than to embrace his role as husband and father. He never cheated on his wife, and he never was unfair to his children. Atypical even at the time? Yes. But maybe the show was trying to tell men that a more caring and yes, even a bit more egalitarian world could be theirs.

Leave It to Beaver was mostly about the youngest son who gets into jams and tries to get away with doing things he wasn’t supposed to do. But kids will be kids, and, well, leave it to good ol’ Beaver to always make mischief. Don’t hit him or yell at him. Be like his father, Ward, and have an understanding talk about how he can do better next time. Likewise, despite all of her shenanigans, “I” (i.e., Ricky Ricardo) love Lucy. (Years later, the same would hold true for “everyone” loving Raymond, despite Ray Romano’s way of messing things up.)

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet gave intentional irony to the word, “adventures,” because the show never was about anything much. (Some consider it the prequel to Seinfeld.) But with the right attitude, the show seemed to say, ordinary life could be seen as funny, and worth the time and trouble.

The Donna Reed Show was about Mom and not Dad.  Contrary to legend, she never cleaned the house wearing pearls, and the show depicted how central the woman was to the family. The father was a doctor, so he was away from home quite a lot, and it was Donna Reed (a/k/a Donna Stone) who knew everything that was going on, and who provided words of wisdom to her children. Yes, she was “only” a housewife, but she was Queen of her Universe; it was her show, not his. Even if the man was technically in charge, the show implied, it’s really the woman who makes things happen.

Also, in this more innocent time, some things were accepted that in today’s world would raise eyebrows. On an episode of My Three Sons, the youngest boy must write a paper for school about his mother. So he writes about the old man who cooks and cleans for the household, saying that he is his “mom” because this is who takes care of him in a way that a mother would. It is intended to be a wholesome, heartwarming moment. When Bob Hope guest-starred on Make Room for Daddy, he and Danny Thomas end up in a cabin in the country where they sleep in the same bed, and this simply is taken for granted. There are no jokes about it, and it isn’t supposed to mean anything more.

I think where these shows went wrong was that many viewers, rather than reflect on themselves, simply felt inferior to not living up to the ideals. Reality was much harder to pull off than it appeared on TV. Other viewers mistakenly believed that these shows showed what their families were like, because the TV wouldn’t lie. Even today, some people want us to go back to a past that never was.

I certainly never received any understanding talks when I got in trouble as a kid. There was no Ward Cleaver or Jim Anderson or Donna Stone in my life, though there were a couple of Godzillas and Mommie Dearests. Maybe I wasn’t the only kid who felt this way, which maybe explains why those cheapo monsters movies of the day were what kids my age really wanted to watch.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

50 Shades of Dismay

Porn by another other name . . .

I have not read 50 Shades of Gray. This is no great moralistic stance on my part, I’m just being practical. I read the plot synopsis of the book, and some reviews and blogs about it. I visited the author’s website, and skimmed over a couple of online chapters. So I get it. I’m something of a natural speed-reader anyway.

As for the movie, I think I’ll pass on that, too. When you live as long as I have, you realize life is short, and there’s no point in sitting through two hours of something that took you ten seconds to figure out. I’ve seen hundreds of other movies and know there are only so many things that can happen. For me, a movie preview is like a Reader’s Digest condensed book. Unless the film has something else to offer—good writing, exceptional acting, a favorite star—there’s no reason for me to waste my time seeing it. I took a chance on Silver Linings Playbook, hoping against hope that every last predictable and overdone plot device would not transpire, so I learned my lesson for good. 

Pornography is defined as that which is purely sexual in content, without any redeeming social, artistic or educational value. From what I have read of 50 Shades, I would classify it pornography. This label does not automatically connote condemnation in my mind. But beneath some crafty plot devices, it seems to me to be about nothing but sex. Or more to the point, orgasms. And even more to the point, a fair amount of cunilingus, which is described with a kind of instruction manual eye for detail—and which leads to more orgasms. So does the bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism. All roads lead to Rome, so to speak. I do not see any social, artistic or educational value in any of it. It’s a high-rent version of “plumber calls on housewife to fix her pipes.” 

I will say this for 50 Shades. The excerpts I looked over technically were not as poorly written as critics told me to expect. If not great literature, the prose moves and flows, and the narrator has a definite and empathic voice. If it seems “clunky” to some readers, perhaps it is because the constant pornography comes as a never-ending jolt, a constant stumbling block. Some readers may not be used to so much porn in a “respectable” bestseller that ends with marriage and a family.

Also, in terms of what is this world coming to and so on, 50 Shades is not the first big bestseller to be considered scandalous, or for that matter pronounced less than stellar prose. Novels such a Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls sold millions of copies to the dismay of moralists—as well as literary critics—though today they read as tame stuff.  Fellow Baby Boomers may recall guilty pleasure with bestselling authors such as Harold Robbins or Irving Wallace. Even a relatively good writer like John O’Hara held a questionable place in arts and letters, the jury split as to whether his books were true literature or trash for snobs. 

There often is a problem with translating novels into film, common though the practice may be. It is hard to capture on film an author’s universe. In a book, less is often more. From what I’ve gathered, Christian Gray on the written page is a kind of blank slate onto which women can impose their own interpretations and fantasy. His opaque quality is part of his mystery and appeal. And narrator Anastasia Steele comes across as constantly in awe for all that is happening to her. She doesn’t want all of it, but then most if not all novels have a protagonist who does things that are unexpected or not sought out. 

There has been some outcry about the novel presenting a distorted image of sexual fantasy between two consenting adults. Because much of what happens to Anastasia is nothing she consents to. She is in fact socially isolated, manipulated and bullied. In so many words, it’s been argued that the story is domestic violence trying to pass itself off as romance with steamy sex. 

But as sometimes happens, the film is causing more of a stir than the novel. Reading about something can be less jarring than seeing it. On film, Anastasia and Christian must come across as believable human beings with motivation for why they do what they do. Judging by the reviews I’ve read, the film does not succeed in accomplishing this. That Christian is rich, sometimes protective of Anastasia or is good with kids does not account for much on the big screen. The audience knows what it sees; there is not the same ambiguity as on the written page. And when you’re not inside someone’s head and heart—as a reader is with a novel—even the orgasms lack gravity. In so many words, critics are saying that the film doesn’t even work as a piece of porn, and apparently is not even campy, so-bad-it’s-good fun. All that is left is the abuse, which among other things does not seem to make dramatic sense.

I have read numerous feminist criticisms of the film, and if you have not already heard there is an active boycott of the movie. People are invited to donate $50 to their local women’s shelter instead of buying two movie tickets, a couple of soft drinks and a tub of popcorn for that same fifty bucks. (Plus it’s fifty, get it?) If you are so inclined and you don’t know where your nearest women’s shelter is, you can look it up on the Internet or contact your local public library or police department. 

As a social scientist, I am aware of how abusive relationships are defined. Based on this, I have to agree that 50 Shades is about an abusive relationship. There are, though, a few things not being mentioned in the critiques I’ve read that I think also are discussion worthy. 

At the most basic level, this novel was written by a woman, and this seems to me to be not a small elephant in the room. Had a man written the same book, I’m sure many words would’ve been spent as to what sort of infantile psycho pig would write such a thing. 

Also, some 100 million women around the world responded to this book favorably. Does this mean that these women are latent or practicing sexual masochists? I would guess no. First of all, sexual fantasy, like other forms of fantasy, usually does not translate into actual behavior. Virtually anything can be eroticized. But I do think that a look into the BDSM world may tell us some other things about how some women apparently feel about themselves.

There are numerous theories about why people turn to S & M. Practitioners of this lifestyle often say that they like the security they get from the lack of uncertainty. The sex roles are clearly defined; each party knows exactly what the other wants, and the emotions that are involved. Technically, even husband/wife missionary position involves role-play of a sort, so more exotic sex games can be seen as an extension of this. Perhaps there are a lot of women and yes men out there who do not know how to express or explore sexual desire, or what should be communicated through it. 

Another thing one hears from studies about S & M is that while the master may seem in charge, it is the submissive partner who gets most of the attention. If it is true that children sometimes disobey just to get noticed, perhaps adults do something similar. Women who enjoy 50 Shades may not want to get whipped and chained in real life, but they respond to the sheer attention Anastasia receives. She is an abused women, as opposed to a neglected one. If one falls for the story, she is the obsession of a handsome billionaire who seems to need mothering and who performs great oral sex. And did I mention that he’s rich? (He also had experience as a submissive in a previous relationship, which can make the whole thing seem “fair.”)    

Folk wisdom has it that only sensitive men perform oral sex on a woman, which 50 Shades exposes as ludicrous. Still, the graphically tender way in which Christian caresses her body suggests that there are many unfulfilled women out there. As a trade-off for this great sex, Anastasia must submit to unwelcome bondage and pain, but according to her it is worth it. And did I mention he’s rich? 

But in all seriousness, the critiques I have read curiously do not dwell on or even mention the “O” word or the “C” word.  As is true of virtually all pornography, the ultimate sexual satisfaction is depicted as worth whatever bother was required to get there. Sometimes politics makes strange bedfellows, and both radical feminists and Christian conservatives often rant about pornography. Yet both groups bypass this basic point about porn—people are depicted as having orgasms. And people watch it or read it to likewise feel aroused. 

In the real world, people of whatever gender or lifestyle may put themselves through all sorts of ordeals just to achieve those fleeting seconds of sexual satisfaction. With each new generation, there is less sentiment associated with sex, and finding it is more important to millions of people than finding love. The many roads to sexual Shangri-La need to become better integrated into discussions about pornography. Otherwise, well-meaning anti-porn folks will continue to be perceived by their critics as old-fashioned, uptight and lacking humor—people who are anti-orgasm.   

One of the frequently asked questions on the author’s website is if there is a real Christian Gray, and if so how to meet him. But it would seem that these women are less interested in becoming Anastasia Steele. They think they can have the one without becoming the other. 

So maybe what we can glean from all this is that many women feel emotionally and sexually adrift and neglected. They do not feel that they are made love to, or that their partners have much tenderness or understanding of a woman’s needs. Cohabitating or single, they do not have a man’s attention, which obviously is more important to some women than others. That the possibility persists that these problems can be solved through an abusive relationship is highly problematic, and it also reveals something about the misperception of many women’s lives. These misperceptions come from Hollywood, the media, and of course men. But they also come from women themselves.  

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Misremembering My Misspeak

Doesn't anybody just lie anymore?

Back in the 70s, the term Ms. was coined for women, so that they had a formal title not based on their marital status. Since "Ms." now appears in so many legal contexts, it may come as a surprise to learn it was quite controversial in its time. Of course some people complained about the feminist implications, but there also were concerns about removing the letter “I” from the title "Miss," because after all how do you have a word without a vowel? People had to be taught to say “Mizz” as opposed to “Miss.” (The common abbreviation “Mrs.” also does not contain a vowel, but no matter.) Some people didn’t like the sound of “Ms.,” claiming it seemed impersonal—which I imagine was part of the intent.

But sentimentalists of the 70s did not have to bemoan for long the loss of the word “Miss,” because parts of it began popping up in other ways. Watergate found us dealing with people who did not lie but who “misspoke,” which word provided fodder aplenty for comics, pundits, and anti-Nixonites. What was the world coming to if people could not admit that they lied but rather claimed they misspoke? It symbolized everything bureaucratic and over-legalized in our society, not to mention it sounded flakey.

In truth, the word “misspoke” goes back centuries, according to the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary—or as those of us in the know like to say, the OED. Shakespeare used it, which is good enough for me. But the word rarely was/is used until the U.S. got hold of it, where its range of meaning was narrowed to: “to speak incorrectly, unclearly, or misleadingly.”  

Time heals, many people today don’t even know what Watergate was, and all sorts of folks find good reason to claim they misspoke. Today the word is used without irony or satire. Yet, going back to the OED definition, usage of the word can confound much more than it clarifies—which can please the utterer just fine. Was I simply incorrect in what I said, was I not as clear as I could have been, or was I intentionally misleading you? Saying I misspoke means that I am pleading innocent. You may think I’m guilty, but we’ll never know because I misspoke. My you-know-what is covered. No, I didn’t lie, because that would mean I did something wrong.

Kissing cousin to the word “misspoke” is the word “misremember.” This word, too, has a long pedigree according to the OED. But in a contemporary context, one sees it cropping up as a psychological state of being. If you don’t believe me, Google “Brian Williams memory," and see all the postings in which it is claimed or at least considered that he honestly does not remember what happened in his helicopter in 2003. Gee, I thought I got shot at, but I guess I misremembered. (It also has been questioned if he even actually saw another helicopter get shot at, given where he would have been positioned at the time.)

As many of us already know, memory is by necessity selective. We could not function if we remembered everything that happens to us even in a single day. So in order to guide us along, our brains throw much of what occurs into the trash bin for deletion. We also tend to remember things in ways that make us seem good or in the right, and memory often gets foggy or even blank when one experiences trauma. It is not uncommon for two people to recall the same event differently, or to argue over what year something happened.  “Bad” memories often are ones in which we cannot justify why we did what we did, or why someone did what they did to us.

As a grad student, I heard about a study in which people were asked to tell the story of Bambi. Many children are traumatized when Bambi’s mother gets killed, and their young minds embellish upon what actually happens—which is that her shooting occurs off-screen. (I remembered it as her running for her life, and a friend recalls that she died in a terrible fire.)

So yeah, I get that Brian Williams or anyone else may not remember how he spent Thanksgiving eleven years ago, or may recall a dispute in a manner that presents himself as the correct party and/or the unfairly blamed one. As we know from TV and movies—or may tragically know from our lived experience—it can be hard to remember important details about getting robbed, raped, or being the target of an attempted murder. People who survive serious car accidents often cannot recall what happened.

But you know? I think that someone alert enough to make an estimated $10 million per year can recall whether or not his helicopter got shot at. To the best of my offhand knowledge, Williams was never in a position from which he might have developed PTSD. And perhaps most important of all, the accuracy of his coverage of Hurricane Katrina had already been questioned years before the current controversy. In the case of Katrina, he claimed to have seen things or suffered in ways that others state never happened.

Maybe you have heard of Munchausen Syndrome, in which people claim to have suffered trauma or illness that they did not actually experience, in order to get sympathy and attention from others. I am not a psychologist, and even if I were I do not meet people like Brian Williams. I have no idea what his psychological state of being is or is not. But I do know that in the news ratings game, it never hurts if a broadcast journalist becomes a news story himself. Or let me qualify that—it does hurt when the public questions your credibility, but not when it believes you are a hero.

People like to think that the news stories they hear or read are true. But a great deal of selectivity may be involved in how the story gets presented—what is emphasized or omitted, and what possible connections are presented as fact. Recently I stumbled upon a so-called news item in which it was claimed that singer Carrie Underwood single-handedly destroyed the pro-choice perspective on abortion. But, reading further, I learned that the pregnant Ms. (a/k/a Miss) Underwood simply feels like she is singing to her yet to be born baby, and that the baby can hear her. A lovely little story about mother-child bonding, but quite afield from what the headline promised.

But even as such, many people do not know that TV reporters are not necessarily trained in how to be journalists. They are trained in how to project into the camera, how to ask questions, or how to edit the copy someone else wrote for them. They also should know how to ad lib when necessary. But they do not always know how to write journalism or how to interview without a list of questions prepared for them.

Brian Williams dropped out of college to intern with the Carter administration. He then began reporting news on TV, working his way to from local to national news coverage. I do not know how much actual training he has in journalism, I only know that he, like any news anchor, must present himself on camera as seeming to be a good journalist.

As other sources have pointed out, many people no longer turn to major TV networks to find out what is happening. They may prefer cable or online news sources. Not to mention that more than a few people choose to ignore the news. So perhaps the national network news anchor is becoming a dinosaur anyway.

Yet even though what we consider to be factual news sometimes may be less than that, and even though no one has a perfect memory, in my humble opinion Brian Williams knows when he is lying to self-promote. Not misspeak his misremembrance, but purposefully present himself as a kind of Indiana Jones of news anchors.  

Give me his $10 million a year, and I promise to tell the truth.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Depressingly Inspirational

A new required school assignment?

If I ruled the world (always my favorite way to start a sentence), all teens would be required to watch online clips from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then they would have to watch clips of the inductees from when they were, as we say, in their prime (i.e, young). My goal here would be to maybe, hopefully, desperately try to convince young people for the first time in human history that youth does not last forever. These foxy hip young rock stars who made everyone dance are now these old people with gray (thinning) hair—if they are lucky enough to still be alive.

I would offer this lesson as proof positive that humans age. Yes, they indeed do, despite all the media hype and cosmetic surgery bills, everyone gets old. Not only that, you will not be an exception. You will not sit back and eat chocolate forever as you watch everyone around you grow old while you stay the same. Profound stuff.

“You’re as young as you feel?” Well yeah, kinda sorta. But my lower back may beg to differ, as well as that increasing ache in my right shoulder. I brought these matters up to my doctor, who gave it to me straight: I am getting older.

Only a few weeks ago I wrote in this very blog about denial of aging amongst Baby Boomers. But as so often happens in my life, no sooner did I see a problem in others than did I see that I had the same problem. Such humbling insights sometimes are called gifts. Gee, thanks, Santa.

Despite a strong identification with the youth culture of my era, I’ve always had a sense that I’d be happier the older I got. I recall being frustrated that I wasn’t in the popular crowd in seventh grade (or was it eighth?) because I knew that this particular social arrangement would not last forever. Who was or was not popular would have nothing to do with “real life.” (Marriage, kids, etc.) But premature wisdom, like so many other premature things (I am thinking of one in particular) can be a burden. Envying others for a quality that you simultaneously know doesn’t matter is not exactly a self-esteem builder. Not only are you unpopular, but you know you are stupid for wanting to be popular. 

In any event, my teen years were happier than me pre-teen years, my twenties were happier than my teens, and so on. And I’d like to believe anyway that time also has improved my character, though those of you with evidence to the contrary will be paid off as always to maintain your silence. (Your checks are already in the mail.) By “happy,” I don’t just mean technically anti-depressed, but feeling a sense of purpose, that life makes sense, I gained from my challenges, and all that type of stuff.

We live in an era in which nothing is supposed to faze us much. One should vote and have opinions, but at the same time take nothing going on in the world—or our lives—too seriously. Stop and smell the gladiolas, or however it goes. Unhappiness, depression, existential crises . . . all these things do indeed suck when you’re going through them. But it’s pretty hard to walk along the path of life without stepping in some you-know-what from time to time. And this is without getting into things like losing a loved one, or having serious physical or mental conditions.

I sometimes show my students a video about the press coverage in the wake of 9/11. Many hundreds of people trapped in the World Trade Center had to decide whether they preferred dying from fire or from hurling themselves out the window. But this unimaginable horror was not featured in the media. Instead we chose to call it a day of heroism, a day of coming together as a nation. I do not doubt that some of this was strategic—it is politic for a nation under attack to present itself as stronger than its attacker. But I think some of it, too, was just that we do not enjoy pondering tragedy. Or maybe what I mean to say is of course no one wants to dwell on tragedy, but we have lost our ability to handle it as it inevitably comes along. If it is “too depressing” to come to terms with our own mortality, vulnerability, and impermanence, what are we supposed to do instead?

I just saw a play in which there was a line that went something like: If nothing were painful, nothing would matter to us. Pain often is how we know something—or someone—was important in our lives.

So yeah, it is at best bittersweet for me to look at these young rock and rollers and then see them in their retirement years, even when they seem to be wise, contented people who appreciate being honored. It pains me because it reminds me of my own mortality, and my own youthful follies that I have long since discarded (i.e., precious time wasted over nonsense). For many years I could listen to the music from my hedonistic youth and feel swept up in the memory of the, uh, party or whatever you’d call it. But it is getting to where I don’t want to hear certain oldies. The gap between the moment of youth and now has become too wide. I barely recognize the kid who rocked out to that song.

Fall semesters I teach a class for first-year college students in critical thinking—how to think more deeply and look beyond the surface of key social issues. But I may just add the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in my list of assignments. I’d like to know how tomorrow’s leaders feel about their own mortality, and if they can comprehend that life is too short.