It occurred to me recently that my generation will be the first—the beginning phase of a culture, a society—that never really loses sight of its social circle, quite literally the circle that began in high school. Not only will we differ from our parents in that we’ll have much more contact and longer-lasting relationships with people we’ve known since we were teenagers, but we will know so many details about these people’s lives along the way, just by casually paying attention to gadgets. Our parents, and certainly the generations before them, were confined to snail mail and phone calls, and later, email and some modest messaging applications. Obviously, the world of social networking isn’t closed to them now, but we’ll be the first to have come of age as adults with it—to take it with us into and beyond middle age, all the way past retirement and into our final years. Instead of getting a letter from some distant acquaintance some day about a close friend from high school who passed away, whom we haven’t seen or spoken with in fifty years, we’ll be a mere push of a button away—from almost everything there is to know about him. Truthfully, whether we’ve seen or spoken to him since high school matters not. We’ll know his family, his family’s family, his various jobs throughout life, where he moved, what made him happy, what upset him, where he went for vacation, where his kids went to college, how his various tastes evolved along the way—everything—all the way up to the moment he took ill, the point when his family took over his means of communication, when he could no longer tweet from the hospital bed (or whatever form of twitter-like updates will be in circulation then), and ultimately, how and when he finally left this life. I wonder if we’ll feel the same about social networking when all it has left for us is troubling news.
Will it make us a stronger society, to know so much about one another along the way—even if we’re still as disengaged on a physical level as we were before the tech-era? Is the “customizable life” template provided by social networking so fake that we only grow less interested as time goes on—because we know that prefab pictures and edited comments isn’t real life? Is it all simply a way to avoid paying attention to our own lives and their progression, or lack thereof? I guess I just wonder, like many of us do, about the ever-broadening technological landscape, and our place in its future (not the other way around)—if we will be better people as a result of it all. Time will certainly tell.
Something else struck me recently. I’m 37. The average lifespan of an American is 78.2—75.6 for the fellas, 80.8 for the ladies. I was driving my car when I had this insight. If my life was a gas tank, it would all but be on half. I’m half over. But here’s the crazy part: I can’t fill back up. This is it. I got one fill-up. If I handle it wisely, it might last ten years longer than it’s supposed to. If something really crazy happens, it might go even longer. But the law of averages says that my tank, my life, is at half. Some things are so obvious, and yet so gripping—depending on how you choose to look at them. It stuck with me for quite a while. I tried it out on some friends; you can imagine the reception. In the back of my head for days, I could hear Billy Crystal lamenting to his wife at his birthday party in City Slickers, “This is the best I’ll ever be. It’s all down hill from here.” And you know, when my car is on half, I think that I’m good but not great—I’ll have to fill up soon, though not for a while. Good, but not great. And let’s be honest, a half-tank of gas is nowhere near as inspiring as a full tank. There’s nothing like a full tank of gas (though I wish it were some other type of reusable fuel). It’s almost tantalizing; the possibilities are limitless. You can drive anywhere. And, yes, I remember that’s how it felt to be a teenager. Life was endless. Today was simply in the way of tomorrow. The days wouldn’t add up—they wouldn’t equal years, and then decades. I’d never have a beard (much less hints of white and gray in it), nagging injuries that just won’t heal, or no desire at all to stay out past midnight. It just wasn’t going to happen. And it didn’t happen, for a long time. But that long time wasn’t very long after all, not from this side—looking back through the window. But then, some people don’t get this far, sadly—while some get much farther, and must look through an entire lifetime just to get back to the very age I’m at odds with today. Their tanks are at a quarter, an eighth—some are on E. One day I’ll be on E. I say that with the wisdom gained from a life merely half gone.
If I avoid tragedy, I’ll likely look back one day at some foolish kid my age and want to give him something to whine about. Regardless, I just know how I feel when my car’s getting down there beneath a quarter. It’s not nearly the same feeling I had when that lever was pressing securely against the top. All the more reason to make the best of my time behind the wheel.
Speaking of awkward concerns, do you know what nomophobia is? The fear of being without your phone. Don’t even try to act like this isn’t a real condition. We’re so tied to our machines. I’ve had a cell phone for thirteen years, but I can barely remember how I lived without one (and believe me, I’m not a phone person). Are things more important since 1999—so much so that I have to be within constant reach of emails, calls, news, and music? Of course not. I’ve just convinced myself that they are—we all have.
And one more thing snagged my attention, this spring. I was on a train in Chicago and I heard a girl tell her friend: “Well, it’s not really like she’s been alive for probably ten years. At least not to me.” Figured it out? Whitney Houston. The friend half-laughed, slightly jarred by the insensitivity, but also in reluctant agreement: “She really ruined it for herself…it’s so sad.” Houston’s death was one in a long and continuous line of celebrities who couldn’t/can’t juggle fame, fortune, and self-preservation. Her struggles with identity were well documented. Unfortunately, she made horrible decisions for herself in addressing those struggles—surrounding herself with parasites and other ridiculous people. Her death was a testament to how quickly you can become irrelevant in today’s hyper-vicarious society—and another shining example of how easily you can destroy yourself, and those around you, if you don’t address your personal demons responsibly. Is it a lesson learned? For many, I’m sure. Houston gave the world something that will never be repeated. She was that talented. Perhaps her death is also a harsh reminder—that it’s not the mistakes you make, but the ones you continue to make, that eventually define your life.