"What a long, strange trip it’s been."- Robert Hunter, The Grateful Dead
Life is a trip. It the biggest journey anyone ever makes. And how do you prepare for the journey? You don’t. You can’t. Oh, you may go to life’s Tourist Information Center, a.k.a., school, but it doesn’t really prepare you for what actually happens. It’s kind of like looking at a Rand McNally map to get an idea of what it is like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s not even close to the experience. In fact, life is such a strange animal, that you may only be able to begin to understand it in retrospect.
I am 60 years of age. I don’t feel old. I feel like the same person I was when I was seven, seventeen, or twenty-seven.
Let me amend that comment. I feel the same, but some things are definitely different. Uncomfortably different. Maybe even standing on the cusp of disturbingly different.
When I tried to think my way through this puzzle, I realized a universal truth. During the course of our life, I decided that we live and take a touring trip through three different worlds. The Hindus call them Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Creation, Maintenance, Destruction. I call it a hard lesson to learn that requires a lifetime to really understand.
The first world is the world we are born into. It is the world of our parents. It is the world we discover during our most “learnable” years. We are like a human sponge in a giant stadium watching, learning, soaking up and metabolizing everything we see. Our brain experiences and processes so much information. Labels of what everything is; physical coordination to walk and use our opposable digit to grasp tools to create, hold silverware, or suck for security; master our emotions to understand our likes and dislikes, as well as connect and bond; and use our mouth and tongue to produce speech to communicate with others. All of this occurs within a cultural soup of history, important people (current and not), as well as the philosophy and approach our parents take to navigate the world, the events, the technology and the cultural trends into which we are born.
This jaunty trip lasts for more than a decade. About seventeen years or so. It is the first way we come to understand the world, so we see it as the world. We get comfortable with the road and the rules. Kind of like after we learned how to drive and took that first spin down the road without our parents. Maybe it was a new country road with which we were unfamiliar, but we knew the rules; we knew how to drive; we could just sit back and enjoy the trip.
And it feels as though this is the way it will always be, because it is the only world we know. (Even kids growing up in eccentric or even horribly abusive circumstances often assume their experience is normal and what everyone experiences. The experience of our immediate circumstances is that powerful.) This is a world in which most of us find a great sense of security and for which we have enormous affection. Don’t believe me? Just go on ebay and see what prices the icons of your youth are grabbing.
We like things to be stable. We like the predictability of it all. And as kids, we like being able to join in on the conversations of our parents. To pre-tend, or try on the feeling of being adults and in control. We know we’ll get there some day, if we can just hang on long enough.
But then the teen years hit us like Mack Truck. We are thrust from the warm cultural soup of our parents’ world into the bracing hormonal cocktail of teendom. We suddenly realize that we have the power to make choices. We have the power to have original (or at least different) ideas. We have the power to create our own world in our own image. All of the mistakes, injustices and tolerations of our parents’ world can be changed, improved and molded into our own brave new world.
So we rebel. We say “NO!” We individuate. We are no longer mere spectators in the stands. We charge down onto the field and set about the task of seizing the cultural ball that we discovered is in play. We’re not in our parents’ “touring car” anymore. We’re in an All Terrain Vehicle, and we are driving off the road to make our own path to adventure.
We are now the players. And we’re off and running. With new technology. New people to bump up against and be inspired by. New ideas. Experiments of every kind. Sex. Drugs. Alcohol. Philosophy. Art. Architecture. Business. Everything. The intoxicating power of creation is absolutely dizzying and addictive. It is exciting. It is adrenalin. It feeds itself. And it is glorious!
And it lasts for two, three, maybe four decades. In fact, it lasts long enough to lull us into believing that this is the world that will always be here. Our world!
But ever so slowly, we don’t even see with our peripheral vision the next generation coming on the scene.
Suddenly, all the things we created are taken to the next level…or maybe to the tenth level beyond what we created. Suddenly we don’t quite get it anymore. We don’t understand how it all works. We try. We succeed in some ways, but there is the constant nagging feeling that we’re a little off. A little behind. And the world is now a little beyond us. It’s like learning to drive in the United States, and waking up to find yourself in London, or Freeport in the Grand Bahamas where everyone drives in the left lane. It’s disorienting. Everything appears to be familiar. Cars. People. Road. Traffic lights. You go to cross the street and look where you usually look for oncoming traffic, but you’re looking the wrong way and can get killed. We suddenly find ourselves back in the stands, watching the game on the field.
The miracle of voice transmitted over wires begat clunky dial telephones, which begat Princess telephones, which begat Princess push button telephones, which begat clunky cell phones, which begat sleek flip phones, which begat blue tooth phones, which begat smart phones.
Writing on papyrus, becomes writing on paper, becomes typing on a Smith Corona, becomes typing on an IBM Selectric, becomes working on a computer, which becomes a laptop, which becomes an iPad.
The warmth of many book-filled shelves in a cozy home library, becomes all those books in the slim, non-glare screen of a Kindle.
My father didn’t understand my music. I didn’t understand my son’s music. My father was too late and too old to understand computers. I am too late and too old to understand Twitter, Facebook and social media.
It is Future Shock in the present. It is the tsunami of the Third Wave and most likely the fourth and fifth wave.
It saddens me, because I’m still young enough to know that I have several decades left of what may seem like personal irrelevance. I know I can learn and keep up with things to a certain extent. But I am also wise enough to know that this world is no longer my world. I am a guest who can help with the dishes, but I don’t own the house anymore.
I was driving on the Ventura Freeway the other day and turned on the radio. Perry Como was singing Catch A Falling Star in his pleasant, relaxed, effortless style. I suddenly realized that this was a guy who had a whole career as a singer, and regular musical tv shows that ran from 1948 to 1966. He was a cultural mainstay. And this star, who only died in 2001, was someone my son did not know. Oh, he knows Frank Sinatra and the Beatles and Marlon Brando, but Perry Como? Nope. That moment of realization was very creepy. I really felt old. Used up. Useless. Tossed on the garbage heap of humanity.
But the more I have thought about this, the more at peace I am with it. Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, explains why anyone born before 1953 or after 1955 could not have done what Bill Gates or Steve Jobs has done. That special sliver of time was the only time to be born to be both young and squishy-malleable enough to grow into the computer world, and old enough to seize the opportunities that happened at just the right moment for them. I was born in 1950, so I missed that boat by being more of my parents’ world.
It feels as though there is a calcification of our cognitive faculties that causes quite a bit of psychic pain. Unless you simply recognize the ebb and flow of life and enjoy it for its own sake. I guess it is like watching waves lap the shore. Rather than getting too attached to any one wave and bemoaning the fact that it came and went, simply watch it. Enjoy the rhythm, the sound, the unique patterns the foam makes, relate to it when you can, and smile at the awesomeness of how the ocean keeps going and going and going. Like the Energizer Bunny. Or the longer lasting NiCad battery. Or the even longer lasting Lithium Ion battery. Or…maybe I’ll just sit back and enjoy Louis Armstrong singing, What A Wonderful World.
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Richard Rossner is a writer who has written for television and film. When he isn’t writing, he is working with his wife, Rahla Kahn, teaching Adaptive Applied Improvisation to cancer patients, corporations and private clients who experience the healing benefits of laughter, joy and creativity through their experiential program, The Power Of Play (www.ThePowerOfPlay.com).