19 April 2012

Everything old is new again

Ever since my trip to Washington, I’ve been mulling over where we’re at as a society. Obviously, I have specific ideas with regards to bicycling, and more specifically its place in modern transportation and recreation policy, but it’s broader than that, too. I may have mentioned it before, but if you weren’t aware, this country is being run by 25-year-olds. For every elected official who sits on the floor of the Senate or the House, there is a gaggle of just-out-of-grad-school, well-trained PoliSci majors who serve as “Legislative Assistants” in charge of certain areas of policy. These kids are smart, they know their stuff, and they’re passionate about what they do.

In order to help us better relate to them in our meetings on the Hill, the League of American Bicyclists brought in one of them as a keynote speaker. You may have heard of Jason Dorsey, the “Gen Y Guy” – after all, he’s been on such old-line media outlets as The Today Show and 60 Minutes. Or you may not have, as generational dynamics isn’t top-of-mind for most folks – though it’s pretty important, as we live in a society in which – for the first time – no less than four generations are working side-by-side in every industry and every factory in this country. Regardless, Jason’s Washington, DC, think tank is doing the research for you; or rather, for the companies that want to influence you, your parents, your children, your neighbors and your grandparents.

What’s tying this all together for me personally is Rent. For those of you who know me, you know that seeing Rent for the first time literally changed my life. I’ve touched on that here before: The adaptation of La Boehme set in modern-day New York City struck a nerve that set into motion a series of life changes without which I would be a wasted mess destined for an early grave.

But here’s the funny thing: I first saw Rent in 1997. It was the “Angel” tour, at the Shubert Theater, and the Broadway originator of the Mark character, Anthony Rapp, joined the cast for a short run. Kim dragged me there, darned near kicking and screaming, a 285-pound middle-aged guy trapped in a 24-year-old’s body, cramming myself into the old theater’s seats. I was so taken with this amazing story unfolding on the stage that I immediately began to change who I was and the way I viewed the world; I bought the soundtrack, and went on to see the show at least five (six? seven?) more times, including once at the Nederlander before it closed its historic run. It became an important part of the fabric of my life.

Fast-forward 15 years. That soundtrack is never far from my playlist, though now in a digital rather than tactile (CD) form. Snippets of songs from the show run through my head from time to time, particularly after Mom passed away. And then the other day it hit me:

The cultural themes – and even some of the specifics – are as germane today as they were 23 years ago when Jonathan Larson began working on it.

Was Larson a prophet? I doubt it. I love his work (seeing the raw tick, tick … BOOM! at age 33 provided an interesting context to Rent), but I’m not one to deify folks. We all have something to offer; we’re all special. But what I keep coming back to, what keeps stopping me in my tracks, is that our society is so cyclical that even from a dated musical like Rent we can draw day-to-day references.

Dated? Yes. Certainly, La Boehme and Rent are timeless in their themes. But the specific way they deal with those themes, the context in which they exist, give an exactness to the tales that ensures them to forever serve as snapshots of the period in which they were created. And for a while there, Rent seemed pretty dated in the strongest sense of the word: The Alphabet City was gentrified, AIDS was on the decline (or at least perceived to be under control), the global economy was humming and technology seemed to be realizing its potential.

So what happened? How did we get here? How the hell?

Newt Gingrich is in the spotlight. The economy is struggling. People are still contracting HIV and dying of AIDS, and ignoring the warnings. The gay community is under attack. The "mainstream" is being fenced in by authoritarian, small-minded people. Technology has taken over our lives to the point where reality is only defined by what’s on our computer screens or on television. (And what of that? Hell, Larson even included a reference to non-Manhattanites that was quickly adapted to Jersey years before Jersey Shore hit the airwaves.)

Sounds a lot like the early 1990s, doesn’t it?

So here’s what’s been on my mind these last couple of weeks: We may be missing an opportunity. As has been demonstrated recently, it is becoming clear that a certain portion of the next generation is lacking a sense of history. Now, I know this is an complaint put up by every generation before me, but I also think that today it’s worse: At the pace we’re living now, with the overwhelming fire hose of information that is available and a lack of good practices to parse it, things get lost in the shuffle. Important things. Things like the fact that Titanic was a real event, not just a disconnected fantasy.

Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. I believe that fully. I can’t help it – ask anyone who knows me, and you’ll hear an earful about the boring historical references I make no matter where I’m standing. I study what’s come before, as I think it’s important that we discover the past, understand the drivers, recognize the context, in order to move beyond it. And as the next generation joins the workforce, as my generation (finally!) takes over, as the Greatest Generation passes on and the Boomers retire, we would do well to learn from what has happened. Or at the very least, spend some time researching how we got here.

I don’t want to be the crotchety old guy wagging his finger on this. But it’s tough – every time I have a conversation with someone younger than about 31 or 32, I find myself reminding them that there was a recession before there was dot-bomb. Sting was part of a band once upon a time. And by God, George Lucas once rocked our world.

I love Rent. It will always hold a place in my heart. But like Hair for my parents (the only 8-track tape they had on their cross-country drive of a “honeymoon”! “The Age of Aquarius” indeed!), I would like to put Rent in its place, and draw from it when I need to. I’d like for us, as a society, to move past where we were 20 years ago. I don’t like that we’re caught in what seems to be a never-ending, vicious spiral, and I believe the best way out is to learn from the mistakes we’ve already made. So let’s do that: Let’s move forward with a sense of where we come from, while simultaneously challenging the assumptions that got us here. Let’s take this time to learn from each other, to capitalize on our strengths, and to push onward in a constructive manner. We need to seize this opportunity and collectively grab hold of where we're going.

Or, as Jonathan Larson wrote so many years ago:

Will I wake from this nightmare? There’s only now. There’s only here. Give in to love or live in fear. No other path, no other way … [there’s] no day but today.


1speed said...

I've never seen Rent, but it's fascinating how you've been able to contextualize it here. Not sure if I would have gone to that place (again, because I haven't seen it) but your thought process is compelling. I personally don't believe that history will repeat itself precisely because of all that information (sure, historical themes replay to an extent, but I think that's trivially apparent -- we live in an ordered society which tends to normalize central themes, e.g. - poor v rich, racial tensions, etc. Such themes ebb and flow through time because they never fully resolve.) Anyway, a few years ago, I sponsored a conference at my company that dealt with project management sciences and one of the justifications the (really spectacular) presenter gave us for why this was a good program was that information revolutions are speeding up. For example, the amount of technology in a single cell phone nowadays is greater than the technology that was available in the entire world just 50 years ago. And the information available at our fingertips is exponentially higher today than it was just ten years ago. So in my mind, while I take your more general point, I think you're letting all of us off the hook a bit when you say we're going to repeat past mistakes. I believe those mistakes are infinitely greater now because, with all that information and technology available to us in mere seconds, we have no excuse for making such bad decisions other than willful ignorance and the ramifications of those same decisions will spread farther faster which means the outcomes will be far more difficult to manage.

So, I think you make a great point, but I think you actually could bring it a step further -- a lack of historical context nowadays is more than a way to cycle through past themes. It's a dangerous way to spin historically repetitive scenarios into new and unconsidered and far bigger and more tragic outcomes.

Chris said...

You're absolutely right -- but I didn't want to go too far, lest the argument fall apart. Specific to Rent, and my point here, there are cultural references that were contextualized to the 1990s, and now are relevant today, which is disturbing to me.

I absolutely agree that the cycles have accelerated -- it used to be 20 years +/-, then 18, now it's more like 15. You see this easily in fashion, and it becomes a vicious cycle -- 15 begets 30, for instance -- which is why big hair is getting big again :-)

On the other hand, I have hope that the smart folks of the next generation can help us by not repeating the same mistakes. It's telling that the head of the GOP in North Carolina believes that Amendment One, should it pass, will be repealed within a decade or so -- because -- in his words -- the next generation has a different set of values with regards to marriage than his generation. And thank goodness for that.