Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughts on Time, Age and Children

I know that my blog is usually pretty tightly focused on issues of professional interest, around arts, culture and creative economy. But as many readers of my blog may know, on August 27th I also became the father of a new baby daughter, and that has gotten me thinking about the nature of time and aging, especially as a somewhat "older" dad.

Dana Carvey - Grumpy Old Man
I feel sometimes like Dana Carvey's "Grumpy Old Man" character on the old SNL. (Here is a link for those that don't remember: http://www.hulu.com/watch/ad/57340)  I know it is a stereotype at this point, but sometimes I am just astonished at how much the world has changed in my adult life, and with the accelerating pace of change it is mind-boggling to think how the world may be transformed by the time my newborn is an adult.

Xerox Telecopier, circa 1975
I am not that old and yet I remember working in an office - a United States Congressman - where some of the first modern fax (or telecopier) machines were installed. They used that old thermal paper that curled up and smelled like something was burning while a fax was coming in, and the system only worked with paired machines - we could only send faxes between our own offices in DC and NY. Someone would make a phone call and then you would have to manually put the receiver in the cradle of the fax machine. As primitive as that all sounds now it was a revelation at the time. To have a speechwriter type a draft of the speech in DC, fax it to NY, have the Congressman edit it and then fax it back for finalizing: brilliant!

IBM 8088, circa 1981
Just a few years after that I was the Managing Director of the Vineyard Theatre in NY when a helpful board member bought for me one of these newfangled IBM personal computer things - the original IBM 8088, with MS-DOS. You had to "swap floppies" - load one floppy drive to "boot up" the operating system and install your software into memory (Lotus 123 or Wordperfect as I recall), then remove that disk to install the disk with your files on it. Sometimes if you executed a command, like spell check, you would ask to remove your data disk, install a second program disk, and then swap again. The monitor was the old monochrome "green screen" variety, and you had to learn how to use that tauntingly simple but often infuriatingly cryptic "command prompt": c:\.  And yet, as primitive as this sounds, in light of what we have to work with today, it was revolutionary at the time in terms of my productivity. I could do MAIL MERGES - send out dozens, or even hundreds - of personalized letters to donors or subscribers. I could create spreadsheets that allowed me to enter a formula changing the assumption of percent of paid seating capacity sold from 65% to 75% and have the entire income statement recalculate numbers. (Of course, I printed those spreadsheets on a dot-matrix printer with pin-feed striped ledger paper - another now defunct technology!) This literally eliminated hours and hours of work with green ledger paper and an old fashioned adding machine. There are just a couple of examples of how this then very new, now very primitive, technology, was in fact a miraculous productivity booster - things we take for granted now used to be onerous chores.

Treo 300 - 2002
The list goes on and on - the first computerized theatrical lighting systems, database and contact management software, e-mail, the Internet, the Web, my first "Palm Pilot" Personal Digital Assistant, before there even were smartphones, let alone cell phones, followed by my first Treo 300 smart phone in 2002 - again, in its time, a miraculous productivity booster - I could be out of the out of the office at meetings for a full day and still get email, check my schedule, look up addresses and phone numbers, make notes, AND make and receive phone calls.

I still remember when my oldest daughter was maybe about 4 - perhaps 1990 or so - and got a birthday gift of a toy typewriter. She pulled it out of the box and exclaimed "Wow - a computer!" - I knew then that the days of the already dying IBM Selectric were surely VERY numbered. In her world "keyboard" already meant "computer". Typewriters were for the museum.Now that 20-something daughter is part of the generation that is steadily dropping their use of e-mail in favor of texting and social media.

So the world my new child enters may be radically transformed within just a few short years, in ways that if I could predict I would have had the success of Steve Jobs.

And yet - AND YET - think how much still remains the same,, and how constant the arts remain in our humanity. Symphony orchestras still make the original "wall of sound" (due respect to Phil Spector who brought it to pop music), and there is no substitute for listening to this music live in a concert hall. We still hold our children, and talk to them, and sing to them, and dance around with them. Artists make art (yes, some now use technology in their art and the nature of visual art is changing - no disconnect between art and technology) and many of those actually still use paint and canvas, pen and paper (Claes Oldenburg chose the paintbrush as the motif for his "Paint Torch" sculpture because the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts - PAFA - is an art school and museum still rooted in the tradition of painting.) We still glory in planting and tending gardens, and in transforming fresh ingredients into delicious home-cooked meals in the kitchen, and eating food communally, with family and friends. We still ride bicycles - an invention of the 19th century - to get around our 21st Century city, and increasingly recognize the practicality and utility of this "ancient" mode of transportation/recreation.  The Knight Foundation's Soul of the Community study found that the things that attaches us to place are communal social gathering opportunities like the arts, the physical beauty of the community - like the built environment, parks and green space, and openness. Might not the findings have been similar in Ancient Athens?

Finally, while it also has become trite to opine that "40 is the new 30", "60 is the new 50" etc., there is truth to the fact that we are living longer (and in better physical shape) and now view what used to be a time of "winding down" or retirement, as a time vibrancy and change. WE change personally now, reinvent ourselves, the way technology is so rapidly transformed. People change careers, move to new cities, start new families, learn new skills and art forms in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. I still play basketball three times a week, and intend to keep doing it as look as exercise and ligaments (and luck) will allow me to. And I intend to be there at my newborn daughter's college graduation and maybe even celebrate with a little on one-on-one hoops with her. I don't think this is just a creation of Boomers who want to extend their middle age indefinitely. I think this is the new normal.

Musings of a sleep-deprived new/old father!