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Up Close and Personal

See Wikipedia for image details.

See Wikipedia for image details.

Damn you, Michael Apted, for your Seven Up series, the documentary equivalent of the proverbial book that simply can’t be put down until it’s finished. And curse you, Netflix, for being his enabler in this little exercise. I missed a lot of sleep last week.

I was rapt! Seven Up starts in1964 by interviewing 14 or so seven year olds about their lives, their opinions, and their thoughts regarding how they see themselves moving into the future. Then they follow up by re-filming / re-interviewing these same individuals — often asking them exactly the same questions — every seven years until, one presumes, they’re no longer available to be interviewed. The children, quite deliberately for the purposes of the documentary, were drawn from all walks of life: from working-class east-end London, to exclusive public (i.e. private) preparatory schools, to state foster homes, to the Yorkshire dales and the middle-class suburbs of Liverpool.

1964 Britain in black and white, to my untrained eye, doesn’t feel all that different from 1944 (i.e. wartime) Britain, which makes this first instalment (the only one not shot in colour) — and me, who was born only a couple of years later — feel really old. Like it-all-began-in-the-mists-of-history old. Still, the “cast” are like typical seven year olds everywhere. With missing or overlarge front teeth which haven’t quite settled down in their mouths yet, full of nervous energy — though a few are quieter and seem to have a innate sadness about them we can’t help but think will continue to evolve in the many films to come — vying to be heard over each other when interviewed in groups and generally saying whatever comes into their minds with little or no internal filter.

They’re fascinating to listen to and the producers even bring them all together for a day to “rub shoulders” in London where they get to visit the zoo, dance and share refreshments at an indoor party, and burn off some energy at an “adventure playground” (which bears a striking resemblance to a bombed out city lot which has simply yet to have been re-built). As this inaugural film closes, with the children swinging and climbing and playing in the rubble, we are told that we are glimpsing the future of Britain at the turn if the millennium. “Give me a child until he is seven,” the voice over intones, “and I will give you the man.” And in many ways, as the series bears out, this may not be far from the truth.

Indeed, throughout Seven Up we quickly get a clear sense of the foundation the director is trying build with this first offering. We watch, for example, as the three prep school boys inform us what newspapers they enjoy reading and then rhyme off all the remaining private schools it’s anticipated they will be attending prior to moving on to “Oxbridge” for their degrees. The scene then cuts from there to one of the in-care boys looking confusedly into the camera. “What’s university,” he asks, and though such an overt transition feels a little heavy handed, the crux of this experiment is now made manifest: How likely are any of us to ever escape the gravitational reality of the lives into which, quite by chance, we are born?

I first heard about this series last autumn when I caught a short snippet of an interview with Michael Apted about his most recent chapter, 56 Up, on NPR. I was fascinated by the existence of such a “longitudinal study,” as they call it, but I couldn’t help thinking about how the study itself might (must?) actually influence the trajectory of the very lives it was purporting to examine. How must it feel to know that every seven years there was going to be someone in your living room taking stock of how far you’ve come — or not — since the last episode? My mind boggled. The psychological ramifications of being in such a position, in terms of how you ended up living your life, were staggering. An ever-recurring Truman Show, but one where you actually knew people were watching you. Would you be constantly justifying yourself if things didn’t turned out as you had anticipated seven or 14 or 21 years ago? Would you end up working extra hard in your life — harder than you might have otherwise — simply because you felt you had to be successful because “others” were watching? The resultant behaviourally-generated combinations and permutations were endless.

And certainly, as the seven year olds grew further into adulthood, we saw intimations of this reflexive awareness coming through in the interviews. The fact that they knew their lives were being subtly — or maybe not so subtly — influenced by this seven-year cycle. Most couldn’t help but feel it as an intrusion, a time when they had to re-live old pains and issues in a way that the rest of us are lucky enough to be able to sweep it under the rug and forget about if we so desire. One of the participants refers to the whole exercise as a “poison pill” at one point, while another says he feels he actually might have tried harder in his life had he not been on the show because he was always afraid to take risks in case he failed at the things he wanted to try and was thus left with this failure exposed to the viewing public every time he had to go back on camera. Still, nearly all of the original participants have stuck with it for more than 50 years  — and we should be hugely grateful for their sacrifice because this is a show that can help to teach us about understanding the trajectories of our own lives in amazing ways.

Like most “writer types” I’m probably far too introspective for my own good. I’m all about the narrative. And the most important narrative for anybody is, of course, their own life. That’s the story that really matters to us, The Most Amazing Show on Earth! But most of our sense of personal narrative seems based on post-rationalizations of one sort or another. Ultimately, our lives only make sense in retrospect (i.e. looking back over our shoulders), and we often draw causal-type associations — that may or may not actually be valid — to demonstrate that things have obviously unfolded in the only way they possibly ever could have given our circumstances.  What a rich voyeuristic opportunity it is, then, to sit in safety and watch others struggle to uncover these same relationships for themselves every seven years. It certainly appears that we’re all — rich or poor, young or old, black, brown or white — just trying to make sense of this whole “life thing”, from moment to moment, year to year, as we move through it. And to finally, as E.M. Forester has suggested, “Only connect.”

This is true “Realty TV”. Give it a watch. And let me know what you think.

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The Death of Promise; or, I Was a Young Turk Once Too

London Calling. Summer 1985.

London Calling. Summer 1985.

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood,
To say as I said then!

Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare

The somewhat weary-looking young man posing in front of “Buck House” is, of course, yours truly. Sorry for the fuzzy image, but this was the pre-digital age, at least where consumer electronics were concerned. Nearly 30 years ago. Not sure how that’s possible, but, well, there you have it.

I stumbled upon this photo the other day when I was cleaning up from a small leak in my basement, because, hey, that’s how these things work: Freshman college kids run off to exotic locales to work(?) for the summer while, unimaginable years later, their slightly paunchier middle-aged doppelgängers mop up furnace rooms and generally putter around their homes trying to keep them in a fit enough state of repair to support human habitation.

Sorry, did that sound bitter? Every day above ground is a good day, I’ll admit, but, my, oh my, how our perspectives change over time.

This particular blog has been rattling around in my head since last summer — OK, probably well before that — when, on a fine July morning at the start of our family vacation, I found myself in a trendy coffee shop in downtown Ottawa, surrounded by a cadre of lithe, well-dressed / -coiffed / -shod teenagers. As I drank my small $3 cappuccino, however, observed their frenzied fingers assaulting innumerable BlackBerries and MacBooks, and caught a snippet of a few of the conversations emerging out of the general din, I soon realized these weren’t teenagers at all — these were the Young Turks of the sprawling federal government bureaucracy at the heart of the nation’s capital. Fresh faced, tireless, indestructible.

I suppose I had been a “playa” once too, a “contenda”. Hadn’t we all? Too naive to know our own limitations. What blissful ignorance — at least in peacetime. (In wartime, of course, that naiveté is frequently a death sentence, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog). Quitting jobs with nary a second thought, ‘cause, hey, I’m wasn’t about to do that for another 40 years. Seeking the unique, the novel, at every turn, since I certainly wasn’t going to get trapped in a rut for the rest of my life. I had it figured out. I had it goin’ on!

Not that I want to get all nostalgic here. I’m not so old that I can’t still remember the agonies of those days as well. Residual teen-age acne and far fewer “friends with benefits” than I felt were my due. No real security — other than the resilience of one’s youth — if you made truly poor choices; very little respect for whatever it was you were doing — because you hadn’t earned any yet; and the nearly visceral fear that you’d get it wrong when you were finally backed into the corner and compelled to make the “big” choices.

The difference between now and then, however, is that then, more often than not, you swallowed your fear and actually jumped. No guts, no glory. Maybe you drew on that childhood memory of the time you screwed up your courage and flung yourself off the really high-diving board — and lived. Or when you asked that super-popular girl to the dance. She declined, but your heart didn’t cease to beat and you haven’t been living as a hobo under a bridge ever since. You closed your eyes and took the plunge.

Now, of course, you own the rut, or, more accurately, you have a mortgage on it. But what other choice do you have? There’s simply too much at stake now, too much too lose. When I lived on campus during a couple of my university years, I often used to go for a Sunday night walk around the residential part of the city that flanked the campus to try to clear my head for the upcoming week. Here, in the evening darkness, I would  stare longingly at the complacent single-family homes with their decorative shrubbery and well-tended lawns and think to myself, would I ever get there? Would I ever be rid of these days of constant psychic anxiety, of exams and terms papers, of loneliness and striving, always striving? Well, flash forward: here I am. Be careful what you wish for…

Somehow, though, my thesis isn’t hanging together here as neatly as I had anticipated. I know I’m being inconsistent. Leading with the premise that our unsullied youth represents the proverbial high-water mark in our lives, then quickly backing away that idea at the same time. Peel back the layers, I guess, and maybe we start to wonder whether there’ll ever be a time when we’re truly comfortable in our skins, when our reach no longer exceeds our grasp. The worst thing in the world is not getting what you want; the second worst thing, damnably, is getting it.

Like any other component of our fragile psyche, our identification with our youthful selves is, doubtless, a complex one. For most of us, there probably remains something “golden” about these years — whether real or garnished by nostalgia. More than anything I imagine this can be attributed to all the latent potential we retrospectively ascribe to the pulsating firmament of our youthful selves. We tell our children, and our parents probably told us, “Dream big. You can do whatever you want.” And maybe before we leave middle school — statistically at least — this is not exactly un-true. With each passing year, and every consummated choice, however, we are further constrained, our options further limited, our selves somehow reduced. As philosopher and Harvard professor Roberto Unger puts it in a podcast lecture I stumbled upon the other day:

We cannot be everything in the world. We must chose a path. And reject other paths. This rejection, indispensable to our self development, is also a mutilation. In choosing, as we must, we cast aside many aspects our humanity. If, however, we cast them aside completely, we become less than fully human. We must continue somehow to feel the movements of the limbs we cut off. To learn how to feel them is the first major work of the imagination.

Later on, as adults, we struggle in the world and against it. We settle into a way of living and of doing. A mummy begins to form around each of us, diminishing our reach and our vision by accommodating them to our circumstance. We begin to die many small deaths. Our aim should be to die but once.

“Beyond the Small Life: A Letter to Young People” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdb-GTjggTg)

Admittedly, I seem to have now passed over into that potentially distressing phase of life during which I can genuinely commiserate with such banal “man-o-pause” compulsions as trying to snag that classic red Corvette or the big chrome-plated Harley before it’s too late (though I hope I’ll never be old enough to understand why anybody thinks a “comb over” is a good idea). And I grapple with the challenge of trying to apprehend the age-related constraints of personal potential as a constant companion in my writing. With this in mind I’ll go so far as to give over the closing credits of this blog to my fiction-writing self. Here, our unnamed protagonist, in a work-in-progress novella provisionally entitled Still Life, is staring at himself in the mirror before his morning shave, wondering what exactly happened to his own Young Turk self:

Like Coleridge, awakened by a traveling salesman before his reveries in Xanadu were complete, it would dawn on him that the dream from which he had awoken and to which he would never again return was youth itself. But, by this point in his life, he knew the game was rigged. That it had always been so, and that it would continue to be so. By the time you figured out how to play, you had already lost and there was no possibility for a make-up match. Youth, as the old saying goes, is wasted on the young. And yet there could never be an effective method to offer it up to the old. The elders, in their wisdom, wouldn’t waste it — and, if not wasted, it could hardly be considered youth at all, could it? That was the catch. The ultimate cosmic “Fuck you!”