Tag Archives: Society

Elvis Presley, my mom and mortality

Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, 33 years ago this week. That date also was my mother’s 40th birthday.

What’s the connection? This:

Patsy is the one on the left.

This photo of my mother with Elvis was snapped after a concert in Sheffield, Ala., in 1955 — a few months before the young singer from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Miss., would generate the kind of hysteria that would make a semi-intimate fan photo like this almost impossible.  Then, he was just a handsome up-and-comer who was part of a multi-act touring show. After the release of Heartbreak Hotel in early 1956, his world — and ours — changed forever.

As for Patsy,  the young student from humble beginnings in Haleyville, Ala., obviously didn’t achieve international fame, but she did become an award-winning educator and a wonderful mother. She was only a slight fan of Elvis’ music (I think we owned maybe two of his albums), but his death, falling on the day she crossed over to middle age, clearly affected her. She seemed more stunned than mournful, perhaps because the demise at 42 of the larger-than-life personality who once briefly clasped her hand was an intimate reminder that youth is fleeting, and death can arrive when we least expect it.

Sadly, my mother’s own death came far too early as well — 14 years later, at the age of 54. And unlike Elvis’, it wasn’t sudden; cancer, not an overdose, was the culprit.

These two disparate lives crossed paths just once. Fortunately for me and my family, that moment is memorialized in this photo.

It’s impossible for me to look at it without feeling wonder and sadness at the trajectory of both their lives, especially the woman who helped me become the man I am today.

Happy birthday, Mom. I still miss you.

Everything’s going to be OK — maybe

Talk of impending doom threatens to overwhelm us these days. If that’s not bad enough, a lot of people seem to be cheering it on.

The  economy? We’re heading for another Great Depression, and it’s payback for our greed. The environment? We’re drowning in our own poisons, and probably deserve to. The government? We’re on the road to serfdom, theocracy, fascism, communism, anarchy (choose one, depending on the day of the week). The world’s population? It’s either too big to sustain, which means Soylent Green is on the menu, or it’s going to slowly die off in a couple of generations, which means entire societies could become extinct.

So in a world that’s falling apart, it’s nice to know that people like Matt Ridley still exist. Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist, and here’s the thesis of this intriguing book:

Over 10,000 years ago there were fewer than 10 million people on the planet. Today there are more than 6 billion, 99 per cent of whom are better fed, better sheltered, better entertained and better protected against disease than their Stone Age ancestors. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability to communicate over longer distances than we can shout.

Yet, bizarrely, however much things improve from the way they were before, people still cling to the belief that the future will be nothing but disastrous. In this original, optimistic book, Matt Ridley puts forward his surprisingly simple answer to how humans progress, arguing that we progress when we trade and we only really trade productively when we trust each other.

I really want to read this book (this one, too), if only to arm myself with rejoinders to fans of gloom-and-doomers like James Howard Kunstler. (Though at least in the area of urban planning, Joel Kotkin is doing a fine job with that.) The progress-haters have been proven wrong in the past. Let’s hope they’re proven wrong again.

Otherwise, you might as well just dig a hole, sit down in it and wait to die.

Of course, Kunstler and his ilk would probably prefer it that way. After all, self-dug one-person holes are local, sustainable and have a small carbon footprint.

‘The stretched-out walk to independence’

This New York Times article about young adulthood lasting into middle age intrigued me — and not just because I’ve lived it:

People between 20 and 34 are taking longer to finish their educations, establish themselves in careers, marry, have children and become financially independent, said Frank F. Furstenberg, who leads the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a team of scholars who have been studying this transformation.

“A new period of life is emerging in which young people are no longer adolescents but not yet adults,” Mr. Furstenberg said.

National surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority of Americans, including younger adults, agree that between 20 and 22, people should be finished with school, working and living on their own. But in practice many people in their 20s and early 30s have not yet reached these traditional milestones.

Let’s see: I finished college at 22, and I moved out of my parents’ house to begin my first newspaper job within a month of graduating. However, unlike a lot of my friends, I was a late arrival to marriage (Jacqui and I got hitched when I was 38) and home ownership (I was 42 when I reached that milestone, thanks to the D.C. region’s horrifying housing bubble, which forced us to put off buying a house for several years).

It looks like this societal shift is here to stay, for three reasons. First, of course, people live longer, healthier lives. Second, indicators point to several years — maybe a decade or more — of slow economic growth. That will force many college graduates to live at home longer than they might have otherwise.

But the big driver of this trend has been with us since the Sixties: the remaking of the American Dream. Previously, it was a well-paying job, a spouse, 2.2 children and a house in the suburbs — all before you turned 30. Today, it’s a quest for personal fulfillment and a life that fits your own aspirations, not society’s. That “quest for meaning” manifests itself in many ways: multiple college degrees, frequent career changes, taking a year (or more) off to travel, and so on.

Those things enrich life in valuable ways,  but they inevitably delay what society considers our traditional responsibilities. (Of course, if the economy takes a nosedive off a cliff, the self-actualization crap won’t matter anymore. We’ll all be living at home with our parents — and not because of grad school, either.)

But as always, predictions are tricky, especially about the future — and even more so when it comes to the social sciences. Real life is always more interesting than the research that measures it.