Sep 24, 2010

The Passage of Time

Me at around 17

Me at around 37

A lot has changed in the past twenty-five years. Okay, I concede that’s not the most original observation. But the concept—the idea of the passage of time—has been on my mind a lot lately. For one thing, I’ve been watching the Farewell Season of the Oprah Show. I’m not exactly what you’d call an Oprah fan—over the years I’ve sometimes been annoyed by the pomposity that I suppose only naturally comes from being one of the most powerful and respected women in the world; occasionally she’s even slipped into grand posturing that has an almost messianic flavor. But I’m not a hater either. Watch a little of her show and it’s easy to see how she’s come to be such cultural phenomenon. Despite her wealth, power, and influence Oprah Winfrey has managed most of the time to retain the common touch. Against all odds, most days she seems like a regular person—or at least what we regular people imagine we would be like if we achieved her high station in life. Furthermore, she is an excellent interviewer. On her best days she is a master of withholding judgment and so she is able to get her guests to open up in remarkable ways. When you watch Oprah interview someone you get the sense you’re getting to see the “real” person. It’s not for nothing that it is said that Oprah will make you cry when you go on her show. I was never a regular viewer, but I always found her shows interesting, and for that reason, I determined to become a regular viewer for this her final season.

Opes and her fans celebrate: Oprah's HUGE premiere episode that included among other things a free week-long trip with Oprah to Australia for every person in the audience. John Travolta will fly everyone there (I am not making this up).

Anyway, Opes, as we like to call her in our house, has featured a lot of flashbacks in the first week of her new season and I found it fascinating to witness how much has changed in the past quarter century. For one thing the fashions have changed dramatically. It’s hard to believe that anyone thought they looked good during the eighties. The finger-in-the-electrical-socket hair, the blindingly bright clothes, the too-much makeup.

How could such poor fashion choices have been so widely accepted? Is it just the perspective of what’s considered fashionable today coloring my view, or were the eighties actually an empirically ugly decade? It’s been interesting too to see how the passage of time impacts the people themselves. Smooth faces morph into wrinkled ones, pounds plump out once thin bodies, hair fades to gray. (Though again, such was the ugliness of the eighties that most people seemed to look a sight better now even with addition of a couple decades).

The culture has changed too. On Tuesday Opes featured “A Return to Williamsburg, West Virginia”, a small town that entered the national spotlight in 1987 when a gay HIV positive man jumped into the town’s public swimming pool. The town freaked out and Oprah went to check it out. More than twenty years later Oprah returned to find what if anything had changed.

Oprah Winfrey at the original Williamston interview 23 years ago. The center of the controversy was the HIV-postive gay man Michael Sisco (in mustache, mullet, and Bill Cosbyesque sweater on the right).

The man in question had long since passed away, but his sisters were there and so were some of the most vitriolic guests. In the time that elapsed since the original Williamsburg show aired, the culture has shifted dramatically. What I found interesting was not that the angry, fearful guests had changed into tolerant, accepting supporters of gay rights. Their basic views, it appeared, had changed little. What had changed was how they couched those views. They seemed to recognize that twenty-five years ago you didn’t have to be nice, but today expressing flat-out disgust and derision for homosexuals is no longer met with nods of understanding, but with head-shakes of dismay.

The way we lived has changed dramatically as well. Last night I was taking carryout from Mia Cucina, a trendy Italain bistro around the corner from our house, and I was struck suddenly by the ubiquity of the cell phone. Inside the restaurant patrons furtively checked glowing smart phones before slipping them back into their bags. Outside the live band was on break, and the bassist was not smoking (another outmoded fashion from yesteryear), but instead was checking his Iphone. In the parking lot drivers were ignoring Oprah’s No Phone Zone exhortations and chattering away behind the wheel. Again, this is not a groundbreaking observation, but last night it struck me how such a sight would have been completely mystifying to me just 25 years ago.

In one of the last songs the rapper Tupac Shakur recorded before his death, he noted that people “get jealous when they see you with your mobile phone.” He meant that people in the mid-nineties were jealous that you were living large enough to actually own a mobile phone. Today people still get jealous, but mostly because of the brand of phone you carry. Pity the poor fellow still sporting a Motorola Razr—that is so four years ago.

Times have changed. The fashions we wear actually look good—or so we tell ourselves. Whether you view it as a good news or bad news, it is an undeniable fact that acceptance of homosexuals as social and moral equals will only increase in years to come. We live in an age of Ipods, Ipads, and Iphones. The funny thing is I don’t feel like I’ve changed all that much. It’s been all too easy to tell myself that the passage of time hasn’t really affected me at all. It’s not me that has changed, it’s the world around me. But of course I’ve changed too. And that’s as it should be—only the dead cease to change.

So, as Rich Mullins (and before him, Mark Heard) sang in "How to Grow Up Big and Strong", “the world keeps on turning and the children keep learning” and I wonder where we’ll end up in the next twenty-five years. What kind of world will we then inhabit? One thing is certain, for better (perhaps extremely better if the Advent hope comes to fruition) or worse (perhaps terribly worse if the Advent fear bears out) it will be vastly different from the world we live in now.