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Mini-Novel: Class of 2030 High School Reunion

August 13th, 2010

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Where is History Taking Us?

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Over the past few years, I met with adults and students to talk about the year 2030. I know it sounds strange but I had a hunch. I met with key leaders individually. I met with students in focus groups. I wrote to thousands via Facebook, blogs and email. I wanted to hear from young people regarding what they foresee as they peer into the next twenty years.  I suspected they possessed strong opinions as to what life would look like. I was right. From those interactions, I summarized 26 conclusions about life in the future. They are characteristic phrases we could hear from Generation iY as adults in 2030: 

  1. I am really tired.
  2. I am distracted.
  3. I am obese.
  4. I am on my fifth career and ninth job in a decade.
  5. I am overwhelmed, but I am dealing with it.
  6. I am impatient. I make short-term commitments.
  7. I’m finishing a marriage contract of three years.
  8. I am reinventing myself constantly.
  9. I have no innocence.
  10. I am seeing a therapist.
  11. I love and hate my parents.
  12. I am bored.
  13. I am spending money out of control—a quarter of a million each month.
  14. I am depressed.
  15. I am self-absorbed. I spend much of my time at home…on-line.
  16. I’m living in a greener world.
  17. I’m passionately following the reunion tour of Beyonce and Brittney Spears.
  18. I am stressed. I have little time to rescue my soul.
  19. I pursue instant pleasure and entertainment and will spend to get it.
  20. I am medicated.
  21. I’m living in a virtual (artificial) world. I plan to try a virtual marriage.
  22. I’ve learned to do things faster. My pace of life is accelerated.
  23. I experiment with preferences in gender and religion.
  24. I still want to change my world, but I am a cynical today.
  25. I am a leader in society now…but realize I am ill-prepared.

Saturday September 22, 2030
6:38 p.m.

“This is crazy,” Josh said, brushing his hand through a thinning patch of sandy blonde hair. He stepped on the accelerator and pulled back into traffic. After five hours of driving, his steel blue eyes felt scratchy and heavy, but that wasn’t his biggest concern.

Alone in his hovercraft, he stopped, gripped the steering wheel and continued to talk to himself, hoping he might hear a clue to his angry confusion. “You’ve had this reunion on your calendar for a year! What’s with the queasy stomach and dry throat?

“Just excitement.

“Baloney!” Josh finally faced reality. Part of him yearned to return to his twentieth high school reunion. Those days were the most pleasurable of his life. He wished for them again. At the same time, he feared this night would be one big reality check. His dreams had evaporated. He lived with chronic disappointment. Life in 2030 was nothing like he’d imagined.

“I guess I was hoping to make a bigger splash.” He mused to himself.

“The only big splash this time will be your fat butt.”

6:58 p.m.

Josh pulled into the half-full parking lot at the Country Club. Finding a space with a view of the entrance, he watched people amble in. Twice he caught himself reaching for the controls to restart the engine. This really wasn’t the way he’d always pictured his reunion playing out. Where’s the chiseled hunk with the beautiful girl on my arm and all the stories of the bio-fuel empire I was so sure I would create? Hopefully the lights will be dim. Or maybe if I wait until they’ve had a few drinks…maybe they won’t see the real deal…

7:04 p.m.

Dr. Will Dreyer pulled up in the same parking lot. He, too, was a bit apprehensive. Two decades ago he was the Guidance Counselor at this high school, and he hadn’t been back for years. He left that position to start his own practice as a psychologist—and now, many of his clients are his former students. Ugh. They still seemed to be kids at 38.

Dreyer drank the last swig of coffee from his mug, set it down in the cup holder, and opened the hatch of his hovercraft. As he stepped out onto the parking lot, he felt that same pit in his stomach he felt years earlier. This school was pregnant with bad memories for him, but he had promised two of his former students he’d come to this year’s high school reunion. So, he reached for whatever resolve was inside of him, and walked through the doors of the school. As he entered, his mind wandered: Why did I let those alum talk me into this? What worse, why do I not anticipate seeing my old students all grown up now? Wasn’t that normal? Why can’t I get excited about this event? Why am I afraid of what I’ll find?

7:25 p.m.

Both Josh and Dr. Dreyer meandered into the country club auditorium, unbeknownst to one another. They were men from two different generations and had never met. Josh was 38. Dreyer was 63. Both were about to confront reality on a new level.

As each peered around the room, conversations had already erupted among the former classmates. But somehow this time, the buzz and chatter was different than it was twenty years ago. Josh could overhear the former cheerleaders talking to his left.

                                         *   *   *   *   *   *  *

“Oh my gawd!  Brittney—is that you? You look amazing!” Rachel shouted over the loud music.  “I can’t believe it—you look 20!”

“Well, I had a little help,” Brittney smiled. She noticeably stopped at that comment.

“OK, c’mon, what’s your secret? Is it in your genes or is it something I can get over the counter?” laughed Rachel. “I gotta know if I can buy it, too!”

Brittney was hesitant to say anything, not knowing how it would be taken. Finally, she spoke up. “Uh, well…I was like everybody else here for the last fifteen years.”

“What do you mean?”

Another pause. “Like…check out the people in this room. What do think I’m talking about?”

Rachel looked around her. All she could see was pear-shaped bodies, and artificial smiles. It took Brittney to make her stop and notice, but it was very clear. “I see fat and fake,” she said with resolve. “Is that what you mean.”

“Exactly.”

“So?’

“So…I spent some money, so I could at least get rid of the fat. “I got a Full Body Repeat and I’m taking some of the…the uh…well, you know, the happy pills.”

“No #@*X#!  That’s no secret. We’re all taking Medocrine (the proper name for happy pills). Who doesn’t take those today? I’m on a double dose every day. But, you look so good on the outside. Is that the Full Body Repeat?”

The Full Body Repeat was a new and popular procedure that allowed adults to bring in a past photo and receive a makeover emulating the look they had as a 21 year old.

“Yeah,” Brittney reflected. “ Like most people, I couldn’t stand how fat I was. None of us expected to put on another fifty pounds.”

“And a lot of us wish we could have stopped at fifty,” Rachel added. “I think I need to do what you did. The trick will be to get the money from my mom and dad. You sold me.”

“Do what I did. Just tell them it’s expensive to be happy these days.”

                                   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

McKenzie and Drew stood by the bar, sponging up the free alcohol. “What are you doing with your free time these days,” McKenzie asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” muttered Drew. “Video games, I guess.”

“You haven’t changed in twenty years—do you know that?”

“Yeah, but no one has. Just look around you.”

Drew was right. Even at this reunion for the class of 2010, several of the 38 year-old guests were seated at video stations alone, playing games. It was so ironic: truckloads of adults in a crowded room, sitting solo playing a game.

“Let me ask you a question,” McKenzie inquired as she gazed at the gamers. “Why do you think so many of us are still playing these games as adults? My mom says her generation stopped playing them when they started their career.”

Drew just stood there, pondering her question. A thought finally struck him. “I guess for me,” he responded, “I keep playing because the virtual world is the one place in my life where I feel I can win.”

                                   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Dr. Dreyer shook his head, as he stood at the entrance of the country club, surveying the crowd.  Over and over, he kept thinking that these people are acting like overgrown teenagers. They behave just like they did twenty years ago. Only then, they had an excuse. They were adolescents. His throat grew parched as he watched, so he decided to grab something to drink.

“Dr. Will Dreyer!” It was a voice he recognized, but the volume was unfamiliar.

Will turned to see Shawna, a client of his, with three of her friends approaching.

            “Hey everybody, she asserted. “This is Dr. Dreyer, my shrink.” She giggled as she feigned pride over her relationship with Dreyer. “I see him every week for my love-hate relationship with my parents.” She was surprisingly bold. Dr. Dreyer blushed.

“I remember you!” recalled Emily. “You’re a shrink now instead of a Guidance Counselor?  #@%$*!--I need to be seeing you about the same issue. One day I adore my mom and dad. The next—I’m so bitter I want to kill them. I don’t know why.

“Are you serious?” Will Dreyer inquired.

“Absolutely!”

“Hellooo? All of us have this LUHU thing going on with mommy,” Shawna chimed in.

“LUHU?” Dreyer sheepishly asked.

“Love U, Hate U.”

Dreyer understood more than he let on. He grieved over how many adults today experience this paradox because of their parent’s doting, hovering style years ago. For some, it was still going on. Some of these adults were still living with Mom and Dad.

                                 *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Josh smiled when he spotted Kyle, an old soccer teammate. At least he recognized someone at this gig.  He walked over to him. “Hey buddy—what’s up?”

“Not much. Just getting some entertainment from watching the crowd.” Kyle yelled.

“Give me the scoop. What’ve you been doing for twenty years? I mean, where do you live? Are you married? Any kids?” Josh was fishing for conversation.

“Well, I tried the marriage thing, but it didn’t last,” Kyle remarked without regret.

“Oh, I’m sorry, dude. If it’s any consolation, I’m on my second one myself.”

“Well, the real deal is not for me. I signed on to the virtual marriage thing, and it seems to be working for me. I am actually happy and I like me better.”

“I’ve heard about that. What’s it like?” Josh questioned with a bit of curiosity.

“Well, you don’t have to do a three or five-year contract like the real marriage thing. In the virtual one, you can go as low as two. I just can’t see shacking up with someone for longer than that. Too boring.”

“Hmmm.” It got Josh pondering his own marriage contract. “The short term commitment thing sounds great, but what about…I mean, well, you know. What about sex?”

“It’s covered. The contract includes the virtual pleasure machine. I can get it when I want it, as much as I want, with no strings attached. It’s all on a simulation machine.

“Oooh. That sounds weird!”

“Hey—I get bored easy man…and I don’t have the patience for all the relationship trouble you have to go through in the real thing.  The real thing takes a half an hour. This takes care of things in seconds. It’s so much easier.”

                                  *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Dr. Dreyer excused himself from the LUHU group he was talking to and wandered over to the corner of the room. As he gandered at the attendees, he reflected and began talking to himself: “What has the world come to? I suppose every generation of parents asks this question, but today, it had to be worse than ever. These people will not grow up. They are changing careers at a breakneck pace. At the same time, they spend money with reckless abandon. Both of these factors have put the economy in a mess, for them personally and for the nation. It’s like their whole life is one big experiment. An experiment with preferences, religion, genders, marriage, careers…it was out of control. No one had prepared them for the real world.  The whole thing caused Dreyer to grieve, right in the middle of a class reunion. The irony of the whole thing is that he quit his job at the school because he couldn’t take the narcissistic high school students on campus. Now, he was still meeting with them twenty years later—and they were no more mature today. He was determined to do something.

                                  *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

9:25 p.m.

Josh scanned the room again, hoping he might spot other friends. Instead, he saw an older face that looked familiar. “Over there in the corner,” he said to Kyle, “isn’t that our Guidance Counselor? What was his name…Mr. Dreyer?”

“Yeah,” Kyle confirmed. “Except now it’s Dr. Dreyer. He runs the biggest private counseling service in town.”

“What’s he doing here?” Josh asked.

“I don’t know, but I bet he’s making observations,” Kyle said. “He’s sort of an expert on people our age. Wrote a book about us a couple of years ago. I’ll bet half of our graduating class is in therapy with somebody on his staff. Actually, I’m meeting with him twice a week.”

“No kidding? I wonder if he…”

Dr. Dreyer turned and caught Josh and Kyle staring at him. He smiled and approached them. “Hi, Kyle. It’s always good to see you. And your friend looks familiar, but I’m afraid it’s been too long. Help me.”

“It’s Josh,” Kyle said. “Josh Woodson. Believe it or not, we played soccer together once upon a time.”

“Of course,” Dreyer said, reaching for Josh’s hand. “I remember now. Woodson. Entrepreneur in the making, right?”

Josh blushed. “I’m just waiting for everything to come together. It’s all in the timing, you know. Maybe next year.”  

Dreyer’s eyes twinkled as a knowing smile deepened the creases radiating out from them. “Timing’s a funny thing. Seems to have a mind of its own, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, I keep throwing bait at it—probably a dozen different things in the last fifteen years—but it just hasn’t bit yet.”

“That’s one approach,” Dreyer said without a hint of disapproval. “I see it a lot. I’ve even seen it work once or twice.”

Josh’s brow wrinkled. “Doesn’t sound too promising.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to judge too quickly when there are so many factors to consider. I wish we had a little more time. I’m working on a project right now that might be of interest to you. And your situation would provide more data for my research.”

“How about tomorrow?” Josh asked, surprising himself. “I’m here for the weekend and I haven’t made specific plans yet. Just sort of playing it by ear.”

“I think I can make that work,” Dreyer said. “I should be out of church by noon, and my afternoon is open. Why don’t we meet at the high school at two o’clock? I can get us in, and it’ll be fun for you to see the old place again.” 

The conversation with Dreyer got Josh thinking. A lot. He suddenly realized that this reunion was an escape for every old friend he saw. All of his classmates felt compelled to project their self-worth, but each seemed to be living with depression or disillusionment. In highs school, they were all so optimistic about changing our world. He just thought it should feel like the good old days, but it didn’t. Not really. It felt like everybody had twenty years of disappointment they were trying to cover.”

The evening ended blandly.

                                 *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Sunday September 22, 2030
2:05 p.m.

Roaming the halls of the empty school brought a flood of memories for Josh, most of them good. Dreyer pumped him with questions about his childhood, his parents, his home life, and he answered them all. Decent grades had come easily, as had a proliferation of awards, ribbons and trophies—many of them for just showing up.

Josh couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “I thought I had it all figured out,” he said. “Everything seemed so simple, so remote controllable. Just push a button and the doors of your choice will open.”

“And it hasn’t turned out that way?” Dreyer asked.

“Not close.”

“Do you feel like you’re making progress?”

“I don’t know, it’s confusing. I feel like I’m working really hard. Virtual meetings all day every day. But reading between the lines, my promotion is unlikely. I’m hopelessly in debt. My marriage contract with Sarah expires in a couple months and I haven’t figured out what I want to do about it. I’m not sleeping all that well. I don’t have a lot of energy at work. I can’t stand my parents, and my son can’t stand me.”

“Wow. Sounds pretty tough. How does it make you feel?”

“How do you think? Like a loser.”

“What do you think you should do about it?”

“You’re asking me? You’re the one who’s supposed to have all the answers.”

Dreyer kept smiling. “You can’t imagine how often I hear that. But it’s not that simple. I could give you a plan with all the answers wrapped up nice and neat. Depending on the details of your circumstances, it might even be a pretty good plan. But it wouldn’t be yours. You wouldn’t own it. It would just be another bunch of good advice like you’ve probably heard in the past but thought it didn’t apply to your life.”

Josh thought for a moment. “When people have given me advice in the past, I’ve always weighed it and decided which parts were worth keeping. I thought that was being responsible.”

“It could be, Josh. Not every piece of advice is appropriate. But here’s the problem. Too often we misjudge ‘appropriate.’ We may hear something we don’t like because it requires discipline or commitment. Maybe it requires us to delay gratification and take a longer-term view. Maybe it requires us to back off of our self-absorption and see the value of others. Whatever it is, we conveniently dismiss it as not appropriate in our case. In fact, our ‘not appropriate’ label can be a cover-up for irresponsibility. We have blinders on.”

Dreyer slowed his pace, fished a key out of his pocket and unlocked the door to the library. “I don’t think it does much good for me to lecture you, Josh, but let me go just one step further. Here, let’s have a seat for a few minutes.”

After settling into two comfortable chairs, Dreyer leaned forward and looked squarely into Josh’s eyes. “I picked up your pattern in our first few minutes together. Remember when I asked about your childhood and all that background stuff?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“I see the same pattern so often, I could have written your book immediately.”

“You didn’t say anything about it.”

“I didn’t think the time was right. Until people are ready to receive it, the truth doesn’t do them much good.”

“I’m ready.”

“Good, but let me start by making it clear we can’t shift all the blame to someone else. People may fail us, but we are still responsible for our own lives.”

“Okay. Lay it on me.”

“Josh, I’m not going to speculate on why your parents did what they did; it was probably with the best of intentions, thinking they were showing love. But here’s the unfortunate truth. They made your life way too easy. Too much pleasure, too much protection from consequences, too much artificial stimulation, too much empty praise, not enough work and not nearly enough discipline. How does that strike you?”   

Josh blinked. “I’ll tell you how it strikes me. It feels like a kick in the gut. And I think you’re wrong. I think my childhood was pretty good. And I don’t think I’m the spoiled brat you’re describing.”

Dreyer looked as though he expected that answer. “I know,” he said. “Our childhood experiences create our concept of normal. It’s difficult for us to think it could have been unhealthy—especially if it felt comfortable. We’re talking about self-deception here, and it’s a common disease. In fact, it’s so common, I’ve never seen anyone who didn’t have it.”

“What about you?” Josh asked with a tone that implied “Gotcha!”

Dreyer laughed. “Are you kidding? Me? Self-deceived? I’ve got it worse than the average. Why do you think I became a shrink?”

“Well then what makes you think you can give me advice?”

“Good question, Josh. In the first place, understanding that you’re self-deceived is the first step in treating the disease. The greater your awareness, the greater your chances for stepping out of it in any given situation.

“And in the second place, I’m not giving you advice. The best I can do is to help you see yourself accurately and sort through some of the ground clutter—all the stuff that distorts your values and contributes to self-deception.”

Josh’s shoulders slumped. “This isn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear. No magic bullet?”

“No magic bullet. But don’t be discouraged. Think of it this way. You just need to do a little mental reprogramming. You’ve grown up valuing the wrong things. There’s more to talk about than we can cover right now, and it would be confusing to hear it all at once anyway. So let me focus on just one important issue.

“How often did you hear your parents or teachers say something like, “Wow! You’re a natural. You picked that up so fast. You’ve really got talent!”

“Pretty often,” Josh said. “And it made me feel good. Like I could do anything I wanted.”

Dreyer nodded. “Of course. And that’s what they wanted you to feel. Like your future was an open book that you could write any way you liked.”

Josh looked confused. “So what’s the problem with that?”

“The problem is that they made it seem easy, like you should be able to do something great without really breaking a sweat. They gave you unrealistic expectations. The life you had in middle school and high school did not remotely resemble the one you’ve entered as an adult. Am I right?”

Josh just stared at the wall, reflecting. Dr. Dreyer continued.

 “You thought you could build an empire by just pitching the right bait out there and everything would come together for you.”

“Well, it does for other people.”

“No, it may look like it, but the reality is ninety percent below the surface. A successful life is actually filled with monotony and long-term commitment. You’d be surprised how many years—or decades—it takes to achieve overnight success.”

“Not very encouraging,” Josh said. “So what are you saying, it’s all a pipedream?”

“Not at all. You just need a new perspective. You need to learn the value of sustained effort and of learning to treat failure as a learning tool. Sounds easy, but you have a lifetime habit that will be hard to break. You’ll need a commitment level that is foreign to the way you’ve been doing life.”

Josh winced. For the first time in his life, he came to grips with the fact that he had a love-hate relationship with his parents and a love-hate perspective on his past teachers and coaches. Why didn’t they prepare him for this?

 “Are you sure it’s worth it?” he asked.

“That’s the ten million dollar question. To me the answer is obvious, but my answer won’t mean much to you. You’re the one who has to determine whether it’s worth it, because you are the one who will have to make the investment. What do you think?”

“I’m not sure what I think. Maybe I’m not cut out to win in life. Or maybe you’re wrong. Maybe I should just keep doing what I’ve been doing and let it come to me rather than chase after it. I think that’s a better fit for me.” 

5:45 p.m.

Josh walked out of the building, preparing for his long drive home. He was already evaluating the last 24 hours. Disappointed by the lack of “prospects” at the reunion and disheartened by Dr. Dreyer’s assessment of his situation, it occurred to him that he was at a crossroads.

My fantasy of a fulltime virtual life is clearly not a practical solution. Scratch that option. But there might be an equivalent. Who knows what’s really on the other side? What if I “accidentally” slammed into that concrete overpass at 100 miles an hour? At least I’d be done with this pathetic excuse for a life. Maybe that’s the door to my fantasy. Maybe not. Big risk. Other options?

Dr. Dreyer had seemed pretty sure of himself. And even when he nailed me, he always stayed optimistic. But if I accept Dreyer’s assessment, do I have enough determination to develop some discipline? Could I establish a reasonable strategy and stick with it? Am I capable of adopting longer-term values? Maybe I’m already too far gone, too old a dog.

As he walked across the parking lot, he saw Megan, an old friend he noticed at a distance the night before at the reunion.

“Hey—Megan Walker? Is that you?”

“Josh Woodson. How are you?”

“Well, to be honest, I’ve been better. I was just talking to Dr. Dreyer about…”

Megan giggled like a high school girl. “You too? I’m here to see him now.”

Josh and Megan began to philosophize as to how they ended up in such a condition. How could a group of students so sure of themselves turn out this way? How could they spiral from optimism to cynicism like this? How could life fall apart the way it did?

“Maybe we should just disappear and start over somewhere else, someplace where things are run the way they should be,” Josh said.

Megan laughed. “And where would that be?”

“You’re right,” Josh answered. “Okay, maybe we should just disappear.”

“Listen to us!” Megan said. “We sound like a couple of old has-beens.”

Josh grunted. “Or never-beens.” 

Both walked away. Megan to a meeting with her shrink. Josh back to his life of disillusionment, wondering if it was too late to change.

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