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Thursday, February 28, 2008

The World You Never Knew

One of the things I hear from readers a lot--and I take it as a great compliment--is that I seem to be able to slip easily into a teenage mindset. That I remember well what it feels like to be fourteen or sixteen or nineteen. I'm not sure that's true, but it's nice to hear. What I do believe is that a part of me is still very much fourteen and sixteen and nineteen.

On a practical level, though, what that really means is this: I remember what it felt like to not have a job, to not have kids, and to believe that the good guys always win in the end--that cooler (and smarter, more sensible) heads would prevail.

Some of you, reading that last bit, are thinking: "dumbass, I'm a teenager and I don't believe that. I'm not that naive." Well, I know you're not, and that's exactly my point. At some point (and I think I know when) a wall went up between the teenagers that WERE and the teenagers that ARE. And that means it's no longer enough for me to *remember* being a teenager; I have to go and find out what the experience of being a teenager is now.

So, back to that Wall. Its bricks are grim reality, determination, and an acknowledgement at far too young an age that the previous generations have royally screwed the world. Its mortar is the absolute certainty that there is NO guarantee the good guys will win in the end, that it will take a new generation of smart, determined leaders to blow off the cobwebs of corruption that are holding the old ways in place.

A few years ago, John Mayer sang about "Waiting for the World to Change." Now, Barack Obama is campaigning on the promise of bringing about the change he was waiting for. All of it appeals to American teens and twentysomethings who already know it's gonna take a fight to stop global warming, to get honest leadership, to spread peace.

That's the hopeful side of Life After the Wall Went Up. But there is a much, much darker side as well.

See, that Wall I keep talking about, the one that separates *my* teenage years from the ones my oldest son is just embarking upon? Its foundations were laid on September 11, 2001. It grew even higher in late summer and fall of 2005, when government at all levels abandoned the people of New Orleans in the days before and the months and years after Hurricane Katrina.

Maybe that sounds far-fetched to you, but it's not. It's just the truth. My grandparents lived in a world BEFORE people knew that atrocities like the Holocaust were possible in modern times. After World War II, a Wall went up between generations, separating what people believed BEFORE and what they believed AFTER. My parents can recall the era of change and hope and excitement and prosperity--the era historians call "Camelot"--of John F. Kennedy's presidency. They lived in a world BEFORE people knew that an American president could be assassinated in modern times. And I spent my teen years in the 1980s, in a world BEFORE there had ever been an enemy attack on American soil in modern times. A world BEFORE terrorism meant anything at all to America, except as something that happened on the other side of the globe. A world before 9/11.

Teenagers and people in their early twenties never knew what it was like to live in the world I grew up in. Sure, for the most part, what it means to be a teen hasn't changed that much in twenty years. But even though most may not realize it, their lives and attitudes ARE different. Both in the hopeful ways I mentioned above, and in the grim acknowledgement that 9/11 happened, and it could happen again...that Katrina came, and the government turned its back, pointed fingers and blamed others, and left people to save themselves.

Every generation seems to have one of these Walls. But the Wall is different this time. After the Holocaust, most of the world said "never again." After JFK, and RFK, and MLK, most of the world said "never again." And in their hearts, they believed it. But NOW we say "never again," even though so many people only half believe it, and instead are waiting for the *next* thing. We hear government officials telling us all the time that it's inevitable that there will BE a *next* thing. A superflu pandemic that kills millions. A global meltdown that kills millions and makes many millions more into refugees. A dirty bomb nuke in a major U.S. city, or a nuclear attack from abroad. Total economic collapse.

After the Wall Went Up on 9/11, the American people became convinced that, though they might not know what the *next* thing is, it's definitely coming. One of these days, SOMETHING will happen.

To that, I have two responses. First...Duh. There's always a *next* awful thing. Just as there's always a next wonderful thing. Always new fear, just as there's always new hope.

But, second...this certainty. The people who will be ready, the people who will ACT when the time comes, are the people who are too young to remember the world they never knew, the world before the Wall. They're the ones who understand (earlier and perhaps better than any previous generation) that they have to fight for the future they want.

So whether it's environmental disaster, medical tragedy, religious jihad, or....(as in my novel SOULLESS) the walking dead....the ones we can count on are the ones who already KNOW they have to act to safeguard their future. See, John Mayer comes from a generation of slackers, all of them sitting around just waiting for the world to change.

But the next generation...they're ready to change it.

And those two facets--the grim truth about today and the bright hope for tomorrow--are a big part of the story BENEATH the story I'm telling in SOULLESS.

See, and you thought it was just about zombies.


Kelly Parra said...

A thought-provoking post, Christopher! I'm looking forward to Soulless! :)

Anonymous said...

Preach on!