Thursday, September 4, 2014

Communities that Kill Their Elders

We've been part of our neighborhood swim-team since our kids were tiny, floppy little minnows.  My older son is one of the Fifteen-Eighteens now, having somehow magically become one of those huge towering gargantuan Seniors.

The demands of swim team are immense, requiring logistical complexity and high levels of coordination.  Either parents are engaged at a significant level, or it just doesn't happen.  And so summer is filled with that busyness.

Our son enjoys it, and it's fun.  But having done it for almost a decade, I can see the endgame coming.  In two years, this will no longer be part of our family summers.  And I notice something else, as he reaches the final couple of years of his engagement with the team as a swimmer.

What I notice are the parents who are no longer there.  I remember their kids, the teens who used to lead the raucous tribal ritual cheering at the beginning of every meet.  I remember them, running things, making things happen, busy and chatting and working hard together.

But they're gone now.  Those faces are no longer part of the circle.

It's a peculiar form of human gathering, this "team sport"/"children's activity" thing.  I look around the pool, and there are no elder statesmen, no wise-women, no-one past the child-rearing age.  There are just younger parents with younger kids, new faces one and all.  Nine years ago, we were those people.

Now, those little lights in our palms are starting to flicker, to make an obscure reference to a cheesy 1976 scifi flick.

There are echoes of former stars, up there on the wall of names.  But--with one or two exceptions--the tribe drives off its elders and its heroes the moment they "age out."  Those relationships fade away and die.

And of course, there are exceptions.  There always are.  There are parents who swam on the team, years ago.  There are the young coaches, back from college.  But they are the anecdotes, the outliers.

What does this say about our approach to community?

The activities and programming that fill the crowded lives of American parents and children are a fiercely demanding form of community, sure.  But they are a community that churns, that severs relationships, that builds ties that are as fleeting as youth itself.  The moment soccer or tae kwon do gives way to something else, those faces around you disappear.

And your children grow up, and you find yourself wondering--where are all those people I knew?

Such a strange, strange culture we have created.