It's Time to Pencil In Some Spontaneity

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"It's really great to talk to you again! Can't wait to get together."

"Well, shall we make a date? Lunch maybe? Dinner? How's this week?

"Aahh--this week's looking crazy--completely manic. I'm looking at my schedule now and it looks like I'm totally booked. How about the week after next? Things should've quieted down a bit by then."

"OK, Wednesday that week? Thursday?"

"Now--yeah, Wednesday--yep, Wednesday might work. OK, let's make a plan."

"Where would you like to meet?"

"I'll look into it--let's talk closer to the time, shall we? And then confirm on the day?"

"Great."

"Great. Can't wait. Take care."

How many times have you had that phone conversation this week? I've had it in all its banal, generic glory about three times already, and it's only Tuesday. And I will have it next week too, and the week after that. And it's the same conversation that every one of my 30-something friends will be having, give or take a word, this week and into next month and the great beyond.

So, what's the big deal, you might say? Isn't this simply innocuous date-making between busy friends, people striving for success who work all the hours that God sends, who are mostly single and therefore have to do everything for themselves? Well, yes, on the face of it. But I am more and more convinced that each time we have such an exchange, we are seeing, indeed facilitating, a far bigger, and I would say graver, social phenomenon--one that touches virtually all of us. We're witnessing the protracted death throes of the very thing that most of us would claim to value the most in life: The Meaningful Social Life.

And you might be thinking now that this guy's got it all wrong; all he's doing is showing us how his own "friends" obviously want to delay seeing him for as long as possible, and he is mistakenly dignifying a crushing personal problem by blowing it up into some great anthropological development. I'd agree if not for the fact that I sense a growing disquiet in those very friends and colleagues around me, an increasing desire for some--any--kind of spontaneity in their relationships, along with a feeling that there is a growing pointlessness to so much of the endless meeting and greeting, the rushed drinks in crowded bars and the seemingly never-ending quest for a mutually convenient restaurant.

One friend--an otherwise averagely gregarious guy--admitted to me that he couldn't remember the last time he had had an off-the-cuff, on-the-spur-of-the-moment beer with a friend, and more depressingly, he couldn't conceive of doing it in the foreseeable future.

Social life is becoming more scheduled than ever before. It's something to be fitted into lives that, although seeming full and enviably crowded with demands, look and feel increasingly like train timetables. Being based for the last two years in L.A.--perhaps the least spontaneous city on Earth--I've become used to having to make more of a physical effort to simply stay in touch because of the need to drive everywhere. This certainly wipes out the simple pleasure of feeling that by walking among your fellow human beings you are experiencing worthwhile contact.

But I have enough discontented friends in New York and in my hometown of London to recognize that this is not simply a feature of this privatized city alone but has the potential to be one of the great urban preoccupations of our time. In those cities, the potential for "flaking" on a get-together is still much less than here, simply because they're so crowded that you're likely to be found out, whereas L.A. is a great city for those who wish to hide. But all three places measure the richness of life increasingly by the crowdedness of a schedule. "You should get out more" is, after all, one of the most popular current put-downs.

Of course, we all have a tendency to see the problem as arising out of the rigidity of others, when in fact we are all in it together.

Recently, a friend in Santa Monica whom I hadn't seen for a couple of weeks (I guess I hadn't made a reservation) quite seriously suggested that we should get together for coffee for precisely 35 minutes, for that was the window she had between pressing appointments--slightly unfeasible considering that I work in West Hollywood. Wanting to talk about a situation in my romantic life, and feeling that it couldn't be summed up during the course of one latte, I had to demur.

Another stressed-out buddy called me so many times to change a dinner date that, when all the little snippets of these phone conversations had been joined together, we found we didn't have much left to say to each other when we eventually made it to the table. It's hardly surprising that so much socializing now feels somewhat exhausted.

My friends and I all came of age during the era of the Filofax, back in the bad old days of the '80s, when acres of little pages covered with scrawled appointments were the proof of a rich existence, and when those ghastly terms such as "penciling it in" and "quality time" first reared their heads. Having a life meant being out all the time, being visible. Compared with now, however, those days seem positively free and easy, bohemian even. Not only do we have social lives that have to be set with the care and formality of a first date, we have to cover all our tracks on cell phones, answering services and e-mail. It's one of the paradoxes of our time that with all these methods of communication at our disposal, people have never seemed more inaccessible. We now all have relationships that hang by the thread of an e-mail, ones that would disappear into the ether completely if it were not for the ever present promise, likely never to materialize, of an actual physical meeting.

It's certainly possible that, being in our 30s and mostly single, we are all still living 20-something lives; that in past times we would all have been at home with families and that the manic filling of evenings would not be necessary. But as my poor friends and I get ready for the onset of early middle age, it seems we are not alone in our increasing loneliness. A whole new generation is waiting to take our place, a generation that will make us look like carefree slackers. David Brooks' recent excellent article "The Organization Kid" in the Atlantic Monthly painted a bleak picture of young students at Princeton who worked so hard and had their eyes planted so firmly on the future that they were forced to regularly set aside "phone dates" with their best friends, often during the early hours when their schedules permitted some minor flexibility. The richness of their lives, one felt, was something they saw totally in terms of what could be achieved that day, and what new experience or task could be acquired for the greater glory of their resumes.

And this is the root of the problem. Social life has become completely professionalized, just as most of our lives have become dominated by the demands of work. There has always been that dubious gray area between work contact and freely chosen friend, but now the way in which we fix and schedule our "outside" life seems governed by the ethics and practices of our all-consuming jobs. With security a thing of the past, we are all competing against one another, and in this brave new world, every parcel of time has to be weighed for its time-effectiveness. You can see it in the very language that we use. Take my phone conversation, for example, which--like many of yours, no doubt--was characterized by all the warmth of a conference call. "Wednesday might work--let's make a plan"--such language seems more suited to setting up a pitch meeting than for a presumably relaxed get-together.

And as for that conversation--did we manage to set something up, you might be asking? Well, we did talk "nearer the time," but in a fatal lapse in the new protocol, I decided to leave something to chance, didn't go to Stage Three and failed to confirm on the day. My friend duly didn't turn up, and I was left sitting, smiling faintly into the middle distance in the designated bar on Sunset. Ironically enough, it was I who, not having completely "locked it down," was left to do all the apologizing the next morning. But we're all back on track now. As for dinner, well, we're currently shooting for 2002. And you know what? I think it might work.

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