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Norah Jones? Like, Just Where Did Tom Jones Go?

March 22, 2004|Thomas J. Cottle | Thomas J. Cottle is a professor of education at Boston University. His books include "When the Music Stopped: Discovering My Mother" (State University of New York Press, 2004).

A host of psychological theorists have offered different versions of human developmental stages. My own is influenced by popular culture and general trends of American society. I'm in what is best described as Stage Nine -- the "this time life really has passed me by" stage, to be followed by the final stage -- "the world has passed me by but I don't care."

Evidence for having entered Stage Nine, what a contemporary's young son calls "early old," is everywhere. Watch the Grammys and find yourself equally unacquainted with the old stars, the new stars, the old songs, the new songs and every product advertised.

Recognition of Stage Nine development is found in the urge to lie to electronic answering devices by claiming one has a rotary phone.

Only neurological decline can explain Stage Niners conjuring up inappropriate reactions like, "But what about the workers?" and, "What's the difference between downsizing and being fired?"

Equally significant is the Stage Niners' need for politeness and good grammar. We get weak in the knees when we realize that no one has said "have a nice day," much less "thank you" in a store, gas station or bank in the last month. We're appalled that the elements of grammar now are "y'know," "like" and "and stuff." Through years of training, Stage Niners have come to believe that the word "like" portends the arrival of a simile. To hear "like" in the middle of sentences without it being followed by a comparison becomes an unbearable aural experience. Stage Niners hold their breath waiting for something, like the return of youth, which never comes forth.

Finally, there is the matter of assigning people to Stage Nine according to what they write. Children move from a period of pre-writing to writing simple messages, then diary entries, earnest attempts at poetry and outlines for great American novels. Then they proceed to CliffsNotes. Then love letters, real letters -- stamped and sealed with kisses. Somewhere in adulthood, shopping lists, "to do" lists and stickies indicate new stages of maturity.

But Stage Niners write letters to editors. Priding themselves in a newfound ability to e-mail these letters, Stage Niners pray that if not published, at least their missives will be responded to, not only because this proves one is alive but because responses mean that one may hear a disembodied voice electronically purr, "You've got mail."

For the moment life may be passing one by, but at least life and self are digitized, which provides further proof of Stage Nine status. For in the end, the Stage Niner is defined as someone exhibiting a total lack of understanding of what it means for something to be digitized.

With one sweeping look back at history, Stage Niners know full well that "early old" is an oxymoron. If I can neither prevent the VCR clock from blinking nor find my way onto the Web, and medical science no longer makes parts for my particular anatomical model, I need no longer fear death.

Moreover, given that the farthest I can travel on the information highway is the breakdown lane, a wondrous irony may await me. Amid all the technological changes, Father Time may be so frustrated with my out-of-date browser he may not even find me.

Stage Nine is not the end of life. The time to worry is when a disembodied voice says, "Like, you've got mail, and stuff."

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