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It's autumn, sure, but don't close all the windows

November 6, 2006

It’s an autumn ritual that I resent every year:  finally giving in and closing the windows.  I put it off until it's freezing because I hate to leave the summer behind.  When it's inevitable, I close every window tightly.  Then I reluctantly attach storm windows to seal me more completely inside.

These windows need to be closed; we’re trying to observe a strict energy policy at our place.  But are there other windows, metaphorically speaking, that we close for no good reason?

When I was a kid I worked in record stores.  Over seven or so years of selling music to all kinds of people, I developed a theory that everyone’s musical taste progressed nicely until the moment they got married.  Then something seemed to cause people to forsake the world of the new, the interesting, and the unfamiliar to embrace the world of the predictable, the dull, and the done-to-death.  If you got married in 1959 as my parents did, you would listen to “Mac the Knife” forever.  If you got married in 1975 as Bill Clinton did, it might be Fleetwood Mac.  But either way, the probability that by 2004 you'd be chilling to Mac Dre was nil.

I’m no scientist so I never got beyond noticing the trend, but a renowned biologist named Robert Sapolsky, in his 40s like me, made a study of it.  It started when he realized he was being slowly driven insane by his 21-year-old personal secretary.  The secretary, named Paul, sat just outside Sapolsky's office playing vastly different genres of music from one day to the next.  Klezmer, Grand Old Opry, Sonic Youth, Puccini, Pygmy love songs.

Sapolsky became utterly annoyed.  Not due to the incessant music; what irked Dr. Sapolsky was that Paul was not stuck in any rut.  Dr. Sapolsky was jealous.  He wondered how at barely over 40, he himself had become one of those old people who listened to the same tired music over and over.

As reported on National Public Radio a while back, Sapolsky decided to study people’s willingness to try new things.  He looked at three areas popular with younger people:  music, body piercing and sushi.  He found that the window for trying new music is wide open to age 21 and then it narrows until it’s firmly shut by the age of 35.  At that point, no matter what exciting musician arrives on the scene, people don't care.  Their window for musical adventure is closed.  But you can sell them James Taylor - or whatever they already know - for the rest of their lives.

As for that tongue stud, if you haven’t indulged by the time you're 23, you're very likely to skip it.  And statistically speaking, if you haven't had your first encounter with sushi by age 39, it’s not going to cross your lips.  Your sushi window has closed.

I’d forgo the piercing, but where's the harm in trying a little sushi and new music?  Must we close all our windows with such finality?

It’s like politics.  Polls repeatedly show that voters are vastly unhappy with, say, the U.S. Senate, but they nearly always re-elect their own senator.  What we say to the pollsters is that our window for change in the senate is wide open, in fact we’re begging for it, but when it comes to our own local senate race and we have the opportunity to actually choose a new senator, we rarely do.  Our window for new ideas, new leadership, is closed.

Is it inevitable that our windows must be sealed shut?  Do we have to become stodgy and set in our ways?  Can we reverse this process?  Can someone go out at 40 and enjoy his first sushi dinner?  If so, what music will he listen to on the way?  Bob Marley's greatest hits, or, with all due respect, something by someone who hasn’t been dead for 25 years?

The moments of sheer audacity are the ones that bring growth.  I want to concentrate on being open, in mind and heart.  I'm already noticing that it comes less naturally as I age.  This week as I walk around my house closing all my literal windows, I'll try to leave the metaphorical ones open.

---
BARB GUY is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune


 

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