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What right do I have to speak for my generation?

A question like that can hit you pretty hard when you are staring into a hotel mirror at some ungodly hour of the morning, after a sleepless night, about to make your first appearance on "Good Morning America." I know because this happened to me not long after I wrote a two-page magazine story coining the phrase "urban tribes.'' For reasons that were never made entirely clear, the producers thought I was a generational expert who could explain why the number of "never-marrieds'' had more than doubled in a single generation. Who were these people who were delaying marriage, they wanted to know, and what were they doing with their lives? I had been flown to New York to summarize the lifestyles and life choices of 37 million youngish Americans.

At such an early hour, that hotel mirror seemed to reflect darkly both me and the ideas that I was there to expound. To say that I saw in that mirror everything I hated about our shoot-from-the-hip, craze-crazy American culture might be putting it too harshly. I definitely wondered what the hell I was doing, going on national television to talk about a demographic group I had yet to fully understand. I wasn't completely without ideas. I had noticed something in my life that I felt might go a long way toward explaining the lifestyle of those in Western countries who were delaying marriage into their late twenties, thirties, and forties. I had the notion that they were forming communities and influencing culture in a way that we had yet to fully appreciate. But it was only a glimpse; I had not had the time to take a close look...

The request to appear on the show had felt something like a summons. I didn't know that producers from morning shows called and expected you to walk out of your life RIGHT NOW and fly to New York so they could wake you up at six a.m. the next day (three a.m. if you are, like I am, from the West Coast) and put you on national television. It didn't occur to me to say no. I was put up in a fancy hotel on Times Square that included a miniature Japanese rock garden (complete with a pencil-sized wooden rake to smooth the sand) that utterly failed to calm my nerves.

The fact that I didn't fully understand the ideas I had been invited to tell the nation about became sickeningly clear when I attempted to describe my concept of the urban tribe to myself in that hotel mirror. I knew my interviewer would ask me what an urban tribe was, but try as I might, I couldn't put the answer together. "An urban tribe comes from the time of life we spend while we're single when we don't have someone to marry because we're not . . . lonely . . . but . . . we . . . are . . .'' I said as a nauseating panic rose in my chest. I stopped, took a deep breath and tried again. "Urban tribes come from our need for a time when we are not spending . . . many . . . years . . . being . . .'' Another try: "Never-marrieds like myself need urban tribes because when we're single, they're the nature of communities that we don't have after we . . . college . . . ourselves . . ."

The words all sounded like they might be useful, but they were definitely not coming out in a coherent order. The problem was more than just sleeplessness mixed with stage fright. The tiny magazine article I had written had little to do with any national trend. I had seen something in my life: namely, that after nearly two decades of being single my group of friends in San Francisco seemed to form a coherent community. I had noticed that this personal community of mine had not only provided me consistent emotional support but had come to influence every choice I made in life, from how I comported my romances to the risks I took in my career. I guessed that others in my circumstances might be living in similar urban tribes, but in truth I had no idea whether people were living similar lifestyles in Detroit, L.A., or New York or for that matter Montreal, London, Paris, or Sydney.

If you've ever had the dream that you had to take a final exam after never attending class, you may have some small inkling of the nightmare I was living. I was about to be quizzed on national television on a topic I knew precious little about. Trying to calm myself, I made some hotel-room coffee and forced down a Luna bar. I left a voice mail for my girlfriend back in San Francisco, telling her not to watch the show when she got up. Then I threw up the Luna bar and went down to the lobby to meet the network page who was to take me to the studio.

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