Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Okay, one of my curmudgeon rants...

I’ve written plenty here about how life-threatening illnesses cajole us into examining our lives and making changes. But seldom can we make these changes all by ourselves, in a vacuum. One reason we end up staying a stale course is that we’re embedded in a social matrix that favors inertia. Make a change, and it’s likely those around you will advise, “Hey, we liked you better when you were neurotic.” In other words, significant change requires social support. We thrive when we’re encouraged. The genuine community that supports creative change, though, is in trouble.
My wife Ronnie and I were enjoying a quiet morning sipping coffee recently, on the patio of our favorite hangout. The sun glinted off its metal roof, surreally illuminating the sycamore leaves overhead. A puff of wind caressed my cheek, and I was at peace. Suddenly a full marching band struck up “Stars and Stripes Forever.” As I scanned Broad Street for the glint of brass, the man at the next table reached into his pocket and answered his cell phone.

Ronnie whispered, “Disgusting. Not just bothersome. He’s invading public space with a private act. He might as well just stand up and pee in the flowers.”

Cell phones can irritate me, too, but what exactly is that about? I recalled an incident a few years earlier, while I awaited a flight in the vast expanse of Los Angeles International Airport. LAX teems with solicitors, people collecting for missionary churches, the elderly, the homeless, and, no doubt, themselves. I noticed that they shied away from people who were on their cell phones, which in those days were about the size of a shoe. I didn’t feel like dealing with a solicitor, so as one headed toward me, I whipped off my sandal and held it to my ear. He took one perfunctory glance and veered off. I figured he either fell for the ploy or thought I was flat-out nuts. In any case, I’d implicitly announced I wasn’t there. I’d showed him I had at least one foot in cyberspace. I was in my own virtual gated community rather than in the commons.

Civilization, though, is people living together, behaving consensually with one another, enacting inherited, evolved manners and mores. And it’s decaying.

My farmer friend Alan hires interns every summer. His operation is rather famous, so he receives far more intern applications than there are positions. He told me a surprising number of people apply via text messages. He ignores these, but fears they’re becoming the norm. I suspect this is occurring across the board. It seems an increasing number of young people, raised in this digital age, have little notion of conversation. Transmitting and receiving sound bites, they are indeed exchanging information, but the transaction remains superficial—facts without feeling, depthless data.

Sure, I may have become one of the geezers who sit on the porch complaining about “kids these days.” I remember older relatives a half-century ago, bemoaning the fact that Elvis and his ilk were destroying civilization. (“And my God, have you seen this, what’s his name, ‘Little Richard?’”) So maybe the social dissolution I’m describing isn’t actually so, or exists but is ultimately harmless. But why let all this gray hair go to waste?


  1. Timely: yesterday, as I was leading morning prayers (7 a.m., mind you), 3 of the 11 people there had phones ring, several times each -- and they *answered* them, including during the Torah reading! To make it even more insulting, these were men in their 70s, not kids. Actually, I'm the "kid" at 56....

  2. whine on Jeff.