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Works and Days

Strangers in a Familiar Land

August 29th, 2011 - 9:00 am

It’s Just Different?

I suppose Facebook and Twitter and the other assorted new social networks are our generation’s version of the now nearly extinct Masonic Lodge, Grange, Elks, and Kiwanis clubs. But for all their brilliance, they really are not; the former are solitary pursuits dependent on a reliable Wi-Fi signal; the latter were fleshy events, where one saw, met, and talked to real people. We are isolated in our homes and life is far more harried. Here I agree with the lament that today’s poor married couple is unimaginably strapped with daycare, two-income responsibilities, and paranoia about super-parenting that ranges from proper computer tutorials to ensuring a young family a granite counter and stainless steel refrigerator. In contrast, my grandmother’s biggest moment of the day was ringing the cast iron chime at lunch, so all of us from all corners of the farm could flock to her wonderful communal lunches.

The Spoken Word

I confess to a bad habit. I have DirecTV satellite out here on the farm. But about once or twice a week I mostly watch only one channel and at one time slot: the Western channel in the late afternoon. They have a daily trifecta of Wagon Train, Paladin, and Gunsmoke. Last week the great Richard Boone was quoting Homer and Milton. Either the producers had writers who read literature or they expected that some of the audience did, or both. The plots are usually inspirational and moralistic — and would hold today’s viewers’ attention for about thirty seconds. They lack the earthiness of contemporary police thrillers, but there is a nobility and simplicity of expression that ultimately is far more uplifting, asking audiences to aspire to elevate their culture rather than to remind us, in admittedly often brilliantly realistic fashion, just how sick we have become.

Of course, you object, that today life’s is far easier and better. It surely is. Technologically we sit on the collective work of a few giants over the decades. Our phones, computers, Internet, and HDTVs provide us with options unimaginable in my youth; take away Urocit and I would have kidney stones weekly. But why and how we deserved our electrical appurtenances are not so clear. Most of us don’t know anything about how they work; few grasp the nature of globalized trade or the mechanisms of how a tiny few engineering high priests in Silicon Valley create ingenious designs and outsource the fabrication to hardworking and meticulous Asian fabricators. The result is sometimes an anomaly: an illiterate gangbanger can, by folk instruction and tribal lore, become a master of iPhone apps, but not be able to read any of the small print manuals accompanying his phone. I see just that scene in action daily at Wal-Mart — or better yet, the colored icons on today’s electric checkout counters that allow one to see and punch at, rather than read or compute, a problem. Without bar codes, we would have mayhem: the more sophisticated the technology, the less educated those who use it. In place of a literate society, we need only a tiny literate cloister to invent and service inventions for the masses.

The look of us has changed as well. We are far more wealthy with far more goods and yet dress far more shabbily. We seem far more obese than a half-century ago, and yet, given our plethora of new drugs and procedures, also more long-lived. While the rarer fat person of a bygone age paid for his girth with thirty years less life than what we now take for granted, nevertheless our ubiquitous obese (despite far more knowledge about cholesterol, calories, and health) can live longer than yesterday’s thin and rugged. It is almost as if a select medical elite is dreaming up constantly new pills and operations — from knee replacements to blood cleaners — to allow us to live longer and heavier. The warehouse store’s self-propelled shopping cart is ever more common.

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