October 9, 2009

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Look! Listen! It’s me! Just don’t get too close!

Cynthia DewesNothing gets my adrenaline going like remarks I hear, some infuriating, some clever and some startling because of their insight. This can happen when I am listening to radio or watching television, in conversations or just overhearing someone in passing.

That’s because language is my thing, and it always grabs my attention, either spoken or written.

Recently, a piece on radio made my day by quoting Julia Child on the secret of her healthy longevity. She said, “I use red meat and gin.” Not politically correct, but agreeable to my way of thinking.

On another occasion, a comedian said a certain man he knew was “cautiously optimistic, which for a Norwegian is practically delirious.” Now, one might need to be from Minnesota or Wisconsin to appreciate this remark, but it sure spoke to me.

Another radio segment discussed how often reality show participants will say, “I’m not here to make friends.” They are speaking of their relationship with their competitors, in whatever contest they are in, whether it’s becoming the last survivor, or snagging a rich bachelor for a husband or winning an opera-singing contract.

The cutthroat tone of this remark describes the essence of such “reality.”

As the radio commentator said, these people are really not on the program to win prizes, but to win attention. They need to be “on,” to be noticed, to be celebrated by everyone in cyberspace, including strangers. It puts to shame Andy Warhol’s idea that we will all have our 15 minutes of fame at some time in life.

People used to have this quaint notion that in order to be interesting or useful to others we should prepare ourselves. We should get an education, identify and develop our individual talents, and think through the ideas we want to share with them. We should also be prepared to listen and learn from the others who do the same. The result was called wisdom, and it took a while to gain.

But now, in these days of instant everything, there is no time to prepare. We have decided that we don’t really need to know anything in order to inform others, and we feel we are entitled to be the focus of attention. So possible embarrassment or reticence is simply not a consideration.

Now, in addition to reality shows, we have equally dubious opportunities to expose ourselves by way of MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and whatever new technology appears next. It is true that no man is an island, but in these times every man is more like a continent itching to be discovered and put on the map.

The worst thing about all this is not ignorance, although that’s bad enough, but the lack of intimacy it fosters. We are more connected to others by cell phones and computers and digitalized personal information than ever before, but we are not connected in the ways that really matter.

We feel obliged to tell the world our business, important or not, but no need to relate in person to our computer game opponent or “chat room” companion. But most of us lead pretty ordinary lives doing ordinary things, which are neither interesting, informative or inspiring to others.

The real “reality” is that most of us don’t deserve wide attention. So, beyond our relatives, good friends or business contacts, why would we care what others have to show and tell? My adrenaline really got going on this question but, maybe, if I keep listening and reading, I’ll find the answer.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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