Anywhere, Unlimited

This is as much a confession as a rant, as much a catharsis as a condemnation.

Nobody got anywhere in the world by simply being content. -Louis L’Amour

In the United States we are dumbing ourselves down and fattening ourselves up by using too many things that offer unlimited use anywhere, any time. It has shaped our entertainment and social habits. Certainly, the individual is responsible for self-control, and besides children I’m not arguing that there are any victims here. I’m just making observations.

This all goes back to my (not original) belief that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

When video games first hit the scene, one had to go to an arcade and insert (someone’s) hard-earned money for each play. Only a relative few ever “finished” a game, and without exception, casual gamers and those regularly entering their initials on the high score lists had to leave when the place closed — if their money held out that long. They went home, and the game stood alone in a dark arcade while the players lived their lives.

Video games could be played at home, but the options were limited compared to today. For at least a decade home video game consoles lagged far behind the gameplay experience on standalone arcade machines. At that time, too, time playing video games at home had to be coordinated with the family’s TV viewing time. Home computers could play comparable games, but most home PC owners didn’t own an advanced gaming setup. Handheld games at that time were limited to primitive red LED displays and tinny speakers producing simple bleeps and bloops.

Now gamers can enjoy their favorite pasttime at any time, anywhere, with graphics and sound easily rivaling that found in the arcades. Playing one hour costs no more money than playing 24 hours. It’s not unusual to see a gamer start playing at 7 p.m. and continue into the wee hours of the morning. In some sad cases, even that time-frame would be considered restraint.

Like video game play, movie viewing at first required a trip outside the home and a price for each opportunity. Gradually, as technology improved, the movie-watching experience in large part migrated from the theater into the household. For decades, viewing movies on demand at home required paying for each movie either by purchasing or renting. Just like when movie theaters held a monopoly on the viewers’ options, paying attention to friends’ suggestions and critics’ reviews helped determine which films were worthy of shelling out the green. Sure, there were cable channels like HBO and Showtime available at a flat rate, but the viewer was limited to what was scheduled, and the stations increasingly moved toward airing original series.

At the advent of television and decades beyond, viewing was limited to the hours that the local stations were on the air. For many Americans, when the broadcast day ended, it was time for bed. In rural areas where cable TV was not available, this remained true until small, more affordable satellite dishes hit the scene and grabbed a significant share of the market.

Thanks to around-the-clock programming and Netflix, movie and TV viewing are not limited to any certain schedule, and the viewer can see what he or she chooses, without time limit, for a flat fee. Although VCR’s have been around for decades, the popularity of time-shifted viewing did not take off until the digital video recorder made it easier than setting an alarm clock. Although all of the above undoubtedly have been a boon to TV fans who do not work an 8-5 shift, that is not the crowd addressed here.

Talking on the telephone once required using a device tethered to a wall. Then it required only a base be attached, with the user free to roam about the home. Mobile phones, at first relegated to powerful boxes that rarely if ever could wander from a car’s lighter socket, took communications outside the home but still in or near a vehicle.

Now mobile phones (often lumped into the more specific category of cell phones) are ubiquitous, at first supplementing and now often replacing the old-fashioned land line. No matter where the user goes, he or she can communicate with people who are miles away just as easily as speaking to someone in the room — as long as the battery doesn’t run out. One can (and often does) ignore those in the immediate vicinity, sacrificing development of face-to-face social skills and making it simpler to avoid diversity.

Thanks to texting, however, one can be rude quietly and politely.

In all the aforementioned areas — gaming, TV, movies, communication — the size of the devices required has become so diminutive that it’s more convenient to carry them around than it is to lug a book or a newspaper. In addition, because they provide their own light source, they can be used anywhere, around the clock. Reading is becoming increasingly optional, too, as most of these devices also play video and audio.

We’re turning our society back to a time when only a select few could and needed to read and write, and the rest lapped up whatever was delivered to them.

By themselves these technologies are amazing. The internet and the ease of connecting to it have helped ensure that one can always find like-minded individuals or those with differing beliefs. Revolutions in the real world have been started on the internet. More choices in entertainment have all but eliminated “appointment TV” viewing, and gamers can get many more hours of enjoyment from a $50 game than the same amount of money would provide in an arcade, often without sacrificing the social context.

The capitalist system requires consumerism to survive, and today’s devices do an impeccable job of supporting that by delivering both paid and ad-supported content. What made America and Americans great, however, was not sitting still and consuming, but moving and creating — also vital components of a successful capitalist economy.

All of this convenience requires we use our eyes and our ears, but not necessarily our minds or bodies. Watching a story, with all the characters’ appearances and scenery decided for us, has become as easy and as portable as reading and using our imaginations. This has contributed to the creation of a culture that encourages complacency — a trait that leads to laziness. In the end, if we cannot control ourselves, we will become dumber and more isolated — easy targets for rising nations.

The Brevity of the Situation

Some may remember my post, “Had Just Assume Forget.” In it I rant a bit about mangling of popular phrases and of grammar in general. In “You Should of Seen It,” I have fun with common mistakes.

On Monday while on my lunch break, I thought it would be funny to have a character mistakenly say, “the brevity of the situation,” rather than “the gravity of the situation.” I searched for that exact phrase on Google, using quotes, to see whether anyone else had thought of this (which usually reveals that my idea was not new).

I got 206,000 hits, and after clicking down to the third page of results, I realized that the writers were using it incorrectly, not satirically. In one case it was used in a tirade about Sookie, an annoying character from “The Jersey Shore.” There it was not surprising, but often it was used within text that otherwise seemed to be written by an educated, well-read person. (On second thought, perhaps the Sookie comment was a very clever reference to the character who calls himself “The Situation,” but I doubt it.)

Curious, I searched for the phrase “the gravity of the situation.” That time I got 1,200,000 results.

That means that, out of a total of 1,406,000 occurrences of both phrases, “the brevity” was used nearly 15% of the time. I can’t possibly know whether it was used for comic effect or not, but extrapolation from the first three pages of results on that phrase isn’t promising.

Please pardon the gravity of this post. I mean, the brevity. Dang!

Benjamin Waxes Poetic

My wife went through a large stack of papers and projects our son brought home at the end of first grade and found these poems he wrote.

Pump Pump Pump
Mimry (memory?) in my heart
Love love love
I love my heart

Mrs. Kenely (his 1st grade teacher)
I like her
I like her a lot
Oe (oh) yes I do
Mrs. Kenely
I rember (remember) her evry (every) day
Now I am at home
I miss you
bye Mrs. Kenely bye

Noah (his best buddy)
nice, playful
Laughing, bouncing, sleeping
He is my buddy

Butterflise (Butterflies)
Btterflise here Butterflise there
Butterflise on my bushis (bushes)
Sucing (sucking) necter (nectar) in the flowers

Writing an Amalgam

The young woman in “Sweeper’s Peepers” was an amalgam.

Yes, on my last work trip I saw someone with very dark hair and blue eyes; there was a Subway employee sweeping the floor while I ate; and there was a woman who somewhat comically heard me wrong when I mentioned her eyes.

Rather than write separately about all three, I decided to combine them into one person. I hear “real” writers do this all the time, which is one way they are able to put the disclaimer in their books saying, “characters depicted in this work of fiction… not real people… blah blah blah.”

On the plane ride into the customer site (or the nearest airport, anyway), I saw a little girl, maybe about four or five years old, sitting directly across the aisle from me. A scruffy man I guessed to be her grandfather sat next to her. Her hair was very dark — almost black, yet she had pale skin along with bright blue eyes that nearly glowed.

At the Subway, which was the only fast food establishment in the customer’s town or within 15 miles of it, I saw a young, hefty woman sweeping the floor, and except for the parts about her eyes and my getting between her and the Thank You trash can, that scene went down exactly as I described it.

On my way back home, at the airport security point where someone checks the travelers’ ID and boarding pass before letting them go through the scanners, an older woman checked my driver’s license and used her neon yellow highlight pen to make an approving mark on my boarding pass. I noticed her eyes were a shade of green I rarely see, and, hoping that the fact I most likely never would see her again decreased her suspicion that I was flirting with her (I was not), I commented that they were nice. Our dialog played out as I depicted it in “Sweeper’s Peepers.”

So, while the scene itself (except for my stopping Sweeper and talking directly to her) was completely real, the character was a combination of three different people — all complete strangers — whom I saw during the trip. I guess I wrote it as practice just to see how it felt.

Sweeper’s Peepers

She uses short, quick motions to sweep the floor, ending each swipe with an upward flourish sure to send particles into the air. My sandwich and I don’t appreciate it, but the bits of dirt, about the right size for the spaces between boot treads, dutifully play along and allow themselves to be pushed into piles.

The earpieces on her glasses push into the side of her pudgy, pink cheek, but her young, taut skin refuses to wrap around them. Her tan shirt outlines the contour of skin on her back as she moves a chair out of her broom’s way. Dark brown hair, clean and neat, spills down just a few inches below her baseball cap.

Each metal chair skids across the tile floor, the heaviness of the sound belying its size. The area under that table clean, she noisily slides the chairs back into place and keeps sweeping.

She has about half the floor clean now, but a customer making her way down the sandwich line steps around large chunks of dirt.

Three men wearing bright orange t-shirts enter, welcomed by the automatic doorbell’s wordless ping. One of them stops and shuffles his feet on the welcome mat, but still his heavy boots drop tiny clumps of mud in a jagged trail to the sandwich line.

Sweeper’s expression never changes. She continues on her original course while they order, get their food, and leave. Sweep, skid, sweep, sweep.

“At least they didn’t walk in the part you already swept,” I say, and something tells me that was not by accident.

She knows the heavy traffic areas. There for my second time, even I can tell by now that most lunch hour patrons get their food to go.

A woman’s voice comes from the kitchen, where only a head of shaggy, dishwater blonde hair is visible. “That’s what you get in a farming community.” The hair shakes with each word.

The blonde head tilts back and reveals a middle-aged face. A gap-tooth grin spreads across it. “You just do what you can, when you can.” She laughs.

Sweeper remains expressionless and silent, methodically working her way across the floor. Sweep, sweep, sweep. She stops just long enough to look up and take a deep breath.

Her eyes are blue. More unexpected than fetching, they shine through her thin glasses, from below the ball cap, above those high, puffy cheeks. She looks back down and continues the task at hand.

I want to make her say something, but instead I wordlessly carry my empty sandwich wrapper to the fake wood box with the flippy door labeled THANK YOU. Out of habit from my days of wearing an orthodontic retainer, I check the tray one last time before pushing one end through the flap and sliding its contents into the shallow abyss. I stack it with the others.

Sweeper leans the broom on a chair and makes her way toward me with a full dustpan. I cross between her and the THANK YOU box and look directly at her. “You have nice eyes,” I say, trying to appear neither flirtatious nor furtive.

“You, too, sir,” she says as she looks around me at the THANK YOU.

I stand there, certain she heard something else. I raise one eyebrow.

“I mean, um, thank you.” She laughs nervously. “I just thought you said, ‘Have a nice day.'”

I smile. “That’s okay. Do that, too,” I say and turn to leave, back to my own work.