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Pulling the Plug

"A woman calling about her cable in Florida became hostile and quite unreasonable the moment I picked up the line. Apparently, the cable outage, which was affecting her entire area, had "freaked out" her children, who were home alone watching television. We know that parents use television as a babysitter too much, but this feels excessive even in today's world. Of course, the woman herself may have gotten a similar upbringing which stunted her common sense. Why else would she threaten to sue the cable company for the "trauma" her children "endured"?"

From "Operators Are Standing By"

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It is difficult to believe, but the behavior displayed by this woman and her children is more the norm than the exception today. We have grown up with the notion that entertainment is but a flick of a switch away, and when that entertainment is denied or not correctly functioning, we ‘freak out’. These freakouts are the result of what I call ‘entertainment poisoning.’

What is ‘entertainment poisoning’? It is the cumulative effect of passively permitting ourselves to be entertained at the cost of not being able to (a) do without it should an outage of any sort occur, and (b) entertain ourselves should the opportunity arise. We are used to professionals doing the work for us, and we sit back and passively absorb it. Because of this passive absorption, our brains lose the ability to generate original entertainment, and we go through a harsh and horrifying withdrawal.

It is hard to believe, but a mere century ago, most entertainment was generated in the home. Sound recordings were rare and expensive, and musical ‘vaudeville’ shows traveled from town to town, but for the most part, people entertained themselves. There were very few homes without pianos, guitars, flutes, fiddles, accordions and other musical instruments, and nearly everyone learned to play one or more instruments. Families would gather around the spinet piano in the parlor, and play and sing sheet music sold in the general store. Music shops hired people to sing and play ‘samples’ of sheet music for people to purchase. Professional entertainers were few, and not well paid. In fact, society looked upon professional entertainers as one step above vagabonds and prostitutes. To run away and become an actor was a disgrace in many parts of society. Only the operatic singers got any real respect, and then, just barely.

The skills people developed by entertaining themselves spread into other parts of our ancestors’ lives. They could build their own homes, grow, prepare, and preserve their own food, make their own clothes, raise and butcher their own livestock, and generally do things that many of us today would be totally inept at doing.

The changes that one century has brought to us have been staggering in their import. Childhood mortality has been reduced to practically nil, diseases which used to devastate whole populations have been extinguished, and automation and technological progress has brought us from the age of iceboxes in tiny shotgun shacks to the age of Subzero refrigerators in expansive McMansions. The horse and buggy has been replaced by a SUV, and the family farmhouse, where multiple generations once lived together in common harmony, is now an abandoned ruin, if it hasn’t been plowed under to make room for even larger homes with single families. Woodstoves and coal fired stoves have been replaced by high speed microwave ovens, and meals that used to take hours to prepare are now prepackaged, frozen, fished out of the freezer, and ready in minutes. Cooking? Who does that any more?

We have gained much in this century, but we have lost much more. The numbers of people who sew their own clothes dwindles by the decade. As a small child, I remember nearly every department store having a fabric department with sewing machines and notions, and an adept woman ready to demonstrate the latest innovation in sewing machines. Now, only Wal-Mart stocks fabric and notions, and Sears sells the machines, but not the fabric. Most home sewing today is for crafts and quilting, not apparel. People used to fix their own things, too- everything from TVs to toasters and radios had replacement parts available in the hardware store. I remember watching my dad replacing tubes in our black and white Curtis-Mathis TV set in the mid-sixties. Today, with the exception of computer gear and kit radios, you are met with the ‘No User Serviceable Parts Inside’ stamped on the molded back of your set. Car repair for newer cars is now the sole providence of the repairman with a computer probe- shade tree mechanics are a dying breed.

The art of cooking seems to be heading down the same path. More and more grocery store items are now prepackaged and ready for the microwave, and the freezer aisles in many groceries now take up to 6 rows. You can still get meats custom cut, but the days of the family butcher shop are long gone, and the days of people knowing how to prepare things like standing crown rib roasts are dwindling. People eat out on the average of three out of every five days. Canning and preserving foods is a disappearing art, although those who have large vegetable gardens still practice this thrifty art. We did it one year when I was a teen and we had a huge harvest of tomatoes. It was nice enjoying our own homemade spaghetti sauce from our own jars.

Gardening is still faring fairly well. Most people grow flowers, but rural people still enjoy their fresh veggies. There is something satisfying to the soul to see tomatoes you’ve planted slowly growing and ripening on the vine. The plants are all hybrids today, although there are groups of people who save and share heirloom seeds, enjoying the cultivation and flavor of the foods their parents and grandparents enjoyed. We may owe our continued existence to these hardy souls- the genetic manipulation of many of our plants has resulted in a reduced nutritional value, and developers are returning to the ‘old’ plants for ‘new’ ideas.

Our fragmenting families are beginning to pay the price for their separation and alienation. The current generation of children is suffering from a lack of two generations of proper parenting. Instead of having Grandmother on hand to show the mother how to cope with the various problems of child rearing, parents of the fifties and sixties relied not on grandma, but on Doctor Spock and other baby manuals instead. Their kids, who are today’s parents, get their ideas from half-baked psychological texts, popular magazines, television personalities, and pop culture. The resulting TV-raised, spoiled and undisciplined children, are drugged, lugged from pillar to post in a frenzy of extracurricular activities, dumped in daycare, or given the keys for after school, and are left to fend for themselves by overworked, exhausted parents. Kids today are attacked from birth by hyper stimulating, noisy, extreme environments. Advertisements aimed at them prod them to want and buy things from brightly dyed ‘kid bread’ to highly sugared snacks, and junky toys in a burger meal. Parents, tired from working two jobs to make ends meet, feed prepackaged ‘kids meals’ of fattening breaded chicken and fish sticks, burgers, fries, frozen pizzas and microwave meals to children who don’t know the meaning of waiting for food to cook. Little palates get set for fat, sugar and salt. New foods do not appeal, and many restaurants kids menus consist of the same fatty salty kid food that they get at home.

Our ancestors would be horrified at our culture today. Television is one step away from the bloody and mindless ‘bread and circuses’ mentality, and radio is a pop music desert. Musical instruments play themselves, and youngsters give up practice if they don’t sound like their favorite pop idol after the first lesson. They never learn how to scale the curve of gradual mastery through practice, and become demanding monsters who do not understand the art of the journey, or how waiting for something enhances its emotional and spiritual value.

For all our technological riches, we are spiritually poorer than ever. No one really knows their neighbors- they know their colleagues at work better. Churches may be full, but the platitudes they preach are just as empty. We run in little tiny cliques, not interwoven communities. Our cars are cocoons, we communicate by voicemail, and are more isolated and lonely than ever. Disasters are about the only thing that brings us together. When nature knocks out the power, as it did during the Arkansas ice storms of December and January, suddenly we are catapulted back in to the real world- the world of a century ago, where people worked harder, but knew each other and helped each other. We find slower and simpler ways of entertainment, tell stories and share in the simple companionship of friends and family. We revert to those ways until the lights come back on, and once again, crawl back into our artificially glittering, air conditioned, cable ready cocoons, to our own private purgatories. Will we ever learn, or will Nature have to pull the plug on us permanently in order for the lesson to sink in?

2001 by Sunfell

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