A CHANGING CULTURE

Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. At least that's their advertisement. I wonder if they have a government position for counting lakes. And I wonder if anyone has seen all of them. I'm sure it's not exactly 10,000. I saw some of them in and around Minneapolis recently while visiting my friend Erin for the weekend. 

Erin took me on a driving tour of several lakes that are within the city limits. It was a beautiful August day – sunny with temperatures in the low 80's. While driving around and looking at them, Erin and I talked. That is more than I can say about most the thousands of people who must have been out enjoying the lakes. There were people jogging, biking, skating, and walking. However, most of them were not really enjoying nature, and most of them were not interacting. They were wired. The number of earbuds, headsets, and Bluetooth earpieces outnumbered the people. There were iPods on belts, wrists, pockets and who knows where else.

That night at dinner I saw a family of four eating together. But they weren't really together. The two kids were listening to iPods and one of them was playing a hand-held video game. I think mom and dad might have spoken to each other. After dinner they probably all went home and watched their TVs and/or played video games.

Perhaps I'm old fashioned or just nostalgic, but I long for the days when people interacted other than in bars. When I was a kid, our family didn't get a TV until I was almost a teenager. We were the last in the neighborhood to get one. In the summer evenings our family often sat on the back porch and talked. My sister and I would play in the yard or sit with the folks. Our grandmother lived with us and there always seemed to be something interesting or funny being said. Later we would go inside and sometimes play cards or other board games. 

During the day, when school was not in session, I biked with my friends, played in the woods, hung out with the neighbors, and had quality time with my family. It was actually fun being with family – well at least most of the time. TV did bring some families together at first. But that was when households had only one TV. Now families have TV's in each bedroom and family rooms. Everyone has his or her own. Students bring them to college with them.

When I was driving through Rocky Mt. National Park and marveling at the scenery there was a large SUV in front of me. Two kids were in the back seat watching a movie on a screen. In the visitor's center at the top where they have lots of photos, information and history of the area, a couple of kids were listening to iPods while another played a game on his cell phone. They were either unaware or ignoring the purpose for being there.

At the guest ranch where I worked for five summers as a wrangler, taking families on horseback rides up into the mountains, on more than one occasion I had to tell kids to either leave their Walkman in their room or not go on the ride. I refused to waste my time and the energy of their horses if people were going to blatantly disregard the world around them.

There is no TV in my Colorado summer home. I don't go to Colorado to watch TV so I see none for three months. In my home back East I have a TV only because when I was engaged my fiancˇ had one that broke and we replaced it. It's still there but she's not. I cancelled the cable, put an antenna on it, and watch it perhaps a couple of hours a week. I feel guilty about that, but I like Leno and try to watch his monolog each night.

I really have no idea about where our new, wired culture is heading or whether it's good or bad. But I don't like it, and I have a bad feeling about it. For one thing, the cultural gap between the US and the Middle East and third-world nations continues to widen as our youth become more and more visually and audiologically occupied with things largely irrelevant to life, while youth over there are attuned to what's going on around them.

My concession to the wired world is that I just bought an iPOD, but I refuse to have earbuds or a headset. I bought the iPod because I'm tired of shuffling CDs. I'm putting them all in my iPod. It plugs into my truck stereo system so that when I'm driving around the country, which I do a lot, I can enjoy music – in between NPR news broadcasts and books on CD. Oh, and I have a Bluetooth earpiece for my cell phone. But I think people who walk around wearing them look like dorks, so mine never leaves my truck. Its only purpose is to meet the hands-free requirements that some states have.

I do play solitaire on my computer. Yikes, I'm up to 9949 games. Okay, so I also get 20 or 30 e-mails each day and have my own web site – three of them actually. I guess that makes me wired too, but in a more creative way. Ah for the good old days when electricity was only for lights, families were the center of activities, and people didn't have anything in their ears but wax.