The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Texting At The Table Raises Papal Ire – And Mine, Too

Oh, Hell, Mr. Bell, What Have You Done?

I've finally got an ally in my quixotic campaign to get people to put their damn phones down at the table. And what an ally! The Pope, no less!

In a recent speech at Rome's Università degli Studi Roma Tre (aka Roma Tre University), the Pontiff told a gathering of kids to get off their phones during family meals. Grazie, Papa. I've been beating that drum for years. And His Holiness took the subject pretty seriously, warning that the rapid decline in real, old-fashioned face-to-face dinner conversations can have dire consequences for society. “When we're at the table,” Pope Francis opined, “when we are speaking to others on our telephones, it's the start of war because there is no dialogue.”

War? Okay, even I never took it that seriously.

Of course, when he's talking about “speaking” on the phone, he's more likely referring to texting because the vast majority of phone addicts are texters rather than talkers. Especially among the younger set. I'm not entirely sure most kids even realize you can make calls on a phone.

Back in 1973, Jerry Reed recorded a song called “Lord, Mr. Ford” which detailed the stress, anxiety, traffic jams, pollution, parking problems and other less than positive effects of the automobile on society. The chorus sums it up:

Lord, Mr. Ford, I just wish that you could see
What your simple horseless carriage has become.
It seems your contribution to man,
To say the least, got a little out of hand.
Well, Lord, Mr. Ford what have you done.”

Too bad Jerry's not still around. I've got an idea for an update: “Hell, Mr. Bell.”

Do you suppose Alexander Graham Bell had any notion back in 1876 that the fruit of his labor would someday tear at the fabric of society? That a Pope would liken his device to an engine of war? I doubt it. I don't think he foresaw a miniaturized version of his creation being stuffed into the pocket or purse of every person on the planet. I read about a teenager who bragged about her ability to eat with one hand while texting with the other. I don't believe Bell would have understood that. I don't think he would have understood kids sitting in a room using his apparatus to communicate with other kids three feet away. I don't think he conceived of throngs of people walking the streets heads down while poking at a portable keypad in their hands. Or of the deadly idiocy resulting from the pairing of his invention and Mr. Ford's. Oh, hell, Mr. Bell, what have you done?

Listen, I'm an old guy. I remember when my phone number had letters in it: ROckwell 3-6417. The Pope's an even older old guy. When he was a kid, you picked up the phone and said, “Operator, get me 432.” Us old guys see the world differently because we've been in it longer and remember more of it. Boomers like me have a different perspective on things than Gen X-ers do and Millennials have still another standard of “normal” based on their life experiences. Things I consider “normal” – like not lighting up a movie theater with your damn flickering phone screen or actually sitting at a table and talking to the people right next to you – are often incomprehensible concepts to younger people, not because they are intentionally stupid and ill-mannered, but because they have a different idea of “normal.”

I was watching a “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” rerun from the 70s the other night and was a little jarred when I saw him light up on TV. It was still common practice in those days. My Gen X wife can barely remember people smoking on television and my Millennial kids not at all. If I mention the clever “Benson and Hedges” ads on TV or if I talk about the “Marlboro Man” galloping across the screen to the tune from “The Magnificent Seven,” I get blank stares all around. Cigarette advertising was banned on radio and TV in 1971. What was a normal part of my growing up was no part of theirs at all.

When I learned to dial a phone, it had an actual rotary dial on it. Push buttons came later. I recently saw some hilarious and yet somehow disturbing video of today's kids trying to figure out how to work the very telephones with which I grew up. They had no clue. My wife remembers a rotary phone in her grandparents' house, but my kids – two young men in their mid-30s – have only seen them in old movies and museum exhibits.

The societal sea change, the cultural watershed moment, came in the 80s with the introduction of the cellular telephone. When I was a kid, “mobile phones” existed, but only in James Bond movies and the like. Operating on RCC (Radio Common Carrier) networks, they were the purview of the super-rich. I had a plastic toy telephone when I was a kid. I'd take it along with me in the car sometimes so I could pretend I had a “car phone.” Cellphone prototypes were developed in the 70s, and by the mid-80s my childhood fantasy had become reality. My first cellphone was a whopper: a corded handset attached to a battery mounted on a carrying frame with a handle and an antenna. The whole assembly weighed ten or fifteen pounds. It cost thousands of dollars for the unit and airtime went for a dollar a minute. Needless to say, it wasn't exactly “my” phone: it belonged to the radio station for which I worked.

The progression from there is mind numbing. Within ten years, cellphones had shrunk down to pocket size. They had become infinitely more affordable and were well on the way to becoming ubiquitous and then to being practically indispensable. Especially with the advent of “text messaging.”

Think about the cultural repercussions for a minute: Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone in 1876. A hundred years later, we were still relying on basically the same technology. And then within a decade, the way we communicate turned completely upside down. And not only in terms of technology but in our attitude as well. Nowadays it seems life is all about “being connected.”

When I was a kid, and even into young adulthood, if I wanted to “be connected” and tell somebody something, I had three choices: I could wait until I saw them in person, I could write them a letter, or I could call them on the telephone. I wrote letters to distant family and friends because long distance phone calls were expensive. If I were out and about somewhere and wanted to talk to somebody, I'd have to find a pay phone and drop a dime in the slot. Instant, spontaneous, live streaming communication was not possible unless you were face to face. Today all bets are off. Whether you are in the car, in the boardroom, in the bedroom, or in the bathroom, you are now “connected” with nearly everybody on the planet twenty-four hours a day.

In many cases this is beneficial. Thanks to cellphones, gone are the days of being stranded by the side of the road. Emergencies and critical situations are much easier to handle. Even common “I'm going to be a little late” or “honey, pick up some milk on your way home” scenarios play out more simply and efficiently. For most people, the communication revolution has been a good thing.

But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. For far too many people, especially younger people with no other frame of reference, the availability of instant communication has become an addiction. For most people of my generation, it's a matter of necessity. We use cellphones when we need to, and “need” is pretty narrowly defined. For people who have never been without cellphones in their world, cellphones have become their world. And that's not a good thing. I don't know about the Pope's assertion that it's a precursor to war, but it certainly contributes to an overall decline in society. Especially at the dinner table, an area that was once sacrosanct.

I don't know whether to be angry or sad when I see cellphones come out at the table. A little of both, I guess. It makes me angry that younger people have such different norms; that they haven't been taught better by the people of my generation. They think it's perfectly okay to sit down at a table with another person or several other people, pull out their damn phones and start texting away. That it's acceptable to all but tell the other person or people there with you that they are unimportant. That they are not worthy of your attention because you are communicating with somebody you deem more important or you are involved in a game or a video or Facebook or email or whatever it is that takes precedence over the person or people sitting across from you.

The arbiters of all things mannerly at the Emily Post Institute have a definite opinion on this behavior: they say don't do it. “It's not good manners.” According to Emily Post, you don't text when you're involved in any type of social interaction with other people. They advise that if you're breaking out in a cold sweat because you just have to share the latest gossip with your BFF, you excuse yourself, go out somewhere and text your heart out. Then come back with your phone safely stashed away where it will not cause further intrusion. But nobody does that. It's not convenient and, God knows, convenience is nearly as essential to modern life as being “connected.” It's sad. It's rude, it's ill-mannered, ill-bred, discourteous, impolite, and just plain ignorant. And yet it is increasingly de rigueur.

That's what makes my quest so quixotic: I can't do a thing about it outside my own sphere of influence. My anger, sadness, irritation, and disappointment are meaningless. I'm but whistling in the wind whenever I find myself fulminating and raging against the inevitable trend. And I doubt the Pope's words meant anything, either. I'm sure there were secreted or not-so-secreted cellphones in play throughout his entire speech. What can you do? Keep fighting the good fight, I guess. Pray that the pendulum will someday swing the other way. Hey, vinyl records have made a comeback. Maybe good manners and common sense will, too.

But until such a miracle happens, I will continue to use my phone as a tool rather than as a social crutch. I carry a Swiss Army knife in a pocket near my phone and I'm comforted in the knowledge that both are there when I need them. I don't have a co-dependent relationship with my knife and I don't intend to have one with my phone either. I will use it to make calls as necessary, text when forced, and look up information as required. Otherwise, the damn thing will stay in its case on my hip. I will not use it to endanger my life and the lives of others as I drive or even as I walk down the street. It will not come out at a movie, play, or concert and it will not interrupt the flow of conversation among friends and family at the table. I will not overshare minute details of my existence on Facebook nor will I tweet every breath and bowel movement on Twitter or Instagram every bite that goes into my mouth. In short, I will not sit with glassy eyes cast down upon a flashing screen over which my nimble thumbs dance as I participate in the decline of civilization and the apocalypse to come. Call me old-fashioned if you like. I will thank you for the compliment. Just do it in person, please: no phone calls or texts.

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