Vonnegut’s Bergeron comes true, sort of 

More and more, I find myself thinking about Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s memorable short story, “Harrison Bergeron.”

Harrison is gifted both physically and intellectually, but in Vonnegut’s predicted society of 2081, thats a no-no. The government took him away at age 14 for his superior abilities. His father George was also smarter than the average guy, but was handicapped by the government in the name of equality for everyone.

Hear it from Vonnegut:

“(George) had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.”

In Vonnegut’s vision, it’s all due to a series of constitutional amendments that dictated that people be equal in every way. I used to think it was a far-fetched notion. Yet with the current anti-intellectual sentiment of the ruling party with its need for a gullible populace to believe – and get worked up about – alternative facts, maybe it’s not so far out there.

The story takes place in a dystopian future, but in a way, it’s already come true 64 years early.

I’m not talking about the clunky, low-tech distractions in the 1961 short story. 

Instead, I think of Harrison when I’m writing away and a pleasant ding or a buzz gives me a Pavlovian rush. True, it’s a far cry from Bergeron’s ear blaster. Most importantly, I choose my tablet. It’s not required by law (yet) that I carry this or the miniature “phone” version. I’ve been advertised, envied and social-mediaed into not being able to live without them. I’m distracted mostly by pleasure, like the promise of a pretty, ego-stroking red dot against a Facebook-blue background. George was distracted by painful noise. 

I certainly don’t want to get rid of these electronic Swiss Army knives that help us communicate with the world and remove the old road blocks between artists and their audiences. I’m just not sure I want it to dominate my life and change how my brain works

I pick up my device to do something. It dings. I respond and am left wondering, ‘What did I come here for?’

Many have drawn parallels between our trails of cookies and George Orwell’s “1984”. Undeniably, we’re more open than ever to having “Big Brother” follow our every move. There’s a full-scale gold rush to data that used to be locked in our brains. 

The more sophisticated our communication tools become, the more we grab for them like Badger and Skinny Pete for Mr. White’s blue meth. And the more data bits we toss into the banquet for the corporations and governments to feast on.

And the dishes keep piling up in the sink.

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The rough childhood of a baby-boomer

Hey fellow Boomers,

I’ve seen those posts you make on Facebook saying that life was rougher when we were young and we’ve got the calluses to prove it.

Our video games were like moving cave drawings.

We got spanked.

We had to get up off the couch to change the channel.

Our moms smoked when we were in the womb.

Well, OK, that last one could be serious.

But really, boomers?

I mean, I’ll grant you that it seems like kids these days have their heads in their phones just about every waking moment. Then again, so do their parents and grandparents.

And I admit, posts about the good old days are fun to read. Nostalgia is always a kick. It’s great to reminisce about the wall-anchored anvil we used to call a phone, or the plastic yellow thing we had to stick in a 45 to play it on a record-player, or heavy tin pop and beer cans with no opening tab.

Heck, some things really were both harder and better at the same time. Walking to and from school really was healthy both physically and mentally.

But before we pat ourselves on the back, let’s stop to consider: We really do sound like our parents and grandparents did.

And of course, their hard-luck stories were generally that much harder.

Like pooping in a flimsy wooden shack over a hole in the ground, even in January.

Like worrying about dying from illnesses that mean little more than a couple days off work now.

Like having to envision the characters on a radio drama, AND having to get up off the couch to change the channel.

And we used to roll our eyes when older people told us those things.

Or prior to that, our grandparents’ world might have meant living out on the prairie where bugs constantly crawled out of the walls of the soddy and they had to get up off the couch to smash them.

So yeah, I had fewer and less-dazzling conveniences than the kids of today. But one thing this suburban child of the ’60s and ’70s didn’t have was a rough life.

Success for dress

This whole thing about the dress had me scratching my head.

How could so many people circulate this dress just to debate its color?

Then I realized it’s one of those things that can distract any office at about 2 p.m.

Someone has a picture, shows it to the person in the next cubicle and says something like: “is this an alligator or a crocodile?” or “is that her hand or is his dick hanging out?” or something like that.

Within minutes, everyone in the building is hastily finishing phone calls, wandering over to see what the commotion is and offering their opinions.

And then they notice the boss has come to his/her doorway to stare them down, so the sheepish exodus can begin.

Now, we all work together, with a Facebook tab looming in the background.

We can turn an office conversation into a global productivity glitch.

And I still don’t give a shit what color that dress is.

What does concern me is that our global conversations could be that mundane.

It almost makes me nostalgic for pictures of people’s lunches.

My devices work for me, not the other way around

It’s a triumph sometimes just to put my tablet down.

I struggle to not let my activities to be dictated by when my devices are charged.

I have to remind myself to do something other than play Angry Birds or re-watch an episode of Breaking Bad or pop open all of my apps one-by-one to see if there’s something interesting that can distract me.

The distractions will find me, dammit! I don’t have to go looking for them.

But that’s the degree to which I – and a lot of other people, I’m sure – have given our lives over to these portable computers.

Think back, just 10 years or more, when most computers were rooted to a desk. Relatively easy to walk away from, though they did already have the power to hold you in one spot like a TV does to many of us.

Even laptops have their limitations as far as mobility goes.

But now, I often feel like I need to be toting that thing around with me wherever I go.

That’s why I’m pretty sure I’ll never change my mind about wanting to have a computer on my face like Google Glass, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to have one on my wrist.

I’ll admit, I had similar doubts about mobile devices at one time. But I’ve taken to those little everything-machines pretty completely.

Now, I’d just like to keep them off of – and out of – my body and remember to take a break from them every now and then.

Life expectancy and expectations

I’m pretty lucky to be living right now, particularly being a 55-year-old man.

If I’d been born in the 1920s, as my father was, at this age I would be bumping heads with a man’s average life span.

That doesn’t mean I’d be necessarily checking out right away. It might mean that making it past 5 without my fragile system succumbing to the consumption, I could have a reasonable chance to make it another decade or more. That is, if I just toss around the medicine ball a bit more or sit in front of the radio a bit less.

If I were this age at that time, I’d probably look older than I do, because people years were worth fewer dog years back then. Younger people would see the attic door of death hovering right over my fedora.

One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t have just had a tiny camera slid up my rear end to tell me I don’t have to worry about one of the lurking hazards for a few more years.

Yet here I am at this age in the 21st Century and I’m looking forward.

I’m aware that I could go tomorrow, of course.

And that’s part of the beauty of being this age: I’m well aware of the attic door up there, and when I think of it, I keep moving forward.

 

Not always looking at the holes

Robin Williams’ suicide made a lot of people start talking about depression.

I don’t know if that’s why I keep hearing about it from people I know, but I’m glad they’re getting it out in the open.

I know from my own bout with it a few years ago that feeling alone in it is a huge part of the problem. Or seeing the wonderful lives of all of your Facebook friends.

At least that’s the way it was when I was suffering a few years ago.

It was at the heart of the Recession, and that wasn’t helping things much, either.

Plus, I had quit my job of two decades a couple years earlier and the work I’d had came to a standstill and I was paralyzed by a lack of confidence.

I never considered doing myself harm, largely because I couldn’t do that to my children. But I fantasized a lot about dying. For instance, I’d had an out-of-control semi slide through the winter slush into my little Saturn and just crunch the rear end of it. I kept wishing it had caught me a split second earlier, right smack dab in the driver’s door.

But here I am, four or five years later and I don’t always look at the holes in everything. I realize there’s good and bad in every situation. Sure, you’re naive if you only dwell on the good, but you’re just as wrong if you dwell on the bad.

And my career is moving again.

So I hope that anyone in that tunnel stays with it and tries to move forward, because it does (most likely) end.

 

 

 

Labor Day

It’s a cruel myth that Labor Day is the end of summer.

Sure, it’s realistic. Sucky days are coming.

Who knows that better than a lifelong Michigander?

But treating it as the end of summer – something that’s too short to begin with around here – is downright pessimistic and mean.

September can deliver some of the hottest afternoons of the year. And it doesn’t just feel that way because you’re wearing school clothes now.

October can still coax some sweat out of you while dazzling you with colors.

Granted, gone are the nights so warm you can go naked.

But I’ll let those great days to come keep me going.

We had a hell of a winter last year. I don’t know if we’ll get one like that again.

So in the meantime, I’ll soak up all the sunshine and optimism I can.