A Distracted Meditation on Distraction

Note: The piece below is setting all-time record lows of readership over at Duke City Fix, proving, once again, well, a great many things, I guess. I had fun writing it, so at least its got that going for it. Back to transportation and education tomorrow. – Scot

We all need distractions from the burdens of life. We need them even more than those “juicy rationalizations” Jeff Goldblum’s character speaks of in “The Big Chill.”

And like “The Big Chill,” this is a nostalgia post, i.e., it is coming from an old person who will unevenly wax unpoetically about the “good ‘ol days” and how the modern world is collapsing.

It is written with roughly the look on Warren Beatty’s face last night at the Oscars. To use a now very old song as reference, instead of a very old actor, it is written thinking about the Dylan line that “something is happening, and you don’t know what it is,” but that we have somehow gone from cynically laughing at Mr. Jones to BEING Mr. Jones.

Last Friday night, I had the delicious chance to see 8mm and 16 mm films from years ago shown on noisy projectors at the Basement Films “Analogue Spectacular #2.” Celluloid whirred, projector fans loudly tried to displace heat from lamps, more than once film slipped in the sprockets and images caught and blurred in fascinating patterns.

Turnout was surprisingly high for a showing of dated ephemera, including home movies made by unknowns. Many young people were there, viewing National Film Board of Canada shorts and other films that came out well before they were born. There was only one problem, as this old person saw it: more than just a few of these youngins split their time between watching what was on the screen and watching their phones.

They’d give a film like Evelyn Lambert’s animated short “The Hoarder” (my personal favorite) a few seconds before drifting their sight over to the phone, scroll up and down, then glance back at the film. I didn’t have a stopwatch, but the ratio of film viewing to phone viewing seemed about 1:2. I also tried, myself, to avoid the distraction of watching kids watching their phones, but admit it was kinda hard.

Even harder was not being judgmental about this activity at the time and in writing this post. In retrospect, turning away for a few seconds from a 14-minute ponderously pedantic government film about pre-EPA pollution to check Facebook is eminently defensible. Still, I argue that the means for our distractions have become too ubiquitous, and that we as humans beings are having less enjoyable lives constantly diverted to “shiny objects” our technology has made available.

I am also aware of the uselessness of such a view, its demonstrated lack of popularity and my now extreme disconnect from a huge part of what constitutes human behavior in our rich country in the groaning early years of the 21st Century.

In short, I don’t have a cell phone. “Smart” or otherwise.

Looking at the most recent Pew survey data, I’m a member of a mobile-phobic group representing only five percent of Americans, the preponderance of whom are above the age of 65. You know, geezers who have that confused Warren Beatty look on their face when it comes to facing the modern world. While I’m not quite yet into the Warren Beatty, or Donald Trump for that matter, age bracket, I don’t have a cell phone and I don’t quite understand splitting time between Facebook and a movie you paid money to see at a theater regardless of how ponderously pedantic it might be.

Still, there it is and I, Warren Beatty confused look and all, need to observe the human behavior instead of being ground down by judging it. Otherwise, I’m just that old guy, telling kids to get off his lawn and voting Republican, or worse.

So, let’s use nostalgia to better understand “these kids today,” while perhaps also passing along a view into a life before the Nokia Dangermouse or T-Mobile Universiocity plan (honestly, one of the most confusing things about being the no-cell phone guy is trying to understand today’s phone commercials). Let’s get into the Wayback Machine and a world with four TV channels, if you don’t count UHF.

Your humble geezer blogger is eight years old. It’s 1969. Being eight, and living in Texas, I am not wearing paisley, do not have flowers in my hair and have no idea what Quicksilver Messenger Service is. Instead, I am a raging Dallas Cowboy fan, someone who worships Tom Landry more than anyone, but wishes Coach Landry would see the light and replace Craig Morton with that new kid, Roger Staubach.

It is an Autumnal Saturday night and the family sits down to watch TV, specifically NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. I have zero interest in whatever mediocre movie will be shown, however. Instead, I’m sitting, not really paying any attention the film, intensely staring at the bottom of the screen. For it is there that, about every 20 minutes or so, college football scores will appear updating viewers on how Southwest Conference teams like Texas, Texas Tech and our woefully bad local teams, TCU and SMU, are doing.

Those football games aren’t on the other channels, 4, 8 and 11, not even the UHF ones. There is no ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN News, or ESPN Classic. There is “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction” on CBS (the killer “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Bob Newhart,” “Carol Burnett Show” lineup came in a few years), “Lawrence Welk” on ABC and “Hee Haw” on Channel 11. The UHF channels just have church shows, and, besides, the picture is too scrambled, because you didn’t want to switch your antenna over to UHF from VHF because then the VHF channels were too scrambled.

That’s it.

So I’m sitting there for twenty minutes imagining what events have led to Texas beating TCU 42-0 in the 3rd Quarter (and trust me, Texas was always beating TCU 42-0 in the 3rd Quarter in those days), playing out possible scoring scenarios in my mind while the mediocre movie ponderously droned on and I kept staring at the bottom of the screen waiting desperately for the next update.

So what’s the difference between me in 1969 and nameless youth scrolling through Facebook while “watching” a film about gluttony in 2017? Not a hell of a lot, really. We all can use all the juicy distractions possible in this life, even if those distractions are atop other distractions in a triple-decker club sandwich of reality avoidance.

Anything but that.

And anything but a cell phone. One day, probably very soon, the ragtag band of us without mobile phones will dwindle to only a few stragglers living in metaphorical caves, utterly cut off from the rest of the world.

Hmmm…that sounds pretty damn appealing these days.

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