Finding A Commons
I came up with a clever analogy the other day, a metaphor that just popped into my sleepy brain. It was a throwaway line, but, as I said. Clever. I liked it, thought about it a few seconds, then hoped it would stick around for a time when I could pop it into a sentence.
It occurred to me today, though, that I’d better use it sooner than later. It has a shelf life, considering that it contains a cultural time bomb.
If I were to say, “And that’s the way it is,” and did it in just the right way, sonorous and authoritatively, most of you would get it. That’s how Walter Cronkite signed off his CBS newscast every night. Everybody knew Uncle Walter. I remember when he did his final Evening News signoff—I was in college. I remember when he died—I was driving with my daughter across the country, as Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett joined him in unexpected exits that summer and death was in the mix.
We’re not producing any new humans who understand the reference point with And that’s the way it is, in other words. Even my kids, who are as dialed in and aware of current events and recent history as anyone, are probably at most 50/50 in terms of odds when it comes to getting it. And nobody younger.
And they shouldn’t. What does it matter? A tagline from an ancient medium that honestly doesn’t really exist for people much younger than me, network news, ho-hum. From a journalist I never particularly cared for, as a matter of fact, and whose career places him alongside Tom Brokaw, in my opinion, not Edward R. Murrow. I thought he was overrated.
But I can’t casually toss out that expression without understanding that it’s lost its anchor to anything substantial. Just words now. No loss, just noting.
As I did with my spontaneous turn of the phrase. Can’t really say I’d like to buy a vowel for too much longer and expect it to make sense.
I’ve been writing about this for years. Obviously it bothers me, or worries me or something. As our culture has developed niches within niches, as our choices broadened and then exploded, we lost community. A sort of community, anyway.
A 20th-century community, too. Technology altered us, and exposed common ground, or at least ground we’d agree to call common. People on either coast were listening to or watching the same things, as film and radio grew into television networks, a neat quasi-monopoly on what we experienced as a culture. Everybody listened to Jack Benny, everybody watched Milton Berle, everybody paid attention when Walter Cronkite read the headlines.
I’m not lamenting anything, or mourning. Just observing. I appreciate the variety of choice as much as anyone. There are currently four adults living in this house, and in the evening each of us is doing his or her own thing. My wife is reading, my son is watching a web series or playing a video game, my tenant in the basement is mainlining Rachel Maddow, and I’m up here in my den or home office or screening room, usually staring at the wall or else doing what I want. We’re all satisfied. We’re just not satisfied together.
Last night, I arranged another of our Summer Wednesdays at the church, empty on Wednesday nights in the summer. I knew this would be a movie night, but it snuck up on me and I didn’t have time to canvas people, take a poll about which movie, what genre, etc. I told everyone it was a secret, while I wondered what film I could pick that would be a guaranteed success.
Attendance varies at these things, and I’d never expect more than 20-25, but it’s been pretty sparse. Considering the commute (at least an hour), setup, planning on food, buying food, etc., I wonder now if this is an overall good thing. No one makes me do this. Some of it is a responsibility I feel—these people elected me to a leadership position, and I decided this is what I could do. Arrange community time, time for us to gather at mid-week and just be together. Last week we played board games. It’s pretty low-key.
But it’s a hassle. I’m unsure. And last night was crazy, trying to come up with something that would be enjoyed by (possibly) a few kids and then a group of adults that could range from mid-20s to mid-80s. I didn’t really expect to find the perfect movie, or even get close. I was just hoping for in the vicinity.
Thus we had what I’ve been calling the Meryl Streep Paradox. Ask me to name a dozen great movie actresses from the beginning of cinema, and I’ll rattle it off in a second. From Mary Pickford and Helen Hayes to Julia Roberts and Jessica Chastain, and unless you prompt me I won’t mention Meryl Streep.
Because she belongs in her own space, her own special jewel-encrusted glass shrine, reinforced with titanium, transparent aluminum, and goodness. She’s just Meryl Streep; she has her own category. I forget.
And while I was searching for a suitable movie, I forgot the perfect one. The one that I’d argue comes the closest to being a universal joy, something everyone can appreciate. I finally figured it out, of course. Just took me a while.
And even though there were maybe 10 of us, all about the same age, I’d say we created a little community last night. I know I keep using that word. I know what it means.