The Tyranny of Conformity

If I were to author a film about the following real-life story, the opening scene would depict the experience I had about two years ago. I came home from a grocery store and saw a small package at the foot of my front door. Laden with grocery bags, I elbowed my way into the house to free my arms of groceries before returning to the unmarked package. As I picked it up, a familiar young man appeared and told me that the package contained a pair of his shoes. I then asked him, “What are they doing here?” In a quiet, unemotional, and as-a-matter-of-fact tone, he responded, “I don’t like my house.” My imagined film then cuts to a flashback that begins two years ago and continues to this day. Of course the names of real people and most locations are fictitious.

‘John’ is severely autistic. I didn’t know that until I first saw him at the narrow exit of a store. He was hugging each lady in a group of four as they passed single-file through the exit. Each of them disdainfully pushed him away. Sadly, he was baffled by their rejection. It was also evident to me that this was a recurring event. A few days later I noticed that John hugged passersby, many of whom knew him and some who did not. Gender was not a factor: his hugs are sheer affection, not at all sexual. Some males who know him briefly return his affection, others do not. The same is true of females. A few gently welcome his affection and will even genuinely smile and say a word or two to him before they move on or, more likely, pleasantly greet him without stopping at all, just as many ordinary people do during their hurried daily rounds. In a roundabout way John is a sort of celebrity in the neighborhood!

But no one ever stops to talk to him except neighbors who have known him since he was born. I’m told that his mother abandoned him when he was an infant and that his father is in jail. And with no presumption about John’s psychological state of mind or any medical assumptions at all on my part, I think that the reason for his proclivity to hug strangers is at least in part a function of his early childhood abandonment (although I believe that autism is primarily genetic).  In any case, what I can posit because of my overall view of life is that individuality is capable of trumping  heredity and environment at the core of one’s being. For example, medical science and ‘studies’ assume that John is indifferent to the suffering of others, and that he cannot relate to other human beings. I know otherwise. John belies many of the characteristics that are generally associated with if not central to the “autistic spectrum.”

One warm summer day, I sat on a ledge just outside my front door and saw John and two other men working directly across my street. The three men had no facilities to eat lunch during their break and asked me if it would be okay to use my home’s masonry as tables and chairs. Of course I consented and offered them paper cups, napkins, and a box of cookies as dessert. The cups and napkins were appreciated but ignored, but the men devoured the cookies. That brief association with them was reassuring: it countered the sting I had felt when John had been summarily rejected by the ladies at the grocery store. I was pleased when one of the men warmly offered John additional French fries.

I continued my role as host until their job was finished. But John came back for more. He’d come at about the same time in the afternoon and we’d chat. When the fall weather made it too cold to continue our Tea and Sympathy ritual outdoors, I took it into my home. Then, at a one-on-one basis it became possible for me to teach John elementary facts, e.g., the days of the week in order.

I live in one room at ground level. The room is large and haply is surrounded by three large windows and two huge bay windows. I have no window shades because I can pull curtains open and see the sky all day, quite a feat in Brooklyn.  Having no doorbell, I answer visitors when they tap on the nearest window to my door.

One evening, long after our break, John tapped on that window. I reminded him that I work on my computer in the evening and that I would be glad to see him the following day. He left. But about a half hour later tapped on the window again. Firmly but gently I told him that I would be glad to see him the next day at the usual hour. He left again. But shortly after, he began tapping the window again. In order to avoid a precedent, I did not go to the window. The tapping continued intermittently for about fifteen minutes. It was difficult to keep myself from responding but when the taps finally stopped, I was relieved.

About three hours later I was jolted by a devastating experience. One of my windows had an old air conditioner that had a mobile accordion-like accessory attached to it so that the AC could fit snugly within the larger window frame.  Just before putting my lights out, I saw John’s limp arm hanging out of the fully opened aperture of the AC accessory. That uncanny image was compounded by the sight of John drenched by pouring rain. Autism has a way of throwing a piercing light on its brand of human tragedy.

Always striving to live life as it should be rather than as it is, I always consider the other’s state of being. In part, that means that within my moral parameters and his, I enter John’s world. The depth to which one is able/willing to enter another’s inner world is the fundamental factor that defines the level of any relationship. On the other hand, the ‘herd instinct’ (nature’s design for group survival in animals) is counter to the individuation of humans. That conflict is at the root of prejudices ─ racial, political, religious, or social.

Autism ─ a severe communications handicap ─ is very low on the Handicap Tolerance Scale (as I call it). The HTS registers even greater intolerance for autism than the intolerance that is aroused by the hearing impaired. For just about everyone, it’s one thing to have to repeat a word or (God forbid) a whole sentence to someone who has difficulty hearing, but it’s another to hear pathologically repeated words, the hallmark symptom of autism.

Prejudices, including racism, are spawned and fed by mindless intolerance combined with ignorance. Autism is no exception. John is confronted daily by prejudice. Although baffled by marginalization and raw rejection, he continues to pleasantly greet people on the street. That attitude combined with street smarts assures me that in the long run he’ll be okay. But it’s a serious matter when prejudice hinders someone from social equality, as John has been.

About six months ago, John came to me with a Driver’s Manual issued by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. He was ─ and still is ─ seeking a Driver’s Permit, the first step required to be admitted to a driving school. Without hesitation, I thought, “Why not?” So we began.

Background

John can’t read. On the back cover of the driving manual are printed 16 road signs. The road signs have words and pictures. For example, the words “slippery when wet” are written beneath the picture of a car with skid marks in the wake of its back tires.

On white cardboard, I cut out the shapes of each sign (and a few others not on that cover, e.g., “one way street”) and applied the colors assigned for each of those signs as they appear on the road. But I omitted all words. Then, I provided John with spoken words beneath the signs and a pantomimic gesture for each of the signs. For example, on sight John would say, “Slippery when wet” while he pantomimed falling snow followed by rain and then ice; then he grabbed an imaginary steering wheel and swayed from side to side as though he were a driver struggling to control a skid.

I repeatedly tested him by randomly placing all the cardboard pieces face-down, then choosing one piece at a time and asking him to name and describe the meaning of each sign. He now does that without hesitation and to perfection.

I also taught and drilled him about dozens of rules of the road, some of which even seasoned experienced drivers don’t know, e.g., “In what position should your car’s front wheels be while you are waiting to complete a left turn at an intersection of a two way highway?”

In addition to knowing the manual’s content thoroughly, I’ve drawn on my experience as a driving instructor at a school where I was also chosen as the instructor for the school classes.

The Test

When I thought John was ready to be tested for a driving permit, we went to the DMV. It was then that I learned that the test is given on a computer. Although there is a version of the test for illiterate candidates, John has virtually no idea how to work a computer. To exacerbate matters he had never known the concept of multiple choice questions. The very concept of multiple choice is antithetical to the structure of John’s mind which is dedicated to sameness. Yet, John can correctly and easily answer direct questions, e.g., “When is the only time that you are legally allowed to pass a car on its RIGHT?” Using a diagram of two intersecting roads and a group of pennies to represent cars, John can demonstrate the safe and legal manner to pass on the right. He can do the same in answer to many other questions about the rules of the road.

In addition to that, I’ve observed John’s head movements: instinctively they respond to traffic and pedestrian movement all about us (a combination of “safety first” and “defensive driving”).

Catch 22

But there is a problem.

Despite being highly informed about driving, John is prohibited from earning a driving permit only because he does not know how to handle a computer. The DMV is a governmental institution. Therefore, its workers are forced to be robotic. As a result: No computer skill, no permit possible.

Various devices have been designed to make it possible for physically handicapped people to drive. Why must John be deprived of an opportunity for independence just because he must prove he  can learn to drive only through a computer?

If he were granted the opportunity to have a one-on-one test with a human being, he would have a shot at acquiring a driver’s permit making him eligible as a student in a driving school. At the school he would ‘learn’ most of what he already knows, plus how to park a car, a skill that requires him to be at the wheel. Why not afford him the same opportunity that millions of others are granted?

So far, representatives at the DMV have not favorably responded to my request that John is granted a one-on-one interview to demonstrate his knowledge about driving. After all, the test’s only function is presumed to ascertain the extent of John’s (theoretical) knowledge about driving, not his computer skills.

Ironically, many people who easily pass the computer test will be the cause of fatal accidents because they are drinkers. On the other hand, John, who does not drink, will almost certainly be denied a driver permit because of a subliminal prejudice against individuals who are autistic.

But, like Don Quixote, I will continue to struggle for his impossible dream.

Stay tuned.

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Ethics Made Simple

On a cold day in February, I found myself stuck in a car that unilaterally chose not to continue moving. The situation was bleak. I was at the dead end of a divided street that cut through at least a mile of an empty, fenced-in recreational area on one side and rows of cottage-sized homes on the other side. At mid-afternoon, the area had the look of a ghost town: not a person in sight.

Because of a hearing problem I don’t carry a cellphone. I ask passersby for help whenever I’m in trouble outdoors. But this time no one was passing by: I might just as well have been in the Alaskan Tundra.

At about the time when I was reassuring myself that freezing to death mercifully numbs a victim before killing him, a lady walked out of one of the homes. I asked her if she might help me make a call to the AAA. In response she shook her head: “No.” I said, “I see you’re not interested in helping me.” She responded with a cold stare and walked away. I stopped her for a moment to ask for the name of the street. She would not give me the name and just walked away.

Out of nowhere a man and two teenagers appeared behind the fence for football practice. I asked him if he might help me. He thoroughly and cordially did so at once.

Technically, there are only two kinds of people worldwide: those like that woman and those like that man. The niceties vary but the essence of fine ethics is absolute at every level of human behavior from the intimate to the political to the religious.       

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Aptitude and Ability Tests

My grandfather, Mario, had two grandchildren whose names were also Mario. I was one of the two.  My cousin Mario and I would visit grandpa often (generation gaps were uncommon then). One fall day, I visited grandpa and found him and my cousin building a wooden shelter for his exquisite fig trees. Grandpa was testing Mario to see if he could be of help.

I asked grandpa if I could also help. He graciously accepted my offer, instructed me about the use of a hammer and nails, and asked me to evenly bind two pieces of wood. My cousin stopped hammering and, along with grandpa, watched my first attempt at elementary carpentry. Nails bent. The hammer often missed the nails’ heads. When I finished it was obvious that the two pieces of wood could just as well have been bound by ‘scotch tape.’

Grandpa pointed to my cousin and said, “Tu, si” (“You, yes”). Then he gently put his hand on my shoulder, smiled affectionately, and said, “Tu, no.”  I was relieved.

At about that time in my life I lived in a home with a backyard that had a 10’ x 15’ patch of dirt  that I mistook for soil. Having appointed myself as Morality Officer of my poor family, I decided to grow vegetables. Being of Italian decent, I planned to plant lots of seeds for the obligatory tomatoes and a few seeds for lettuce.

First, I had to clear the ‘garden,’ which was laden with weeds. As I wrenched them out by their roots, years of debris were uncovered, mainly bottles and cans. Among those, there was a torn, yellowed page from a Chinese newspaper. I wondered how that item found its way into an Italian/Jewish neighborhood. Given the demographics of Brooklyn, that excavation was equivalent to the 9th layer of ancient Troy.

In the hot sun, I removed rocks larger than pebbles and reduced the hardened dirt almost to the texture of sugar. But being congenitally unable to handle manure, I stinted on mixing manure  with the plot of dirt. That was probably my undoing.

I planted the seeds as instructed on their packets. I watered them. I ruthlessly plucked their weed rivals at their roots as soon as their sprouts hit the light of day. But tomato sprouts never broke through the surface of the savage dirt. I thought, “Perhaps the lettuce seeds succeeded because they are something like weeds.” (Judging by their taste, I still think that spinach, escarole, and kale are really weeds posturing as vegetables.) Somehow, the lettuce was fine.

I harvested all the lettuce in about 15 minutes. But there was enough of the leafy vegetable to provide a family of seven with the salad for a single dinner. Technically, it wasn’t exactly a salad because it consisted of one vegetable. But in time of crisis niceties must be swept aside. I seasoned the salad with my recipe for Italian dressing and placed it on the dinner table as “Une Salade Simple.”

To put everyone at ease I was the first to laugh at my colossal failure. Yet, that salad provided us with laughter at that dinner and the echoes of that laughter through the years─ one of the ways a family keeps its identity alive.

My experience also assured me that I had no aptitude for agriculture.

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Postscript

Exactly one day after I posted my article titled Extraterrestrials in a Nutshell, December 2, 2017) I stumbled upon a mega documentary (or a patched-together-series of documentaries) dedicated to extraterrestrials. It aired on the History Channel. My article was basically restricted to the alleged superiority of what appear to be extraterrestrials hovering about the earth.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I have difficulty being brief. But this time, my chance encounter with that documentary jolted me into writing this postscript.

Following are two related examples of the documentary’s topics and my reactions to them.

Genetic Engineering

Human genetic engineering is currently banned because of profound ethical and potentially negative biological consequences. If alleged UFO abductions are practiced by ETs for genetic experimentation, they certainly have shed ethical reservations if they ever had any. That would be a certain sign of moral inferiority.        

Beyond Natural Selection

There is also an inadvertent proof of ET moral inferiority if a segment of the documentary really happened as described. The documentary strongly suggests that ETs have created radically different designs of human species (subspecies?). To that end we are shown several skulls of failed experiments.  I don’t know if the different brains in those skulls were designed for promising Simians or for blossoming Homo Sapiens. In either case, the documentary emphatically posits that Darwin’s theory of the ‘Origin of Species’ may not be entirely correct after all, at least since the dinosaurs were gone. Were those skulls merely the remains of humans who, like several other human species, just didn’t make it to our present form? Or were they failed species created by godlike ETs who goofed?

On the surface those and other examples appear to be just speculation about intelligent life other than ours. But the documentary reflects a perfect existential storm coming our way. Or, should I say, being drawn to us by our own blindness?

Mandated by the need to be entertaining, the documentary’s authors and narrators cheerfully blur and blend fantasy and fact. The fact is that genetic engineering is like nuclear energy: it requires extreme caution. I hope genetic engineering will be practiced only to eradicate serious diseases, not to ‘enhance’ human nature.

And, while I’m at it, I might add that the obsession for robots may well be no more than a desire for humankind to commit suicide. I hope that is not a fact.

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Extraterrestrials in a Nutshell

Okay, maybe there are extraterrestrials whose technology is exponentially superior to ours. Does that mean that they are superior to us? Not necessarily. Although understandable, the pervasive assumption that intelligent life is measurable by its scientific genius bears scrutiny. Superior modes of travel ─ earthly or otherwise ─ are just one factor in the assessment of intelligent life, terrestrial or extraterrestrial. There are many other factors that define intelligent life.

In addition to universal characteristics like heat/cold, expansion/contraction, matter/energy, and space/time, there is every indication that the universe is physically uniform.  Seen from another galaxy, the earth is that distant point in deep space. But, unlike those universal characteristics, intelligent life is known to us only on earth. Still, if the UFO sightings and narratives about alien abductions prove to be true ─ even if only in one instance ─ that would not confirm that the aliens are superior to us ─ only that they are faster.

For decades we’ve heard about extraterrestrials giving a hand to ancient Egyptians building  pyramids. I can’t imagine why ETs would care to do that on an interstellar voyage. Surely, encounters of the third kind would merit something more impressive than advice on hauling and assembling stones for literally monumental human egos. I’m not big on hieroglyphics and pictographs and am not about to rely on them as evidence of an ET visitation. They’re fine for narratives about harvests, wars, and Pharos, but something carved on stone that looks like a space craft or helmet falls short of credible evidence of an astral visit. Certainly so momentous an event would be at least as well recorded as Egyptian pottery at the time.

Definitive proof of encounters of the third kind is essential to determine whether an event of that significance has ever occurred. So far, there is no hard evidence that alien life has interacted with us long-term over centuries or intermittently or even only once. Obviously, absolute proof of any one of those possibilities would provide us with answers to many major questions about intelligent life in the universe.  But the greater question is not whether or not intelligent life exists elsewhere, but whether it has visited us and, if so, why the Great Silence?

Assuming that the UFOs and abductions of humans are basically as described by ‘witnesses,’ that tells us very little about ET thought other than advanced mechanical and genetic  technology.  It tells us nothing about what we call the humanities. Whatever similarities might exist between ETs and humans, differences in thought may be well beyond anything we (or ‘they’) are able to imagine.

Unlike the physically uniform universe, intelligent life, although made of the same stardust as all other life forms on earth, is not uniform. The profoundly singular factor that makes intelligent life unique is thought and its corollary, free will. In turn, creativity is a major component of thought, as is evidenced in rock carvings of prehistoric humans. (Neutron stars are the same throughout the universe, the minds of identical twins are unique unto themselves. Of course the same is true of all human minds.)

One of the many factors to which I refer above as integral for any assessment of intelligent life is art. Speculation about the ‘nature’ of alien beings is almost certain to be at least as complex as the perceptions we have of our human nature. Haven’t you ever thought that the man next door is so weird he may just as well be from another planet?  And isn’t it also true that the branches of what we call philosophy are totally entangled? Is it reasonable to assess intelligence merely on the basis of advanced technology? That certainly has not been the case here on earth.

Can there really be definitive criteria for an objective measure of intelligent life? Einstein’s discovery of space/time is incomparable but his private life was ordinary and in some ways below average.  Also ordinary, was a 19th century individual who knew eighty languages but who (according to George Bernard Shaw) had nothing of importance to say. Apparently he just had a superb memory. But then, so do ‘idiot savants’ (no offence intended). We are in justifiable awe of individuals who instantly know the sum of 174,048,205 multiplied by 850,362,999 (those nines are killers). Yet, whatever it is that enables certain people to instantly juggle mathematical computations ‘in their heads’ is only a fraction of the essence of intelligent life on earth.

Whenever claims and counterclaims are murky, as they severely are with UFO sightings and human abductions, I garner whatever absolute facts are at my disposal in the search for truth. In this instance, the highly touted speed of ET spacecraft strongly implies ET superiority over humans in terms of space highways, but exactly how can we list criteria for intelligence?  Here on earth technology does not have a monopoly on the assessment of or comparison to works of art. Why, then, are ETs deemed to be superior to humans? Unless otherwise proved, art is the prime example of intelligent life on earth.

There is no comparison between any pyramid in the world and the exquisite Parthenon. Piling rocks upon rocks is primitive, the Parthenon is world-class architecture. It and superb three- dimensional painting and sculpture introduced by Western Civilization is at least as advanced as ET mobile technology.

Despite my great respect for anthropologists, I can’t resist alluding to the endless correlations  attributed to heavenly bodies and ancient structures on earth. The three stars in Orion’s Belt were selected as the heavenly markers for the Great Gaza Pyramids. That alignment was long thought to be precise. The facts emphatically suggest otherwise.  I resist the urge to explain those facts but have not done so in an effort to avoid further cluttering the issue of alleged ET superiority, except to state that Adolph Hitler and his gang had generally high IQs but were fundamentally stupid.

Although it is unlikely that I have anything new to add to the glut of extraterrestrial speculation,   I’ve submitted this somewhat whimsical tongue in cheek perspective on art and ET folklore with the hope that it has not already been expressed by someone before me.

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Lethal Chip

I’ve just watched a video on television that curdled my blood. Its title is Millennial Year. With the bombast of a titanic revelation, it spreads the good news: Humanity has the potential to attain perfection with the aid of a chip implant for everyone on earth.

Although the video’s authors do not attempt to explain the process of extrasensory mind-to-mind communication they assume that the process exists. Since thought itself is far from being thoroughly understood and having experienced telepathy personally, I accept their assumption. But I abhor the video’s appalling message.

Early in the video, we see a swarm of bees. That serves to set the scene for the message. Then, in order to soften the negative impact of the message, the authors introduce us to the venerable Michio Kaku who cheerfully reinforces the virtues of Swarm Intelligence. Ah!…hence the busy bees at work!

There is no mention that bees communicate their needs by dances, buzzes, and chemicals, not telepathy. Bees have done that for 130 million years. We are also shown swarms of birds and fish as two other examples of Swarm Intelligence.  The same is true of mammals, including latecomers, human beings.

Regrettably, the video is totally in tune with the tone of current society. It absurdly extolls the eagerly anticipated chip’s ability to provide a dinner group with ‘telepathic’ communication while they are eating. We see actors at the table awkwardly enhancing their telepathic skills with facial expressions while chewing food (multitasking); the chip would also provide faster communication than spoken language (this satisfies today’s obsession for speed); the video is slick. It is filled with clichés, e.g., the use of The Blue Danube as background music in one of the scenes. Apparently, the pretentious film, titled 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to have amateur writers join the flock of Kubrick admirers (auteurs are on the rise).    

Having seen the video only once, I am not certain about the order of its content. But its message is absolutely clear. I’m shocked by its blatant endorsement of Swarm Intelligence, Collective Intelligence, and Hive Mind. Even its authors sensed that those terms would not sit well with some of us. Anticipating our contempt for North Korean absolute conformity, they soften those terms with a colossal euphemism, eDemocracy, the heinous concept of a chip-based ‘human Internet’ consisting of 8 billion people thinking about solutions to human problems through billions of Nano chips.

But what about the collective thought of the Hive Mind? Wouldn’t it at best be average? According to the authors, that’s not a problem: all we need do for the perfection of humanity is “shed ego, self, and individuality!” No comment.

[Note: I wrote a whimsical science fiction article for this web site in April 27, 2016, titled One and subtitled A Fiction Soon to be Real. Now, I’m saddened to know that my subtext was somewhat prescient.]

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The Great Disconnect

[Part 2 of Two]

[Continued from Critical Paradox, Part 1 of Two, February 21, 2017]

“Crown jewel of the Information Age, the Internet throbs with an incomparably vast source of accurate information.  It is also obviously saturated with incorrect, false, and even deliberately misleading information on a grand scale.”

─ Critical Paradox (Part 1 of Two)

At the instant of conception, we have no control over our DNA, miniscule control (if any) over our environment in the womb, and very little control during our infancy and early childhood. Those critical factors, traditionally known as ‘heredity and environment,’ significantly determine our interaction with life.

The next major stage of life is ‘Coming of Age.’ Whatever the dynamics of heredity and environment may be, the teenager no longer asks, “Why is the sky blue?” Now, he questions the complex issues of humankind. It is at this point that the overwhelming majority of teenagers have a proclivity towards group conformity.  Crazy socks and stunts are merely one way to be a popular member of the group; authentic individualists tend to be loners. Either way, gaps between parents and children do not necessarily include political differences. Family generation gaps, e.g., between father and son or mother and daughter are what I affectionately perceive as ‘semi-primordial.’ On the other hand, Generation Gaps (with a capital ‘G’) are societal gaps and are generally associated with largescale events, e.g., extraordinary economic conditions or political events, including major wars. But in the ‘60s the political familial gap was as wide as its societal gap.

The term “Generation Gap” itself originated in the ‘60s.  Several generation titles, e.g., “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Lost Generation,” speak for themselves as do many other generational titles, but most Americans refer to the ‘60s by its timeline: “the ‘60s.”

In reference to the sudden widespread use of drugs, especially by the young, it has been said of the ‘60s, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there.” I vividly remember the ‘60s and was definitely ‘there.’  When Charles Dickens writes, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” his description can easily be applied to the ‘60s. I was a bit past my coming of age but had empathy for the young ‘flower people.’

In the ‘60s, the young warned each other, “Never trust anyone over 30!” It had not occurred to them that they too would someday be over 30.  They are elderly now and discreetly no longer impose an age limit on honesty. Some are still countercultural, others conformists, and a few have since discovered that it’s possible to be over 30 and honest at the same time. Those few were honest before and during the ‘60s, and several still are honest.  Honesty tends to be permanent.

The causes and effects of societal gaps are usually described in broad strokes. But generational titles, facts, and entangled interpretations of facts intertwine in the larger context of historic events. For example, the Great Depression (the ‘30s) refers to a worldwide economic depression. The Greatest Generation gets its title from a book written decades later (‘90s) by a famous commentator in deference to the heroism of depression victims and WWll soldiers. The combined timeline for those two events (the ‘30s to the end of WWll) is such that the same individual might have experienced both the depression and WWll.

Millions did, and of course a few of us are still ‘around.’

My parents, two siblings and I didn’t experience a family gap. Being comfortable with my parents and grandparents, I took a pass on familiar rebellion.  Still a child in the mid- ‘30s I wasn’t aware that there was a worldwide depression, but I was sharply aware of my family’s struggle to survive.

Too young to be employed, I had the notion that I might at least help keep the Depression ─ with a capital ‘D’─ out of our home. One of my tricks was to create menus that I placed alongside seven plates at a dinner table set for members of three no-gap generations. The menus described the items of food and drink we were to have for dinner.  Inspired by the mouth-watering fragrances wafting from the kitchen, I inscribed elaborate titles on the menus for those dinner items in Italian, French, and hyped English depending on what was to be served for dinner that evening. On my menus beans and peas were ‘Légumes Céleste’; boiled potatoes were ‘Pommes de Terre Bouilles Extraordinaire;’ and the homemade wine was ‘Vino Straordinario.’  I didn’t know it then, but the inexpensive dinners my mother and grandmother prepared on a miniscule budget were actually Michelin three-star gourmet specialties!

At that table I was the youngest generation. Now I am the oldest generation at any table in the world. Perhaps it is my longevity that prompts me to combine several generations into a single period. Specifically, those generations are as follows: Baby Boomers, X, Y, and Z (a.k.a. IGEN/Millennials/ Centennials).  I think that’s why (authorities?) resorted to the postwar birth boom and the alphabet soup for post-1946 generational titles.

[Note: Typical of current linguistic fuzziness, generational titles vary. Of course that’s okay when The Great Generation is also called The Greatest Generation or The GI generation. The same is true of other generations that have two or more titles for the same generation. But during my research for this article, I noted that the iGEN generation has six or seven titles, none of which relates to any of its other titles. A social media ‘guru’ online cheerfully explains that the ‘i’ in iGEN ─ also capitalized as IGEN ─ can have a variety of very different meanings. He said, “we’ll just have to wait awhile” before choosing what the ‘I’ will eventually mean.” I add to that: “Does the ‘guru’ include the first person singular as the ultimate title? If so, wouldn’t that meaning require title disambiguation along with the Me Generation?]

If the vast volume of information available online and other sources that define the baby boomer and alphabet soup generations were to be crunched into a single historic period, the result would be the predominance of economic, workplace, and technological concerns.

There are workshops to expand an employee’s electronic communication skills to suit generational preferences, e.g., E-mail vs phone vs. face-to-face communications. There are workshops designed to smooth business relationships and age sensitivities between the young and the not so young employees.

And then there is me. My workshop is life.

As a child, I interacted every day with several people whose coming of age was in the late 19th century. Four of them, my grandparents, were born in Italy but came to live in America beginning with the period of America’s “Gay Nineties.”

[They spoke to me in Sicilian. Grandma told me about her teenage abduction in Sicily. She was walking on a dirt road close to home. Suddenly, a carriage driven by a coachman roared down the road. It was stopped by its driver within a few feet of her.  Grandpa jumped out of the carriage, threw a hood over her head, and carried her into the cab.  Her father and brothers pursued the carriage. They overtook it. They were about to kill grandpa.  But grandma, fearing she would lose her eligibility for marriage because she was alone with a man in a carriage, opened the carriage door, removed her hood, and announced, “He’s my husband now!” He was the grandfather that made the homemade wine that I titled ‘Vino Straordinario.’ When he died, Grandma was devastated. I didn’t understand why then, but now I do. As a native American in a subcultural Sicilian society, I developed a sense of generational differences that spanned two cultures and several generations.]

Mom and dad spoke to me in English and Sicilian. At dinner we all spoke in Sicilian in respect for my grandparents. As a child, I had a firsthand glimpse of “The Roaring Twenties.” An uncle of the same generation as my parents spoke to me about his experiences in the trenches of WWl. There was nothing formal about the narratives of their past. Yet, their intimate conversations with me were a form of higher education. At that time, grandparents, their children, and grandchildren spoke and learned from each other both in fun and in depth.

My mom was born in Palermo, the capitol of Sicily. The entire coast of Sicily was once a province of ancient Greece. When speaking English to me, she would occasionally slip into Sicilian, her native language, to dramatically quote a proverb. At twenty, I read a classic Greek play by Sophocles in which that proverb appears.  I was struck by that prime example of Western Civilization’s continuity: From Sophocles to mom to me.

Generations and their gaps do not exist in a vacuum. And since procreation is continuous, several generations (not just three) are contemporaries at any given moment. They affect each other directly and indirectly whatever their generational differences in age. The ‘snapshot’ descriptions of generations following 1946 reflect a superficial and economy-focused assessment of American generations following WW2. Their differences are primarily described in terms of the workplace and technology. I’m far more inclined to learn about the moral fiber of a generation. It is from those descriptions and personal experiences that I absorb the essence of generations.

Also, at the risk of seeming presumptuous, I think of generations in the traditional biological sense rather than in overlapping 20-year periods. Based on that premise, the post-war period to the present might be condensed into a single period and labeled, The Information Age.

Fast Forward to The Information Age

I believe the stream of history flows deeper when a culture is reviewed in terms of its values and direction, not primarily its economy. Of course the worldwide Great Depression is an exception: the devastating economy, exacerbated by America’s dust bowl, was the primary event of the ‘30s.

After the war, familial intercommunications somewhat diminished.  Television replaced conversation. Families watched TV at the dinner table and directly after that watched it from the couch. A whole evening might go by with minimal conversation except during commercials and rushes to the refrigerator or bathroom during commercials.  When the family had separate TVs in the home to suit age and taste differences, conversation diminished to a word or two such as, “Good Night.”

Assuming a family has dinners together, at today’s table it is not unusual for teenage children to  text their friends through most if not all of dinnertime, even though mom and dad are the hosts for those dinners. At larger gatherings and celebratory parties, frenzied fingers click in communication with friends who are not present at the party. In effect, they are ‘somewhere else.’

The current Generation (Z) generally avoids significant conversations about anything that happened prior to its coming of age.  Yes, that has always been true of the young because the young are…well…young. But today’s generation is bereft of a sense of historic continuity. And that lack is exacerbated by their extraordinary lack of elementary knowledge of what happened before they came of age.

I’ve spoken to twenty-year-olds who never heard of ancient Greece let alone that it ignited Western Civilization.  A university student told me that her history lessons begin with ancient Rome! Another student majoring in Music, never heard of Puccini! Another student shocked me when I pointed to a framed Hubble photo of the galaxy Andromeda hanging on a wall in my living room. He told me that he didn’t know that galaxies exist and that there is a universe packed with them! Please note that I don’t ‘test’ anyone about knowledge ─ ever. Know also that the incidences I’ve cited are just three of countless chance exchanges I’ve had with America’s young. They reveal a great disconnect from significant knowledge.

The kids have the universe nestled in the palms of their hands. They were born into a society in which exponential information is at the tip of their fingers. Yet, they are bereft of elementary knowledge about science, art, and history, the grand triumvirate of civilization. Throughout history, the bonding factors of the young and the more mature have always been based on a sense of existential continuity, a factor which is virtually nonexistent in today’s young. The kids talk to ‘Alexa,’ but have little to talk about with their parents.

The kids are addicted to multitasking, a practice that breeds errors. They are obsessed by the Internet and its electronic progeny. At the workplace, the briefer their communications ─ verbal or written ─ the better. The dark energy of social media dominates the world of communications. How ironic in the Information Age!

In the natural course of time, my generation is on the verge of extinction.  We and our children have largely closed generational gaps. We have more or less amalgamated into the harmonious recognition that we have much more in common than in our differences.

This time, the gap is not merely generational. This time, the gap is not just another ripple in the stream of American social evolution. This time, a silent, negative gap has widened to the extent of a rip in America’s existential continuity.

America needs a Renaissance of its own. I hope it will find one.

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