Emilio DeGrazia

by Emilio DeGrazia, columnist

 

A famous person once said, “To the untrained nose the apple is a member of the rose family.”

I’m harder than a cat to train, and I forget the names of people I know and admire much more often than the names of famous people I’d rather forget. I usually forget to wonder why.

I also know too little about biology, especially the family life of apples and roses. Family life seems hard to figure out these days. If an apple and rose are from the same family, maybe corn and soybeans are too. Or maybe Africans and the Swiss. Or maybe Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists. Maybe everybody in Iowa is related. Packers and Vikings? Democrats and Republicans? Like apples and roses?

America’s so large and contains so many multitudes that most of my first cousins and their kids are gone, following their noses to some faraway job, true love, or new happiness plan. We have cars, trains and airplanes today so we don’t have to flag down a passing wagon train to move away. And rather suddenly our new-fangled electronics take us into the wonderlands of the metaverse while we’re iPhoning hunch-backed down a street, or sitting on our butts in front of a screen.

The latest new devices make sitting at home a bore. At my fingertips are thrills, chills, cults, news, games, friends, TikToks, deodorants, enemies, music, hot dates, violence, laughs, and wars. Some make me laugh. Others leave me wide-eyed sad.

A finger click can bring a lot more excitement than a parent, teacher, or expert, and curiosity’s nose for hot entertainments and fictions usually overwhelms steadier interest in plain fact. 

So where do I really live? Tossing and turning in bed, yes, and sitting in chairs. Now and then in a park, restaurant or neighbor’s backyard. In these close-to-home places I live my actual physical life. But minds, like noses, are wanderers. If there’s a new scent or stink bomb in the air, away I go, often routinely, carried away into a small screen. How can I resist the bigger excitements, entertainments, thrills, violence, and wars and rumors of wars? 

So I live in two places at once, one I can call family life at home, the other out there in the metaverse, anonymously as a member of the anonymous Family of Man (and Woman). When I’m surfing in the no-place of cyberspace I come and go, often not knowing who’s watching me. And there I often have no actual presence or name, and fail to wonder if anyone there cares if I’m alive or dead.

How many weeks per month do I typically live like this? Does a typical middle school kid live this way too? Do we dare time ourselves, or the kids?

How do I balance those two worlds I live in? How much info-glut can my living room easy chair tolerate? And when that info-glut brings me news of sorrow and suffering, how can my small heart take it in? Does it have to harden itself? 

I’m empty-minded enough to want to pad my thoughts with what’s stimulating, important, fun and new. Sometimes my mind feels like an old rubber band, so stretched it won’t snap into place. If I spend whole eight-hour days adrift in computer and TV screens, I get to see so much of the world I forget to think about where I am, at home usually, sitting on my butt with other people nearby. But while I’m sitting there, I’m somewhere else, a long way from where I am.

If I have roses and apples right there in the house I can’t imagine what makes a family of them.

I wonder: Is unhappiness — the frustration, anxiety, and melancholy so many people feel — directly proportional to the space between the two places we’re expected to live in high-tech times? This lifestyle trend is new to history. If I’m expected to live happily at home while lured away from it by my wonderful electronics, how do I balance the widely different claims they make on me and my family life? If that cyber world is exciting and painful, how do I manage those conflicting emotions in my living room? If I’m young and hope someday to change the world, is my small vote for change a message in a bottle so lost in the dark web that I drop out? 

How do I harmonize my two worlds and sort nonsense from fact? Do we teach our kids the difference between the two and make critical thinking, rather than grades and “jobs,” the core of what we teach at home and in our schools?

I can’t turn off the TV, computer or I-phone screen. They feed curiosity’s hunger pains. They’re also compelling social norms with fat profit returns, mainly for strangers. They have opened my life to a vast new citizenship — one that gives me access to news, global markets, and fun, but also to pandemics, climate change, disasters and wars. But do they deaden my sense of responsibility by making me feel helpless, unable to respond usefully? Where do I locate my primary citizenship loyalties? Join some online cult, go on a news diet or pray? 

What price do we — and our children — pay when our double lives unbalance us, or when our new info-bit inventions, mainly unregulated by government or family life, make us feel that the world is so vast, exciting and terrible that our need for homes, hometowns, family life and votes don’t much matter at all?