Way back when Bill Cosby was funny, he did a routine called Chicken Heart, which revolved around a radio horror show that terrorized him as a child.
In his retelling, he became increasingly panicked one night as the radio announcer declared that a monstrous, living chicken heart was coming to his apartment to devour him. He responded by spreading Jello on the floor (long before he was paid to do so) and setting the sofa on fire. When his father came home, he restored order by insisting that his son TURN OFF THE RADIO.
I’m reminded of that routine almost daily as I check in at Facebook. So many of my friends are posting and reposting the same memes, panicked by the steady onslaught of calamities that have turned our nation into a hellish inferno. And all I can think is: TURN IT OFF.
I get it, I really do. After I’ve spent a night streaming a bunch of cop shows, I walk out of the house the next morning on alert for car chases, exploding buses and mob hits. I’m glancing skyward in case there are bodies falling from office windows and every guy coming toward me looks like a perp. I need a ton of anxiety meds to step out of the apartment in the morning, but after a few hours without incident, I return to DEFCON 5 and enjoy the day.
Online, though, I can get just a trifle nervous as I read posts from dozens of “friends” who have found the secret websites with the TRUE FACTS and SECRET CONSPIRACIES that the EVIL CABALS are hiding from us.
For the purveyors of panic, the job is relatively simple. In a nation of almost 330 million people, we can all find at least one, maybe two or three or ten examples of pretty much anything. And if we cannot find a real-world example that’s scary enough, there are also a ton of old photos to add for dramatic effect.
All of these posts are true, of course, in much the same way that Frozen is a documentary.
I’m fond of replying to my friends about the badly doctored photos, the anachronisms, the outlandishly fraudulent “statistics,” etc. But it is increasingly clear that my friends do not care if these memes are true or not, if they are inflammatory or not, or if they blow right past the boundaries of human decency.
And I cannot stop wondering why. Why would we want to view so much of the world through the darkest of lenses? Why would we limit our reading list to sources that serve only to magnify our fears? Why do we choose to be terrorized by our horseman of choice? Were we always this way? If not, exactly how did it become normal?
In the real world, I can drink the water and talk to strangers and let the pizza delivery guy come up to the apartment door. In the digital universe, though, I can’t walk down the street without being attacked by (insert bogeyman here) and there’s a giant chicken heart on its way to swallow me whole.
There is a clear solution, though. Before it’s time to smear Jello on the floor and set fire to the couch, just TURN IT OFF.
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I was waxing philosophical the other day, explaining how I would solve all of the world’s problems with my superior intellect and unrivaled wisdom, when it occurred to me that I don’t know what’s what.
A friend and I were discussing the cost of government and the added cost of working with labor unions and, suddenly, I realized I was arguing on the basis of 30-year-old data. Maybe it was 40 years old, or worse. Didn’t matter. I was applying outdated insights to a current situation and I was probably wrong in my assertions.
What, for example, are the current stats on labor unions? I know many, many people who believe unions are the reason for pretty much every malady in the economy. Government bloat? It’s the unions’ fault. Foreign company cost advantages? It’s the unions’ fault. Underperforming schools? No question, it’s the teachers’ unions. But was any of that ever true, and is any of it true today?
The world is a complicated place, much more complicated than memes and bots would lead us to believe. There’s almost never a single cause of any major trend; rather, the trends flow from multiple sources acting over time.
We can find an anecdote to “prove” any point we want to make, of course, but I started to realize that I do not have a fact-based grasp of some seriously critical issues. I knew, overall, that the percentage of Americans in labor unions has declined along with manufacturing jobs and that public employee unions are a larger part of the total unionized work force than was the case when I was a kid. Beyond that, my grasp of the facts was pitiful. Has education improved in right-to-work states? Have manufacturing jobs increased as union wages and benefits diminished? I knew the slogans, but I realized that I don’t know the facts.
The same awareness hit me when we were talking about welfare programs, immigration, pollution levels, and other issues that I am uniquely qualified to resolve as soon as I am Michael the First, emperor of the United States. I read newspapers and news sites regularly, but I’m reading characterizations, mostly. I’ll read a fact that is inserted into an op-ed to make a point, but I won’t know if that fact is a true indicator of the overall trend or status quo.
Is there still a “marriage penalty” in the tax code? Do Medicare recipients still deal with “The Doughnut?”
It’s relatively simple to check out the data, even though it means spending more time looking at my phone when I should be engaging with other people. Fortunately, everyone else is staring at their phones all day, so I will fit right in with the cool kids.
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I am confused by many things, but I’m too busy watching television to answer my own questions. Desperately seeking clarity this week about...
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I must apologize. It was all my fault.
Wasn’t that great? I feel so much better now.
When I was a child and spoke as a child, I worried that someone might discover I had made a mistake, that they would think less of me because I had gotten something wrong. Boy, was I a dope. It turns out that admitting my mistakes is both liberating and empowering. “I was wrong,” is right at the top of my liberation mantra, along with, “My fault,” and the all-powerful, “I’m sorry.”
Some people think I apologize so much that it’s insincere, which it isn’t, but I must admit that it gets addictive after a while. Owning up to my mistakes is as close as I’ll get to absolution and it makes me almost invulnerable to follow-up chastisement.
“You screwed up.”
“Yes, I admitted that. What else do you want to add?”
“You shouldn’t do it again.”
I used to think it was dangerous to drop my defenses, but the opposite is true. Keeping up defenses is hard work and it requires all kinds of mental gymnastics, especially when you know you are wrong. Now that I’m old and weak, who has the energy??
I know a few, um, friends who seem incapable of admitting to any mistakes. They’ll cop to being human in the abstract, but they’re pretty much flawless when it comes to specifics. Once in a while, one of them will admit to making the “mistake” of thinking a political enemy did something right, hah hah, but that’s about it. After a while, they get to be a bit tiresome and, now that I’m old and weak, I don’t have the energy to deal with it.
Even when I haven’t made a mistake, I still enjoy admitting my limitations. After, “I’m sorry,” one of my absolute favorites is “I don’t know.” Not only is my ignorance remarkably blissful, but admitting to it puts me on the path to wisdom. Also, it takes way too much jumping through hoops to fake it and, did I mention, I’m too old and weak for this stuff?
Incredibly, admitting to mistakes and limitations has made me feel much stronger, more independent, and more secure. Things have been going so well, in fact, that I’m actually screwing up intentionally to give myself more apology opportunities. Friends think I am sinking into my dotage, but really I am building my self esteem.
Which reminds me, did I ever tell you about the time I changed my name to D.B. Cooper and kidnapped Jimmy Hoffa? Those were youthful indiscretions and I am very, very sorry.
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I might be off by a few years, but I think my generation has seen more substantial change than any generation that preceded it. People who lived through the Industrial Revolution might quibble with that assertion, but they’re all dead now, so hah hah on them.
Certainly, my grandchildren will be amazed at the stories I can tell them about the ancient and shrouded past when I…
Of course, I’ll also have to tell my grandkids about all the ways the world has let me down since I was a lad. I still don’t travel by jetpack, my phone calls aren’t holograms, and I am still waiting for a response to my job application at U.N.C.L.E. (I keep calling about it, but they won’t let me open Channel D.)
I’d add the Coronavirus to the list, but that’s an experience that my grandkids will share. How will that change them, change me, change our relationships? The ink isn’t dry yet, so we’ll have to wait on that one.
In the meantime, I think I’ll focus on the strange-but-true stories from the past. The present isn’t nearly as much fun.
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I’m not going to achieve immortality, certainly not in the corporeal sense and just as unlikely by any historical measure. Maybe I’ll come up with something so incredibly smart and pithy that my quote will be in the 2138 edition of Bartlett’s, but that’s a long shot, and my back gets too sore for me to ride across Asia like Attila the Hun. Likewise, it’s too late for me to invent something earth-shaking like penicillin, the internet or Chia Pets.
Like most guys who think about their legacy and their contribution to the future, I need to scale it down. What’s the most achievable goal for being known and valued by people who have never met you—and never will? What is the equivalent of immortality for someone who will neither save the world nor blow it up?
Ultimately, for me, it is to have my grandchildren tell their grandchildren about me, or at least to pass on lessons that I shared during my hour of strutting and fretting upon the stage.
This is no small feat. I have repeated lessons from my dad to my children, who knew him for less time than any of us would have liked. So my father’s grandchildren are familiar with his insights and they can pass those on to their grandchildren, probably three or four decades from now.
Meanwhile, I have stories to tell my grandchildren about my mother’s dad, who picked us up from school sometimes to take us to lunch at Pekin House or Kow Kow. He told me the wooden bowl story, which was definitely self-serving but one that I will repeat to the grandkids when I am in a self-preservation mood. And when I take them to lunch, I can tell them about my lunches with my grandfather. Thereby, Ben Caplan will be immortal, even though he shuffled off half a century ago.
For me, having grandchildren born when I am past sixty, the challenge is daunting. With kids getting married and having children later in life, fewer of us will see grandchildren in our lifetimes, and for those who do, the connection is likely to be very brief. Great-grandchildren? Almost unheard of, and that ship has absolutely sailed for me.
Thinking about children who are likely to be born around 2075, when I am closing in on 122 years old, might seem nonsensical, but it gives me purpose. If I want to have a positive impact on descendants I will never meet, I need to have a very positive impact on their grandparents, who are my grandchildren. And that is a venture that I can control, at least partially and, of course, temporarily.
When they hold the last party where you are the guest of honor, you don’t get to hear what people say about you. The same holds for the life lessons learned by your great-great grandchildren. Count these among the millions of things we don’t control in this life or beyond.
Still, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be working on it today.
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Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.