Sunday, 28 March 2010
Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music
One of the funniest (funny as in 'strange') outcomes of the globalisation process in our darling blue world today is that whilst efforts are being made to erase boundaries and barriers between humans (although at a dear price quite often) in order to bring us closer together, one of the side-effects has been a fragmentation of the family unit. And by family I am referring to the modern and flexible concept of this ancient structure: married couples and their two children, single-parent households, gay partnerships and their offspring, and any other arrangement you might come across.
The upshot of economic development in the western world has been an increase in depression and loneliness, depreciation of basic human skills - social interaction, manners - and a gradual disintegration of values to which we once held dear.
I still remember meal times at my house when I was a child. They were quite a complicated affair. Since we were six in a one-bed flat, bang in the middle of Havana, space was always a problem. We were never able to accommodate ourselves around the only table in our minute lounge-cum-dining room, so we had to take turns. But since I was (and still am) a slow eater, I usually began having my dinner with my parents and ended up sharing the table with my auntie, who was usually the last one to eat. Regardless of these rather confining circumstances, though, the important, underlying element for my parents was to have our meal together.
Funny, then, that with that kind of background as soon as I relocated to the UK I began to enjoy eating on my own more, whilst reading the newspaper or watching telly. In my defense I would have to point at space as my primary motivation. As a child I never really did have a room I could call my own back home. And even though temporary accommodation and council flats get a lot of bad press in the UK, tell a Cuban person he or she will be finally getting their own space and see their smiles stretch from ear to ear.
In my opinion, what I was going through in those first few months of acclamatising to the British way of life, was the effect of delayed adolescence or early adulthood, the period when one supposedly leaves the nest (insert here any jokes about Italian men in their thirties still living at home with mama). Admittedly, I, too, underwent my non-family socialisation teenage stage in Cuba, but I had no door to slam when I had a row with my mum. You see, we shared the same bedroom. With my grandma.
What is fascinating and scary, too, in equal measure, is to see a peculiar phenomenon developing here in the UK and, I believe, in the rest of the western world. The gap between how people two generations ago spent their time together as a family has widened considerably compared with today's youngsters.
To be clear, the phenomenon is not new. Peer group interactions have been around since Homo Sapiens first used language to tell A that B was not a nice fellow on account of him not lending his tools to anyone. The difference is that B did not then go on Twitter to tell all and sundry that, actually, his accuser had slept with a mate's ex behind his back, and who was the charlatan now? So, the main driver in this change of social communication nowadays is technology and how we use it.
Whereas the standard mode of social interaction implies listening to the speaker and reading his or her facial expressions and mannerisms to interpret what is being said, that has now mutated into assessing what value the interlocutor's speech has, if any. The result is floor-staring, fidgeting and insecurity and the message conveyed is one that expresses an utter lack of engagement with what the other person is saying.
Part of the problem lies with us, parents. And in my case, if truth be told, it is chiefly down to my wife that we have two children capable of interacting socially with both other kids and adults. So, in that respect, we're lucky. We do have family time together, especially around the dinner table. But it hasn't been easy, it's not easy and it will not be easy. Whether you like it or not, technology is here and it's here to stay. Moreover, the period between the invention, mass production and marketing of a new gadget and the creation of the next one along has diminished considerably. That not only makes a dent in parents' pockets, but also on children's crania. Nowadays, when people eat together, they're merely interrupting their interaction with screens: Blackberries, television sets and mobile phones. Once the meal is finished, off they go to carry on playing on their Wii.
The other party to blame are advertisers. The level of brain-washing (for want of a better expression) has become so sophisticated that the other day I had to hold myself steady so as not to fall off my chair when both my children said that their favourite ad on telly now was the one for gocompare. It's also one of the most annoying ones I've ever seen in my life.
That leads me to governmental responsibility. Although I'm not a huge fan of 'Big Brother' state, I think that regulations bodies have a duty to enforce laws that clamp down on the amount of junk we consume, be it food or television. When culture minister Ben Bradshaw announced recently that the government was thinking of allowing products placement to be used on telly, he got a lot of flak from teaching unions, children's charities and even the British Medical Association. And quite right, I said to myself. Already we're facing an overflow of useless information. The last thing we need is to add more fuel to the fire.
What to do? As mentioned before, I'm guilty as charged. I read the newspaper at the table on weekends whilst talking to my family. My son and daughter are exposed to music (either my wife's, or mine) whilst they're trying to concentrate on their homework. Is this the type of multi-tasking I want them to learn?
One solution is boundaries. Ration television or computer games to an x amount of minutes or hours. Limit their time online when they're using a computer. No facebook or e-mail account until they show they can behave responsibly. The upshot is that you then become the status quo to your children. The person to fight against. Hmmm... not quite what I had in mind when I signed up for this father malarkey.
Another way out of this quagmire is to introduce a points system at home. You get your mobile if you complete a set of tasks around the house. The number of clips you can watch on youtube will be determined by the number of points you accumulate. Still, the downside is that this is more like a straight assets trade-off (with labour thrown in for good measure) and it will hardly contribute to rescuing those interaction skills to which I referred before.
So, if anyone has any ideas about how to organise the equivalent of a family's Sunday meal on facebook, including pudding, send your suggestions in. Time is of the essence.
And this is 'see you later' from me. I will be (almost) offline from next week until mid April. I might pop by your blogs before I set off, but I wouldn't bet on it as my time will be very limited. I have a lot to do before my forthcoming vacation in Malaysia, a country I first visited two years ago and with which I fell in love immediately. This time around, though, my wife and our two children have extra motivation for our sojourn: my brother-in-law and his wife have just had twins. We're all looking forward to meeting the newest members of our family.
My blog will not be idle, though. Starting this coming Tuesday and with the same frequency as before - three posts per week, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays - I will be uploading the equivalent of a 'Greatest Hits' for the next three weeks. So, stay tuned. The comments moderator will be off because I'm one of those lucky bloggers (touch wood :-D) who gets neither spam nor trolls. And because I trust you. Thanks for everything, for reading and commenting on my posts, for giving me the chance to read your very well-written articles and for existing. Above all, for existing. Happy Easter, everyone!