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!


  1. Thank you Cuban.

    And when you are in Malaysia, if there is anything I can do for you and your family, please do not hesitate to let me know.

    As for raising children, we are building a parent-child relationship. No matter what we do or how we do it, we will learn from each other. What work, what don't work, we'll only know after.

  2. A terrific post here, Cuban and bon voyage till mid April.

    Your words here have raised a number of thoughts for me about space and boundaries and sharing family meals.

    We removed the television several years ago. This helps but we are not strict about eating together for every meal. Dinner time is different, at least for those who are around. No reading or face booking, texting etc, at the table during dinner unless by some amazing chance someone eats alone.

    Did you ever read Ann Tyler's 'Dinner at the Home sick Restaurant', a wonderful novel. The son in this family as an adult establishes a restaurant, that of the book's title.

    He invites his two siblings and mother and their respective partners to his restaurant for dinner from time to time, always in the hope that they can get through an entire meal, all three courses, before one or another of them storms off.

    This is what seems to happen on our household even today with older children. At least one person storms off.

    Ahh such is life. It's not easy. I wouldn't get too worked up about the ideas of ideal famiy dining.

    Do your best, the rest will take care of itself.

  3. Dear Cuban,
    I find this an awakening, if not slightly terrifying, post.
    My first thought, during the warm, informative, beginning, was my daughter settling down with a plate of dinner on my bed in front of the TV with me. Surely a rebellion, unfortunate, against what I'd experienced.
    (She once told me about an afternoon group she'd been in where she got to say how important towels were to her since buying towels was about the only luxury that she considered affordable, having come by that feeling by my tight economic situation.)
    I think it's precious that you were able to eat with everyone in your family, group by group, ending up with your aunt.
    For most of my daughter's childhood (until her teenage years), we didn't have TV, but would stop in the downstairs neighbor's (tenement in NY) and watch Startrek before I took her up to make dinner.
    (I have no idea where we ate it.)
    But what's alerting about your e-mail is the way everyone is plugged in now, has become so in what I consider recently, ten years? eight?, talking on the phone, looking at some device.
    I remember, not all that long ago, when someone came up behind you talking to himself, something was wrong with that person. Now everyone is talking to himself.
    I can't imagine what a parent would do about this constant engagement with friends. Nor can I imagine what a parent of a child who is not popular and doesn't get all that attention would do to compensate. It seems as if it's probably escalated the rather desperate need to be 'popular.'
    And add to that the on-line bullying that had happened here, the suicides of children, and it's all quite mind blogging.
    We seem to be having trouble getting a no texting in car law passed, just as we've had trouble (In Massachusetts) getting a law that the elderly would take driving tests after a rash of seven or eight serious car accidents. (What is the matter with a driving test?)
    This is all off the point, but I remember when my father was so pleased when he received in automatic Canadian driving license that would last him well into his nineties, after he'd had a stroke and couldn't drive. He was just pleased and amused. I'd been dismayed that after his first anurysm, when he lost peripheral vision, he was still driving, saying that he had a seeing-eye wife in the car beside him. (Her brains were fast disappearing.)
    Sorry for the digression!!!!!
    And sorry that I can't reach you by MAC mail. I don't have it.
    thanks...have a good trip. Twins!!! how lovely.

  4. This takes me back a few years, Cuban, and made me try to figure out what, if any, relationship there is between how I (we) brought up the kids and how they are now, as young adults. I had a son who was addicted to the computer, and I finally gave up trying to limit his time on it because it was just so much work. I had to be alert ALL the time. But I didn`t give up before he was 13, and I often talked to him (and listened to him) about what he did online, what the benefits and downsides were, the possibility that those war games really did render him insensitive etc etc. For me, the single most important thing was the discussions we had, and the intention of those was to get him to USE his BRAIN. Which he did, and continues to do, now at 21, although I don;t always agree with the conclusions he comes to! The best thing a parent can do is to teach their children how to be critical thinkers, followed closely by encouraging them to read anything and everything from a variety of sources.

    Dinner together is incredibly important. Talking together is incredibly important. Putting the two together is a perfect combination.

    Teaching by example and by reminder that attending to what someone is saying, making eye contact, but not in a way that suggests the child must follow rules, but rather that the way we listen is as much a form of communication as what we say or how we say it.

    When my kids and I are together I do my best to try and assemble the 3 of them once a week for a family meal - not always easy when they are 26, 24 and 21 - but it makes a noticeable difference to how well they relate to each other and the effect lingers on and on. Not to mention I love it too!

    I really enjoyed this post and am glad I didn`t delay my reading of it like I usually do! Have a wonderful vacation and see you when you get back.

  5. Interesting reflections, as always, my friend.

    I don't have kids, but I can still understand - often, my husband and I will sit with a laptop each (sometimes, more than one) while we live in our own little worlds. But we do talk across the screens, too!

    What about an "offline day" once a week (or once a fortnight, if weekly is too much to ask)? I'd suggest Sunday would be apt, except we'd miss you... :)

    I hope you have a great trip - the blogosphere will await your return!

  6. Hah! Reminded me of my own chidhood in Cuba. I know exactly what you are talking about. As to your journey to Malaysia, sounds to me dreamy. Enjoy yourself with your beautiful family, be safe and get back to us to regale us with tales of your adventures.

  7. I totally hear you, Cuban! One time I saw a girl continually smiling (as if we were acquainted) at me when I was at a bookstore. (I knew I had never met her before.) After hesitating for a bit, I turned to her and gave her a smile, too, only to be completely ignored. Perplexed, I looked more closely at her and saw a Bluetooth device dangling from one of her ears. She was just having a conversation on her phone -- most embarrassing to be in my position!

    I ranted about technology in my blog, too, at: Technology Shmechnology

    Hope you all have a wonderful vacation!

  8. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    What's also funny is that only thirteen years ago (al most to the day) I was most computer illiterate. My only rapport with one had been in the distant days of college when we had access once a week to a set of old Olivettis (remember them?). We're talking 1989.

    And yet, thirteen years down the line and I will probably be checking my mail and my blog at my brother-in-law's.

    Thanks for your anecdotes. I loved reading them. And please, don't apologise for going off topic. In fact, I will probbaly make it mandatory to go off topic every now and then. :-)

    Thanks for your offer, Ocean. One of the ideas is to try to get to know Malay culture more. Hope to run into you one day. :-)

    Thanks to all.

    Greetings from London.

  9. I was always a stickler about no outside media going on at the family dinner table, and did as much as I could to encourage conversation. We were a loud and jovial group, so it wasn't difficult.

    Godspeed, dear friend. Enjoy your travels.

    (I love "our darling blue world")

  10. Your post triggered in me thoughts of many of the areas in my life where I am not enough or not doing enough or the many 'shoulds' that rattle in my brain. Thank you for that because it helps me stop the mental battering and question what it is I really want-connection, self acceptance, non judgement, inner peace- Then to open my heart and let go of the form it will come. Maybe it doesn't have to be at the dinner table. Thank you.

  11. A couple of comments before I sign off for the day.

    I was just reading (I swear it wasn't at the table this time! :-D) the weekly 'Face to Faith' column in The Grauniad and realised that tomorrow it's Passover. So, a good occasion for my Jewish readers to prove my words wrong. Unity, family and joie de vivre. And not a Blackberry in sight.

    Secondly, the clip today will be a trip down memory lane for those Cubans of a certain age, who like me, enjoyed 'Una Mujer Llamada Malu' in the early to mid 80s. It was the beginning of our love affair in Cuba with Brazilian soap operas. It's a great track.

    Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  12. You might want to take one day a week in which everyone in the family unplugs and spends time together. That means no TV, phones, computers, etc., perhaps a meal that everyone helps cook followed by a long walk.

    When I was growing up, there were four of us in a small two-bedroom apartment; then five when my uncle joined us. I never had a room of my own. We ate dinner together. In the house we were always together. I would do my homework surrounded by people and when I read, their voices would fade out.

    Good luck with your children!

  13. Thank you, Cuban! I so love your Sunday reflections, this one included. Limiting time on video games is how I control it in my house, at least for now. We only have one television and computer, though, and I would never, ever have more than that. I had to laugh at the commercial your kids claim to be their favorite -- I think kids' bad taste is probably universal and have often thought it would be interesting to see when and how it becomes more "refined." I agree with you about that commercial but know that my own boys would think it "great."

    Have a wonderful vacation -- I'll miss the freshness of your posts but look forward, too, to the greatest hits.

  14. Oh! You're going to Malaysia? Cool! Have fun.

    I have a feeling we'll all miss you on the blogosphere but we understand that you'll be taking care of other things. I'll be looking forward to hearing about your travels.

    I agree with you on the subject of teaching children interaction skills. It's so hard to compete with tv and laptops and mobiles and computer games. And youtube, like you mentioned. I think there are solutions in everyday things, like playing sports and board games together, reading books together and doing other things together. And in imposing limits on the gadgets. I try to keep the tv off for certain hours to make my sister's children do other things.


  15. Lots of food for thought! :-)

    "The upshot is that you then become the status quo to your children."
    I would not frame it that way, but in essence if parents don't not have the courage to stand up for their conviction, who will? Of course your children will not always be happy about you the moment they are not allowed to do what everybody else supposedly does, but they will learn to respect you. Love and respect prepare you for the life out there better than permissiveness.

  16. Twins in Malaysia, how wonderful! Have a great time.

  17. Another interesting post (as always) that make me think of Kristoff's current column in the NY Times about boys falling behind. One of the reasons given is the huge level of distractions, game playing, TV watching, etc. I think that's not the whole story because girls are pulling ahead in school -- but not necessarily in "real life." So class and gender roles must come into play. But I am all in favor of restricting TV watching, holding back on the video games, texting, etc - after all, parents need to be parents and not some indifferent care giver.
    Bon Voyage in your trip. I am looking forward to your posts on that fascinating and complex part of the world.

  18. It will be a thrilling vacation, wonderful opportunity with your lovely family..looking forward to your words about that!
    Communication with those we don't keeps spreading..and sometimes the person who reads our words starts being a necessary friend!
    Bon voyage!!

  19. Thanks a lot for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  20. Thank you so much CiL for another great thoughtful post.

    This brings me back to years ago when my 5 children were young. Every Sunday we would trot off to my in laws for the afternoon and dinner and be joined there by the larger extended family. We would bask in the warm and loving concern these folks extended, share topics and conversation of the day and relish the great meal provided. Those were great times.

    It was not unlike my growing up years. When I was little my parents did the same sort of thing - we always went to or had over for a visit some members of family for Sunday supper.

    We are so busy these days, Sunday has become just another work day. In my case, my 5 children are grown and while not scattered we seem to be too busy to make the effort for a extended family Sunday dinner very often. It is a treat when it happens though.

    It is a sad comment, less to do with technology and more to do with the pace of life, I think, at least here in North America. We put the wrong value on time and in so doing do not give these family rituals the priority they deserve.

  21. Looking forward to hearing about your trip. Wonderful idea on the Greatest Hits posts.



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