United, but Disconnected …

I pick my son up from the Nashville School of the Arts at 3 PM every weekday. Sometimes I have to wait a bit, if he’s mingling with his friends, and I don’t mind because he’s an only child and I’m just happy he has friends. Besides, when he’s out there on the lawn with them, he’s at least not texting them. He’s making eye contact, breathing the same air and using words from his mouth with a modicum of spontaneity. Who would have ever thought human interaction would become a semi-lost art.
     Once he deigns to walk to the car, his eyes are trained on the terrain before him, and he uses those eyes to find the handle on the car door and then to see where the car seat is, and those are the last occasions, until we get home, when his eyes are not on the phone. I ask him how he’s doing and he mutters “good” without looking up. I’ll take that. He’s a 15-year-old kid; if I don’t expect more than a grunt, I’m never disappointed.
     It’s not like he’s isolating. He’s in touch with people constantly. There’s always a text coming in, or an email, or a new video to look at, or a funny meme. It’s endless. Life is on a conveyer belt that moves temporary stimuli past him, some of it leaving residue on his consciousness and a lot of it moving on down the line as if he’d never seen it at all.
     I’m no better. I’m looking at my phone at stoplights, setting a terrible example; and then there was that time when I texted “walk the dog” to him from the other end of the house, rather than getting up and infiltrating that rancid battlefield he calls a bedroom.
     He likes to go to all-ages punk shows now. I drive him to whatever hovel the show is at, and I let him out, and it’s cute to watch him be with all his little punk friends, all of them so adorably spiky and transparent. I’m happy he’s going to these events for the same reason I’m happy to take him to shows at the Bridgestone — he gets to experience a crowd, a communal gathering. There’s nothing communal about a text, or watching a YouTube clip in your room alone, or watching a show on Netflix without that feeling of a whole nation watching it at the same time you are. It’s all individuals linking with individuals, for little individual bits of time.
     It’s the province of middle-aged men to be crotchety and ruminate about the good old days, and how everything’s gone to hell in a handbasket now, so bear with me. When I was a teenager, sonny boy, there was one topic of conversation at school every Monday — the band that had played on “Saturday Night Live.” We all saw Devo on that same night, at the same time, and wondered what the hell that was all about. We all saw the Stones really blow it in 1978. I remember taking a break from a toga party to watch The Clash on the short-lived “Fridays” show; and along with me, thousands of teenage brains across the country were being coated with the experience all at the same time.
     Nathan (that’s my son) can see that performance of The Clash any time he wants now. It’s out there. But who is there at school on Monday morning to discuss it with? Ah, the good old days. We were less connected then, but more united, too.

— Tommy Womack is a singer-songwriter and author, and a former member of both Government Cheese and the bis-quits. His memoir, Cheese Chronicles, has just been released as an e-book by Amber House Books. Visit his website at tommywomack.com and keep up via his popular “Monday Morning Cup of Coffee” series. His column, "East of Normal," appears in every issue of The East Nashvillian. He is currently working on both a new memoir and his seventh solo record.

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