We hosted a dinner party last night, partly because we hadn’t done much entertaining in a while and partly because Suzanne is going out of town for an indeterminate period. Our daughter is expecting her first child in a week or so, which means any time now, and my wife decided she would prefer not to have to drive to Atlanta after Lindsey was already in labor.
It was a potluck, as our meals usually are. We provided the main dishes — barbecued ribs, grilled salmon and grilled vegetables — and our guests brought appetizers, sides, drinks, salads, and dessert.
We sat at the table, a group whose members were, in a phrase Walter used today, “previously young.” All friends for several decades, they ranged from people who knew each other well to those who met each other for the first time last night. Around the table sat a railroad engineer, an employee of a local news station, a couple who ran a landscaping business, another couple who ran a construction/remodeling business, a clinical psychologist, a teacher at a community college, a social worker, and me. There were several retirees, a couple more edging in that direction, and the rest actively in the work force.
It was a thoroughly delightful evening. Everyone agreed that the food was good, the conversation never lagged and moved from serious to playful and back again easily, we spent hours together and, unless it happened when I was away from the group, did not discuss politics at all. As I said, a delightful evening.
I think that the creation of the internet is an enormous, world-changing step forward, allowing us to research, communicate and interact in ways not possible even as recently as twenty-five years ago. The fact that not all of the communication is positive isn’t really unexpected. I have known angry, spiteful, morose people my entire life; their relentless insistence on emphasizing the dark side of things is nothing new. I believe that as we become better at using this new tool, become more discriminating and critical in our thinking, those who champion all that is wrong with the world will assume their proper place, as will those who make outlandish pronouncements, offer to make us younger, bigger, longer, stronger, richer, and so on. Freedom of speech is messy, no doubt, but essential to an intelligent, forward moving society.
What the internet, with its world-wide reach and ability to connect millions of people, cannot give us is what I experienced last night. The changing tone and volume of voices, the glance across the table, the spontaneous nonverbal communication gone as quickly as it appeared, all of that layers and enriches the community in ways not transferable to electronic media.
I use the internet daily (as I’m doing right now), and appreciate what it can do, even though I’m not able to take advantage of all of it. That’s one of the disadvantages of being previously young. I use it, but I don’t expect it to do everything. It’s great for checking bank balances, shopping, research, and many other things, but it has its limits. Reading LOL on a screen does not remotely approach hearing and seeing a friend’s laughter and having it travel around the table, brightening the whole room as it goes.
In his book, “A Man Without a Country,” Kurt Vonnegut said this: “And I urge you to please notice when you’re happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” It’s a big, complex world, and there is much to do for those of us who would like to see things improve for those who still suffer. There are also moments of joy and excitement and surprise and I agree with Mr. Vonnegut that we should try to notice it when that is going on. As I told the group last night, in every way except financially I am an extremely wealthy man. I’m trying to notice that more often.