We’ve swapped one devil for another

Dear President Trump,

Today is my monthly “gallery sit” for the cooperative art gallery I joined in January. It’s downtown and usually I take a half-day off from work, drive here, and park in an insanely expensive lot with way-too-small stalls. Today, however, I took the whole day off and used public transit to get here. Besides being less expensive and not having to deal with climbing out the passenger side of the car, taking the bus gave me a chance to observe way more people than usual.

One of the things I observed was that virtually all the college students thanked the bus driver as they disembarked at their various stops. That was cool to see, for sure.

The other noteworthy thing I observed didn’t however, feel so cool, which was that the vast majority of the people around me appeared to be completely absorbed by whatever they were doing on their phones. Young people, old people, students, non-students – I think it would be safe to estimate that 90%+ of the roughly 100 people I encountered on the way here were glued to their phones. There were a couple of book readers and a couple of people looking around, but not many at all.

The ubiquitous phone action reminds me of a conference talk an old professor of mine gave 25 years ago. During the talk he showed a picture of James Dean walking alone in the dark in the rain with just a raincoat (no umbrella), looking for all the world like a lost, pathetic soul. I know it’s hard to imagine James Dean looking dejected and less than, but he truly did. Next, the professor showed almost the same picture, but in this version Dean was holding a lit cigarette, which magically transformed him from pathetic to cool and completely self-contained. It was really weird.

It’s not that people who aren’t on their phones look pathetic (at least I hope not since I’m generally one of those people), but there’s some something that gives people on phones an air of remove and untouchable-ness that for me, links in with that shift in how Dean looked without, and then with, his cigarette. But my sense of all this is pretty topsy-turvy. On the one hand I feel kind of envious of the phone-people’s absorption, and on the other hand I feel worried about what it means that so many of us seem to have a great deal of our attention focused where we are not.

Remember how omnipresent cigarettes seemed to be in the 1960’s? Well, according to a book called “Ending the Tobacco Problem: A Blueprint for the Nation,” 1963 was the year the most cigarettes were consumed (4,345 per capita). 1963 also happens to be the year I was born to parents who both smoked. For me, and for most of us, cigarettes were everywhere, we saw them on TV shows and in movies, we breathed the secondhand smoke in restaurants and in cars with the windows rolled up. There were warnings in the 1950’s that tobacco was associated with health problems, but the industry introduced filtered cigarettes and managed to convince people this made them safe. Charlatans.

The health risks of smoking were finally incontrovertibly proven and we are now down to about 14% of adults who are smokers from the peak of 45% in 1945 (apparently those who smoked in 1963 were smoking like veritable chimneys!). This is wonderful progress on smoking to be sure, but now I regularly see parents pushing their baby’s strollers down the street while fixedly looking at their phones, and not a day goes by when either the driver in front of me or behind me, or both, are texting. It’s like we’ve swapped one devil for another. Cigarettes are still associated with nearly half a million deaths in the US annually and while phones aren’t likely to ever match this death rate, if they are more compelling than our children then we are in serious trouble.

May we feel safe enough to be present.
And, may we be willing to be present even when things are hard and scary.
May we prioritize healthy connection with one another, especially children.
May we make peace with reality.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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