OK, I know it’s not the end of the world, only close, but I was reminded of this the other day at a local grocery store when I picked up a tomato to smell. In two seconds, I had a clerk hovering close, asking what I was doing.
“Trying to figure out what this is,” I answered.
“This and all those others are tomatoes,” he pointed out, probably thinking I belonged in the aisle with the fruitcakes.
“Maybe,” I said. “Except they don’t smell like anything. And worse, they have no taste. If it wasn’t for the texture, with your eyes closed you couldn’t tell a tomato from a watermelon from a cucumber from an eggplant.”
He rolled his eyes, turned and left. Too bad, I thought — kids nowadays are not used to having a conversation, even short ones, so there wasn’t one.
Growers, I found out, wishing to have more perfect tomatoes in a shorter growing season, designed them to grow fast, ripen during shipping, be drought-resistant, bug-proof, waterproof, impervious to porcupines, not allergic to weeds, and less easily injured while handling.
Only they left one detail out: They bred the taste out of them, so that now I don’t like them. Sure, I eat them with the occasional hamburger or in some blameless salad, but there’s no flavor. I even wonder if there’s any nutritional value. Perhaps that got bred out too.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about: What about being able to hold a conversation? Did that get bred out too?
I remember a teacher once saying that the correct answer to “Do you know the time?” is either “yes” or “no.” Then, she explained, “You can act all innocent, above suspicion, and inquire if they really want to ‘know’ the time.” To which the other person would inevitably say something like “Duh,” or throw something at you, but next thing you know, you were both laughing and having a conversation; a dialogue had begun.
Plato said, “Wise men speak because they have something to say — fools because they have to say something.” That was then. Now, wise men know better than to speak out, and most fools just stand there and tweet. Still, every now and then, mostly with grown-ups, one still can have a conversation, sometimes a great one and occasionally with a complete stranger. But sadly, not with kids.
I drive by the bus stop at times and see a handful of kids intently looking into their cellphones, mesmerized, neither talking to each other nor acting up. What a shame. We have so much to say to each other, to learn from each other — even if only to pass the time of day or improve our sense of humor and perspective. A good conversation is every bit as stimulating as black coffee, but probably harder to make, which is more the shame, since it’s a skill that needs to be learned on the playgrounds, at the dinner tables, in the classrooms and polished along the way.
Won’t it be ironic if 50 years from now the beginning of this century is known as the starting point of truly global communications and the beginning of the end of personal communications? Let’s hope not.