Sunday, September 07, 2008


Paul said he'd never ridden a train before, so I took him up for a ride on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, a local excursion train made up of vintage passenger cars pulled by a steam engine. The town of Boone makes a big deal of this attraction, holding an annual festival called Pufferbilly Days (and I pray to God I will never again use the words "Pufferbilly Days" for any reason), a town-wide celebration highlighted by a parade.

I thought that would be fun for a nine-year-old, and mostly we had a great time, but the parade itself Paul greeted mostly with indifference. Understandable, really, since even the participants seemed indifferent: one of the floats was being pulled by a pickup driven by a guy talking on his cellphone.

Let me say that again. The guy was part of the parade, a public display, and he couldn't be bothered to stop talking on his cellphone for maybe half an hour.

Cellphones are not in and of themselves evil, but their use and frequent misuse is a manifestation of a larger societal trend spreading like a cancer since the self-actualization movement of the '70s: The Cult Of Me.

Consider the practice of customizing the ringtone of your cell: What purpose does it serve? A ring is a ring, or should be. By customizing it, we are encouraged to allow our ringtone to express something about us. But express what? The fact that you're an indulgent, self-obsessed asshole, determined to insert your personal tastes into areas where they're inappropriate? If I'm in a grocery store, and a cellphone rings to the opening riff of Crazy Train and the call is answered by some blow-dried yuppie dressed in his business casual best, what the hell am I supposed to think? That he's "edgy" for listening to Ozzy? That his tastes are depressingly mainstream? That someone planted the pod under his bed last night, and the invasion is coming along on schedule?

Of course, customized ringtones are just one way we express our so-called individuality. Our clothes, our hairstyles, our modes of transporation all contribute. And that's another can of worms! I work in a hospital, and during the summer doctors and nurses routinely show up for work wearing flip-flops.

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but as a consumer I would really appreciate it if highly-paid service providers would have enough respect for me to dress in what was once considered a professional manner. Jurors still tend to judge criminal defendants on what they wear, yet we don't extend the same expectations to people we entrust with our very lives. I'm by no means a social conservative, and I'm not pining for a return to the Ward Cleaver days, but can we not all agree there are times when flip-flops are inappropriate? If a doctor is this casual in his choice of footwear, will be equally casual--or lazy--in his work?

Cellphones and flip-flops may seem like minor annoyances (and I realize the tone of this piece is veering wildly into Andy Rooney/"You kids get off my lawn!" territory), but phone conversations used to be something you held in the privacy of your own home, not a spectacle to be foisted on other patrons of a store or theater. Similarly, flip-flops might be worn at a beach or while lazing around the house, but respect for other people demanded that you wear something a little more presentable when going out. Now, who cares? Who cares about other people? Our own gratification is all we care about.

Let me close with another anecdote from this weekend: Friday night I got a call from an ex-kinda-sorta-girlfriend. She was having problems of some sort with her current relationship and wanted to come over. I told her no, and explained that Paul was staying with me for the night so we could get an early start on everything we had planned for Saturday. She started going off on me about...well, everything, really, and I told her I didn't think this was an appropriate conversation for me to be having in front of a little kid.

She seemed to have no idea what I meant, and really, who can blame her? She's twenty-eight, and so has essentially come of age in the era of the cellphone. To her, there's no such thing as inappropriate, no moral absolutes, nothing beyond what she wants at the moment, and everything else be damned.