Listening in

Friday, January 28, 2011

OK. I'll be honest. I eavesdrop.

These days it's easy to do. Individuals -- diners in restaurants, shoppers in stores, pedestrians on your daily walk and even churchgoers occupying the pew behind you -- talk openly about private matters.

They do this on cell phones, of course. And when the phone reception is spotty, they talk louder, just the way we do when we're speaking to a foreigner who doesn't seem to understand what we're saying. We assume, instinctively, that louder means plainer.

I am amazed by the attachment so many of us have with our cell phones. These devices connect us to others who have cell phones, but they cut us off from just about everyone else.

On my daily walks I frequently cross the university campus. I used to worry about the lack of eye contact, the missing greeting or wave, the failure to acknowledge the existence of others. Now I realize that all the niceties of civilization have been tossed aside in favor of a conversation with someone who can only be heard, not seen or touched. And we wonder why so many of us feel cut off, out of the loop, apart from society.

This week I was walking down Normal Avenue in front of Academic Hall when I spotted a young fellow in the distance talking quite loudly. The volume kicks up another notch when the person doing the talking is speaking a foreign language. These individuals assume you don't know what they're saying, so they blurt it all out into the airspace they share with anyone passing by.

In this case, the animated speaker was Asian, and he was pacing back and forth across the sidewalk, making no progress in any direction. The arm not holding the cell phone to his ear was gesticulating, adding emphasis and underlining important points, even though his intended listener couldn't see.

As it turns out, I know what this young man was saying. And I can guess with some certainty that he was talking to his mother. In China. Or Japan. Or Korea.

He was explaining that his miserable grades were a temporary setback. He would study harder. He promised. No, the thousands of dollars to provide a university education in a foreign country weren't being wasted. There would be no dishonor to the family. Yes, he could use more money -- if he wanted to eat properly, a good diet being essential to the understanding of complex ideas presented in a strange language. Surely you see that, Mom.

And, yes -- his voice even louder now, but not quite hysterical -- he was taking care of himself and getting enough sleep. Yes, Mom, my clothes are clean -- and pressed. He could say this with a good deal of confidence that his mother, in China/Japan/Korea, would never lay eyes on him in his university setting until the day of his graduation finally arrived, and then she would be too excited and proud to make a big deal about the ketchup stains on his dingy T-shirt.

Yes, this universal mother/son conversation was unfolding as I walked past. The young man took no notice of his surroundings as he did figure-8s on the sidewalk.

You know what amazed me the most? It was the realization that the fellow was also time traveling. Thanks to the modern miracle of cell phones and satellites and the unbelievable capabilities of human ingenuity, this student in Cape Girardeau was talking, on Monday, to his mother, on Tuesday.

Imagine that.

Imagine anything you want.

Joe Sullivan is the retired editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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