- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2005

With the passing of Gerry Thomas this week, the C.A. Swanson & Sons salesman credited with introducing TV dinners in 1954, I can’t help but think about what has gone wrong since those innocent days.

With recent world events, which, a few years ago, we naively thought we would never witness in our lifetimes, it is clear the human plight has become desolate and desperate. Every week brings a new atrocity, an act of sheer absurdity or a manifestation of utmost disrespect for human rights, each alarmingly outdoing the previous ones. When did this start?

While some cite the industrial revolution as having spawned the first signs of degenerative behavior, others counter that humanity has been on an evolutionary self-destructive course since Adam and Eve. The British musical group Genesis despondently concluded in their brilliant “Blood on the Rooftops” that “the trouble was started by a young Errol Flynn,” the 1930s Hollywood actor. (Not without merit, seeing how we have become so obsessed with aping movie life.)

Could it be our troubles started with those same TV dinners borne of a desperation to use up Swanson Co.’s surplus turkey? I know it’s ludicrous to advance they could have had such a ripple effect on society. But consider that, until then, dinnertime was always viewed, almost sacredly, as an occasion for family members to come together and talk. The invention of television did not immediately alter this treasured aspect of family life, things sure started changing a few years later with the advent of those frozen aluminum plates. It became acceptable, if not downright exciting, for family members to watch the tube while eating.

Gradually, they stopped talking to each other, much preferring instead to be talked to, sung to and entertained by these larger-than-life personalities that showed up on their old black and white RCAs.

Food manufacturers quickly took advantage of this new lifestyle and increased the variety of instant and frozen foods available, paving the way for housewives to go into the work force or back to school. It also encouraged others to take up some weeknight activity. Once the very fabric of family life was altered, all hell broke loose. Just look how we have evolved.

From hula-hoops to satellite dishes, from contraceptive pills to crack, from Vietnam to the war on terrorism, from prefabricated housing to disposable ballparks, from the sitcom “Father Knows Best”to asinine reality TV and from Elvis to rap, we have sure seen it all.

Yet, none of it has been more ubiquitous than the present overload of information technology and its plethora of choices that complicate life and drive us to constantly better ourselves. And all that was first intended was to make our lives easier.

In a relatively short time, we have been inundated with so many daily preoccupations there is precious little time left for simply just being. For instance, doing nothing.

What? Let your mind roam freely and unobtrusively? Pity anybody caught with such a frightening and passethought in our fast-paced, complex world. This world depends so much on electronics that, coupled with society’s equally pervasive judicial system, it produces an inordinate mass of docile citizens incapable of an independent thought.

Isn’t it ironic that the more tools we have to communicate, the less we actually speak to and understand each other, as if trapped witin a modern Tower of Babel? We pledge money online to far away Indonesia, yet can’t be bothered crossing the street to talk to a neighbor. We unfailingly walk our dogs, but can’t convey the right words to a confused child.

I’m quite certain communications guru Marshall McLuhan couldn’t have envisaged such a desultory mindset when he predicted in the late 1960s that the evolution of mass communications would eventually shrink the world to a Global Village.

One must wonder if treasured pastimes likepicking up a good book or chatting with family are forever lost to us.

All because of those frozen TV dinners? Then again, maybe that dang hula-hoop did it.

JEAN-PIERRE ALLARD

Ottawa, Ontario

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