Alan Rhodes

Lessons from a night-blooming cactus

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I walk past a dozen students waiting for the bus to Western. No one is talking. They are all preoccupied with their smartphones.

In Old World Deli a friend and I sit next to a table of six people, all appearing to be in their 30s. Conversation, when it occurs, comes in brief snippets. They spend most of their time texting.

I’m having coffee at the Co-op Bakery. A woman sitting nearby ignores her two restless and bored children. She is busy at her laptop.

I’m on the sun deck of a small cruise ship on the Dalmatian coast, dazzled by the spectacular scenery and fairytale villages we sail past. Most of the other people on the deck—all in their 60s and 70s—are ignoring the stunning coastline. They are busy with laptops and phones.

I’m thinking of these incidents—you have all observed similar—as I sit at my desk on this mild June evening. The house is quiet, dark, the only illumination coming from a desk lamp that casts a circle of soft light on the page where I write. I lean back and look out the open window into the darkness and my thoughts drift away to another time and place, a spring night of my childhood, many years ago.

It was Phoenix, Arizona, the late 1940s, and a group of people were sitting on my grandmother’s front porch. The backyard patio was not yet commonplace in American life and in nice weather people still did much of their visiting on long, wide porches that extended the length of the front of the house. This night a dozen or so of us were gathered on chairs and the porch swing, waiting for a special event: the flowering of a night-blooming cactus. It sat in a large terra cotta pot and it only bloomed once a year. Over the years my grandmother had developed a sixth sense and could predict the night of its blossoming. It would last only a short time. Before morning the flowers would close and the cactus would not bloom again until the following spring.

People talked quietly as we waited. Ice cubes jingled in tea glasses. Neighbors strolling by on the sidewalk would stop, ask “Is this the night?” then join us on the porch. We might sit like this for two or three hours, talking, sharing stories, waiting. Then someone would notice the first small white spots against the green cactus skin. It started slowly, teasingly, then a little faster as these dots grew into white flowers as large as saucers. Or maybe they only seemed that big to a child’s eyes. Conversation would stop for a while as we sat together enjoying this once-a-year delight.

That annual event could easily be a metaphor for that slower, simpler era. I realize, of course, that there is no going back, and I both use and appreciate modern technology. Writing final drafts on a computer is a considerable improvement over inserting paper and a carbon sheet into a typewriter. I’m grateful for the ease of research that the internet provides. And my smartphone comes in very handy at times.

But we pay a price for these conveniences. Technology, a subtle narcotic, can easily lure us away from the real world. Friends become names and pictures on a Facebook page. Conversations consist of texts and tweets. The passivity of television crowds out direct experience.

A disturbing study was recently published by Common Sense Media. Polling revealed that the parents of teenagers—the parents—spent an average of seven hours and 43 minutes a day looking at screens. And here’s the real shocker: this time was in addition to time spent on screen media at work. That covers almost all waking time beyond the workday, although multitasking (e.g. checking emails while watching television) constituted double minutes. Even so, this is a frightening commentary on who we have become.

“The thinness of contemporary life,” commented novelist Don DeLillo, “I can poke my finger through it.”

We are losing something, something that makes us social animals, something that makes us fully human. All this is on my mind tonight as a breeze floats through the open window of the quiet house and I think back to a simple yet soul-enhancing ritual. I see us sitting there in the dark on the long porch, people chatting about everything from world events to their daily lives, everyone waiting for the annual flowering of a night-blooming cactus.

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