An Essay by Greg Ventre
Being at home these last few days, without any seemingly life-altering decisions to make immediately, I took some time to think about some notions that had been rolling around in my brain unconnected for a while.
Wandering around our beautiful but empty campus every day (devoid, at least, of humans), it was quiet and peaceful. It was also a little unnerving.
I passed our campus deer herd a few times. They usually stare at me, or sometimes they run a few steps, turn and wait for the leader's whitetail to go up, and other times they all run together. Today they just looked up, and I thought they were smirking. I bet they know something we don't. The Red Fox pair continues to show up for their nighttime meal and seems a bit bolder, ok with me watching them. The geese down by the pond are less flighty—perhaps they have already laid their eggs in the retention pond as usual and, like us, stand ready to protect their young. All their lives may have already improved by our absence.
Humans are generally social creatures, craving the emotional support that social contact provides us. The "lone wolf" can seem to be a romantic figure, but he is ultimately overcome, if not defeated, by the sheer inherent necessity of friends, partners, and associates. Loneliness can be a deadly disease.
The empty campus got me wondering.
Will the historical practices of social greetings be lost forever? The courtly bow, the knightly forearm grasp, the intricate sports greetings of tangled fingers, hand gestures and body slams, the high five, the bro hug, the sisterly embrace, the fist bump (which I never understood), the various forms of the common handshake—two hands covering one is really heartfelt, the high held full hand grasp, the waist high regular shake? Will our descendants be left to interpret what this now favored elbow knock meant? Where did it come from? Why was it used? Perhaps, when all this is over, craving human contact again, our greetings will be less superficial and more sincere.
My dad took me to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play at Ebbets Field during their last season in my hometown before they moved to Los Angeles. Among the lasting impacts the experience had on me was a deep and long-held resentment for the west coast. I was a kid. Every time anyone made contact with a ball, I jumped up and yelled, "Homerun!" Another lasting effect was a lifetime love of and involvement with sports—as an athlete, a coach, an educator, and a fan. Unfortunately, I also learned that there is a difference between sports and athletics today. I had always used the terms synonymously.
Perhaps, when all this is over, as we live without sports at its most exciting season, we can remember that sports are games, not wars. Maybe we will recall the joy of competing and the thrill of physical exertion, of being part of a group with a common goal—not necessarily to win but to have fun and grow together, to take pleasure in the physical contact vigorous athletics can include and not run ourselves and our children ragged in search of the best rec league, the right coach and the most money. Will life without sports give us an opportunity to reassess what has become an unhealthy obsession for some? Can balance and perspective reassert themselves? Maybe sports and athletics can reconcile for the benefit of all.
Will the dependence on virtual life drive us even further apart than social media and technology already have? Without the structure of school, which provides a culture for young people to be with their peers, and under these circumstances we must prevent our children from being with their friends in person—a key element in their development, will our children come to believe that learning does not include being with people? That could be done in isolation? Maybe when this is over, we will recall the thrill of learning from each other, appreciate the dynamics of group debate, enjoy the support and encouraging smile of a wonderful teacher, or the backslap of classmates who are pleased that you succeeded. Perhaps we will gain new regard for the community spirt of our Forum, where congratulating someone for getting into a college or celebrating a birthday is cool; where being acknowledged by peers and adults for accomplishments is real, loud, in person acclimation, not the coded quick dis of a social media reaction but a look you in the eye, visceral sensation. Where taking the microphone and speaking about something that matters to you in front of 350 people can be a life-changing and genuinely affirming experience.
The "discovery" of perspective was one of the most revolutionary advances in the Renaissance, and "Humanists" applied it to all forms of human endeavor—science, art, architecture, social thought, and political philosophy. Depth and balance became aspirations of human expression and experience—it was a sought after and valued virtue. We have lost that quality—our modern life is filled with excesses and immediate gratifications. Maybe, when this is over, we can regain some of that sense of community again, where we value the efforts of one another, revel in the joy of being together, and not only focus on ourselves.
I imagine that not many people read H.G. Wells anymore, but he remains a favorite of mine. I mentioned to colleagues the other day that I was re-reading his novel "The War of the Worlds". Have you read it? If you instead prefer the various film versions, skip the current EPIX production as well as the Spielberg/Tom Cruise 2005 version and go for the 1953 screen gem in blazing color. However, with time on your hands, I highly recommend the book. The reactions to the disruption of everyday English village life as the Martian invasion progresses reminds me of the current myopic complaints about various inconveniences ("My hairdresser cancelled!"). But the real kicker is knowing what ultimately defeated the invaders—an ending I’ll let you discover on your own, if you’re not already familiar with the story.
Perhaps, when all this is over and we are together again, we will remember why being together is a necessity, and a pleasure.
Time on your hands? Here are a few great and timely reads, and classic films:
Optimistic: H.G. Wells “The War of the Worlds” 1897. Already mentioned; Earth wins!
Hopeful, with a warning: Harry Bates “Farewell to the Master” 1940. No one will remember this short story, and rightly so. It was the basis for the classic film with Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. Memorable lines in this one: Pat Neal asks about the giant, metallic Gort: "He's a robot, what can he do?" Everything, it turns out! And, of course, "Klaatu Barada Nikto," the phrase that saves the world. See this 1951 version, but as remakes go, the 2008 Keanu Reeves feature is not terrible. The basic story is we messed up it, they were watching, we deserve to be destroyed, but we get another chance because we're nice. The story is filled with symbolism.
We go with the flow: J.G. Ballard “The Drowned World” 1962. Fluctuations in solar radiation have caused the ice caps to melt and the seas to rise. Mind you, this was 58 years ago! Ballard is one of the greats. A powerful and beautifully clear work.
Apocalyptic: Richard Matheson “I Am Legend” 1954. This novella features a world where one human survives a global pandemic, but he is not alone. A compelling read, it has been filmed at least three times and has inspired hundreds of offshoot movies. Laugh through the 1971 version with Charlton Heston (no longer Moses, Ben Hur, or El Cid) in Omega Man; suffer through the 2007 Will Smith offering, which at least uses the book’s title; but enjoy the poignant 1964 version with Vincent Price, The Last Man on Earth. The beginning of the “end of the world vampire zombie” trend.
Non-Fiction: Alan Weisman “The World Without Us” 2007. Highly acclaimed, this story tells how the Earth reclaims its surface once humans are il fine.
Stay healthy, get outside, and I hope to see you soon!