Do you hear what I hear? | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Dec 18, 2013

Roberts Blossom is a name almost guaranteed to stimulate an involuntary response in readers, a very common reaction in which one is overcome by the powerful need to be smug.

You think you spotted a typo, in other words. Sorry. Roberts is his first name.

Or it was his first name, as Mr. Blossom is no longer with us, having passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 87.

He was a poet and a playwright, along with being a World War II veteran, which interrupted his studies at Harvard.

Following the war, he drifted into acting, not making much of an impression until he reached his early 50s, when his piercing eyes and gray beard gave him an edge with casting directors who were looking for an aging weirdo.

In “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” he was the UFO chaser who described an unpleasant (olfactory) close encounter with Bigfoot, and there were other similar parts, although his most famous role came a dozen years later, playing Old Man Marley, the scary neighbor in “Home Alone,” who ended up being not all that scary.

None of this is pertinent to anything, really, other than “Home Alone” is a popular film this time of year.

I just thought of him when I was checking the biography of Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist whose name is synonymous with the study of conditioning in humans, along with some stuff about drooling and dogs.

It turns out there was a physical resemblance between the two. Look up a picture of the older Pavlov and you’ll see it.

It was conditioning that was on my mind, actually, and Dr. Pavlov.

As I walked across a shopping mall parking lot last weekend, enjoying a rare evening out with my wife, heading for a restaurant, I heard a familiar beep from my pocket and did a fair imitation of a slobbering dog.

That is, my hand reached for my phone, instinctively understanding that a new email had just arrived and it was very, very important that I read it RIGHT NOW.

Having slept through at least one Intro to Psychology class in college, I was well aware of classical conditioning, or at least aware enough that I managed to hold onto a few strands of my dignity and postponed looking at the screen until we were seated in the restaurant, and that’s when I saw them.

You saw them, too. We all have. Apparently a family of three, sitting at a table, waiting for a nice meal, all of their heads down, locked on their phones. Reading messages that were at least as important as the one waiting for me, which is to suggest not so much.

It would be funny, maybe, if it weren’t so common and boring. Not to mention personally embarrassing, as I realized I was eager to do the same thing, bend my head and stare at my phone, oblivious to my wife, who is actually a pretty interesting companion. Not to mention just pretty.

Old Man Marley had nothing in the scary department compared to the idea that I’d been conditioned by some telecommunications conglomerate to respond to a ringtone, so I fought back, ignoring my phone for the duration, although now the world is missing a nicely composed photograph of my fish tacos, which were pretty good. And photogenic.

This isn’t a screed, by the way. I don’t have much passion for being a public scold, seeing as I have this tendency to do plenty of dumb things in public myself. It’s more of a personal reminder, maybe, that there are times when I need to focus on lifting my eyes up, and looking around.

There are lights on houses, cheering up the neighborhood. There is music in malls, songs we love and those we could certainly not hear ever again and be OK with that, but it’s music. Parties are held, gifts are exchanged, caroling is caroled.

Resolution and redemption show up in cultural shorthand: The Grinch gets a bigger heart, George Bailey gets his life back, Charlie Brown saves a tree, and Scrooge saves his own soul. We know the stories.

We also think we know the stories of Christmas, which are long and complicated, and some people will go on about mangers while others smirk about pagans and solstices, but I suspect most of us are thinking about our own stories, anyway.

And if I ask the nearest religious authority, who happens to be my wife, about the meaning of Christmas, she’ll remind me that in the Christian faith this is Advent season, not Christmas, and then she pauses for a moment.

“It’s so dark this time of year,” she says, finally. “I think we’re all just waiting for some light.”

It struck me that this is unusual, in our time. A time when our attention is diverted by our electronics and our busy lives, when we live in niches of our own interests and needs.

And yet Christmas is something we do together. We can’t help it. We wait for light.

So I wish you happy waiting, whether you smirk or sing, and a happy holiday season. This is irrationally romantic of me, I know, but there you go.

I’m conditioned this way, and it’s nice at least once a year to remember that goodwill and good cheer aren’t bad ideas, and that my neighbors aren’t that scary, not really.


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