Friday, August 26, 2011

Darwin's Nightmare

The demands of opening another school year are upon me, so, for the first time, a repost. This is from a year ago, but a recent experience reminded me . . .

I used to be a little afraid of this, but now I'm terrified.  I'm not sure whether it is something in the water or if some sort of ray is being beamed through high-def screens at our children, but I am now convinced that our young Americans might be growing into adulthood without the benefit of a reptilian brain.  I have seen evidence of this over the years, but now I know it: the fight-or-flight mechanism in America's youth has been snuffed out in many and continues to quickly whither in others.

You have seen it too, but maybe it didn't register.  Picture it: you are standing in line at a fast food restaurant at lunchtime on a Saturday.  The store and the mall in which it resides are, as they say, hoppin'. The kid behind the counter says, "Hi. Can I take your order?" You order a Laughy-Meal, a "number four" with an orange soda, a healthy salad with an extra packet of dressing, a cheeseburger and two extra orders of fries, one without salt, and a bag of chocolaty-chip cookies.  The kid behind the register says, after you have painstakingly delivered each important detail in your best rhetorical voice, "Hi. Can I take your order?"

After the briefest of open-mouthed pauses, you hit him with it again. When you are finished, he pushes the keys on the register/computer thing the way a far-sighted seventy-year-old scratches dried pea soup off of his tie. He fingers another key and looks up, hair falling, by careful design, over one eye. He squints at you with his remaining eye as if you are the eyepiece of a microscope. He leans forward, ever so slightly, then still more. You fear, for a moment, that he might actually brush you with his eyelashes. Then, he says, eyelids heavy with ennui, "Wait. What was after the orange soda?"

You feel you might actually weep.

It is like a cinematic trick -- one of those shots of a guy standing still in a crowd that buzzes around him at hyper speed. Around the befuddled register creature, a few honors students hustle, feeling the pressure of the swell of customers.  They sweat in the heat of the boiling fries, in order to clear away the lunchtime rush. But behind you, young One-Eye's line stretches out the door and into the food court and beyond.  (Actually, unbeknownst to you, people in the back of the line are in the shoe store trying on sneakers to kill the time.) He does not twitch. He does not grimace.  He stares at you as if you are an absolute cretin. Wondering how he has turned the tables like this, you start again: "I'll have a Laughy-Meal . . ."

I had time, this morning, to compose this entirely in my head as I drove -- at a speed of such creeping slowness that my speedometer didn't register it -- behind a young girl who seemed to register no sign of alarm that she was walking in a tiny parking lot about six inches in front of a two-thousand pound piece of machinery that could squish her. She ambled cheerily as if she were in a scene from Heidi, looking around her at the trees, glancing back at the hood of my car and smiling vacantly from time to time. You might say she was simply being rude -- trying to miff me. But you didn't see the empty look in her eye . . . the complete lack of physiological reaction to danger or even the social pressure of my presence.

Could it be that a kind of final evolution is happening? Perhaps Nature no longer thinks we need to protect ourselves and perhaps that primitive part of our minds is going the way of our vestigial tails. You had to see her -- it was horrifying. The vacuous eyes . . . [Weeps into his own hands.]

What if One-Eye or Heidi were impalas on the African savanna, surrounded by lionesses? Would their heart rates speed up? Would their blood vessels dilate? Would their senses heighten? Would they run? No, because what was once an evolutionary spring-loaded emergency alarm at the base of every human skull has now withered into a limp piece of asparagus.

Come to think of it, I blame Nickelodeon.


  1. I thought about your reference to zombie kids on your facebook, and since I have too much time on my hands I thought about it. Even zombies are quasi aware of their surroundings...they know where they want to get their next meal, like food, and, depending on the zombie lore you follow (in this case George A Romero's "The Night of the Living Dead," recognize danger like fire. These kids are just pathetic. On the other hand, since everything is handed to them now, why would they need a fight or flight response? It seems to be replaced with a call-mommy-and-daddy-impulse-thingy. I know, it's a technical term. Anyway, just some food for your brain, as opposed to having your brain for food.


  2. This is very true, I watched a kid at work walking and texting on his phone not paying attention and just cut right in front of the drivable warehouse pallet jacks. The guy had to slam on his brakes and beeped his horn. The kid on the phone didn't even look up, just kept on walking. I am amazed some of these people are still alive today.

  3. Papi -- you;re right -- it definitely is conditioning. We certainly can't blame the kids for their their own desensitization.

    Sean -- a classic example! We are in real trouble when our pulses are not elevated and when the adrenaline doesn't flow when danger lurks -- or darts out.