Ernest Hemingway, who I write of often, fought in WWI where in four years four million soldiers died along a 500 mile trench-line in northern France.
Unless you are a wounded American soldier, or from a gold-star family, we as a society don’t even come close to experiencing the kind of sacrifice Hemingway’s generation did. But, somehow, we seem to suffer from as much or more existential angst.
One of Hemingway’s many, great, short stories, written not long after that war, is “Cat in the Rain.” It’s about a husband and wife on vacation, lounging in their hotel room. The wife, lonely and bored while the husband moodily reads on the bed, goes chasing after a kitten hiding from the rain, in the courtyard, under a table.
It’s only two pages but deceivingly complex. The setting, alone, got me thinking about the obvious differences between that same scene, then, and that same scene now.
Imagine you are in a hotel room in 1923. You would not be able to speak to anyone other than the person in the room with you, much less know what anyone else was thinking. The only new content you had access to, on a daily basis, was the newspaper and that was edited down by two or three people before it got to you. And once you were done with it, that was it for the day. No more new content. Maybe you’d get “a wire” but even that took you to a Western Union. And that was limited to a few characters. It would be like taking a cab to get one person’s Tweet.
Now, even a conservative estimate of someone’s connectivity inside that hotel room includes T.V., YouTube, the 2-3 text threads you are trapped in (often consisting of the stream of consciousness of 10-15 people), your 2-3 social media platforms, the individual texting you must do for work, and email, email, email (email to the third power), as well your daily podcast fix/addiction. I’m sure I’m leaving a few out here.
I wonder if our brains are evolved to handle all of this. And is it any wonder that in the midst of the greatest extended period of human health, wealth, and prosperity we are floored with anxiety. We actually get less accomplished than our forebears who lived shorter lives—there is some data online about this, somewhere.
I’m waiting for the next iteration of the 60’s where a generation of kids comes along and says “you people are all crazy.” I think that’s coming and I think they are going to heal us. I think humanity is one big family and every so often it heals itself through some kind of inter-generational self-care. In the meantime, I tell myself, “for God’s sake turn it off, man.” I know, easier said than done.
But read this—Cat in the Rain, by: Ernest Hemingway. One of the most prolific artists of the 20th century wrote it after fighting in the bloodiest war in the history of mankind and what he makes you picture is the lonely drop of rain in a dreary courtyard and the soft sounds of kittens, feet on wooden stairs, and clear, cool silence, among other things.
When you think about how complicated something so simple as a husband and wife relaxing in a Sunday hotel room with the window open to the world actually can be, you wonder where we got where we are, trying to solve the world’s problems in every 24-hour news cycle.
I think it was James Carville who once told his old boss, the future president, to keep it simple, stupid. I think he was talking about the economy but nevertheless, where is that guy? Apparently that works just fine.