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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: The Tired Tunes

Brett McNeil ponders the demise of our social graces.

On the mornings when I’m handling daycare drop-offs, my four-year-old likes me to carry him from the car to his classroom. He now speaks in paragraphs, remembers everything, and asks embarrassingly direct, observant questions but still prefers to be lofted around like a pint-sized pasha.

So we were headed for the entrance the other day when I spied a grandmother and granddaughter walking toward us from down the sidewalk. Slow, halting, just exhaustingly dilatory meanderings. On another day, we would have watched and waited and even let them wander in ahead of us. But not that day.

“Why didn’t you hold the door, dad?”

I wondered if he would notice and am glad he did. Of course he did.

“That’s a good question, hon. I should have held the door. I was in a hurry.”

“Oh, OK,” he said in absolution.

I wasn’t really in a hurry. I just didn’t want to wait. I didn’t want to extend a courtesy, didn’t want to invite this shambolic pair into our morning, didn’t want to see whether there would be a thank-you or a silence as they passed by in the doorway, didn’t want to deal with them at all.

Not a great lesson. Not how I was raised and not generally how I live my life. But sometimes I go with the flow and we live in insular and unfriendly times, in a dysfunctional country, in a small and unhappy place.

How-de-do, neighbor?

***

My mother was born in April right before V-E Day and raised rural poor in the Alleghenies of central Pennsylvania. She waitressed her way through college and eventually made it to Chicago where she lived and died a couple years ago. Mom was old-fashioned about manners – hold doors; walk on the street-side of your dates; say yes, please; no thank you – and she regarded social graces like she did proper diction and grammar, as tickets to ride out of the hovels.

She wasn’t wrong.

But I do find myself in middle age wondering about the nature of those lessons and what and how to pass them on, especially with a Power Wagon angrily bump drafting me on Lincoln Way or a woman mom’s age cutting a farmer’s market line with practiced indifference. With a table-pounding majority of Hoosiers defining wants as rights, and majoritarian prerogatives supreme in a me-first, kiss-my-ass anti-culture.

Mom worked in commission sales and so traded in two principal currencies – optimism and social capital. She was a hustler and like all hustlers relied on her ability to sell herself, or versions of herself, which in turn relied on social congress, regard, exchange.

But it wasn’t all sales. Mom really was a positive and emotionally buoyant person, a dogged rowboat on the big waves. There were good days right here, right now and most definitely up ahead, out past the white caps. Some of that rubbed off but not all of it. I am resilient and a talker but am less patient about the wind and the waves and more pessimistic about tomorrow. Who isn’t?

I enjoy the friendly exchange in a little reciprocal set-piece of stranger-on-stranger politesse and even find these moments hopeful since they suggest mutuality and thoughtfulness.

Why thank you! 

Sure thing! 

But I am highly sensitive to the opposite, to selfishness and thoughtlessness, the deep-set roots of disrespect, a now-dominant feature of our public lives with which I am sure the public radio choir to whom I am preaching is quite familiar.

Who among us has not recently jumped from the path of a speeding Prius? Who has not been yelled at or glared at or menaced by a stranger this week? Who has not of a fortnight seen a good deed or gesture go ignored?

It’s bad form to keep score rather than accept good behavior as its own reward. But remind me again why I’m supposed to swallow so much bile.

***

For more than a month we have watched as the people of Ukraine permanently and indelibly define themselves and their nation through courage, mettle, suffering and unity of purpose – all available hands on deck, amputees and ballerinas with Kalashnikovs. It’s the most remarkable crisis and response of our lifetimes, and while not yet resolved this fight lays bare some ugly deficiencies in our grandiosely overhyped Shining City on a Hill.

To whom are we an example?

We are a vestige, a ruin of former glories.

An oldies act whose performers no longer speak but play their tired tunes for a paycheck and take separate cabs to the airport – everybody gassed, gassed, gassed.

Music: “The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole” by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band

Brett McNeil is a writer and essayist in Mishawaka, Indiana. His radio essays have aired on WVPE and WBEZ and his writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Crain’s Chicago Business and elsewhere. He is a former newspaper reporter and columnist and is the recipient of writing awards from the Chicago Headline Club, Illinois Press Association and Inland Press Association. Brett is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois Chicago. He works as an investigator in a law office.