Allegan County News & Union Enterprise Commercial Record Courier-Leader & Flashes

Life as Performance Art

Marinell Barretta of north-ern Italy died at age 70. That part, with the mortality rate holding steady at 100 per-cent, was not surprising. What followed was.
Local authorities found her mummified remains Feb. 4 some two and a half years after she’d died. There was no sign of foul play or chem-ical abuse.
The last thing she did in life was sit down in her over-stuffed living room chair in her house in a village where everyone likes to believe they know each other. They liked and perhaps spent time with Mrs. Barretta since she was friendly and nontoxic. She died at the beginning of pandemic-enforced lock-downs that kept people off streets, out of shops and so-cially distant.
Neighbors said they as-sumed she had moved south or perhaps gone somewhere else. Some thought she had family near Naples, others were not certain if she had any living relatives. None knew how to contact her and apparently no one bothered to knock on her front door. As the editor of Italy’s larg-est daily paper wrote, “She was loneliness personified.”
The faster technology changes the more it seems people fall behind. During the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics NBC chartered a specially outfitted jet plane to collect film shot by their crew, then develop and edit it while flying to New York so, as John Chancellor said in ecstatic tones, “We can broadcast the games into your home within 24 hours of the events.” Impressive stuff for a generation that had grown up on newsreels before the main feature at their favorite theatre.
In four years we can watch the Olympics before the Games are held, much like we now know our the name of our next President before polls close.
Technology changed how we communicate. We went from the stylus and clay tab-let to the quill pen to the steel nib style, to the fountain pen, then the ballpoint about 1950.
A few years later a Super Bowl commercial featured an IBM Selectric Typewriter with the fabled “dancing ball” — the latest advance-ment in word processing. It was soon replaced by per-sonal computers.
Remember DOS and FORTRAN? Only if you’re older. Mercifully, that system was replaced by Macs and Windows, and so the pro-gression goes.
We went from big wooden box telephones with cranks on the side hanging on the wall to the Bakelite rotary phone to the Princess slim line. We don’t dial a tele-phone anymore; we push buttons.
Not so long ago a long-distance phone call was an expensive proposition. Tell someone today you are call-ing long distance and they’ll suspect you’re a time-traveler dropping in from the last century.
Even newspapers have embraced technology. Thir-ty-five plus years ago I worked for the last weekly paper in the country that still set type by hand for the front page. About that same time my father’s friend Jim “Hard Hands” Hansen re-tired from the linotype ma-chine at the newspaper in Rochester, Minn.
Mike Wilcox and Scott Sul-livan are young enough to have laid out earlier publica-tions on graph paper using the real cut and paste meth-od. Today, much of it is done by computer programs.
Technology has changed and it changed people. Thank goodness for being able to use Zoom instead of face-to-face meetings during Covid lockdowns, work from home instead of a crowded office, and churches were able to continue caring for parishioners via the internet.
We could have medical appointments online and transact other business. We could invest our time taking classes from universities around the world or join do-cents as they led us through each room of the Louvre.
So how was it Mrs. Barretta died in her living room in a house with neighbors on all sides, and went unmissed for two and a half years? Sim-ple. Even with all our com-munication devices, no one paid any attention to her. Technology made her invisi-ble. We forgot the im-portance of the face-to-face connection.
It wasn’t the technology that did her in; it was just a tool. It was the reliance on technology to stay connect-ed with others that led to this turn of events. No doubt the neighbors stayed in touch with others via social media. Mrs. Barretta was treated as if she’d become expendable.
We are losing the plot on what it means to be part of humanity. While Mrs. Barret-ta mummified in her chair, teenagers have either forgot-ten or been denied the oppor-tunity to learn how to social-ize with others.
Technology has changed, but people have not caught up to it. Our modern internet, cell phones and all forms of social media are only a few decades old. For hundreds of thousands of years we hu-mans have relied on face-to-face connections.
A lot of this was the result social distancing. Whoever came up with that horrible phrase must have perpen-dicularly parked their brain in a parallel universe.
If they had just used the word “physical” we would have kept our distance but at least felt we could acknowledge the presence of others. Instead, we kept our heads down, half-terrified if someone looked at us we might be infected.
We isolated over the past two and a half years, and no amount of communication technology is going to com-pensate for that. Many of us went from frustration to an-ger, and some went on to resignation and giving up.
Loneliness, physicians have been saying for the past decade, is the root cause of most serious illness and death. Often, it leads to un-healthy behavior — bad eating and sleeping habits, little or no exercise, and sub-stance abuse.
No one ever wakes up one morning and decides, “To-day is the day I’m going to become an alcoholic or see how badly I can eat so that I’ll develop heart trouble or diabetes.” Instead it just happens, which is what makes it so insidious and deadly.
When the story of this pandemic is told we will see lots of statistics. We will be presented with the staggering financial costs. We will read of the number of cases of Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths.
There will be one statistic we won’t see — Mrs. Barret-ta and countless others like her who died because they were the personification of loneliness.

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