Maybe We All Need Charm School

on his backside

My Husband After Falling on His Backside While Tending a Line Aboard Our State’s Official Tall Ship, the Californian. October, 2008.

A Plea for Decency

I am now an official curmudgeon. I came to this conclusion while driving home from work last Thursday. I was listening to the radio as I made my way home, looking forward to the long weekend, when something I heard on the radio brought me an epiphany.

Self, I said to myself, We have lost our sense of decency. Well, you might be thinking, there’s been plenty of questionable material on the radio for eons. You might suspect I was listening to a shock jock or some rapper dropping the f-bomb willy-nilly.


I was listening to a daily feature on our local news station, a little gem called The Athlete Arrest of the Day. This segment broadcasts every day, complete with its own catchy theme song. One day it’s a college football player arrested for stealing television sets; another day it’s a major league baseball player charged with domestic abuse.

And why does the station air these stories? Because we think they’re funny, that’s why.  

That program makes a nice poster child for the issue of indecency. I am not talking about dressing too short or tight or sheer or a mouth that would make a sailor squirm or many other things that may come to mind when you consider whether something is decent.

Or indecent.

I’m talking about something more insidious, not to mention creepy: Collectively, we have reached a point where we are entertained by other people’s misfortune.  

How did we get here? I’m not going to wax poetic about “cultural decay.” Plenty of  other voices have covered that ground through the ages. People of every generation yearn for the community of their youth, when folks were nicer to one another. Yet still I wonder: why do we want to hear that some baseball player beat up his wife? Or that any one of dozens of celebrities has once again gone off the rails and reaped a scolding from a flight attendant? (Really. I could not make this stuff up.)

Why is it so easy for us to overlooked the fact that every football-playing television thief steals that set from someone? Why are we fascinated when a starlet crashes her sports car into a 7-Eleven on Sunset Boulevard? Why do we disregard the fact that behind every spouse-beating celebrity  is a partner with a battered face–or worse? 

We all have a right to privacy–so long as we don’t have the misfortune to find ourselves on the other end of an incident involving a movie star who travels with her own paparazzi posse.

If I had a big fat research grant, I might consider how I could investigate this speculation: Information and entertainment are no longer two distinct things. After decades of receiving both news and sitcoms through the same channels–television,  radio, internet, and print media–we can no longer tell the difference. Or maybe we no longer care.  Networks even offer us programs called infotainment. Need we even mention “reality TV?” Do we really need to calculate contestants’ “primitive survival rating” on Naked and Afraid? 

The heartlessness, if that’s what it is, extends well beyond our response to media programming. My office is near Laguna Woods Village, a senior living community of nearly 15,000 people. Laguna Woods Village comprises ninety percent of the municipality of Laguna Woods, which has a median age of 77 years. Years ago the place was called Leisure World.

“Clever” folks in our community sometimes refer to the place as Seizure World.  Hilarious, right?

Somehow I miss the humor. On an average day at work, I hear sirens four or five times. I’ve been told the fire station closest to my office has the highest number of medical calls of any fire station in the state. Every call is to care for a real, genuine, human being, with a history and memories and probably a beloved family. Maybe I’m just a wet blanket, but not every clever statement deserves the breath it takes to utter it. 

Laughing at the expense of hapless others is indecent. It numbs us to human suffering. 

Of course the media is a favorite whipping boy of social observers. Maybe this malaise isn’t infotainment toxicity at all. Maybe the problem stems from our success: We’ve grown so big that it’s an easy matter to move through one’s days in anonymity. Do we lose the impetus to behave ourselves when we lack a community to hold us accountable?

Perhaps by now you think I am absolutely humorless. (And it could be that you’re right and I’m hopelessly deluded).

But you know what? When Rich landed on his keister on the deck of that tall ship, I giggled. Does that make me callous? I don’t think so.

The differences that makes all the difference:

1. He was laughing, too. In fact he was laughing first.

2. He’s not a faceless stranger. He’s my husband and we  recognize our (somewhat fluid) lines between slapstick and mishap.

I’m pretty sure that charm school, as I remember it from my girlhood (how to be nice to boys and catch a good husband, basically), deserved to fade to black. Both our “dumplings” and our “string beans” don’t need advice about increasing their feminine appeal; they need advice about maintaining a healthy body. It’s a bit mind-numbing to imagine today’s adolescent girls in a class that teaches them how to properly cross their legs or signal to a boy that a phone call from him would be welcome. (Because, the manual says, it’s social suicide to usurp his need to lead. Again, I cannot make this stuff up.)

But the overall goal of charm school was to teach young women how to conduct themselves as ladies.

We could use more ladies. And more gentlemen, too. (In 2014, it probably captures my meaning better if I say we need more people who value civility). I’m pretty sure there is no life goal that is served by overlooking other people’s misfortune for the sake of a good laugh.

What scares me most? The possibility that we forget that every dramatic event we see on the news affects real people–regular old folks like you and me.

Yes, I’ve become a curmudgeon. But by God, I’m determined to be a kind curmudgeon. 

rabbit conga

31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:31-32 (NASB)


  1. Very well written, Sheila! The sentence “Do we lose the impetus to behave ourselves when we lack a community to hold us accountable?” explains it well..the faceless anonymity of online media and communication magnifies that lack of community.

    If being a genuinely kind person equates to being a curmudgeon, then, we need more curmudgeons.

  2. PS: On my way to work this morning, I heard a news report about a dead body found on a freeway in Los Angeles about 5 a.m. today.

    The focus of the story was the impact on TRAFFIC.


  3. You’re *my* kind of curmudgeon, Sheila – we have less of that stuff out here in the heartland in the day to day life and local news, but the national news and syndicated porn, er, regular programming is sadly the same.

    We’re back to the hospital to see what the latest is on Joy’s Dad. God bless, and great post!

  4. Oh, EXCELLENT, SHEILA. I’m with you, honey. And I don’t think this makes either of us curmudgeons.

    • No? I was hoping we might be able to make curmudgeonity cool. You know, like zombies or something.

      Thanks, Diana, for your kind words. I’m so glad you’re my friend.

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