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Communications 101: Information, infowars, and what happens when the lines are down

By Charlotte Cerminaro
web posted April 17, 2017

“What we have here is... failure to communicate!”  Captain (Strother Martin) in ​Cool Hand Luke (1967) 

What is communication and what is its purpose? Is it merely the spread of information by various means? Is it the ubiquitous chatter dispensed by newspapers, tv shows, blogs, editorials, pontificating politicians and pretentious nightly news readers? Can an intimate conversation between a husband and wife be put in the same category as these? What about lifelong friends listening and empathizing with each other, or the non-verbal cues that can help us understand someone’s discomfort? If all of these are forms of communication, we really do have a serious problem--an almost complete failure to communicate on many levels. During an average day, if we pause to think about it we’d realize just how much we are surrounded by empty, mindless words, lies and vain ramblings. Advertisers will stop at nothing to sell their products. Stuck in a long line, a SJW, frothing at the mouth, will rant for fifteen minutes without pausing for a breath, forcing everyone to listen. We might even try to understand what they’re saying until we realize the utter futility of this. Strange, incomplete thoughts, politically correct code words, empty rhetoric already spewed by a thousand commentators, and emotional rants not supported by even one single fact, these are the things we’d have to sort through. 

Some of the very people charged with governing and representing our country sound incoherent and appear evasive as well. Some lie with impunity--weave a tale everyone knows cannot be true, in order to avoid some uncomfortable truth. Some will twist a story or grossly  exaggerate (or underplay) an event to cover their own heinous behavior. Worst of all, and even more telling, is that many of these officials have been elected more than once. 

It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be able to discern what is really happening in many situations. However, there are certain things we can learn and train ourselves to do that will improve our odds and help sort through the minefield of information. But it is imperative to clear away the obvious detritus first and know that there is a truth in every situation, even if it’s temporarily obscured. As with many things in life, we are often not aware that we are being taught something important until much later, and a great majority of these things we learn by just simple observation. 

A number of years ago I saw a change in my brother’s behavior that, at first, I found disturbing. He’d just graduated from UCLA, did a summer internship with Interpol (ICPO), then went straight into police academy. We hadn’t seen each other in months and when we finally did, something was different. Always up for a good, friendly debate or a crude joke, that hadn’t changed. But he was quieter, more calculating in his questions and answers. He seemed to listen more, watch more. In crowds, he would casually look around, but his observations were anything but casual. He had been trained--twenty-four hours a day for the past several months--to observe, analyze and then act. He learned how to quickly assess a person or situation; knew what questions to ask and when to ask them, and when a dose of suspicion was warranted. 

 Just a couple of years later there was yet another major lesson, but this time it was different. A chain of events occurred that illustrated the profoundly negative consequences of a complete breakdown in communication and understanding. It was after an over-zealous soccer game left me with a broken finger and nothing to look forward to but a tedious visit to the emergency room at Aspen Valley Hospital. 

The waiting room was mostly empty after the triage nurse took down all the information she needed, but it would probably be a long wait anyway--while painful and needing treatment, my injury was not serious. Trying to settle down, I couldn’t help overhearing one of the other patients speaking loudly and angrily to the nurse, saying that she thought her ankle was badly broken and she shouldn’t have to wait to be seen. As she went back to her chair, though, she seemed to have no difficulty walking at all. Directly across from me an older woman sat quietly, and to even an untrained eye she appeared very ill. Alarm bells started going off in my head as we waited, a half-hour, an hour, the quiet only interrupted by broken-ankle lady ranting at the nurse. As the sick woman sank lower in her chair, I asked her if she’d spoken to the triage nurse. She nodded ‘yes’. Another five minutes ticked by when the squeaky wheel walked over for another rant. I felt a rush of hot anger; when the nurse gave in and told her she’d be next, that anger suddenly boiled over. I was out of my chair heading for the nurse’s desk (squeaky wheel wisely stepped out of the way), asking her why a sick patient was being ignored, when she calmly responded, “No one told ME they were ‘very sick’, so please take your seat before I call security.” Seething, I returned to my chair and was shocked a moment later when the sick lady was called in. As she walked toward the treatment area, she collapsed, was put on a stretcher and taken in. I was later told she spent the next two weeks hospitalized. 

Is this really what it takes to be understood? Can no one hear anything unless it’s loud, rude, or as overt and obnoxious as a tv commercial? Have we conditioned ourselves to tune out, because there is just too much meaningless chatter? As these questions kept racing through my mind, their answers seemed quite hopeless. But this lesson was not quite over.

The very next afternoon was our first chamber music concert of the summer. On the schedule, among other things, was Benjamin Britten’s gut-wrenching ​Canticle III for Tenor, Horn and Piano.

​ The final variation of the piece, a mournful dirge based on a poem by Dame Edith Sitwell, is in free recitative style. The tenor sing/speaks the last verse, like a cantor singing a prayer. As he began to intone, “Still falls the rain…”,  a gentle breeze came through the open doors and light rainfall started, as if on cue. For a brief moment there was a palpable awareness of an unspoken communion---tremendous and powerful--between Creator and creature, and between nature and art. As the piece ended, barely even aware of the enthusiastic applause, we exchanged glances. There were no words, but we understood.  ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2017

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