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NOTIONS: Alone in the urban desert on Martin Luther King Day

January 22, 2007

It's Martin Luther King Monday. The clock is pushing 5 p.m. And a bitter breeze bites my face as I pump petrol at a Speedway station on Binford Boulevard.

I look around at the drab Indiana sky and the drab leafless trees and the drab flat landscape. And I wonder whether the world is really this drab or if it's just me.

Behind me, somewhere on Interstate 69, my sons Austin and Zach are heading northeast in their little Saturn sedan. Yet another every-other-weekend-with-Dad is behind them. Yet another weekend of Madden Football and Colts-on-TV. Yet another weekend of sleeping till noon and going to the movies and eating Qdoba.

Now they're heading back to their mom's. Back to their friends. Back to their school newspaper and play rehearsals and homework.

And I, having seen them off, having hugged them goodbye, having climbed into my own car to run a few errands that need doing before the work week consumes all, stand beneath the artificial glare from a service-station awning, gazing into this bleak January dusk, blinking back the tears of another parting.

My melancholy has been piqued, I know, by the film we just watched and where we watched it. A film chosen not because its message matched perfectly the moral of this holiday and the minister for whom it's named. A theater chosen not because it's where Austin, Zach and I watched our last moving picture with their stepmom just a few weeks before she died. But by chance or randomness or synchronicity (or whatever you want to call it), a movie and a place that turn out to be all those things, unintended.

The film we just watched is called "Babel." Unlike many movies, it is not one story simply told, but four stories richly textured, deeply layered and intricately interwoven on a global loom.

What ties these tales together (beyond an explosive thread in the plot) is love, and family and the human struggle to connect. The resulting opus makes us feel, often with searing pain, the repercussions we suffer-as individuals, couples, families, communities and nations-when our own folly, ignorance, stubbornness, carelessness, selfishness, arrogance and other human shortcomings bar us from the connections we crave.

The film's title is derived, of course, from the Biblical tale of the tower of Babel-a vain, human attempt to erect a structure that would give mankind access to Heaven. God's punishment for this transgression is to render these overeager tower-builders unable to communicate with one another by making them speak different languages. In the movie "Babel," characters in the United States, Morocco, Tokyo and Mexico struggle to connect and communicate not only because they don't speak the same languages, but also because of cultural and political differences, age and gender gaps, adolescence, drug and alcohol abuse, physical impairment and raw, human emotions ranging from rage to panic to grief. While "Babel" takes our inability to connect and communicate-and the consequences-to the nth degree, the point is clear: This is why you feel lost. This is what triggers divorce. This is why families break apart. This is how companies fail. This is why nations and religions war. This is the gap Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to bridge. And for the most part, it's all selfimposed. We live in a cacophonous world. It's fraught, more and more, with brilliant inventions designed to help us reach one another. Yet the net impact of all this technology seems to be isolating and dividing us rather than connecting and uniting us. Fewer and fewer of us have in common the shocking story we read in the morning paper, or the powerful show we watched on TV last night.

Fewer and fewer of us can discuss a best-selling novel, or hum the tune from a beloved musical or even recognize a network news anchor.

Once upon a time, the "I Love Lucy" show reached, every week, a share of the American population approached today by only the Super Bowl.

Now, we find what we want to find on our computers and satellite dishes, shut out the world with our noise-limiting headphones, and chat only with anonymous souls who share our narrow views in "communities" that exist only in cyberspace.

In short, we find ourselves in a Burger King world, having everything our own way, but with little common experience to discuss around the water cooler, at the local tavern, or even at the family dinner table.

As the producer of "Babel" told one interviewer, "I was interested in solitude, and deserts-not only actual deserts, but also urban deserts, where you are surrounded by people but totally isolated."

Like standing all alone at a Speedway station on Binford Boulevard, wiping away tears and wishing your kids weren't driving away.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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