Tom Purcell, 8/22/2007 [Archive]

On Picnics and Social Connectedness

On Picnics and Social Connectedness

By Tom Purcell

I did something a week ago I've not done in a while: went to a picnic.

There is a beautiful park only miles from where I grew up. It offers 3,000 acres of rolling green hills, open fields and walking trails. It has 63 picnic groves and I picnicked at many of them as a kid.

There were a lot of reasons to picnic then. Family reunions, church gatherings or neighbors getting together. Schools, companies, unions and other organizations often staged annual events.

The park was packed: Kids running around, footballs and Frisbees being tossed, water balloons flying through the air. While the kids played, the adults talked and laughed and sipped ice-cold beer.

The park was vibrant then -- people routinely waited in line to secure their favorite grove one year prior to their event -- and the spirit of people, connected to each other in a million different ways, filled the summer air.

But people don't picnic like they used to.

According to Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," the number of picnics per capita was slashed by nearly 60 percent from 1975 to 1999. This reflects a larger trend of the breakdown in social-connectedness that has taken place in the past 30 years.

Why the breakdown? For starters, argues Putnam, there are lots of dual-income couples. Both mom and dad are slugging away in the workplace and when they get home at night they are exhausted. Who has time to go to a PTA meeting or plan a neighborhood outing?

When I was growing up, most moms were home during the day. They collaborated with each other to assist with school events and sometimes joined each other for tea and coffee. They worked together to watch over their kids and their work made our community extraordinarily tight.

Television and the Internet are also breaking down our connectedness. Putnam says that "time-budget studies in the 1960s showed that the growth in time spent watching television dwarfed all other changes in the way Americans passed their days and nights."

That makes a lot of sense. Before there were 300 channels -- before people zoned out for hours in front of the tube -- people sat out on their porches at night, sipping lemonade and talking with each other.

Now we sit in our air-conditioned homes sending text messages to each other or posting photos of ourselves on social networking sites.

Putnam says transience is also contributing to our breakdown of social links. Many folks are uprooting themselves from great Midwestern towns such as Pittsburgh, Pa., to move to big nutty metros, where most of the dough and the jobs are.

Such "repotting," says Putnam, tends to weaken the roots that foster strong connections.

I lived in Washington, D.C., for nearly eight years. Most folks spend hours in traffic jams and hours more at the office. There is very little time to talk to, let alone connect with, your neighbors. And as soon as you get to know them, they take a job in another city and off they go.

Putnam says there are other reasons we're less connected. Most importantly, younger generations just aren't as civic as older folks, whose values and civic-mindedness were shaped by the experiences of World War II.

All I know is I'm glad I live in Pittsburgh again. I'm glad I went to a picnic a week ago. It's an annual event that has been organized by an old high school friend for 23 years now. He does all the work and planning, so that the rest of us can reconnect.

We eat cheeseburgers and drink ice-cold beer. We talk about family and work and long-lost friends. We fill the old park grounds with much-needed laughter and closeness -- usually into the wee hours.

Putnam says rebuilding our connectedness is not going to be easy. That's why it's important that all of us do something to set things right. Here's a great way to start:

Go on a picnic.

Tom Purcell is a humor columnist nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons. For comments to Tom, please email him at

RESTRICTIONS: 'Tom Purcell's column may not be reprinted in general circulation print media in Pennsylvania's Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Westmoreland Counties. It may appear only in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and its sister publications."

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