Gisele Bündchen’s classy retort to an even classier heckle as she left Lucas Oil Stadium last Sunday night, and Rob Gronkowski’s NKOTB impersonation at the Patriots’ post-Super Bowl non-party, are, by now, news as ancient as Julius Caesar’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-one when he was trailing the Teutons by only a field goal. But if I may add to the over-analysis of these off-the-field distractions, I’d say that the question should not be whether they should have done what they did, or not. Instead, the question should be: If people did not have cameras on their cell phones, are we even having this conversation?
I remember the days when you could fight with someone eating spaghetti on the subway without worrying that someone might be taking a video for posterity. One day, in second grade, spaghetti was on the menu. I wasn’t feeling the Italian cuisine that afternoon, and opted for a piece of pink construction paper instead. I told a story while we dined and accidentally shot out a morsel of paper onto a classmate’s spaghetti, piled in the corner section of the divided Styrofoam plate. I tried to buy her silence with some crayons, but she stood on principle and reported me to the closest member of that enigmatic sorority known as the lunch ladies. Exiled to the front of the cafeteria, a punishment neither cruel nor unusual in those days, I wondered if anyone would ever forget what had happened.
How different would my life have been if someone had captured my shame on a cell phone? I picture myself at a job interview, and the interviewer says to me, “Well, Mark, you’ve got impeccable credentials, the skills we need, and everyone on the hiring committee was impressed by your work with Shrinky Dinks.” I smile and say, “Oh, thanks,” as if I was not expecting this praise. “All that’s left is a quick check,” the interviewer says as he punches the keyboard, “to see there are any comprising videos of you. Company policy, you understand, and I’m sure a mere formality for a candidate of your caliber. We really can’t wait to welcome you aboar—”
He frowns at something on the screen. “What’s this about a spaghetti incident?” he asks, and the next thing I know I’m back on Monster.com, looking for something that requires primate insurance.
But who cares about the person whose gaffe is captured for all time? What really matters is the audience. I can’t remember how I spent my time before I could spend sunny afternoons watching a slow loris holding an umbrella, or a report on the phenomenon known as planking, something I wish my grandparents were alive to see, so they would know that fighting World War II was worth it.
In the introduction to the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library 1985 edition of The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Padraic Colum writes, “In the place where the storyteller was the coming of night was marked as it was not in towns nor in modern houses….There had been a rhythm of the day and now there was a rhythm of the night….He was a storyteller because he was attuned to this rhythm and had in his memory the often repeated incidents that would fit it.”
Even in modern times, people used to be attuned to this rhythm of the day and rhythm of the night (especially after DeBarge released their 1985 hit “Rhythm of the Night”). People would have to use their language skills to recreate, for example, a drunk wedding speech, or a clawing fight over the last copy of Soap Opera Digest at the supermarket checkout.
And all too often their storytelling abilities would come up short. They would see the bored faces of their audience, the eyes scanning the background for celebrities, even celebrities washed up from reality shows of washed up celebrities, and would see that their language skills could not compete with video. And they would resort to that phrase, that phrase we used to hear all time but not anymore, a phrase no longer needed in a world where story-worthy human shame can be captured by hand-held telephones, and history-changing retorts by supermodels and subway skirmishes can be relived again and again by anyone with an Internet connection and a cushy job; in short, a phrase that even I resorted to when mere words were not enough: Guess you had to be there.