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Jewish World Review June 6, 2000 / 3 Sivan, 5760

Joan Ryan

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Consumer Reports

Celebrating the ordinary -- MY SON is standing in the kitchen holding five note cards on which he has written the main points about the recent invasion of powder post beetles on Mission Dolores. He delivers the information to me haltingly in his earnest fourth-grade voice. Like me, he'd rather eat glass than stand in front of people and speak. But he practices until bedtime, taking deep breaths now and then to quiet his anxiety.

As I listen, I think about Rudy Giuliani's tabloid life and Bill Clinton's, too. I think of the families on Jerry Springer ("My Girlfriend Left Me for My Mother!") and shows like "Pets That Kill" and a new sports league -- XNFL -- designed to push pro football toward a modern version of "Gladiator." I just read there soon will be a Broadway musical based on the stranger-than-fiction life of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, and CBS is set to air "Survivor," which will follow the lives of eight people purposely stranded on a desert island to compete for the $1 million prize.

Clearly, we live in a time of extremes and excesses, when lottery jackpots pay out more than the GNP of entire nations and thousands of adventurers each year risk death to climb Mount Everest. Yet two things occur to me as I listen to this 9-year-old in my kitchen. First, there's something quietly heroic in what he's doing. Second, I'm not alone in recognizing it.

Even as the popular culture explodes boundaries of taste and moderation -- or perhaps because of it -- we're beginning to see a counter-movement: an appreciation of the mundane.

Consider the proliferation of Internet sites where the sole attraction is watching a regular person get through the day. There now are 250,000 people who, with personal Webcams, have drawn back the drapes on their lives for our viewing pleasure.

One man, profiled in the New York Times on Sunday, has cameras rolling in his house 24 hours a day. Though viewers see nothing more exciting than the man talking with his wife in the living room or rocking his infant son to sleep, the site attracts 1,500 hits a day. In the first four months of the year, 1,000 people have checked out the site more than 100 times each.

A show in the Netherlands called "Big Brother" recorded every word and movement of nine strangers confined for 100 days to a house rigged with 24 cameras and 59 microphones. Watching the show became a national obsession. As one observer wryly said, it show offered "a thrilling, vicarious taste of everyday life." (CBS will air an American version beginning in July.)

Why are these shows and Internet sites so popular? Maybe it's simple voyeurism. But maybe it's something else. Social scientists are finding that such unremarkable pleasures as seeing people strolling through the neighborhood or listening to a high-school band on a Saturday afternoon contribute more heavily to our happiness than more predictable factors, such as wealth.

In other words, despite all lurid evidence to the contrary, there's a recognition of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Simple tasks done with style. A difficult apology offered. A report completed. A convincing laugh to a joke already heard. A presentation on powder post beetles delivered.

"Excellence is an art of inches," writes Cal State, Fullerton sociologist Myron Orleans, quoting a sign he once saw on a bank, in the introduction to a new online academic publication, "Journal of Mundane Behavior."

It's not the grand gesture that makes a hero, but a thousand little things done right.

JWR periodic contributor Joan Ryan is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Send your comments by clicking here.


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