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In praise of the good-old picnic

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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007

I did something last weekend I've not done in a while: I 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 must have picnicked at every one of them as a kid.

There were lots of reasons to picnic in those days. Family reunions, church gatherings or neighbors getting together. Schools, companies, unions and other organizations often staged annual events.

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

The park was vibrant then -- people routinely waited in line one year before their annual event to secure their favorite grove -- and the spirit of people, connected to each other in a million different ways, filled the 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 between 1975 and 1999." This reflects a larger trend of the breakdown in social-connectedness that has taken place over the last 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?

When I was growing up, most moms were home during the day. They collaborated with each other to assist with school events and they 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."

Before there were 300 channels to choose from on the tube -- before people zoned out for hours in front of the thing -- 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 putting up photos of ourselves on or one of the other "social networking" sites.

Putnam says transience is also contributing to our breakdown of social links. More people are moving from places such as Pittsburgh to the big metros where the jobs are. This "repotting" tends to weaken the roots that foster strong connections.

I lived in Washington, D.C., for nearly eight years and am grateful I was able to escape the place. Things are moving rapidly there. You 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.

I'm glad I live in Pittsburgh again. I'm glad I was able to go to a picnic last weekend. Though the heyday of community picnics is over even in Pittsburgh, the old park is still hosting its fair share of them.

The one I went to has been organized by an old high school friend for 23 years now. He does all the work and planning, so that old friends can reconnect once every year.

I get there later in the evening usually, just in time for a delicious cheeseburger and an ice-cold beer. I catch up with people I've not seen for a while. And we laugh and talk and fill the park grounds with some much-needed closeness.

It is true that rapid change in America is affecting our civic-mindedness and social bonds. It's true that our sense of civility is not as strong as it was, and Putnam's thesis explaining why has a lot of merit.

But I'm hopeful we can change that. Here's a good way to start:

Go on a picnic.

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