Talk to Me, Dammit: A Lamentation

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Disconnected

A wise friend once observed she could live life without ever, or at least rarely, leaving her house if she chose. She could buy groceries and other goods and have them delivered to her, arrange for her car to be serviced, set up play dates for her children, and manage countless other tasks from the privacy and convenience of her home. And for this woman in particular a “shut-in” kind of existence might have held a special appeal: she was mama to young triplets, two girls and a boy. And she was terminally ill.

Her life held so many challenges when I knew her, the logistics of getting everybody where they needed to be—on time and prepared—second only to taking care of herself. Helping her wrangle children and belongings one sunny morning only a couple of days after her routine chemotherapy, I mused what a monumental challenge parenting her brood must be—I don’t know how you do it so seamlessly, I said. Sweeping a gorgeous curly lock from her tired face, she quipped in her endearing deadpan, You’ve gotta have a lot of bags.

I found that so comically reductionist, but it made perfect sense at that moment when we were shuffling towels and children and floaties from our cars to the neighborhood pool for a playdate. Beyond clever life strategies, though, my friend possessed a disposition that eschewed a cloistered life: she longed to be part of a community of people. She made it a point to leave the house and do everything the conventional way, with face-to-face encounters in all our neighborhood venues and beyond. And when she could not leave she brought the community to her home in weekly morning gatherings.

She’s gone now and her children are grown. She made that important observation about community more than a decade ago, when the web had already facilitated so much for so many, and when the emerging smartphone technology was changing how we communicate with each other. In her obituary my friend opined that we’re put on this planet to help each other; when I reflect on her words now, I believe they were prophetic. We pay a heavy toll for crawling inside ourselves and forgetting the real, three-dimensional world all around us. I don’t mean nature, or even the built environment, but the world of people.

Are we losing our ability to talk to each other? My own Millennial grew up with a multitude of devices at his fingertips; they are a fluid extension of him. But there are times I want to reach through the ether, grab him by the collar, and shake the stew out of him. In our almost-daily video chats, despite the magical technology that truncates the thousand miles separating us to two feet, there is sometimes more dead air time than talk. While the line is open he simultaneously texts or messages friends (and even people he does not know) from various platforms; sometimes he says “hang on,” other times he engages without telling me, so I’m confused as to whom he is speaking at that moment. Once in a while I hand him some tough love: I’ll hang up and you can call me back when you’re ready to talk to me <click>. That feels so mom-ish and old fashioned, but still: I can’t imagine indulging him this way helps him develop the skills he needs to become a responsible adult, a road he’s still navigating. Or maybe it does; maybe the mere “presence” of his mom means as much to him now as it did when he was a child, even if there is no meaningful exchange of ideas.

Still, it’s a disquieting habit. I helped raise this kid and therefore presumably own it, along with his dad. He represents others of his ilk, a generation for whom the communication game has changed, and the rules are no longer recognizable, at least not to me. Being brushed off by someone less familiar to you than a member of your own family, when they owed you at least a modicum of decorum or civility but failed to disengage from a piece of hardware, is more difficult to wave off; these people feel damaged to me.

But I also wonder whether our fantastic modern devices are damaging the rest of us, who were not born wearing earbuds. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I recently observed another couple at a local eatery who were each buried in a device for nearly their entire meal. They did not speak, coming up for air only long enough to shovel down bites of food, then turning back to whatever important thing held their rapt attention. We grinned and shook our heads.

I admit to drinking the Kool-Aid, too, as a compulsive user of small electronics. And I produce digital marketing content for a living, working in an industry that has grown up around this technology and helped shape it: you could say I’m part of the problem on a global scale. But our devices are intoxicating: they deliver the world to us in the palm of our hand. Who can resist that Siren? And paradoxically they’ve disconnected us, I think. To be sure, there are times when that is the better alternative—in a crowded doctor’s waiting room or on a jetliner, for example, when the need to create a barrier is important and real. On more than one occasion I’ve buried myself in a device to avoid an encounter with an undesirable; a book would have stepped up to the plate years ago, still a willing companion from time to time when you remembered to bring it. The phone, though, is small, powerful, and it’s always there. And when you live in the middle of nowhere as I have in recent years, it can actually help you feel connected, that is assuming you can find a signal.

Our devices make us feel evolved, but I question that condition when they appear to isolate us from each other instead of drawing us together. Look at me when I’m talking to you, your mom once insisted. Wouldn’t it be something if this one familiar refrain, forgotten in some circles, may finally be so important it saves us as a species? After all, maybe we really were put here to help each other.

How many Vermonters does it take…

Apples and Oranges

…to change a lightbulb?

Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I are T minus five days to liftoff for our Way Down South trip, part the second, with an impossible work load to accomplish ‘til then. I am a compulsive maker of lists, less compulsive in their execution. In a perfect world we’d have a vacation week before the vacation, and a small buffer on the flip side to rest up before going back to the salt mines.

Alas, the world is imperfect, and with so few hours remaining until launch, I’ve tried to kick it into high gear this weekend.

I had the foresight at least to take care of a couple of big line items last week, to wit: the Subi’s oil is changed, and most of his exhaust system (yep, he’s a feller) is now shiny and new, a condition that will help come inspection time in October. Rust is a thing up in these parts—all that brine and sand on the winter roads wreak havoc on metal faster than you can say, Hand me a new lightbulb. Unfortunately some other problems showed themselves last week whilst the car was on the lift, one of them a big ticket item: seems Yuri needs new head gaskets. Again.

They were replaced about eighteen months into my life as a Vermonter, when I was wiping the sweat from my brow and thanking the universe I’d bought an extended warranty for my second-hand Subaru. So call ‘em two and a half years old, and already they’re failing: “seepage” is how my very kind and diplomatic mechanic described the beads of oil he observed. It’s not as bad as gushing, he went on. Agreed, but can we reliably drive ‘im down to the North Carolina coast, thence home again safe and sound? Yes, he said, keep an eye on the oil pressure and know that sooner or later you’ll have to pony up the cash and fix the problem.

Okay, then. Another worry item for the compulsive worry wart, to go with costly and unpleasant dental work on the post-vacation horizon. Yuri needs new gaskets, because evidently nothing is made to last.

On to smaller things: devices. HCB and I are tethered to our electronics like the rest of the world. A few days before travel I start thinking about chargers and cases and screen cleaners (yes, really), to go with laptops, iPads, cell phones, Kindles, and cameras. HCB commandeered my iPad the nanosecond we combined households, for his bedtime web browsing and solitaire-ing and Angry Birds-ing and the like.

But my iPad is first generation, well past its expiration date. Which is to say it’s beyond the point where its operating system can be updated; it no longer works and plays well with much of anything, and just last night HCB quipped that all it’s really good for anymore is idle entertainment. We took it to the Geek Squad for kicks not long ago to see whether they could work some magic on it. Nah, they lamented, unless you’re willing to risk a complete, unrecoverable crash. I think this must be the hardware equivalent of my favorite email message: the following address has encountered a permanent fatal error. We thanked them and took our ancient technology home with its obsolete innards untouched but not yet dead, as the Monty Python folk would say.

That’s the thing I find so irritating, though. As obsolete as the iPad is, it’s really not old. My parents used to browbeat good stewardship into me: take care of your things, they would preach, and they’ll last forever. I took them at their word, because this wisdom seemed true. The new bicycle my dad gave me on my tenth birthday is the same one I took with me to college eight years later. Meanwhile, my mom still rides her childhood Schwinn (which is especially groovy now, because it’s authentically retro).

In July I finally relented and bought my first-ever iPhone for a song when I was due an upgrade. Thing is, the comparatively inexpensive LG phone it replaced was just fine on the face of it, but suffered the same disease as the iPad—an operating system that could not hope to keep up with all the new software updates. The phone had slowed to a crawl so that it was difficult to even, say, make a call. Just like the phone before it. And the phone before that one, too. Maddening; it still looks new.

Gentle reader, this is just wrong.

HCB takes pleasure in pointing out to me any chance he gets that his ancient flip phone—the one he’s had for ten years—works just fine and dandy. Apples to oranges (so to speak), I tell him. Still, I wish like heck I could get more than two years out of a phone, especially now that the land line is mainly a thing of the past.

Except in Vermont, where everybody has a land line, where people recite seven digits when you ask for a phone number (802 area code implicit), and where we get a new printed phone book each fall replete with comical errors: our Comcast number has somebody else’s name in front of it (it’s okay, we know them).

So how many Vermonters does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer: Three—one to change it and two to talk about how much better the old one was.

By these standards I think I make a pretty dang good Vermonter.