Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fear of Phoning

I have always had a penchant for solitude.  As a child I delighted in “not being seen.”  I loved to hide among the bushes outside the house, or up in the branches of low hanging tree, observing the ebb and flow of the neighborhood.  I had no interest in eavesdropping or stealing secrets.  There was just something soothing in the notion that nobody knew where I was, that I could observe the world at my leisure and think unhurried thoughts.  It is an inclination that has remained with me throughout my life.  Even during high school and college, when I spent much of my time as an actor, there was a special peace to be found high up in the catwalks above the stage, seeing but not seen.

I am still drawn to solitude, to times when I am either unobserved or merely unnoticed.  Neither judging nor be judged.  Just quietly “being.”  I was struck by the notion strongly, yet somewhat paradoxically, yesterday during a visit to Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.  It isn’t the Valley of the Kings, but it is probably as close as we get here in America.  The rich and powerful of this city of broad shoulders - Pullman, McCormick, Fields, et. al. - lie beneath obelisks and mausoleums beside tranquil ponds.  It is a pool of solitude in the midst of a teeming metropolis.  You do not take notice of others strolling beneath the trees and they do not acknowledge you.  The dead themselves, it seems, could wander about without attracting much attention.  It is a graceful, peaceful, pasture of the dear departed.

This new attention to solitude may well be heightened by the fact that I have been without my laptop for more than a week, and my cellphone is of the old dumb variety - I use it to talk, and it occasionally surprises me with a text message from Verizon.   Hence, the distraction technologies of today’s world have been largely muted.  The silence brews a strange blend of calm and anxiety.  The calm, of course, is born of solitude.  My childhood friend wraps sweet and soothing arms around me, lulling me to soft reflection.  The anxiety springs from our digitally enhanced sense of self-importance: surely something is going on out there in the wide, wild, wired and wireless world that needs my input, my attention, my keystrokes.

I still choose to believe that participation in the digital mediascape is option not mandate.  But more and more I doubt it.  I could not do my job in a non-digital environment.  I would not sit down and put stamps on envelopes to share these reflections with you.  On this trip, Matilda, my GPS led us through the Appalachians down roads without names that are undoubtedly used as luge tracks come winter - and deposited us at the doorstep of our B&B in excellent time.  I worked through last week’ Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle with my daughter and son-in-law, and they only had to use their iPhone Google app a couple of times.  I would not choose a pre-Internet life.  Yet, I remain concerned.

The TV claimed a spot in the living room during the 1950s.  Today it has its own room.  The smart phone also now claims part of our personal space.  I was at a gathering awhile ago, peopled mostly by adults in their 30s and 40s, with kids ranging from single digits to late teens.  I was in the midst of a conversation with my hostess when another adult stepped between us to place her cellphone directly in the hostess’s line of sight. No one missed a beat.  No one, other than I, and I only in retrospect, seemed to notice, let alone find it incredibly rude.  Walk into any coffeeshop and most restaurants - certainly at lunchtime - and you will find most patrons partnered by their phones.  They are no longer nestled in pockets.  Tiny and unobtrusive phones are no longer cool.  The new largescreen varieties are positioned on the table next to their - hmm?  Which is the master?  No doubt better restaurants will soon have “phone rests” designed to match the chef’s preferred presentation.  You don’t want some clod to knock over the spun sugar sculpture because there is no space for their touchscreen sweetheart.  If you can’t beat them, guide them.

I do not wish to become one of “those people,” and yet, ironically, I must.  One cannot teach about digital culture from afar.  So, soon, I will move to a droid, having given up waiting for the iPhone to come to Verizon.  But I will seek to maintain perspective, to avoid having my phone become my new BFF.  I think I’ll be able to manage it, after all, “I’m just chipping. I can quit anytime I want.”  Who said that? Kerouac? Joplin? Jackson? I dunno .  .  .  . 

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