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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Oh, Earth, You are Too Wonderful

There is an old saying-- actually, I don't really know if it's old or not but, if it's not, one day it will be-- that goes something like, "Half of life is just showing up."

If that's true, then there's an awful lot of people out there who aren't very good at life.

Actually, maybe that's not true. Lots of people show up for things-- usually late-- but, even when they do show up, far fewer of them are actually present. In the moment. You can attend a play or a class or a meeting without actually attending.

And that's sad.

What's sadder is that I recently attended a small children's play, and there were the children's parents in the audience, glued to their iPhones, thumbing the little wheels on their Blackberries, totally tuned out to what their children were doing in earnest before them, having worked for weeks on this little performance.

And that's sadder.

I pined for a long time for a smartphone, and I have one (actually, I've had several-- purchased used through Ebay. I think I finally learned my lesson and bought one from the evil orangey retail store) but if you asked me today why I needed one so badly, I wouldn't be able to tell you.

At work, I sit at a computer all day long, and have my personal email on one screen, and my work email on another screen-- so it's not like I'm "unplugged" from the interwebula. At home, the computer is on 24 hours a day, like the domicile of Mr. & Mrs. Apron is some sort of NASA substation or emergency dispatch center. I am not a first-responder (not an active one, at any rate) nor am I a high-powered CEO with a receding hairline and custom-tailored Brooks Brothers shirts. Who am I that I need to receive e-mails while I'm shaking off the last droplet of pee-pee or eviscerating a grilled Reuben?

And yet, with a cheery little "blong!" I am instantly alerted whenever my eldest sister feels compelled to send me the latest Consumer Reports washing machine crash-test results or the local county's update on prevalence of rectal cancer in the area's white-tailed deer population. Why? I don't know.

After the little children's show, I overheard one of the balding parents pontificating to one of the saddle-bag mothers about the ever-growing importance of being "plugged in." He recited some story about someone he knew who received an email at 5:45 on a Friday asking him to come in "stat" for a job interview first thing on Monday morning.

"Well, if he didn't have his Blackberry, and he went away for the weekend-- he'd have screwed himself out of a job-- which he got, by the way. This is the world we live in now. You know what I mean?"

Yeah. I know what you mean. Dog eat dog. Early bird gets the worm. Snooze, you lose. I've got it. It's just that, in this world we live in now, when you smile, your bluetooth looks a little crooked to me.

I wanted my smartphone, but I was scared of getting it, because I thought it would ruin my relationships with people. I saw what it did to my former best friend the last couple of times I visited him in New York. We were sitting at a diner in Chelsea and, every five minutes or so, he would grimace a tad, and I knew he was getting a text or an email from his girlfriend. Yes, he made a "sorry about this" face, but, if he was really sorry, he wouldn't have pulled out the device and pecked out a reply. He might have even done the unthinkable and *gasp* shut it off, to be with his friend who he only saw three times a year.

You know, before he decided to stop seeing me altogether.

Sometimes, my wife and I will be sitting together on the couch, watching television or reading, as we married folk do, and my phone will "blip" or "blong" on the coffee table in front of us, and I will keep reading, or keep watching Sally Field endorse Boniva and play with her fake grandchildren, and my wife will give me an affectionate hug as a thank-you for ignoring the insistent little piece of plastic in front of me. She likes when I don't jump to see who it is, or what it's all about this time. Sometimes being a good husband is less about the things we do and more about the things we don't do.

I hope I'm a good husband. I hope at least I'm a better husband than I am a smartphone user.

I know I'll at least be a better father than those schmucks tapping and scrolling their way through life, while their children perform for, well, nobody really-- because, what's a performance if nobody's watching? There's a beautiful passage in the play "Our Town--" if you've ever seen the play or read it, you already know where I'm going with this. Act III. Emily, dead in her lovely white dress, asks the Stage Manager to go back to Grover's Corners, just one more time. He reluctantly agrees to take her back to a long ago birthday, and she is able to see her parents, puttering around the house, doing parenty things, and she calls out to them, but they cannot hear or see her. Emily tries to tear herself away from their young and smooth faces, from her memories of what was and will never be again, but she cannot. She cries out in anguish:

"Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's really look at one another!...I can't. I can't go on.It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back -- up the hill -- to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every,every minute?"

If only Thornton Wilder had known about the smartphone. I guess he predicted it.


  1. Smartphones doom humanity. Don't get one.

  2. This is totally true. We try to justify being glued to our phones because its a form of communication but we're really just ignoring the personal communication that's right in front of us.

  3. OMFG. I performed that soliloquy in high school. Pre-Blackberry era. I'm so ahead of my time. ;)

    My parents didn't come to see it though. They were busy.

  4. I really don't see the point in leaving computers on 24/7. a) it uses up huge amounts of electricity and brings the world that little bit closer to destruction, b) Everything that you get while you're asleep/out will be there when you turn the computer on again in the morning/when you get home. There is absolutely no reason to leave it on, apart from to save the minute or two it takes to start up.

    Aside from that, I'm glad the majority of people here actually watch their children's performances and even record them (perfect for future embarrassment). I did have one friend who constantly jumped to her phone's bleep, or was using it constantly. It was annoying.

  5. Wow. Really beautiful and thought-provoking at the end. My phone is so last decade - it barely sends texts, but that's okay because I know/am frightened that if I get a smartphone it will run my life. I don't have the self control to turn it off.

  6. That was a pretty remarkable post. Thanks for expressing so eloquently why I have never wanted one of those things.


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