In the wonderful play, Marat/Sade, the old marquis remarks about Paris in the French Revolution: “All around me, people were turning themselves into strangers.” Well, this is not Paris, and God knows it’s not the eighteenth century, but it’s happening again, to me.
It used to be that I could go to the gym and, despite not being gregarious, I could at least chat with people or nod to them or say hello. Now everybody is in his own world, connected to an electronic device which absorbs all his or her attention, to the exclusion of everyone else. That last phrase, to the exclusion of everyone else, is what I’m talking about. I go to breakfast at the local bakery and glance about, and what do I see? People connected to their devices, smartphones or laptops, uncommunicative, unaware it seems that anyone else is there. It doesn’t matter who or how old they are, something which I cannot even imagine is being piped into their ears, directly into their consciousness, while they remain unconscious of the world around them.
In the pre-connected days, married couples would sit reading their newspapers, not talking of course (marriage does that to you), but occasionally glancing up over page tops and half-glasses to say, “Did you see what Dick Tracy’s doing?” Or, “How ‘bout them Dodgers?” To which the other would at least grunt in recognition if not in reply. Now I watch people in restaurants sitting two feet from one another, each plugged into an alternative reality, not only not speaking, but not even looking at each other. Couples young and old, children, whole families, each one of them preferring a private piped-in world to the company of others and the world around them. Not connected; disconnected.
It’s happening in my own family. Of the two children still living in my house after what seems three lifetimes of parenting, neither one is accessible anymore. My step-daughter spends, quite literally, her entire day gawking at her smartphone, and my teenage son seems to have purple earbuds surgically attached to his skull, plugged into some kind of sinister device which he guards as if it were the Grail, or at least, his gummies.
How many times have I asked them, begged them, threatened them, to “Put down that damn phone!”? At least a dozen every day, which is why, I suppose, they ignore me, in much the same way that a callous ignores a tight loafer. I find that I must repeat the beginning of every sentence I say to my son, since it is lost in the second or two it takes him to a) realize that I’ve spoken to him, and b) extract the earpiece from his head to say, “What?” Just today, as I was driving him home from school, I began to inquire what he had for homework and, shaking the bud from his ear. he asked me to repeat it. I lost all composure, and in what I felt was absolutely righteous indignation I said, “Stop watching those damn podcasts!” To which he replied with equal indignation, “You don’t watch podcasts, father.”
Touché. Proved once again to be so totally un-hip, so utterly out-of-touch that I was reduced to sullen silence. Of course you don’t watch podcasts; I knew that, right? You listen to them. But what had I done? Handed a teenager a loaded pistol of cluelessness which he could use the next time I tried to interrupt his electronic self-exile.
But the last straw came last night. After a long day of meetings, driving back and forth to school, back and forth to a music lesson, a conference call instead of dinner, and finishing a paper I owed for the online graduate course I really have no time for and probably shouldn’t be taking, I finally stumbled into the bedroom, where my darling wife was watching the Korean news on her laptop, collapsed on the bed, and gasped to her that I was absolutely exhausted. At which she yanked a white earbud from her precious little shell-like and said, “What?” That was it. The ultimate abandonment. The light of my life had become one of those yellow bulbs that are meant to keep pests away.
Nobody talks to anybody anymore. Nobody even looks at anyone these days. Take me, for example. I have lived a long life, traveled the world, have decades of education, read thousands of books, possess a near-encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, Russian Literature, World War I aviation, the history of mountaineering; I can carry on a conversation on just about any topic that doesn’t involve pop culture, but I cannot compete with the Internet. The other day my son asked me a question about the Amish. I answered in some detail, explaining their origins, doctrines, customs, talked about their language, giving a few examples, and explained where they lived and how they got there and why. “Gee, Dad,” he said, “how do you know so much?” To which the answer is: I read, a lot; and I remember what I read.
But books are going out of fashion. They can’t compete with the Internet either. I have about 5000 books in my house, with shelf-space for half of them and a garage so packed with boxes of books that I don’t even fantasize about parking my car in there. I have more books in my home than they have at the local library (I know; I’ve been there). My house looks like a Christian Science Reading Room with cats. But neither I nor my books can compete, it seems, with a five-inch screen and a pair of purple earbuds.
And so I had to make a rule: no cellphones at the table, either at home or when we go out to eat. If we’re going to sit across from each other, engaging in the oldest ritual known to Man, the family meal, we’re damn-well going to look at each other and talk to each other. So tonight, at dinner, the rule went into effect. I put Brahms on the stereo, turned down the lights, lit the candles, and laid out the good plates and silverware. We all sat down to one of my wife’s excellent Korean dinners, and I kicked off the conversation by asking them about their day. With what result? Well, to paraphrase Poe: And the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, and the only word there spoken was the whispered word… “What?”
At least we were looking at one another.