We’re losing things. We may not even realize it’s happening, because they’re the kinds of things we don’t pay a lot of attention to, so we fail to notice when they disappear. It’s something like when a casual acquaintance moves to Paraguay without telling us, and twelve years later we wake up and say, “Hey, what ever happened to Don?”
One of the things we’re losing is the ability to slam down the phone. Until about a decade ago, most of us had those big, clunky telephones that were attached to the wall or sitting on a desk. When the person on the other end said something that really drove us insane, we could hold the receiver a foot away from our mouths, scream our heads off, and then hang up as though we were trying to send a shock wave through the wires. In reality, no matter how hard we slammed down the phone, the other person heard the same normal click, but it gave us a sense of satisfaction to know that we had cut short the conversation with an explosion of sound, at least on our end.
Now that everyone has a cell phone, how do people acquire this same feeling of emotional release? Do they press the hang-up button really hard? That seems unsatisfying. Do they throw the phone against the wall? That seems wasteful. I think there must be a great deal of pent-up hostility accumulating in our culture because of these small, lightweight, expensive devices that have to be handled with such care.
Modern television equipment has caused a similar loss. It used to be that when you wanted to change the channel, you’d have to walk over to the set and turn the knob. If you were patient enough, or had good timing, you could wait for someone else to get off the couch. Then at just the right moment, you could say, “While you’re up, would you mind grabbing me a root beer?” But no one gets up anymore. They just look for the remote, and complain if it’s so far away that they have to stretch their arm to reach it.
In the same way, if someone was headed to the grocery store, you might ask them to pick you up a bag of potato chips. But today, chips come in a thousand varieties, so asking a friend to take on that responsibility would be like insisting that they name your newborn baby, or select the options on your new car.
This is all the result of having too many choices, and too much convenience. There was a time, not so long ago, when you were able to make declarative statements without fear of being publicly corrected. For example, you could say, “Willie Mays hit three home runs in the 1952 World Series,” and very few people – even true baseball fans — would be in a position to argue. But now, within thirty seconds, any wiseguy with Wikipedia can discover and announce that Mays had only one post-season homer in his entire career, and that was in the 1971 playoffs against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that his team, the Giants, made it to the World Series in 1951 and 1954, but not in ‘52. And then you’d have to admit you were wrong, and make a silent promise to yourself to never speak to anyone ever again.
I can recall stopping at gas stations to ask for directions. There would always be a man who pumped gas, cleaned windshields, changed oil, and repaired tires. He’d use a filthy rag to get the cap off your radiator so he could check the water level. It was an oasis of utility and information in a desert of dead batteries and unclear road signs. There’d be nothing in the station to eat except the cashews and jelly beans in the red, cast-iron machines standing in the corner facing the cash register. There were free maps, too, but before you could get one unfolded, the man would tell you in explicit detail how to get anywhere within a ten-mile radius of his leaded gasoline pump.
If I’m lost these days, I don’t even bother stopping at a gas station. There’s nobody working the pumps or fixing flats anymore, or anyone who could even find your radiator. True, there’s a bright and colorful miniature supermarket in place of the grimy old pit stop, and it may be stocked with sandwiches and snacks, magazines and lottery tickets. But the person behind the counter is unfamiliar with the town, because she lives in the next county. Such is the state of our economy – and the level of lost opportunities — that people are commuting to their job at the gas station.
Fortunately, I suppose, we no longer need to ask for directions. We have access to websites that provide precise instructions for getting from any point on the globe to any other point – along with the actual distances for each step. And, of course, we also have a global positioning system, a valuable asset if we’re in the middle of the Atlantic, but a safety net that reduces the chances of stumbling upon a quaint town or an unmarked beach.
As we become more adept at employing some electronic gadget to record and store every event – from the birth of that newborn to the purchase of that car — we lose the ability to experience those parts of our lives. We fumble to describe what occurred, offering instead to show the pictures or play the video. And if it isn’t on our Facebook page, it didn’t happen.
I’m not saying I miss carbon paper or Polaroid cameras. But I wonder, sometimes, where all those gas station mechanics went, with their filthy rags and their mental roadmaps. Have they gotten lost themselves? Did they go out for potato chips and decide to not come back? Or did they just move to Paraguay, and I never noticed?
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Footnote: I once called Willie Mays on his unlisted phone number. He got really angry, and hung up on me. In fact, he slammed the phone down. I know, because I felt the floor shake. It’s true.