28 January 2009

Voices in the Line

When the telephone first came to our upcountry farm in Kula,
there was only one wire. The numbers were a digit different,

but it was the same line. When anybody's rang, ours rang
in the kitchen, and so rang the receivers in every other house.
No matter what somebody said, anybody could be listening,

and everybody knew it, so nobody ever said anything important
or personal on the phone. Phones were public, like a restroom

or a library is public. If the words were private, they were taken
outside or penned. Nobody ever called anybody for no reason,

and conversations were short. Before the telephone, we lived
alone where we couldn't even see the neighbors' lights at night,
but the wires shrunk the world. No longer was there anywhere

you knew anybody you couldn't call anymore. So we called.
Whenever we picked up the phone, there were voices in the line.

-- Eric Paul Shaffer, in Rattle 30, Winter 2008.
I know this guy's story. I was a kid when this happened to me, living in one of the first of a five-house plan in what used to be somebody's front forty, our yard still an open wound in the earth, the view still clear down to the creek and the two-lane up the opposite bank.

Mrs. Wilson had the switchboard on a table in her dining room -- I saw it once when I went to play with her son Tad. She was in the kitchen, I think, and Tad showed me how it worked: pull this plug, stick it in this hole, crank the dial for numbers in the county seat 10 miles away, then you asked another operator for a hookup to Pittsburgh, where my grandparents lived.

The phone hung on the wall opposite our back door, in the short passageway between the dining room and kitchen -- a shiny black box with a hook but no dial, no white disk with number in its center. I'd sit there in a chair dragged from the kitchen table, holding the hook down with my free hand, talking into the heavy handset to pretend friends.

It was a party line, shared by six families, and the phone rang maybe once or twice a day; you listened to the pattern of rings to see if it was for you. Ours was long, short-short, long; the Clearys' up the hill was long, short, long-long. Mrs. Wilson did the rings by hand, pushing a spring switch on the panel next to the dial. I once asked her -- she was my Sunday School teacher that year -- who worked the switchboard when she was asleep. "Why, if somebody calls, I just get up and answer it. What do you think?" But what happens when you go on vacation? She just looked at me.

Our parents were our now-kids' age then, maybe younger; those of us watching our contemporaries roll off the table in ones and twos these days are beginning to realize there's a whole world evaporating atom by atom that will only be retrievable in little vignettes like Eric Paul Shaffer's poem -- and if I don't print out the blog for my descendants to find moldering in the bottom of a linen trunk (remember those?), it's likely this wispy commentary will vanish into the digital dark age like the rest of the artifacts we're impetuously entrusting to the cloud.

It's not just the world of quaint devices and their picturesque usage that's disappearing, but a world of relations to each other, as Shaffer's poem conjures with such lovely simplicity. Indirectly, he also evokes the world of silence and distance that his grandparents watched disappear, perhaps with the same nostalgia that he himself seems to be feeling now, and which may have supplied some motivation for writing the poem in the first place.

That silence and distance was not a gap in our relations -- as it appeared to technologists bent on improving "communication" -- it was a room, and each of us had one: in which to rest, to which to retreat, from which to sally forth when it was necessary to communicate with one another. There was peace in that room -- or maybe it just seems so to those of us too young to remember such a condition of things -- where tranquility was attainable in a way all but impossible in the noisy world today.

The heedlessness of technological progress is a dusty old trope -- think of the story of O say the Tower of Babel, or Icarus -- that doesn't much edify. The alarums about dwindling privacy among our young, who don't seem to know what the alarumists are even talking about, is probably in the same class of prudish or plain cranky ranting against change for ranting's (not change's) sake.

That doesn't make the prudes and ranters wrong. Here's what Kafka thought about "improving" communication:

Written kisses don't reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the aeroplane. But it's no longer any help, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. The spirits won't starve, but we will perish.
-- Franz Kafka to Milena Jesenká, epigraph to John Durham Peters's Speaking into the Air.

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24 January 2009

Flashback I

To the tune of "We're Havin' a Heat Wave..."
I'm havin' a flashback,
A terrible flashback...
Yesterday, believe it or not, I went Christmas shopping for my wife. Over the past few years, we've been having a serious motivation problem with The Holidaze — the decorating, the doing the shopping, the wrapping the presents, the getting everything shipped in time, then the scheduling the visits, the making the calls, the whole mishegaas. Now my wife's a fantastic decorator, and when it comes to online shopping, she could be a consultant — hm, maybe I'll mention that... — but I'm a failure at all these things, which doesn't help in the spirit of the season department. Long story short, we don't shop for each other until after we've (read she's) discharged our obligations in the friends & family department.

So yesterday I'm in Macy's, which I haven't visited in the better part of a year, grimly cruising the fragrance counters for my darling's favorite (I gotta say I like it too), when I feel my neck start to tighten up, my shoulders lift in a protective hunch, and my ears prick up as if I'm about to get conked from behind. I whirl around, but all I can see are three very tired looking but well-dressed ladies chatting across the aisle between two make-up stations, one of them sitting on the floor surrounded by boxes she's unpacking.

I'm so relieved I blurt out something totally stupid: "Make me up!" — my arms extended, throwing myself on their mercy.

They all look rather startled, but one of them sees that it's a joke — not likely a portly gent in a baseball cap & a ratty sweater is there for a facial — and plays along. "Where've you been?" she asks. "We haven't had you in the chair for ages!"

I can't keep it up, of course, so I say something lame like "Sorry, long day" and ask for the fragrance brand my wife reminded me last week that she really likes. By now the other two gals are cackling, perhaps at the image of my stubbly face under their hands. But in the end they do have mercy on me and direct me to the proper counter, right by the entrance to the rest of the mall.

And there, after a relatively painless shopping experience, the creepy feeling comes over me again. I look out into the mall itself: the boutique eateries, the gussied-up dummies up against the glass, the weird counterpoint of too-loud, too-happy music that straddles the entrance to every store — and the terror rises exponentially. And I realize... I'm having a flashback.

Just before the holidays a year ago, I began what I now jokingly call my Misadventures in Retail. It was an odd year, 2007. At the beginning of it I went to work for a bunch of Aussies, editing an online arts journal that they were trying to take global, but my part of it was downsized six months later, and I got to be unemployed for the next six months while I scrambled to find something to do next.

Then I saw a posting for a job at a computer sales & service center in New York, and I thought — hell, I like helping people, I love computers (at least mine), and I need a job: what could possibly go wrong?

You never want to ask that question. It's like being disappointed in the results of the 2000 election but thinking, O well, how bad can it be? My friend Nemo did just that, and eight years later is still marveling at the humongous enormity of that particular failure of imagination.

I was hired as an intaker in the service department — in effect, a triage nurse at a computer hospital. I stood behind a horseshoe counter studded with cheap laptops and styrofoam pads, and did my best to counsel, console, and commiserate with folk who all too often had literally just lost their minds: it worked fine yesterday — a little slow, but it's been doing that, and now all I get is this black screen with a bunch of gibberish in different languages...

In chess, intakers would be pawns, the front line that absorbs the enemy attack. And some days it felt like that — people get really upset and irrational when you tell them that all their family photos are lost because the digital key broke off in the lock, or that their senior project for a bachelor's degree will cost them $1200 to retrieve (though it's free if we can't do it), or that their financial records for the past ten years are now totally toast.

It was harrowing, and exhausting, but I really enjoyed it, once I got the hang of the impenetrable intake forms and learned which technicians to bring the poor broken lambs to (and which techs it was best to cross the street to avoid). Sometimes there were miracles, sometimes disasters, sometimes things got worse the longer they stayed. But most of the time I could help, if only to help my customers learn the only real computer lesson there is: BACK EVERYTHING UP IN THREE DIFFERENT PLACES.

Trouble was, I was making more money on unemployment, and the two-hour commute (in the dead of winter) was just killing these old bones. So when a similar position opened up closer to home, I took it, even though it involved a 63-mile drive — not a great idea, given my tendency to act like the Avenger of Evil on the road (there's a reason for that: I am the Avenger of Evil).

And it's that gig that still gives me terrible flashbacks like the one I had yesterday at the Mall...

(to be continued...)

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