Unstuck

            The other day I outsmarted a five-story elevator.  To be fair, I’d had some practice.  I was in a hotel near Chicago’s Midway Airport, and it was the third or fourth time I’d had to return to the front desk because my damn key-card would not work.

            Usually I prefer the stairs.  I had just run five miles so it seemed especially silly to wait for the elevator.  In a few hotels the stairs are actually a viable option.  But understand that this is America– land of the free, home of the brave – and taking the stairs, well, you’re just pushing your luck there, mister.

            For example, I’ve gone down eleven flights of stairs only to find a door at the bottom, clearly marked EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY – ALARM WILL SOUND WHEN DOOR IS OPENED.  I considered opening it anyway, only to chicken out, climb back up one story, and locate – the elevator.  Another time I was returning from lunch and got accosted by a security guard in a dim corridor of the hotel.  I had strolled though the quiet, early-afternoon lobby – even saying a friendly “hello” to the bored-looking receptionist – and headed in the direction of the stairwell.  Problem was, this was in the opposite direction of the elevator bank.  I had to walk down a seldom-used hallway and past the empty banquet rooms to get to the stairwell.  I was about to pull the door open when I heard keys jangling behind me, and the smarmy, anemic voice of a man who sounded as though he had not gotten any fresh air since there used to be a thing called “fresh air.”

            “Um, sir?  Um, can I help you, uh, find something?” he wanted to know.

            Luckily, I was quick enough to talk myself out it, precluding him from calling for backup.  But that was a close call!  Next time I’ll think twice.  Sheesh!  Taking the stairs?  What was I thinking?!?

            As for the key-card, the young ladies at the front desk were apologetic in a way that meant that they were saying exactly what they were trained to say.  I’m not sure, though, if they were trained on what to say the fourth time they were attempting to rectify the same exact complaint.  So they just said the same thing, every time: “Sorry for the inconvenience, Sir.  We’ll take care of it right away.”

            That’s okay.  One of the few cutesy sayings that I can live with is “shit happens,” because it really does.  The shit that happens is a whole lot deeper when technology is involved, but it’s a true statement at any level.  Because I said so.

            But I almost lost it when one of the receptionists tried to school me, in language best suited for the average kindergartener, on the proper technique for using a key card.  I briefly considered mentioning, for her edification, that I had only hours before landed a fully-loaded Boeing on one of the shortest runways in the system, with a kickin’ crosswind to boot, so I think I can figure out how to operate a dad-gum key-card, thank you very much.  Then I reflected that the only time such self-important bluster is amusing is when it isn’t true.

            So I thought about changing the story a little.  The new version also included an airplane ride, but this time I was an eminent surgeon traveling to a conference on something far too complex to even attempt to discuss with strangers.  There is a disturbance amongst the peasants back in coach; a moment later the flight attendant makes a panicky announcement, asking if there is a doctor on board.  I immediately spring to action, and proceed to perform a double-lung transplant right there in the aisle, with naught but plastic cutlery, a shoe lace, an airplane bottle of Jim Beam, and my bare hands.

            Fortunately I realized that this story was shot full of holes before I started running my mouth.  To wit: 

  1. Any fool knows that they have first-aid kits on board commercial airplanes.  Not enough for an ersatz operating suite, but enough to remove much of the MacGyver-factor, and therefore much of the fun.
  2. It occurred to me that there may be no such condition as would require an emergency double-lung transplant.  Plus, there would be the issue of locating two willing passengers to donate said items (assuming one passenger didn’t volunteer to donate both of them).  Something tells me that a voucher for a free round-trip ticket wouldn’t quite bring the response required.
  3. For all I knew, this young lady attempting to give me key-card lessons was in medical school, and I would be instantly recognized for the lunatic that I am.

            Instead, I just grew a slow-motion, smart-ass grin and glared at her over the rim of my eyeglasses.  “I know how to use a key-card,” I said flatly.

            She smiled sheepishly.  “Well, you’d be surprised,” she said.

            “No, I don’t think I would,” I said, and left it at that.

            When this happens again (and it will!), my plan is to request a traditional metal key instead.  I’ll explain about the electromagnet installed in my head by the Jello-like beings who dwell in the limbic fringes of the known universe.  If I do that, the staff will nod knowingly amongst themselves, and assign me the room at the end of the hall that’s been unoccupied since 1997, when some deranged psychopath axed his sleeping family to death and clogged up the plumbing trying to flush their minutely dismembered remains down the toilet.  What they don’t know is, I like those rooms.  At least that way they’ll leave me the hell alone.

            Or maybe I’ll skip the drama and simply tell them I’m allergic to plastic.

            Presently the door to the elevator opened to the lobby and a young woman in a business suit stepped out, heels clacking.  The little arrow indicated that the elevator’s next trip was down, to the basement.  I don’t know if it was instinct or some newfound ability to see into the not-so-distant future, but I got on anyway and pressed “5.”  This confused the hell out of the poor elevator.  The way its doors closed, opened, and closed again reminded me of the kid who gets beaned in the head with a line-drive and stands there blinking for a second, deciding how badly this is going to hurt.  Finally the doors closed and up I went.

            Yes, I caught the elevator lying to me.  This might sound ridiculously petty.  It might seem downright depressing that an otherwise intelligent forty-two-year-old has nothing better to do than to waste his exceptional creative gifts writing about this perceived victory against an inanimate, unthinking object.  But I am going somewhere with this.

            Or at least, I thought I was going somewhere with this.  At this point, in this very space, the narrative came to a screeching halt.  I struggled with it for several days.  I couldn’t quite figure out how to annunciate what I was trying to say.  Different images, and fragments of images, colluded and collided in my headspace; but I was having a hard time putting it all on paper.

            I thought about how annoyed I get by men (I can’t speak for what goes on amongst the ladies) who use their cell phones in public restrooms.  Is nothing sacred anymore?   Add to this the usual cell phone complaints: driving while talking, texting, sexting, and/or Googling; the guy who is barking into a cell phone so loudly as to obviate the need for a cell phone in the first place; and those ridiculous blinky Bluetooth earpieces with which the grandly self-absorbed accessorize, thereby impressing all onlookers with his or her own importance.

            And, on the subject of public restrooms, I am apparently transparent to “touchless” fixtures and towel dispensers.  It’s bad enough being ignored by sentient beings; but being ignored by the faucet is simply too much for a man to handle.

            And I thought about a review I had read about the latest Honda Civic.  I don’t know why I would have been reading that, but I was.  Anyhow, the review was mainly favorable, but one of the few gripes was that the car did not come with a back-up camera.

            A back-up camera?  On a Civic?

            I thought about phone-trees.

            And I thought about a story my dad recently told me about a stern letter he received from his health insurance company.  It seemed that an audit had been conducted and it was determined that his account was grievously in arrears.  He was notified in no uncertain terms that the balance must be paid in short order, in full, or legal proceedings would be forthcoming.

            The amount owed?  Fifteen cents.  That’s right – fifteen cents.

            He called and asked if they could set up some sort of payment plan.

            I thought of a lot of things along similar lines, the general tenor of which was that I often feel backed into a corner by technology – forced to contort myself into unnatural knots in an attempt to get along in this ever-more-computerized world.  I feel like a fighter pilot who has been forced to eject from his crippled jet far behind enemy lines.  He is trained in survival skills and, if he stays in the shadows and moves only at night, stands a decent chance of making it back home safely.  But it is a constant struggle in a very threatening environment, and he absolutely cannot let his guard down, ever.

            I feel like a computer program set to self-terminate at a given date, but somehow there was a glitch in that subroutine.  The program continues to run with the same old algorithms but in an entirely new environment for which it is woefully unprepared.

            I feel like a time-traveler who has lost the keys to the DeLorean.

            I could have continued down into that angry, self-pitying, techno-bashing rabbit hole.  But that sort of self-perpetuating scab picking serves no purpose.  I needed a different angle from which to consider things.

            You could say it was writer’s block, if you were charitable enough to allow me to consider myself a “writer.”  Plus, I wasn’t really “blocked;” it felt more like a cramp.  So maybe it was a case of ranter’s cramp.         

            Fortunately I was at home by then, so I had more alternatives than if I were holed up in a hotel room somewhere.  Two options came to mind.  The first was to start drinking; but it was only 11:30 and I couldn’t wait another half-an-hour.  So I went with the second (and decidedly more salubrious) option; ten minutes later I was on my bicycle, rolling through the bucolic springtime countryside ofNorth Georgia.

            I was about three days into one of my regular insomnia sprees at this point.  But it never ceases to amaze me how a little exercise brightens the outlook and sharpens the intellect.  I know it’s all endorphins and cannabinoids and neurotransmitters, but damn, it still feels good.  Even if I’ve been wide awake five days straight, a good workout puts pleasant sleepiness where jittery exhaustion used to be. 

            As the miles rolled by under the wheels of my carbon-fiber racing bike, my mind began to clear.  This by itself was reward enough; but, given that my headspace is quite limited, new ideas began to fill the void where the old ones had festered.  The new thoughts came at me fast enough that I was starting to lose them again.  From time to time I stopped and used the voice-recording application on my cell phone, dictating my thoughts shopping-list style.

            Also, to keep the whole thing somewhat relevant, I found a Volkswagen I hadn’t seen before and was again glad to have my multipurpose smart-phone, this time for the camera function.  Cycling in the country is a great way to discover old Volkswagens; I could create an entire album dedicated to the examples, from pristine to pile-of-rusted-parts, that I’ve found.

            Forty-seven miles later I walked into the house anxious to sit back down with my new ideas.  All of these two ideas seemed to converge into two main themes.  The first required some research; for this purpose I sent an e-mailed inquiry to the team of psychologists in Macau that I keep on retainer.  More on that in a minute.

            The second theme was this: I AM A HYPOCRITE.

            That’s right.  I’m a hypocrite.  You’ve probably already seen it but were polite enough to let it slide.  But I’d rather hear it from me than somebody I actually care for.

             A carbon-fiber bicycle.  A smart-phone, equipped with apps aplenty.  A blog.  A laptop computer.  A Facebook account.

            The problem was that I was had been looking at technology from a binary, all-or-nothing viewpoint, even though that viewpoint was in direct conflict with my actual behavior.  This absolutist mindset is rampant in our society; I believe it is to blame for the fact that we are so culturally and politically polarized, and why we have such a difficult time engaging each other in a constructive, respectful way.  I had been guilty of the same thing.  I might harbor a secret admiration for the drifter who carries everything he owns on his back, or the hermit who depends on no corporation to tempt him with a steady barrage of new and improved gadgets that he simply must own or risk being left behind.  But anyone who knows me would instantly recognize the hypocrisy in any claims I may make of being a Luddite.

            I found this definition on Wikipedia (for what it’s worth): “Reform Luddism is an offshoot of Neo-Luddism and represents a personal world view skeptical of modern technology and critical of many purported benefits.”  I like it.  It sums up the way I feel neatly.  The key words here are skeptical and critical.  A true Luddite, in my thinking, would shun all technology, automation, or computerization – lock, stock, and barrel.  Just because.  But the “Reform Luddite” would take a more nuanced view.  It is a view that would permit one to exist in modern society without being a slave to its whims.  It is a lens through which each person, individually and without allowing the advertising machine or peer pressure to get the upper hand, can judge the merits of any given development.

             There will always be people who simply must have the latest thing  just because it’s the latest thing.  There are those who will never self-police their behavior, whether their offenses are perpetrated with cell phones or nuclear warheads.  There will always be engineers who will insist upon showcasing their achievements in the most unlikely, if not outright asinine, places.  When somebody can explain to me the actual purpose of a Segway maybe I’ll have a deeper understanding of the rightful place of technology in modern life.

            In the meantime, I simply need to allow that not everyone’s concept of what is good or what is useful is the same as mine.  There is no constitutional right to be free from annoyance and inconvenience, whether it’s a broken plow or a malfunctioning key-card.

            Buried deep within there is also an element of fear.  I’m fear that we are losing contact with the authentic.  I thought about this – way too often – during my brief time as the owner of an eReader.  In an earlier blog, I wrote about how I had gone from loathing the very concept of an electronic book to actually buying one myself, and all of the inner drama and hand-wringing this involved.  What I have since failed to mention is that I sold the thing shortly after that writing.  I posted it on Craigslist for about half of what I paid for it, and it was gone that same afternoon.  I mailed it to a woman in Greenville, South Carolina.  A few days later I received an envelope stuffed with twenty-dollar bills.

             I have no regrets whatsoever.  Actually, the whole experience was instructive.  The concept of electronic books no longer has the emotional resonance it once did.  In other words, it’s a concept that obviously works for many people, but it does not work for me.  It is not a right/wrong, good/bad kind of thing.  I simply found that I was trying to find ways for this technology to work for me, and it was not a natural fit.

            In its place I now have a record player.  No, it’s not a turntable – I did not want to mess with an entire rack system.  It’s a new, old-fashioned style portable unit.  It looks like an extra-thick briefcase, with built in (stereo!) speakers.  My wife bought it for me for my birthday and I absolutely love the thing.  I’ve got it fired up right now – the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. 

            It’s an experience – shopping for old vinyl, bringing it home, pulling it out of the sleeve, getting drawn into the liner notes.  It had been decades since I had played a record, and wow!  I was quite surprised at how rich and full it sounds, and what a thrill it was to lower the needle to the shiny grooved surface for the first time.

            I’ve gotten a good start at (re)building my record collection.  The newest of the twenty or so records I’ve already collected is from 1985; most are from the late 60’s or early 70’s.  Some were surprisingly cheap.  Others set me back a bit.  I simply could not resist the first-pressing edition I found, in excellent condition, of Pink Floyd’s double-album Ummagumma (from 1969, before anyone in the U.S. had even heard of Pink Floyd).

            The record player sits on a small table in the corner of my study, right between the bookcase and the wall against which I’ve gently leaned the Beetle’s window glass.  It’s reassuring to just glance over and see an LP turning slowly round and round.  I even like the way the record player is constructed.  It’s fairly heavy, which leads me to believe the case is made of wood or particle board, covered in vinyl.  The speaker grills are metal, as is the inside surface that the turntable platter sits in.  The volume and tone controls are plastic, but are of a hard, shiny brown that is more reminiscent of Bakelite than modern plastics.

            I’m not sure why I seem to be drawn, especially in the last few years, to such things.  I seem to have a certain nostalgia for a period of time during which I was either not born yet, or far too young to remember.  Yet, sometimes – like when I’m lying on the couch on a lazy afternoon, teetering blissfully within that marginal zone between sleep and wakefulness, I can almost feel myself slipping back.  Like Billy, the main character in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, I can almost feel myself becoming “unstuck in time.”  It seems so simple, in that state, to just will myself there; as if all I need is just a gentle nudge or a whispered suggestion: you are free to go. 

            And that’s where the team of psychologists comes in.  I already knew about a tendency the mind has to idealize the experienced past.  The good times seem to shine through, while the tedium, conflict, boredom, and stress tends to fade into the background.  Some people even manage to wax nostalgic about war.  We all tend to remember the “good old days;” but the thing is, collectively speaking, they’re just a myth. 

            I wanted to know what it’s called – our tendency to do this.  Academic types have a term for just about everything, and I was not disappointed.  This knowledge has come to me from half way around the globe, and now I pass it on to you: it’s called the rosy retrospection effect.

            Go ahead, Google it.  It’s in there.  In the Wikipedia article, they talk about a group of subjects who were shown to have done this while reminiscing about their vacations.  I know I’ve done this.  But what I don’t know is why I do this over an era during which I was not even sentient, if alive at all.  Some might be tempted to talk about past lives, but I don’t have much patience with such nonsense.  I’m more inclined to think that, since I have been mostly unimpressed and bewildered with what I’ve seen so far during my time in this bright blue world (I never said I was an optimist), my mind reaches back to the period just before my senses quickened, yearning for something meaningful.  Like I just missed it.

            It could also be a not-so-subtle escape act, a cop out, a case of sour grapes.  A misfit in my own time, maybe I’ve deluded myself into thinking that somehow I would not be a misfit in another.  But when I wander off and go out into the world, I’m glad I’m a misfit.  A time-traveling, astral-projecting misfit for any occasion.

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