There’s a guy coming down the hill on Sodon Lake Road. Tizi and I are walking up the hill, twenty minutes into our morning route. He’s wearing hiking shorts and walking shoes. So: we’re on the same page, out walking for our own good.
He takes the opposite shoulder of the road and we pass each other. As we do so, these words occur to me. They rise unbidden: “Hail, neighbor. And well met.” One of the benefits of having read Shakespeare, odd salutations.
I say it, but not very loud. More for my benefit than his. He wouldn’t have heard me anyway. I can see by his earbuds he’s in two places at once.
Tizi says, “For heaven’s sake, don’t say that.”
It’s early enough, I tell her, I could have said Good morrow to you, sirrah.
Everyone we pass is connected. Later, when we reach Long Lake Road, we’ll see a guy walking up the sidewalk, holding his cell phone in front of him, at chin level. Is he talking to someone? Is he filming his walk? Good God, is he watching television as he walks?
Welcome to the devicification of modern life.
I can’t talk. I have a phone in my pocket. I’ll check it before we reach the end of Sodon Lake Road, look at the time, see if I have any messages. (One of our grandsons just had a few teeth pulled.) And I’ve recently become even more devicified. I’m wearing a Fitbit again. With some accuracy it counts my steps. With less accuracy it monitors my sleep phases: light, REM, deep. I don’t need Fitbit to tell me I slept well or poorly. (The last two nights it has both under- and over-reported duration, and in both cases rated my sleep “fair,” whereas I would have rated it “good”). But I like the step counter and especially the little vibration it emits on my wrist 10 minutes before the hour. That vibe is a reminder: get up and move.
“Which way to the lake, I wonder.” I say this to the back of Tizi’s head.
If she heard me, she’s ignoring the question. We’ve walked this route fifty, if not a hundred times, and we have never seen Sodon Lake. I tell her it must not be much of a lake. “Pond, more likely,” I say. At the top of the hill, behind the next five or six houses, the land slopes down. “Maybe it’s down there in that gully,” I say. When does a pond become a lake?
“I hope Scout is out,” she says.
Scout the dog, a young collie. A lassie she loves.
I address the back of her head: “When does a pond become a lake What do you think?”
“I love Scout,” she says.
Out west of the town where I grew up, we had Wagner’s Pond. No one would have thought of calling it a lake. Behind the house where we live, there is a Walden Pond. Same. It’s a lake to no one. I’d bet money that Sodon Lake is no bigger than Walden Pond. But Long Lake, which the next road is named for, and which is also nowhere in sight, it’s a legitimate lake. I’ve driven past it. I’m sure everyone living next to it is happy it’s not called Long Pond.
Wherever we go, we meet these device-enchanced walkers. In truth, if I were alone, just me and my Fitbit out for a walk this morning, I would probably also be further connected to my device. I’d be blue-toothing music. Right now, on a 30 second loop that’s been earworming me for half a mile, I’ve been humming, circa 1966, the Knickerbockers’ song “Lies!” I would be singing it, but I only remember a few words of the song, Lies! That’s all I ever get from you. If I had earbuds I could listen to it on my phone.
“Hail, neighbor” reminds me of how our son answered the phone when he was in middle school. Every caller he would salute by saying, “Hey, what’s up, dog?” (Hail, dog, well called.) One night Tizi said to me, across the kitchen table, “Who’s Doug?”
Those were landline days. In the American home there was one centrally located phone that everyone used (ours was in the kitchen), the home phone, vestiges of which are still visible on registration forms you fill out. Ian Bogost, writing for the Atlantic, recently lamented the end of the landline. It had its uses. A child home alone, assuming she did not have a cell phone, could be taught to call 911 in case of an emergency. The landline was “unlocked.” On a landline, Bogost notes, “Everyone might have to talk to grandma, depending on who picked up.” Or a neighbor. Or the plumber–“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Nowadays, post-landline, what do we do about the undeviced family member? Before she went digital (finally) and got deviced, if I went to the grocery store and needed to ask my wife a question, she was unreachable. I was very close to her on the grid, like a mile away, but she was definitively off it.
In the house I grew up in, there was one phone, a Northern Electric black rotary phone. Telephones back then were like Model T’s. They came in any color you wanted, as long as that color was black. The phone was made of hard rubber, plastic, and metal, and weighed more than 5 pounds. On the rotary dial there were letters visible, enabling you to indicate the switching system, called the “exchange,” that your line was connected to. Our town’s exchange was Oxbow. The first telephone number I memorized was OX 59111. Yes, back then you remembered telephone numbers. You kept your list of “contacts” in your head. Some of them are still there. Danny Leman was 59103, Ronnie Fritz was 59303, Jeff Schilling was 56431, Dean Gaul was 59633.
Innovations came along. The heavy desk phone gave way to the wall phone. Then came the “trimline” and the “princess.” Rotary dial, a quaint technology that took forever to enter a telephone number, gave way to digital keys. (I remember my children marveling at how slow it was when they dialed their grandparents’ old phone, a trimline with rotary.) For a telephone line you paid Ma Bell. Compared to today’s prices, it was cheap–in the extreme.
This was before “voicemail,” an awful term we would never have suffered if it weren’t for the advent of email. In the front room of our house, my father’s office, the location of our home phone, he had a machine he called “the recorder” that he switched on when he was out of the house. “Hello, this is John H. Bailey . . . “ It was the size of a microwave oven. As late as the mid-70’s, college friends of mine who went off to New York to become actors all had an answering service they would call to collect messages. Then came voicemail.
Those good old days, however, became the bad old days. The landline phone began to ring–all the time. Every night when we sat down to dinner, it rang and rang and rang. You picked up the phone to shut it up. On the other end, solicitors. “Hi, Mr. Bailey, I was wondering if you would be interested in virus protection for your computer.” “Hi, Mr. Bailey, the governor needs your financial support in his re-election campaign.” Some callers, total strangers, acted like we were soon to be good buddies. “Is this Richard?” “Is this Tiziana?”
I had a cellphone by then. As did our son and daughter. We said goodbye to the landline.
“You’ve got mail!” The AOL guy said it with such enthusiasm. And at first that enthusiasm was infectious–I’ve got mail!–until it wasn’t. These days, with AOL a distant memory, one of my morning rituals is deleting email, anywhere from 30 to 50 messages a day (all those calls at the dinner hour). Like most people, I also screen calls. If the number isn’t in my address book, associated with a name I know, I usually kill the ring and let the call go to voicemail. Pew Research reports that Americans answer only 19 percent of unknown calls on their phones. The average American looks at her digital device 144 times a day. Peter Frost, a psych professor at Southern New Hampshire University, says that young adults use their device 5 ½ hours a day. Given stats like these, can digital detox be far behind? If not that, mental meltdown.
Experts in “sleep ecology” say no screens an hour before you go to bed. And no devices in the bedroom. This morning at 4:30 a.m., lying awake, I saw the giant screen on Tizi’s iPad light up on her night table. The visual equivalent of “you’ve got mail.” The other day I read about a “digital well-being” setting on my iPhone, which I couldn’t find when I tried. To get digital well-being, I guess I need an upgrade. A new digital setting to treat my my digital device dependence. Methadone comes to mind.
This morning Fitbit tells me I walked an average of 93,914 steps a day last week. I slept an average of 5 hours and 50 minutes a night. For a while I will continue to track this data and find it useful, but really, the app is just a digital bauble. When we walk for two hours, up and down some hills, past walkers and dogs, past lakes and ponds, I know I’ve exercised. When I wake up at 4:00 am, having gone to bed at 11:30 pm, I know I’m going to sluggish later in the day.
“Bring your phone,” Tizi says before we leave the house to walk. Because what if the kids call?
“Bring your phone,” she says when I go out for a walk by myself.
Implores me. Because what if something happens? I might trip and fall and knock myself unconscious and be found lying by the side of the road, found by a digital walker who would call for help. Who is this guy? the walker might wonder, and finding my device in my pocket, touch the screen, waking it up. “Press home to open.” Then, “Touch ID or Enter Password.” Oh well.
“Yes, 911, there’s some guy lying by the side of Sodon Lake Road. Can you help?”
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