Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Wi Fi-less

My friend of over forty years has always lived at least ten or twenty years behind the times. When we all lived in Laguna Beach in the 70s and were busy buying new telephones (remember those?) that had keypads instead of dials, he maintained his dial phone until the bitter end until the phone company insisted that he change to something more compliant with their current operating systems. He has never owned a television set of any kind. He listens to NPR in the mornings over what looks like a boom box (remember those too?) that crackles out the news sufficiently as far as he’s concerned. He does not subscribe to a newspaper.

Thus, is should be no surprise that despite his extensive and life-long research as a musicologist that has required diligent use of libraries the world over, he has no internet connection and is not about to have one. Moreover, the house he bought on the north side of Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley hills mysteriously gets very little in the way of signal from Verizon or AT&T. He doesn’t care; he has a cell phone that is perennially not charged up that he keeps in his car in case of emergency.

He does have a computer and I remember what it took to convince him that it would be a useful tool. I was not believed when I urged him to look into word processors, but other academics in his field subsequently showed him the light that finally dawned on him, and he is now proficient at using WORD, editing, saving and printing out vast monographs, and has recently completed an important book about Stravinsky, soon to be published by a university press.

A Luddite, and an eccentric one to boot, he is and has been a close, generous and affable friend. Our habit when I visit is that I cook dinner for him and two other old friends, and that I did last evening. Canapé’s, drinks, a leg of lamb and a fruit tart along with laughter and stories filled our evening, and no one was bothered by texts or texting, wondering what might be arriving via email, nor what might be on TV about now.

At first, it’s annoying to stay in his house and be so out of touch by either cell phone or internet and I found myself feeling like a junkie without a fix. Two text messages managed to arrive on my I-phone one night but I was unable to send replies. For reasons I cannot begin to understand, I had three dots of signal the next morning. I replied to the texts immediately, just in time for two of the dots to disappear along with any further possibility of phone use. Then I sank back into non-electronic DT’s, and picked up a book to read.

On second thought, it’s not DT’s exactly. You simply find other things to do in his house besides enslaving yourself to your computer or cell phone. Of course, if you can’t stand it and your addiction impels you, you can drive down the mountain to a Starbucks and glut yourself on electronic input, but over the course of even one day, such an effort seems superfluous and what might have loomed large as deprivation becomes less important. You finish the book you’re reading or you talk with him about books you’ve read in common, or you listen to music (yep, he’s got a CD player) and find out a dozen aspects of a Bartok String Quartet that you hadn’t guessed were there and certainly hadn’t heard before. That Mozart Mass that you thought you knew pretty well suddenly has voices and harmonies that he guides you into hearing, enhancing the beauty of the composition for you.

Some people take vacations to remote places free of internet signals in an effort to achieve the kind of tranquility that pervades his house, to purge themselves of their electronic habits. Such a state of calm comes easily at my friend’s house, and by the third day of a visit, you begin to have less of an itch to see what the latest message is on email, and you don’t miss the ‘whoosh’ of an incoming text. And even if you aren’t about to abandon your laptop and throw your I-phone into the nearest dumpster afterward, a certain wisdom and circumspection about those gadgets that have come to run our lives, helps reassign them to being our machines instead of the other way around.

Maybe that’s why it’s taken me until the next day after having left his house to get around to writing and sending this. I’m now in San Francisco at an inn where there is ample and free wi-fi, but once I arrived, I didn’t instantly hook up and resume my old mania of seeing what came in on email. Apart from the lovely messages from you, there wasn’t much after all. I’m freer of the electronic imperative, thanks to a three-day retreat in the Berkeley hills and a visit with an old and dear friend there.

Robert Heylmun
 16 June 2014

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