Thursday, 15 May 2014
Customs of an Earlier Age
There are not usually many people in the streets of my suburban town. Even on weekends, I can walk two or three blocks in the main shopping area without passing anyone.
That changes on holidays like last Sunday – Mothers Day – and because it was a gloriously sunny spring day, the park, streets, restaurants and outdoor cafes in the central area where the farmers' market will soon open for the season were crowded with families.
Since I am not a mother and my mother is long dead, I was not involved in this holiday. That left me free to observe the several generations eating and drinking together, talking and laughing, telling stories and all with the mothers, young and old, at the center of the celebration.
Except that it wasn't like that. Just as the media regularly reports about how we live now, technology (over)ruled.
There was a woman at an umbrella table turned away from her family so deeply involved in a phone conversation that she seemed not to notice a child tapping her shoulder.
At another table two kids, probably brother and sister, were intent, thumbs a-thumbing on their phone screens, at some kind of game. Or were they texting? One another?
A young couple who might be in love, stood under a tree holding hands while they each peered into cell phones held in their other hands.
When I took a wider view, everywhere I looked people stared at little screens. White-haired old women in the group played with the babies in carriages or stared at the trees in the middle distance.
Being apart together.
I'm not saying this was true for every family on that plaza but it was enough to be disturbing - maybe half of them.
It's been a long time since I've seen so many people all gathered in one place. I rarely go into Portland. I don't like shopping malls. I never attend arena events where there are certain to be crowds.
So until last Sunday, there had not been a recent opportunity for personal anthropological observation of groupus Americanus in the wild and it was uncanny how closely the scene matched those described by the scolds who regularly nag us to put down our electronic gadgets and engage the world around us.
I've used a cell phone for 12 or 15 years, a smart phone for – oh, I'm guessing five or six years.
I keep a calendar on my cell phone and there is, of course, my contact list along with the public transit app, a turn-by-turn map program that talks to me (“turn left in 50 feet”) and a good camera.
There is a Kindle app I downloaded but the screen is too small to read comfortably so I also have a Kindle paperwhite. There is a browser so I can surf the web but I rarely think to do so. Sometimes when I'm out all day, I check your comments but not often.
A friend or two complain that they can't text me. That was true until my newest phone. Now I do have texting capability but don't tell anyone because I despise the implied immediacy of it – that I am supposed to always read and respond on demand. So I don't.
Oh, one more thing: now and then I – ahem, this may be foreign concept to some - talk on the phone. I haven't had a landline for eight years.
There are no games on my phone and no information that could compromise my bank or other money-related accounts if it were lost or stolen.
As you can see, I have never got the knack of making my cell phone the center of my life particularly when I'm away from home. Aside from travel directions – public transit or driving - I think of it as an emergency device to call a tow truck if my car stops working.
In restaurants, I never lay my phone on the table and if it rings in my handbag when I am with others, I let it go to voice mail.
Now that I think about it, smartphones come with so damned much unnecessary stuff installed that maybe I am the only person who has discovered there is a simple record-and-retrieve function for calls and texts on every cell phone. Could it be?
Because when I've met someone for lunch or dinner who sets their phone on the table as they settle in, I am tempted to excuse myself and leave.
Sometimes they make a pre-emptive strike at apology by telling me they are expecting an important call; sometimes not. But always their eyes wander to the screen and they poke it now and then throughout our meal.
The people who do this are thereafter diminished in my estimation of them – even ones I like - which is only fair since they have already made it obvious that I take second place to anyone, anyone at all, on their telephone.
As you can see, I have not made the transition to 21st century manners and etiquette. I am not keeping up with the zeitgeist of the times and while I strongly believe we all have an obligation to adapt to and adopt innovations that are clear improvements for society (the cell phone and internet are obvious examples), I won't be bullied into behavior that discomforts me and my sensibilities.
Just because "everyone does it" - well, you know what mom said about that.
All the above is, of course, an old person's view and if some scorn me for being a relic of an earlier time, I prefer to think of myself in this instance as Penelope Lively described her 80-year-old self in her book Dancing Fish and Ammonites:
“...some observant time traveler, on the edge of things, bearing witness to the customs of another age.”
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Maureen Browning: Tapioca and Chocolate Pudding