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Perspectives

The Times Have Changed. Oh, My!

By Larry Miller

It has been a common phrase of mine to describe what life is like for me now. Often, I am heard to say: “I was born either thirty years too soon or thirty years too late.” Of course, at my age, which is eighty-two (at the time of this writing), I also am fond of explaining myself with a phrase which most of my contemporaries use: “I just can’t do what I used to do.” Now I might also add that “I just don’t understand it all.”

In the case of those phrases, the words give an adequate answer to not being able to hit the golf ball as far as I used to; or not doing much lawn work anymore-instead, trusting my son-in-law Paul to take care of it, for which I pay him, adequately, I hope; not staying awake much later than ten o’clock to watch any late shows on television which might be worthy of my attention-although I seriously doubt there are many shows “worthy of my attention.”

Anyway, I’m sure that you get the point, especially if you are near or past my age. But that first phrase from above, the one about being born too soon or too late, is what I would like to address, for it refers to a culture that I just cannot learn to live with comfortably, or happily: the culture of technology.

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What got my attention drawn to this subject was a flyer placed among numerous other flyers in the Sunday edition of the newspaper. Now, it doesn’t matter which newspaper I am referring to although, for the sake of the curiously curious, it is The Detroit News – because flyers seem to occupy much of the bulk of all the newspapers being circulated throughout America.

The point of it all is that, for the very first time, I decided to look through some of the flyers, maybe because I also have some kind of curious curiosity, like everyone else. Anyway, there it was, a multi-age ad for a store that deals in television sets and phones and laptops, and printers and computers and assorted other machines and inventions that stir the modern soul.

I stared at and studied some of the offerings in the ad, and something struck me so rudely that I wondered if l were the only one in the country who felt stupid, utterly, utterly stupid. For it dawned on me that not only did I not understand most of the products which were being touted, but I also realized that millions of younger people were rushing to get to the store in order to stand in long lines in order to buy into the glorious technology that was being offered, for a price, of course. Apparently, they understood just what all those things were.

I recalled seeing a momentous picture, in a not too long-ago edition of the news presented by both television and the written media. It was a picture of hundreds of persons, lined up in what must have been a trance-like state, to purchase the newest phone offered by a company that was only too willing to grab hard-earned cash in exchange for the opportunity to put to use the newest innovations that the makers promised were necessary to cope with the coming times. In other words, a person just could not possibly live without one.

What were these wondrous toys that I saw in the flyer? For that is precisely what I thought of them. Obviously, some of them were, indeed, toys, as they were advertised as “games.” But what exactly were the others, if they were not toys? The truth is, I really do not know. I not only don’t know what they are, but I also fail to understand just what functions they perform are. In fact, I’m not even sure that I can correctly pronounce their names.

Now, just how is it that I arrived at this stage in my life, I wondered? And it was then I spoke the immortal words, to my wife: “I was born either thirty years too soon, or thirty years too late.”

Sitting comfortably in her incliner, she asked me what I was talking about. Obviously, she noticed my agitation.

“It’s these new gadgets,” I replied with some rancor. “They’re making me feel stupid. I don’t have a clue about what they are.”

“I know,” she replied calmly. And returned to her weekly reading about classic homes, leaving me to my anger.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not entirely left out of the progress that is engulfing the world. I now own a cell phone which I find convenient to use when I am doing my grocery shopping – why I am the one doing the grocery shopping is a subject for another essay – for there have been times when I have needed to clarify what I am reading from her list of not-always-needed products. And I also realize that it is comforting to have a gadget that fits easily into one of my jacket pockets and which enables me to be able to keep in touch with our kids and grandkids.

But even that same cell phone can prove to be a nuisance, at times. I remember one day while playing the third hole of our local Elks Golf Course and looking over to see why there was a delay with our foursome. Wouldn’t you know it! One of my fellow-golfers was off to the other side of the fairway, his cell phone to his ear; he was obviously engaged in some important conversation, important enough for his voice to be loud enough for a few of the words to drift over to me in the summer air. Later, when I had the opportunity, I asked him what the emergency was. Of course, I knew that there had been no emergency since I had heard him laugh a couple of times.

“Oh, no emergency,” he quite blandly stated. “That was my brother-in-law. He’s playing in Marysville, and I wondered how he was doing. He’s having a terrible day.”

Wow! I thought with sarcasm (how is it possible to think with sarcasm?), how important that call must have been.

Even more ridiculous, it seems to me, was the time, about twelve years ago, when I was sitting in the bleachers at a local softball complex, watching my granddaughter play. Sitting next to me was my son and a mutual friend. From the drift of the conversation, which was clear to anyone within speaking distance, it was a conversation with his wife.

When he finished the conversation, my natural-born curiosity prompted me to ask him if it was his wife’s job that had kept her from attending the game that day; and thus, the necessity for the phone call.

“Oh, no. She’s here,” he said, pointing to his left. “She’s sitting in the lower bleachers.”

Sure enough, when I looked down, there she was, about thirty feet further down the third-base line. And she was still hanging onto her phone with one hand while waving up at us with her other hand.

I was somewhat dumbfounded but wise enough not to express my wonder at it all. In the olden days, I would have sat next to my wife and held true conversations which would have been meaningful. If they were not meaningful, then I would have politely suggested that we pay closer attention to the contest that we were supposedly there to watch.

It is a new world, this world of technology, one that many my age find to be annoyingly mysterious. It is a world where scientists still wonder about the true capacity of such technology and often are haunted by the results of such progress.

The writer Arthur Clarke made it all so frightening in his great book “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which a computer named HAL goes crazy and murders the crew of a spacecraft. And because of his book, many thinkers ponder whether computers actually have souls, so to speak. They are still arguing the matter. And Lord help us if we find out that they do have that ability.

The technical world is all around us, invading our lives in ways that most of us could not have fathomed. Many of us seniors can think back to the 1930s, to the visions of Chester Gould, the creator of the comic strip, “Dick Tracy.” Okay, so Dick Tracy did not have the superhuman strength of Superman, nor Superman’s ability to fly, nor the ability to see, with x-ray eyes, into buildings.

What Chester Gould the writer did have was science fiction knowhow, for he gave us a superhero with a wrist-radio and a wrist-TV, and eventually a wrist-computer. Of course, we took it all for what we thought was: merely science fiction. It was impossible for us to realize just how visionary it all was. For us then, it was all make-believe. But now it turns out that it wasn’t. It was real. And it is real. And it has taken over in such a way that we can no longer escape its clutches.

The fancy word is “ubiquitous.” Fancy, yes, but true. Of course, you all know what the word means: existing or seeming to exist everywhere. Indeed, it does exist everywhere. And, as I said before, we 1 can no longer escape from its clutches. Industry, military powers, commerce, utility systems-all depend on the vast powers of computer-science.

And it is all so very necessary. I recall that a short while ago a school system had to shut down for a day. Why? Their computer system had gone bonkers. Now, why couldn’t we have had the same thing happen when I was in the midst of a biology test back when I was in high school?

It is all so disconcerting.

A month or so ago, I saw, in a major magazine, a picture of a subway car in Japan, and in the picture were seventeen persons, each one seen sitting, or standing and holding onto a strap hanging from the ceiling of the car, and every single one of them held, with the other hand, a phone to his/her ear.

And I sadly recall the evening that my wife, Carol, and I were dining in a very nice Italian restaurant when a middle-aged couple was escorted to a nearby table. They looked to be fairly intelligent. And certainly, they did not look to be mentally disabled. Yet they no sooner took their seats when each one took out a cell phone, and thus began their dining experience. I don’t think either one of them put his/her cell phone away during the entire time they were seated. Instead, with great dexterity, they managed to shuffle their phones from ear to ear as they sampled the food that was presented to them.

Could they possibly have enjoyed their meals? Were they even aware of what it was that they were eating?

And what was horribly true about it all was that I do not remember either one of them actually speaking to the other. Their words were spoken into small machines that, if they did indeed have a soul, must have suffered through a horrible slew of vain and banal expressions.

And then, there are the truly horrid examples of car accidents that have taken the lives of mostly young people who happened to be texting while driving. And just as tragic is the pedestrians who seem not to be able to navigate their surroundings without a phone tucked into an ear and who have either walked into a light post or meandered into traffic or suffered some other horrible accident. Can any message to another person be of such importance?

And to make matters even worse, the wondrous world of technology has opened itself to the nefarious world of hackers, and scammers, and industrial thieves. The harm done by these evil people is capable of destroying civilization, if we don’t get a handle on it.

And they want me to do what? Entrust with them the capacity to do all my financial transactions? And just who is “them?”

My answer: No way!

Yet here I am, writing on a computer, and grateful to my daughter Heidi for introducing me to it many years ago. She had stopped over to see me at the time when I was engaged in writing my first book. She stood over me, for a few minutes, while I was using whiteout to cover one of the numerous mistakes I had made with my typewriter.

“Dad,” Heidi finally said, quite sternly, “you need to get a computer.”

“A computer?” I retorted, looking up at her. “What do I need a computer for?” I added, all the while rubbing hard with an eraser stub to rid the paper of another error. I had run out of whiteout.

“You need to get a computer,” she repeated. “You spend more time using whiteout than you do writing.”

“I’ll still make mistakes,” I replied.

“Yes, but you can get rid of the mistakes so easily. You won’t believe how much easier it is to write, and to rewrite when necessary.”

Well, after she described the conveniences of computers, the argument wore down, and I agreed, reluctantly, to accompany her the following weekend to one of the stores that sold the newest machines that she promised would make my life easier.

Obviously, it is not necessary to say that I bought a computer, and I have to admit that writing-well, correcting errors, really has become a lot easier. I do not need the whiteout anymore, and I ditched my two typewriters by placing them out by the curb, on trash day, where they were quickly picked up by the people of mercy who collect items that they apparently resell to those who have larger quantities of whiteout.

Meanwhile, I have to admit that my purchase of the computer was quickly followed by my being gifted, on Christmas two years ago, with a piece of technology that I had thought to be absolutely necessary: A GPS. A friend of mine had demonstrated his own GPS, which has been part of a parcel of his luxury car purchase. His demonstration revealed how easily he could navigate from my house to a restaurant two miles south of where I live. Okay, I admit I was amazed, even though I knew the route so well that I could have found the place even while driving in a heavy fog.

Regardless, I felt I had to own such a system, for there were a number of restaurants that sat outside my normal geographical area. And thus, it was that our children blessed us with one. And thus, it sits, in my wife’s van, waiting for its second use. But it is there, in case we really need to know how to get to such exotic places as Rick’s Diner, or the Bluehouse Tavern, or Harry’s Bar and Grease Joint.

Meanwhile lost forever is the wonderful option of stopping at the nearest gas station to ask for directions. I say wonderful because it was at such an establishment, an old-time station with 1945-era pumps, in the backcountry of South Carolina that I stopped at many, many years ago, looking for the road that I had somehow missed.

I had entered the station, which featured an old barrel-shaped stove, around which were three old chairs, one of them being a rocker. Each of the seats had an occupant: the oldest fellow, being around seventy-five or so, and a young lad about age fifteen occupying two fragile looking chairs, while the rocker held a rocking forty-year-old.

Not one of them had gotten out of his chair, for they had rightly judged that I was not there for gasoline since my car had been left several feet from the pumps.

I scratched my head-my wife later act of mine, which she said I always do when I am confused – while I admitted to the three men that I was lost.

“Lost?” the rocker asked, his jaw working over what I figured to be a plug of Carolina tobacco, his rocker moving steadily up and down. “Lost?” he repeated, again working his jaw. “Nope,” he finally drawled, you ain’t lost. You found me, didn’t you?”

I burst out laughing at that remarkable piece of information. But as remarkably insightful as that remark was, it was the next line that caused me to realize that wisdom is as much a part of the simplest soul as it is of the greatest philosopher from Harvard, for he continued: “Besides, there ain’t a single place that you can’t get to from here.

I chuckled at that and scratched my head, again. Talk about truth being expounded in such a simple manner! He was right! We can find our way to anyplace, from anywhere else, if we are wise enough to ask for directions.

And then he added another piece of advice, which I later discovered to be most helpful.

“You ain’t the only one who comes in here, looking for the road to Myrtle Beach,” he said, his head bent down a little but his eyes looking at me from under his brows. “You are looking for the Myrtle Beach road, ain’t you?”

And I admitted that I was.

“Well,” he began, the rocker still moving up and down, “you keep going down the same road you’ve been traveling and about a mile down the road you’re going to come to an intersection. All you have to do is turn right, and keep on that road, and you’ll run all the way to Myrtle Beach.”

Thanks,” I said, grateful to learn that it was as simple as what he had pointed out.

“By the way,” he said, and I caught a note of caution in his voice, “make sure you come to a complete stop at that intersection and do not speed, not one bit. 0l’ Deputy Charley likes to sit behind a billboard that’s tucked in the trees there, waiting for some Yankee to make his clay. He probably gives out more tickets at that intersection than at any other place in the county.”

“Thanks again,” I said.

Sure enough, when we got to the intersection, I came to a very complete stop, cautiously turned right, and proceeded as slowly as I possibly could without appearing to be crawling. And wouldn’t you know it, but there, in my rear-view mirror, I could see a sheriff’s vehicle, parked in a grove of trees, behind a billboard, and I breathed a sigh of thanks once again to the man in the station.

Obviously, it is true that a GPS might have made my stop at the gas station unnecessary, but certainly, it would not have helped me to disappoint one Deputy Chancy. And just maybe that piece of Southern wisdom is the reason why my GPS sits so forlornly in the front console of my wife’s van, still waiting to be used. It cannot, in any way, take the place of the meeting and talking with strangers, especially those who never seem to be lost.

Of course, everyone knows the joke about Moses, how it was that he could have gotten his people out of Egypt much faster if he had only stopped to ask for directions.

So, it is true that I have succumbed to some of this modem technology, especially with the computer that I am using to write all this. But it is also true that there have been occasions when I have done something wrong, or simply struck a wrong key on the keyboard, or have been dealt a blow by the invisible gods who rule the ether and have lost something which I had typed. Those times have been frustrating, and after I have tried desperately to locate what I had lost, the only salvation I have received has been because of the knowledge and capability of two of my granddaughters, who are both so willing to sacrifice their precious time in order to prevent my blood pressure from rising too high. God bless Jillian and Laura! They understand these machines much, much more than I ever will, and they patiently try to teach me how to make necessary corrections. Without whiteout.

They, of course, were not born too early or too late. They know much about modern technology. And they have been extremely patient with me. And never have they turned me down. Their benevolence has, I am sure, come to me at the expense of having their normal routines disrupted by a grandfather who can’t even identify some of the words and expressions that are attached to the new technology.

And, by the way, just where do all these new terms and words come from? I’m referring to bytes, and BluRay, and Skype, and streaming, and flash drive, and iPad, and Wi-Fi, and crystal technology, and…Please stop me! If I don’t know what the words mean, of what value are the gadgets to me? They are mysteries. I am perplexed. I am bewildered. I am hopeless.

An example of frustration is the night that I brought home a movie from a local store, only to discover that I could not play it on my television. I called the store, hoping to learn how I might save further aggravation. It was from the manager that I learned that I had apparently rented a Blue Tooth movie, which my machine was unable to handle. He promised that if I returned the movie, they would make the necessary correction, and send me home with something my disc player could actually play. It had only been a couple of months before when I had learned how to use my disc player, and now, I discover, not all disc players are equal.

I will admit that not only were they helpful at the store, explaining to me about the Blue Tooth, but they were also apologetic. They even offered me an extra movie as an atonement for their error, although I quickly replied that the blame was all mine. It was my ignorance that caused all the inconvenience.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am thankful for modern technology, at least for those instruments that I can understand. My computer is, indeed, a time-saver, as well as a cure for some frustrations that used to crop up every once in a while, and it is true that I find that I can write all this much more quickly, and make corrections more easily than I used to be able to.

Certainly, I would not like to go back to the nineteenth century and have to pen my thoughts in a really old-fashioned way. I remember, while on a visit west, visiting the tiny, quaint village, Florida, Missouri, the birthplace of Mark Twain. And there, inside an equally quaint museum building, under a heavy piece of tempered glass, was the original copy of Twain’s immortal “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” which he had written in pen and ink. How cumbersome it must have been for him, using ink wells, and quills for pens, although he did not have the modem age to compare it all to, and thus he had accepted the times for what they were.

And there even exists a photo of Twain lying in bed, his pen and ink at hand, along with the latest pieces of literature that he was about to gladden the world with. And he did not look unhappy. One wonders how much more his imagination could have produced if only he had been able to use a computer. Alas!

So, I will not complain, but will happily continue to write, or type, or whatever you want to call it, using this most modem and perhaps most useful of advanced technology.

And as for the other gadgets? Surely, I will not complain when I get a text message from a grandchild, along with new photos that they send to me, showing the progress of my great-grandchildren. The photos and messages keep me in touch with those precious beings who live in Colorado and Los Angeles and Tennessee. And for those experiences, I will gladly surrender to the thirty lost years. Now, if only someone could explain what all those other gadgets are, the gadgets that are described in all those flyers.

What are they for? And is it true, as the ads seem to imply, that I can’t live a full life without them?

I think I will leave them to my grandchildren and their generation. Meanwhile, as I said earlier, I have given in, a little. But only a little.

###

Larry Miller was born and raised in Port Huron. Author of two novels loosely set in Port Huron: “When Life Was Good, Sometimes,” and “Haunted Youth.” Larry and wife Carol have three children, seven grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. Larry is a graduate of Central Michigan University. He taught English and American Literature at Port Huron Northern High School.

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