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A modern life in airplane mode


Last updated 7/3/2019 at Noon

A quarter of my life has passed without my father being around to hear about it. I used to enjoy calling him on Saturday nights, catching him up and just chatting about whatever, and for months after his death in 2003, I’d sometimes find myself reaching for the phone.

It’s an eerie sensation, muscle memory, twitches of routine that result in a dead end. I’d go so far as to hold the phone in my hand, staring, knowing I was supposed to do something but suddenly unsure of what, until I realized. I was about to call Dad.

It was nearing the end of an era, anyway. Within a few years, our landline would be history and we’d all own phones that we never talked on. Conversations with friends and family became fewer, and I approve of fewer phone conversations in general.

In terms of disseminating information, it’s much easier to discuss things face-to-face, or else send written messages. There are people who resist this, I know, and they’re easy to spot: They’re either older Americans, or they’re just people who appear to have been born with their mouths open.

Some people seem to really like talking on the phone. If you don’t know someone like this, then it’s probably you. It’s not me, that’s all.

On the other hand, a long phone conversation with an old friend can be a pleasure, and this is something my dad relished in the years before he passed away. This was before the social media we all now know and love, but email and the internet in general had made hooking up much easier.

I’ve been carrying on the family tradition lately, trying to drum up a reunion of old friends from way back when. Virtually all of this has been done online, for over a year, and tickets have now been purchased and reservations made.

We’re less than a month away, and there was just one person left to firm up. I had to make a phone call.

I don’t have a phobia about talking on the phone, if that’s what you’re thinking this is about. It’s not. I think I’m pretty unexceptional in that regard.

It’s my friend, the one I had to call, who’s exceptional. I shall explain.

I’ve known him forever. We met in college, when he was a big goofball, a tall, skinny, awkward kid with a theatrical flair he didn’t know what to do with. He eventually figured it out, we became friends, and he stood as my best man when I got married.

He was always an actor, and after graduate school he returned to his hometown and became a rarity, a working performer in a popular dinner theater, a mainstay in his community’s theatrical landscape, and he’s been doing that for decades. He’s now 60, and most of his adult life has been spent on stages, entertaining audiences.

You know what he hasn’t been doing?

He hasn’t been using a computer. By the time some electronic familiarity was required for everyone from short-order cooks to CEOs, he had one of the few jobs where it wasn’t. So he didn’t.

He didn’t use one, he didn’t own one, he didn’t want one.

But we’re not just talking about a box on a desk. We’re talking about aspects of our culture that he apparently only has a vague awareness of. We’re talking about Netflix, Amazon, Google. This is about YouTube and Wikipedia and Facebook. This is a man who has literally never played a game of computer solitaire.

And the cats. I wouldn’t know how to explain the internet cats to him. I can’t even.

There’s more, though. My buddy uses primarily cash, those dirty, green pieces of paper that we see in old movies. He writes checks and pays his bills via the mail.

I don’t know if he travels in a covered wagon and wears a lot of animal skins; seriously, anything is possible.

The worst part, though? I don’t know how to say this in a family newspaper. Younger readers might want to stop now.

He doesn’t have a cellphone.

Not even a dumb one. This is a grown man who, once he leaves home, is impossible to reach. He is impervious to text messages, tweets, ring tones, friend requests, GPS directions, selfies, spam, swiping, or streaming anything. He might as well be Davy Crockett.

Or, you know. My mother-in-law, who’s 93 and in pretty much the same situation.

But he’s only 60, and it’s just the combination of life choices and personal preference that placed him here, in 2019, with a lifestyle that hasn’t really changed since I first met him. I think he probably eats more sugar, because we all do, but otherwise? The same.

The people I’ve told this story to find it kind of admirable. I do, too. It’s not a personal philosophy for him; he just resisted change because he didn’t see the point. I see lots of points, but also the pitfalls.

I’d like to be more untethered. I’d like to get lost once in a while, to be unreachable, to be out of range of cute cats and news alerts.

I won’t be able to, but I can still admire the thought, and look forward to seeing my friend in a few weeks. Assuming I can find him.

I might have to write a letter or something.


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