all of the selves we Have ever been
Grease on Earth
Short of breath from the summer’s
lung-searing heat, I collapsed in my car after a short walk across the parking lot. I heard the flesh on my palms sizzle as I grabbed the steering wheel. Cranking up the air conditioning, I got on my way just as the radio announced it was time for the news. The local stories included an update on record-setting gun violence with multiple homicides, police shootings, politicians defying orders of the State Supreme Court, the Governor’s decision to arm teachers in public schools, teenage car thieves as young as 12, and two men cheating in order to win a fishing contest!
“Siri, am I in Hell?”
“It’s all a mystery to me.”
“Thanks a lot, Siri.”
I was on my own.
I changed radio stations, and then I changed lanes. Just off the busy interstate highway tucked between a rundown gym and a new gas station, I spotted heaven, a single-story building where the air is free. For the uninformed, heaven has many doors. You are in luck no matter which door you choose. You will come out feeling better and more grateful than when you went in assured that your car and your mind will make it a few thousand miles more.
When I was learning to drive, neighborhood gas stations still existed. These were places with tiny, dingy, cluttered offices piled high with grease-stained stacks of papers. Adjacent to the office was a single bay for repairing cars. An attendant came out to pump your gas, clean your windshield, and check the oil. Teenage boys helped out in the summers, but it was mostly the owner doing everything. Jack ran the Boron station in my neck of the woods. It was across the street from the grocery store. Jack was the neighborhood car daddy to anxious teens learning to drive. He solved some problems for a few of the overly-confident new drivers as well, and sometimes their parents were none the wiser.
I did get a driver’s license as a teen, but after years of driving, things changed--drivers were on their own to pump gas, diagnose their cars’ troubles, and find help in an emergency. This caused a rise in vehicular neurosis, that constant nagging fear that something will go wrong with your car at the most inopportune time and place. By the time I was a professional making home visits for a living, my own vehicular neurosis was at its peak. That’s when I discovered this heaven. Thankfully, said discovery was made just before the tire pressure light became standard.
This new heaven is a place where people fix cars and offer life support to keep them running. That alone makes these people gods in my book. In this heaven, there is actual customer service where you can speak to a live person, get answers, understand your bill, and make an appointment that is convenient. The main act here is honesty combined with courtesy toward their many new and lifetime customers. It was in this heaven that I received an extra measure of grace: the manager and assistant manager, Steve and Jim, became car daddies to my teenage daughter as she learned to drive. How blessed can a single mom be?
A far cry from the old neighborhood garage of my youth, this heaven has multiple bays. When one of the doors opens, my eyes are blinded by the well-lit, pristine shop that could substitute for a surgical suite at the Mayo Clinic. The people inside wear clean uniforms and manipulate the many high-tech instruments that now diagnose the functioning of our automobiles. Enter through the front of the building, and you will find a spacious, well-lit waiting area where travel experts are on standby to help you plan your next vacation.
Interested? Don’t ask Siri. Artificial intelligence is missing wonder, heart, and conscience, all necessary for an understanding of heaven and hell. But do Google AAA Car Care Plus Grandview. You can get there on your own, or they can send an angel to tow you in.
In the meantime, remember to change your oil. For that heavenly peace of mind, you must grease on earth.
Going to the Dogs
UYW (Use Your Words)
I am convinced that AI
is the next life form.
Technology is getting out of control as we willingly turn over our human superpowers to machines. The faculties that placed human beings at the top of the food chain are slowly disappearing, abilities such as reasoning, calculating, problem solving, planning, and decision making. As our primal brains take control over our rational minds, language is disappearing as well. With all of the acronyms and abbreviations, we soon will be grunting like Neanderthals.
Apparently, telephones are no longer for conversation. I am meeting more parents who tell me that their school-age children do not like to talk on the phone because talking makes children anxious. They prefer all communication to be via text messaging.
With rapid, acronym-filled text messages, we are at the end of substantive communication. Deep meaning is to be found in expressions such as WTF, CWOT, EM?, IDK, IDC, and SEP.
I grew up in a world of “use your words,” and I’m still trying to get straight with POTUS, FLOTUS, and SCOTUS. But it’s a DIY world, and I will have to learn this new language on my own. What frightens me is the room for error and misunderstanding. For example, if you text your boss LOL will that be assumed to be laughing out loud or lots of love? B3 can be a vitamin, an electric guitar, or a rock band. B3 can also stand for blah, blah, blah. Was my nurse practitioner ordering me a vitamin, inviting me to a rock concert, or giving me the brush off?
Acronym-illiterate as I am, I am grateful my own children are grown because there is an entire shorthand vocabulary devoted to KPC (or keeping parents clueless). It includes P911, PAL, PAW, PIR, and POS. If you have children and have no idea what all of this means, then your children will be ROTFL at what they’ve just pulled off.
And as someone who is old-fashioned and still strives to be on time, I am forced to wrestle with both my covered wagon and the many acronyms for time including: 2moro, 2nte, AEAP, ALAP, ASAP, B4YKI, BRB, BRT, CUS, CYT, EOD, L8R, N-A-Y-L, OMW, RN, and EOBD. I never thought I’d say this, but thank God for stay-at-home orders. I am glad there is no place to go because I have no idea what time I should be there.
There is another vocabulary for our closer relationships, if texting can be considered intimate communication. There is BFF, a title for someone closer than an FOAF, and there are greetings and closings such as HAK, ILU or ILY, IMU, and KFY. Somehow I just can’t feel the love in ILU. But maybe a cute, dancing emoji will fill the bill. Nothing says I love you like a grunt and a cave drawing.
RU following me on all of this? JC. NTIM.
The more I struggle with this new vocabulary, the more anxious I become. I guess those talk-averse children have a point. It is a scary world when you don’t understand the language.
SITD but CUL8R.
So Many Ways to Be Ignored
My phone rang three times
this morning before I could get to it.
It was a surprise. I am accustomed to receiving text messages throughout the day, but the phone does not ring often any more.
As I ran for the phone, I was reminded of my youth. When the phone rang, it generated excitement. Everyone in the household dashed toward the landline wanting to be the one to answer. If the caller was a relative or someone known to everyone in the family, the receiver was passed around until each person had a turn to talk. On the phone or in person, parents trying to civilize a child would never tolerate offspring who did not courteously respond when spoken to. And much of the time, children were expected to hold onto their thoughts and just listen.
Now people show up at state capitols with assault weapons.
They gather in the streets.
Burn down buildings.
Take over police headquarters.
Bury people with tweets.
Is this what it now takes to be heard?
How do I ignore thee? Let me count the ways.
First, there are in-person encounters. I would say face-to-face except people don’t look at one another any longer. They are busy staring into their phones and scrolling with their fingers, giving an occasional “uh-huh,” as you speak. Folks gather in the lunch room, at a meeting, or around a dinner table with others and occupy themselves with their phones. They might even laugh and talk out loud to no one in particular as they read quips from their screens.
Then there is the old-fashioned letter. What a surprise to get paper mail! But how likely is a person to receive a letter anymore? And what is the likelihood someone would answer if you took the time to write? A person has better odds of discovering cave drawings than getting a letter in reply.
Email was great at the start. Fast. Efficient. An exciting new technology. Now? Forget about it. People are entombed in email. If you get an answer, it might take weeks. More often, there is no answer. Ever. Recently, someone I know shared frustration that an important colleague had 200 unopened emails! Ouch! And is that just the tip of the cold shoulder? Probably. I called a business associate one day to follow-up on an email. As I waited on the line for him to search his inbox, he told me that he receives approximately 300 emails a day. I would be on life support by the end of a week if I tried to thoughtfully answer that many emails.
And don’t think you can sneak up on someone with feigned urgency by calling them. Folks rarely answer their phones unless they want to chew out or humiliate a telesales person. “Let it go to voicemail” is the company song. We all know that voicemail is hopeless. Too much effort. You have to dial your voicemail box, listen, maybe jot down a number or a piece of information, and dial back. A person would need a boost from a bottle of Ensure to support all that effort. And who keeps Ensure on hand?
Your best hope might be a text message, but don’t look for deep or thoughtful communication. Short messages might appear curt. Acronyms can lead to confusion. Suddenly, someone stops speaking to you because a typo lead to a new acronym that unintentionally insulted the receiver…The alphabet was once something decipherable by preschoolers, now you need an interpreter. Does that statement deserve an OMG? A WTF? IDK. And I give up.
And then there is the interplanetary universe of customer service. Phone menus. Holds. Chats with AI. Scripted responses. Little that is helpful. Much that is infuriating. What is the actual goal of customer service? Drive up the sale of psychotropic medications and mood stabilizers?
There is a lot of discontent brewing among the ignored and dismissed.
It is a sad day when it is easier to storm the capitol than it is to get a return phone call.
Hungry for People
I am trying to establish a daily routine,
stick to a plan.
My mind does not want to cooperate. It may have gone AWOL.
My normally busy, creative brain is at a standstill. Usually full of questions and ideas, my head is now as empty as a jack-o-lantern.
I open a window to the outside world and enjoy the incoming breeze. I order my mind to give me some sign of life
My thoughts drift to a man I once met, a Holocaust survivor. He was a small boy about the age of five when the Nazis overtook his country. He witnessed so many horrors. His youth was spent surviving, surviving the terror as family members were shot and raped in front of him. He survived the ghettos and a youth spent on the run and in hiding. Fear and starvation were his constant companions.
By the time the war was over, the boy was a teenager. As he waited in a new kind of camp to be re-settled, the boy liked to wander the streets of town looking in windows. He enjoyed watching people work and shopkeepers waiting on customers. He relished the sights of families gathering for meals, or groups of heads bowed in prayer, men reading newspapers, and mothers embracing their children.
You would think a youngster who had witnessed so much horror would have lost his innocence along with his youth, but this man retained a sweet, childlike craving. He told me that when the war ended, he was left “so hungry for people.” He looked into the windows as a student of life, trying to understand how people were meant to live. What he saw filled him with hope and joy and determination.
I think of this man often. He and his stories give me courage, hope and perspective. As I think of him today, I realize that my head is not empty, but that I, too, am hungry for people. While my situation in no way compares to what this man went through in war, the current isolation leaves me with a yearning for others and the shared way in which we once lived.
Technology has been a godsend during this pandemic, but smartphones, tablets, and computers are not enough. The current that runs through our devices pales to the surge of electricity that runs through us when we pray aloud together, share a big meal, or do productive work side-by-side. Facetime with the grandchildren is a technological miracle, but it is no substitute for cuddling them in our arms. The feeling of delight and anticipation when preparing Sunday dinner for a gathering family cannot be compared to even the most delicious take-out order. The infusion of learning, the lights that come on inside us when we stand beside a talented colleague and watch them work is far more exhilarating than a YouTube video.
Man was not meant to live alone. When the Creator saw that man was lonely, He gave him a partner. Together the man and his partner created the family of man. When we are together, we share the warmth of the divine spark that it is in each of us. That is a heat that cannot be reproduced by technology.
Right now I feel like the world is in a universal time-out. Perhaps we all have been sent to our rooms to think about what we have done. We have orders not to come out until we learn how to get along. In many sectors, it seems to be working. I plead to be let out. I promise to behave, to do better, and besides, I’m starving.
My head is not empty. It is hungry. Hungry for people.
Alexa, Where is my Head?
When I was growing up,
adults often instructed children, “Use your head!” They implored us to think about our plans and our actions, to explain ourselves.
Sometimes they asked us, “Where was your head?” That version was more likely when things went wrong, and we were forced to explain our faulty logic or the lack of forethought that resulted in a bad decision.
I always knew that my head was on my shoulders even when I failed to use it. Children today might have to search their pockets or backpacks for their smartphones or tablets. What do parents say today to encourage thinking, planning, and personal responsibility, “Did you Google that?” “Did you run that by Alexa?” Somehow, that just doesn’t seem as weighty.
Before digital technology, we had to memorize information, calculate, and find our way without GPS. I can still remember my home phone number from when I was eight years old, but I no longer know the phone number of a single friend because those numbers are all on my phone’s contact list. Should I be concerned about that?
I do appreciate the convenience of mobile phones and the sense of safety they provide, but I am surprised by how much people enjoy using their phones and how little pleasure they seem to derive from using their heads. I enjoy puzzles and trivia games, anticipating the end of book or a movie, planning a trip using a map, measuring and adapting proportions in a recipe, solving problems. The mental exercise feels good! To draw from the pleasure of physical exercise and the runner’s high, I experience a thinker’s high. And so, the entire situation puzzles me…
A friend of mine who is a middle school librarian bemoaned the day students came to the library complaining they couldn’t find any information on the internet for an assignment that was due. The librarian checked the assignment on file. “You won’t find that information on the internet,” she told them. “The assignment is asking for your opinion.” You know the world has experienced a seismic shift when adolescents have no opinions of their own.
More recently, I was in line at an office supply store. The cashier closed her drawer too quickly. When it was re-opened, she had to mentally calculate the change I was owed. The young woman became flustered. She pulled out her smartphone and tapped about on the screen. She quickly gave up on that and turned to the next cashier and asked for assistance. Together the two could not come to an answer.
I offered to show them how to count back change like we did in the olden days before the register did all of the calculations for you. “You’re going to teach me how to do it?!” The cashier was incredulous. For a moment, I thought she was being grateful, but where was my head? The cashier refused my offer stating that she had no intention of learning “THAT.” A manager was called to complete the transaction.
Now I was incredulous. Why wouldn’t you want to know something that would help you in life and work, something that would let you know when an error was made or when someone is trying to cheat you? Why wouldn’t a person want the joy of feeling capable, competent, and masterful? Of knowing she would never be in that embarrassing situation again? Another puzzle…
Ironically, we tend to place value on remembering only when we begin to forget. As we age, we fear that dementia will silently creep up on us stealing our storehouse of knowledge and memories. I wanted to say to that young cashier, “You’ll regret that decision,” something else our parents used to say, but maybe she won’t. Maybe artificial intelligence will completely replace human intelligence with Alexa becoming the primary decision maker for all of us.
I wish an expert would come up with a phone-to-mind ratio—a magic number that would reveal the exact amount of brain work that can be done safely by our devices and the amount of thinking we must do for ourselves in order to protect our mental powers.
Hmm. Maybe the math has been done.
I think I will Google that.