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The Irony of It All

by Darryl Spencer

September 6,2007

Eating lunch in a Huntersville restaurant I observe, by a sunny window, a father having lunch with his well-behaved, neatly-dressed son, perhaps eight. Before they get menus or water, Dad is on his cell phone. He doesn’t stop talking during the hour we’re there. The boy plays with his food, sighs, looks out the window, looks around the restaurant — looks everywhere for some attention.

On a busy South Mecklenburg street, during a pleasant summer evening, a youngish woman in a Beemer convertible, top down, talks and gesticulates broadly, but to whom? There’s no passenger. Perhaps a small child, a dog? I pull up beside her: no one. Oh. She’s on a headset phone. The light changes and she drives off, still wildly waving her arms to emphasize what? —to whom? —sometimes with both hands off the wheel.

Walking my dog early in the morning I approach a school-bus-waiting group of children with a mother. She’s ignoring them, talking on a phone. Checking on a late bus? No — she says “Hi” to us as we pass.

A neighbor walks his dog, but we couldn’t walk ours together: he’s not exercising his, or even walking or strolling: he dawdles, pauses, meanders…while reading a newspaper. When I first encountered him I thought he was deaf, or very rude: he never returned my greetings. One day I shout at him, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” He removes an earpiece to say, “What?” Is it worse to ignore a dog left alone all day or a kid you take to lunch?

A friend or two — most know better — will call me while driving home, only because…they’re alone in a car. If Caller ID shows they’re on cell phones, I quickly excuse myself with “Sorry, I won’t contribute to accidents by making you talk while driving.” I have a yellow bumper sticker: HANG UP AND DRIVE!

Our students wait for elevators — on their phones; amble into the elevators, intrude on our pre-class thoughts, shuffle distractedly, talking all the while. A colleague says, “Our students are going crazy — walking the halls talking to themselves!” She isn’t convinced when I say they have invisible phones.

Am I “technologically challenged?” No, but a bit technologically averse: (1) My solo meals are leisurely by design. I watch people or read. (2) I didn’t watch TV 1960-77. (3) I don’t like to use earphones. (4) I love music in my car—on its marvelous Bose system. (5) Isn’t driving with earphones illegal? (6) I bought an iPod 3 years ago to take all my music everywhere but never learned to program it. (7) I was hit by a speeding SUV early on in Charlotte; I believe the driver and passenger were on phones — they were already on them when they emerged from the behemoth. (8) I have a cell phone that never leaves my car. I don’t know its number without looking it up. (9) I lived—happily—for many years in a Middle-Eastern country where human intercourse was valued above all else. (10) I will walk away in 30 seconds if a salesperson is on a cell phone.

What’s wrong with thinking, observing, contemplating, listening, “people-watching” and - listening while outdoors? Who says “multi-tasking” is necessary?

Can anything be done? NC passed a law forbidding only teenagers from talking while driving except in certain instances. Observe drivers who pass you at a light and see how many are on phones. Are you among them? Ultimately, my concern isn’t the legality or safety of these practices, even the rudeness, but what they say about us as a society: that we no longer feel it necessary, even comfortable, to talk to each other. That we must be entertained — always, everywhere. That we aren’t comfortable with ourselves — enough to walk a pet without entertainment, to drive without distractions, to be in public without hearing something besides what’s around us. This is not the world I love, nor can comfortably share.

While abroad, during a lengthy recovery from an illness that left me wanting to be quiet and alone, I thought: Heaven will be floating in the Ether, listening forever to music. Choices? Unnecessary, when eternity’s before me: Mozart or the Moody Blues, Gershwin or Granados — I’ll get to them all, eventually.

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