Is anybody there?

Scenes from a very modern 18-hour visit between friends:

The kitchen table is strewn with sections from two newspapers, three laptops (one of them the kind with widdle bunny ears), an iPhone, two venti Starbucks cups, my Flip video camera, two Gorillapods and, I dunno, maybe a salt and pepper shaker. “Sometimes I’m reading a paperback, and I try to flick the page with my finger,” says Sam. Not the way you flick a mosquito off the page. The iPhone flick. “Did you see these e-mails from Leslie?” she asks John, looking up from the iPhone. “Already answered,” he replies, not looking up from the laptop.

This is how we interact these days. John shoots a little video of Sam reading the e-mail and shows it to me, because I was sitting next to her when she did so, and I guess I might like to see it from another angle. Sam takes a picture of our stained-glass panel for her iPhone wallpaper. Then she takes a picture of the dog. Then we all realize what we’re doing, and go for a walk.

“Put on hats, it’s cold outside!” a passerby scolds us. Apparently the multiple weather widgets installed on every single electronic device on the kitchen table failed to warn us that it was 30 degrees. So we stop at Starbucks for more venti cups and a warmup. I tie Spriggy’s leash to a post outside. Sam takes a picture of him through the window. Good. He hasn’t had his picture taken in five or 10 minutes, and two or three soft-hearted ladies have petted him on their way in. No wonder his self-esteem is so toweringly high.

We need something, we decide. Maybe…a bottle of wine and a bunch of snacks. Also, a two-pound salmon filet and something from the deli called “Michigan black bean salad.” Cucumber, dill, Greek yogurt, a baguette, and we’re good to go.

Does the iPhone ring during dinner? Of course it does. I wait for John to say, “I’ll call you back after we finish eating,” but he doesn’t, because it’s a semi-emergency, the call is coming from Sam’s brother, stuck in an airplane on a runway at Hartsfield in Atlanta for going on three hours, and he wants to alert the media. Does John have a number at CNN? he wants to know. “How strange that you’re in Atlanta, where we live, but we’re in Detroit, but anyway you’re in the plane and can’t get out,” John says, before giving him the number. I kept waiting for him to check the weather, like the guy in the commercial, who used his iPhone to liberate a similarly imprisoned flight. It wouldn’t do any good, because the reason the flight is sitting on the ground is terrible weather in Atlanta. It’s snowing there, which we learned from an earlier phone call from John’s brother, who also lives there.

I wonder where this salmon came from, I thought. I hope not China.

Anyway, the dinner was delicious. We watched Jon Stewart dismember Jonah Goldberg, put all the devices to sleep and/or charge, and went to bed ourselves.*

This morning I read, not online, a NYT review of a book called “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.” It begins:

In “Against the Machine,” the swaggeringly abrasive cultural critic Lee Siegel pays a visit to Starbucks. He sits down. He looks around. And he finds himself surrounded by Internet zombies, laptop-addicted creatures who have so grievously lost their capacity for human interaction “that social space has been contracted into isolated points of wanting, all locked into separate phases of inwardness.” How long until they wake up and smell the coffee?

Mr. Siegel’s field trip illustrates several things, not least that Starbucks is today’s most hackneyed reportorial setting. His outing captures a vision of connectivity that is the precise opposite of what it appears to be. For him the semblance of a shared Starbucks experience masks endemic computer-generated isolation, a condition that has prompted psychic and ethical breakdowns that go well beyond the collapse of community.

He should have come for dinner last night. The salmon could have fed another easily, and maybe he would have had some suggestions for Sam’s brother to call. Then she would have taken his picture.


Does Lee Siegel read Bossy? I’d like to hear what the swaggeringly abrasive cultural critic (can I get that job? Because I’ve got the skilz) has to say about her brand of humor writing, which combines the elements of photography, colored type, italics, strikethroughs and Photoshop-with-arrows to tell a story about her slippers which makes you glad you spent 45 seconds hearing about. Why can amateurs figure out the unique syntax of the web, and college-educated professional journalists can’t? Put that in your venti Starbucks cup and drink it, Lee Siegel.

Whenever I see a picture like the one with this story, I remember the federal judge in Columbus, Ohio, who ejected a female lawyer from his courtroom in the 1970s for the crime of wearing a pantsuit. The old geezer’s dead now, but I wonder what he’d think of a 75-year-old lawyer with his gray hair tucked into a neat braid at the back of his head. Note that he got charges dismissed against his client, who was a candidate for tar and feathers last year, when she was accused of hanging up on a boy who called 911. Well-played, sir. A little Googling reveals the same lawyer was instrumental in reviving the career of Andy Bey, which earns him a place in jazz heaven, no matter how long his ponytail is.

You know how you know you’re really, really old? When you see a gossip item that begins like this —

Bye-bye, Justin Bobby! Audrina Patridge has a new beau.

— and you not only have no idea who the people are, you don’t even have the slightest itty-bittiest ghost of a hint of a desire to know who they are, and what’s more, you know that even if you bothered to find out, in the name of keeping up with what the kids are into these days, you know that both people will be over by the time you can Google the names. You just have a sixth sense about these things.

* Some events reported out of order, but all events actually happened.

Posted at 12:03 pm in Current events, Popculch, Same ol' same ol' |

19 responses to “Is anybody there?”

  1. Sue said on January 17, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    I saw the Lee Siegel Starbucks thing on a Salon review of his book yesterday. After reading the article, the only obvious conclusion would be that when Lee enters a Starbucks (or anywhere, perhaps), every person in the room begins to studiously do something else. Did the silly man not think that maybe he was being avoided? And I owe you forever for directing me to Bossy a few months back. If it only takes you 45 seconds to read a Bossy story, you are missing the wonderful phase II: the comments section. Nancy, Bossy and Puntabulous and their accompanying peanut galleries are my must-reads every day.

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  2. beb said on January 17, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    I thought the Internets today would be all over Jon Stewart’s interview with Jonah Goldberg because it was hilariously incoherent and frequently contradictory. But all the usualy sources have been mum.

    I still get a chuckle when I remember the scene from “Clueless” where Cher is walking down the hallway talking on her cell phone to her best friend only tp have her friend pull out of another classroom, fall in step with Cher, and continues talking to her on her cellphone. It was such a statement on the new world order of electronic connectedness. And where did I read or see on TV) a mom IMings her family that supper is ready, because they’re all off doing their own thing on different computers. Actually talking to people is becoming something of a lost art.

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  3. nancy said on January 17, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    Beb, I haven’t been looking around, but Alicublog has a little corner of that story covered.

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  4. 4dbirds said on January 17, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I seem to remember a news item in the 80s or early 90s where a judge refused to hear a case from a lawyer because she was wearing red high heeled shoes and only harlots wore red shoes.

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  5. michaelj said on January 17, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    Years ago, there was a guy that practiced a particularly flamboyant, and wildly successful, style of criminal defense in Georgia. He was the guy you got if you were caught standing over the body with a smoking over-under. He also had impeccably clean and conditioned hair that literally reached the small of his back. My brother was in the courtroom with a client waiting for her case to be called, an elderly black woman accused of bootlegging, which at that time in GA meant she supplemented Social Security by selling half-pints of Ancient Age on Sundays to her neighbors. When the big-time mouthpiece approached the bench, she said, in awestruck stage whisper: “I di’n’t know they was lawyers looked just like Jesus.” General hilarity ensued, although the judge was not amused and my brother’s client was mystified at the uproar.

    This sartorial showdown may end up producing new case law. Personally, I think wearing an ascot is a crime of aggravated pomposity and offense against the sensibilities of humanity. Unless it’s just intended to piss off an insufferable prig of a judge, in which case I applaud the ingenious affront.

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  6. virgotex said on January 17, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    What rock have I been living under that I’ve never seen a Gorillapod?

    Want one now. Must have, possibly before the end of the day.

    Wonder what Siegel would say about an online friendship between myself and two other women, one roughly my age and the other, more than 20 years younger than us. From three different places hundreds of miles away, we’ve carried on one long conversation for six years now, about all manner of things, and we are very much family, even though we’ve never met in the flesh. When my life went off the rails a few years back, it was these two people that were my daily lifeline.

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  7. Kim said on January 17, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    I struggle with this connectedness business. Seems we are more able than ever to contact others, anywhere, but that personal relationships have suffered. I worry most when I see my eldest hanging out with friends and some are texting friends in another room. Probably because they can – doesn’t seem to affect their tightness as a group. It’s still weird.

    Sometimes, though, it’s just swell — like the post just ahead says, or in virtual places like this one. Props to NN for knowing how to do it, then doing it.

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  8. kayak woman said on January 17, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    hello Sam, connecting through the blogosphere. Thanks nn.c for the connection 🙂

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  9. del said on January 17, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    The pony-tailed attorney in Detroit News article, Cornelius Pitts, was named by a national legal publication as one of the 50 or 100 best attorneys in America some years ago. I remember him using a photocopier in a law library some years ago. It made an impression on me that he was actually doing his own legal research; something prominent civil law attorneys would delegate to junior attorneys.

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  10. Jen said on January 18, 2008 at 7:07 am

    My friends and I sometimes text or instant message people in the same room or the next room, but that’s mainly because it’s stupidly funny, not because we actually communicate that way. I think that technology has changed the way we communicate, but I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing. I like being able to very easily and quickly keep in touch with my friends from college, most of whom are still in college or living in the Big City. I know I could call them or write a letter, but both are more time-consuming than just shooting off a quick email, so I end up communicating with them more. Plus, with Facebook I’ve been able to keep tabs on people I knew in high school, which I like because I’m nosy. I’d still much rather sit down and talk to someone in person, though.

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  11. john c said on January 18, 2008 at 8:38 am

    When I went away to college in 1980, I left behind a girlfriend a year younger than me and still in high school. We had been dating more or less for two years. But because we went to different schools (no girls allowed in mine, no boys in hers) we should probably only get credit for about six months. Anyway, I remember slogging all the way across campus in the chilly Boston autumn, shuffling down the stairs at McElroy and ducking into the post office to check my mailbox for a – let me see if I’m remembering the technical term we used back then – letter. We both wrote some pretty tortured ones, I’m sure. The truth of the matter, though, is that we both figured out pretty quickly that we were having lots of fun on our own. Neither of us had the guts to come out and say it. And we only talked in letters, or by phone maybe once a week. She was the one who dumped me, in the end. My point, I suppose, is that the feeling of separation we experienced does not exist anymore. Nowadays we would have been talking on the phone several times a day, and texting and e-mailing several more times a day. Different times. Somethings are better and some things are worse. But it’s different, to be sure.

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  12. MichaelG said on January 18, 2008 at 9:19 am

    I need to talk to my Ex about taxes. It’s a strange thing working up the courage to call a woman with whom I lived for almost 30 years.

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  13. Connie said on January 18, 2008 at 9:23 am

    Public libraries in this country are being overwhelmed by demand for internet access. My favorite are the grandmothers who ask for help setting up an email account so they can keep in touch with a grandkid at college. My pet peeve is younger people using the computers to “chat” with the person using the computer next to them.

    My college kid leaves for Paris tomorrow. It isn’t fair.

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  14. brian stouder said on January 18, 2008 at 9:50 am

    Connie – you came up in a bit of pillow talk(!) between my lovely wife and I last night.

    She told me about a story she had just seen on the news, about a fellow complaining to the Allen County Public Library about an NR rated movie he borrowed – which was (allegedly) pornographic. What struck Pam, though, was that the ACPL has Hustler and Penthouse and other type periodicals in the collection, and they’ll lend them out! (you have to leave your license with them, though)

    Seriously – I would think that that raises a bio-hazard issue, on the one hand (so to speak); and indeed – a procurement question, on the other. It isn’t “censorship” to say “We aren’t adding this periodical to our collection”….we wondered what rationale the library would have for procuring such a publication, and what sort of publication would NOT be procured by the library (that’s when I said “you should ask Connie on Nance’s sight”, and Pam said “oh, uh huh”)

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  15. nancy said on January 18, 2008 at 9:53 am

    So what was the movie? It’s going to itch me all day if you don’t tell us.

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  16. brian stouder said on January 18, 2008 at 10:01 am

    It has the (unpromising) title

    Short Bus

    We agreed we’d have to look for that movie!

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  17. Connie said on January 18, 2008 at 10:18 am

    We had a few of those bio-hazard incidents in my library before we started blocking porn on the internet.

    Brian, every library develops its own purchasing policy based on its analysis of and understanding of its community. How to do that is something librarians study in grad school. I can’t justify Allen County’s selection choices. Want me to call Jeff Krull and ask him?

    I will note that my library has the “Joy of Gay Sex” which contains very detailed drawings demonstrating the various um things discussed in the text. I did have a complaint about it last year, and actually had to look at it. Ick.

    Every library also has a process whereby you can address your concerns with items in the collection. But over the years I have learned that one person’s romance novel is another person’s porn. AKA pornography is in the eye of the beholder.

    The majority of my complaints in recent years have related to homosexuality, including the lovely penguin picture book “And Tango Makes Three.” If I were going to select a magazine (librarians call them periodicals 🙂 ) with pictures of naked woman I would choose Playboy. For the articles.

    I know this isn’t a good answer to your question. And I am not sure what to think about the fact that you AND Pam are talking about me in bed. Hmm.

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  18. Adrianne said on January 18, 2008 at 10:44 am

    On lawyerly garb: The in-the-closet district attorney in these parts bans the female prosecutors in his office from wearing pants. Ridiculous. Today we ran a photo of the local women’s bar association members hangin’ with Ruth Ginsberg, and most of them had Hillary-style black pantsuits on.

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  19. Kim said on January 18, 2008 at 10:47 am

    MichaelG – maybe you could text her.

    Actually, your nerves really say what I think is lost. There seems to be no apprehension about electronic communication, which has (somewhat) replaced face-to-face conversation. I’m a huge fan of letters, and their diminished importance bothers me.

    Facebook is going to wreck the whole 20th high school reunion thing. You know, you go out of morbid curiosity, having lost touch with most everyone over the years. Everybody drinks too much, promises to stay in touch and doesn’t.

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