All Together, Alone With Our Apps

It’s Christmas morning at my son’s house. My 31/2-year-old grandson and his younger brother are excitedly opening presents from under the tree while parents, grandparents and a great aunt attend the ritual. One large and irregularly shaped package from my ex-husband yields an old-fashioned hobbyhorse — the kind with realistic head, reins and long stick to gallop around the house. I smile recognizing it as the one our son rode on 25 years ago. My grandson does not seem to understand. He pokes repeatedly at the fuzzy head and finally turns around to the row of grandparents in frustration.

“Where’s the button?” he asks.

We look at each other and laugh. I jump up to show him the “no buttons needed” fun of this ready-to-ride horse.

Later, he opens a play camera, which requires pushing a button to see various pictures pop up. It reminds me a bit of the View Master my sister and I got for Christmas about 60 years ago. We loved to insert the round photo cartridges, flip the lever and watch the colored 3-D photos open new worlds. But soon tiring of the need for such repeated physical interaction with the camera, my grandson looks up and asks, “Where’s the menu?”

Right. The menu. For a year he has used an iPad to play games. I marvel at his dexterity on the touch screen moving trains around, negotiating mazes, doing puzzles and switching from game to game. Of course he knows the short cut of drop down menus.

So hey, Nana, what’s bothering you about this? Buttons? Menus? I watch his 11/2-year-old brother, still a neophyte in the electronics world, laugh as he pulls around an old-fashioned wooden train and think OMG! is it finally happening? Am I beginning to long for the simple straightforward “olden days?”

Later in the holiday week my partner’s son and his new wife spend a few days at our house. He proudly displays his new MacBook Pro, and we marvel at how much thinner and lighter it is than our older ones.

“Oh, that’s because they don’t have CD drives anymore,” he informs us.

We oldsters look at each other, then over at our shelves of CDs all neatly alphabetized for listening. Oh well, we’ve been meaning to get that MP3 player, haven’t we?

These two are moving to the West Coast and we probably won’t be seeing them often anymore. I hope for conversation, sharing of plans and dreams, long walks in the snow, the old-fashioned family scene. Too much time is spent online: my partner and his son sitting side by side on the sofa staring at screens as they order things, fix broken electronics, listen to music, swap apps, figure out programs, scan new sites, exchange tips.

The two young’uns intermittently perform agile thumb gymnastics texting on their smart phones. I say nothing watching from the shadows of my need for connection and thinking: is this how it will be? Connected instantly with the whole world, yet disconnected from the unhurried, intimate language of human interaction in the immediate environment? Sure gives the ’60s mantra “Be Here Now” new meaning. Here and now is no longer wherever or whenever you are, but anywhere and everywhere worldwide. I don’t argue that it’s a miracle, but ask, where exactly does it leave us?

I made curried squash soup and tempeh and pancakes with blueberries we picked last summer and lured everyone to the table, the last place where electronics are left behind and conversation flows. People dare to look at each other as they participate in the ancient ritual of being thankful and sharing food. It is a time not to be interrupted by buzzes, rings or the first line of a song. And because my partner and I live off-grid and have no dishwasher, we all washed dishes together afterwards, a precious relaxed time set aside for relating that has been all but eliminated by electronics.

Now don’t get me wrong. Even though I’m a homesteader, I am not resisting the wonders of technology. I have some ordinary techno-credentials on my resume. Imagine a time when all of this was new: It was1990 when I bought my first tiny screen Mac, dove headfirst into the wonders of word processing and wrote a novel. Then I put away the T-square and rubber cement to execute graphic designs online. I felt awe at the access to unlimited information, and loved AOL’s friendly chime, “You’ve Got Mail!” The leaps in creativity and connectivity still seem nothing less than a paradigm shift and it all happened in that one happy decade.

But 20 years and eight computers later, I’m in some danger of being labeled a technophobe. I stubbornly refuse to text, and my flip cell phone is decidedly un-smart. I do not long for an iPad. I still read books in paper form although there may be a Kindle in my future. I hardly use Facebook, but admit to spending too much time keeping up with emails and reading alternative news sites.

Recently I experienced a time warp at the Boston airport when I noticed that people now negotiate suitcases one handed as the other always clutches a ready smartphone. I also confess to a stab of worry for humanity when I sat in the airport restaurant and everyone was engaged with phone or computer and not in conversation with the person sitting across the table. I do cringe when the person who passes me on the road is distracted by cell phone at ear — or worse, in lap texting. I still remember when driving a car was the one blessed time for aloneness, contemplation and quiet.

It’s New Year’s Eve and the house is quiet now. The wood cook stove is cranking, the soup pot simmering, my partner is outside shoveling snow and piling in wood, and I curl up on the sofa thumbing through a magazine the kids left. Pope Francis has been named Man of the Year. I’m a pagan and recovering Catholic, but his simplicity and caring speak to me. I stare at a photo of him wandering the streets of Rome in plain white garb, how he fearlessly, lovingly reaches to touch the face of a leper who smiles up at him obviously transformed by the simple gesture. I realize that the touch of a human hand means more to me than a thousand Facebook friends.

I’m still an optimist, but I do not see technology saving us from the serious problems we are creating on the planet with our bellicose growth economy, our electronic surveillance, and the inequality of incomes which seems to worsen in inverse proportion to our new ability to distance ourselves from the feedback of close physical human interactions.

Am I slowly receding into the role of irrelevant oldster? Not on your life. I would like to develop the wisdom to be an elder, and be an advocate for a society with more close loving relationships and community. Now that we boomers are retiring from jobs and re-engaging in life, I’m all for finishing the real cultural change, back-to-the-land, intentional community, peace work we started in the ’60s and ’70s. Perhaps my generation can still offer the wisdom and deep value of undiluted, undistracted human contact, and if so, let me lead the parade.

The writer lives in Canaan. She can be reached at