before

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I just got a glimpse in my mind’s eye of my life before:

before electronic gadgets (computers, smart fones, Alexa).

before even phone machines (there was a time you didn’t know that anyone had called; you had no responsibility for that person’s calling you at all)

before small appliances that work better un-electrified (scissors)

I grew up with phones that hung on walls, so I considered them important, necessary, as well as part of the furniture. Not to have a phone would have been, what? Reckless? Old-fashioned? Embarrassing?

Perhaps this is true of the new gadgets. But I don’t want to play.

I turned my brief glimpse of before into a long stare. I held onto the idea of life before and stayed there for, oh, maybe half an hour, thinking of all the things that were different then.

Mostly the silence.

Not a lot of whirring and buzzing and machines talking to me…not characters talking to one another, but to me. For example: I was painting a large piece of furniture at a friend’s house, I was alone except for my radio, which suddenly advertised, “If you want the radio on, just say, ‘Alexa, play NPR!’” And just as suddenly there was a voice from the kitchen in the house with no one in it but me: “I’m sorry. I am not set up to play NPR.” That made the hair on the back of my neck pay attention.

I don’t mind radios (as with books, I grew up with those, too), but I’m not crazy about TVs. I think we got our first one when I was 10 or so, but by then I had a life. TV never entered my heart or captivated me. By the age of 10, I had long been programmed, enculturated, propagandized. I had become a book reader because I saw quite a bit of it going on in my house.

To be fair, I also saw quite a bit of darning of sox, but the propaganda palled in comparison.

I knew early on that stories were life’s escape. Not that I had a lot to escape from, but the reading of them captured me and took me away to all those lands…just the way I figured them: OZ, Shallot, Mudville, Gotham, Tara, Lilliput, Atlantis, Northwest Passage, Gitche Gumee, Treasure Island, Over the Rainbow, Wobegon, Manderley, Twelve Oaks, Olympus, Shangri La, Birnam Wood, Calaveras County, A Town Called Alice, Byzantium, Nirvana, Glocca Morra, Adaza….

The quiet of an evening with Dad in the rocker, reading silently to himself; the three of us girls on the couch or the floor, reading silently to ourselves; Mom in her rocker, well, darning. She did hum. That was nice, too. Then right before bed, the story from Dad out of the Book of Knowledge. What a life! Reading by oneself and then being read to every single day!

I know that now, kids grow up with the electronics that to them are like the furniture, part of the house, part of their existence as books were to me. But they annoy the hell out of me, because I’m not good at them, and they demand a lot of know-it-all. I’m not adept enough to know what to do when their page doesn’t turn. Books were totally manual. All I had to know was how to read, how to turn a page and how to look up a new word. No “EEK! EEK!” because I didn’t know to close a pop-up box.

These era kids know exactly what to do when the page won’t turn because they were born to the gadgets. They also read. On the gadgets. That’s fine. And when they are old and there are even more new thingamajigs, they will wax nostalgic for beeps and glare and the constant noises we get now.

But I have secret pity for them. It’s not romantic to hold a gadget to read; it is, however, warming and intimate to go to sleep with a book fallen onto your chest or tucked next to your pillow. There is no glare.
The glimpse of my life pre-little red and green and blue buttons glowing in the dark throughout my house was so strong, so clear – it was a mind picture of real people (my family), real items (books) that did not beep, buzz, or introduce strangers’ disembodied voices asking me, “What do you want me to do?”

Even though I use my gadgets daily, I have a thing about them. They are not my friends like books are. They trick me because I’m dumber than they are. I’m dumber than a lot of books, but I can return them to the library and get others. I think electronics are all malware. I’m not techy: I like my Yankee drill, not the electric drill that takes off out of my hand and skips across my counter making little shallow holes. I’m quite happy with a scissors, something I’ve been using since I was five; my electric scissors ruined one too many a piece of good cloth for me; I don’t want my email to tell me how to respond to an email! I know what I want to say. And I’m uneasy that it knows what I just said and can tell me how to respond. That is so creepy.

Before…I could add this to a place I’ve been through books; along with nearly all the cities of the world, all the seas, all the mountains. And Dune.

There were no passwords in the days before.

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