The Right Card

For the sake of the patient’s spirit, we need to at least try to maintain a bright outlook, especially on her birthday. She’s rallied before; surely she’ll do it again. It’s a sad fact that plenty of so-called professionals have pronounced her condition congenital and terminal, but miracles happen all the time. No sense in grieving until the sexton starts shoveling. So let’s think here.

Most of these cards do seem a little unrealistically cheery, with their balloons and their fireworks and their fancy layer cakes. We’re hopeful, yes, but festive? Not this year. And I think we can agree that anything with a clown on the front is an automatic no, right? She’s suffered enough from clownishness, I think.

Ditto on the racy stuff. I mean, let’s at least allow her some dignity in her infirmity.

What about one of these soft-focus scenes with the wildflowers and the purple mountain majesties and the puffy clouds? Wouldn’t that be soothing? This has been an exhausting struggle for her, and I bet she’d love to go to her happy place, unplug, and just forget about it all for a while. No, I guess you’re right. It looks a little too much like a sympathy card. We want her to recover, not peacefully relent.

Oh, hey! Who doesn’t like a good pop-up? A nice little surprise inside, all skillfully cut and folded to jump out at you when you open it? Of course, some of the surprises she’s gotten recently have been a little like those cartoon jack-in-the-boxes that pop out armed with a big mallet for cracking your skull. More mean clowns. Let’s not go there. She can’t handle any more nasty surprises. She just wants things to work the way they’re supposed to work.

We’re overthinking this, really. I know it seems hokey, and not terribly clever, but is there anything wrong with some ordinary, heartfelt sentiment? It doesn’t need to be silly or grand or surprising or even soothing. Simple is fine.

Sunday Morning Soundtrack

The first thing you hear, before you open your eyes on a summer morning, is the singsong of the robin. “A yes, a no. A yes, a no. A yes, a no.” It seems to voice your own indecision about whether it’s really necessary, after all, to drag yourself out of bed so early on the day of rest. This matter is soon settled by the urgent and insistent click of basset hound toenails on the Costco bamboo flooring.

If you are lucky this week, while you’re outside in the gravel dog run groggily waiting for your friend to complete her assigned tasks, the rumbling bass of a bulk carrier will announce its appreciation for the crooked Cuyahoga’s museum of moveable bridges. Do the bridge operators wave to the mates on deck, as we used to wave from our back fence in the days before cabooses vamoosed? Some Sunday morning, hike over and check.

Such lakers go on humming their softer alto notes below the rising and falling of single cars passing along Fulton Road. They continue so long that you will forget for a while that you’re still hearing it. A thousand feet of limestone or steel doesn’t exactly tootle along.

Stopping in the garage for a measure of sunflower seeds, you imagine you detect an immediate uptick in aviary excitement. And it’s true that before you’ve even bestowed on the hound her post-constitutional fake bacon yummy, here at your window are the neighborly mourning doves, the pushy sparrows, the perch-stealing cardinal and ungainly grackle. The click of seed recklessly scattered against the window glass and the chatter of their gossip is temporarily subdued by the raucous coffee grinder.

No matter how early the basset hound has set her own alarm clock, there is always some earlier-rising, even-more-motivated neighbor. So by the time you settle on the patio with your coffee, the sun-stirred shooshing of the breeze through the locust trees is infused with the steady thrum of a 4-stroke engine. If the grass has already been mowed before the dew has dried, just think how much they’ll have done before the first crack of fireworks from Jacobs Field.

The sound of the mower signals the okay to neighbors plying power tools—your favorite instrument in the urban orchestra. Since you first sat in this yard 23 years ago, you have never ceased to take comfort from the music of home improvement. The tap of hammers, the whine of the circular saw, the shouts of laughter and command, they build a ballad of hopefulness and hard work.

And then, still early, comes the eleven-bell chime of St. Patrick’s on Bridge. Though real bells and not some phony baloney recorded carillon, their striking is obviously pre-ordained, since they play the same hymn before every Mass. At least, it’s supposed to be a hymn, even though your pacified brain, singing along to the sound of the bells, has somehow composed its own unsacred lyrics: “There was a young sailor who sailed on the ocean. He sailed and he sailed ’til his sailer was sore…”

Possibly that’s the subliminal influence of the ore carriers. You are relieved that, by the time the ice cream truck starts making its rounds—the one whose jaunty ditty ends with the sinister, sneering chuckle of a horror film clown: “Toot, toot! Hell-o!”—your brain will have re-engaged enough to resist writing a jingle for that.

Friends and relations have often expressed perplexity at my tolerance, even preference, for urban living. How can I stand to be so hemmed in by other houses, all these strange people, so much noise? Sometimes I point out that I do indeed feel some claustrophobia, but that it’s relieved rather than aggravated by the windows I keep wide open and uncovered until snowfall. They raise a skeptical eyebrow and smile a pitying smile.

I have seen my classmates’ Facebook photos of their mountains and their forests and their glowing expanses of green soy bean fields, and I get it. But the comfort and inspiration country people get from a life story set in wide open spaces—I can benefit from that only in small doses. I think my own heart expands like a gas rather than a muscular mass. Without the dirigible container that this city has provided, I’m not sure how much use I would have ever been to the planet. With too much space, amidst too much beauty, too much peace, I suspect my own soul would have been weakened by ever-increasing inter-particle distance as my focus and my energy, never especially disciplined, were drawn ever outward.

Too Soon?

Evelyn True Button was a small-town Ohio high school principal and outspoken women’s rights advocate. I think she was probably also the victim of some pretty serious emotional violence. And while reading her marvelously awful book, Out of the Pit, I frequently laughed out loud at the most extreme episodes of that abuse.

Now, that’s wrong, right? But is it wrong even if Button presented the story as fiction? Had I not gone to the trouble of visiting her home in McConnelsville, Ohio, where my pleasant tour guide unknowingly revealed evidence of the novel’s autobiographical nature, I would have been a reader none the wiser. Now that I know what I think I know, how do I suppress my gut response in favor of a more sober analysis?

My acquaintance with Mrs. Button, who died in 1975 at the age of 100, came about because of my interest in Ohio authors. Whenever I can, I try to read their novels and then visit related historic sites. Mrs. Button’s book presented a special fun challenge in that it is very rare, appearing in the holdings of only two libraries in the vast WorldCat catalog. So I took a trip to her alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, and spent a delightful day camped out in a Fatboy beanbag chair devouring one of the most outlandish tragicomic romances I’ve ever come across.

The quick and dirty: an adventurous young heiress of modest fortune (Zell) on a pleasure trip to the Far East reconnects with a dashing acquaintance (Vance), who sweeps her off her feet and into a life of misery interspersed with passion, slapstick, and informative travelogue sidebars. It was the monstrous accumulation of extremes and the jarring narrative shifts required to move the plot along at Button’s cantering pace that caused my outbursts of guffawing. Here’s just one episode, to give you the flavor:

Having birthed one baby that was stillborn because of outrageous medical malpractice, way-pregnant Zell is forced by Vance, on the thinnest excuse, to board a ship unescorted. Her cast of helpers at the inevitable confinement are a bumbling steward who accidentally sets her on fire, a bewildered ship’s doctor who thinks that the baby needs spanking after it starts breathing instead of before, a supposed “nurse” (actually a sex worker devoted to her profession) who announces that she “never works at sea,” and two fellow passengers, one of whom is so overbearing that she names Zell’s new daughter without consulting mama, and another who is so possessive that she comes off as a creepy would-be kidnapper. After miraculously bringing this infant safely into the world, Zell is nearly tossed into the Pacific Ocean during a clownish evacuation from the ship, after which she decides to retain the neonatal services of that bewildered doctor because she “hates to humiliate him by dismissal.”

It didn’t surprise me in the least when, after years of being defrauded of her inheritance and abandoned, Zell finally convinces Vance to sign the divorce papers…and then joins him for a lovely luncheon and some sightseeing.

What did surprise me was when my tour guide at the Button House, having never read Mrs. Button’s book herself, began to narrate a biography that matched in all major milestones the novel’s narrative. Even the photos she showed me of the real-life Evelyn and her real-life husband seemed like implausibly perfect Hollywood casting for the roles of put-upon schoolmarm and dastardly cad.

It took a while for the tragedy of all this to settle in. But then, mining for more gold on these fascinating characters, I came across a note on a genealogy message board. A forum member was seeking information on some ancestors. My happy couple.

Since that message was over ten years old, I assumed that person’s googling skills were probably equal to my own, and I didn’t post a response. But thinking about these characters as real people, with real families—that really made me wonder.

Why would a 90-year-old woman write down such a story? When we tell our own stories, where are the boundaries between catharsis and self-indulgent rationalization? While this story’s bones seem real enough, could the flesh of all these damning details be synthetic? If my great-grandmother had published a novel, even a very amateur vanity press book, is there any chance I would be unaware of it, unless her own children had decided to let that part of family lore go with her to her grave?

And mostly, I wonder about the limits of humor. Steve Allen famously claimed, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Scientists at the University of Colorado’s Humor Research Lab assessed the time factor as a shockingly brief 36 days. It’s now more than 40 years since this author’s death, more than 50 years after her story was published, and a full century since “Vance” perpetrated atrocities against “Zell” that ranged from withholding her personal mail to dousing his elegantly dressed wife with cold water just because she was “so beautiful when she was furious.” A century’s way longer than 36 days. But is it long enough?

Steve Allen later amended his formula to add another factor. “Tragedy plus time plus the will to be amused equals comedy.” Obviously, if I drove a couple of hours and spent a day reading a novel, I possessed the will to be amused. But more importantly, the author herself must have had that same will.

Some cursory genealogical research suggests that the real-life “Vance” continued to roam after the Buttons’ divorce, possibly fathering a namesake along the way, but probably dying alone in Oklahoma. Evelyn, on the other hand, enjoyed the security of the hometown her ancestors had founded, rose to leadership in her profession, developed a reputation as a no-nonsense character who trotted her daughters to dinner at the Blue Bell Diner every day because she couldn’t be troubled to cook, and claimed ownership of her own story.

In writing this ridiculous, completely worthwhile novel/memoir, she was like the pedestrian under the piano whose good fortune, as she strolled along life’s sidewalk, prevented her from being crushed. Looking back over her shoulder at the broken mass of wood and ivory and wire, and hearing that crazy cacophony fade to nothing, how could she fail to laugh from sheer joy at her narrow escape?

An American Malady

When I woke up with a nose bleed, my first thought was, of course, “cancer.” This got refined to “brain tumor” when I started feeling painful pressure in my temple every time I bent over. As the constant buzzing in my head that I normally hear increased in pitch and volume, I could even pinpoint how I’d caused my own probably-soon-to-be-fatal malignancy: too much listening to audiobooks with earbuds. Felled by overindulgence in my most effective productivity tool. The pitiful irony nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Gradually it dawned on me that, since my son had been hacking and snuffling around the house for days, maybe I didn’t have noncommunicable brain cancer after all, but only consumption.

While waiting observantly for my symptoms to develop, for the spatters of blood to start appearing in my handkerchief, I holed up in my room or drowsed in the sunshine on the patio. I read novels, drank tea, listened to our flock of house finches warbling, and contemplated the Brontës’ fate.

My son, on the other hand, did none of these things. During the whole course of his own obviously abominable head cold, I bet he never once indulged in imaginative meanderings involving brain tumors or Brontës. Instead, as he dragged himself to both of his jobs without missing a day—scattering contagion like dismal confetti—he probably dwelt on basic economics.

As a part-time hourly employee without sick leave, staying in bed with a cold means a day’s lost income, which equates to a tank of gas that he can’t pay for, but which he needs in order to get to one of his jobs. If the illness drags on for a few days, it probably means not only losing the income, but also paying out, since our high-deductible health insurance won’t pay for him to go to the doctor’s office to get a note for his supervisor confirming that he’s genuinely sick and not merely malingering.

It’s really a shame that the same fertile imagination that conjures dramatic diagnoses for humdrum symptoms also forces me to envision the many millions of truly ill people whose experience in life is more like my son’s than my own—but without the safety net that Ned’s father provides. It sort of spoils all the fun of being a little bit sick.

By the end of the 18th century, the incidence of hypochondria and hysteria had reached epidemic proportions, at least among the class of people who could afford to retain the sorts of physicians who had the time and inclination to write about such things. One doctor, pioneer self-help guru George Cheyne, dubbed it “The English Malady” because the melancholy that led to imaginary illness arose, he believed, from British wealth, luxury, and excess.

In recent years, the United States seems to be suffering from a peculiar asset-aligned illness all its own. The complex network of neurons firing above and below the cortices of some voters and many legislators seems to have been impaired in such a way that, for example, they cannot imagine the experience of people whose lives differ from their own in terms of income and access to healthcare.

This impairment of imagination prompts them to propose ridiculously implausible remedies for the national healthcare emergency. The elderly and the disabled should, like the unskilled “get better jobs” that will supply them with generous insurance benefits. The poor should maximize their contributions to health savings accounts rather than squandering their income on the electric bill, so that they can watch a few thousand dollars disappear in a flash right before their next emergency room visit sends them into bankruptcy. The addicted should shop around in order to take advantage of the free market.

It really must be some illness beyond their control, and not simple, voluntary meanness. At least, that’s what my own imagination—in an act of conscience* self-soothing—tries to convince me.

*I noticed I’d typed “conscience” where I thought I meant “conscious” after publishing this post. And then I wondered if that was an example of unconscious conscience. So I left it.

Like Bats in the Starlight

I have mixed feelings about graduation season. The last time I saw my good dad was on the day we celebrated my college graduation and his final Father’s Day. After that, I was pretty satisfied to receive my last two diplomas in the mail.

But then my own children started graduating, and gradually I could find the bittersweet pleasure in it again. Milestones are interesting, at the very least, and one of my favorite parts of middle age is seeing the people I knew as infants becoming men and women. As tiresome as it is for them to hear us remark on how swiftly they’ve grown, this never ceases to be a source of wonder.

Last night, returning home after a couple of grad parties, I picked up my current book and ran smack into the following sparkly and timely nugget. Maybe it was the waning Strawberry Moon glittering through the trees right outside the window where I was reading that made me react awfully sentimentally to this image of the wandering soul:

To all in the village I seemed, no doubt,
To go this way and that way, aimlessly.
But here by the river you can see at twilight
The soft-winged bats fly zig-zag here and there—
They must fly so to catch their food.
And if you have ever lost your way at night,
In the deep wood near Miller’s Ford,
And dodged this way and now that,
Wherever the light of the Milky Way shone through,
Trying to find the path,
You should understand I sought the way
With earnest zeal, and all my wanderings
Were wanderings in the quest.

That one is “William Goode,” from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

I would not be surprised at all if the two young women we celebrated yesterday fly straight and true toward their next milestone, more like goshawks than bats. If they do, they will enjoy such a view of the land and how it lies. The slow, deep beating of their wings may lead us all to wrongly assume their flight is effortless.

But if instead they spend some moments or months (or more) as bats and Milky Way seekers, I hope they do their zig-zag flying with earnest zeal. All families contain a bat or several, and generally I think the ecosystem is a better place for their presence in it—provided they don’t lose sight of the function of their flitting. As parents, it’s not so much the zig-zagging that makes us worry, as the fear that our kids will exhaust themselves before they satisfy their hunger.

Burning Questions

If I collect firewood every time I walk the dog, does that make me a pyromaniac? Bigger question: If I do this, how strenuously may I complain about withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement?

To preface: I am not the petty thief who apparently stole cut logs from a neighbor’s front yard recently, as reported in the neighborhood crime watch. I confine my collecting to parks and treelawns, where I never fail to find an abundant supply in this aging Forest City. To the embarrassment of my basset hound, when I find a good branch shed by one of many London planetrees, I heft it onto my shoulder and we make our way home.

There, I bust it up and sort it into varying sizes of kindling, mostly. Only rarely do I find a perfect specimen: leaf-free, no more than ten feet long, at least four inches wide, pre-seasoned. When I do, I will sometimes rush Birdie home and run back to collect it. I treasure such logs for their longer burn time, and I don’t want to risk some other urban fuel forager snagging my claim.

I think my fondness for burning things was born in the early days of my backpacking when, determined to adhere to “leave no trace” principles, I did not burn where there was no established fire ring. Instead, after swiftly boiling a pot of macaroni over an efficient single-burner camp stove, I would sit beneath the stars as dampness rose and mosquitoes descended around me, lost in no reverie whatsoever. Without a campfire, there was no focal point on which to train my ruminative vision, nothing around which my buddies and I could gather. We just scrubbed aluminum plates in cold water, crept into sleeping bags, and listened to the rustle of raccoons.

Living in the city, doing yard work mostly on my own, my little patio fire provides a sort of friendly companionship. Since my wood-collecting began, the garden has prospered. Now, instead of wandering indoors when my lower back begins to ache, I stand up and rebuild the little blaze. Even crouched behind the boxwood where I cannot see its flickering flames, I can smell the smoke drifting on the breeze, hear the crackle diminish, and know it’s time to take a break and tend the fire.

Small, carefully confined fires are best, of course. Although a big bonfire can be exciting, and even utilitarian when we’ve done some heavy pruning, it is also greedy and undisciplined. There’s a good reason why we say that fire is “raging.” It is very like political furor.

I am distressed about US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, but I need to keep my blaze contained. If distress turns to outrage, I might fail to notice how my own completely unnecessary burning contributes to ozone depletion. I might forget that, although we power our car with virtuous electricity, in my state this often means burning coal somewhere in some distant generator where I don’t need to see it. And while outrage at the larger issue might relieve a cynic from the discomfort of personal responsibility, an optimist must seek a different remedy.

So I wonder: if I pick up trash while picking up branches, will I offset my own contribution to pollution? If I layer on sweaters and lower the thermostat to 62° all winter, how many carbon credits will I earn to spend on cozy atmosphere? If I formally proclaim my neighbors’ rights to ash-free breathing, must I leave the branches to be ground up by gasoline-powered mulchers, or could my tolerant, live-and-let-live neighbors lower the window sashes on the Fratus side of the house?

Hate is not a thing that you wear on your head

What are the most important words in the English language? If you could only teach a new English speaker ten words at a time, and it took her a few days to learn those ten, how would you prioritize?

I’ve been considering this while creating a Qzzr test for a new English speaker. After a half hour or so of playing with cob, cop, cot, cod—locating images for these things, finding as many ways as possible to ask “What is this thing?” with the fewest and the shortest words possible—it dawned on me what a strange place this is for us to begin. “The cop on the cot ate some cod and corn on the cob.” Well, thank goodness we have communicated on that point.

Although I’ve tutored a lot of adults over the years, including many for whom English was a second or third language, I was usually tutoring them in math. Math is a beautiful and universal language, “the language of nature.” While tutoring in this subject, I would pare down my speech to remove the focus from the sound of my voice and place it on the numbers and operations before us. Quite often, the student and I would work through those operations with no words at all—only numbers and symbols, tally marks and little sketches, scratching pencils on scraps of paper.

As I sit in the backyard of my new friend’s fourplex, we cut out words and glue them to index cards. Here are sob, mob, fog. Fog—I swirl my hands in the air and float them down: the cloud on the ground. It’s hard to see through. She nods thoughtfully. This is a practical word, fog. She can use fog.

Her children run back and forth between their porch and the little church next door, where weeknight fellowship is taking place. We try to piece together a conversation, creatively rearranging our extremely limited shared lexicon, neither of us certain we’ve conveyed the story we meant to tell.

We are working on the short O sound, but she does not connect this sound to the assembled letters. We spell “h-o-g,” and she smiles, wrapping her arms around herself: hug. Her little daughter, racing back from the church briefly to see if she’s missed anything, dances on bare toes around our folding chairs, translating that hog is the same as pig. The mother, a farmer by trade, narrows her eyes. “Hog is pig?” The extravagance of such unnecessary duplication seems silly. We move on to the next word: “m-o-p.” She spreads her hands to trace a large rectangle in the air, saying “Of all the United States”: map. I begin to prefer the words she hears to the words I say.

I have lost nearly all the languages I ever studied. While the vanishing of Old English doesn’t leave me much bereft, it occurs to me that the French might have come in handy: I overhear merci beaucoup and eh bien intermingled with Swahili when she takes a quick phone call. There is a lot I want to ask her. Does she have more family in this country? Does she hear from people she knew in the fifteen years she spent in a refugee camp? Is she afraid of what’s happening to this country, or do our troubles seem trivial when compared to a war that killed five and a half million people and deprived her of her home?

I remember that in college Latin, we started with the verb amare: to love. This is a much more useful word than cod or cob. With that verb, we could sit here on these folding chairs as the sun drops below the mulberry trees and just point: amo [the evening], amo [this church], amo [my bicycle]. We could go on and on.

Three White Men: a tragedy in one act

On Friday afternoon a scene played out in Portland, Oregon that was so dramatic, so heavy with symbolism, that it would be hard to believe if two real human beings weren’t now dead. Even as it is, I suspect there are thousands of conspiracy theorists/internet trolls spreading the word that the whole thing was liberal terrorist street theater.

First, consider the setting. Trains are frequently used in drama to establish the theme of change and instability. As the scene opens, the train is arriving at a station named “Hollywood,” a reference to the entertainment industry and the role it plays in influencing American life.

The time of the scene is also laden with meaning. It is Friday: the beginning of the patriotic Memorial Day holiday weekend, a time for reflection and for considering civic principles. It is also the beginning of Ramadan, an indicator that an important message is about to be revealed, so the audience must be alert. Also at this same time, the tassels are being turned at colleges and universities across the country, pointing to a theme of education and enlightenment.

But more than anything, it is the characters themselves that flesh out the symbolism of the Portland play. First, there are two unnamed, non-speaking females that serve as a critical plot device. Their gender, age, religion, and race are hinted at by their costumes, but their departure from the scene is silent, swift, almost ghostly, like a wisp of stage fog. They do not drive the action; they are the eye of the hurricane around which the larger dramatic elements swirl.

Although the stage is crowded with actors, only one has a speaking part—at least as far as we can tell from the earliest reports—and his lines are a garbled cacophony of hatred, threat and bigotry. This character is motivated by a desire for chaos. He is given the ironic name “Christian.” This villain is also given the play’s only prop: a deadly sharp blade.

Although they have no lines, the heroes who respond to Christian’s tornado of hate speech and fury do so with a balletic intensity and artistry that clearly reveals their own characters.

One is a middle-aged army vet, a civil servant, a devoted husband and father. He is given a name, Ricky John Best, that seems to allude both to the two-first-names custom of the American south and heartland and, through his surname, to the superlative honor he displays. He represents the American values of service and stability, but to the villain he also represents the establishment.

The other hero is a bearded backpacker with a goofy grin. A recent graduate of one of the most liberal of liberal arts colleges, a college best known for its “Honor Principle,” his field of study was the mysterious and often distrusted field of economics. This character’s name is the same as that of a quintessentially progressive and innovative American landmark: Taliesin. To Christian, he represents the intellectual elite.

Both heroes are also, like the villain, white males. This is important.

Some audiences might have preferred that this scene develop in a very different way. It would have been more immediately satisfying and cathartic to watch the unnamed, non-speaking females rise to their own defense. Or what if either hero or villain had been cast as black, Hispanic, or transgender? That would have provided some interesting complication.

But this is one play about race whose message is best revealed through homogeneity. By casting the heroes as white men resisting another white man, the Playwright/Director forces the audience to witness the illogic of bigotry in action. Christian attacks the heroes not because they are Muslim, or women or people with a skin tone different from his own, but because they are righteous. In his violent, angry, deeply crazed “defense” of his race, one evil white man kills two good ones.

Whether or not the overall volume of white honor in the universe is diminished by the loss of Taliesin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best is now up to the audience.

New Tricks

When I began my one-and-only professional job 23 years ago, I was charged with the task of helping senior adults adapt to new technology. Even though I was at that point relatively young, I was good at that job not because I was knowledgeable about technology but because I could sympathize with their situation.

Here they were, many of them people who had completed careers, raised families, managed finances and insurance and medical care of others, enjoyed culture, studied history and science. They were intelligent human beings who were expected to adapt to technology that was not of their choosing, that was supposed to fill a gap they had never felt. If they did not learn the technology, they risked losing the pleasure of something that they had previously enjoyed. But by the early 1990s, they had already witnessed the rise and fall of other technologies, and so they knew that any knowledge they might gain could soon be obsolete.

I saw different approaches to dealing with this. Sometimes they were quietly determined, accepting that since they couldn’t stop the advance of technology, they must set aside the time from their preferred intellectual pursuits and try to learn new skills, in the hope that they would master them and eventually enjoy the new technology’s promised benefits. Occasionally, I saw this determination pay off. One of the adults would get the hang of the new way of doing things and get on with their lives, content until the next wave of technology came along.

Other learners adopted a self-deprecating front. They would laugh about their ignorance. Their preschool-age grandchildren, they said, could program their VCRs better than they could. When the new technology was introduced, they’d roll their eyes and heave a sigh. Not this again. They tended to be the same people who blamed the computer for deleting their files, and the photocopier for messing up their copies. The technology to these people was some alien force, outside anyone’s control, never to be understood or trusted.

But the people I felt the most sympathy for were those who, when confronted with a new technology that had come along without their ever having wanted or needed it, weighed the costs and benefits and found the costs had greater mass. Rather than endure the humiliation of admitting ignorance, the frustration, the drain on their time, they would choose instead to forego any pleasure they might receive from the new technology, as well as the pleasure they had once derived from the activity that was supposedly enhanced by these new advances. They would be left behind.

Among the technologically adept, true sympathy toward any of these groups was rare. Although they might acknowledge the tenacity of Group A, they would also be baffled by their slowness on the uptake. They would see a spark of understanding, and either respond in a manner that was condescending or that immediately established their own superior knowledge.

If Group B rolled their eyes at the new gadgets, then the adept rolled their eyes at Group B. They might offer some assistance, but more often, they would just take the problem out of Group B’s hands, through a mutual agreement that silly old Group B just couldn’t understand these things. By demeaning themselves in this way, Group B might get what they wanted—they might view the movie, file their taxes, add their contacts to their phone—but there would be a cost.

Only a few of the technologically adept actively despised Group C any more than they did the others. They merely dismissed them. If these people couldn’t keep up with the times, then that was too bad. Evolution. Survival of the fittest. Group C had nothing to contribute, and they were forgotten.

At some point or another, I think I have been a member of each of these groups, including the adept. But more and more, I feel myself falling into Group C. Technology is introduced that adds nothing whatsoever to my life; it only takes away. But unless I spend the time to learn this new technology, I will become less and less self-sufficient. Moreover, I will gradually lose sources of pleasure I once enjoyed. If you can’t keep up with the times, that’s what you get.

When I was a teenager and I would visit my grandmother, I was horrified by the way she spent her days: in a silent, dark room, with a television and a stereo that she never turned on. I always told myself that I would never let this happen to me. As I aged, I would make sure I stayed interested in the new, not merely cling futilely to the slippery old.

Recently, I have begun to consider that I completely misunderstood my grandmother. While I suspected her of stubbornness or laziness or bitterness, now I begin to wonder whether, in fact, it was none of these faults that prevented her from fiddling with her machines. It is possible that she was motivated by much less selfish feelings.

It is possible that what came off as defeatism was, instead, a heartfelt sorrow for a world that can never be satisfied. Perhaps perpetual dissatisfaction is what sets us apart from the less intellectually advanced primates over whom our species holds so much dominion. We are the apes who, probing the bees’ nest with the straw, fail to taste the sweetness of the honey but merely seek a thicker stick.