Friday, December 18, 2009

Tales From Rural Maine: "We Went to Live More..."

I had a hard couple of weeks at work. They were the kind of weeks that make you want to quit your job. And Peter, he worked 80 hours in the paper mill. He left before sunrise and came home after sunset for six days in a row.

I spend my days ensconced in the business of technology. I think about it, I write about it, I use it, and mostly, I try to make my company money from other people’s need for it. I got into technology journalism by accident. And after 15 years, my sponge is full. I find that, as the world becomes more busy and more full of smartphone ads and cell phone calls and home gaming consoles that what I crave most are the things that feel more real, more tangible, more solid. I crave what is not disposable; what was not designed for obsolescence. I crave the things that are quiet, the things that last.

As a whole generation of Americans fill up their homes with Wii and its accoutrements, I stuff the cupboards beneath my TV with old board games. Not even the shiny new ones in re-designed boxes; I prefer the battered old version of Battleship that doesn’t make any noises. I don’t want some fancy Clue; I want the original. You can keep your Mario Kart; I’m looking for a circa-1980 Connect Four. (“Pretty sneaky, sis!”)

In my work, I have frequent access to the latest mobile devices. I’ve reviewed the newest BlackBerries and Windows Mobile smartphones. It’s my job to evaluate them well—and I do. But I’m more excited about the big, black rotary-dial phone that hangs on the wall in my kitchen. That rectangular box with an actual bell inside and a cord stretched long enough to reach from my mother’s kitchen to the laundry room is not wired up—in fact, we don’t even have a traditional landline here; VoIP was a better deal—but I still smile whenever I see it, whereas the boxes of smartphones in my office just make me feel something like dread, only more boring.

I think perhaps this is why I moved back to Maine. Not entirely. Not completely. But, as children of the 70s and 80s, who grew up barefoot in the out-of-doors and appreciate creativity and simplicity, Peter and I are enjoying something here together. While Peter would rather give up food than the Sims or his computer, he joins me in my desire to live, if not—forgive us Thoreau—more deliberately, then more authentically.

Perhaps that is what draws me to this place. My family on each side has been here, in this very town (or the village next door) for more than seven generations. As backwards and compressed as this town can be, it is the original—the place of my origin. I grew up in the woods of Maine (and Peter in the wilds of Alaska and Hawai’i) and our access to pop culture and cutting-edge technologies, such as electricity and plumbing, were limited and sweet. We savor our memories of our toys and TV shows, our telephones and video games, because they were so meaningful. When we were moving into this house, Peter found under an old bit of shag carpet in a closet a helmet from the original miniature GI Joe. You would have thought he had found a nugget of gold. (And I confess I marveled at his ability to identify this helmet without its accompanying military hero.) This excitement now about the toys we had then is, in part, because we each had down-to-earth, beatnik/hippie parents who provided us with lots of fresh air and little else; but also because of the very special time we grew up in.

It was a time when cable television and remote controls were life-changing events; video gaming consoles were revolutionary; VCRs, the Walkman, cordless phones! They mattered and they lasted. Rudolph and Frosty, The Wizard of OZ and The Sound of Music you couldn't own them! You couldn't even record them for most of our youths. They were experiences, moments that you counted down to and savored and tried to stay up for year after year.

Children today—maybe all of us today—are just so overloaded. While the thrill of getting your own line installed and having a lavender princess phone to go with it could last through all of high school in the 80s, today, when there is so much, there seems to never be enough. In the last year, my 13-year-old nephew, who could program a VCR before he could read and launch programs in Windows 3.1 before he could talk, has gone through two sexy cell phones and is working on his second iPod touch. When I was in the 8th grade, my best friend slipped me notes on her Garfield stationery, but my nephew and his cohorts exchange thousands of texts in a grammatically strange language that barely resembles the English he will have to use when he writes a college admissions essay. And while I still have boxes of those notes to reminisce over, my nephew when it’s all done…will have nothing.

When we were kids, things were real. Albums. Cassettes. Even CDs. But MP3s are just data. The smell and feel of a vinyl LP, the artwork and liner notes--a sound file, for me, just can’t compare. You can’t hold a .wav file in your hand; it’s like they don’t exist. One dropped iPod or one crashed hard drive and, as my nephew learned, they won’t.

My stepmother’s sister visited recently and mistook my record player for a device that would turn records into MP3s. I was so stunned by the backwards notion of this conversion that she may as well have asked me when we were going to slop paint over our gorgeous hardwood floors. As we climbed into bed that night, I sang Peter the original Hungry, Hungry Hippos jingle. It just popped into my head and I sang a heartfelt version. It totally cracked us up. It was stuck in our heads for days and—we felt happy.

During times of stress, like these two crummy weeks, I guess I return to my roots. I crave those quiet things that last. Not outhouses or party lines, but the things that were good. Lincoln Logs and Slinkies. Everything today just seems so noisy, metaphorically and literally.

Yesterday, Peter got his first good paycheck since he moved east to be with me two years ago. Monday is our two-year anniversary. And today, Friday, he came home with gifts for me, the first surprise gifts he has ever bought me: a 1959 hardcover edition of a Nancy Drew Mystery (The Hidden Staircase), a record (The Ventures a Go-Go), a copy of Better Homes & Gardens from April of 1963, and a big bag of birdseed (so that I can feed the birds I love watching out my window).

He said they weren’t early Christmas presents or even anniversary gifts. They were just because I had made it to Friday, and they would make me happy. And he was right. They did.

This material is copyrighted. If you are reading it on Facebook, it was imported from my Website, You can read the original here.


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