Now Oregon

I’m nearly mute. I thought we’d have crossed the line of passive acceptance a long time ago — years ago. I feel I should be furious and sad, but that feeling fades just a little bit each time. So help me, it fades a little bit.

I don’t understand the comparisons between guns and spoons, guns and cars, guns and pointed sticks. I only see guns in a class apart; as a class of lethal machines. Anything related to self-protection or deer consumption comes a vastly distant second.

Life has become the ultimate dystopian fantasy. We live in and bring children into a country where being shot as an innocent citizen is simply to be expected. Gotten accustomed to. We feel, in a sickeningly literal way, that when we don’t know anyone who was killed, we’ve dodged a bullet. Until next time.

It’s helpful, at a time like this, to articulate hope. So I’ll articulate it, but I don’t feel it. I never thought I’d get here, as an optimistic kid waiting breathlessly for the turn of the century, but I’ll say it again. I’m afraid I’m just eager to keep dodging bullets now until my natural clock runs out, thirty or forty years from now. And if I get shot to death before that time, I certainly hope it’s quick.

We’ve inherited this world as 21st Century adults. As bona fide grown-ups, never mind the 40-year-old video game players and gummy vitamin consumers, we’ve done an egregiously poor job of it. The war generation that went before would be disappointed to sobs, but they’re dead already.

I don’t feel sadness, so much as I feel shame.

Master or Captain?

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© Jeff Horner Photography

I’ve been doing a lot of flying — in airplanes — recently, and whenever I fly, I think. Flying time is great thinking time. It’s always been that way. Not only do I still find air travel as fascinating and enjoyable (for the most part) as I did as a kid, I’ve always enjoyed that particular sensation of actually leaving the Earth, of suspending regular life for a time, of reducing everything I know into tiny, manageable little patches, scrutinized as randomly as I please from a wholly renewed perspective. (Aisle seat?? No thanks.)

As a photographer I’ve been working with a lot of athletes, both baseball and physique athletes lately. Among that lofty crowd, in person and on the endlessly-tended Instagram and Facebook feeds, one finds a great deal of inspirational quotes. Whether intended to inspire themselves, inspire their followers, or just inspire a big package of good-natured “Likes,” such words are everywhere there. “Never stop, never give up.” “You are what you make yourself.” “I succeed because I am willing to do things others are not.” A big one is “Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.” Many such truisms are indeed inspirational, and still more are intended to prove that the athlete has what it takes to succeed where others will fail. (I’ve always maintained that it’s important for one to succeed but none of one’s business if another one fails, yet that sort of measured thinking often gets lost among the shouts.) For some reason, I’ve seen one statement repeated in one form or another, across industries, across platforms: “I am the master of my own destiny!”

As a half-century man, my first impulse is to agree, and whole-heartedly. Such perspective, if truly believed and truly lived, is invaluable, hard-won, and often a lesson missed by those around us. We are fortunate to have come by that assertion honestly, through trial and tribulation, from lessons learned and failures endured. “I am the master of my own destiny!” is one of those truisms I also find to be true, but flying back to Atlanta the other day, I began to wonder, “Am I?”

I have stated often, and will again, that I’ve found my forties and now fifties to be the best possible age to have achieved, and suspect that I’ll look back on them as a golden age. All of the things that used to frighten us as young adults drop away, if we’ve been fortunate enough to have paid attention and learned along the way. If we’ve been blessed with the drive and frame of mind to take risks in life, we’ve learned that we may fail, but more than likely with an open mind and determination, we will succeed. We’ve learned that if we do fail, it never was and never will be the end of the world, and so we’ve learned to pick ourselves up, stop worrying about how many people may have seen us stumble, and move on, stronger in the rising.

Ultimately, we’ve learned that there’s nothing we can’t try, nothing too frightening or too daunting to risk trying. We’ve learned to rely on ourselves, we’ve learned to rid ourselves of the negative people and negative voices in our lives (or at least manage them), and we’ve learned that we’ll probably succeed, because we’ve learned to trust ourselves. We know that if we don’t succeed, we’ve learned to love ourselves enough to recover without collapsing into inertia, without giving in to fear and shame. “Failure Is Not An Option” makes for a great t-shirt, but I’ve never found it to be anything but empty bluster. Of course failure is an option. Not an option we seek after eagerly, but entirely possible nonetheless. It’s how we learn to deal with failure that betters us as bona fide grown-ups, I think.

Another way of saying all of this might be to say we’ve learned to navigate. We’ve learned a great deal about how to get around successfully on this once-intimidating planet. We’ve learned to retain the wonder and jettison the fear, and yet we’re young enough to keep enjoying the ride, keep steering past obstacles, keep looking forward to what’s coming next. But we’re not the master of What Comes Next.

Regardless of one’s spirituality — one’s faith — we’re also wise in having learned that quite often, if not virtually always, we’re not ever completely in control. Along our way we can’t command what’s over the horizon, can’t direct the wind, can’t always calm the ocean. Whether we learned this as young people (lucky!), through trial and error, in a twelve-step program or in whatever our temples of worship may have turned out to be, it’s just as much a blessing to have learned that, too: We’re the able captains of our own ship, but we’re not the master of the world; we’re not the masters of our own destiny.

A younger version of myself would have slapped my lips off, had he ever known I would come to this way of thinking, but it strikes me as plainly evident, and in no way as a negative. Perpetuating the vessel-on-the-ocean analogy, imagine knowing as our younger selves that we would one day learn to stay above-decks no matter what we’re enduring, learn to analyze what’s going on around us and make decisions in the blink of an eye that we can stand by, that we’ve learned to trust ourselves to be out there in the middle of the ocean no matter how far away from shore, from others. It’s just us and What’s Coming Next.

If you’ve come to a certain Faith along your own journey, that’s fine. That helps you, you’ve learned to trust it. Cleave to it and pay attention to it. Don’t dare foist it on anyone else, because the nature of your Faith is just that: Your Faith.

So no, I don’t think we’re the Masters Of Our Own Destiny. We’re the Captains Of Our Own Ship, moving onward to our destiny as wisely and as confidently as we can.

Last Friday In April

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© Jeff Horner

Up, just at dawn, birds going nuts since it was still dark but I’m only just climbing up to awareness now, dim light. The cats look back at me as if to say “yeah, we know, this happens every morning.” One of those Fridays where there is so much to get done by the end that you almost wish it were still Thursday, still time. For now, though, just a few hours to sit on the porch and come alive with coffee, watch the light change, meditate, think.

The air inside is sweet and cool, the night spent with windows all open to the woods and its secrets. Outside now the air is even sweeter, but warming already, late April in the South. An old habit not fully dead yet, I check the weather back North and see that furnaces would be running, blankets piled, frost accumulating, and I grin an adolescent grin.

Living in the moment gets easier as you get older, or so I’m finding. I should shake a leg, get a move on, get an early start on a day that will beg way too much from me, but that won’t do, not for me, not now. Better to sit for a bit and let the engines come to full on their own, one cat on my feet now, the other on the first cat’s feet, one astride the other. The birds have changed shifts, some songs gone, new ones starting up, my brain unable to keep from finding words in their repetition: “Tweester tweester tweester, whatsyername whatsyername whatsyername. Seeya. Seeya.”

It’s difficult, sometimes, not to keep the phone nearby, check the mail, check the ‘Book, check them again, just in case. Difficult but not impossible, like anything. Instead of chicanery, vanity, lunacy and sex, I’m back in the old world of real life lost in thought, steeped in experience, my chin on my hand, the air on my face, the birds with their words, the smells in the air. Such a beautiful riot of smells. If I were blind and deaf my head would be accosted by the symphony and poetry of scent.

“You smell a lot,” a friend said to me a long time ago. “Well, you’re ugly a lot,” I said back, jolly good laugh all ’round. But she was right. Don’t we all? Isn’t smell the most transportive of all the senses? I consider this, and breath slowly and deep. The smell of the house warming in the sun: Playing in my grandparents’ attic in Richmond as kids, kiln-level heat, dust, aging lumber. The smell of endless blossoms still in the air: Any springtime in my life, each uniquely and all at once, together. The smell of the paper of the book in my hand: Reading, learning to read. Arts & crafts in elementary school. Libraries. Used book stores. Travel to distant places, the smell of old books and the blue of the sky the only familiar sensations on the other side of the planet.

Someone starts and revs up a leaf blower across the woods. Of course if it could be done as easily as pressing a button I would kill them instantly, but it’s not, and I can’t, so I don’t. The sun has gone from under-lighting the leaves to shining directly on the porch and warming up fast. The cats stretch and lean into it, but I drain my cup and sit forward to rise. Time now to switch into work mode, head upstairs to the office and fire up the machines. There will be phone calls in a moment, meetings later on. Emails to tender, bills to send and to pay. It’s a great way to work, but it’s work nonetheless.

If it were up to me, I’d start all my days this way. And since it is, I will.

Crossroads

©Jeff Horner

I am connected to a large number of people who are faced with a certain amount of change in their lives right now, most of it unlooked-for, most of it unwelcome. A few people have lost a parent recently, one has lost a home, another has lost a good friend. A huge number of people have just this morning lost their careers, cut out like somebody else’s cancer in a vast corporate firing. What do you say in these instances? What, for all the world, do you do?

The older we get, the more these treacherous transitions become familiar, but they never become easy. Many of us remember when we’d never been to a funeral before, never known or loved anyone who had died, never lost a pet, let alone a job. Nothing we’ve ever heard in our youth can prepare us for any of those events when they actually, finally happen to us. The years of our youth crawl by with exquisite, almost unendurable slowness, and then at some certain, precise moment when we are so not paying attention, we accidentally bump the Fast lever and everything rushes past in a barely-intelligible blur, spotted and dotted with aching loss in addition to the joys we’ve come to know, suffused with an adrenal exhilaration that takes us by surprise, makes us half-wonder when we’ll get accustomed to it, half-wonder if maybe panic is the appropriate long-term reaction after all.  All of the truisms we’d heard in our lives — each and every one of them — comes true, fully illustrated, in our own lives. If we only knew then what we know now.

When Mom was diagnosed with cancer, and when finally it became plain that there was no escape for her, and so none for us, I reflected on this a little. We’ve all heard of people, every year of our lives, who lose a loved one. Usually they’re older than us; usually the person they lost was even older. I remember thinking that never, not even once, did I ever feel insensitive or uncaring towards those people when I heard the news. It must have been awful, unimaginable. But it was just that: Unimaginable. I had no frame of reference for such loss, and so while I could sympathize, I couldn’t empathize. Suddenly, then, I was a grown man facing the illness and death of my own mother, with nothing to do but be present, be aware, and be loving. I saw her in the hospital a few days before she died, and as I flew back home I remember thinking: People have gone through this since the invention of people. Somehow they’ve always gotten through this, so somehow I will, too. It’s just that I haven’t the slightest clue as to how I’ll go about that. Once, I bought a book having something to do with coping with a dying parent. It sat unread long after Mom died, and eventually I threw it away. Before something like that happens, no one can tell you what to expect. After, no one needs to.

These are the searing experiences, the formative ones, the ones that shape our lives just as the births, the adolescences, the First Times, the moves away from home, the weddings, the careers did. These, though, involve pain, sometimes tragedy, and aching, unyielding loss. These are the ones we always knew were coming, but still feel as if they got here too fast, caught us unprepared, made us realize that we didn’t really think they’d happen to us, and that we’d do almost anything — no, literally anything — to back time up and keep them from happening this time.

People who haven’t gone through a firing, either as an individual or as part of a mass “effort,” can scarcely imagine what a cutting blow that can be. Especially here in America, where our identities are so tied up with what we do for a living, the panic, stress, sense of failure and ultimate sense of loss, definitely on par with the loss of a person, require (and should be given) all of the time to grieve — actually grieve — that’s required. Especially when these losses are a result of something out of our control, like a corporation’s poor performance, for example, as opposed to our own performance, that directionless sense of anger and depression can’t help but redirect themselves back onto us, so adding shame to the shit salad we’ve already just been served. It’s a loss no less debilitating than a death itself.

But what do we learn, eventually, after having the carpet yanked so painfully out from under us? The truisms click into clarity there, too, and thankfully so: We’re never given anything we can’t handle, yatta yatta. When one door closes, yatta yatta. Mom used to love “God fits the burden to the back.” These and others all may be treacly, but they’re no less true. When have we ever taken a leap of faith and regretted it? When that leap is replaced with a shove, the end result is no less compelling. Think of what we can do, now that we’re faced with a chance to change. Think of who we can even be, now that the rules have all changed. When offered a choice between staying where we’re comfortable or stepping out into the unknown, I daresay a great majority of us would choose Comfy (I used to be one of them). But when we’re not given the choice, when Comfy is taken away and we’re left with Whatever Comes Next, what are we going to do? First, I hope, we’ll realize that we’ve gotten this far in our lives, sometimes by our wits alone, and at the end of the day we’ve been okay. It was hard, it was scary, it sucked, it wasn’t fair, but we were okay. We didn’t die. So we’ll be okay this time, too. It will probably take a while, and it will suck not one iota less, but we’ll get there, and we’ll be okay. For those of you going through this now, I hope you’ll allow yourself to know this: You’ve surmounted every transition in your life up to this point. You had to have, or you wouldn’t be here now! So, somehow, and someday, probably sooner rather than later, you’ll surmount this one.

To those of you who’ve lost a parent, a sibling, a friend, “this too shall pass” always fits in situations like this, because it’s true, even if it makes you want to hit things with a hammer. The most meaningful thing I ever heard tell, though, which I learned so, so well after the fact, was this: It’s true … the love doesn’t die. The memories can’t be taken away. All that was meaningful and important and loving about that person, and all of their love for you, is now safely installed into your own heart, where they never can be hurt, and never can be taken away.

I wish you all peace now. Remember the truisms because, I’ll be darned, they’re true. Talk to people. Get out and see people. Get some exercise. Write a little, if that helps. Most importantly, surround yourself with people who’ll give you all the time and space you need to cry, to mourn, to think and wonder and heal. It’s near springtime. When you’re ready, go out and smell the flowers.

Jeffiquette

garlic

A Lot Of Garlic

 

When cooking with garlic, cook with a lot of garlic.

When cooking for guests, cook with a lot of garlic. After they’ve arrived, say “hope you like a lot of garlic!”

If they do, then you have succeeded. If they do not, then you have succeeded!

Do I Miss It?

©Jeff Horner

©Jeff Horner

Heading around to end of what constitutes winter here in Atlanta, I’d be a fool if I didn’t feel some small amount of relish at seeing what the temperatures have been doing in the upper Midwest this winter, as with all winters there. By local standards, the winter of 2014 has been mild, with temperatures stuck well below zero only a few days at a time, instead of full weeks. Snowfall has been steady, but there have been years there where it snows before Thanksgiving, stays through the beauty of Christmas, and then lingers to show its cold, dead colors well into April. That’s roughly half a year of aching, relentless bundling against the cold.

Here, we had one brief snowfall, less than an inch on the ground, yet enough to send the city and surrounding counties into predictable frenzy. Otherwise, all winter long it’s dipped into the thirties, risen close to seventy, and here at the end of February it’s already showing signs of knocking it off and going away. Any Midwesterner that tells you that isn’t their idea of a perfect winter is lying.

“You’ll get yours!” the folks away up north will tell me. “Just wait until July! You’ll be miserable!” they say. But I’ve always loved to bake in the heat, to surrender to the humidity and just be. Winter is a time when things either go dormant or die outright, call it sleep or coma or what you will. Summer, though, is when the very Earth we live on comes back to life! Throw those windows WIDE open, and let as much of that sweet summertime stink in as the room will take. Smell the soil! Smell the greenery! Hear the birds and the people out there! Those that sequester themselves deep in the artificial Arctic and complain away the summer of life; those that appear to come alive during the season of dark and death, well, I’m not one of them.

“You’ll miss the snow!” people will say — in fact they started saying it as soon as I made it known I was moving to Atlanta. Have I missed it? No. Might I miss it, next winter or some winter hence? Maybe. Probably, at some point.

No, I don’t miss the Grudging Frozen Miserable, but there is one thing I do miss, about winter. About the depths of the coldest, darkest, almost extraterrestrial night that a Wisconsin or Minnesota winter can bring:


A time comes during any winter when the simple term “Cabin Fever” doesn’t even come close. By then, it’s been months of suiting up even before taking the garbage out. Of adopting a rigid and inefficient gait just to keep from slipping on the ice, which eventually is everywhere. Of coats and hats smelling like they could use a good airing out, with no outside air in which to air them. Of feeling like it’s dark all the time, and that when the sun shines it’s a glare.

At that same time, sometimes the night temperatures will sink down well below zero, and the wind chill (first one to say “Real Feel” gets a pie in the face, I mean it) hits something lunar, like -30 or -50 or something immediately lethal like that. When that happens, the air is far too cold to hold any moisture at all, and the stars shine, truly, like diamonds. The space around them is so black, and their points of light are so sharp, and so multi-colored, that they appear as something which most definitely should have some sort of sound; something tiny and musical, mystical and magic.

Sometimes — definitely not always — I would take advantage of that magic and actually head out into it. When cars labor to start and unexposed extremities freeze and fall off, I would layer up in t-shirt, flannel shirt, sweater, and heavy winter coat. Sweatpants under oversized jeans, thermal socks in thermal boots, a scarf, a hat, mittens over Thinsulate® gloves, until I found it to be a mild effort even to bend my arms or move my legs. I’d pour steaming herbal tea into a travel cup, and then I’d travel. The upper Midwest being largely flat, I would aim for a county or state park somewhere sheltered by trees or bluffs, twenty or so miles out of the city, leaving the freeway, then the state road, then the county road, then the dirt roads behind. I’d slowly roll to a crunching stop in the snow, pull on the hat and gloves, double-wrap the scarf, shut off the car, and get out. Immediately: Magic.

The quiet of any windless night after zooming in a car can be stunning, no matter when. Without summer’s crickets, or birdsong, or low-grass scurrying, or children shouting from their yards miles away or even heavy traffic whispering along a freeway somewhere, the quiet on a night such as this is, at first, absolute. I just stand, feeling the blood move through my entire body, testing the cold with my nose and face, ready to retreat but thrilled to be out in the fresh air. Of course it’s cold — eventually it’ll feel deadly cold — but for now it’s fine, and the change is exhilarating. I walk out ahead on the road, packed smooth with snow, listening to my feet crunch. I stop again, my body heat doing its job inside all the layers, and I look up; just rotate my head back and stare straight up at the stars. This world, this nighttime of stars and quiet, was such an easy luxury just a few months ago, but now it’s as if I’ve stepped out onto the surface of another planet. As I watch, I see satellites glide across the sky. More often than not I see a small meteorite, sometimes a big one, again seeming for all the world as if there should be an accompanying noise: A hiss, a scratch, but nothing. As the silence settles around me, I start to pick up on small sounds. A branch ticking against a pole a few yards away, the air barely stirring. A small animal gets used to whatever I am and continues the foraging beneath the snow I interrupted when I showed up. A single bird, so out of place in the scene, calls once. A dog barks, in this thin air probably five miles away. I walk back and lean against the car, fascinated by how not-cold I am, and the thoughts just come. Memories, dreams, ambitions, my place in the world, my place in the Universe. After all these months of furnacing and blanketing and hurrying, I’m outside, and the juxtaposition is luxurious. I’ve broken the rules and survived. I’ve stepped out of time and I’m experiencing the frigid night all alone, and it welcomes me.

Eventually, the novelty wears off, the cold begins to seep in and really make itself known, and I realize I’d better step back into line and go back to the inside world where everyone else is stranded. I get back in the car, pull off the hat and gloves and pilot my little bubble home again. I only ever did this once or twice each winter when it got really bad, but I always — fully always — was changed by it. I’d stepped out of my world for a moment, and was rewarded with a peace of mind and calmness of thought that had long been absent.

Do I miss winter? No, I don’t. As I write, the temperature here is a above normal near seventy, the birds are singing and the breeze smells sweet. In Wisconsin, the temperature is a little below normal at minus one, and virtually no one is enjoying the breeze, not even the birds. Here, tonight it might dip down into the thirties. There, it’s forecast to hit minus seventeen. It’s not just that I’m going to like it here, it’s that I already do.

Age before beauty

Look at these beauties in Annie’s photo. It’s been said that a photographer has three quarters of their work done for them when photographing something beautiful, be it a person or a sunrise. I tend to agree.

But there’s nothing wrong with that. Shooting and viewing an image of a lithe young thing is thrilling, inspiring, joyful. We see youth, we see perfection, we see sex come alive, and as we get older we see those things through different eyes, made so by our evolving perspective.

Photographing something or someone worn and aged can be a vastly different experience, as the photographer and as the viewer. Shooting an ancient wooden gate, for example, brought down to its most elemental self through decades of sun and wind and rain, can be spellbinding. So much texture, such detail, something different to be seen with each viewing.

Not to carelessly conflate this beautiful couple with an old gate; shooting older people is equally fascinating, for sometimes similar reasons. Look at the lines, the texture, the years of smiles and tears made manifest on the faces, all long gone away but at the same time vitally present on the very faces before us. Beauty can come in so many different ways, be it young or old, each with their callings, each potentially lacking something the other effortlessly possesses.

©Annie Leibovitz

 

With that, then, have a look at this wonderful portrait of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and have a read about the classic movie they made together a half-century ago. I’ve always had a thing for each of them — go figure — and they each look as stunning in their eighties as they did as exquisite young people.

For Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music Was Never “So Long, Farewell”

 Vanity Fair, March 2015

Triple-Chocolate Cheesecake

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FOR THE CRUST:

1½ C. very finely crushed chocolate cookie crumbs (about 30 Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers)

3 T. granulated sugar

½ t. ground cinnamon (optional)

¼ C. unsalted butter, melted

FOR THE FILLING:

½ C. sour cream

2 t. pure vanilla extract

1 t. instant coffee granules or espresso powder

3 packages (8 oz. each) cream cheese, at room temperature

3 T. natural, unsweetened cocoa powder sifted if lumpy

¼ t. table salt

1¼ C. granulated sugar

3 large eggs, at room temperature

(C.=cup ; T.=tablespoon ; t.=teaspoon)

 

Make the crust: Heat the oven to 400ºF. In a medium bowl stir together the cookie crumbs, sugar, and cinnamon (if using) until blended.

Drizzle with the melted butter and mix until well blended and the crumbs are evenly moist.

Dump the mixture into a 9-inch springform pan and press evenly onto the bottom and about 1 inch up the sides of the pan (I use a straight-sided juice glass to get the corners and sides, but any flat-bottomed implement will do, or even your fingers covered in plastic wrap). Bake for 10 minutes and set on a wire rack to cool. Reduce oven temperature to 300ºF.

Make the filling and bake: Mix the sour cream, vanilla, and coffee granules in a small bowl. Set aside and stir occasionally until the coffee dissolves.

Carefully melt the chocolate (double-boiler, or I just use a pan on the stovetop set to Low). Stir until smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese, cocoa powder, and salt until very smooth and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl and paddle frequently (and with each subsequent addition). Add the sugar and continue beating until well blended and smooth. Scrape the cooled chocolate into the bowl; beat until blended. Beat in the sour cream mixture until well blended. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until just blended. (Don’t over-beat the filling once the eggs have been added or the cheesecake will puff too much.) Pour the filling over the cooled crust, spread evenly, and smooth the top. Bake at 300ºF until the center barely jiggles when nudged; 50 to 60 minutes. The cake will be slightly puffed, with a few little cracks around the edge. Let cool to room temperature on a rack and then refrigerate until well chilled, at least a few hours, or overnight for the best texture and flavor.

To serve: Unclasp the pan’s ring, remove it, and run a long, flat spatula under the bottom crust. Carefully work the spatula along the full bottom of the crust, then slide the entire cake onto a flat serving plate. To cut, run a thin knife under hot water, wipe it dry, and cut into slices, heating and wiping the knife as needed (the “hot knife through butter” metaphor works literally here.)

This is a very rich, dense cake. Chocoholics will levitate. If, however, it’s too rich for your or your guests’ comfort, serve it with fresh raspberries or strawberries, a simple sauce made from either of these berries, or even a small dollop of whipped cream or crème fraîche.

Modified slightly from a recipe in the March/April 2003 issue of Fine Cooking.

What We Have Here . . .

woman-angry-with-phone-shutterstock-510px

Communication (latin communicare):  the process of sharing information, knowledge or meaning.

People don’t write letters anymore. I don’t write letters anymore. Nobody writes letters anymore, I suspect, because not only do they involve too much effort in the production, but also do they take too long to produce a response. We’d like our communication instantaneous, here in the Jetsons future. Immediacy, please — we’re busy.

With all of the myriad ways we’ve created to communicate instantaneously; that is, to produce both our questions and our answers — our calls and responses — it seems to me that there has come to be something seriously broken in that binary: We call, but we don’t respond.

“Sorry I didn’t get back to you,” someone might say if pressed, “I was fill in the blank.” Out of town? So what. In a coma? Understandable. Too busy? What’s that stuff that comes out of the back of a horse again? It would have taken you ten seconds to respond, if you’d wanted to. The actual fill-in-the-blank, in a great many instances, is something along these lines: Sorry I didn’t get back to you. I was simply disinclined to do so. I didn’t feel like it. It didn’t matter enough to me.

We no longer communicate with. We don’t communicate to.  We communicate at people. We lob bunches of words and information at people, assuming they’ll be there to catch and act on them, somehow, and if we want a response right away, we sulk until we get it. When we are the lob-ee, however; when we’re the one’s being dumped on with the communication, and when that communication is simply not that important to us (never mind how important it might be to the lob-er), we blow it off. No “got it.” No “interesting, let me get back to you.” Not even a “phuckoff, you’re being ridiculous.” Simply…not…anything.

This isn’t about generational age, I don’t believe. I’ve experienced this with young and old both. I have a friend who’s often in the habit of sending me a text that obviously took a long time to thumb together; paragraphs. “How are you? I am fine. Great to see you. We must do that again sometime. Did I leave my thingie in your car? What are your thoughts on the movie we saw? Have you spoken to Izzy about the hit?” You’re kidding, right? Let me just pull my car over to the shoulder and spend the next seventeen minutes thumbing back to you, in order of points received. In realization of the great irony that this person used their phone — their telephone — to create that message, I’ll often assume that they are then still proximate to that phone and will attempt to call them back. “Oh,” they’ll say, “I just sent you a text.” There is something in their voice. They’re upset. They’re annoyed. It took them a long time to thumb that. They’re busy. “I know,” I’ll say,” that’s why I’m calling! I haven’t found your thingie, and Izzy was out of town.”

Once, not too long ago, I asked a colleague about his propensity to send detailed texts, instead of using the very same device to very easily make a phone call. “Yeah, but that would involve an actual conversation,” he replied, without a trace of irony or self-awareness. Yes, yes that’s true, it would. Unless you’re praying for voicemail, but God doesn’t usually work that way. Use your grown-up skills. Talk to the nice people. They’re not the same as the video-game people you shoot. They’re far more intricate, and usually less threatening.

It’s no secret that people hide behind technology in lieu of actual face-to-face discussion. Heck, even using the 20th century telephone was technology in place of presence. We all have known people who will say, by way of Devine excuse, “I just don’t like talking on the telephone.” Yes, I hear they’re working on the ones without electrified prongs, but meantime let’s just sort of struggle through it. Does the fact that they “don’t enjoy talking on the phone” mean they’ll go the extra bit and meet to talk face-to-face? Of course not. They’ll just tend not to communicate.

Once, I worked at the headquarters of a very large “Fortune 100” corporation. This corporation, as do all corporations, had spent millions of dollars on their email system, and their overwrought mailing lists were the stuff of legend. Have you ever tried to communicate with anyone, to any true effect, “over email?” Intentions are misread. Bosses are “cc’ed.” Asses are covered. Calls and responses, in a foreshadowing of the dawning Facebook, were endlessly copied and pasted in to still more emails, by way of response, by way of accountability, by way of refutation, by way of communication. A classic example of words being flung far and wide and very little being communicated.

I recently started interacting with a service provider in another state. This person bills their services, as many increasingly do, as being completely on-line, Internet-based. People pay sometimes large amounts of money to take advantage of the knowledge and experience on offer, and as long as the provider is in either a mood or a mode to disseminate information, all’s well. Send an email with your own question, clarification, or idea, though? Nothing. Crickets. Perhaps they haven’t seen it yet. Perhaps they have but they’ll get back to me later. Perhaps there was something inappropriate in my deciding to initiate conversation first. Perhaps they were busy with other things. Regardless of their reason, though, I’m left in the dark. Is it in my spam folder? It’s been three days — did I accidentally delete their response? Maybe I’ll give it another week. How long is too long? The end result, after everything, is nothing. No response. No communication at all.


Picture the same scenario in person: You walk up to someone, you ask them a question, something appropriate, something salient to that particular relationship. Imagine them refusing to meet your gaze, and after a few minutes, while you’re waiting for a response, imagine that they simply walk away. Ridiculous. Probably hardly ever happens, in the real world. But online? Via text? Via email? It happens all the time. You’re left with nothing but a question mark, and no way to follow up.


Because the follow-up is worse. In this gizmo-based non-comminicative communication, there are no options I know of to address the issue. “Did you get my text?” “Did you get my email?” “Did you get my voicemail?” Those are all usually, and in this context understandably, polite versions of “why didn’t you get back to me?” Regardless of the situation, what I will normally find is that the person is offended that I’ve pressed them. Never mind how offended we might be that we were, in effect, completely and wholly blown-off. They are offended that we asked about it. We called them on it. We caught them being bad, and they resent us for it. Can I have my answer now that we’re talking? No. Now I’m mad at you.

I wish we’d grow out of it. I wish we’d all band together and refute the prognosticators who have long said that technology is making us childish, self-serving meatsacks and talk to one another like grown-ups, even just to prove them wrong, damned prognosticators. It takes no more than ten seconds to respond, using our gizmos, in even the most terse and basic of ways. Especially the “professionals” playing grown-up with the neat toys: People have entered in to this relationship respecting you. Have the sense of decency to at least behave, outwardly, as if you respect them, too. It takes so little effort.

Until then, please leave your name, number, and time you called, after the beep. If you’d like to leave a call-back number, press five now. If you’d like to send a fax, press six now. If you’d like to end this call, please hang up now. 

Merry Christmas — 2014

xmas

©Jeff Horner

 

I’m not one to say “Merry Christmas ‘To Those Who Celebrate’,” simply because I assume that last part is implied. The “to those who celebrate” part sounds like so much boilerplate legalese, like “void where prohibited,” or “the beverage you are about to enjoy is HOT!,” or “employees must wash hands.”

There’s too much of that bland emotionless ass-covering in 21st Century America, don’t you think? Christmas is what I celebrate, but I don’t hate Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or the Solstice, or Saturnalia, or any of the rest. They’re just not familiar to me. Christmas, to me, means joy, wonder, and togetherness and fun and new beginnings — it really does — and that’s what I mean to convey. So Joy, and Wonder, and Togetherness, and Fun, and New Beginnings, to everyone!