Report From 37,000 Feet

Delta 757

Privileged to be seated in the front of a plane on a transcontinental flight, one settles in with one’s pillow and blanket and earbuds and elevated sense of self, stretches out and prepares to be pampered (by today’s standards) for the next four-and-a-half-hours. There are movies to peruse, meals to anticipate, and the promise of the actual ability to stretch out and sleep on a plane.

The last thing one expects, before the boarding door is closed, is a pretentious eight-year-old white girl decked out in double-chins and a rainbow colored handkerchief tied over her head, accompanied by a bear-shaped stuffed animal and a pear-shaped mother. The bear has more personality than the mother. The mother has more personality than sand. She’s white noise. A background character, straight out of central casting.

“Um, hi, is this First Class?” spouts the girl to those of us already seated. “Because we’re supposed to be in First Class.” The head flight attendant, full of home-spun Atlanta-based aw-shucks warmth, expecting a standard-issue little-girl experience, zooms up and says “Well yes it is, sweetheart! This is First Class, and I bet you and your momma are supposed to sit right here in these two front seats right here!”

“Mommy! I was right! This is First Class! I get the window,” she said. Yelled — she yelled. “Thank you SO much!” she yelled to the flight attendant. “That’s all right, darlin’,” said the FA, beginning to suspect she had a live one on her hands. The girl climbed over her mother to stand in the aisle to address those assembled.

“Excuse me,” yelled she, “can I ask you all to close your windows? Because I have very sensitive eyes.” Two, maybe three of Those Assembled fell in line, all wearing a collective expression that might be interpreted to say “you’re kind of a pain in the ass, aren’t you, dear. How much longer do you plan to suck?”

All was back to normal for a while, as we taxied out to the runway. “Okay, Mommy, we’re just about ready to take off! We’re just about ready to take off!!” The mother, best described with words like “spineless” and “mousey” and “gelatinous,” smiled wordlessly into the bulkhead. “BYE, CALIFORNIA! DON’T EVER CHANGE,” screamed the little nightmare. “MOMMY! MOM! ‘BYE, CALIFORNIA!! DON’T EVER CHANGE!!’ MOM!! ‘BYE, CALIFORNIA!!’” Mommy finally leaned in and whispered something quickly, ending the tirade. The girl made an over-exaggerated clownish frowny face, to emphasize how sad she was, then was up on her knees on the seat to display her frowny face to the rest of the cabin, at the same time providing an opportunity to quickly determine that nothing akin to Downs Syndrome was at play here. This isn’t a little handicapped victim. This is a coddled and indulged little fat girl who’s never been told “no,” at least not by Mommy.

We accelerated down the runway, the plane gathering speed as the girl gathered air. “WHEEE!” cried Satan’s mouthpiece. “HERE WE GO, MOMMY! WE’RE TAKING OFF!” The flight attendant got up long enough to insist that the girl sit properly and buckle up, a point that had eluded the mother. Another silent, exaggerated frowny face.

“I’M GOING TO JOURNAL ABOUT MY TRIP TO CALIFORNIA,” she told her mother, and when I say “her mother” I mean “the entire cabin.” My cabin mates began to realize that this might last a while. I began to realize that the little twat would plug a hole just about the size of an airplane window, and began, as we reached altitude, to have what can probably best be described as “decompression fantasies” with Prudence playing her final part as the carcass that saves us all but gives up the ghost in the process.

No need. Not so far, anyway, as darkness descends over New Mexico and Prudence spreads completely across her mother’s lap, sleeping.

New York Stories

© Jeff Horner Photography

My mom lived in Manhattan from 1958 through 1960, and shared an apartment on 89th Street they’d sublet from a divorcée who just wanted to be rid of the place, rid of the city. All of the furniture and utensils were included, if they’d just take it off the lady’s hands. Through my childhood I’d hear about this chair or that spatula that came “from the apartment in New York.” So many TV sitcoms were set in New York, or a nameless city just like it. So many movies. Books. Stories. And Mom, and this chair, and that spatula. A white suburban schlub in Madison, Wisconsin, I was fascinated.

At least once a year, in the ’60s and ’70s, we would travel back to spend time with Mom’s family in Virginia, either in Richmond or Virginia Beach. Winters we’d fly, summers we’d drive. Most of the Interstate system was built by then, but the three-numbered bypass circles were still going in, pillars rising into the sky, ready to hold access ramps and receive connectors from one highway to another. “Look, boys!” Mom would say. “Look what we can do!” The wonder an appreciation for building and technology — what we can do — has never left. We would drive for two days, through different states in the Midwest and then the East. Just past Youngstown, Ohio, there was an old original Interstate sign with two directional arrows. One would point to “Penna.,” the other to “New York City.” The state of Pennsylvania this way, the City of New York that way. “Let’s go!” I’d say. But we never went. That fascinating city, a place Mom could show us around like a pro, seemed just a few exits away, but we never went that way. Years later I realized that, by then, it was the mid-’70s. No wonder we took the other way and never looked back. New York City was a cesspool.

My grandparents would often take Mom and her sister up to New York from Richmond by train when they were girls in the ’40s. They’d stay at the Warwick at 54th and 6th, they’d dine out, they’d shop. Basically, in the ’40s ad ’50s, they knew New York at it’s best; it’s apotheosis. When Mom left in 1960 to get married, the City was just about to start its slide into the worst of what it became in 1975, although few realized it yet. “Ford To City: Drop Dead!” was what New York had become by the time I was old enough to feel its magnet.

We flew to Washington in 1976 for the Bicentennial that summer.  I remember the pilot came on and said that, for air traffic reasons, we’d fly due east over the Atlantic, then circle back and land at National. As we begin our slow descent and head out over the ocean, those passengers seated on the right side of the plane will be interested to see New York City as we pass the coast. I was! I did! I saw New York in the flesh, from the safety of a 727 thirty thousand feet up, and I was pumped. Nobody else seemed to care, but I was pressed up against the window, my eyes fixed on the twin towers of the World Trade Center until it passed away out of site. Mom and her mother had had a conversation a few years earlier about “what they’re building up in New York,” those two hideous upended boxes that everybody hated, and then everybody loved, and then everybody worshipped. In ’76, they were really the only aspect of New York I could recognize, the bay, rivers, and the island just incidental around them. We saw DC, the Smithsonian, the Capital, the White House, the whole pre-Metro shebang and we loved it, but I always remembered that trip as also the first time I actually saw New York. I didn’t know what I was looking at, really, but I new it was awesome.

Ten more years went by, until just out of college in the summer of 1986, a friend and I loaded up my four-door ’82 Chevy Chevette — certifiably never the vehicle you picture when you think of the Great American Roadtrip — and pilgrimed East, to see my family in Virginia, and to visit his cousin at NYU in lower Manhattan. I was twenty-three, old enough to take care of myself no matter what the City had to offer, but New York was already entering its true modern renaissance (some would say its forced sterilization). Brooklyn’s burning brownstones were gone, the graffiti’ed trains were being cleaned up, the City was beginning to gleam in ways that soon nobody would ever have imagined.

No matter how you come to New York, you always see it grow in front of you long before you get there. In fact, by the time you get there you can’t really see it anymore, either underground in a train, stuck away at an airport, or just perspective-shifted by its enormity from its streets. We’d spent the trip so far camping in the Poconos and drinking oceans of Miller, and now here we were entering the vortex around Teterboro, New Jersey, pulling us into New York, the Manhattan skyline firmly risen in the windshield. The country that weekend was all abuzz over something called Hands Across America, where people all over the nation were to join hands at one time and form an actual human chain from one coast across to the other one. Here I was, listening to it on the radio (a little disdainfully, even then) and crossing the country in my own way, to the mother of all cities, hands unencumbered and excited as a Christmas kid.

I should be strung up for making this analogy, but I’ll make it anyway. When I lived in Minneapolis and people everywhere were strangely excited in the same way about coming to see the Mall of America (Hugedale, we called it), virtually everyone realized after a short time that, after all, it was just a mall. A huge mall, with a flume and a rolley-coaster in the middle, but a Gap- and Abercrombie-saturated shopping mall nonetheless. Upon crossing the GWB and tumbling onto the FDR down the east side of Manhattan, New York City cast a similar pall for a bit: It’s a city. A really big city.

The NYU dorms we were looking for were down on 24th Street, but you couldn’t get to 24th Street from the FDR (still can’t). We drove around trying to figure our way, and when we stopped at a light the now-infamous groups of windshield washers would run up and clean the glass. “No thanks,” we’d shout, rolling up the windows and convinced something bad was about to happen.

But nothing bad did happen. Not in New York, not then, and not since. New York turned out to be wonderful. In the intervening years I’ve found a real polarization in how Americans especially hold New York: We either love it or hate it. We’re intimidated by it or we embrace it. We see the excitement and the possibilities, or we see the otherness and the we distrust it. It’s true what people say: There’s an energy to the City. Not just in the people there, but in everything. Truly, it’s like a current, an actual electrical presence, and depending on how you perceive this thrum — if you perceive it at all — it can make New York a thrill to be a part of or it can push you away. I can’t imagine not being thrilled by it.

My friend’s cousin took us in, put us up, showed us around. I’ve since returned the favor many times, but we had no idea how fortunate we were. There’s nothing like being taken around New York by somebody who actually knows the city. We walked everywhere. Everything was new, everything was First Time. The lions in front of the library. The statue in the bay. The skyscrapers. Bagels, hot dogs, paper-cup coffee (long before Starbucks), people everywhere. The ’80s were in full bloom, the geometric clothes, the geometric hair. CBGBs. Even though Manhattan’s renaissance was already gathering steam, a great deal of the battered, shuttered city still showed up everywhere. Times Square was still a dark place, the XXX theaters and hookers and dealers still in plain view.

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.

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

What We Have Here . . .

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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.