Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Strangers in the Night (and Day) (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Strangers in the Night (and Day)

The universal adman’s image of human closeness is two lovers on a promontory, backs to us, entwined, sun going down, golden light bursting, and mood music effusing. What we don’t see or hear are their cell phones vibrating, their fingers twitching over text messages and the cords of their MP3 players hanging from their ears.
As if our social exile wasn’t quite complete by dividing us into marketable age groups, sticking us into isolating houses, and isolating jobs, we are driven apart even more by attention-demanding electronic gadgets. I’ll give but two short examples of how it all began.
We lived in Paris in 1982. Parisians love to talk—their whole economy is based on it; bars, bistros, and restaurants survive only because people get together for an espresso or un verre or meal, but mostly for intense conversation: personal, philosophical and invariably probing. Hence most encounters between friends end up being memorable, exhaustive events.
A dear friend was driving me to a soirée and, as always, she talked about, what else: lovers, sex, lies, loss, and new lovers. We were having a good talk, open and honest; we were confidants, just she and I in that little Citroen, and all of Paris a backdrop. Then all of a sudden—for the first time in my life—a brand new device, her car phone rang. She answered and chatted. She might as well have pushed me from the moving car. Our intimacy, solemnity, the deep trust of the moment was no more. A distant had come between us; suddenly there was someone else with us in the car.
I hope you don’t think me melodramatic but the shock of that moment is still with me today.
Of course now our cell phones ring any place, any hour, whether we’re dining, or driving, in bed or on the moon—and we almost feel like social outcasts if it doesn’t. So we say we are now used to our social moments being interrupted, we say it’s all part of life, we adapt, we go on. But do we? The next time you’re having a special moment with a lover or a friend and his or her phone rings, close your eyes. Don’t listen to their conversation but listen to yourself—how does that make you feel. Happy? Joyful? Or ignored? Even betrayed? Just see if your heart sinks, and your spirit sags as the preciousness of that moment is lost.

The second electronic blow to social intimacy came a year later. We were living in New York in an old loft in Soho at a time when Soho was still nothing but boarded-up storefronts and garment sweatshops. Candace and I shared the loft with her best friend at art school, Giovanna. New York went through hard times then, the Lower Eastside was a near war-zone, the subway stops were reeking dungeons, many a subway car without lights or with doors that wouldn’t shut, the only reliable thing inside and out was graffiti.
But there were also truly good times, outrageous, spontaneous art, an explosion of impromptu galleries and eateries all over the East Village, late nights in bars, great blues music, deafening sounds in discos, wide open rowdy parties, and vivacious street life at all hours among the gutted buildings.
My shock came one Saturday afternoon. My head was throbbing with a hangover and my jaw sore from an altercation with a drunken yuppie who had insulted a painter friend. Giovanna decided we needed a quiet getaway on a boat that circumnavigated Manhattan. It was a beautiful spring day and the sights were fine. We laughed a lot, which made my sore jaw sorer, but it was fun traveling with two rowdy, pretty women. During a lull in conversation, Giovanna pulled out her newly acquired pride and joy, a Walkman. She put on her headphones and turned it on. To us she might as well have jumped over the side. She was gone. She no longer talked to us or heard us, or saw what we saw, or felt what we felt. It was as if she had slammed a door in our faces.
Twenty years later, these invisible doors are slamming in our faces dozens of times a day. When the cell phone rings, we tell ourselves that we’re tough and stoic, we can withstand these small rejections, but it’s these minuscule letdowns which strung end to end make up our lives and form us.
Whether we verbalize it or not—they affect us, harden us; bit by bit, they close us. And as they close us from each other, we drift apart, our conversations become more shallow, our laughter more mechanical, our sympathy more feigned.
If we can become thus distanced from our friends, just imagine how distant we are with perfect strangers. Not only do we no longer know or love our neighbor but, quite frankly my dear, we don’t give a damn. And if we don’t give a damn, why would the banker, who is about to foreclose on our house? Why would he even blink before he kicked us into the street? The banker sees his position clearly in the world: he’s all alone doing his job, looking out for Number One.Many would object, saying that these small isolations, the weakening of social bonds, have no great effect on the world, that more important things affect our daily lives. Think again. Take what happened to politics for instance. As a vast majority of Americans agreed in the 2010 midterm elections, Congress and Senate were doing a dismal job. The Democrats and Republicans had developed so much animosity that dialogue was almost impossible: everyone ranted, no one listened. This intransigent partisanship was not a condition that developed overnight; it snuck up over the years, like global warming, like the rabid financial system, like our dying neighborhoods.
Retiring Senator Dodd, who joined the senate thirty-six years ago, lamented that over the past two decades there has been a “stripping of the socialization, which is always what made this place function.”
He remembers the late hours in the members’ dining room, where senators mingled, where he sat enthralled listening to the old bulls. “As a new member, you just sat there and absorbed it as they would rib each other and sometimes have a heated debate about a subject,” he says. “It was as good an education as you could get about the place.”
Today, “there’s no one in that room.”

While some gadgets drive us apart, others keep us from ever coming together. The best example is that true marvel, the GPS. You just tell the little lady in the box where you want to go and she will get you there; all you have to do is turn on your ignition and turn off your mind.
The reassuring female voice tells you to slow here, turn there; it’s like directing an old cart horse but with electronic reins.
I admit, there is a relaxing brainlessness to the process, and most often the thing will get you safely where you were heading, aside from a few notable exceptions like the lady in Canada who, obeying her GPS, drove miles into a bog; and another in England, who drove into a river. On a daily basis, more than half the people coming to our house from Florence or Siena using GPS get lost; the last family so much so, that at one point their GPS fell into a coma.
For most of us, the GPS can turn travel into a disorienting void. A friend drove from London to his house in Tuscany using a GPS and said at journey’s end that half the time he had no clue where he was, and, upon arrival, felt as if he hadn’t been anywhere at all.
Others complain of going numb, with no thought and no reasoning; just sitting, waiting for the next command. One friend did notice that his GPS cut down marital fights; instead of shouting at his wife, he now shouts at the lady in the box. And she, instead of responding by crumpling up the map, just murmurs sweetly, “Turn left at the next right.”
A GPS, aside from shutting down your brain, keeping it from attentive observation, from doing basic arithmetic and simple problem solving, also tends to set your trip in stone. Once you key in your destination, you tend not to improvise, to veer off and take some small road on a whim, or head off toward some intriguing hillside town on an isolated coast.
But apart from that, there is a social sacrifice: the human contact you miss out on when you’re undecided or lost. I have traveled worldwide on author tours or just for the pure love of it, and have learned to rely on a simple electronic/voice device: I push a button, the car window goes down, and I yell out, “Where am I?”
It works every time—invariably someone, eventually, responds.
Some very fond memories are from encounters of the lost kind. I’ll never forget the dapper young Italian who stepped from his car into the pouring rain to explain the complex streets of the historic center of Ravenna to me, only to end up laughing at his own confusing instructions, jumping back in his car and shouting, “Follow me.”
In Guatemala, Candace and I were taken under wing by three brothers and, not only given directions, but also ushered into their mother’s house for lunch, then taken on a guided tour around a magnificent lake. Or the time in Sicily, when undecided between two roads, one along the coast and one inland, both marked green, meaning cenic, we stopped in a small town to ask local advice. Candace got out of the car and asked a local lady. The lady considered, looked at the map and gave longwinded directions. A gentleman passing by stopped and waved his arms. “That road there?’ he exclaimed, “I wouldn’t send my in-laws on that mule-trail.” The crowd grew. Soon there were six of them explaining, cajoling, countering, “Yes, but this has the view . . . but that one has the lake . . . but on this you can stop at Luigi’s for pranzo.”
Last Sunday we drove out to the sea to visit some Etruscan ruins near the town of Follonica. We arrived just before lunch and looked for the place a friend had suggested for excellent seafood. We got lost so we stopped at a small car repair place. Not only was the old mechanic happy to help, but also began advising on the best dishes on the menu. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a sign marked “Closed for holidays.” Back to the garage. The mechanic began to scratch his head then his eyes lit up. “Va bene,” he chimed. “I have it. Great food and romance,” and he described a place on piling jutting into the sea. He yelled after us, “And tell them to treat you right because Mimo sent you!”
The view was stunning, the owner friendly and gossipy, just the way we like it. The tagliatelle di mare and the pinci with clams in pesto sauce were to die for, the mixed seafood grill fresh as the sea, the bottle of Vernaccia was superb and the bill came discounted nearly 20 percent.
I’ll never forget Mimo’s smiling face, or the setting, or the meal. Not something the lady in the black box could have arranged.
These are admittedly small, fleeting events. None of the people became lifelong friends, or lovers, or sent us birthday greetings, but the memory of those meetings—brief human encounters, that come when you need them most, when you’re the most lost, forlorn or hungry—are encounters that restore your faith in human warmth, in simple generosity, in unremunerated caring.

Then there’s the pride thing. Candace and I have sailed many coasts and open waters, starting decades ago when all we had was a sextant and a compass. Nowadays, especially offshore, or off an unknown coastline, Candace, who navigates, wouldn’t be without her beloved GPS. I, on the other hand, never learned how to use it. Twice I had to sail big boats without her, solo.
Once was on a borrowed boat, sailing from the island of Raiatea to Bora Bora—about twenty miles. A storm had come through the previous night and big seas still ran in the morning, so from the trough of swells, all I saw was sky. The wind stayed high throughout the day and the sloop ran with all her might. From the top of the swells, I could spot the mountains of Bora Bora, but I couldn’t for the life of me see the only entrance to its lagoon: a narrow cut in the reef now covered by breaking waves. The trip, with a lot of gybing to avoid running wing and wing, took me seven hours. I made three runs at the reef to find the opening, twice I had to turn just boat-lengths from the coral, but, when I finally made it, I felt as proud as if had just circled the globe alone.
In a life as regimented and “safe” as most of ours tend to be; where we are seldom challenged, or called upon to think afresh, invent or improvise, I’ll happily take some chances, even risks, get lost, make mistakes, try again, just so that at day’s end I can have that incomparable sensation of having made it on my own; of having used all my senses, and been completely “alive.”

Then there are the games and apps our children appear to be attached to night and day, whether in cars, in their rooms, or at the dinner table. Exactly what positive contribution parents think they are making when buying them this stuff, I have no clue.
Parents rave about how new apps keep their children from getting bored on drives. Hello? What ever happened to gazing out the window, looking at the scenery? And even if the scenery isn’t always majestic, even if it’s a ghetto or industrial slum, is it not a good idea that they see it and think about it, so when they grow up and run the world they can remember how awful those places tend to be?
Even at the dinner table, game apps and iPads seem to be the norm. I saw a Russian family in Verona, sporting all the right jeans and longed-for shopping bags, sitting down in a good restaurant with their two children of around ten years old. They had barely pulled in their chairs when one child whipped out his iPad and the two of them started watching a movie. Not only did they not interact with their parents or each other, or barely notice the food they were shoveling into their faces, but the volume of the movie disturbed adjoining tables. Did the parents mull it over before Christmas to come up with the best package for teaching their children social isolation, culinary ignorance, absolute disregard of others, and how to be the most obnoxious children in the room?
Is it any wonder that some of our children grow up self-centered, uncaring, bored, and socially inept? How could they be anything else when parents put such antisocial weapons in their hands?
So what’s the solution? Turn the gadget off. Or, better still, don’t buy it in the first place. Brett Arends, a financial columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a paper about as conservative and technology-admiring as there is, wrote recently “I dumped my iPod Touch . . . The scarcest resource in life isn’t money, land, fresh water or gold. For singles under 25, the scarcest resource is sex, and for the rest of us it’s time.”

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through 
W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 
For more about the author, please visit

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