My Budding Ears, or, On Being an E-Hypocrite

categories: Cocktail Hour


Dawson, sad about his creek

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on Facebook over the last 14 hours (these hours included eight hours of Facebookless sleep) which of course leaves me feeling a little bit guilty, unworthy of the serious writer mantle that I like to wear (except in summer).  Part of this spasm of activity was due to the fact that Salon picked up my “Up Shit Creek” piece and then a few other places picked it up after that. Which is to say I enjoyed the small ego buzz of being noticed while at the same time cringed at the exhibitionist spectacle of yet another author (in this case me) waving his arms around and yelling “Hey, look!”


But that’s not entirely fair–to myself or others–and what I’d like to try to be here is fair, or at least a little balanced, rather than blasting away, in grumbling old man fashion, at all things E.  I’ve been doing a lot of that this summer by the way. Grumbling and cursing. With good reason. As bad as it was back on the campus in Wilmington, it’s much worse in Harvard Yard.  You have to remember that here, unlike in the South, people never said hello or looked at each other in the first place. Now there’s not a chance of it happening. At night they all stagger around the Yard like zombies, their faces lit up by the machines they stare down into. To further insulate themselves, many of them have buds in their ears and talk out loud with no one around like packs of schizophrenics.


And so I have muttered and cursed my way through the summer. One night, with my poor appalled daughter walking next to me, I started actually accosting the i-people, saying things like “What are the orders from central control?” or “What is the robot leader telling you?” “Dad!” Hadley yelled. Until that moment she had through the height of being appalled was the fact that neither of her parents owned an i-phone.


But of course, like everyone else this side of Wendell Berry, I am a big fat hypocrite. In the late spring, training to run a 5k with Hadley, I broke down and bought an i-pod. Maybe I once romanticized running, liking the animal aspect, but at this point it is everything I can do to run 3 miles, and if that means blasting Springsteen or the Talking Heads into my ears, so be it. I have continued this unseemly practice up here, running along the Charles, at least until five days ago. That was the day I made the tragic mistake of thinking these thoughts (in full sentences) after my run: “You know, I’ve had a lot of injuries and ailments in my time, but I am very lucky that I’ve always had good knees.” Of course the next day I heard a little pop. Two days later I replaced running by the river with walking by the river and, as I headed out for my first walk, I instinctively grabbed the i-pod.

Now running with an i-pod is one thing. It’s a way to get through something tough. But walking? Walking is a nature writer’s bread and butter; walking is how I think; walking is where I get most of my words. Not only that, if I put those buds in my ears I was becoming just like the zombies I hated so. Right? Perversely, I did it anyway. And something strange happened. It is true that my best thoughts often come from walking, but it is also true that half the time my thoughts aren’t so great when I walk, especially in the city, and amount to little more than the usual hamster wheel worries and irrational anxieties that fill my mind at least half of my waking hours. Now, suddenly, there was music! The volume was still loud, from the running, and I was listening to it and not worrying. I started walking to the beat of Steely Dan’s “Home at Last,” and at one point did a little Ali-shuffle with my feet. And then something even stranger happened: crossing the bridge by the boat house, caught up in some song by REM, I saw a pigeon–just a pigeon–take off from in front of me and fly out over the water. And my brain flew with it–as surely as it ever did with ospreys.  I had the sort of brief ecstatic moment  I used to have a lot when I was a teenager, before my mind got rutted down. The moment went away–these moments are always brief and transitory–but then came back again when I saw the leaves of an oak tree fluttering.

What was happening? How had my i-pod turned me into Whitman? I suppose it was just a kind of short circuiting of my habitual thinking. One of the reasons I used to have more moments like that is that I wasn’t as used to my brain as a teenager, and now somehow the music scrambled my old brain so it felt new again.

Which brings me back round to Facebook. Sure there were the usual lesser–perhaps sleazy and certainly self-involved–reasons for posting about my essay. But that led quickly to some fun chatter and then to another post about not knowing how to use Dropbox, which led to a bunch of funny jokes from old friends from all over the country, and suddenly I was having fun typing, and though I was alone sitting in the little courtyard in front of our apartment drinking a couple of beers, I felt as if I was at a party.

P.S. I suppose my usual tactic with these little essays is to start moral and turn more human and open. But this postscript is the moral part, not to say the moral. I still reserve the right to grumble about i-phones. Why? Because once Nina and Hadley got home, my e-party ended. I put away the computer and we went out to Legal Seafood and then came home to bed and I didn’t turn the machine on again until morning. If I owned an i-phone or other sort of smart phone that would have been impossible. There would have been no time away.

Or maybe it is possible. But if it is, I haven’t seen it. In fact, I’ll end with a question. Have you ever met anyone who owns a smart phone who is able to use it discreetly and politely? Anyone who is not at least occasionally rude?


















  1. Tommy writes:

    I’m reading this at the counter at Wafflehouse waiting for my order. Such joy came to me hearing your walk evolve to tunes I know. Though I rue the lack of personal interaction, these new communication devices protect us from, now I’m part of the party instead of watching the prep cook ply his trade.

  2. Patricia writes:

    One of my pet peeves. I am surrounded at work and play by people scrolling nonstop. Some of the most polite people I know have lost their freaking minds. It’s as if they’ve lost all sense of courtesy. This may be my new favorite game.

  3. Matt Tullis writes:

    I needed music blasting in my ears for about the first 18 months of my running life. Then one day, I dropped the car off at the mechanic and ran the 4.5 miles home. When it was ready in the afternoon, I didn’t want to run, so I walked. I put the earbuds in just like I would have had I been running, and kept them in for about a half-mile.

    I live out in the country. Farm fields on every side of me. Wildlife. All kinds of great stuff. I started to realize that as I was walking back into town. I could see it all better now that I was walking, but I couldn’t hear it and that bothered me. So I took the earbuds out and walked the rest of the way, stopping frequently to take photos of the things I saw, a sign by the Amish bus stop that reads “Everyone Who Calls on the Lord Will Be Saved,” the massive fireworks store right by the interstate, a semi-trailer with a mural painted on the side and the words “Live Free or Die,” (no, I don’t live in New Hampshire). It was just so much more peaceful and calming.

    I ran with music one more time and then ditched it for that too. Last week I ran 12 miles with no music, and it was awesome.

  4. maryjean writes:

    Just bought my first “smart phone” last week and still have not had the nerve to join the masses. I look around in restaurants at all the patrons sitting at tables, everyone on a device instead of actually conversing with one another. It’s maddening.
    When did life become so dire that everyone felt the need to be tethered to an electronic device.