All That & Siri, Too

It began with the iPhone I bought in January.

I’d wanted one for years. But at $400+, it wasn’t at the top of my shopping list. So I stuck with my $50 features phone. Who cared that the flimsy plastic back flew off every time the phone slipped from my hands and onto the floor. Or that hard-to-push buttons built muscles I didn’t even know I had in my thumbs. My cell and computer let me do all the talking I needed — so I thought.

I knew one other quasi-Luddite, a university colleague who studied the English Renaissance and owned a flip phone even older than mine. Brian’s pleasure lay in “resisting the system.” In practice, this meant not only dispensing with smartphones but also avoiding social media. He was my very own Neo: Matrix unplugged and proud.

Cut-rate cell phones made us comrades-in-arms. But Brian still made me feel guilty as hell. Unlike him, I'd sold out to both Twitter and Facebook.

“I don’t use them often,” I told him once, hoping that a near-derelict Twitter account could balance out my weekly Facebook sins.

“Dump them, join forces with us!” He was laughing, but Brian’s zeal still seemed evangelical.

My colleague wanted to shield personal information from data miners looking to make a buck and keep smartphone satellites out of his business. I just wanted do things on the cheap. If I could avoid Big Brother, that was a bonus.

Three months later after my purchase and more than a year after my conversation with Brian, I took the plunge into the Matrix-like world of total connectivity. Falling head over feet into a place with no beginning and no end, I now see my life as falling into two distinct periods: Before the Rabbit Hole (BRH) and After the Rabbit Hole (ARH).

BRH I was the Jurassic-era alien who relied on email and made distinctions between the online and the offline. By contrast, the smartphone users around me texted, chatted and data-scrolled while trying to exist in a place that sometimes required they pay attention. To their feet and where they walked. To the street in front of them and where they drove. To the person trying to look them in the face and have a conversation with them.

Homo cyborgs, I'd say to myself. All thumbs and no focus. At school, if I dared disconnect my students from their gadgets in class or took the phones from them, they looked at me in pain. It was like I was amputating an arm or leg.

And maybe I was. BRH I had no sympathy for anyone with an added electronic appendage. They struck me as multi-tasking, instant gratification addicts with no self-discipline. I kept my handset at home. Calls could wait. So could social media updates. Somehow, the world would manage.

ARH my phone travels with me. It counts my steps, charts my way across town, pinpoints the location of every iPhone picture I take and post online.  I even take it out during class breaks to check messages across several online platforms including Facebook, a resurrected Twitter feed and a new Instagram account. When it's not with me, I reach for it like a phantom limb. 

Who needs privacy when you've got all that and an incipient case of ADD to boot?

And if my eyes need a rest, my AI assistant Siri that can talk to me. It — or should I say “she” since I decided she would speak with a woman’s voice — is surprisingly clever, even sarcastic. Once I asked her to tell me a bedtime story.

“In the great green dimension,” she began, “there was an iPhone. And a red balloon. And a picture of…a Zoltaxian cow jumping over the third moon.” A smirk (or so I imagined) skittered across the features of her virtual face.

When I asked her to tell me another story, the smirk turned snarky. “Then you’ll be asking me for a glass of milk and a dark matter cookie,” she said.

 

Starting Over, Starting Out

It wasn’t supposed to be like this at 50. Maybe I'd be single, yes. But not on the verge of starting over while friends were counting the years until retirement.

The professional life I had worked so hard to build in my 20s and 30s ground to a dead halt when I was 39. Poised to finally move into full-time academic respectability, I stumbled. Badly. A pulmonary embolism, followed in quick succession by a nervous breakdown blew everything apart. Forced onto a regimen of meds that fogged my brain and transformed grief into bonafide crazy, I struggled to pick up the pieces and keep teaching. People told me to write and I did. But it made no difference. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

Wheels spinning, I tried different things. I had an affair. I took up photography. I left Tucson for the Czech Republic to teach English, vowing never to return. When I did it was with everything I owned packed into two suitcases, the rest left out in an alley for the trash man to collect. A friend in Dallas who’d just left his own job took me in. His more practical wife threw me out less than three weeks after I arrived. She couldn’t bear to have me watch as they fought each other to keep the big suburban house and perfect life they couldn’t afford.

An organization dedicated to helping the homeless found me an apartment just east of Oak Lawn, the Dallas gay district. Meanwhile I survived on unemployment until I could get surgery to fix the broken body that had traveled back with me from Europe. After that, I found work scratching out a living as a part-time community college English teacher and kept regular appointments with a therapist. I hated every anguished minute. But looking back, Dallas was also the place where I began to heal.

Fearing another another rendezvous with the street, I had started writing again. Then I noticed it. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. Not just copy for local newspapers, magazines and marketing firms that might earn some bus fare and grocery store money. But personal essays about a life that had taken a series of spectacularly wrong turns.

In late 2012, I approached poet and memoirist Lucy Lang Day, a writer I knew from my work as a Kirkus book reviewer. Calling on boldness I didn't have, I asked her to read sections from a jumble of papers I was daring to call a book. To my surprise, Lucy didn't turn me away. After reading the essays, she said,“You can get these into journals. Good ones even.” I listened to her and did.

That was four years ago. Now I'm in Austin with published essays and a book on hold, watching my profession - and the place I have in it - erode. Full-time jobs are scarce, people say, and the academic market is in crisis. But I'm done with crazy; all I want to do is leave it like a bad lover.

So here I am on yet another precipice, writing. Again.