Hang Up and Daydream

When did ubiquity replace quality as the goal of human communication?

My young friend asks why I usually don’t have my cell phone on. It seems a strange question to me — like asking why I usually don’t leave the water running. Isn’t it obvious? Leaving a machine on when you’re not using it is horribly wasteful. Worse yet: If it’s on, it might ring.

I feel the very same way about computers. Their ease has made for easier writing, rather than better writing; more noise, but less wisdom. They remind me of the philosopher Alan Watts’ comment that the interstate highway system has made it “easier and easier to get to places that are less and less worth getting to.”

In olden times, if you didn’t answer your phone, callers tried again later. This was known as “effort.” It was regarded as a virtue. Bonus: when someone finally did reach you, you were likely to have something to talk about.

It’s not that cell phones have no upside. The “hands-free” variety, for example, has made crazy people much less conspicuous, since everyone now appears to be talking to himself. And that’s nice for the crazy people. But oh, what we’ve lost with all this ringing and talking! We’ve lost those vital, interstitial moments between receiving and sending messages that allow our creative yeast to rise. Being unavailable gives our souls the time we need to do things. Important things, like daydreaming.

As I get older, I have become very good at daydreaming — mostly about my childhood, when kids played together. I’m not talking about “sports” — they hadn’t invented sports yet, at least not the kinds that need permission slips and uniforms. No, we just played “games” — games you made up yourself! Like, “Big John the Gravedigger!” Now, that was a cool game.

One player had to be “John,” and stay perfectly still under a blanket or piece of cardboard, several feet from everyone else. Another was the “lawyer”; a third, the “witness.” Any and all other players would be assigned the roles of members of the “jury.” Everyone had to sit on the ground or floor except the “lawyer,” who paced around speaking rather formally, calling the witness, like, “Mr. McKinstry,” instead of, like, “Billy.” (We watched “Perry Mason” on TV, after all, and knew how lawyers spoke and acted.) The lawyer’s role was basically to pump the “witness” for gory details.

The “witness” was the most important player. He had to make up a story about how Big John killed his victims. The motive was always the same: Big John loved to dig graves! And if he killed you, why then, he could dig you a grave! To a 9- or 10-year old, that made perfect sense.

One time when my brother Dave was the witness, he said that he’d seen Big John “peeling” a kid’s eyelids and eating her eyeballs “like softboiled eggs.” That image cured me of sleep for several nights afterwards; I lay curled in a tight ball under my blanket with my eyes scrunched hard so no one could come in and peel me. Anyway, the “witnesses” always competed to come up with the most gruesome descriptions of the crime. (He kept picking his nose, all the while he was strangling her! He had breath that smelled like rotten eggs — probably the soft, eyeball kind — and long, bristly hairs sticking out of his wart-riddled fingertips, that he prickled their necks with!).

Finally the lawyer would say, “I see. And now, Mr. McKinstry …” (here we “jury members” would all squeeze one another’s arms in delicious terror) … “could you tell us please … “(everyone would try to keep one butt-cheek on the ground as per the rules, while getting ready to fly at the same time) … “Do you see the perpetrator anywhere in this courtroom?”

The witness would then tremulously reply with five scripted words: “Yes! He’s right … over … THERE!”

“There!” was the starting-gun. Big John threw off his cover and leapt up, roaring and racing after us. “Safety” was a tree at least a half-block away, or if we were indoors, the space under the kitchen table, two flights below our attic “courtroom.”

RUN! Run for your lives!! We were so scared by this time that no rules of decency applied. Your sister’s in front of you, she’s too slow, push her down the stairs! Go!! GO!! One hand on the wall, one on the banister; vault over, tear down the second-floor hallway EWWWWW! Big John’s right behind you! You can smell his eggball breath he’s touching your neck with his bristles AAAAAAAH!!!


Sorry: I seem to have digressed. That’s what happens sometimes, when you’re not on your cell phone: You digress. You start thinking about your brother and your sister and your old friends, and you remember, maybe, the stuff you used to do together.

But oh, how fine it is to be out of touch a while! It makes being in touch so much better … and it leads to daydreaming.

You really must hang up and give it a try, one day soon.

Chess-puzzle genius

Thought for the day: Being good at online chess puzzles is a lot different from being good at chess.

I must confess — i really must — that i usually “solve” the online puzzles, sooner or later (well, later or later, in my case). But i’m also fully aware that being proud of that is exactly like being proud that you’ve achieved a tie in solitare tic-tac-toe.

The site i always go to is the one that pops up first when you google “chess puzzles.” It shows a photo of a smiling, curly-haired, Russian-looking lad, seated with his arms partially encircling a fully set-up chessboard on a table in front of him as if he’s about to hug it, and smiling slyly at his visitors . He’s obviously looking for a patsy.

That would be me.

At work, when i get a minute, i often visit little Boris. First i click on “White to play and mate in one move!” And when i’ve (eventually) conquered it, i move on to the two-move mate puzzle, and finally to the dreaded mate-in-three. It’s nice because you click on the piece you want to move, and then on the square you want to move it to, and the board almost instantly reconfigures to show you the result of your move plus Black’s resulting move (if he has one). With the mate-in-one puzzle, when you’ve made the correct move, text below the board appears, saying, “Correct! Checkmate! Enter to win this week’s drawing!” If it’s the wrong move, it politely says, “That move is incorrect. Try again!” So you can keep trying forever, making every stinkin’ move possible, until the “Correct!” message appears. And then — lucky you! — you can hit the “back” arrow and click on the next puzzle, “White to play and mate in TWO moves!” And so on.

The rankest amateur would solve the one-move mate in about two nanoseconds, but i have actually taken whole minutes to ponder, and then gone ahead and made the wrong move anyway. And when at last i do make the right move (and i always do, Boris kindly having given me an infinite number of tries), i truly feel happy and satisfied with myself. My colleagues have all seen my hands shooting above my cubicle walls to signal “touchdown” and heard me fiercely pronounce, “YES!” as though i’d solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, even knowing that all i did was reach an inevitable conclusion a bit more slowly than your average macaque.

I can’t help it. I love chess puzzles way more than real chess, where no one ever taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey! You’ve got mate in three moves!” Or, “What are you, nuts? Try again!” If only they did that, i would have a chance. Until then, i’ll stick to my puzzles, and be happy.

Weeds and Poetry

Oh-oh: I feel a poem coming on. I have just re-read Sara Stein’s great book, My Weeds, and found it inspiring all over again.

It’s the language of leaves that kills me; the stalks and stems, the spadix and the spathe of it. You’d think, in 58 years, that i could have learned some science. But i didn’t. Now, suddenly i need to know the names of every reed and rush i see, every grass and sedge.

And if they’re weeds, so much the better! I’m from Newburgh, and i like the despised, tough things. I have “prostrate spurge” growing in a mat at the base of my front steps, in the crack between the steps and the sidewalk. Isn’t that a great name? “Prostrate spurge”! Everybody walking past tromps on it all day long and it just looks up and goes, “Hey, i may be prostrate, man, but i’m here.” And it certainly is. To detach a bit of its leaves or stems you practically have to scrape it off the sidewalk, but its root is a foot deep. I want a photo of it, to use as a kind of family crest over my door. Just below the mezuzah, maybe.

I take my weed I.D. book everywhere. I want to know more. I want to know if that’s henbit or creeping Charlie snaking around my garden and my garbage pails; bindweed or field bindweed choking the tiger lilies on the bluff. I want to know my petioles from my pedicles, my panicles from my peduncles. (“Peduncles” — those are the guys who shouldn’t be hanging around the schoolyard, right?)

Anyway, i read Stein, who’s half-botanist, half-poet, with a dictionary in one hand and a pen in the other.

Bloggin’ It Up

OK, all right: I give up. I’ve joined the New World, and i’m ralphing up a blog. But may i just ask you one question? Has there ever been a barfier-sounding word than, “blog”? “Blog” is that noise you make when you walk out of some wretched diner, and retch.

“How was your lunch?”


“Look out! He’s going to blog!”

I feel like the people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” I’ve become one of them, now: the Bloggers.

I know, i know: It’s a conflation of “Web” and “log.” But, guess what? I don’t like “log,” and i’m not crazy about “Web.”

And yet, here i am writing one. But you call it what you want. I’m going with “journal.”