Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Announcement: I’ve drawn my line in the sand. I’m on one side, and technology is on the other.

For the record, I have an iPhone 6, a Samsung Galaxy tablet and a MacBook Air laptop computer. I send text messages and “chat” with tech support to shoot all kinds of troubles. After years of resistance, the Colemans now have cable television. So nobody can say that I’m sour on gadgets or progress.

What tastes foul, though, is technology designed to boss me around. One exception is the navigational feature (“GPS”—Global Positioning System) on my iPhone. A woman’s cheerful voice tells me where and when to turn, thus keeping my eyes on the road and not on scribbled directions. She repeats herself incessantly, but wins points for not being as snarky with me as I am with her.

Driving around Oniontown the other day, I heard on the radio about Google’s plans to extend the GPS from my car all the way to my living room. My inner curmudgeon grimaced.

Welcome to “ambient computing” and the surprisingly affordable “Google Home” computer. This “personal assistant” can recognize all voices in your household and do each individual’s bidding. “Call Joe,” you can say, and your buddy Joe will answer—as opposed to your sister’s boyfriend of the same name. Google Home has no keyboard and resembles an egg. At 5.62” tall, it’s almost cute.

But give it access to your contacts, calendar, favorite websites, etc., and the trouble begins. National Public Radio’s Aarti Shahani described what sounds like a nasally relative moving in and interfering. In “virtual” fashion, Google Home will “follow you and study you and tell you what you need before you even ask.” Shahani promised that my assistant will be “all around [me] all the time.”

In a word, “Whoa!” I treasure my wife Kathy, but don’t want to be around even her “all the time.” After thirty-three years of marriage, my relationship advice is, “Learn how to be silent together and give each other space.”

The smart variety of eggs (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Granted, my message is beige compared to Google Home’s. It can warn you that your flight is late. It can define mysterious terms like “covfefe.” It can bark out the Browns versus Steelers score.

But what could possibly be wrong with getting instant answers? Who would object to eliminating inconvenience? Why not let technology “tell me what I need before I even ask”?

I guess there’s no harm in confirming right away that Cleveland is careening toward another loss, but inconvenience is a great teacher. Human experience would be impoverished without it.

The other day, for example, unbeknownst to my iPhone, Kidds Mill Road was closed. When I took Methodist Road instead, my navigational lady went berserk. To save my sanity and hers, I pulled the plug.

In the end her ignorance proved my blessing. I passed the Jughandle and made a mental note to stop soon for pizza and a beer. Further down Route 18 stood a family of three silver silos. Daddy was a massive wonder of the farming world, dizzying to behold. As usual, amazement appeared on a detour.

And the inconvenient detour’s fraternal twin, chance, is generous beyond measure. Most of what shines in my life has come to pass not by design, but luck. Kathy and I are married due to an impulsive high school classmate’s matchmaking improvisation. Thanks, Denise! Thanks, God!

No, Google Home isn’t for me, nor is Google Lens, available soon. Just point my Samsung Galaxy at flowers and Google Lens will speak their names. Or point it at a restaurant and get reviews.

Software already exists that will translate spoken German into English, thereby saving me the trouble of digging out my college flash cards and exercising my brain.

A route to bother and amazement (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

These marvels aren’t all bad, but as a collection they make me uneasy. If we don’t learn to wait for answers, smile through detours and make up our own minds, where will patience, endurance and wisdom come from in matters of life and death?

Most important, can ambient computing “tell us what we need before we even ask”? Please. What I need makes so little sense that I trust one voice above all others to guide me, and it doesn’t come from an egg.

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Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

“How do you perform an intervention for an entire society?”Author and film critic Marshall Fine asks this astute question in his essay “Fighting Our Addiction to Empty Stimulation.” He refers mostly to the way electronic devices compromise users’ ability to focus and concentrate, and “addiction” is the perfect descriptor. We’re hooked. Technology developed to simplify and enrich life dims our wits like an opiate.

Of course, some folks are clean. Many of my Oniontown parishioners couldn’t send a text message even if it meant saving the Titanic. In their landline-blessed homes, conversations complete with uninterrupted eye contact occur every day. Amazing!

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A field in Oniontown, right behind St. John’s Lutheran Church, that deserves undivided attention

Personally, I’m not guiltless. My addiction is mild, yet active enough that judgment from me would be hypocritical. Any societal invention getting my vote would have to show understanding and compassion and resist browbeating.

Why? Because addictions won’t be shamed away and don’t surrender to good sense. Smokers with pneumonia still light up. Slack-jawed drivers gaze at screens the size of playing cards while zigzagging through traffic. That’s being hooked—repeatedly engaging in a practice you pretend can’t get you killed.

Distraction isn’t as lethal as some drugs, but the contest is just getting started.

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse puts cocaine’s death count for 2014 at around 5,500, but distracted driving wants to catch up. According to the CDC, approximately 3000 Americans, many of them teenagers, die each year as a result of drivers texting, grooming, or eating hoagies. 423,765 get injured—a trifle which I say gives distraction the edge.
  • “At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010” (Distraction.gov).
  • “75% of college students who walked across a campus square while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. The researchers call this ‘inattentional blindness,’ saying that even though the cell-phone talkers were technically looking at their surroundings, none of it was actually registering in their brains” (health.com).

This last figure sounds benign, but it provides the central insight about our societal addiction: You really cannot do two things at the same time.

Okay, chewing gum while walking is possible, but trying to watch the news and listen to your wife talk about her day insures you’ll do both tasks poorly. Read a text message as well, and you’ve hit a trifecta: flummoxed mind, angry spouse, and bad manners.

The trouble is, technology, especially the mighty capabilities of smart phones, has conned us into acting like just about anything is more needful than chatting with the friends across the table from us or noticing how a field of oats and the clear sky can put a gorgeous frame around the road.

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Framing the road to Oniontown

Our adrenal glands go wild over everything but the plain old here and now, where loved ones need to bend an ear and clowns on unicycles offer us a laugh.

Joan Chittister writes in Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life about a disciple who asks an elder, “Where shall I look for enlightenment?”

The elder explains that the disciple needs simply to look.

“But what do I need to look for?” he asks.

“Nothing,” the elders says, “just look.”

Finally the elder shares the reality that escapes not only the exasperated disciple but also many of us over-stimulated pilgrims these days: “To look you must be here. You are mostly somewhere else.”

April Fools’ Day, 2016: A Stimulation Junkie Waits for a Second Grandson

April Fools’ Day, 2016: A Stimulation Junkie Waits for a Second Grandson

The impulse to check my iPhone has been wicked lately. Of course, today I have good cause.

This very instant (10:42 a.m.) a text message from wife Kathy landed: “Contractions are picking up.” Daughter Elena is the contractor, and grandson Killian Davis Thompson is the contractee. I suppose that would be the arrangement.

The previous update rolled in at 9:22: “They just broke her water. All is well.”

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First grandson Cole listens for his little brother, Killian

Present circumstances are compelling, but I’m checking my iPhone now only a little more often than usual, which is idiotically, pathetically, embarrassingly often. It’s as if the 4.7-inch screen—yes, I looked up the dimensions on the devise itself—will give me what I’m after, which is . . . what?

I could say that I want to calm spiritual restlessness or escape mortal ennui, but the truth is mundane and unflattering and, I believe, pandemic. I’m so confident of the affliction that I won’t bother confirming the commonality of what follows with even a whiff of evidence.

I’m a stimulation junkie. And I don’t like it one bit. Seriously, I’ve got some work to do. How can a middle-aged man who has practiced prayer-meditation for over twenty-five years be so easily and frequently uncentered?

For the last few days, Kathy and I have dog-sat Layla, Elena and son-in-law Matt’s yellow Lab, who is affectionate, but as tranquil as a panicked doe. On our afternoon walks, Layla zigzags as though she is fleeing gunfire. The point: sometimes my soul looks like my grand-dog, aquiver with indecision about where to sprinkle her next droplets of pee. I’m looking wildly about for nothing in particular, or so it feels.

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Layla attempting the old K-9 mind trick: “Pop, you don’t want the rest of your sandwich.”

11:39, and I just checked for updates, even though my iPhone plays a come-hither, noir saxophone wah waaaah when Kathy sends a text. But, hey, I might not have heard.

In fairness, updates are always tapping me on the shoulder or landing like mosquitoes on my ankles. Heaven forbid I should miss something.

I have 568 Facebook friends, which means at any moment a photograph of food porn or an unsexy kissy-lips selfie might show up. Fortunately I have enough self-control to shut off the bee boop alert for each new post.

I don’t do Twitter because the whole hashtag lingo is lost on me. Thank God for small blessings.

But, really, these early years of the 21st century conspire to distract, rush and over-stimulate all of us who let technology and the media govern our habits. Consider:

  • Not only is patience often unnecessary, it’s downright discouraged. Used to be you had to endure a week of suspense and torment between episodes of your favorite television show. Now with enough Doritos and moxie, you can cram a whole season’s twists and turns into one calendar day.
  • I admit it, I’m a Pandora fan. Sadly, my tolerance for a song that gets off to an unappealing start is low. If it’s bland, I hit the skip button. During my teenage years, we Erie kids had WJET 1400 am or K104 fm. If both were playing clunkers, we had to wait it out, commercials, news, and all.
  • Credit cards: the black holes of impatience and impulse. Why plan and save?
  • Back to my iPhone: last night at the Coleman house we wondered if Steve Buscemi was, indeed, the voice of Templeton the rat in a film version of Charlotte’s Web. Shazam. We knew in seconds.
  • My MacBook Air, at my spoiled fingertips right now, dumps most of the information I need in my lap, without a drive to the library and an interrogation of the card catalog.

And so on. It’s hard to imagine what harm there might be in getting what I want when I want it, but I think the pace is injecting my disposition full of adrenaline. When nothing is going, when my head is left hanging with “shave and a hair cut . . . ,” I bob my leg.

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Leg bobbing in coffee shop

This is not good—not for me, not for us. Get ready to roll your eyes, but I suspect that our collective stimulation addiction has fueled the rise of at least one presidential contender, Donald Trump. I keep asking myself why his frightening behavior isn’t blasting him out of contention for the highest office in the land.

Why? Because every day he stimulates us out of our wits. What will the twit Tweet next? Stay tuned. As long as he accumulates delegates, there’s no way we can get bored.

But enough of this sad digression. It’s 12:32, and I’m jonesing for Kathy’s alluring sax and a second grandson.

My Killian is about to arrive! Now that’s a great reason to stare at an iPhone screen. But a goof gnawing on a ghost pepper? Or television news bloopers from 2014? Or worse? Why do I cram my head full of such diversional potato chips?

Later on, when I kiss my grandson’s head and smell the perfume all newborns wear, maybe he’ll birth a new grandfather—a man who enjoys deep breaths and looks at the sky.

Come on, kiddo. You’ll still have the wise before-world on your skin when I hold you. Share a little with your Pop.

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Pop receives before-world wisdom

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Killian suits her. I can’t remember when I’ve seen Kathy quite this beautiful.