Thursday, July 25, 2019

Seascape (with Phones)

The morning is violently crystalline. The sun, sharp -- jabbing like a million silver pins off of the waves, more dramatic for having followed a day of rain and fog. We sit on our vacation porch, watching the bikers, walkers and joggers scramble and squeeze past the narrow stretch of boardwalk in front of us as we take our morning coffee. They talk; they bark "on your left" as they pass each other. They sometimes glance over at us as we watch them go.

Most of them clutch cellphones, no matter what else they are doing. Some hold them for music; some some manage only one side of the handlebars and grasp the phone in the other hand; some fire off texts as they go; some talk as they go. So many with such a visible attachment to this small appliance that is more than an appliance.

It's not enough that they have it. They must feel it; be engaged with it. It might ring or buzz. They are ready, like goalkeepers tip-toed against a breakaway run...

But, wait, a man and his son walk by, talking...just talking...their conversation comes into focus for us, slowly... They are not holding phones! Finally...but, wait. "So," says the dad, "I downloaded the app, and it was pretty cool, but..."

I sigh and sip coffee.

Three young girls, pretty in their summer-bright clothes and shimmering under manes of  shampoo-commercial hair strut by, wonderfully arrogant in their youthful beauty, and they are laughing and energetically gesturing. Can it be? But, no. As they pass, each has her phone carefully set to be visible in each right back pocket, bright in its neon case and worn as a fashion accessory or like a kind of uniform accoutrement, not unlike an epaulet or a badge...

A young man, glistening with sweat as he runs, well-muscled, seemingly focused on his workout, but the landscape of his physical vigor is broken by a strap around his arm to which his phone is clipped. Measuring distance? Counting steps? Either way, it is a part of him as he strives. It is like a black blemish on his arm. It is a presence in the process, not the old timekeeper's stopwatch whose time is revealed only after complete inner focus on being fast and strong, but a presence that says: "You are being monitored; you are being recorded; you are being watched from the sky by a satellite eyeball. Your steps are being counted."

More joggers, these without earphones, and they rush by blaring music from the tinny speakers of the phone itself, half-listening to music that is half alive, chopped, as it is, in two by the handicapped range of the tiny speakers in their devices. Everyone is forced to listen, too.

Families walk together but not together, each member engaged outside of the warmth of where they are, now, by the seaside; they are tapping the screen with thumbs or they are sequestered into different mental rooms with ear bud-generated walls.

A lone woman, exceedingly thin, dressed in a carefully-coordinated exercise outfit, holds the phone to her ear and explains to a friend that she is "doing [her] walk" and I wonder if she is gaining the physical benefit and throwing away the mental benefit of her exercise. (She is not sweating; her pace is casual, so maybe the physical is being missed, as well, the banal conversation slowing her pace...)

I can't find anyone not visibly conscious of his or her phone. I know that to have one is a modern necessity, but the invisible tether is visible if one looks hard enough. And the presence of such a constant skein of connections clutters the seascape with artificiality the way garbage clutters a neglected stretch of beach.

Then, he passes, knobby knees pedaling and old bicycle with jangling metal fenders. He moves more slowly than some of the walkers. His legs are brittle and white and he wears belted shorts that used to be pants and a plaid-patterned shirt. On his head, a deflated white baseball cap. He must be eighty years old. I get a good look at his face as he goes by, eyes out and alive, his ancient skin crinkled at the corner with a slight smile. He nods at us as he passes and picks a path among the joggers and walkers, now and again glancing over at the waves. In his back pocket, a tightly-rolled newspaper, which must have been the object of his morning's quest upon his rusty Rocinante.

I don't know if he doesn't own a cellphone, but I do know that, if he does, it is sitting forgotten somewhere on a nightstand or on the kitchen counter next to the morning mail. And so, he passes, the free man; the only one who smells the salt air un-tinged with plastic and undiluted by the elsewhere-thinking of our brave new world.


  1. Fabulous reportage. I can see everyone quite clearly, exactly as you depicted them. Thank you for this essay on our modern-day society...

    1. Thank you, Elsa Louise, for reading. Great to hear from you.

  2. Nice... but I do wear an armband to hold my phone when running. Music, you know. Hard to sing/play & run.

    I also like to know that I went 3.17 miles....

    1. I can actually see the strand connecting you to the heavens...

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