Don’t you find it irksome the way young people turn their gaze away from passing natural scenery, vis-à-vis the view, burying their little post-adolescent noses in some little electronic toy? Damn straight, until you find that you have joined them, telling yourself all the while that, well, this is different. And it is, isn’t it? I mean, after all, you have had such a hard time with your new iPhone. Having purchased the latter with great reluctance and after much delay…noting that your little flip phone is increasingly a thing of the past…that handheld e-mail is now the norm, that people don’t search for restaurants before they leave home these days, just do so on the sidewalk, smartphones ablaze. That combined with ever present safety concerns particular to a quadriplegic on the go. And, everyone tells me, I am going relatively constantly. Mostly to the bathroom, but never mind. Route 66 being both an age and a highway, both heavily oriented toward the past…and to live in anything like the present you simply need an iPhone or its spiritual cousin.
Which explains why I am seated in the back of a rented wheelchair van, hurtling south toward Monterey. Because I am very much in the back of this vehicle, Jane in the driver’s seat, our young companions Valerie and Luis in front of me, my wheelchair stashed at the very back, I have what might be called a commanding view of things. They should be appreciating the California scenery, I am thinking. Valerie and Luis should, beautiful as it is, there being only one Monterey, after all. But somewhere north of Gilroy all these opinions have evaporated. Because, it has dawned on me, this is my chance to come to grips with my iPhone. After all, there it is, on my lap, and I cannot kid myself, I have no pressing business. And even if I did, there is a limit to what one can accomplish buckled into a wheelchair that is tied to the floor of a van, motorway pavement flashing beneath all the wheels. So, what the hell. Turn on this silly iPhone and have a go.
Of course, there’s nothing silly about the iPhone, and my churlishness only masks a certain fear. Essentially, that I am past it. Too old to learn new tricks. Which also masks the hope that this is not true, that I can rise to the digital challenge. Or, more accurately, that I can defeat certain bad attitudes. And then there is the final level of attitudinal difficulty, my neuromuscular decline. Of course, all these factors, physical, psychological and spiritual, all are dynamic, moving on apace. But fortunately, not at the same pace or, even more fortunately, not in the same direction. In fact, this very iPhone challenge throws me into unconscious confrontation with all of the above. And the unconscious part is good, for thinking too much about some things only slows those things down. And nothing is slowing down, not with Jane at the wheel, Gilroy already a distant memory, current vehicular whereabouts unknown, not to mention forgotten…being deep into iPhone fiddling.
Let us be clear. I have difficulty turning the thing on. And I have long since given up on turning it off, for there is no off, as far as I can see. And I can’t see very far into iPhone Land. Knowing that Jane is steering most determinedly toward a particular spot in the Monterey area, why not explore our route and destination? After all, this is what makes smart phones smart. They know where you are, just like your mother did, or should have. This, coupled with voice recognition, a technical marvel with which I am already well acquainted…we should have no trouble calling up the whereabouts of the monarch butterfly refuge in Pacific Grove.
I set about punching and pressing and sliding. These are the essentials of the iPhone. Unfortunately, every single one of these motions eludes me. You press the ‘on’ button, well, it really isn’t an ‘on’ button as much as the button…let us call it the central button…anyway, you press it one way and the main screen appears. Press it another and Siri voice recognition activates. Unfortunately, there are several other ways to press this button…or there are myriad consequences to pressing this button…I am not sure.
Carefully noting how I am pressing the button would make all the difference. But I do not get to this step. I carefully note nothing except my rising panic that I am too old, my hand too short of feeling, my body too short of hands. Still, by stumbling and trying and stumbling again, I do find myself making some sort of progress. What I don’t know and what I probably shouldn’t know, is whether or not I am online or off-line and being charged for dumb behavior on a smart phone. In fact, my finger flailings may easily have connected me to an Antarctic research station, person-to-person, and I can expect a phone bill that will require a Small Business Administration loan.
Not to worry, for somehow I have found a website for the monarch butterflies in Pacific Grove. Which is a good thing, because we are now in Seaside, the outskirts of Monterey. Which switches us from motorway driving to city streets, the very sort of thing a smart phone is smart at doing. Should just be a matter of plugging in our current location…except that I don’t have to do that, the phone being smart and all. Just say where we are going, that’s right, speak it out loud…and the phone will do the rest.
I press the button for Siri, see the microphone icon flashing and speak my mind. I speak my mind repeatedly, for nothing seems to be happening. Worse, without motorway noise to shield me, everyone in the car can now hear the elderly idiot in the back of the van intoning the same thing, with an inflection ranging from the angry to the desperate, ‘show me the route to monarch butterflies, Pacific Grove, etc.’
Would you like to search the web? This finally comes at me from the iPhone speech box. It has one, I now discover, and this so unnerves me that I give up completely. Besides, although Jane has asked me to confirm her route as a sort of backup, clearly she needs no such confirmation. In fact, despite my technological failures, one of the delights of this trip is Jane’s love of Monterey. We have never been here together before. This fact of her sense of place, coupled with her love of animals, makes technology superfluous. Jane is honing in on the site with an instinct as keen as that of the butterflies. The latter fly here from Mexico every year, more than 2000 miles, without the aid of MapQuest, SatNav or any technology. They are role models for us all.
And there they are hanging from eucalyptus trees, an invasive species. Fuck it, the monarchs say, we are invading ourselves. The docent who helps me see the fluttering hordes in a distant tree limb does note that the butterflies have declined in number, year by year. I sense that we are here in the nick of time. Both to see them and to help them. How we will assist is unclear, but never mind. For the light of day is failing. But not Jane. In the best English tradition she has gone striding off in search of a view. With my wheelchair in the high-speed setting, I can barely keep up, hurtling down the road in pursuit of her. Luis and Valerie are working hard to keep up too, until rounding a bend in the suburban forest of Monterey cypress, eucalyptus and coastal pine, there she is.
Jane has brought us to an overlook. The day is descending orange into the Pacific, and we can see the sunset through the trees. Somehow we clamber back in the car, the van accommodating such maneuvers with amazing speed and ease…and make our way down to the famous beach at Asilomar. Incredibly, there is a disabled parking spot and a wooden wheelchair-accessible boardwalk through the sand dunes. The sunset intensifies, the entire phosphorescent sea reflecting orange. The able-bodied scrambled down to the ocean. I sit and stare at creation. Which is incredible. And, yes, my iPhone is present just in case. But it has, I think, turned itself off.
Oh, did I mention that my recent iPhone manipulations played out against a backdrop of motorway vibrations and bumps? Worse, did I remind myself of this later? It is as though I have never gotten over the panic of my own shooting. Any slippage, a sign that things are getting worse…and I am braced for this bad news. And it comes, of course, life being what it is. At which point I reset and brace for the next bad news. On and on, tomorrow and tomorrow. Other people seem to pick up their iPhones, press ‘on’ and begin a merry bout of convenience. Why can’t I? How does fantasized normalcy fit into this? It doesn’t. I am trying, honestly trying, to live with paralysis and aging and mortality. How, and what is my secret? A Life Coaching app on my iPhone.