My great grandparents, Thomas and Esther Tate, ran a stage-coach station out of Big Smokey Valley (Nye County), Nevada, from 1886 to 1901. My grandmother, Clarice Tate, was born there, and that’s where the family lived until they moved to the Owens River Valley in California. Clarice, who lived to be 104, and was pretty lucid until she was 99, was fond of indoctrinating her granddaughter with tales of life in the fin de siècle desert, sans plumbing, electricity, automobiles, and even trains (hence the need for the stage—it ran mail and people to places where trains didn’t go). When they moved west, they rode the narrow gauge “Slim Princess” over the mountains, and I imagine that they arrived through Queen, the station in the Inyos mentioned by Frank Norris in his novel, McTeague (about which I wrote in a section of my master’s thesis, Science and Scientific Models in American Literary Naturalism; the link is to an historic map of the area).
At any rate, Gram lived through the entire twentieth century, and saw every technological change that took place. Somewhere I even have pictures of the family’s first car, taken in a stand of old-growth forest, probably somewhere in Yosemite. In Big Pine, where my father was born, they saw the coming of electricity, indoor plumbing, and all the “mod cons” that eventually showed up in the Valley. I’m pretty sure that my current views about the role of technology in human life were nurtured by my frequent, long conversations with my grandmother about what life was like in the “olden days” (a bit hardscrabble at times, but not unpleasant), and how much she thought we had given up in exchange for efficiency and convenience. After her short-term memory gave out, she spent her remaining years in the remembered places of her childhood, and was know to ask my Dad when he came to visit, “When’s the Stage coming in?” and “Who’s going to be on it?” As the State Historical Marker says, Tate’s Station became a “local social center,” and it must have been pretty exciting for a little girl growing up in a vast expanse of desert.
This latest musing about my grandmother’s life came about as a result of several new connections: the activities of a child in Robert Gardner’s 1973 film, Rivers of Sand, a story by Ursula K. Le Guin (“The Building”), another essay in the latest issue of Orion, by Robert Michael Pyle (“Pulling the Plug”), and the current toy-recall frenzy.
Last night’s Visual Anthropology class watched Gardner’s film, which considers the lifeways of the Hamar people of Southern Ethiopia. At one point, Gardner’s camera lingers on the activities of a child, carefully selecting and placing stones within a circle, which prompted a bemused question from one of the clever folk who populate the class: “Are those the kid’s Star Wars action figures?” Since this student is a fellow science fiction fan, and one who is (as I am) fond of things like Star Wars action figures, I found the comment both pointed and funny.
I was reminded of the film moment and the comment later that night as I was re-reading Le Guin’s story “The Building,” (from Changing Planes) which involves children who build small models of structures with found stones (and later participate in a more organized building of a much larger structure). Twenty-first century Western children, of course, play with blocks (if they’re lucky) or, more likely, “playsets” –models of items from films (such as the Black Pearl playset I was ogling at Costco the other day, briefly fantasizing about swinging around the masts with Johnny Depp) or construction sets of Legos. The company my son works for makes tiny styrene Millennium Falcon models and X-wing fighters (which he designed) for a collectible card game (Star Wars Pocket Models). I’m not knocking these games, because they’re so wonderfully low-tech, or even the idea of the “playset” (because for reasons I don’t really understand, I love small, manageable “worlds” like dollhouses and train sets). But, as I peruse the holiday toy catalogues, it does seem that things are getting out of hand.
In a pinch, and without toy and game companies to insist otherwise (through their advertisers), kids would probably be able to reenact scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean or Return of the Jedi with sticks and pebbles—only we don’t much give them the chance to so any more. Instead, toy designers come up with more and more elaborate ideas that they farm out to Chinese factories where probably-unsuspecting workers spray them with lead-based paints or bizarre chemicals, clog the airwaves with commercials for them during the holiday season, seduce children into wanting them desperately, and then have to recall them when somebody gets around to testing them for harmful content. Sometimes that doesn’t even happen until somebody gets sick (as with “Aqua Dots” the other day). The world seems to become more complicated and less safe by the moment, for reasons that just don’t seem to make sense. The only “reason” people buy this crap for their kids is because toy corporations plow billions of dollars into advertising. The ads are inescapable if you watch children’s television shows, and the kids’ desires are thus formed. Not needs (like simple play): amplified, bare-faced desires, capable of being satiated only by the latest Next Big Thing. Baby greed. [An interesting coincidence that occurred to me as I was editing the first paragraph of this post: The film made from McTeague, produced by Erich von Stroheim, was called, simply, Greed.]
If we really want to grow imaginative, creative, healthy, vigorous, intellectually independent children, we need to minimize the amount of technology and heavily-structured play we expose them to. And we need to begin with the television set, from whence all desire seems to spring. This brings me to Pyles’s Orion essay, about—after not having lived with a television for decades—weaning himself from oppressive technologies in general, and e-mail in particular.
I love the idea of a television-free life. I’ve managed to lower the number of hours I spend in front of the tube somewhat, but I still enjoy watching the few decent SF offerings available on nights when I’m not teaching. Baseball season’s over, so I’ll be reading more, at least until next April. But the TV is still on more than I would like because I share the house with a part-time tennis coach, who uses the Tennis Channel as a learning tool. However, the living room, where I do most of my reading, is far enough from where the TV sits that I don’t even hear it. Pyle only uses his for watching movies—the ideal use of a television set in my book. He also doesn’t have internet service, and goes to a community source to do web searches and check e-mail. The consequences of doing so, however, mean that his "mail" box gets much fuller than mine does, and he’s rather oppressed by the volume. I understand that, because I’ve got four accounts, two of which tend to get very full if don’t check them several times per day. But I can’t give up e-mail because of what I do, and my use of this particular technology stems from my refusal to adopt another: the cellular telephone.
Both Pyle and I find telephones intrusive, but I actually tend to think of them as verging on the demonic. They not only interrupt me at home when I’m busy working (despite being on the “no call” list, solicitors and pollsters manage to find me), but they’re a constant and annoying presence in other areas of my life, even though I don’t own a cell phone myself. My students’ go off in class (despite dire warnings of consequences), people talk on them constantly in the hallways and elevators, and it’s rare to see someone driving a car who doesn’t also have a phone attached to his or her ear. E-mail helps remove me from this maelstrom, and for that I am grateful. But I’m also pining after the good old days—those described by my grandmother, when a letter arriving on the stage was treasured. I am blessed to have had parents and grandparents who wrote frequent letters to me, to and from faraway places, and blessed to have been raised by historians who thought saving those letters was essential. On the other hand, the last few years of my father’s life included a voluminous e-mail correspondence between us, and I have faithfully saved every one; re-reading them brings him right back, makes him present, refreshes memory.
And so, Dear Reader (all one of you), today’s lesson ultimately involves choices. If we decide that technologies can be selected carefully to enhance our lives, I think we can learn to live well with them. Nobody, after all, really wants to give up electricity or indoor plumbing. But I’ve found that I can do without cell phones and even air conditioning during a North Texas summer. And good on Robert Michael Pyle for unplugging from e-mail and re-embracing surface mail. Later today I’m going to write a real letter to an old friend in Buffalo, who sent me one not long ago, and mail it with the great stamps I've got tucked away for just such an occasion. I’m also going to go out to the garage and locate the crate of blocks my kids played with when they were little, and bring them into the house. And I’m going to take another set to a friend’s child tonight when we join them for dinner: small choices, with not much impact on the grand scheme of things. But gestures, symbols—and hopeful ones at that.
Note: The photo of the Nevada State Historical Marker for Tate's Stage is borrowed (until I can find my own shot) from a terrific website with lots of great stuff on Nevada (geo-caching, hiking, rock art). I hope linking her site (and she's got two blogs) will suffice for permission, since I don't plan to use it for long.