Near and Far

I grew up in a world of rote learning. For instance, I once knew all the abbreviations for the states before someone got wise and decided you only need two letters for each state. Kansas was rendered as Kans. which if you are scoring at home, saves you two letters but costs you a period. Think of all the time that was saved.

I also robotically knew the fifty state capitals and more enthusiastically could recite the 1967 St. Louis Cardinals baseball lineup. Today, I’m able to remember the names of my three children, although our dog’s name sometimes slips into the hard drive where it isn’t welcome.

For everything else I’ve forgotten I use Google. I use it like a drunk uses a lamp post, for support rather than illumination. In other words, I already know stuff, I just can’t always recall what I know. But now, I have access to everything and the memory of nothing, except for the nursery rhymes I once read in sing-song style to my children. Remembering them is easy but singing them makes me sound like Rod Stewart singing An American Trilogy.

Although the audience appreciates the effort. The little ones I mean. The ones with fat folding legs soft as butter who talk my language. Which is no language at all, but rather a state of mind. It’s the notion of connection, of eye contact, facial expressions, lips moving, odd sounds, eyebrows raised, and the recognition that speech is about sharing, and sharing is about life, and that life is beginning to arise through the eyes of my three grands who are blissfully unaware of all the things I cannot remember. All they seem to know now is tone and pitch. The meaning will come later.

So, I sing to them nonsense songs spuriously contrived. And I talk nonsense, mouthing contrived words without bothering to buy a vowel, not unlike telling our cat Caney that I hate her while she rubs against my leg oblivious to the slight. It’s not really important what you say but how you say it. So, I sing nonsense lyrics along with the permanently etched songs I sang to my children about barnyard animals getting into the corn and Muffin McLay like a bundle of hay. The old songs and traditional nursery rhymes still resonate with tiny folk.

What is different though is how they already interact with the lit screens of modern devices, like moths circling a flame. It is spellbinding but it will burn you if you get too close. But unlike a drunk leaning against a lamp post, they already intuitively understand what I do not. The world has changed in remarkable ways. I hope it is for the good.

Earlier this year in Michigan, Dillon Reeves, 13, was on his way home from school when he realized that the woman driving the bus had lost consciousness. The seventh-grader’s classmates were too busy playing on their phones to notice, but Dillon quickly sprang into action, grabbing hold of the wheel and guiding the bus to safety while telling his frightened classmates to call 911. Dillon’s father Steve later told CBS: ‘What else are you going to do when you don’t have a phone? You’re going to look at people, you’re going to notice stuff. As for the other students riding on the bus? ‘I had my AirPods in,’ one student explained. ‘I was looking on my phone,’ another said, with a classmate adding ‘I was on my phone playing a little game.’ Someone asked Dillon why he did not have a phone. He said that it was because his parents were old schoolFirst published on May 12, 2023 / 7:48 PM CBS News by Steve Hartman

A bunch of new school parents were glad Dillon had no phone that day.  

At the intersection of the island of Murano and Gutenberg’s printing press lies a conundrum. About 700 years ago, off the northeast coast of Italy on a small island called Murano, the process began which defines our own age, the peering into glass common to just about everyone, whether it is a television, computer screen or phone. Murano was where the glass makers were sent into a sort of economic exile and as a sort of fire insurance since city’s often burned in those days.

Isolated as they were on this island, barred from leaving, they were forced to collaborate and invent the sort of clear glass that would ultimately lead to optical lenses, optic fiber, microscopes, and telescopes. And then Gutenberg’s printing press came along in 1452 creating the literature that would make so many of us myopic. Now myopia was for everyone, not just the scribes and the elite. The mass production of books led to the mass production of optical lenses to better read the fine print.

I have unique contact lenses for each eye. In the reading lens, my right eye allows me to see well enough to insert thread into the eye of a needle. Through my left eye, I can see on a clear starless night, The Sea of Tranquility on the Moon (just kidding) but I can see really far off stuff. Seeing things close and seeing things far revolutionized the world. Those things close (microscopes) and those things far (telescopes) were unseeable and mysterious until the advances in crystal glass and lens technology.  Which led to the discovery of planets like Jupiter and tiny bits called cells which eventually led to cell phones and GPS and AI and the James Webb Telescope. 

My granddaughter, Holland, seeing life through the lenses of her Keke’s reading glasses.

As with all advances in technology, there are unintended consequences. With power there is great responsibility. And in the eyes of the young the future is held. Here is to the notion of presence and seeing things near and far, the intimate and the public, the beautiful and the plain, those things seen through lenses and those things seen through the optics of our God given eyeballs which sometimes leads us to interrupt life and stop runaway buses. Glass is a beautiful thing and a remarkable story of human innovation, but I hope we can look up from our glass screens long enough to see one another. Keep paying attention Dillon. Maybe someday you’ll get a phone. But I hope you continue to see the world right next to you. Great things happen when you do.   

3 responses to “Near and Far”

  1. Here’s to the kids like Dillon . . . who pay attention. I wish I could pay attention to the rest of the world. And, have a phone, too. But, thanks to family genetics, I can’t see anything past the reach of my hand without having to squint like Mr. Magoo.

  2. Thank you for sharing. As I rode an elevator today I had a similar experience; grown men staring at their phones almost lifeless. Me, who often cringes at silence, felt the need to break it and speak: “How about those Falcons?”, to the guy wearing the team hat. He made no eye contact or much acknowledgement at all. A simple, “Hmm” and back to his phone. I hope we take the time to look people in the eye and appreciate the simple things- a smile to a stranger or a friendly conversation with our neighbor on the way to work. Happy Memorial Day weekend!

  3. I loved your story. You are a great writer. I too love to write. I actually wrote a book, but never even thought to have it published. Good luck with those grandbabies.

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