This past week I decided to change living arrangements chez Epstein. I turned my office into a den and our spare bedroom into an office. Sounds simple enough. I soon realized that I would have to hire professional movers to lug a couch, a weighty television set, and several bookcases and a few file cabinets from one room to another in our apartment. I was prepared to do so, and to pay the expense, which came to $288 plus $60 in three $20 tips for the men who did the lugging. I wasn’t prepared for two days’ loss of the use of my computer, television set, and landline phone, due to the loss of my cable connection, which rendered me, apart from the flip-phone I carry around, essentially incommunicado.
I don’t use a smartphone because I would be checking it too regularly for emails, texts, and other information. I already do too much of this on my computer when at home. I am, I’m embarrassed to report, a man who checks his email 25, perhaps 30 times a day. What do I expect to find there? The usual things, I suppose: extravagant offers for my modest services, announcements of my having won grand literary prizes, news of vast inheritances, feelers for university presidencies in gentle climates or possibly for an obscure cabinet post. That none of these items has shown up hasn’t stayed my optimism.
I should have but hadn’t quite realized how strong a role these three machines—the Internet, television, and the telephone—have come to play in my life. Was it Emerson or some other Waldo who said “man rides machine”? Whoever it was, he got it wrong. Our dependence on these three machines has, if anything, grown greater and greater. I write “our,” but perhaps I really mean “my” dependence.
I rise at 6:00 a.m. and, with tea and toast before me, begin my day reading a serious book. I also turn on the television set, with the sound off, and read the crawl, which gives me the weather and news of murders, fires, and political scandals in Chicago, none of which ever seems to be in short supply. At 7:00 a.m. I turn up the sound for CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose (Il est Charlie), which begins with a segment called “Your World in Ninety Seconds” that provides national and international headlines, and 90 seconds of it is all I can bear. An hour later, just before rising from my chair, I check the day’s listings on my movie channels, hoping there is something worth recording to watch that evening or later in the week.
The television doesn’t go on during the day, but at 5:30 p.m., a glass of Riesling in hand, I watch the evening news. I could never stand Diane Sawyer’s false empathy, or Brian Williams’s false earnestness, and so settle for Scott Pelley’s false seriousness. (It helps that I refer to Pelley, if only to my wife, as Chuck E. Cheese.) Sometimes I will turn to the soulful ladies of the PBS NewsHour, or flick on Fox News for the amusement of watching my friend Charles Krauthammer, wearing his game face, give the president of the United States his daily shellacking. Two days without these divertissements, I have to confess, threw me.
Email has gone a long way to replacing telephone calls for me, though I continue to get a few from friends, between the various calls asking me to donate my car, check my credit, or have my ducts cleaned. Only two people, my wife and granddaughter, have my cell phone number, and it rarely rings. The main drawback to being without a landline was that I couldn’t ring in people who called from our lobby.
I missed the Internet most sorely. Apart from my tic-like checks of email throughout the day, I spend 40 or so minutes every morning reading a few blogs (Anecdotal Evidence, Bill Kristol, Jonathan V. Last, etc.), checking a few websites (Arts & Letters Daily, Mosaic, The Daily Beast), glimpsing the headlines and obituaries in the New York Times, reading John Podhoretz on Twitter. I am a Facebook friend to 10 or 12 people, but a one-way friend only, since I have never put an item on Facebook, nor ever intend to do so. Occasionally I’ll Google myself, to see who has freshly insulted me. Only on the Internet can one be called, as I have been, both homophobic and an old poof.
When my telephone, television, and Internet were restored, I had six calls waiting, none of them of any importance, and 70 or so emails, only one of which was significant; no shocking items had appeared in the New York Times obits; Scott Pelley was as pompous as ever; and Charles was still kicking the president’s butt. Might it make sense, I begin to wonder, to take two such days off every week, in the name of intellectual hygiene?