I once told my friend Joyce that I’ll have to live forever in order to eat all the words I’ve ever placed in print. For example, I once referred to Portlanders who did not reside on the peninsula as “The Others,” in reference to the wild (and, perhaps, imaginary) band of jungle dwellers from the TV show Lost. I described people who enjoyed outdoor winter pursuits as “clapping their creepy mitten-clad hands around a woodstove.” I scoffed at bra fat. These things were neither downtown nor rock ‘n’ roll, both of which I considered myself to be at the time.
So, as I have just come in from my joyous, snowy stomp around Back Cove to my home in the ‘burbs and changed out of my workout clothes (no need for a state-of-the-flesh update here), I might as well fess up. In last month’s column, I boasted about my maverick bucking of social trends. Elaborate TV-watching systems, novel exercise regimes and the latest telecommunication gadgets were fine for lemmings, I implied, but I forge my own path — telephone cords, leg warmers and antennae trailing behind me.
That is, until I don’t.
Before that column even hit the stands, I strode into the U.S. Cellular store on Congress Street and got an iPhone. Two days later, I disconnected my landline, disowned the phone number I’d had since I moved back to Portland in 1990, and boxed up two telephones for the basement. Just like that, I was one of the gang.
There was a reason for this life-altering about-face: I was about to serve as writer-in-residence at a college in western Massachusetts for a week, and re-launch my one-woman show there, so I needed to be accessible. In my prior, antiquated world, “accessible” meant “Feel free to pen me a letter the next time your carrier pigeon is passing my way, and I will respond in due haste.” In other words, I rarely saw the point of talking to anyone more than necessary. What are considered advances in communication — I can get you instantly at any hour of the day or night — are pretty much the definition of a nightmare to me. Unless an ambulance or a Pulitzer is involved, whatever it is can wait.
But you can’t tell this to people who hire you to come to their campus and want to be able to reach you. And the way they want to reach you is usually via text. I had text capability on my old clamshell phone, but often had to push the keys several times to get a single letter. The letters beneath the 7 button were P, Q, R and S, so if I wanted to use an S, I had to punch the key four times, which was annoying and slow. By the time I would be able to text the words approaching senselessness, I’d already have been knocked out and come back-to. (Note: Do not chase a crew of maintenance guys, who have kept your driveway plowed all week, down said slick driveway when you are wearing loose-fitting clogs and cradling a bowl of thank-you cookies.)
I also needed to tech-up so I could access my e-mail without lugging my laptop around. That’s because no matter how often people text, they’ll also ambush you with an e-mail when you’re not looking. If you’re going to run with the writer-in-residence crowd, you better appear legit lest your hosts call your bluff and out you as the imposter you are.
Well, that’s the way I felt, anyway. It’s not that I hadn’t been invited. And it’s not that I wasn’t equipped for my duties: giving lectures, talks and interviews — the kind of thing I do all the time. I have a closet full of teaching outfits left over from my USM days, before my class was cut last semester after 20 years. (How long can I flog that dead horse? Just watch me.) And I had revised and revived my show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, after a year’s hiatus. I was professionally ready. I just wasn’t sure I was worthy.
See, I’m not used to having nice things befall me. While I have enjoyed some success in recent years, my life has largely been a series of runner-up’s and also-ran’s. The first big blow arrived in junior high school, when I did not receive the Outstanding Athletic Leadership Award of 1974. This “top honor” — also described as “coveted” by the Times Record — was given not only to the class jock, but to the citizen girl athlete who was most dedicated to sports, her teammates and the greater good. While I was plenty of the former (sporty), I came up a little short on the latter two. Still, I wanted that award, even if it meant cracking Kathy or Priscilla in the shins and ending their field-hockey season. (Kidding. Besides, it wouldn’t have done any good — we all wore shin guards.)
So I tried to act deserving. That spring of my ninth-grade year, I stayed after gymnastics to help roll mats. At track, I’d assist others with their high jumps or stretches (when the coach was looking, that is). I was upbeat and cheerful, even when my bowling team, Liz’s Lofters, didn’t make it to the all-stars. And when the year-end banquet came, I sat with my heart throbbing in my throat as the big award was announced. I remember how that throb turned to a burn and how the welling tears stung my eyes. Never again, I vowed, as I very unsportsmanlikely fled into the June evening. Never again will I suck up for nothing.
A year later, I was sitting on a bus, heading back to Bath from the Spear Speaking Contest state finals in Farmington, where I placed fifth. Out of five. My speech class had chipped in and bought me an I.D. bracelet with my name and the title of my piece (“Charles,” by Shirley Jackson) inscribed on it for good luck: To Liz and Charles. My parents and two adult brothers had driven there to watch me mop the linguistic floor. And I came in last. My beloved coach consoled me the entire way home, explaining how silly contests like these were and the pitfalls of subjective scoring, especially when the judges clearly knew not what they were doing. (A histrionic rendering of Dial M For Murder took the gold.) “That was your best performance to date,” she said in the front of that dark bus. “That was enough.”
Oh, there were plenty more downfalls and disappointments to follow, and you probably won’t be surprised that I can recount each of them in achingly clear detail. Now, when an honor or an award befalls me, I still hold my breath for a beat or two in anticipation of the “Gotcha!” Which I suppose is why I felt it was so important to at least look the part at this most recent engagement. While I can play my slob-girl, tech-averse persona to a familiar home-court crowd, I needed to suit up for the away game.
Thus the bucker buckled. Do I love my new iPhone? No, I do not. Not having a landline means I must conjoin and cleave to the thing wherever I wander in my house — and since I work at home, I wander aplenty. I also have to remember to keep it turned on. (I estimate that I’ve missed about three-quarters of my incoming calls for that reason so far.) Plus, I’ve wasted days sparring with Siri, who would not recognize my voice commands. I’d ask her for the weather forecast and she’d reply, “No match found.” I’d ask her what the difference is between “remorse” and “regret,” and she’d pick a random person from my contacts and start dialing. (Granted, that was before I went online and read that I had to actually activate her, but it was still annoying.)
So, did having a smartphone come in handy while I was away? Yes. I exchanged no fewer than 28 texts with my contact at the college. I took photos of the house I was allowed to live in, so I could bore my friends when I got home. “Want to see my bedroom? Want to see my writing nook?” And, most important, I could place it in front of me on the table while I ate in the cafeteria, so I wouldn’t look like the dorky outsider new kid, even though all I was doing was rereading old texts. (And by “old texts,” I don’t mean Chaucer.)
What’s next, then? A spelt baguette and Pilates class? A pair of UGGs and jeggings? A minivan and a Dunkin Pumpkin K-cup coffee? Oh, I don’t know. Just bring it all on and let’s get it over with. My fork is ready, and I don’t have forever.
Elizabeth Peavey sends a big thanks to the faculty, staff and students of Bay Path College for the memorable week. And, just in case anyone else is interested, she’s hanging out her shingle: Writer For Rent.