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Six Degrees of Marlo Thomas
By Wade Rouse

At 41, I recently dove headfirst into my mid-life crisis at the most innocuous of times: A friend's 12-year-old daughter asked why I didn't have a MySpace page, after handing me her iPod and asking me to skip forward to listen to Fergie's latest hit.

I might as well have been asked to make a donkey in spats appear before us.

Of course, I had heard of MySpace.

Of course, I had seen an iPod.

But I had never actually looked at MySpace or used an iPod.

Why? Because I'm reaching that age, that time in life when you ever so subtly -- no matter how hip you think you might be -- begin to lose grip with the younger generation. The modern mid-life crises, I've come to realize, no longer involve little red convertibles and big-busted young mistresses. They center on technology. And they always have. We've just not been cognizant of it.

More shockingly, I realized -- as my friend's daughter helped me buzz through downloaded songs from Gwen Stefani and Fall Out Boy -- that I was a Helen Reddy 8-track away from becoming my parents.

There were a number of obvious signs that my parents had lost touch technologically long ago, and, even worse, signs they simply didn't give a damn anymore about what the world was doing. Time stopped, and they froze, like dinosaurs in a glacier, happy in their cold little world, happy without e-mail or cell phones or DVD players. And that's where it all went wrong. You can't ever stop trying to keep up with the world, or it will bury you, like it did my parents.

Was I destined to be just like them? Let's analyze my technological upbringing.

The Rotary Phone

My parents still have a rotary phone. It is giant-sized and bright red, like the emergency nuclear bomb phones they had in the old movies, when the president would pick it up and call someone, somewhere, to say the world was ending.

Still today my fingers actually get lost in the number holes. The receiver is so big, I have to maneuver it, moving it toward my ear or mouth depending on if I'm talking or listening.

My parents bought this phone to complement our home's chocolate brown decor of the 1970s. I remember, even when I was little, thinking I needed to plan ahead to make a call, since it took so long to dial a single number and then have it swing back to the starting gate. It even made that sing-song bell noise, like you'd hear when Andy would call phone operator Sarah in Mayberry, R.F.D.

When I was home recently, I asked -- with great seriousness -- why they never switched it out. "We don't need anything else," my father said. "It works perfectly fine."

"So do Jarts," I told him, reminding him of the now-banned pointed lawn darts game we once loved to play. "But that doesn't mean you kept them and use them. It's just as dangerous, too. What if you have to call 911? It would take at least half an hour to complete the call."

"Don't you worry about us," my mother said. "We'll be fine."

The Answering Machine

Leaving a message for my parents is just as difficult as dialing their phone, considering they only received their first answering machine a couple of years ago. It was physically forced upon them by our family at Christmas, following a phone conversation I'd had with my mom earlier that fall. I was talking to her about the disappointing fall color, when she simply announced, as though she were telling me she was out of paper towels, "I have to go. Your father is on fire."

It seems my father, while burning leaves in a ditch, had set himself ablaze -- not bothering to bring the hose down with him while he burned -- and had, indeed, been engulfed in flames for a few moments before my mother walked to the front porch and screamed, "Drop and roll!"

Which he finally did, putting himself out.

After she had hung up, I tried for an hour to call them, but the phone just rang and rang. When I had reached a state of complete and utter panic, my mom finally answered and said, "The old fart's fine. I just rubbed a stick of butter all over his burned body."

Out of sheer desperation, the family presented them with an answering machine for Christmas, though they have yet to master how to record a personal greeting. I use the term "personal" loosely, because my mom's voice -- all Ozarks twang mixed with her oddly unforgettable personalisms - on the message sounds as though she has just been kidnapped and is being held at gunpoint and forced to record the following in a horrified monotone:

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