FRESH YARN presents:
Degrees of Marlo Thomas
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:
"Yes, yes, yes -- WHAT! -- you have reached the Rouses -- yes, and we are not physically in our home, sir, at this point in time. Speak -- WHAT! -- into the correct end of your phone, and we will decipher your message when we are able, yes, thank you, sir [extended silence then my dad's voice yelling, "Hang up the goddamn phone, Geraldine!" more silence and then my mom saying, "WHAT!" before dropping the phone on the floor and hanging up.]"
My parents only recently acquired a computer, a retread my father found, I believe, from a friend of a friend who owns a garbage dump. I am firmly convinced it is one of the very first computers ever made. My dad says he got it "for a steal".
Well, no shit.
The monitor is nearly as big as Sputnik, and the tower looks like a nuclear cooling plant. On the mammoth plastic frame surrounding the screen, it says simply:
This begs many questions, first and foremost: When was "low radiation" ever a big selling point for computers?
"Didn't I see this thing in The China Syndrome?" I asked my dad the first time I saw it.
"It's a damn good 'puter, hon!" my dad exclaimed. "Let me boot'er up for ya."
Ten minutes later, a dim green glow emanated from the center of the screen. When it finally warmed up, my dad began to check his e-mail. As he began to open a forwarded joke from a friend, the computer froze. "Damn viruses!" my dad exclaimed. "Happens all the time. If an e-mail says 1K I can open it, if it says 2K or higher I can't. I guess it's still that Y2K virus. I'll have to get 'er checked out."
I still prefer to write my parents letters.
Remember Pong? It was the very first TV video game. It was like a slow-motion game of ping-pong, and I wanted it more than anything in the world.
"Games on TV?" my father said, when I begged him for Pong. "You have a TV to watch, not to play on. That's why they make Light Brights. This will never catch on. It's like the Edsel."
I spent years running to arcades, to play Frogger and Centipede and Pac-Man. No, it never seemed to catch on, according to my dad, who once said that "John Madden had dug his career grave by putting his name all over those stupid football games."
Fancy Car Gadgets
My father buys his trucks without, what he calls, "any bells or whistles". This means his trucks come without power steering, power windows, and only AM Radio.
"You don't need CD players or FM, or XM, or whatever they call it. You can find everything you need on AM," my dad says. "Sports, news, weather, and Helen Reddy."
"Cars are meant for driving," my dad says. "But nobody looks under the hood anymore. They only care how the car looks to everyone else."
Ironically, my father was right about society's fascination with outward appearances, in a deeper and more meaningful way than he probably even realized. So, as I continued to try and figure out my friend's daughter's iPod, I checked under my own hood. Who did I want to be? Was my mid-life crisis just a sign of my own shallow self-absorption with society? Today's generation is too often focused on what's outside, and not what's inside. We want the coolest and the latest. We want the prettiest and the best. Nothing is ever good enough anymore. I buy iMacs like breath mints. We trade cars more quickly than I used to trade baseball cards.
I pondered all this for just about a second, before asking my friend's daughter to help me set up my first MySpace page -- ASAP. We started by organizing the editorial and design, and then she began showing me how to acquire friends, the secret of MySpace.
As we searched, I was stunned to discover that it wasn't just kids on MySpace. In fact, everything on MySpace, it seemed, involved "Six Degrees of Marlo Thomas." Every single MySpace user seemed connected to her or other stars from my youth, like Morgan Fairchild and Pia Zadora and Raquel Welch. All were blogging and chatting and sending their latest news.
"Who's, like, Marlo Thomas?" my daughter's friend asked me. "And why would you want her as your MySpace friend?"
"Umm, she was kind of the Hilary Duff of my time," I tried to explain.
"Oh that's cool," she said, staring at an old photo of That Girl. "At least she's like, you know, trying. That's what counts."
And that's when I knew my mid-life crisis had been averted: If you wanna hang with the young people, you at least have to try and play their game, be it Pong or MySpace.
Then Marlo Thomas accepted me as her new MySpace friend. I smiled, knowing neither of us had given up yet, and probably never would.
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