Opposing Thumbs

In 1975, as I sat in Miss Bloom’s typing class, I never thought that one day I’d be typing primarily with my thumbs. I’m sure Miss Bloom, ancient even then, couldn’t have imagined a keyboard so tiny that even the end of her thumb would be too large to hit just one key.

I picture myself in her class, feet planted firmly on the floor, my skirt pulled down over my knees, fingers curled over the keys of the IBM Selectric in front of me. Four rows of eight desks neatly lined the room. The only sounds were the soft squish of Miss Bloom’s orthopedic shoes on the linoleum floor as she paced up and down the rows checking our posture, and the hum of the newly purchased typewriters in front of us. (What a marvel those electric typewriters were. How much easier than the 1928 Smith Corona I used at home.)

What were my lonely thumbs doing then? They were relegated to the space bar, waiting for the opportunity to create a void between words. Only my right thumb ever got any business, the left thumb dangled uselessly while all of the other digits pounded away at 65 words per minute.

No wonder that now my thumbs have trouble finding the letters when I answer e-mails or send my daughter a text message from my iPhone. They’re not conditioned for this kind of work. Now they’re front and center, the rulers of the written word while my fingers curl around the back of my handheld device, providing support, but little else.

Occasionally my right index finger can’t stand the pressure and it says to its friends on my left hand “Take over. I’m going in!” as it darts from behind the screen to hunt and peck for the letters, thinking itself faster than my clumsy thumbs.

But even this is unsatisfying, because my right index finger doesn’t know the keyboard any better than my thumbs. The only familiar keys are y, u, h, j, n and m. And what can you spell with only those letters? Eventually, my index finger gives up and returns to its friends behind the screen, letting the thumbs take over because they at least can work together, doubling the speed of my messaging.

Gone are the days of 65-75 words per minute. My thumbs are lucky if they can get in 20. So they’re less creative. A reply that once might have been “I’d love to join you on Saturday evening. A trip to the theatre sounds like fun,” becomes “K” or more likely a thumbs up emoji, but rarely anything longer. It’s just too slow, too cumbersome, too demoralizing to spend so much time pecking for the keys and constantly backspacing to correct mistakes.

I’d like to say my thumbs are happy, that they’re glad for the opportunity to carry the torch after all these years. But I don’t think they are. I think they miss the days of working in tandem with my fingers, resting lightly on the space bar while the fingers searched for just the right sequence of letters. I think they’re lonely out there in front by themselves. Who knows? I could ask them, but they’d probably just reply, “IDK, may b. U D cide.”

 

Guest blogger and WordSister Jill W. Smith is a Twin Cities’ writer. Her work has appeared in the anthologies Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between; A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism; and Siblings: Our First Macrocosms, in the online journal Mothers Always Write, and occasionally on her blog, The Autism Fractal, which she co-authors with her oldest daughter.

Resisting Assumptions

The last time I gave blood, a tech named Dakota took care of me. When she introduced herself, I didn’t expect we’d have much in common. She was in her 20’s and had full sleeves of tattoos and several facial piercings, while I look like the middle-aged, mom-ish person I am. However, she surprised me.

She made a real effort to talk to me, which I appreciated because giving a pint of blood takes about half an hour and you’re tethered to a gurney the whole time. You can stare into space, listen to music and daydream or play with your phone, which is what I was doing when she tried for a second time to start a conversation. I apologized and set my phone aside. She sympathized and said she’d recently read an article about how involvement with cell phones can put a damper on actual conversations. Her comments sounded like something I would say, not something I expected of someone her age. It was a minor moment, but it reminded me how difficult it is to resist making assumptions.

Making assumptions is natural and necessary.

Every day we receive such an onslaught of information—online, at work, and during casual personal encounters at a coffee shop, gas station, or wherever—that our brains simplify and categorize it. We have to. Otherwise, we’d be paralyzed by making sense of the input. The downside of this tendency is stereotyping.

It’s a wonder people ever make genuine connections! And yet, I’m committed to trying.

Resisting stereotypes about age, race, gender, politics and so forth, takes a lot of energy. The situation is made doubly difficult because whomever I’m encountering has his or her own set of biases to overcome. But in a culture that’s rife with hateful stereotypes, I’m trying harder to see each person I meet as the individual she or he is.

At its most basic level, my efforts consist of looking strangers in the eyes and smiling. Just seeing them and looking friendly. Some people don’t return my smile, but a lot of them do. It occurs to me that I may look like a smiling idiot—a dotty lady on the loose—but I’m willing to take the risk.

In Dakota, I found an interesting woman who wants to be a nurse, while I’ve worked for hospitals off and on throughout my career. We’d both lived in Morris, Minnesota, although decades apart. As she described what her tattoos meant to her, it was clear her body is her canvas. I mentioned an ironic tattoo I like that’s in the shape of a tombstone and reads, “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt,” a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Turns out we both like Vonnegut.

Next time I have a chance to make a casual acquaintance, I’ll try to be the one who initiates conversation.

Disconnected and Discombobulated

I scoffed when I read about college students becoming anxious when separated from digital technology—email, Facebook, and other social media. Or rather, I believed they became anxious, but thought smugly, Glad I’m not hooked like they are.

Except that now I am.

Recently, I was camping at a state campground that didn’t have cell signal. At all. Although we were only about 30 miles from Rochester, Minnesota, we were in the land that time and technology forgot. At first I was delighted. No New York Times news flashes or Facebook posts reminding me of depressing political news. I wasn’t expecting any urgent emails.

Being disconnected felt a bit odd, but I knew my friends would understand if I didn’t respond to their texts or emails promptly.

Not having instant access to the weather app was OK. I didn’t really need to know exactly how cold it would get at night. 55 degrees or 50 degrees—what’s the difference? Either way, we’d have a fire and then burrow into our sleeping bags at bedtime.

But what if my 90-year-old mother-in-law had a health issue? Would my sons be able to track us down? If one of our sons got seriously ill, how would they contact us? Since they’re in their 20’s, that’s usually not a big concern, but one of them had had a significant health problem a few weeks ago, so the possibility seemed more real.

You see where all this was going—good ole free floating anxiety racheted up by lack of connectivity. Wow.

Several times I had to tell myself to knock it off. Everyone was fine. Despite knowing that, I still tried to fire up my phone when we visited the park office. No signal.

For years I’ve had the constant chatter: texts, email, and commentary from Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, so it took a while to get used to the sound of my own thoughts. Or no thoughts whatsoever.

At first I had to concentrate on being in the moment. Resist the urge to curate my experiences. Just live them. I noticed the lavender and white phlox blooming in the meadow we were hiking through, heard the wind in the trees and the creek murmuring behind our campsite, and squinted at the zillions of stars you can see out in the country.

I hate admitting that being disconnected made me anxious. But instant access has become too gratifying. The more I’ve gotten used to it, the more I want it. When I hear the ding of a new email or text hitting my phone, I’ve got to know who it’s from. It’s obsessive. As reinforcing as treats would be to Pavlov’s dogs.

Who's the text from? 15 emails?! OMG!

Who’s the text from? 15 emails?! OMG!

Technology is supposed to be a helpful tool, subservient to me, not my master. I don’t want to feel so controlled by it.

How did I get to be at the beck and call of this device? I let the lure of instant access get to me.

So I’ve decided to try disconnecting intentionally one day a week, as an experiment.

On those days, I’ll use my phone for calls, but otherwise avoid checking emails, weather apps, maps, Facebook, Snapchat, and the New York Times news feed. Fasting from email, apps, and social media will be hard—after all, the first thing I did after we packed up and drove away was check email. 56 of them had piled up in three days. Most of them weren’t that important, which reinforces my decision to go offline periodically.

It’s so easy to be caught up in the bizzyness of the internet and social media. I want to rediscover what else I can do with my time.

Anachronisms (Or 3 Reasons Why I Love My Electronic Devices)

My youngest son and I were talking about eating alone in restaurants, when I flashed back to life before cell phones, tablets, GPS and Internet connectivity. He’s a nice guy, so he didn’t tease me about my “Why in my day, Sonny, we used to . . .” moment. Electronic devices have profoundly changed the outcome of several awkward or frustrating experiences.

Eating Alone

While traveling for business in the late 1980’s, I faced a dilemma that no longer exists: how to eat alone in a restaurant without looking weird or attracting unwanted attention.

Articles for career women advised bringing a book and reading at dinner. That way you wouldn’t feel stupid, and you wouldn’t attract sleazy guys trying to pick you up. Or you could order room service and avoid the whole issue.

I usually preferred a good meal with a glass of wine to a dry turkey sandwich in my room, so I learned to carry a book. Wait staffs’ reactions and service varied from dismissive to sympathetic. To boost my confidence and convey that I had a right to be there, I was pleasant but a bit aloof. While waiting for my order I sipped my wine and read. Usually that worked, but sometimes I didn’t have the energy for the performance.

Now I can take my smartphone or tablet and catch up on email, check Facebook, read online, or write and be legitimately busy and content. I don’t have to worry that I look pathetic or vulnerable.

Missing Connections

Before cell phones, bad luck could ruin a rendezvous. Imagine this: you’re in Chicago on business. You have a free afternoon before your flight and want to see a college friend. You agree to meet by the lions in front of the Art Institute at 1:00. By 1:15, you’re checking your watch and wondering. At 1:35, you’re frustrated and uncertain. Stay? Go? What’s going on?!?

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 10.47.28 PM

There was no way for your friend to call or text to say, “Missed my train. Can I meet you inside by the Chagall window at 2:00 instead?” You could go inside alone but she’d have no idea where to find you. Or you could leave, angry and disappointed. Either way, you would have missed each other. The afternoon of laughs and reminiscing couldn’t be salvaged.

Getting Lost

MissouriFor years, I’ve driven cross-country for family visits to Ohio or vacations in Virginia, Texas, and Montana. I also think nothing of driving to a distant suburb to meet friends for dinner. Usually I navigate these trips successfully . . . as long as I have a map or Garmin for GPS.

Occasionally, though, I’ve gotten spectacularly lost. Driving 30 miles out my way near Green Bay, Wisconsin. Circling Eden Prairie, Minnesota for 40 minutes (and Eden Prairie isn’t that big). Hubris accounted for these mishaps. I thought I knew where I was going, so I didn’t bring a map.

Back in the day, the only solution was to stop and ask for directions. I had to hope the person was reliable and not a knucklehead who’d send me the wrong way, because he forgot to mention three important turns.

If there’s no cell phone signal (rural Montana and Wisconsin come to mind), I can be just as lost as in the old days. Google maps and GPS have definitely reduced the likelihood that I’ll get lost during a road trip, but sometimes they are wrong or incomplete. Just in case, I still carry a paper map and keep my cell phone charged up.

How about you? What difficult situation has become a thing of the past because of your electronic devices?