Concrete Jungle

Thanksgiving

Like most Americans with an office job, my day is dominated by my odd, easy, seemingly endless intercourse with a computer. Time-wise, sleep is the only serious competitor. What I get from the internet is not so much a body of discrete items of knowledge as a kind of calming stimulation: a zone of mild, not-unpleasant stress; myriad low-consequence decisions; and, the tactile satisfaction of typing on a keyboard.

The hours pass quickly when we are together. The tasks elide into each other, both on the computer and in my mind, so that I slide from:

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then reflect for a moment, remember,

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and CTRL-C, CTRL-V some language about measurable outcomes into my original document.

When I get on my bike after work, or slip into yoga at my lunch hour, or walk the dog in the morning, I expect the hours to pass in that same seamless fashion. I go about my day with a bifurcated mind, anxiously receptive to any tendril of data that might slip at any moment into one of my devices while maintaining a (sometimes tenuous) awareness of the duller, slower, broader bubble that surrounds us all, the one we will never puncture: the universe.

The disjunction between what it feels like we are doing and what is actually happening is the essential experience of modernity. Sitting motionless in front of my computer, I travel to the general manager’s meeting in Orlando, the White House Situation Room, and to twenty-six different houses with twenty-six different pugs in Halloween costumes. But crossing the country at five hundred knots feels like simply a few hours of concentrated reading. Air travel offers the only opportunity I get anymore to read like I did when I was a kid, when I sat motionless for hours on our screened porch, lost in words.

A few weeks ago, I was walking Matilda with my iPod on shuffle when the first notes of “Don’t Worry About the Government” hurled me into another time and place, the way only a familiar song or scent can do. Like a distillery, my mind seems to concentrate each life era to its essence, then barrel-age it until the mysterious impurities of memory muddle the clarity that once felt so harsh. In this case, I stood on the corner of Nicollet and 15th with the feeling of 2004 and of Katie, who loved the Talking Heads (and maybe still has my disc two of Sand in the Vaseline). And with the feeling of being friends with Katie, inevitably, came the feeling of being friends with Maggie, and with Maggie, Joel, and with Joel, everyone: Peter, Bill, Susan, Annie, Andrew, Brian, Seth, Chris, Findley, Katja, Marc, Casey, Ryan, Keith.

Can you name me something sweeter than being out in the city with Matilda, listening to the Talking Heads, and remembering that you are loved?

Before college, my experiences with music were haphazard and aspirational. My parents owned two cassettes that could be considered contemporary. They were Graceland and Songs You Know by Heart. I loved them both. After I received a boom box with a compact disk player for my twelfth birthday, the first CD I bought was Without a Net, which I now know to be a document of the Grateful Dead’s effects-heavy early ’90s live shows, in other words, an utterly inappropriate point of entry to their catalogue. I chose it from the rack at Circuit City because it offered the most tracks per dollar. I knew the Dead were associated with a countercultural community, and I wanted to belong. But I was mystified by the album (I now think it’s fantastic), and the closest I ever came to any sort of community was an incongruous kiosk in Southpark Mall, where I bought a purple “GD” baseball cap and a poster entitled Goin’ To the Show, which told the story of three bears in crisis until Jerry shows up in his magic bus.

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I can remember the first time I used Google. It was 1999, and I was a college freshman hard at work in the basement office of The Cavalier Daily. I had the still somewhat novel task of searching for information on the internet, and I’d just read an article that mentioned how a site called www.google.com used something called an algorithm that made it better than AltaVista or Ask Jeeves. Ten years earlier, it had been inconceivable to ask a computer to suggest music you might enjoy, or the best era of Dead music (Spring ’77, by the way), or how to find a community of like-minded people.

The closest I ever came to participating in a musical community was to submit a set list of three songs about angels to a radio station called WVGO. They played it, and I received a T-shirt that said, “I’m a WVGO select-a-set Disc Jockey.” My mom drove me to the station to pick it up. I didn’t understand how special WVGO had been until it was replaced by an “alternative” station with a heavy rotation of bands like Bush, Seven Mary Three, and Silverchair. And only in the deep hindsight of research for this essay (a search on the website www.google.com that resulted in this interview and this review) have I come to fully appreciate just how extraordinary it was that in 1992 Richmond, Virginia had a radio station that played sets like this random afternoon drive-time hour in December: “That’s Just the Way It Is,” “Night By Night,” “I’m No Angel,” “Heavy Fuel,” “If a Tree Falls,” “Heroes,” “Ship of Fools,” “I Can’t Dance,” “One More Time,” “Life By the Drop,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Road to Nowhere.”

For several years, I recorded WVGO’s Saturday night top-twenty countdowns and mailed the cassettes to my cousins, who lived in a small town in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Trying to reconstruct my motivations, I can only think that it must have been comforting to imagine someone else who felt even more isolated than me. College eventually changed that. But being less lonely didn’t mean I was satisfied with my life. In fact, it complicated matters. I was disappointed to learn that having friends, even having a girlfriend, didn’t automatically create existential serenity, as I’d assumed it would.

Of course I wasn’t naïve enough to put all the blame on my relationships. I blamed technology, too:

January 16, 2003

The desires technology fills are the desires it is capable of filling, namely, our trivial ones … in filling our surface desires we destroy the deeper ones … the ones so powerful and fulfilling we cannot put them into words, and therefore that we can’t design a product to fit or fix … the quality of our outer life has risen but the quality of our inner life has fallen.

In the months after I applied to the Peace Corps, I imagined living in a little wooden house beside a path through a forest. I’d have about six books, a teakettle, and a shortwave radio to connect me to the outside world. I would spend most of my time looking out the window in complete contentment.

I ended up in circumstances remarkably similar to the one I’d imagined. I had a little stone house instead of a wooden one, and a savanna instead of a forest, but I had the teakettle and the limited bookshelf and the radio, not too mention the free time and solitude. The only difference was that instead of sitting in my house in serene contentment, I sat in my house feeling crushingly lonely and depressed.

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Every time I left the house for my daily evening walk on the savanna, I faced a dilemma: If I left my cell phone at home, I might miss an unexpected phone call from the U.S. But if I carried it with me, I would have to return to my empty house with no hope of opening the door and seeing the red blinking light that meant someone had sent me a text message. That was how things were in Kenya. Stuff that was part of the background hum of life in America—a hot shower, a comfortable ride in a private vehicle, a cup of real coffee, a conversation in American English—became luxuries. One evening, walking home from the Posta with a parcel containing ten Sony MiniDiscs sent by my brother, I realized that nothing in America had ever made me feel as rich as I felt at that moment, on a dirt path at sunset with hours of unheard music in my hands.

And I haven’t even mentioned the friends I finally made—Alice, Ester, Julius, Robert, Grace, Elvis, Andrew, the Mativos, the Wamalas, Mama Naomi and her children—who cooked me dinner, showed me remote areas of the district, taught me to lift weights, stuffed birthday cake into my mouth, and agreed with me that certain aspects of life in Kenya really, truly didn’t make sense. By the end of my time in Kenya, I understood that the only thing wrong with my relationships back home had been that I never allowed them to be enough. I blamed them for the unhappiness I carried inside myself.

Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook during my senior year in college, and opened it to high schoolers the year I got home from Kenya. When I opened an account sometime in late 2007 or early 2008, I had only a fuzzy idea of what a person did with it. As best I could tell, Facebook was a sort of forum where you could announce all the things about yourself you’d always believed to be important—like what you thought of Thai food—but had never had a socially acceptable opportunity to express. It tied into my belief about the human condition: that we all go through life craving the recognition (especially from ourselves) that we do, in fact, matter.

My attitude about Facebook changed when friends from Kenya began appearing on it. Suddenly people I’d last seen laboriously reading by the light of an oil lamp were posting about their relationship status. One of the things I missed most about Kenya was Wednesday market day. As I walked into town and shopped, I had a chance to catch up with all the people I was glad to see but might never have sought out. In America, my friends and family were scattered up and down the coast. My mother lived in Kentucky. My acquaintances in town drove everywhere, and the Kroger was open twenty-four hours. The odds of random encounters ranged from impossible to unlikely. Except on Facebook. I never knew whose face might pop up on my feed, what nugget of gossip I might learn. At some point I realized that I was the mayor of an odd little village. It was modest, to be sure, with a population just under 400, and it certainly wasn’t much to look at, but it was mine: the only place in the universe where practically everyone I knew could be found on a daily basis. It was exactly the way my real village would have been if I’d been born in one and spent my life there.

I read an article last week about video games in Iraq. A teenager named Mohammed from Sulaymaniyah explains that one of his best friends is a Norwegian named Moe. They fought together on a virtual battlefield; now they Skype a few times a week. Over the summer, my coworker’s eight-year-old son had to say goodbye to his best friend, who moved to New York. Now, every day after school they meet up in Minecraft and build shit together. It’s not so different from me and my brother. When we chat together through our Gmail, the space between his office in Richmond and mine in Minneapolis collapses just as magically as Jerry Garcia’s bus appearing in the distance down the road.

Just because Google and Apple and E.A. and Samsung spend billions of dollars to convince us it’s okay to use computers to find fulfillment doesn’t mean it isn’t. Maybe it sounds terrible to have better relationships through your online avatar than through your in-reality body, but it isn’t as terrible as being lonely. We all have to construct a world for ourselves—some of us do it with words, others with stone blocks.

Despite all the reading I’m going to do, I know that flying from MSP to RVA the day before Thanksgiving is going to suck. To express my gratitude for the ancient human necessities, I’m going to experience modernity’s ultimate sensory disjunction: sitting in a chair while the world accelerates and pivots around me until I walk out of an airport thousands of miles from where I started. I will be trapped in a surreal labyrinth of moving walkways and claustrophobic tubes. My ears will pop and the processed air will make me queasy. I might get re-routed through Denver or get stuck in a terminal for six hours.

It’s easy to idealize simplicity. I’ve spent most of my life longing for more of it, and I doubt that will change. But blaming technology for making me distractible or hating airports for having sealed windows is a lot like blaming my relationships for my existential angst: at the end of the day it’s my responsibility to learn how to be in the world in a way that makes me happy. My flight to Virginia will not feel as good as walking on a footpath, or cycling down a smooth road, or sleeping on a train rocking gently through the night. But it will get me home to see my family when nothing else will.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.