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The connectedness straitjacket

A charming log Ranger Station next to the Pasayten Airfield was built by the Works Progress Administration. Credit: Craig Parsley

It’s 6 p.m., the time when, at home in Seattle, I often switch the radio onto National Public Radio and “All Things Considered.” I listen to the news as I fix dinner and have a glass of wine. A generation earlier at the same hour, my parents turned on The Evening News with Walter Cronkite. They drank whiskey before eating dinner.

Tonight I turn on neither television nor radio. I’m at our family cabin in the remote Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon. The cabin has been in the family for nearly a century now. My wife and I are the current owners, i.e. stewards. We hold it in trust. Trust from the grandparents. Trust for the grandchildren — as did those before us (most of whose pictures are on the mantel above the stone fireplace).

We don’t have television at the cabin. To be sure, we could. It is an option if you hang one of those flying saucer discs off your roof. But television at the cabin would be an intruder, an alien. So no television.

We might also have radio, and in fact we do generally have a radio here. While my mother was alive, she would tune her radio to the Spokane NPR affiliate as she made the morning coffee. During her time the radio played, in the background, all day long. Though her hearing was mostly gone, the background rumble and static seemed somehow comforting to her.

But I forget to bring the radio. And the phone isn’t hooked up for the summer (yet). And there’s no cell phone coverage here. So I am disconnected. Yippee!

Since I cannot turn on NPR or The Evening News, I decide to build a fire in the fireplace and watch that. I use the wood I split last summer. A year ago we had to take down this enormous, but dying, White Fir. I was left with nearly a hundred three and four foot diameter “rounds,” which I work away at with a splitting maul and wedge.

As I watch the fire catch, I wonder about the relative virtues of watching the Evening Fire as compared with watching (listening to) The Evening News. What is lost and what is gained?

I wonder what our world would be like were it — as in the days of my grandparents — a world in which no normal person was plugged into the twenty-four hour news cycle. Their “news” would have been so much closer. The news of the town, the neighbors, the family, maybe the county courthouse.

Watching the Evening Fire instead of The Evening News I am (I imagine) missing . . . news of the President’s current trip (second term, lots of foreign trips); the prospects for passing a comprehensive Immigration Bill in Congress and whether politicians in Olympia are going to get a budget done — not to mention the latest bulletins from Celebrity Land. So far, I’m not feeling much pain about missing any of this.

I check the fire, which needs a little attention, as fires do. Soon it is burning cheerfully again. The Evening Fire is comforting, which I can’t say for The Evening News. Moreover, it’s amazing how mesmerizing a fire can be. What’s that about?

As a college-educated, card-carrying “good citizen,” I’m committed (aren’t I?) to the idea that information is a GOOD THING; the more the better. We all need information, good quality information, and lots of it. This will enable us to be responsible citizens, to make informed decisions — or will it?

On the other hand, I wonder if politics, governance and the making of legislation might not fare better if we, ordinary citizens, weren’t a little less tuned in? I know. I know. The bad guys could get away with murder. But, so far as I can tell, they pretty much do anyhow.

Maybe if every word and gesture of the political class wasn’t subject to minute-by-minute news analysis and talk-radio discussion, the politicians might do less posturing and just get on with business. Is it even remotely possible that if we, ordinary citizens, were more indifferent and less-informed the colossal egos wouldn’t be so fed/enabled, while the actual worker bees would get something done? Just wondering.

Hit the disconnect button, please! Give me The Evening Fire.

A knock at the door.

It’s my 89-year-old neighbor, who lives alone, in her nearby cabin. She and my aunt were playmates and best buddies in a world long ago and far away, though right here at this lake, in these mountains. Her stories keep us connected.

“I don’t have your number,” she says. I have no idea what she is talking about. Then it dawns on me. She means she doesn’t have our phone number. Which could be a matter of life and death for her.

There I was, smugly congratulating myself on my disconnected enlightenment, when Mary (next door neighbor) reminded me that some connnections and technologies are invaluable.

Last summer she called early one Sunday morning when she was on the approach path to death’s door. “I need to get to the emergency room,” she croaked. Indeed, she did. Dental surgery had morphed into a serious, life-threatening infection. I drove her to the emergency room in town. She was immediately hospitalized, staying for a week, while doctors attended to the infection. Left untreated, it would have meant death.

She wasn’t able, then, to walk the distance from her cabin to ours. She barely managed the phone call. The first time she called, she couldn’t speak. I heard silence. After saying “hello? hello?” I hung up, wondering who had called.

“I don’t have your number.”

“It’s the same as last year — only we won’t have it connected until July 1st,” I answered.

The fire is getting down to the coals. It is still a better show than The Evening News with . . . whoever it is now. I still think we’re probably more connected than we need to be; that many things might go better without the constant glare of publicity. But I’m arranging to have our phone hook-up expedited.

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