Tena Random

Progressing backwards

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by Tena Starr

This is a comment on progress — because it seems to me that either we’re not making much, or we’ve come to a grave misunderstanding of the word.

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time remembering that I have to dial 1 802  525 to call the people across the road.  I’m startled every time I get the message saying:  “To complete your call.…” Feels like it might be quicker to walk over rather than dial all those numbers and do it twice since I rarely remember to dial all the numbers the first time.

Of course, many of you don’t have land lines anymore (or never did), but for those of us who do, this doesn’t feel like advancement.

I’m old enough to remember party lines, which I consider a more interesting precursor to Facebook.  You might get to listen in on only a half dozen people rather than 300 — but the news was better, and it was sort of exponential.

Maude would call a friend and tell her about the latest scandal (amazing how much scandalous behavior could inhabit a town of 400), car crash, engagement, or whatever, then she’d call someone else and pass on that information, and that friend would call Hazel, who’d call Marion.  And by mid-day there was a pretty damned good chain of information going. Those women missed their calling — they should have started a newspaper.  If you wanted to know what was going on in town, party lines were a great place to start.

My grandmother had a party line, and, as a kid, I was not above listening in on calls that were not for her.  Pretty juicy sometimes.  Not like Facebook where people mostly post photos of sunsets, fall foliage, and what they had for dinner.  And, of course, there were no ads trying to sell you stuff you’ve already bought or never wanted in the first place.

By most measures, including progress, 2021 sucked.  It was another pandemic year, another year of masks and tests and wondering who it was safe to be with, where it was safe to go.

I recall the first year with a twinge of almost fondness.  That was the year when we mostly were alarmed and felt like we were all in this together.  People were more likely to mask and be considerate of others. All sorts of grassroots programs sprang up to help people with hunger, shopping, just checking in. There was what I think of as the Northeast Kingdom’s traditional neighborliness. People helped each other and were thoughtful.

That’s changed, sadly.  We had a brief moment in the spring and early summer when we thought vaccines would return us to the old normal.  Didn’t happen.  The vaccine does what the flu vaccine does for the flu — can’t promise you won’t get COVID, just makes it less likely, and that you won’t get as severe a disease, less likely you’ll pass it on.

Christmas was memorable.  I was exposed over two-three hours in tight quarters to a close family member who had COVID but didn’t know it at the time.  As a result, both of us had to forego gathering with the extended family, which was sad.

Christmas Day, he sat on the porch, I sat just inside, front door wide open, wood stove roaring, both of us all trussed up in winter clothes.  We had a glass of hot mulled wine and shared gifts.  A couple other relatives dropped by briefly, all of us on the porch, as if it was a fine day in July.  Well, aside from the fact that we could see our breath.

I have a neighbor who didn’t consider our odd Christmas at all odd — at least for me.  Come fall, I’m reluctant to shut the doors and windows and accept that summer is over.  So, if it’s somewhere around 50 or 60, the front door remains open, but the wood fire is stoked so it’s warm enough in the house that I can pretend it’s still warm outside.  My neighbor often thanks me for doing my part to make Glover, or at least this part of it, a warmer place.

He said that, if he’d driven by on Christmas and seen the front door wide open and people sitting on the porch in December, he would have thought, all’s well there — door open, probably some windows, too.  Business as usual.

Pretty sure he thinks I have a loose screw, he just hasn’t mentioned it.

I miss the days when you called a company with a problem and got to talk to a person, who might or might not solve it.  But, hey, at least you had someone to yell at rather than that infuriatingly calm and pleasant recorded male voice — the one who gives you a set of options to choose from that don’t remotely reflect what your particular problem is.

I wouldn’t want to be that guy.  I think he’s in a lot of trouble if we ever figure out who he is.

Used to be people could write a check anywhere (unless your family name was sketchy); now my debit card is wearing out, and young store clerks look at me like I’ve presented them with shells and beads when I write a check.

I have cable TV, but only in winter.  I turned it off when school let out so my kids wouldn’t beg to watch TV all summer, then tease to buy the awful stuff they saw advertised.  Now they’re long grown, and I cancel it because once the leaves are on the trees I don’t get a signal.  When I called last spring to cancel, the helpful young woman informed me that I could cut down that pest of an obstructionist tree.  I said, well, it’s not likely just one, and I think my neighbors might take issue if I started cutting down their trees.  “You mean, you live in an actual forest?” she said, astonished.

I was astonished at her astonishment, I mean some of us do live near the woods, also at the thought that someone would care enough about TV to consider wholesale tree-cutting.  TV used to be free, and it had actual shows rather than 100 channels selling knives, jewelry, propaganda and other things I don’t want.

While I don’t really mind pumping my own gas, I sure to hell am not checking myself out at Walmart or anywhere else.  The Walton family has enough money without getting me to work for them for free.

And there used to be snow.  I’m no fan of winter, but since it’s not going away anytime soon, there ought to be snow.  Cold is colder without snow.

All my life people have used the word “progress” as if it were a positive thing, something to aspire to.  One definition of progress is “to move forward toward a higher, better, or more advanced stage.”

When I hear about “progress” these days, I can’t help but recall Inigo Montoya’s famous line in the movie Princess Bride: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”


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