iPad, or Pasta?

Abstract 10, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 16x20

iPAD, OR PASTA? from Feeling the Heat

I was one of the last people in the western hemisphere to get a cell phone. I was always practical, waiting for other people to vet new technologies. More to the point, I resisted the marketing strains that seduce vacuous consumers to part with their money over anything labeled the Next Best Thing.

Yet there I was, at 8:55 a.m. on a Saturday in April, in line with 100 or more people outside the Apple store inside the Holyoke Mall, waiting to get my iPad. The marketers at Apple had not only convinced me to pre-order, they had threatened that I would forfeit the chance to get my new machine if I were not there between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.!

It was an impressive display of mass marketing. There was free Starbucks coffee and bottled water for people in line — two lines, actually: one for those lucky ones like me who had pre-ordered, one for those hapless losers who stood enviously waiting to order, hoping for the opportunity to spend their money on the cool promise of the much-hyped machine.

There was irony galore. The line was opposite a Borders bookstore, and security staff had to instruct us several times to move away from Borders’ doors. The teenage boy behind me uttered comments like “I’ll never buy another book again.”

I called two friends to help document this historic moment. The first was duly impressed, but the other was too sleepy to appreciate it. There was no common denominator to my compadres in line, no universal demographic — young and old, male and female, geek and non-geek all gathered together to be the first ones on their block to bring home the latest from Jobs and Co.

It took 45 minutes for me to reach the head of the line. A pleasant young woman in a blue, short-sleeved crew-shirt crossed off my name from a plastic clipboard and announced through her headset that “Russell” was ready. I was then allowed to enter the store. I was greeted by my first name by more young people wearing blue crew-shirts. This cutting-edge technology was uniform, but with a human face!

The rest was anticlimactic. I was handed my machine, paid for it, and left in a matter of moments, without fanfare. But like Woodstock, years from now I can say I was there.

I cannot yet tell you much about the new machine. It looks like fun — that is a given, I suppose. An iPhone on steroids, and probably much, much more, depending on how much time and money I invest in it, adding applications to the basic package that came with the machine (part of the Apple master plan).

But whatever it is, I will know about it now, not a year from now, or by reading about it. For the moment, at least, I am on the cyber frontier.

It is far too early to know if the iPad will deliver on its promise to transform our communication lives, or to speculate over whether it represents our doom, or salvation. But the people in line, including me, were betting on the latter. Driving this merchandising machine is hope that technology is a force for good, and can lead us through myriad challenges.

A week earlier, while walking with my housemate and Molly, our dog, we passed a yard sale, unattended and unattractive. But there, amid a blanket of forgettable items, was a stolid Royal typewriter.

I have not owned a typewriter since the early 1980s, when a student borrowed my portable electronic model and never returned it. That typewriter was a gift meant to encourage me to write, but it was light enough that it often jumped when I hit the carriage return, and it became obsolete when I bought my first IBM computer.

Since then, though, I have often wanted a typewriter in my repertoire. Its unique quirkiness is compelling: the smell of oil and inky ribbon; the sound of the bell announcing the end of a line, and the hand-crank of the carriage return; and its heavy bulk and unyielding keyboard that requires muscular finger strokes. Faster and more flexible than hand-writing, the typewriter nonetheless forces me to think before putting words to paper, lest I have to type the letter, essay, or narrative all over again.

The Royal on the pavement was dusty, but otherwise appeared in great shape. I tested it, and it worked. A man in a woven navy cap, plaid shirt, and chipped tooth came out and made light conversation, telling us a slow, sad story of a wounded heron. We never exchanged names. The heron finally breathing its last breath, I asked him what he wanted for the typewriter.

He said his mother owned it, and she was moving to Arizona. He put the question back to me: what did I think it was worth?

I was thinking $20, but I did not say it, instead batting the question back to him, telling him I had no idea, and what did he want for it?

He paused in the manner of any good salesperson. “Well,” he began slowly, hands in pockets, “I have to think it’s worth …” here he paused again, hand to stubbled chin, “… at least a buck,” looking up at me hopefully over his wire-frame glasses.

I tried not to accept too quickly, but paid him the dollar. He was glad to get rid of the Royal. One less thing to cart away, and a heavy one at that. Said his mother probably hadn’t touched it for years. I believed him, doomed heron and all.

The ancient typewriter, despite its weight, is in some respects like the sleek iPad. They feature the same keyboard, and both were once cutting-edge communication tools. I cannot yet say exactly how I will use either of them, but they feed my desire to connect with others. It feels a little like opening my pantry door in January and taking comfort at the canned goods and boxes filling the shelves.

When the power goes out, I am protected. In any event, I have choices. My larder is well stocked, with dried mushrooms and cornichons and staples like pasta. No storm, no wind or snowdrift, can leave me hungry, or isolated, for long.

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