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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


A Daily Gazette community blog
Ideas on greener living

‘Apps’ for the real world

Every year I make myself a new work calendar by printing monthly grids off a free downloadable calendar site, and stapling them into one of the folders that show up in the mail. I write in coverage plans and reporter schedules, and in the margins write notes about upcoming events and unconfirmed story ideas. At meetings I remind people about proposals they made earlier.

“How did you remember that?” they sometimes ask.

“I’ve got this app on my iThing,” I tell them, pointing to my pencil scrawlings in the corner of my January page.

I don’t care if everyone else has note files and scheduling apps and calendars in their computers, or daily log reminders in their cellphones. I’m OK with pencil and paper. And at work, I’ve got all the computer connectedness I need.

That’s how I know the teachers have been circulating one of those Facebook cartoons, one that shows someone handing something to a baffled child. “It’s called a book,” the person explains. “It’s how you download new software into your brain.”

It’s funny. It’s also funny that the teachers are using computers to remind people to turn off their computers.

On the way down to the big city last week, when we were taking our daughter back to school, we saw some billboards with a similar message. Parallel pictures of a child’s hand, one holding a little computer with a picture of a frog and one holding a real frog, made the point that the world is more than digital.

I know I’m lucky to live in a place where I don’t have to remind my kids of that. We live near lakes and mountains, and woods that are full of real frogs. We get to hike and have gardens, watch stars and birds and clouds, and listen to coyotes and owls at night. We are aware of what a gift this is, and are grateful.

But we also don’t have the option of tuning out, even if we wanted to.

Living in a place with no cell service, no TV reception and very spotty Internet connection, it’s easy to step away from the increasingly connectable things people carry in their pockets. If they don’t work at home, there’s no sense in owning them.

I joke about how low-tech I am. Our dictionary is a book, our maps are in atlases. I was surprised a couple of months ago when I tried to explain the concept of a phone book to a teenager, who seemed fazed by the process of trying to find someone’s number. But then I surprised myself trying to use one, and realizing that in the days of cellphones and competing service providers, a phone book is pretty worthless.

Other books, not so much. Friends and family members sent us books — history, fiction, writer anthologies and lots of blank books — for Christmas. They know we are happy turning pages, soaking up words and letting them turn into images and ideas to think and talk about, and writing or drawing out our own thoughts. I don’t know if it’s a connection between the physical and the mental that is important, or it’s just that e-books and painting programs require high-speed Internet. Would we be different if we had Wi-Fi?

My daughter, the country girl who is perfectly at home in New York City, keeps a pad in her purse or back pocket and jots down ideas and thoughts constantly. Sometimes it’s something funny she wants to remember to tell a friend, sometimes it’s a great name she heard, sometimes it’s an idea for a short story, sometimes it’s a list of favorite songs.

She’s got all those connection things too, a cellphone and a little laptop that connects to that digital world of Facebook, Netflix, email and iTunes. But she still writes and sketches in notebooks — every day.

Then there’s my son, who spends hours every day reading books or drawing cartoons or playing in the woods. He’s managed to acquire computer knowledge nonetheless, and is the household tech guy, who can fix machines and spew off information about computers in a way that makes our heads spin.

“Is that even true?” I ask him. “How do you even know that?”

“Mo-om,” he says, rolling his eyes.

We wouldn’t mind having more computer connection at home. My husband likes looking up advice on fixing old tractors, and likes reading news from far-off places. He has to drive to the library or coffee shop to do that — or to send an email.

On the other hand, I don’t mind having been forced to raise the kids without TV and without the constant barrage of information, some of it useful and true, some of it worthless or harmful. They live in the world. They’ve learned to pick up that stuff anyhow.

And we consider ourselves lucky that they’ve also learned the habit watching the sky and picking up a book. And maybe writing one, too.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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