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"I Just Called to Say I Love You"

Cell phones, sentimentality, and the decline of public space.

One of the great irritations of modern technology is that when some new development has made my life palpably worse and is continuing to find new and different ways to bedevil it, I’m still allowed to complain for only a year or two before the peddlers of coolness start telling me to get over it already Grampaw–this is just the way life is now.

I’m not opposed to technological developments. Digital voice mail and caller ID, which together destroyed the tyranny of the ringing telephone, seem to me two of the truly great inventions of the late 20th century. And how I love my BlackBerry, which lets me deal with lengthy, unwelcome e-mails in a few breathless telegraphic lines for which the recipient is nevertheless obliged to feel grateful, because I did it with my thumbs. And my noise-canceling headphones, on which I can blast frequency-shifted white noise (“pink noise”) that drowns out even the most determined woofing of a neighbor’s television set: I love them. And the whole wonderful world of DVD technology and high-definition screens, which have already spared me from so many sticky theater floors, so many rudely whispering cinema-goers, so many open-mouthed crunchers of popcorn: yes.

Privacy, to me, is not about keeping my personal life hidden from other people. It’s about sparing me from the intrusion of other people’s personal lives. And so, although my very favorite gadgets are actively privacy enhancing, I look kindly on pretty much any development that doesn’t force me to interact with it. If you choose to spend an hour every day tinkering with your Facebook profile, or if you don’t see any difference between reading Jane Austen on a Kindle and reading her on a printed page, or if you think Grand Theft Auto IV is the greatest Gesamtkunstwerk since Wagner, I’m very happy for you, as long as you keep it to yourself.

The developments I have a problem with are the insults that keep on insulting, the injuries of yesteryear that keep on giving pain. Airport TV, for example: it seems to be actively watched by about one traveler in ten (unless there’s football on) while creating an active nuisance for the other nine. Year after year; in airport after airport; a small but apparently permanent diminution in the quality of the average traveler’s life. Or, another example, the planned obsolescence of great software and its replacement by bad software. I’m still unable to accept that the best word-processing program ever written, WordPerfect 5.0 for DOS, won’t even run on any computer I can buy now. Oh, sure, in theory you can still run it in Windows’ little DOS-emulating window, but the tininess and graphical crudeness of that emulator are like a deliberate insult on Microsoft’s part to those of us who would prefer not to use a feature-heavy behemoth. WordPerfect 5.0 was hopelessly primitive for desktop publishing but unsurpassable for writers who wanted only to write. Elegant, bug-free, negligible in size, it was bludgeoned out of existence by the obese, intrusive, monopolistic, crash-prone Word. If I hadn’t been collecting old 386s and 486s in my office closet, I wouldn’t be able to use WordPerfect at all by now. And already I’m down to my last old 486. And yet people have the nerve to be annoyed with me if I won’t send them texts in a format intelligible to all-powerful Word. We live in a Word world now, Grampaw. Time to take your GOI pill.

But these are mere annoyances. The technological development that has done lasting harm of real social significance–the development that, despite the continuing harm it does, you risk ridicule if you publicly complain about today–is the cell phone.

Just 10 years ago, New York City (where I live) still abounded with collectively maintained public spaces in which citizens demonstrated respect for their community by not inflicting their banal bedroom lives on it. The world 10 years ago was not yet fully conquered by yak. It was still possible to see the use of Nokias as an ostentation or an affectation of the affluent. Or, more generously, as an affliction or a disability or a crutch. There was unfolding, after all, in New York in the late 1990s, a seamless citywide transition from nicotine culture to cellular culture. One day the lump in the shirt pocket was Marlboros, the next day it was Motorola. One day the vulnerably unaccompanied pretty girl was occupying her hands and mouth and attention with a cigarette, the next day she was occupying them with a very important conversation with a person who wasn’t you. One day a crowd gathered around the first kid on the playground with a pack of Kools, the next day around the first kid with a color screen. One day travelers were clicking lighters the second they were off an airplane, the next day they were speed-dialing. Pack-a-day habits became hundred-dollar monthly Verizon bills. Smoke pollution became sonic pollution. Although the irritant changed overnight, the suffering of a self-restrained majority at the hands of a compulsive minority, in restaurants and airports and other public spaces, remained eerily constant. Back in 1998, not long after I’d quit cigarettes, I would sit on the subway and watch other riders nervously folding and unfolding phones, or nibbling on the teatlike antennae that all the phones then had, or just quietly clutching their devices like a mother’s hand, and I would feel something close to sorry for them. It still seemed to me an open question how far the trend would go: whether New York truly wanted to become a city of phone addicts sleepwalking down the sidewalks in icky little clouds of private life, or whether the notion of a more restrained public self might somehow prevail.

Needless to say, there wasn’t any contest. The cell phone wasn’t one of those modern developments, like Ritalin or oversized umbrellas, for which significant pockets of civilian resistance hearteningly persist. Its triumph was swift and total. Its abuses were lamented and bitched about in essays and columns and letters to various editors, and then lamented and bitched about more trenchantly when the abuses seemed only to be getting worse, but that was the end of it. The complaints had been registered, some small token adjustments had been made (the “quiet car” on Amtrak trains; discreet little signs poignantly pleading for restraint in restaurants and gyms), and cellular technology was then free to continue doing its damage without fear of further criticism, because further criticism would be unfresh and uncool. Grampaw.

But just because the problem is familiar to us now doesn’t mean steam stops issuing from the ears of drivers trapped behind a guy chatting on his phone in a passing lane and staying perfectly abreast of a vehicle in the slow lane. And yet: everything in our commercial culture tells the chatty driver that he is in the right and tells everybody else that we are in the wrong–that we are failing to get with the attractively priced program of freedom and mobility and unlimited minutes. Commercial culture tells us that if we’re sore with the chatty driver it must be because we’re not having as good a time as he is. What is wrong with us, anyway? Why can’t we lighten up a little and take out our own phones, with our own Friends and Family plans, and start having a better time ourselves, right there in the passing lane?

Socially retarded people don’t suddenly start acting more adult when social critics are peer-pressured into silence. They only get ruder. One currently worsening national plague is the shopper who remains engrossed in a call throughout a transaction with a checkout clerk. The typical combination in my own neighborhood, in Manhattan, involves a young white woman, recently graduated from someplace expensive, and a local black or Hispanic woman of roughly the same age but fewer advantages. It is, of course, a liberal vanity to expect your checkout clerk to interact with you or to appreciate the scrupulousness of your determination to interact with her. Given the repetitive and low-paying nature of her job, she’s allowed to treat you with boredom or indifference; at worst, it’s unprofessional of her. But this does not relieve you of your own moral obligation to acknowledge her existence as a person. And while it’s true that some clerks don’t seem to mind being ignored, a notably large percentage do become visibly irritated or angered or saddened when a customer is unable to tear herself off her phone for even two seconds of direct interaction. Needless to say, the offender herself, like the chatty freeway driver, is blissfully unaware of pissing anybody off. In my experience, the longer the line behind her, the more likely it is she’ll pay for her $1.98 purchase with a credit card. And not the tap-and-go microchip kind of credit card, either, but the wait-for-the-printed-receipt-and-then-(only then)-with-zombiesh-clumsiness-begin-shifting-the-cell-phone-from-one-ear-to-the-other-and-awkwardly-pin-the-phone-with-ear-to-shoulder-while-signing-the-receipt-and-continuing-to-express-doubt-about-whether-she-really-feels-like-meeting-up-with-that-Morgan-Stanley-guy-Zachary-at-the-Etats-Unis-wine-bar-again-tonight kind of credit card.

There is, to be sure, one positive social consequence of these worsening misbehaviors. The abstract notion of civilized public spaces, as rare resources worth defending, may be all but dead, but there’s still consolation to be found in the momentary ad hoc microcommunities of fellow sufferers that bad behaviors create. To look out your car window and see the steam coming out of another driver’s ears, or to meet the eyes of a pissed-off checkout clerk and to shake your head along with her: it makes you feel a little less alone.

Which is why, of all the worsening varieties of bad cell-phone behavior, the one that most deeply irritates me is the one that seems, because it is ostensibly victimless, to irritate nobody else. I’m talking about the habit, uncommon 10 years ago, now ubiquitous, of ending cell-phone conversations by braying the words “LOVE YOU!” Or, even more oppressive and grating: “I LOVE YOU!” It makes me want to go and live in China, where I don’t understand the language. It makes me want to scream.

The cellular component of my irritation is straightforward. I simply do not, while buying socks at the Gap, or standing in a ticket line and pursuing my private thoughts, or trying to read a novel on a plane that’s being boarded, want to be imaginatively drawn into the sticky world of some nearby human being’s home life. The very essence of the cell phone’s hideousness, as a social phenomenon–the bad news that stays bad news–is that it enables and encourages the inflicting of the personal and individual on the public and communal. And there is no higher-caliber utterance than “I love you”–nothing worse that an individual can inflict on a communal public space. Even “Fuck you, dickhead” is less invasive, since it’s the kind of thing that angry people do sometimes shout in public, and it can just as easily be directed at a stranger.

My friend Elisabeth assures me that the new national plague of love yous is a good thing: a healthy reaction against the repressed family dynamics of our Protestant childhoods some decades ago. What could be wrong, Elisabeth asks, with telling your mother that you love her, or with hearing from her that she loves you? What if one of you dies before you can speak again? Isn’t it nice that we can say these things to each other so freely now?

I do here admit the possibility that, compared with everyone else on the airport concourse, I am an extraordinarily cold and unloving person; that the sudden overwhelming sensation of loving somebody (a friend, a spouse, a parent, a sibling), which to me is such an important and signal sensation that I’m at pains not to wear out the phrase that best expresses it, is for other people so common and routine and easily achieved that it can be reëxperienced and reëxpressed many times in a single day without significant loss of power.

It’s also possible, however, that too-frequent habitual repe­tition empties phrases of their meaning. Joni Mitchell, in the last verse of “Both Sides Now,” referenced the solemn amazement of saying I love you “right out loud”: of giving vocal birth to such intensity of feeling. Stevie Wonder, in lyrics written 17 years later, sings of calling somebody up on an ordinary afternoon simply to say “I love you,” and being Stevie Wonder (who probably really is a more loving person than I am), he half succeeds in making me believe in his sincerity–at least until the last line of the chorus, where he finds it necessary to add: “And I mean it from the bottom of my heart.” No such avowal is thinkable for the person who really does mean something from the bottom of his heart.

And, just so, when I’m buying those socks at the Gap and the mom in line behind me shouts “I love you!” into her little phone, I am powerless not to feel that something is being performed; overperformed; publicly performed; defiantly inflicted. Yes, a lot of domestic things get shouted in public which really aren’t intended for public consumption; yes, people get carried away. But the phrase “I love you” is too important and loaded, and its use as a sign-off too self-conscious, for me to believe I’m being made to hear it accidentally. If the mother’s declaration of love had genuine, private emotional weight, wouldn’t she take at least a little care to guard it from public hearing? If she truly meant what she was saying, from the bottom of her heart, wouldn’t she have to say it quietly? Overhearing her, as a stranger, I have the feeling of being made party to an aggressive assertion of entitlement. At a minimum, the person is saying to me and to everyone else present: “My emotions and my family are more important to me than your social comfort.” And also, often enough, I suspect: “I want you all to know that unlike many people, including my cold bastard of a father, I am the kind of person who always tells my loved ones that I love them.”

Or am I, in my admittedly now rather lunatic-sounding irritation, simply projecting all this?

The cell phone came of age on September 11, 2001. Imprinted that day on our collective consciousness was the image of cell phones as conduits of intimacy for the desperate. In every too-loud I love you that I hear nowadays, as in the more general national orgy of connectedness–the imperative for parents and children to connect by phone once or twice or five or ten times daily–it’s difficult not to hear an echo of those terrible, entirely appropriate, heartbreaking I love yous uttered on the four doomed planes and in the two doomed towers. And it’s precisely this echo, the fact that it’s an echo, the sentimen­tality of it, that so irritates me.

My own experience of 9/11 was anomalous for the lack of television in it. At nine in the morning, I got a phone call from my book editor, who, from his office window, had just seen the second plane hit the towers. I did immediately go to the nearest TV, in the conference room of the real-estate office downstairs from my apartment, and watch with a group of agents as first one tower and then the other went down. But then my girlfriend came home and we spent the rest of the day listening to the radio, checking the Internet, reassuring our families, and watching from our roof and from the ­middle of Lexington Avenue (which was filled with pedestrians streaming uptown) as the dust and smoke at the bottom of Manhattan diffused into a sickening pall. In the evening, we walked down to 42nd Street and met up with an out-of-town friend and found an unremarkable Italian restaurant in the West 40s which happened to be serving dinner. Every table was packed with people drinking heavily; the mood was wartime. I got another brief glimpse of a TV screen, this one showing the face of George W. Bush, as we were departing through the restaurant’s bar. “He looks like a scared mouse,” somebody said. Sitting on a 6 train at Grand Central, waiting for it to move, we watched a New York commuter angrily complain to a conductor about the lack of express service to the Bronx.

Three nights later, from 11:00 p.m. to nearly 3:00 a.m., I sat in a frigid room at ABC News from which I could see my fellow New Yorker David Halberstam and speak by video link to Maya Angelou and a couple of other out-of-town writers while we waited to offer Ted Koppel a literary perspective on Tuesday morning’s attacks. The wait was not short. Footage of the attacks and the ensuing collapses and fires was shown again and again, interspersed with long segments on the emotional toll on ordinary citizens and their impressionable children. Every once in a while, one or two of us writers would have 60 seconds to say something writerly before the coverage reverted to more carnage and wrenching interviews with friends and family of the dead and the missing. I spoke four times in three and a half hours. The second time, I was asked to confirm widespread reports that Tuesday’s attacks had profoundly changed the personality of New Yorkers. I could not confirm these reports. I said that the faces I had seen were somber, not angry, and I described seeing people shopping in the stores in my neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon, buying fall clothes. Ted Koppel, in his response, made clear that I’d failed at the task I’d been waiting half the night to perform. With a frown, he said that his own impression was very different: that the attacks had indeed profoundly changed the personality of New York City.

Naturally, I assumed that I was speaking truth and Koppel merely retransmitting received opinion. But Koppel had been watching TV and I had not. I didn’t understand that the worst damage to the country was being done not by the pathogen but by the immune system’s massive overresponse to it, because I didn’t have a TV. I was mentally comparing Tuesday’s death toll with other tallies of violent death–3,000 Americans killed in traffic accidents in the 30 days preceding September 11–because, not seeing the images, I thought the numbers mattered. I was devoting energy to imagining, or resisting imagining, the horror of sitting in a window seat while your plane came in low along the West Side Highway, or of being trapped on the 95th floor and hearing the steel structure below you begin to groan and rumble, while the rest of the country was experiencing actual real-time trauma by watching the same footage over and over. And so I was not in need of–was, for a while, not even aware of–the national televised group therapy session, the vast techno-hugathon, that unfolded in the following days and weeks and months in response to the trauma of exposure to televised images.

What I could see was the sudden, mysterious, disastrous sentimentalization of American public discourse. And just as I can’t help blaming cellular technology when people pour parental or filial affection into their phones and rudeness onto every stranger within earshot, I can’t help blaming media technology for the national foregrounding of the personal. Unlike in, say, 1941, when the United States responded to a terrible attack with collective resolve and discipline and sacrifice, in 2001 we had terrific visuals. We had amateur footage and could break it down frame by frame. We had screens to bring the violence raw into every bedroom in the country, and voice mail to record the desperate final calls of the doomed, and late-model psychology to explicate and heal our trauma. But as for what the attacks actually signified, and what a sensible response to them might look like, attitudes varied. This was the wonderful thing about digital technology: No more hurtful censoring of anybody’s feelings! Everybody entitled to express his or her own opinion! Whether or not Saddam Hussein had personally bought plane tickets for the hijackers therefore remained open to lively debate. What everybody agreed to agree on, instead, was that the families of 9/11’s victims had a right to approve or veto plans for the memorial at Ground Zero. And everybody could share in the pain experienced by the families of the fallen cops and firefighters. And everybody agreed that irony was dead. The bad, empty irony of the ’90s was simply “no longer possible” post-9/11; we’d stepped forward into a new age of sincerity.

On the plus side, Americans in 2001 were a lot better at saying “I love you” to their children than their fathers or grandfathers had been. But competing economically? Pulling together as a nation? Defeating our enemies? Forming strong international alliances? Perhaps a bit of a minus side there.

My parents met two years after Pearl Harbor, in the fall of 1943, and within a few months they were exchanging cards and letters. My father worked for the Great Northern Railway and was often on the road, in small towns, inspecting or repairing bridges, while my mother stayed in Minneapolis and worked as a receptionist. Of the letters from him to her in my possession, the oldest is from Valentine’s Day 1944. He was in Fairview, Montana, and my mother had sent him a Valentine’s card in the style of all her cards in the year leading up to their marriage: sweetly drawn babies or toddlers or baby animals voicing sweet sentiments. The front of her valentine (which my father likewise saved) shows a pigtailed little girl and a blushing little boy standing beside each other with their eyes bashfully averted and their hands tucked bashfully behind their backs.

I wish I were a little rock,

‘Cause then when I grew older,

Maybe I would find some day

I was a little “boulder.”

Inside the card is a drawing of the same two kids, but holding hands now, with my mother’s cursive signature (“Irene”) at the feet of the little girl. A second verse reads:

And that would really help a lot

It sure would suit me fine,

For I’d be “bould” enough to say,

“Please be my Valentine.”

My father’s letter in response was postmarked Fairview, Montana, February 14.

Tuesday Evening

Dear Irene,

I’m sorry to have disappointed you on Valentine’s Day; I did remember but after not being able to get one at the drugstore, I felt a little foolish about asking at the grocery or hardware store. I’m sure they have heard about Valentine’s Day out here. Your card fit the situation out here perfectly and I’m not sure if it were intentional or accidental, but I guess I did tell about our rock troubles. Today we ran out of rock so I’m wishing for little rocks, big rocks or any kind of rocks as there is nothing we can do until we get some. There is little enough for me to do when the contractor is working and now there is nothing at all. Today I hiked out to the bridge where we are working just to kill time and get a little exercise; it’s about four miles which is far enough with a sharp wind blowing. Unless we get rock on the freight in the morning, I’m going to sit right here and read philosophy; it hardly seems right that I should get paid for putting in that kind of day. About the only other pastime around here is to sit in the hotel lobby and take in the town gossip, and the old timers who haunt the place can sure put it out. You would get a kick out of it because there is sure a broad cross section of life represented here–from the local doctor down to the town drunk. And the last is probably the most interesting; I heard that he taught at the University of N.D. at one time, and he seems really to be quite an intelligent person, even when drunk. Normally the talk is pretty rough, about like Steinbeck must have used for a pattern, but this evening there came in a great big woman who made herself right at home. It all sort of makes me realize how sheltered a life we city people live. I grew up in a small town and feel quite at home here but I somehow now seem to view things differently. You will hear more of this.

I hope to get back to St. Paul on Saturday night but cannot tell for certain now. I’ll call you when I get in.

With all my love,

Earl

My father had recently turned 29. It’s impossible to know how my mother, in her innocence and optimism, received his letter at the time, but in general, considering the woman I grew up knowing, I can say that it was absolutely not the sort of letter she would have wanted from her romantic interest. Her valentine’s cutely punning conceit taken literally as a reference to track ballast? And she, who spent her whole life shuddering free of the hotel bar where her father had worked as a bartender, getting a kick out of hearing “rough talk” from the town drunk? Where were the endearments? Where were the dreamy discussions of love? It was obvious that my father still had a lot to learn about her.

To me, though, his letter seems full of love. Love for my mother, certainly: he’s tried to get her a valentine, he’s read her card carefully, he wishes she were with him, he has ideas he wants to share with her, he’s sending all his love, he’ll call her as soon as he’s back. But love, too, for the larger world: for the varieties of people in it, for small towns and big cities, for philosophy and literature, for hard work and fair pay, for conversation, for thinking, for long walks in a sharp wind, for carefully chosen words and perfect spelling. The letter reminds me of the many things I loved in my father, his decency, his intelligence, his unexpected humor, his curiosity, his conscientiousness, his reserve and dignity. Only when I place it alongside the valentine from my mother, with its big-eyed babies and preoccupation with pure sentiment, does my focus shift to the decades of mutual disappointment that followed my parents’ first few years of half-seeing bliss.

Late in life, my mother complained to me that my father had never told her that he loved her. And it may literally be true that he never spoke the big three words to her–I certainly never heard him do it. But it’s definitely not true that he never wrote the words. One reason it took me years to summon the courage to read their old correspondence is that the first letter of my father’s that I glanced at, after my mother died, began with an endearment (“Irenie”) that I had never heard him utter in the 35 years I knew him, and it ended with a declaration (“I love you, Irene”) that was more than I could stand to see. It sounded nothing like him, and so I buried all the letters in a trunk in my brother’s attic. More recently, when I retrieved the letters and managed to read through them all, I discovered that my father had in fact declared his love dozens of times, using the big three words, both before and after he married my mother. But maybe, even then, he’d been incapable of saying the words out loud, and maybe this was why, in my mother’s memory, he’d never “said” them at all. It’s also possible that his written declarations had sounded as strange and untrue to his character in the 1940s as they now sound to me, and that my mother, in her complaints, was remembering a deeper truth now concealed by his seemingly affectionate words. It’s possible that, in guilty response to the onslaught of sentiment he was getting from her notes to him (“I love you with all my heart,” “With oh so much love,” etc.), he’d felt obliged to perform romantic love in return, or to try to perform it, the way he’d tried (sort of) to buy a valentine in Fairview, Montana.

“Both Sides Now,” in the Judy Collins version, was the first pop song that ever stuck in my head. It was getting heavy radio play when I was eight or nine, and its reference to declaring love “right out loud,” combined with the crush I had on Judy Collins’s voice, helped to ensure that for me the primary import of “I love you” was sexual. I did eventually live through the ’70s and become capable, in rare accesses of emotion, of telling my brothers and many of my best male friends that I loved them. But throughout grade school and junior high, the words had only one meaning for me. “I love you” was the phrase I wanted to see scrawled on a note from the cutest girl in the class or to hear whispered in the woods on a school picnic. It happened only a couple of times, in those years, that a girl I liked actually said or wrote this to me. But when it did happen, it came as a shot of pure adrenaline. Even after I got to college and started reading Wallace Stevens and found him making fun, in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” of indiscriminately love-seeking people like me–

If sex were all, then every trembling hand

Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words–

–those wished-for words continued to signify the opening of a mouth, the offering of a body, the promise of intoxicating intimacy.

And so it was highly awkward that the person I constantly heard these words from was my mother. She was the only woman in a house of males, and she lived with such an excess of unrequitable feeling that she couldn’t help reaching for romantic expressions of it. The cards and endearments that she bestowed on me were identical in spirit to the ones she’d once bestowed on my father. Long before I was born, her effusions had come to seem intolerably babyish to my father. To me, though, they weren’t nearly babyish enough. I went to elaborate lengths to avoid reciprocating them. I survived many stretches of my childhood, the long weeks in which the two of us were alone in the house together, by clinging to crucial distinctions in intensity between the phrases “I love you”; “I love you, too”; and “Love you.” The one thing that was vital was never, ever to say “I love you” or “I love you, Mom.” The least painful alternative was a muttered, essentially inaudible “Love you.” But “I love you, too,” if pronounced rapidly enough and with enough emphasis on the “too,” which implied rote responsiveness, could carry me through many an awkward moment. I don’t remember that she ever specifically called me out on my mumbling or gave me a hard time if (as sometimes happened) I was incapable of responding with anything more than an evasive grunt. But she also never told me that saying “I love you” was simply something she enjoyed doing because her heart was full of feeling, and that I shouldn’t feel I had to say “I love you” in return every time. And so, to this day, when I’m assaulted by the shouting of “I love you” into a cell phone, I hear coercion.

My father, despite writing letters filled with life and curiosity, saw nothing wrong with consigning my mother to four decades of cooking and cleaning at home while he was enjoying his agency out in the world of men. It seems to be the rule, in both the small world of marriage and the big world of American life, that those without agency have sentimentality and vice versa. The various post-9/11 hysterias, both the plague of I love yous and the widespread fear and hatred of the ragheads, were hysterias of the powerless and overwhelmed. If my mother had had greater scope for accomplishment, she might have tailored her sentiments more realistically to their objects.

Cold or repressed or sexist though my father may appear by contemporary standards, I’m grateful that he never told me, in so many words, that he loved me. My father loved privacy, which is to say: he respected the public sphere. He believed in restraint and protocol and reason, because without them, he believed, it was impossible for a society to debate and make decisions in its best interest. It might have been nice, especially for me, if he’d learned how to be more demonstrative with my mother. But every time I hear one of those brayed parental cellular I love yous nowadays, I feel lucky to have had the dad I did. He loved his kids more than anything. And to know that he felt it and couldn’t say it; to know that he could trust me to know he felt it and never expect him to say it: this was the very core and substance of the love I felt for him. A love that I in turn was careful never to declare out loud to him.

And yet: this was the easy part. Between me and the place where my dad is now–i.e., dead–nothing but silence can be transmitted. Nobody has more privacy than the dead. My dad and I aren’t saying a whole lot less to each other now than we did in many a year when he was alive. The person I find myself actively missing–mentally arguing with, wanting to show stuff to, wishing to see in my apartment, making fun of, feeling remorse about–is my mother. The part of me that’s angered by cellular intrusions comes from my father. The part of me that loves my BlackBerry and wants to lighten up and join the world comes from my mother. She was the more modern of the two of them, and although he, not she, was the one with agency, she ended up on the winning side. If she were still alive and still living in St. Louis, and if you happened to be sitting next to me in Lambert Airport, waiting for a New York-bound flight, you might have to suffer through hearing me tell her that I love her. I would keep my voice down, though.

Jonathan Franzen is the author of the novels The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion, and The Corrections, as well as the nonfiction works How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone.

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