People thought my iPhone was peculiar. A second-generation iPhone, I’d bought it three weeks before the new phones came out. Before buying it, I’d asked if the new phone was slated to be released soon and whether I should wait. I was told to go for it. After the release of the new phone, I returned to trade it in and been rudely refused.
In an obstinate rage, I announced I would never upgrade the thing or purchase any more apps from the App Store. When my screen cracked during a petulant fit not long after, I refused to have it replaced, carrying around the shattered thing like a badge of disdain.
Photo by Emilio Flores.
Despite this, the little device served me fine -- as an Apple product that inspires throwing and other abuses possibly could, anyway. Finally, last week, I decided I'd had enough. I went on the AT&T website and rather unceremoniously upgraded to a Motorola Atrix 4G.
The first people I called upon the arrival and setup of the new device were my parents. When I told my father about the new acquisition, however, he – despite a pronounced affinity for gadgets – seemed sad.
“Dad, it’s been two years. It was time,” I said, a little surprised I had to explain myself.
“After everything that little device went through with you, being dragged around the world in your back pocket,” he responded with undeniable sentimentality.
My mother took the phone anyway from him.
“Oh, your father,” she said. “I don’t know where he developed this neurosis of keeping things.”
Suddenly, I vividly recalled a forgotten childhood ritual: lining up my stuffed animals before bed to kiss and hug them and tell them I loved them.
My parents had eschewed Disney in favor of the Brothers Grimm and Pushkin. I’d grown up in worlds rich with lessons, magic and horrors. But no stories left a mark greater than those my father penned for me. The ritual of kissing the stuffed toys had come about following the debut of the story inspired by a stuffed white cat I’d acquired in Columbia whose eyes had promptly been torn out by my jealous fox terrier upon my return home.
In the story, the stuffed animals came to life at night – to discuss the governing of the different toy districts in the room, to discuss philosophy, to dance, to laugh, to make mischief, to fall in love and live great adventures from the kitchen to the spa. But much like the mobile devices we operate today, the toys could not go about their business on an empty battery. The only way to charge this battery was by loving them.
So it was that no matter how great their mischief or triumph, over time, even the most celebrated stuffed animals lost all their strength to move after the lights went out and I fell asleep. Soon, they were forgotten, delegated to some obscure corner of the closet, or a box, until they were unearthed again and given away to some other child who would love them again and let them return to the world of toys.
The idea of my favorite bear Juanito, which I’d had since birth, and Goofy, which I’d gotten at the age of four during a hospital stay and which now was missing a nose (another act of jealousy by Tiger, the vengeful terrier), struck fear into my heart. My mother’s father always marveled at how I, unlike my cousins, never asked for any toys when he took us out on the town. The truth was that I knew I didn’t have the bandwidth for all of them. All kids grow with some kind of shame or guilt. Mine was the shame of not cherishing my things enough.
Remnants of this feeling are still with me today. I’ve carried my library with me around the world. I can deal with photos being stored digitally, but not the books. The books with all the scribbles in the margins and all the undelinings remain with me. I’ll sooner forgo a dining room than let the books live in a dusty storage space.
But in most other regards, the impulse to save things is gone. I move too much. I can’t afford to accumulate anything. As a result, I don’t own too much. But I have no trouble letting go of things if I find I no longer need them, or they have ceased to operate properly.
Like the iPhone.
This morning, in response to the discussion of his “neurosis,” my father forwarded an e-mail from the Uruguayan author and journalist, Eduardo Galeano, which, if you will forgive the brutality of my attempt at translation, I excerpt and quote here:
What I can’t do is go around throwing things away or trading them in for the new model simply because someone has added a function to them or made the device smaller. It’s probable that what the world has become is fine, I won’t debate that. It’s that I come from a time where things were bought to last a lifetime. They were bought for a lifetime and that of those who came after. People once inherited wall clocks, sets of wine glasses, china and even earthenware bowls.
Now my children and the children of my friends don’t only change their phones every week, they also change their numbers, their e-mail addresses, and even their real addresses. I was raised to live with the same number, the same woman, the same house, the same name (even if it was a name one would have liked to change). I was raised to keep everything because one day things may serve some other purpose. We refused to resign ourselves to the belief that things had a shorter life than a jasmine. In the same way new generations decide to kill their devices as soon as they stop functioning, in those times we refused to declare the death of anything – even Walt Disney! How can you ask me to understand people that can give up a mobile phone a few months after buying it?
Is it that when things are easily attained they are less valued and thus become disposable in proportion to the ease that they were attained? I could draw a parallel between the values that are being tossed and those we are keeping, but I won’t. I could say that not only are electronics disposable today, but also marriage and friendship. But I won’t do something so imprudent as to compare objects with people. Likewise I am biting my tongue to keep from suggesting that we are losing some identity; that the collective memory is being discarded from an ephemeral past. I won’t mix up the subjects. I won’t say that the perennial has become obsolete and the obsolete is the new perennial. I won’t say that the old are declared dead as soon as their functions begin to fail, that spouses are traded in regularly for new models, that any people who cannot perform in a specific way are discriminated against, that only the most beautiful are valued, those with the shine of the new.
After reading the piece, I once again thought about the story of the stuffed animals and how in his own way, my father had taught me to cherish what I had. I thought also about the way he drives, always ready to open the door and scoop up some discarded thing roadside.
And what magical things he creates from these found items. An old vacuum cleaner was attached to a hair trimmer to enable him to cut his own hair and leave no trace of the labor. Using a miscellany of other items, he built an apparatus for the coffee maker that scooped up the coffee beans, ground them, and dropped them into the filter, ready for the water to come down. He put a timer on it, so the process began just as he and my mother were waking -- and this long before such products became commercially available. Likewise he created a machine that dropped more cat food into the bowl when the cats needed to be fed.
My father comes from a generation of resourcefulness and creativity. His computer is a monster he put together himself and one he knows how to fix himself. My mother’s ready-made laptop that makes repairs difficult – if not impossible – as well as all the shiny iProducts that decree no tampering if one wishes to preserve their warranty, are nevertheless regarded through the lens of possibility. Everything can serve some other purpose – and if it can’t, its parts might.
And it goes beyond things. That same maneuver he uses to pick up found objects while driving saved the life of a king fisher with a broken wing that was flopping weakly in the middle of the four lane road one day on his way to drop me off at school. Immediately after recovering the bird, which he held on his lap as gently as one would a newborn, we turned around and went home, where he carefully repurposed a pair of wooden chopsticks to create a splint for the wing.
Over the course of several weeks, we nursed the bird back to health. Nothing is thrown away. My father will never resign himself to the death of anything, not old chopsticks and certainly not a bird. That king fisher healed well and stayed around our house until I graduated high school.
My father's cat, a runty Siamese he calls “his third daughter,” was a rescue, too. The cat (Alfonzina, named by my mother after the song about a woman who drowned herself, on account of how the cat seemed to have no idea how to drink when we first found her) has cost him about as much as he spent on his human daughters' college educations put together in terms of medical bills due to her many health complications, but that doesn’t matter. Everything and everyone is cherished. Everything and everyone is saved. Everything and everyone gets a second chance.
It’s no surprise that all our pets have enjoyed long lives. It’s no surprise the friends my father makes stay friends for life. Or that he and my mother have been together as long as they have. There is a certain respect afforded to everything in one’s life that comes with this mentality of refusing to discard things.
People aren’t objects, but if you cherish everything you own and fix it when it breaks, how could you fail to see relationship problems as things you can overcome with some resourceful creativity?
I have always respected my father, but today, I respect him so much more. Not only am I keeping my iPhone, I’m replacing the screen. I’ve repurposed it as a controller for my Sonos sound system in the house. I'm grateful for the new one that can sustain a phone call, but I won't easily discard the adventures I had with only the light of that iPhone to guide me and all the memories it contains in pictures and text messages.
Cherishing and keeping -- it's a philosophy of life to cherish and to keep.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.