Out of touch, out of my mind

by Jim CHASE

One of the best-written, consistently funny sitcoms on TV is Modern Family. On last week’s episode, a subplot had one the show’s featured fictional families, Phil and Claire Dunphy and their three kids, in a contest with each other to see who could go without their electronic devices the longest period of time. No Blackberries, no email, no iPads, cell phones, laptops or surfing the Internet in any way. The family’s attempts to cheat it were hilarious.

That was, until I tried doing the same thing. Then it wasn’t so funny. Actually, I only had to do without my e-fixes for two hours at a time last Thursday through Sunday. That was difficult enough.

Let me explain. I was fortunate to be able to attend a 10-hour-per-day, four-day writing seminar led by one of the most sought-after screenwriter/storyteller/script-doctor/lecturers working in Hollywood today. This gentleman travels the world (when he’s not writing his own screenplays or fixing other writers’ work) giving his uniquely intense lecture series to sold-out groups. He is brilliant. He is funny and entertaining. He is also quite particular about the conduct of anyone who attends his lectures.

At the opening session of his course, this veteran of “stage, page and screen” warns everyone in attendance that he doesn’t tolerate talking or whispering during his lectures — period. He also won’t take questions from the audience unless he’s sitting in a leather wing back chair that he has set up on the stage – and he only sits in the chair during the morning break and the afternoon break each day. He even has “rules” as to what sort of questions he’ll answer and which ones will elicit a verbal tongue-lashing. Woe unto anyone who asks a question that he’s already answered during his lecture.

Suffice it to say, the man is a bit eccentric (not to mention immensely narcissistic). He unleashes some of his most intense rebukes for people who go online or check emails on laptops, tablet computers or smart phones while he talks. If you really want to wither under his wrath, however, text. Several people were “caught” trying to sneak a peak at their phones and a few others busted for texting. The rest of us diligently kept all electronics turned off, lest the sage on stage be distracted in the slightest way by beeps, boops, blips or key clicks.

As a result, you should have seen the mad dash for the doors whenever we were dismissed for break or lunch. I remember reading somewhere that during huge televised sporting events like the Super Bowl, water and power departments across the country know it’s commercial break time because of the sudden decrease in water pressure from all the toilets being flushed. I have no doubt there would have been a visible surge in the Internet traffic (much of it sewage of another kind, unfortunately) from the area around our conference center with so many devices logging on simultaneously. It was comical – and more than a little sad – to see all those adults standing stock still, their smart phones in a death grip and eyes riveted on whatever was on their tiny touch screens. The persons next to them could have been on fire and no one would have noticed.

I’m just as guilty of digital dependency as the next guy and readily admit to being one of the first ones out of the lecture sessions to see if any “important” text messages, emails or voicemails were waiting for me. (For the record, I have so far resisted the lure of tweeting, but I don’t know how much longer I can hold out!)

Somehow, I managed to survive the four-day ordeal and thought I was back to technological nirvana. Until, that is, the power in my La Crescenta neighborhood went out twice as I was finishing this column. God, indeed, has a divine sense of humor.

I’ll see you ‘round town.