Monday, May 28, 2007

Living In A World Of His Own

"He lives in a world of his own" is a phrase which was frequently used when I was young. It would be used by teachers during discussions of my talents (or lack of them) with my parents. It would be used by my parents as some kind of explanation to relatives who would complain that I didn't say much. Actually, they had got it wrong. I wasn't living in a world of my own. The reason why I ignored most questions and conversations was that I was deaf (although neither I nor anyone else knew this at the time). And, as I was often unclear what people were saying to me or asking of me, I would adopt a kind of neutral, dreamy expression which, I hoped, would suit all occasions.
Whilst the defence of deafness can be used in answer to the charge of living in a world of my own fifty years ago, when the charge is made nowadays I simply have to plead guilty and come quietly. It's true. Increasingly I am living in a virtual world of my own. I blame the Fat Dog experiment. You may recall that four months ago I set myself the challenge of walking (accompanied by my good friend Amy the dog) from Los Angeles to New York. This would be the definitive exercise in virtual reality : a test of the extent to which virtual information could mimic the real world. Amy and I would do the miles : but they would be in endless circles around the streets of Brighouse.
There should be a health warning on all such experiments in virtual reality. Participants should be aware that - over time - the boundaries between virtual and actual reality become blurred. Let me give you a few examples.
On Friday, the chap came to read the electricity meter. As usual, Amy was bouncing up and down happy that she had met a new human being and anxious to add them to her collection of "Faces I Have Licked". As the poor man stood nervously just inside the front door, I shepherded Amy inside the front room, saying to her something like "Now Amy, let the poor man in, he wants to see the meter not you". I don't see this as a big problem, lots of people talk to their pets. It's not so unusual. The trouble was, after a couple of seconds, I opened the door again and shouted "What did you say? Don't be so nasty or there will be no chicken for you tonight". Again I didn't see this as a problem. Amy and I have lots of such conversations during the day. However, the man read the meter in record time and almost ran down the drive, stopping only at the gate to write something in a little book he was carrying.
Yesterday we were having dinner with friends. After the kids had left the table and gone off to sack Carthage or rape the Sabine Women or whatever they do these days, the conversation turned to what we had done during the week just ended. When it came to my turn I couldn't think what to say. This was not because I hadn't done anything - I had toured Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, spent a couple of days at the world-famous Castroville Artichoke Festival and seen some splendid birds at Elkhorn Slough Nature Reserve just outside Moss Landing. It's just that saying that made it seem like all that I had done during the week was sit in front of my computer like some sad nerd. And the real trouble was, that is what I had done. And thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Finally, earlier today I drew my son's attention to the latest "Birth Announcements" column in the newspaper. A child called Xander had just been born (congratulations Mr and Mrs Soliz) and as this is what we tend to call our son, I thought he might be interested. He took the page from me, looked at the heading at the top of the page and said "Why on earth are you reading the Birth Announcements in the Monterey County Herald?" Without thinking I replied "I like to keep up to date with local issues". And I can swear that the look he gave me - the raised eyebrows, the mixture of pity and embarrassment - was the same look my mother used to give me fifty years ago. If there had been anyone else in the room, he no doubt would have turned to them and said "He lives in a world of his own".
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