Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Midlife Spices: High tech irony

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A thirty-something man, hamburger in one hand, drink in the other, was talking animatedly to absolutely no one while seated in the fast food restaurant.

It took a moment for me to realize he was using a Bluetooth device, worn on the ear to permit hands-free wireless short-range radio communication with a mobile phone. I’ve noticed more and more youngish people wearing these devices. They’re expensive, but easy to use, convenient and allow instant access.

I couldn’t stop watching and looking at the dark thing clinging to his ear. And the irony of a recent experience with a good friend struck me.

In her late 70s, Rachel is athletic, intelligent and fairly affluent. At lunch last week, she had trouble hearing me over the din of the restaurant; she had left her hearing aid at home.

‘‘I hate to use it,” she confided. It’s not really comfortable on my ear. Sometimes it buzzes, and I just don’t like how it looks and feels when I have it on.”

I understood she wasn’t complaining about how it felt in her ear as much as she was referring to how it felt in her mind and heart. I think it embarrassed her to need it. It made her feel old, disabled and somehow

vulnerable. She didn’t like other people seeing it.

Our conversation left me with a lingering question about the power of symbols. Both devices — the Bluetooth and the hearing aid — are worn on the ear

to facilitate hearing and conversation. But one appears to represent youth, power and money, while the other can seem symbolic of dependence and old age.

‘‘What is a symbol?” I wondered. According to Webster, it’s something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention or accidental resemblance, a visible sign of something invisible.

‘‘Ahhh,” I thought. That’s what has been nagging at me. Perhaps the cultural significance of the two devices hinges on the concepts of communication and status, both of which are invisible. On the continuum of clout, a Bluetooth might represent means and muscle, while a hearing aid might be thought of in terms of frailty and failure.

‘‘Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” I thought struggling to understand my conflicted feelings. Both devices represent listening and talking. Both were developed to enhance conversation and help communication. Both represent sophisticated technological advances. The words pride and prejudice came to mind as I tried to look at both pieces of equipment objectively.

‘‘Where do our values come from?” I wondered. How can similar things worn on the ear come to represent such opposite feelings? I realize that some may disagree with my thinking, but if beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then I assert so is communication assistance.

Judy Kramer can be reached by e-mail at Her column appears here on alternate Wednesdays.