Each night before I go to sleep I look down the hall from bedroom to study to see if the little red light on the answering machine is blinking. We turn off the telephone ringers about an hour before bedtime to give ourselves some quiet. But I can’t help checking for messages as I turn out the light. The odd thing is the answering machine is gone, and has been for two months, since we discontinued our land line and went completely wireless. I unplugged the machine, wound the cords up, and set them on a shelf in the basement.
Yet I still look to the far corner of the desk for the blinking red light.
Given my current thinking about place, I’ve wondered about the implications of wireless communication for my own sense of place. The land line tethered me to the house or office, if I wanted to talk with anyone who wasn’t within speaking distance. Those places were my portals to the outside world. Now I can phone anyone from anywhere. Just about. I can even communicate with them via the internet with a wireless modem.
From a telecommunications perspective, I am nomad-capable.
Of course, other things root me to the house. Among them is this habit of looking for that blinking red light. It occurred to me about the thousandth time I looked that the persistent urge might serve as a model for how places get a hold of us.
People speak of being tied to a place, of being connected, rooted, anchored, attached, dug-in. These are metaphors for what is in fact more abstract, psychological. What draws us to certain places? Perhaps it’s habit, as in the case of my looking for the blinking red light. But habit alone doesn’t capture all the ways we attach to places. Or they to us. For even places we’ve never been pull us in.
Whatever the attraction of a place it would seem to involve what anthropologists gloss as culture: a cognitive recognition, or the desire that accompanies the recognition – “Ah, I know this sort of place and it feels good so I’ll go there.” We can be repulsed by places as well, and I imagine the dynamics are the same, only in reverse: "I don’t like that so I’ll not go there.” We are also attracted to places we’ve never been. How do we account not just for a particular place’s hold, but also for the attraction that types of places exert: the way people return to the beach, lake, or river shore, even if it’s not the same one that formed the attachment to begin with?
People also recreate places: move from one city to another and take their stuff with them and the new apartment or house or dorm room, whatever, is turned into something not unlike what was left behind. That is an attachment to place, and it is not simply a matter of habit but aesthetics, kinesthetics, class, culture, taste, preference. In all those cases there’s a lining up between (or an attempt to line up) what we expect or desire and the actual arrangement.
I’m assuming of course the power to make such things happen. There are all sorts of power, and it strikes me as curious how many people, even relatively powerless people, recreate their circumstances again and again just as the rich and privileged do. This of course says something about the way circumstances structure our lives as much or more than we ourselves do.
There’ll come a day when I’ll be looking everywhere for my cell phone. Until then, I keep looking for that absent blinking red light.