March 25, 2007

Monet, and the phone

"Monet," says my friend Ollie Taylor. "You know Monet's paintings? Well, I see things sort of like that." Not that I can name even a single Monet, but I knew immediately what he meant: sort of blurry, soft-focus. Ollie has macular degeneration. His eyesight has deteriorated so much that he can see only large block-printed letters, and those only close-up. The rest? Like a Monet.

This is a man I've always admired. He has a sharp and brilliant mind, he reads widely, he has played drums for years in an amateur swing/jazz band that practices in the basement. The last time I saw him, some years ago in India, I took him to see a cricket match and he still remembers that ballet-like grace of that day. (Mentioned here).

I'm saddened to hear about his fading eyesight. And in his place, someone else might be defeated by it. But Ollie has lost none of his verve and spirit. For starters, he seems almost tickled by the Monet comparison. Then he takes me downstairs and plays for me; I notice that the wall is plastered with photographs of past band performances. He sits me down and plies me with questions about me, my career, India, Pakistan; he offers me the most thoughtful analysis of American politics I've heard in weeks of hearing plenty analysis. Barbara and he take me out for a chuckle-filled evening roaming shoreside Annapolis and eating at a fine restaurant downtown. He tells me that at 77, he is about to start a new job working in a nursery, doing the physical labour of moving trees and plants about. To get in shape, he rows and walks the treadmill diligently every day. "I just love working outdoors with my hands," he answers my curiosity. "Always have."

Yet the thing that most mocks my sadness actually has nothing to do with him. It's a cordless phone that hangs around his neck. Every day, he dials a number, punches in a few digits, and then goes about his walking or gardening or whatever else. Via the speaker on the instrument, his selection of favourite newspapers and magazines, recorded early every day, is read to him. He can choose from hundreds of publications around the country, all available via just a few button-punches on the phone that he wears.

This is called a telephone reader service. It is entirely free, down to the free telephone call. I've heard of books on tape, but this takes my breath away.

It leaves me wondering along a curious tangent. The USA is regarded as rich and "developed". Is that because it has wealth? Or because of how it chooses to spend that wealth? Do those choices themselves contribute to "development"?

To clarify -- maybe you've heard something like this said: it's not because America was wealthy that it built the interstate highway system, but the contrary. Building the highways made America wealthy.

Of course it isn't quite as simple as that. But there's something to think about there.

In the same way, is it because this is a rich country that it can offer this service that my friend Ollie uses? Or is it that choosing to provide such services made it rich?


Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of a essay on MD i read a while ago. Just dug it out. It's called The Disappearing Teapot by Alice Mattison. It is in the Pushcart Prize Issue XXIV.

Can't wait for your posts on L.A. - if it in on your west coast itenerary.


Samir said...

I'm an entrepreneur. This post is very inspiring. I don't think I'll forget it anytime soon.

Vikrum said...


Great post. Two comments:

1. The telephone reader service has been used by criminals lately to make drug deals, pass information, etc. Because of this, there is unfortunately some controversy surrounded the program.

2. You asked The USA is regarded as rich and "developed". Is that because it has wealth? Or because of how it chooses to spend that wealth? Do those choices themselves contribute to "development"?

Interesting questions. I had a friend in Costa Rica who did not consider South Korea a developed country because of the way in which women were treated there. For her, development meant far more than economic indicators. I think there's a point there. There are a bunch of Middle Eastern countries that are fabulously wealthy from oil revenues. Yet, from the way minorities and women are treated, I wouldn't go so far to call them "developed."

Dilip D'Souza said...

Neale, good to hear from you again! Thanks for the Alice Mattison pointer, I'm going to get it and read it. Sorry, no LA this time! But if what this is all about gels as I'd like it to gel, LA will certainly be on the agenda.

Samir, what kind of stuff are you an enterpreneur with?

Vik, thanks! I didn't know that about drug deals etc. How are they using the reader service that way?

And you're right, that's one thing I meant by "development". Related is that I'm also trying to ask, does a country develop by paying attention to these kinds of issues? (I hope it's clear what my response is).