Where I write, I cannot be contacted. I am unreachable by phone. I am on an island. (It is the island of Manhattan, with more than one million people, but that’s beside the point.) I sit staring into what looks like the wardrobe of the Narnia books; actually it is an armoire containing all the technological devices that constitute my “office.” (It is in my living room.) This is the nerve center. All contact with the outside world starts and ends here. The nerve center can almost operate without me: The phone rings and the answering machine takes messages; the computer logs on and collects e-mail by itself; the fax machine hums to its own rhythm. The more communication devices I’ve acquired, the more incommunicado I’ve become. Not only do I screen my calls, I’ve started to disable my call-waiting by dialing *70 before each call. I’ve even been known to turn off my answering machine (and dial *69 after each call to see who’s dialing me). No messages means no calls to return. Here is the great irony of the communication age: You don’t have to communicate.
The communications revolution reminds me of the sexual revolution, which also had its unforeseen consequences. We were supposed to get great sex and free love, and instead everyone now pays for personal ads. I’m just back from Dallas, where I was invited to give a talk at my former high school. While I was there, I saw a friend, an older man who is divorced and who is having trouble finding a date. He finally decided to take out a personal ad, and only one person replied–his ex-wife.
While AWOL, I’ve been devouring the Katharine Graham biography. She describes how shocked she was at the 1964 Republican National Convention when former President Eisenhower viciously attacked the press. Another man, she writes, “who was seconding the nomination of the vice-president actually spat out the words: ‘Walter Lippmann, Walter Reuther, the New York Times, and Pravda.’ ” Graham suggests that Ike gave the first in the long line of Republican denunciations of the liberal media that have since become commonplace. Whenever I go back to Dallas, someone invariably complains to me about the supposed liberal bias of the Washington Post or the New York Times (where I now work). What always amuses me about this criticism is that in the same breath, the person usually praises the Dallas Morning News (or some other local Texas paper known for its conservative editorial page), apparently unaware that many of these papers run national and international stories almost daily from the Times or Post wire services. Yet somehow the liberal bias always goes undetected when it appears in the hometown press.
When trouble descends on any of the Graham clan, the troubled decamp to Europe. Money helps, of course, but Graham’s mother, Agnes Ernst, managed it despite having grown up far from wealthy. When her father began to drink and neglect family debts, she won herself a scholarship to Barnard, lost it by being headstrong, earned the money she needed to return by teaching teen-age gang members in Hell’s Kitchen, became the first female reporter in the city, got the scholarship back, and saved up enough money (while single-handedly supporting her family) to escape to Paris, where she became friends with Rodin, Brancusi, Madame Curie, and Picasso. As Graham portrays her, Ernst was a self-absorbed and neglectful mother–not necessarily a role model for Kay. Yet, when Phil Graham killed himself, Kay, too, went on an extended trip–then came back to run the Washington Post. It’s hard not to feel a little soft in comparison, particularly when what I’m running from is the telephone. Graham’s biography is a swift kick in the butt. If I’m gonna go AWOL, why aren’t I going to Europe?