Sophia Loren once said that, if you don’t want to appear old, you should avoid groaning when you stand up from sitting. I don’t groan when I stand up, or at least not loudly, but I make other gestures that date me as visibly as a bubble hairdo. For instance, when I want to mimic “call me,” instead of placing my hand by my ear, middle digits flexed and thumb and little finger extended, I stick out my index and twirl it clockwise in the air, as if I were dialing a rotary phone. No matter how often I remind myself that this is even more old-making than groaning, before I know it my finger has twirled. And if you are in your car with the windows up and I have something I say to you, I will signal by rotating my hand and forearm, in a pathetic regression to the days when you rolled down a car window with your hand instead of pushing a button.
I have some thoughts about the buttons that have rendered these and other gestures obsolete. Where a push of a button with the index finger now rolls down the window, dials the phone, and disappears an unwanted solicitation, the old movements were varied, and involved different parts of the body. Starting a car used to require vigorous rotations of the entire arm (please note that this was well before my time). By the 1940s that procedure had dwindled to a flick of the wrist, and now requires no more than the push of a button. Shifting gears used to involve the forearm, and letting out the clutch involved both feet. Now something in the bowels of the car does the shifting, and as for the clutch, who even knows what that is anymore?
Remember manual typewriters, how heavy they were to lug around? The keys were sturdily resistant to touch (are you sure that’s the right word? they seemed to ask), and at the end of a paragraph you had to twist the roller to move the paper up. Now our laptops are light as a feather, the keys respond to the slightest contact, and to start a new paragraph we click the Enter button. (Of all the charms of a manual typewriter, the one I miss the most is that friendly ding of the carriage return, an encouraging acknowledgement that you were one line closer to your goal.)
In ancient times, if we wanted to change a TV channel we had to stand up, walk to the set, twist a dial, and adjust the rabbit ears. Now we remain sprawled in our recliners, pushing buttons and popping bonbons in our mouth. To keep my physical deterioration at a minimum while watching TV, I set my phone timer for twenty minutes, at which point I decant the cat from my lap, stand up, and wave my arms and legs around a bit. Then I sit down, call the cat, who deeply resents this routine, back onto my lap, and reset the timer.
The young Bach once walked twenty miles to hear Buxtehude play the organ. Today he would just click on YouTube and listen to his heart’s content.
We spend far too much time sitting around pushing buttons. If this continues, our great grandchildren will be born with enormous heads, spindly arms and legs, and long, muscular index fingers. And since all the button pushing, in my opinion, is greatly responsible for the obesity epidemic, their abdomens will be huge. The winding of car windows, dialing of rotary phones, beating of egg whites, and hanging of laundry used to consume calories, maybe just a few at a time, but at the end of the day they added up. Without those exertions, we are reduced to inventing ways to use up the calories that surround us on all sides. So we get in the car, push the starter button, drive to the gym, push the door-lock button, and push the buttons on the treadmill so that, for a specified number of minutes, we can pretend that we’re scaling a mountain with our two, now mostly irrelevant, God-given legs. But at least, while we’re conquering that peak, our index fingers get a rest.