Living with "The Thing"

This is the second essay in a series on Technological Memoir. We are seeking other writers to contribute. See details here

By Kristen Connor 

My favorite song from childhood wasn’t even from my own childhood. My father was 6 years old at the time The Beatles’ “Help!” came out in 1965, and I can see him now in my grandparent’s living room turning up the knob on the radio to catch a soundbite of the international hit. Often after dinner, he would pop open the plastic cover of the CD-ROM and slide the disc into the stereo while me and my brother would wait for the click click click processing sound before swaying to the saccharine tunes.

I tried to decipher what the poses of the white men in blue coats on the album cover might look like in motion. Were they spelling out H-E-L-P as in Y-M-C-A? It took nearly 20 years and a traumatic ski injury for me to remember that, on the cover, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were skiing. They were skiing in Obertauern, Austria shooting a film to accompany the album. This is where I learned to ski. And it is also where I shattered my tibial plateau, one of the most important load-bearing parts of the human body.

Since the injury, my memories of Obertauern have become a series of fractal images ever tessellating in new formations like a twisting kaleidoscope. Men in red coming, inflating a splint around my leg. My knees rebounding after landing my first ski jump on the bunny slope. The poma lift pulling my light girl body into the air for a gleeful aerial ascent up the hill. The view of my parents’ worried faces out the back of the emergency skidoo. Now, a scream that shook the valley as the men pulled the ski boot from my mangled leg. Heads turned, black out. The triage clinic, an X-ray showing a bad fracture, and the promise of morphine.   

I woke up in a hospital with an “external fixation,” 4 metal bars jutting out of my thigh and shin bones to keep my leg immobilized while the swelling went down. The details of my first surgery were lost in translation, and I didn’t know that I would wake up to my skin black and blue, and puckered around metal. During a second surgery, the surgeons removed the bars and drilled a plate with seven large screws into my tibia and shin at various angles. When I first saw the X-ray, I stared, silently terrified of The Thing in my leg and the doctors’ refusal to give an Estimated Time of Walking.

The Thing brought into being a new time-space. I returned to life in San Francisco on crutches, unable to bend or put weight on my leg and injecting myself daily with anti-clotting drugs. I learned to live with the techno-metal. But as a self-styled independent woman raised on lyrics like The Beatles’ “When I was younger I never needed anybody’s help in any way,” and Destiny’s Child’s “The shoes on my feet / I’ve bought it … ‘Cause I depend on me,” I was determined to make use of Silicon Valley’s finest apps to ensure that I wasn’t a burden to anyone. I used Instacart, Good Eggs, and Google Shopping for groceries; TaskRabbit for miscellaneous chores; and Uber and Lyft to get around. I went back to work at a tech start-up, joined my friends for nights out, and made sure that the struggle with physical therapy looked easy. I joked about how The Thing made me a walking barometer, forecasting the weather before it arrived with the appropriate amount of throbbing.

Despite my doctor’s guarantee of an able-bodied future and having a corner at the local bar where I drank with my friend Claire, I kept getting thinner, and my knee didn’t heal. Amazon orders of craft supplies and books couldn’t satisfy my boredom, and working from Skype and TalkDesk 3 days a week produced a shrunken feeling, which was worsened by my recurring dreams of ski falling, hospitals, and screaming pain. Strangers—usually men—would offer to give me rides or carry bags, and, in those moments, I was grateful. They wanted to be the prince-charming to my damsel-in-distress, but only because the invisible Thing residing deep in my flesh and bones was made visible by crutches and a knee brace. My young white female body held up by technological apparatuses, both inside and outside, became an object of pity and salvation, and often for instrumental purposes, I let the chivalry happen.

 What if my injury were less visible? What if I were less visible? What kind of crooked “feminism” did I think I was living?

My desire to live independently with The Thing propagated a highly individualistic, capitalistic, and techno-utopian ideal of the “independent woman” that bolstered a bourgeois San Francisco sensibility that in other times I would have rejected. iPhone apps can’t fill the holes where humans should be. The Thing and all of its attendant technologies brought into relief the fundamental incompatibility between my feminist ideals and my reliance on my phone. Rather than seek out relationships and bring people into community with me, if even for a moment, I let these technologies make me forget that we can, we should, and we must demand reasonable things from other people: emotional support, the physical contact of a hug, or help up the hills of San Francisco.

As I slowly came to this realization over the 5 months I spent hobbling around, it became easier to reach out. I grew comfortable asking people on the beach to give me a ride up the road, engaged my formerly stranger-neighbors in meaningful conversations, and learned to tell my friends how I was feeling and what I needed from them. Most of the time, they were happy to help because caring for other people is part of what it means to practice being human.

I don’t listen to “Help!” much anymore. The Thing brought into an existence a social reality in which I could no longer believe that Lennon was ever independent in the way he imagined he was, nor aspire to be the kind of “independent woman” I sang about as a Girl Power kid in the 90s and 00s. Now, I dream of a society in which we don’t have to ask for empathy, and one way to get there is to engage in the difficult labor of questioning whether supposedly “liberating” technologies are in fact disrupting our ability to relate. Apps to “improve our lives” cannot by themselves be the answer. They might be useful (I never stopped using Lyft’s accessible vehicles to get around), but it is only through changing and fostering human relationships that our societies might be improved.

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