For his eightieth birthday, Isaac Ginsburg’s two sons presented him with an iPad. “What’s this?” he asked suspiciously, lifting it up carefully and inspecting it from all angles as if it might explode at any moment.
“You know the big computer in the study that mom uses to type letters and send messages? Well, this is the same thing, only smaller and easier to work,” said Benjy, the elder of the two sons.
“And you can carry it from room to room if you want to, you know, like the phone. It can connect you with the whole wide world if you want to,” added Mark.
This proved a bad opening gambit. “I don’t need to connect with the whole wide world,” retorted Isaac. “Isn’t it enough that I connect with your mother and the two of you? Why should I want to connect with the whole wide world?”
“Dad, we’re trying to make life easier for you,” said Benjy, a note of impatience creeping into his voice. The old man was reacting predictably. Since his retirement more than a decade ago he had become increasingly reclusive, housebound and technology-aversive.
“What do you call this, anyway?” he asked.
“It’s called an iPad,” said Mark. “But don’t worry about the name. Think of it as a modern typewriter, telephone and television set all rolled into one.”
Isaac’s hearing was not what it used to be. “I have no need for an eye patch,” he said indignantly. “Not an eye patch,” persisted Mark. “An iPad.” But Isaac had already turned away from the flat, square-shaped, shiny object like a little boy turning away from an unwanted plate of vegetables.
Isaac’s wife Esther understood him better than her sons did. “Ignore him,” she said in a private moment. “His default position is to throw a gift back in your face. Give him time and he’ll start to take an interest in it, maybe even like it.”
And so it happened. When the boys had gone and after a long period of furtively eyeing the iPad, Isaac began to handle it, gingerly at first, then more confidently. Finally, he allowed Esther to show him some of its rudimentary functions and before long he was tapping away at messages to his children and grandchildren, including two messages of apology to his sons (suggested by Esther) for his earlier ungracious response to such a magnificent present.
Isaac’s delight was unbounded when the first replies from his family flashed up on the computer screen. This emboldened him to contact people further afield and with the help of Esther he was able to track down one or two friends from the distant past, including an old school friend from their days in South Africa, Bernie Rothstein, who, he learnt, was now a wealthy accountant in California but who had been in poor health for several years. Isaac was in his element. “Fat lot of good his money has done for him,” he confided to Esther in a moment of schadenfreude. ‘He was always a chazer of the first order.’ Esther was tempted to ask him what a chazer of the second order would be like but refrained, not wanting to provoke him into a fit of temper.
In time, Isaac’s horizons expanded to encompass Facebook and WhatsApp. He was endlessly fascinated by the torrent of images and messages which now invited him to participate, he was not altogether sure in what, but the general ambience of social media excited him and warmed the cockles of his heart. “Who says I haven’t got friends?” he declared triumphantly to Esther, Benjy and Mark during a family get-together. “Look!” he pointed at the screen. Sure enough, an impressively long list of ‘friends’ sprang into sight and an equally impressive cluster of ‘likes’ and heart emojis formed around his online comments.
But every upside has its downside. In no time at all Isaac had formed a strong attachment to his iPad which could only be described as obsessive. The machine accompanied him to bed every evening and was the first inanimate object to command his attention when he woke up in the morning.
“Dad, you’re becoming addicted,” said Benjy. Isaac pooh-poohed the idea. “Rubbish!” he said, “Everything is an addiction. Food is an addiction. Everybody has to eat. Fresh air is an addiction. We all have to breathe.” Long experience had taught his family that it was futile to argue with him, so he was left to his own devices.
But then nature stepped in, as nature is wont to do. One day, Esther heard her husband’s voice resounding throughout the flat. “Esther! Come here!” he was shouting. “Come at once!” Esther knew him well enough to recognize the difference between anger and panic. This was panic. She went to see what the matter was.
“This eye patch!” he said in a strangled voice. “It has been sending me bad messages about myself! It has even begun talking about me behind my back. Can’t you hear it? Listen! It says things I never knew about myself. Wicked things! My God! It’s got a mind of its own — and it’s got it in for me! Why? What have I done?”
Esther listened and looked, but of course she was unable to hear or see anything sinister. “Switch it off, Isaac,” she said. “Maybe it needs a rest.” Isaac switched off the iPad but this brought no respite. “It won’t obey my command,” he said. “I can still hear it. Sometimes it’s whispering and sometimes it’s laughing at me. Do something, Esther my darling! Save me!” That night he tossed and turned in his sleep and cried out several times. Apparently, the eye patch had friends and they were coming to get him.
Dr Zalman Schlosser, noted psychiatrist, was a friend of Benjy and Mark. After an hour closeted with Isaac, he took them aside. “Look,” he said, “I’ve seen this sort of thing before in the elderly, especially when there’s a hard-of-hearing problem. Your dad has got a temperature and it’s quite possible that he has an infection somewhere. His lungs are clear but he could have a urinary tract infection and it doesn’t take much to trigger a confusional state. I’ll do a blood test and we’ll need to test his urine too, and then, depending on the results, a course of antibiotics might be indicated. Meantime, I’ll give him some sedation.”
To cut a long story short, Dr. Schlosser’s diagnostic judgment was vindicated. Isaac had recovered within a week and was back to his usual curmudgeonly self. But there was a distinct change in his attitude towards the iPad. Although he continued to keep it within easy reach, he had lost his enthusiasm for sending messages and browsing it for incoming messages. “I don’t need an eye patch anymore,'”he said, when Esther asked him what the matter was. “We have enough gadgets in the flat already, and I have plenty of other things to occupy myself with.”