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These electronic devices were supposed to give us more free time--what happened?

I ran into two friends recently at our neighborhood Blockbuster. Laverne and Shirley are two of the coolest women I know, but for whatever reason, we just don't get together enough. So when I passed Shirley, who was plastered to her cell phone as she made her way between the comedies and the dramas, I gave her a big smile and said, "Hey!"

She looked at me quizzically for a moment before recognizing me and ending her conversation. Well, you know the drill: hugs all around, how have you been, what's new, you look great, blah, blah, blah. Then the requisite, "We've got to get together sometime."

On this occasion, we followed through, and after an e-mail or two, arranged to meet at Chopped. The morning of our lunch date, I called with an alternate suggestion after concluding Chopped has good food, but an atmosphere not conducive to an intimate conversation or a leisurely repast. We ended up at Shish Kebab House, where all the requirements for a great meal with friends are assured.

But before we even took the first bite of pita, Shirley said she thought I'd called earlier to cancel. Her comment led to a discussion on how difficult it is for people to get together these days; how everyone is sooooo busy and how social relations are suffering as a result.

Being cursed with a writer's brain, I thought about this conversation far longer than any normal person would and concluded that we've all been led down the yellow brick road in the hopes of finding electronic nirvana when we reach Oz. Of course, we never actually get there, because there are so many diversions masquerading as necessities along the way, but if we did, we'd discover we were grossly misled by the guy behind the curtain: Swill Gates.

Long before Swill and his army of trained monkeys entered the scene, we were promised near-endless leisure when all our marvelously modern labor-saving contraptions would free us from drudgery to pursue our pleasures, whatever they might be. (For some reason, the assumption was we'd all indulge our inner artist.) But as we know, it all turned out to be a bunch of hooey.

My grandmother raised five kids (six if you include the considerable time she spent with me) without the "convenience" of a dishwasher, microwave, toaster oven, convection oven, garbage compactor, George Foreman grill, vacuum cleaner, automatic washing machine (much less a dryer), answering machine, cell phone, computer and, well, you get the idea. Her workload would exhaust the majority of women (and men) today, and I don't care how much time they've spent at the gym. Nevertheless, she--as well as her contemporaries--had more free time than the majority of women today.

So despite our glut of electronic gadgets, items promising an easier, carefree, fun and leisure-filled life, we have arrived at an interesting juncture: We are surrounded by things but have less time for what really matters--less family time, less time with friends and, ironically, less leisure. Our connections to each other are fraying. Having 678 messages in your e-mail inbox and 42 voicemail messages does not translate to a full and rewarding life.

Where once events marking the passages of our lives were conveyed in person or in a handwritten note, these days it is routine to first hear of someone's fatal illness, impending marriage, divorce, birth of a child or even death by e-mail. You might even discover you've been dumped while listening to your answering machine messages.

It's not any stretch to imagine yourself coming home, listening to your voicemail and hearing the trivial and life-altering slam into your brain at the touch of a button: "You've got three new messages. First message, 'Hi, it's Muffy from Empyreal Cleaners. Your suit is ready to be picked up.' Message left at 4:47 p.m. Second message, 'Yo, dude, we're getting together for pizza tonight. Give me a holler.' Message left at 5:03 p.m. Third message, 'This is Doctor Palmary; your father just suffered a massive coronary and isn't expected to live. Please contact my office immediately.' Message left at 5:17 p.m. Fourth message, 'You bastard. I heard about you and Elaine. We are finished. I never want to see you again.' Message left at 5:43 p.m. End of messages."

So while the hype surrounding instant communication insists we are all connected in new and wonderful ways and gee, isn't it grand, in fact, we are on more intimate terms with our Internet provider and our "stuff" than we are with our friends and neighbors.

We are all too busy accommodating the latest item of technological wizardry into our lives to have time for, say, a leisurely, two-hour lunch. And while we are instantly available to anyone calling our cell phone, we are less available to the present moment.

Next time, I'm not waiting for a chance encounter at Blockbuster; there's a host of friends I haven't seen in a while and people I'd like to get to know. Time to pick up the telephone, or I may even write a note.

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