People Substitutes

Contrary to what Babs sang, people who need people might not be the luckiest people in the world, after all.

Are people becoming passé?

We crave human attention and affection but much of the time we really can’t stand to be around people.

People are annoying. They’re demanding. They’re selfish and self-absorbed. They don’t understand each other and don’t really care to. They say one thing and do another. They can be cruel and even abusive.

People are damaged goods, one and all.

And, besides, people are work. Infants cry, toddlers have tantrums, and teens are sullen. Anyone older than a teen has all the problems cited above. So, that leaves about nine years, from the ages of 4 to 12, when people are likeable and pleasant to be around. Those people are called children. They are exempt from the basic premise of this article.

Given this situation, we’ve come up with people-substitutes: inanimate objects and non-human creatures that offer many of the benefits of human interaction without all the hassle. In fact, I’m beginning to think we’re more fervent about our pets, pills, porn, and iPods than we are about the people in our lives. (Excuse the cheesy alliteration, but for some reason we’re attracted to things with the letter “p”).

I include myself in this critique. My son Daniel was a delightful, adorable baby, but, to be honest, I think I cooed and cahhhed more over my diminutive Sony VAIO notebook when I first got it than over my own son at birth. I realize that won’t win me any Mother-of-the-Year awards, but, hey, my VAIO is just so damned cute. It’s light and compact and portable -- in fact, it weighs less than Daniel did when he was born. Its screen is brighter and clearer than his face was with its befuddled, one-eyebrow-raised-like-John Belushi expression. And, when I leave it on my desk and walk out of the room, it never emits the hair-raising screams that Daniel used to when left alone in his crib.

I have similar passionate feelings for TiVO. The television set in my bedroom -- the one connected to TiVO -- broke a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t function without it. I’m forced to choose between favorite programs: Gilmore Girls or American Idol? Grey’s Anatomy or The O.C.? What kind of cruel fate would force such a dilemma upon me? But, it’s more than that. I miss searching for movies starring Catherine Deneuve or Dustin Hoffman. I miss having TiVO choose programs it thinks I want to watch (even though it’s almost always wrong). I even miss the thwump sound TiVO makes to let you know you’ve done something wrong. Just a mild alert; no sharp, buzzing, shaming sound that other gadgets produce when you’ve screwed up. TiVO would never be so judgmental.

Believe me, two weeks is a lo-o-o-o-ng time to be TiVO-less. By comparison, I love my husband, and when he was away for a couple of weeks one summer, traveling to Hong Kong and Sydney on business, I really missed him. But did I call home for messages with the same obsessiveness that I do now, hoping to hear the television is fixed and ready to be re-connected to my TiVO? Did I have those moments of denial about his absence that I do now about TiVO when I bound upstairs to the bedroom, ready to settle in and watch Ryan carry the whole sinking weight of The O.C. -- until I remember that I’m still living the nightmare of TiVO deprivation? I think you know the answer.

But, let’s not forget that our technological devices are just one type of people-substitute, and perhaps not even the most powerful. I’d contend that there is no greater gratitude than what one feels for one’s meds, especially those of the feel-good variety (pain relievers, anti-depressants, sleep aids). I have my own favorite miracle drug, namely, Ambien. Before my family plans an intervention, let me state for the record that I use Ambien only on occasion, and only at a fraction of the dosage that’s advertised. But, having suffered from terrible, crippling insomnia in my early 20s, I can’t begin to express my appreciation for its somnambulant effects. In fact, next Thanksgiving, instead of giving praise for bountiful food or loving family or good health, I’m going to give praise for the little pill, promptly take one, and then fall asleep while everyone else clears the table.

Some people-substitutes are not products (although that’s debatable), they’re actual people. But, they’re not people to us; instead, they’re fantasy figures. I think one word pretty well covers the celebrity aspect of this category: Brangelina. And what discussion of fantasy would be complete these days without the mention of porn? Is it any wonder that porn is one of the biggest draws on the internet? What greater evidence do we need that people-substitutes are replacing the need for actual, flesh-and-blood people in our lives?

Finally, there’s no question as to why we prefer our pets to most (if not all) people. Four of my friends lost their pets in recent months, and the depth of their grief was nearly as great as if a (human) friend had died. And for good reason: Pets ask for so little and give so much. Sure, in the case of Rupert, my aging Golden Retriever, he sheds clumps of fur all over the hardwood floors, permanently stained our couch with his slobber, and occasionally eats his own poops, but all in all he’s a far superior being than me. He doesn’t hold a grudge, he doesn’t hog the covers, and he doesn’t object when we dress him up in eyeglasses and a beret.

Name one person you could say that about.

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