Even when you take a holiday from technology, technology doesn’t take a break from you. On vacation three years back, I chose to read a long biography of George Washington.
I chose it because I was at someone’s guest house and it was the one book on their shelves that I could be sure contained no technology: no email, smartphones, discount airlines, smoking hot WiFi – no anything. The book delivered, and for two weeks I had a dreamlike brain holiday, one that I now look back on as a form of ecotourism – visiting a place where there was a guarantee of relief from my technologised daily brain ecology.
I learnt that Washington was a worthy fellow, one of the few competent human beings in an era when life was short and most people were a mess – when healthy people caught a cold one day and were dead the next.
Importantly, I learnt that were it not for Washington, there would most definitely never have been a United States. The man’s historical worthiness is undebatable and the guy is just basically one of those people who changed the world.
Washington also had appalling teeth and spent much of his time, when visiting cities, inquiring after local dentists and new procedures that might allow him to not live in near perpetual dental discomfort. One reason there is no image of Washington smiling is that the man never smiled; he didn’t want his teeth, or lack thereof, to show. And although he was graced by good health – he died in 1799 at the age of 67, an accomplishment for that time – he was not blessed with bodily comfort. As with anybody of his era, he endured his share of slow-healing wounds, fungal infections, GI distress and many things that can these days be nipped in the bud by a quick trip to Boots.
In reading about his chronic discomfort I began to have a fantasy, one in which Washington, at 45, and utterly sick of being sick, covered in lice and exhausted from having to rescue his inept countrymen from peril after peril, is teleported from atop his horse somewhere in the Virginia countryside and into a Level 3 clean room 500ft beneath that exact same spot some 230-odd years later, circa 2014. Once there, he is given a big hit of Valium and told by a gentle offscreen woman’s voice that he has been whisked away by angels to heal his body and better prepare him for the task of creating and leading a new nation.
At this point, a crew of doctors, dentists and exodontists wearing hazmat suits descend on Washington and begin futzing about with his body, identifying rashes, cysts, abscesses, growths, and then go about fixing everything. Washington – I’m going to call him George henceforth – is totally OK with this invasion because these are angels! No, they’re not necessarily winged but a sterile, 21st-century environment could definitely read as a form of heaven to someone from 1777.
A big part of this makeover and healing fantasy would be to ensure that George doesn’t catch any 21st-century bugs – hence the hazmat outfits. Over the ensuing few weeks, George would undergo a rigid antibiotic regimen to remove any transmittable blood cooties he may have been harbouring.
This would allow for the safe implantation of 32 dazzling new teeth using steel-post implantation and, along the way, George’s skin would be moisturised, defungicised, deloused and gently kissed a nice honey-bronze colour by tanning rays – but as he is a redhead (true), his makeover team would have to go easy on the UV rays. George would need to look like he’d spent a week poolside in Tampa; a cocoa-brown tan would look odd in 1777 and, instead of making George look like a member of the ruling elite, would instead make him resemble a day labourer.
Moving forward: George’s rogue ear and nose hairs would be trimmed. His dandruff would be Selsuned into oblivion and George’s signature Warhol-in-drag hairstyle would be primped into Sassoon-like perfection. He’d be borderline hot, and just before leaving the Level 3 containment area, George would be given Lasik treatment to correct his vision, as well as small hits of Botox to lend him a slightly more youthful appearance. The garments he was wearing when he was abducted would have been dry-cleaned and stored for 48 hours at -204C, then thawed, dried and restitched together. Basically, when George was returned back on to his horse back in Virginia, he’d be a new man – one super healthy stud, and totally ready to kick some British ass.
The only thing that might complicate this makeover scenario would be if George were to have fallen in love with one of his hazmat angels – a twist that would please any Hollywood producer. George would be back in 1777 pining away to reunite with, say, the lithe and sinewy Dr Jennifer Crandall, parasitologist with a chip on her shoulder and a quivering lower lip (to be played by Charlize Theron). So Dr Crandall hops into the time travel machine, goes back in time, finds George, but brings with her some ghastly 21st-century flu, wiping out 98 per cent of the American colony’s population and wrecking history for ever.
The point here is that even when you try avoiding technology, it still drives the imagination.
I just wanted a book without smartphones! I’m going to try it again this year … on an ereader.
Douglas Coupland is the author of ‘Generation X’. His latest novel, ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, is published by Heinemann