Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

My new (to me) pickup truck came equipped with a backup camera. A thick fisheye lens now bulges discretely from a perch just to the left of my tailgate latch and transposes a warped digital image to an index card-sized display screen where a man’s CD player used to be.

I didn’t ask for the camera to be installed—it came standard on the used truck that I took for a test drive and eventually purchased in November. But the salesman at the dealership spoke about it as if it were a desirable new option, and he spoke with the knowing diffidence of a paid expert, so I didn’t press the subject. I reservedly kicked the tires instead.

In the time since I left that Ram dealership with a new key fob on my keyring and an albatross of consumer debt slung unceremoniously round my neck, my truck and I enjoyed a bright and blissful honeymoon over our first few thousand furlongs. Improved gas mileage and a driver’s seat that didn’t suddenly recline at odd and unexpected times were splendors among the many with which my New Gray Mare endeared herself to me. The road ahead appeared as smooth and comfortable as my new suspension.

Yet my relationship with that standard-issue backup camera can be compared (at best) to the awkward adjustment of living with an assigned roommate. We danced around each other in fits and starts, each trying to make alternate weekend plans to avoid long interactions. But as I continued my habit of backing into parking stalls every workday morning, the inevitable standoffs that followed were tense and quixotic, if not tragically predictable.

I confess that I did come to eventually enjoy the assistance that the camera offered me when backing into parking spaces, especially on tight city streets. And I haven’t as much as kissed a concrete bollard with my back bumper in these last nine months, so there is at least one way in which my new ownership experience can be considered quantifiably improved. But the incessant manner and implied tone with which I am implored to “CHECK ENTIRE SURROUNDINGS” before Every. Single. Venture. Into. Reverse. bears with it what I imagine the neurotic naggings of an overbearing mother must feel like.

It had been an altogether transitory, if not sanctifying experience adjusting to having a camera lens on my back tailgate, and the degree to which I could state that a backup camera was a positive feature was approaching unequivocable—until, that is, the first time that I had to back my truck onto a tow hitch connection.

Suddenly, there—in that moment so familiar to me in previous years with previous trucks—I found my heart unexpectedly and inescapably bound in the cords of conflict. For in that driver’s seat, ready to back onto the tongue of our hand-me-down pop-up camper, with my front tires askew at 45 degrees to the right, my left hand at ten o’clock, and my neck instinctively craned to begin the rear-facing retreat, I first realized what choice unexpectedly lay before (er, behind) me.

It was as I crept back on the gravel toward the camper that I remembered, “Oh, I have a backup camera now.” In a flash, in the jingling sway of a key(fob)chain, the demands of the decision called me to either confirm or deny the very ethos and principles that until that afternoon I had professed to hold dear. I was at a crossroads. Before me on the one hand shimmered the Promised Convenience (so-called) of Technological Advancement or, on the other, loomed yet another demand to sacrifice the joys of Ritual and Process on the altar of Progress.

I could have in that moment chosen to ease my chariot—my new-and-improved, bigger-better-faster beast of burden—back onto that trailer tongue with the all-seeing and impersonal Eye of HAL as my guide. I could have, relying on the grainy replicate image of my rear-facing surroundings, saved my back a twist, my neck a twinge, and my oldest passenger the trouble. I could have backed my tow hitch to within a hundredth of an inch of the trailer tongue without even turning around, and I could have watched the scene transpire on the digital equivalent of an eight by ten glossy photo with the circles and arrows just like the sheriff of the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts used to make.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t do it—not that time, at least. For the sake of conscience, for the sake of my sons, I couldn’t back up using the camera. I couldn’t move my truck in reverse while facing forward. Calmly, decisively, resolutely, I resisted the invitation to submit to the incandescent arms of Advancement and slip serenely beneath the swell of Progress. I kept my right hand on the back of the passenger seat and looked at my son and said, “Liam—hop out and help me back onto that trailer hitch.”

August 29, 2022

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