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Drop your cell like the bad habit it is

November 11, 2013

Six months without a cell phone, what I’ve learned

It was a tuesday night. I was in Paris, France, drinking at Cafe du Canal near République. I commiserated with some fellow comedians after a show. Bantering back and forth we exchanged jokes, sipped drinks, and became ever more inebriated. I took out my iPhone and checked my messages. That’s the last memory I have of my phone.

Moments later, the comedians all got up and walked to a pizzeria about a block away. When we got there I reached down to check my phone, but it was gone. The frantic search began. I checked my pockets, my jacket, my backpack. Nothing. I asked my friends, and no one could recall. Had I left in on the table? Did I put it in my back pocket and was I pick-pocketed? Did it fall out of my jacket pocket? Maybe it fell off the table and was still sitting at the cafe.

My head spinning with booze and the post-stand-up set euphoria, I failed to pay enough attention to recall whether I put it in my pocket or left it on the table. It still haunts me. Since I’d bought the phone in 2010 it had become such a fluid and integrated part of my life it was almost like an extension of myself. All of that information. All of my contacts. The ability to call or email anyone, save any joke I thought of, listen to nearly any song, and record almost everything in my daily reality, gone.

I was outraged, and probably made a fool of myself in front of my comedian friends. Undoubtedly, dozens of cell-phone-rage jokes were written that night, but none by me. I was far too angry to give any structure to my seething ire. I cursed France, I cursed Paris, I cursed myself, and yes, I even cursed God for allowing this to happen. I went to bed in a terrible condition. I passed homeless people, and felt jealous that they’d never know the sting of having lost such a precious item.

I awoke the next morning with a little more perspective. Maybe this was an opportunity. I had Skype, and I had a computer. Perhaps this would be an exercise in discipline. As Seneca once said, “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’” Okay, maybe I wouldn’t be in total poverty, but deprived of the wealth of ability a cell phone granted me I would have to simply get used to it. Plus, I was half vacationing, half backpacking, half working around Europe, it’s not like buying another iPhone was even an option. The only choice I had was to make peace with it.

But also, I wanted to know. I wanted to know what not having a cell phone would be like. I doubt that many of us have even sat back and asked that question. How many times have we pulled out the phone at a social event because we didn’t find someone interesting enough to talk to? How often did we send out dozens of texts to people to find something to do, or somewhere to go? How did people even make plans without a cell phone?

One thought pressed me the most: If I can’t live without a cell phone then I never deserved to have one in the first place.

Over the prevailing months, traveling around Europe and back to the U.S. I learned what it was like. I had to read maps in advance, and remember directions. I had to constantly carry a pocket notebook (I felt like a reporter!) and pen. Plans became the most different. Without the ability to dial up or text everyone in real-time, I had to get meticulous. “I’ll see you at Fontaine St. Michel, at noon, right in front of the fountain.” And I had to make sure I was on time, missing anyone meant an evening or possibly weekend of blown activity.

After two weeks and a trip to Normandy, I didn’t feel the missing anymore. In fact I noticed that so much more of my daily experience than before. I overheard and listened to more French. Without the option to translate every word on the phone I had to rely on my own ability, which pressed me to retain more of the language. If I ever ran into a problem, or got lost, or had a question, I had to ask someone. Some of these people even became interested in me. Strangers I spoke to ended up coming to comedy shows, and I still keep in touch with them. None of it would’ve happened if I didn’t have the need to engage with others.

Maybe the best part, which was the most distressing at first, was the lack of any kind of distraction when spending time with others. I couldn’t “zone out”, I had no other option but to stay engaged. Conversations got weird. If I had nothing to talk about, I had to just sit until I did, or let someone else talk. But I also noticed that sitting with nothing else to do but be engaged, I never missed a thing and always had something to say. It made me reflect on how unengaged I must’ve been in the past. Soon I was reminding others, distracted by their annoying portable devices, what the conversation topic was.

In fact, I got very annoyed. People checked their phones constantly. Even more frustrating was the bizarre looks I got when I told people I didn’t have a cell phone. You’d have thought I was telling people I didn’t eat food, and firmly believed the world was flat.

I finally came back to the United States. I still don’t have a cell phone. I will be buying one soon.

Recently I attended a Red Wings game with my sister. During the second intermission, up in the nosebleeds of the Joe Louis Arena it happened. I looked at Gordy Howe’s number hanging from the ceiling and wondered how old he was. Bang. For the first time in six months I wished I had a cell phone.

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