The other day I took my husband to see David Sedaris. We don’t get out much, so I was very excited. The huge theater was packed full of people with snazzy duds and sharp haircuts. It was a smart-looking crowd so, of course, I strained hard to eavesdrop.
The couple next to me was fixed in the glow of his cell phone displaying a game-board; they muttered a cryptic exchange I couldn’t follow. The group in front of us spent the time passing their phones around, posing for photographs, then viewing and commenting upon the photos they took. The couple to our right us didn’t speak at all—they were busy checking their Facebooks.
When David Sedaris came on, he was a faceless figure wearing dark pants and a white shirt standing behind a huge podium. That’s all I could see. I love Sedaris, but it struck me as some modern-day kind of weird to be sitting among people who might have interesting experiences to share but don’t because they are fixated elsewhere—first on their little pocket screens, then on a barely discernable man reading about his life from a book, a man who would probably be experienced more fully on a little screen. That is, if I had one.
When they discover that I do not own a cell phone on purpose, some people move quickly from sympathy to scorn. I can see it in their eyes. Suddenly, I’m a pariah. They back slowly away before I infect them with whatever is wrong with me.
Other people think it’s sort of cute—as charming as a rotary dial and endearing as your grandmother’s doily collection—not the kind of cute you want in your house but an oddity you are happy to know. “This is my friend Anna who doesn’t own a cell phone. Isn’t that adorable?”
Others are full of concern. “Your poor family!” they gasp. “How do they get a hold of you?” No matter what I say to assure them that communication without a cell phone is possible, they continue to shake their heads and sigh, full of pity for my abused children and my poor, neglected man.
I really don’t get it, but when people say they can’t live without their cell phone, I’m willing to believe it’s true. Probably, they need it for work. Perhaps things like avalanches and motor malfunctions and violent civil rights infringements aren’t hypothetical in their life, in which case they should certainly have their phone and my sympathy, too. Maybe if they couldn’t look at photo uploads right away, they’d forget what their loved ones look like or without voicemail, they’d forget the sound of those voices. Perhaps sometimes, texting really is more important than holding the steering wheel. Clearly most people seem to agree on this, so I’m willing to play along.
But I don’t need a cell phone.
Still, for my birthday one year, John gave me one. While he showed me how it worked, I just smiled and nodded, trying not to say what came to mind, like Where’s the button for a foot massage, because that’s something I could really use and If you want to know where I am at all times, couldn’t I be fitted with a subcutaneous global positioning device instead? Sensing my suppression, he asserted that even homeless people have cell phones. I thought if I was homeless, he’d probably get me a necktie, but I held my tongue because I knew that this was supposed to be a loving gesture from my generous man and that maybe, just maybe, it would bring us closer.
The next day, when the phone rang, it nearly scared me to death. “Hello?” I gasped.
“Hi. It’s me,” John said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m driving the girls to school like I do at this time every day. Or I was driving until the phone rang and I had to pull over to dig it out of my bag. Why? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to see if it worked.”
Okay, so my first time on the cell phone wasn’t transformative. The earth didn’t shake, I didn’t see the fireworks everyone claimed to see. Maybe it just took practice.
But every time the phone rang, it was the same: updates, reports, reminders, things that might be remembered (do we remember how to remember?) or left on an answering machine and dealt with later, at my leisure. And standing in a public place with a phone to my ear sharing my one-sided conversation with the world made me feel like a faker with a fancy prop, like Maxwell Smart with his shoe-phone, not powerful or connected at all but rather obnoxious and harried and vaguely ridiculous.
A phone is like a baby barging in, regardless of where I am (on the toilet, in the middle of a juicy conversation, writing in a rare and precious lone moment) and demanding immediate attention. The cell phone is a cranky little boss that screams, Me, me,me! Now! Now!
Look. I promise, my not having a cell phone is not going to hurt you. In fact, you can use me as an example. When you think you might die because you forgot to recharge your battery, when you have to confiscate your teenager’s phone for texting the answers to the test or sending naked self-portraits to strangers, you can remember my story and know that you will survive, that this too shall pass. If you get caught screening your calls, you can say, hey, at least I’m not like that weirdo who doesn’t even own a cell phone.
Besides, we still don’t know if cell phones cause cancer: according to The New York Times, they don’t, but according to The Scientific American they might. And in case you refused to notice, Big Brother (Google et al) is using your phone to monitor your every move shouldn’t that make a person pause and reflect for just one moment?
But fear isn’t the reason I don’t have a phone, just as fear hasn’t compelled me to buy one. I simply prefer to be doing what I’m doing when I’m doing it. I prefer sex to sexting. I’d rather talk than text. The time I spend with the people in my life feels precious and rare. I guess I don’t like to be interrupted.
Yes, I agree cell phones can be fun (hiptastic, scrabulous, and googlicious) but I don’t think I need one in order to exist.
But if you do, that’s cool. You’re cool. And if I ever have a real emergency, maybe I can borrow yours?