I was on my way to the airport one day recently when I reached into my pocket for my phone.
The “L” train was approaching, headed to Midway, and, obviously, I would need to distract myself on the ride by checking out Facebook, Twitter, two email accounts and assorted news sites. I might also need to send some texts and Google the cast members of that Netflix show I watched the night before, and if none of that made me feel sufficiently engaged with life, I could also check out how many steps I’d walked since 7 a.m.
You can probably relate to this mania, and if you can’t, no need to reply by pointing out that you are so calm and wise that you live for hours, even days, without your phone. Enjoy your monastery.
The average modern person, however, has trouble sitting for half an hour in a train doing nothing but, say, observing the other passengers, studying the ads or looking out the window. Such activities belong to a bygone time, back when a phone was a big, heavy contraption tethered to a wire and a person dared to think thoughts untethered to a screen.
So I reached for my phone. The panic that followed felt like a bee sting.
It wasn’t there. I tapped my other pocket, plunged my hand into my computer bag, tried the first pocket again, and, cursing, realized where that little devil was — all charged and ready to go on the kitchen counter.
The train clattered into the station. The doors opened. I gazed into the existential void:
Did I have time to go home and get my lifeline? I wasn’t sure, because without a phone, I didn’t know what time it was.
“Doors closing,” tsked the voice from the train, and in that terrible second, I made a breathtaking decision:
On a gust of courage, I stepped into the train car feeling like a character in a sci-fi movie entering a wayback machine. For three days, I would live phone-free.
As the train rocked down the tracks, I was forced into old-fashioned occupations. I analyzed the clothing of my fellow passengers, thought aimlessly and pleasantly about some old friends, and was reminded, as the neighborhoods passed, that Chicago is a city of steeples and smokestacks.
Like a reformed smoker who still reaches reflexively for a cigarette, my hand occasionally twitched toward my pocket, but I survived the ride, and at the airport, I logged into the Wi-Fi on my laptop to alert people who might care that for the next three days I’d be essentially a ghost, unable to answer texts or calls. My email replies, I warned, would not be prompt.
Then it was on to the plane, a few ounces lighter than normal, and off into the wilderness.
“You’re kidding!” several phone junkies exclaimed afterward, as if I’d announced I’d gone shopping without a credit card. “Were you OK?”
So much more than OK.
I’d warned the friend scheduled to pick me up at the airport that we couldn’t rely on the normal text routine — “Just landed! Walking through concourse! Wearing yellow jacket!” — and that we’d have to agree in advance where to meet. I was there. So was she. The old-fashioned way.
For three days, I lived with no calls, no texts, no up-to-the-minute updates on what atrocity or nonsense was rocking the world.
The world would have to wait, and it did. I felt calmer.
The crazy grip our phones have on us isn’t news and this lament isn’t unique. In fact, it’s only too common.
At least once a week, I find myself in a conversation with someone who’s bemoaning how our phones own us.
What, we wonder, did we do with our time before we spent so much of it on screens? Remember when we made a plan in advance and stuck to it? Figured out the directions before we left the house? Had dinner with people who weren’t checking their phone as often as they swallowed?
We moan, but without the will to change.
During my blissful time in the wayback machine, I renewed my will to just say no to the phone more often, though I recalled a tip I once read about the better way to do that.
It’s the “Don’t say ‘can’t’ ” rule, meaning don’t tell yourself, “I can’t check my phone every five minutes.” Instead, say, “I don’t check my phone every five minutes.”
For “every five minutes,” you can substitute, “during dinner,” “the minute I wake up,” “in the middle of the night,” etc.
As we enter the holidays, a time that exalts togetherness but instead leaves many people in a frantic state exacerbated by the phone’s phony urgency, this seems like an important resolution.
You can ruin your holiday gatherings — the party, the family dinner, “The Nutcracker” — by constantly checking your phone.
What if, in the season’s generous spirit, you don’t?
It would be a gift to yourself and everyone around you.
Speaking of the holidays:
There are still tickets left for a couple of the Songs of Good Cheer holiday singalongs that Eric Zorn and I are co-hosting Dec. 6-10 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Deadline for entering the contest to win two tickets is Monday, Nov. 27.
Information is at chicagotribuneem.com/zorn.
We’d love to see you there.