The Tragedy I’m Happy Happened

I spent the first ten days of August without the use of my cellphone.

It changed more of my routine than I’d like to admit.

I reverted back to an ancient brand of appointment-keeping, using exact time and place.

Without a phone, it’s not enough to say, “Meet me at Home Depot at three.” You would have to add, “In the paint aisle,” and then anticipate their question, “Which paint aisle?” and say ahead of time, “The paint aisle with big wall of color samples.”

Then you would stand there, under the paint samples. And by 3:01 you’d wonder if you should have been more specific, like “Meet me under the white section?” But if you did that, you’d only then worry if you should have said, “Egg Shell White” to be more exact.

By 3:05, you’d be inclined to pace up and down the paint aisles in case he misheard you, but then by 3:10 you’d be sick with worry that while you were pacing the other paint isles, he stood under the paint samples for a moment and left.

Without a cell phone, there’s no message waiting for you.

So, if you say, “meet me under the paint samples at three,” you’d better wait there, and do your best to remain hopeful. So you let go of the worry and instead study the three dozen names they’ve given to the color blue.

 

Then there’s the information retrieval.

I think of at least a dozen Trivial Pursuit questions a day that I can’t answer. It’s frustrating “Which actor was it whose first job in Hollywood was to wear a El Pollo Loco chicken suit?” Or “What’s the name of that Kids in the Hall guy who wound up on the show with Andy Dick about the news?” Even, “What the hell were we debating yesterday?” can be answered by scrolling yesterday’s search history.

When such questions arise without a phone, you have to sit there and think about the question. Our minds have unlimited long-term storage, but our retrieval of that information is sloppy. It’s like my work bench. I have all the tools, but some days it takes me thirty minutes to find the needle-nose pliers. The science of cognition says that the only way to get better at finding the information we need is through practice.

It may take days to find that information to begin with, but it won’t get any faster if you use google to get it for you. I find myself in the most inappropriate of circumstances, yelling, “Brad Pitt” or “Dave Foley” and everyone looks at me like I have Turrets Syndrome. But at least I retrieved it on my own eventually.

 

The greatest change in those 10 days without a phone was closer company from an old friend: the fear of missing out.

I was struck with curiosity throughout the day as to what was going on in the world. What was happening to those whom I follow on social media?

I shuddered to think of the phone calls I’d missed, the voice and text messages. How could people continue to live their lives without hearing from me first? The world must be at some sort of impasse the way mine is—the pain of my disconnection rippling through 4g waves and WiFi stratospheres.

Then again, I tend toward the grandiose.

When a replacement phone arrived on August 10 and I rejoined the knowing world, I imagined our server at home flinging hundreds upon hundreds of messages to my phone, back logs of voicemail, long one-sided text conversations.

The phone buzzed and beeped, two little red numbers appeared in the corner of the phone and message icons: 6 and 4. I had as many messages waiting for me as I had days unable to receive them.

Huh, I thought.

Not only was everything going to be all right, but everything had been all right the entire time. There was nothing to worry about. I caught up with people in a mere hour.

 

I started some mental math.

Then I remembered I had my phone, so I opened the calculator app. Ten messages between voice and text, which took roughly two minutes to read and listen to. Compare that to the—I estimated—two minutes per day I spent worrying about who was trying to get in touch with me. My time worrying to reality ratio was a startling 10:1.

Could this be right? I thought. Could my worry honestly be so lopsided?

That morning I reinstalled the apps. Audible and Spotify. Google Drive so I can catch those random thoughts and observations throughout the day. And of course, I downloaded my social media.

My worry-to-reality ratio made sense when I installed Facebook Messenger.

 

Screen One: Please turn on notifications.

A dancing arrow pointed to “OK” while the other button said “Not Now,” which is the same as saying, “Maybe Later.”

Screen Two: Will you give Facebook your phone number?

Me: Hell No.

Screen Three: Are you sure about that?

Me: Hell Yes.

Screen Four: Can Facebook hijack your contact list anyway?

Me: Hell No!

Screen Five: Consider adding your contacts so you have people to talk to.

Me: HELLLL NAH!

Screen Six: You’re on Messenger. Please turn on your notifications.

I click the small colorless, “Not Now” box again.

Screen Seven: Are you sure you want to continue without notifications? You might miss messages.

 

It takes seven clicks to tell Facebook to stay the hell away from my contact list and to leave me alone when my friends in Australia send me a message over their lunch that arrives in the middle of my night.


It’s no wonder I worry so much about what I’m missing out on when the things that tell me what I’m missing worry so much about me.


There is a fine line between using my phone and having my phone use me. And while I don’t always do a good job of respecting that boundary, I try my best to be aware of it.

 

So, here’s what I learned from leaving my phone out in the rain:

You’re not missing out on anything.

The Doomsday Whistle will sound if you are.

You can wait thirty minutes without texting the person you are waiting for.

In fact, those thirty minutes of idle time can teach you something new like the nuances of color scheming.

It’s helpful to put your brain through the retrieval process.

Even if it takes three days to retrieve, that’s three days of brain exercise.

 

It was good to get my phone back. But it was great to go without it for ten days.

I get better at describing the miracle of the mundane with every post I write the way you become keener about the color blue after standing in front of an array of interior paint options. It, the miracle, usually comes down to taking away all the things that get in the way of mundane life, returning to a simplicity of existence with a grateful heart.

With all we have complicating our experience, it’s no wonder that it takes some divine intervention—a freak deluge one summer afternoon—just to see things as they are.


You can follow me on Medium, or just click over there for my latest piece on the writer’s life.

24 Responses to “The Tragedy I’m Happy Happened

  • Kristin
    1 month ago

    Part of me wants to ask why you elevated this circumstance to tragedy – as I read the post on my smartphone, riding the bus for forty minutes, while listening to music through the headphones plugged into said smartphone. As I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do for the remaining 30 minutes of this bus ride. Games to occupy my mind? Get lost in the music, staring out the window? Whatever I do, I know I’ll pounce when I hear that fabricated chime ring out.
    So yes, tragedy for sure.

    Thanks for the post, Mark!

    • Thanks for that comical response Kristin! I’m right there with you. I use it for everything all the time. For those 10 days without it, it was a confidence booster just knowing that I can still function as a human being.

      Thanks for stopping by. Been thinking of the posse lately. I’m chewing again. Argh.

  • Ha! Only got to the part about yelling Brad and Dave’s name and everyone looking at you like you Turret’s and now I have to go to work. Thanks for the belly laugh to start off my week! Looking forward to tonight to finish!

    • Technology addiction is real. Probably even more so for some of “us”. Can definitely see it in myself. Great post!

    • Glad that gave you a chuckle. It’s hard living without a phone and not trying to find a little humor in it…hope you have a great week.

  • Hi Mark!
    If I forget my phone for one trip I feel so disconnected! It’s crazy!
    Even if I don’t look on SM I want to know I can call someone if I needed to!
    I REALLY hope your new school year goes well for you!!!
    xoxo
    wendy

  • Great article Mark. Think we all need to put our phones up for awhile. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for that Patrick. It’s always good to see you stopped by and got something out of a post. Take care, my friend. Next time you put yours down, I’d be eager to hear your thoughts on the experience.

  • Hi Mark

    I watch the US version of 60 minutes here in NZ the other night and the main ex-tech guy from Google talked about how things are made on our phones and through social media to keep us hooked. They did an experiment measuring our stress and heartrate when we are without our phone yet can hear it getting txt messages etc.
    Apparently the “likes” we get through posts for different programs are timed to “best suit” the user – times of the day they notify you, how many you get at a time, is all premeditated based on information gleaned from our user information.

    So not only is it addictive it is programed to “be” addictive. The more your kids have a virtual pet or something to look after the more they have to come back to their device, thus creating an early addiction.

    Horrible and really frightening
    Michelle 🙂 x

    • Horrible, yes. Cool news program you saw that went into those details. As a funny twist, I hear all those tech meetings that people have require employees to turn off their phones while they meet so they can actually get some good work done. It’s real and getting realer. I worry for my children. I’m upping my own awareness so I can teach them the best way to navigate the digital world that will be crammed down their throats sooner rather than later. Thanks for that insight, Michelle! Very interesting.

  • I run my whole life through my phone….my business contacts, my schedule with reminders set, so I dont forget where I have to be each moment of the day. I pay my bills using apps on my phone, I deposit checks by taking a picture of them with my phone and then sending it through the banking “airwaves,” I live a mobile life! Seriously, I almost panic when I forget my phone…..but sometimes, on a good day, I can take a deep breath and accept that no one can reach me, and maybe I can just enjoy the solitude. I think back to the days before we all had cell phones, before there was such a thing as SM and we went the store with a grocery list written out on paper, and we used payphones in an emergency, and we had answering machines and everyone expected to have to wait for a call back, because we had to get home to be able to hear the messages….those sure were the days! LOL Im only sort of kidding.

    • Those were the days!

      I mean, I remember first learning how to drive and I’d have to write down directions to where I was going. Had to get them perfect or else I’d be lost, obviously, and have to rely on a road map to find where I am and where I am going.

      Things are easier, no doubt, but are they really? If it truly is that much easier why do we (I can really relate) feel so anxious and apart without it? It takes vigilance, I tell you! Like all things. Thanks Annette. Been great conversing with you lately on all topics…

  • I love this! Especially remembering those days without cell phones. How did we do it?
    My husband dropped his cell phone in the lake, and he was panic-stricken for days without it. I wish I’d had this article for him to read.
    Have you ever tried giving up reading or watching news for a week? I calculated the time I waste thinking some major event has happened, and its about two hours a day.
    This is my latest quest, and it will make FOMO my constant companion. 💕

    Thanks, Mark!

    • Thank you for such a great response and additional commentary on the post!

      My wife is always trying to get me to go without the news. Those 10 days were pretty close to it. I was definitely more at ease than I can recall in recent memory. I’m hooked on NPR when I drive. There’s something to be said about being informed, but there is also over-informed. The balance is difficult to master. Especially when the things informing you are trying to hook you on the experience.

  • News Radio was an awesome show.

    Believe it or not, outside of Twitter, I don’t use my phone very much. Like you, I Google stuff now and then (mostly to satisfy my kids’ curiosity), but outside of a few texts, and my only real other social media, Instagram, I am usually not tied to the phone. If it weren’t for Twitter, my phone would be in my backpack most of the time. Like a good introvert, I rarely answer my phone. But I understand how we are set up as patsies to do the bidding of our phones. FOMO is real, and I suffer from that for sure. I am getting marginally better, but it’s there.

    The idea of retrieving info the old fashioned way is something I try to practice. I actually like trying to remember something on my own. Same with autocorrect – if I get that damned red squiggle line underneath, I try to correct it on my own. It’s only when I try a few times and am still wrong, do I right click and see how the hell I was supposed to spell it.

    I still get the newspaper. My to-do lists on are index cards. Most of my books are physical copies. My music is on an mp3 player (Sony Walkman, to be specific). I like the tangible. I don’t want to be tethered to my phone any more than I am.

    Anyways, great post, Mark. As usual (I say this all the time now.)

    • I can see that with you, Paul. The little phone use part. We we talk I’m struck by your wisdom. That sort of thing doesn’t come to people glued to phones all day, I don’t think.

      I’ve been better than I’ve ever been with the social media stuff lately. Maybe it was losing the phone for that time. The forcing off of it that forced me to know that the quality of my life improves if I make a true attempt at moderation. [Imagine that!]

      I admire the spell check discipline. I envy that. I’m going to try and do that from now on, actually. I’m spelled the word exersize wrong my entire life. I’m not kidding. There’s that squiggly line. I did it again. So here we go. Exercize Exersize Exercise

      Yes! But come on. it sounds like Ecer “Size” right?

  • I’m not on Facebook but doesn’t Facebook save your notifications until you’re ready to read them like a computer does for e-mail? From the sounds of it they don’t. Hope you had a good time on your trip without your phone.

    • Hi Crystal!

      They do. I mean, they have your notifications there when you log in. The “push” notifications mean they will pop up on the screen of your phone when you get them. The way a text message would. That is WAY too much distraction for me.

      It was a good time! Thanks for stopping by!

      I commend you for being FB free. I think that is awesome.

  • I can totally relate to this and recently had to uninstall a app due to all the notifications. It’s easy to fall prisoner to our demands and it often reminds me of one of my favorite quotes as a hiker. “There is no wifi in the woods, but I promise you will get a better connection” 😉 Good for you to escape the trap

    • What a quote! I’ve never heard of that before. Thank you for it. I’ve found it to be true. I’m a camper and hiker myself.

      Well, I wish I can take full credit for the escaping the trap but it was a total fluke accident. Although, I’ve been better since losing my phone. I think I’ve realized that I don’t need all that mess like I thought I did.

      Thanks for dropping by! Glad you uninstalled. That’s he way to go.

  • This has you in fine form Mark, very very funny because I’m as aggy(anxious) as all get out, the Facebook options, geez Louise I so get that. Your confidence really shows mate, this flowed, I actually started reading slowly but was speeding through it by the FB para. And I love it when you do the Math. You should do a post on the values you’ve worked out. excellent brain food, thanks for this, love to you johnny + mags x

    • Thanks John! Never heard the aggy bit before. But I know the feeling. I notice you take breaks. I think it’s the right and healthy thing to do.

      Good to get back in touch and hope to see what you’re working on at some point.

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