Somewhere in the midst of discussions in my class the topic of cell phones came up when we were talking about modern conveniences. I was standing in front of thirty two sixteen year olds who didn’t know a world without cell phones and simply couldn’t imagine one. Some of the students had a hard time picturing what my world was like as a teenager without a cell phone, more specifically a Smartphone, without the ability to text, or have Face time, or Instagram, Twitter, Skype, or update a Facebook status constantly. In their minds they imagined me as a teenager sitting in my dark corner of the family cave, chiseling my homework onto a stone tablet while my family sat huddled around a meager fire eating raw meat of some sort or another. They started asking me questions like, “How did you know what your friends were doing?” and “You must’ve never known what was going on,” and they just couldn’t seem to get their minds wrapped around the idea.
As I thought about it and attempted to explain what it was like, I couldn’t help but think how strange it sounded now, even to me. I am as guilty of any iPhone crimes as anyone, and I am often shocked at how much a part of my life my phone and all of the methods of communicating and networking available has become.
I remember back in middle school, wanting to use the phone, and my sister would tie it up for hours, talking to her friends, all of them, one after the other, repeating the same thing over and over. I would piss and moan, yell to mom to tell her to get off the phone, but she would just stretch that phone cord further and further, wrecking the perfect curly cue trying to make it stretch into the laundry room where she could gossip in semi privacy. All I probably wanted was to call a friend and ask what time we were meeting to play baseball or ride bikes or whatever it was I was into, five minutes at the most. But there was no way my sister was giving up that phone until she was good and ready. It wasn’t like I could just stay in my room all night with my cell phone and text my friends. There was just the one phone. I would have to wait her out. It was work, diligent work, but if you wanted to use the phone it was the cost of doing business. I suppose that wasn’t as convenient as having my own cell phone, but I lived through it. And my sister wasn’t in her room texting her friends; she was actually talking to them, for hours, developing social skills with her peer group. It’s no wonder so many youngins find every social situation awkward; they don’t develop any social skills sitting in their bedroom texting perfunctory communications back and forth with their besties all night.
In high school or college, when I would head out for a Friday or Saturday, we would actually have to make plans and commit to them ahead of time. I would leave my mom a note, sort of a makeshift itinerary, a list of plans, and potential plans, confirmed and possible destinations. This wasn’t because my mom was strict or wanted to know my whereabouts at all times, it was in case anyone called looking for me or wanted to know what we were doing. After all, once I left the house for the night I would basically be unreachable. Being limited to home phones, once I left the house it wasn’t any use for my friend James to call my house to get a hold of me, unless it was only to ask my mom if she knew where I was. And my mom, bless her heart, would be left with a list that read something like, “I will be at band practice until six, then we are going over to James’ house until seven or so and then heading to the movies. We are going to see Evil Dead at the Cinema. After the movie we will be at Dean’s for the rest of the night.” That way, if someone called and asked what I was doing, my mom would check the itinerary.
But my mom didn’t share our itinerary with just anybody. She had strict instructions not to tell just anyone what we were doing, just the inner circle. Some people didn’t need to know what we were doing. That’s just it. We didn’t want everyone in our business, knowing our every move. It wasn’t necessary to advertise our every movement, every choice, song, movie, drink, meal, irrelevant thought. We didn’t want everyone to know our every move. And sometimes we just didn’t want everyone to know where we were.
The other side of that coin is that I didn’t want my mother to be able to check in with me whenever she wanted to, just to see what I was doing. I can’t tell you how many times I escaped my parents’ wrath, after not checking in at a proper time or deadline, due to the tried and true excuse, “We were downtown and the payphone wasn’t working.” Or something to that effect. The last thing I wanted was my parents to know my every move and have the ability for either party to be able to check in so easily or often. No thanks.
As crazy as it sounds, we would head off into the night, never sure where adventures would take us or what we would face when we arrived at our destination. But that was the beauty of it. I would be with James and Scotty, but you were never quite sure who else you were going to run into. Nobody checked in. We would show up at Mike’s house, where you could find a half dozen to a dozen people hanging out in the basement on any given weekend night, and we would walk down the steps, and part those old curtains, and it was like Christmas-we had no idea who we would find on the other side. Oh, you would have a good idea, but not for sure. Sometimes you would think, oh shit, not him, but usually it was, oh cool, so and so and so and so are here. People came and went all night. Sometimes people would come in looking for particular people, have you seen Joe?, where are Barb and Sue tonight?, where’s the party?, who will run to the party store and buy beer for us?, regular stuff. The funny thing is, we all managed to find each other, find the party, find the people we were looking for, more times than not. Besides, half the fun is getting there. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Stop to smell the roses. All of that stuff. Somehow, we managed to have fun and survive. But the fact was that you were there with the people in the room, with our friends, incarnate, engaged in conversation, sharing in person. People weren’t all sitting there with their phones out, checking what everyone who wasn’t in the room was doing, all not talking to each other but communicating with people not there, not present, all living outside of the moment, reporting instead of soaking up the moment. I wouldn’t even be able to explain all of the knowledge, understanding, frustration, heartache, passion, anger, and hope I acquired in all of the conversations I had with those people. I talked with them. I didn’t get a 140 character or less text or tweet, then spend three minutes fashioning a 140 character or less tweet or text in reply, carefully choosing my words, backing up, changing words until it is just so, and on and on and back and forth. I was in the room with my friends. I listened to what they had to say. We shared. We were present. We took part. We didn’t check in. We didn’t update. We didn’t report. We lived.
There’s no denying that in some ways my cell phone has made my life more convenient, albeit at a cost. And I can hardly look at myself in the mirror when I read this back because I sound like the old curmudgeon, the guy clinging to a lost era, bitter and faded, but that’s just not true. There are many things from that era I don’t miss, like Kenny Loggins and Lionel Richie, the cowl neck sweaters and jeans with waistbands up to the armpits that the girls wore (I can’t believe those are coming back), and popped collars, I don’t miss those. But I can’t help but feel that I was better off not having a smart phone when I was in high school and college. I am glad that I didn’t have one. In fact, I’m grateful for the inconvenience, the enriching inconvenience of it all.