An Actual Lecture

Payphones

NOTE: I arrived at class and the conversation turned to cell phones. I wasn’t complaining (this time) or preaching (yet). But then one of the students asked in reference to cell phones if didn’t I wish I had that kind of “advantage” when I was their age.

The following is not verbatim, obviously, since ironically no one recorded it–but here is, to the best of my recollection of the past forty-eight hours, my response:

——

Advantage? Well, I’m not sure I am happy with having it now, let alone thirty-five years ago. I’ll tell you what: I walk on the beach several days a week. I walk between six and eight miles. I usually bring my phone to talk to family while out there for a few hours, but also to take pictures of the sunrise. Some of them can be spectacular. Ha! All of them can be spectacular, and I just want to share it. Sometimes I email a picture to someone, often I post them on Facebook.

Well, this morning I left my phone in the car, by accident. I was two blocks into the walk before I realized it, but I kept going. My initial reaction was, “Oh I’d better get it! What if..” and fill in that blank however you want: someone calls, someone texts, there is an emergency, a funny comment, someone wanting or expecting a response and I don’t get to do it for hours! Unreal. You see, my generation did this all the time. We could go months without talking to someone. And we certainly could make it through the day. But I am keenly aware that your generation was born with cellphones, and all you know is this increasingly tragic umbilical world.

 But listen:

What if one day you left your phone at home and went for a long walk? Would you wonder if everything is okay? Would you keep touching your pockets, looking behind you? At the very least would you wonder the time? How long, I wonder, before you turned and went home to check your texts, your messages. You’re hooked—we all are.

But what if, if, one day you just keep walking. Not many people anymore remember what it was like to have no ability to call home anytime they wanted. We looked for payphones at gas stations. And when we finished plugging it with coins for the three minutes we bought to talk, it was barely long enough to say, “Great, everything’s going great! How is everyone? Good! Okay, I’ll talk to you next week!”

Next week. Sometimes, in college far away, next month. It is in part how we grew up, and it most definitely is how we matured.

But those three minutes, then, was enough to know everyone was fine and we could focus on what was happening around us. We were fully aware of place. We kept no records. We didn’t update anyone. No texts. No tweets. No snapshots. We were that rare state of being which is slipping into the past: solely and completely in the moment.

No phone, no internet, no messages, no voice mail, no apps, no games, no kidding—just conversation with whomever you’re with or whoever happens along. If you wanted a picture of yourself at some site, or with a friend, you stopped someone walking by and asked that person to take it—we didn’t have long sticks to hold the 35mm. But that person would be friendly, and conversations would ensue, and information about local places to go could be discovered. In fact just yesterday I walked the boardwalk and saw ample opportunity for others to ask to grab a shot of them in front of the water, the Neptune Statue at 31st St, something with more perspective than the length of their arms. But we do that now—we are in such a meme world we don’t risk much beyond the length of our arms. Am I the only one who misses the long talks and laughter after not seeing someone for a few days and “catching up”?

I do understand the picture obsession more than I do the constant texting and phone calls or face time. Someone sent me a picture of herself that I took thirty years ago this very week. Two things happened. It made me miss that time and made me wish we had hundreds of more pictures of then, of the endless laughter of then, of the immeasurable hope of then. Yet it also made me realize how very much we were in that moment; too much to spend any time trying to capture that moment. We were too busy living it.

But back to that long walk: At the end of that long day if you did just keep walking, by bedtime, phoneless, you might miss your normal routine to lie on your back, phone in hand, and seek out information for a while. You can’t, though, because you’re tech-less, and you can’t imagine that you ever couldn’t, but you do. No worries, the world keeps spinning, friends are not diligently waiting to hear from you or have anything to report, and the news is not going away.

The next morning is harder still. You ache to know what happened over night about which you have no information all these hours later. Did someone text? Call? It’s killing you but you can’t go back now. You’ve walked too far. The anxiety, withdrawal, is real and stressful, and like giving up a blanket or a bottle each step seems endless, the day an eternity. You want to borrow someone’s phone. You want to just check real fast—find out everything is fine. And what if you did? Everything is fine, benign, most likely predictable and familiar. We crave the familiar and predictable; it falsely makes us feel safer. It is why we stay in bad relationships which become routine; it is why we stay in bad jobs which have no future but which we’ve mastered and manipulated.  

I know the arguments. And it must seem like I’m some old geezer saying, “Things were better when I was your age!” No, the advances in this world have made much of your lives infinitely more convenient than my world. No contest, and I am often thrilled that I can be a part of “what’s next” as we bullet toward tomorrow. But there is a price to pay—there is always a tradeoff—and as far as some technology is concerned that price is how you spend your time. Life can go by too fast to dish out that kind of time so consistently. Thirty years will pass faster than you can fathom, trust me. Don’t spend it looking down.

Here’s a test to see if your priorities are in order: Plan to travel for a week and tell everyone you know you will be out of touch the entire time—no calls, no texts, no emails, no matter what happens. Tell them you’ll check in when you’re back to make sure your loved ones are alive; otherwise, you’ll be meeting new people, finding cafes and maybe a motel where you’ll spend nights drinking wine and laughing with new friends from new places, and you’ll catch the sunrise without capturing it on camera. No one needs to know on a daily basis what’s going on; they’ll ask when you return. No one needs to be updated, see pictures, videos, receive OMG texts at every mountain and mystery along the way. They’ll ask when you get home.

You’re without your umbilical, untethered, freefalling into yourself absent of the consistent clicks and taps of that certain cell. We grow anxious when faced with our own thoughts without possible deflection, no technical tangent. But the anxiousness erodes and new conversations linger like lace curtains, sometimes lifting, often drifting down and raised only by the occasional wistful comment, and it is peaceful. You had forgotten “peaceful.” You maybe never learned just how to be full of peace.

But it isn’t so silent, is it, this peacefulness? This ironic disconnection links you to those nearby, groups you with others looking up, talking about the places you’ve been, talking about the possibilities. Talk about unplugged! Most of the time you talk about life and how far you might reach and the truth is you can’t reach out and grasp something if you’re holding anything. We do that though, we want to reach for more but not let go of what we’ve got. “If I put this down,” we say, “I might lose touch with what I know.”

Okay, lecture over. The old man is done preaching to the younger plugged in population. But listen: take a deep breath. Take a moment. Take, for instance, that time you sat by the water at the north end of the beach and a couple caught you staring at the trees near the houses and they told you of an area filled with Spanish moss over walking trails just a few miles off the beach. “Lived here for eighteen years,” you say, “And never knew that.” If you were looking down, they never would have said a thing. You know they wouldn’t. But the absence of such a small device can dial up the most spontaneous connections.

Really, you get used to this simplicity, this absence of noise, of interruption, of course you do. Find out what it is like to walk with empty hands and touch the world, what it was like to listen to nothing at all. At night those hands hold wine and bread and you hear tales of the day. We tell stories out loud, and we listen to stories and share moments, out loud, and we live, as much as possible, out loud. In this way, every single conversation is different. Every single shared sunset is different. And we come to have a sense of the senses.

And the biggest difference between your generation and mine is that you would have no possible way of knowing that the most important moments cannot, cannot, cannot be captured by the most efficient technology. Sometimes you need to be away from someone to understand just how close you can be.

Everyone you’ve ever known is at your fingertips. And you don’t even realize how that might keep you from growing.

Now turn your phones off. Let’s talk about Whitman.

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