Escape from your cell, see the world

Des Moines RegisterOctober 15, 2013 

Only on entering the airport on my way to Chicago on a Friday did I realize my cell was still charging on the kitchen counter. This was a disaster, bringing panic and helplessness. What about the mobile boarding pass I’d uploaded? How would I find my sister, who was flying in from Massachusetts? How would I even know which train stop to get off at?

And how could I make it through three days and two nights out of range of family, work and breaking news?

Denial soon followed: I would simply run home and get it – though there wasn’t enough time, and I didn’t have my car. Or I’d get a temporary phone, though there were none for sale or rent at the Des Moines airport – and no way to research the options.

Then came despair. All around me, people were talking, reading, typing or playing games on their phones. They all seemed so purposeful. But there I was, alone with my newspaper.

I imagined all the people feeling insulted by my lack of response to their messages. My editor might have a question on my column. Potential tweets were everywhere, but no way onto Twitter.

Everyone reached for their phones the minute we landed. Everyone, that is, except me. On the train into town, people traveling together went about their separate business over their separate phones.

When I rode the subway to work in New York in my 20s, everyone was reading something. That was when I got hooked on The New York Times. Maybe the Chicago commuters were reading papers on mobile apps, but probably not cover to cover. When a woman finally got on holding a tabloid newspaper, and read it standing up, I could have hugged her. She was older and carried a handbag held together by duct tape – either a Luddite by choice or she couldn’t afford a cell.

I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me, interrupting her Blackberry game, and learned about her life as a flight attendant. She looked up my exit for me. At the hotel, I emailed my sons to call my sister. One of them got the message in a karaoke bar, and obliged. My sister and I connected.

Walking around Chicago the next day, minus online directions, I had to ask, which had its upside. I got to interact with Chicagoans – and learned to read a map. Without the camera, I couldn’t photograph all the cool things I saw. But I realized that taking pictures has become such an instinctive response when I see something interesting that I don’t fully get to enjoy the sight directly.

Not being reachable for a few days has it upsides – not that that many people were actually trying to reach me. In fact, the eventual reunion with my phone was an anticlimax. At most, I’d missed a handful of nonessential attempts to connect. The experience led to some reckonings about contemporary life.

Cellphones are remarkable devices, enabling us to do many things at once, from anywhere. They make life easier and more efficient. After all, most of us are juggling many things at once, and the lines between work and personal time are blurred.

But for some of us, cellphones have also become a crutch, keeping us occupied just to be occupied. We encase ourselves in cocoons and lose track of our larger surroundings. Because it is always possible to be in communication with someone we know, we don’t allow ourselves the vulnerability of being alone among strangers, which can bring unexpected gifts.

The words of spiritual teacher Baba Ram Dass – “be here now” – running through my head, I started seeing what we give up when we’re not present in the moment.

Some things, I concluded, can always wait.

Rekha Basu is a columnist with the Des Moines Register.

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