I stepped inside my husband Ted’s Black Mustang at 5:30 in the morning. Nestled between my right knee and the car door sat my over-sized Bohemian-chic purse. We were headed toward the San Jose Airport so I could catch a 6:45 flight to Seattle. The business trip would last five nights, six days.
Our amiable early morning chit-chat bounced between what Ted would eat for dinner that night, and how his new Fit-Bit would light up and spray virtual confetti when he topped 10,000 steps.
“What time should I pick you up from the airport?” Ted asked.
“Let me double-check.” I reached inside the pocket of my purse in the dark, feeling my way toward my phone.
“That’s weird,” I said, feeling perplexed. “Where’s my phone?”
And then the panic hit me. I took a short gasp, my eyes watered, and shock set in.
“I left my phone at home.” I said. “It’s on the charging station, topping off. I can’t believe I did that. Damn it. I’m so stupid.”
“We could turn around and get the phone,” said Ted patiently. “But then you might miss your flight.”
“You could Fed-Ex my phone to me,” I bargained. “But I won’t be in any one place on this business trip for more than 24 hours. What am I going to do without my phone?”
And then an image emerged from the ethers—the mystical place of inspiration where all my crazy-assed ideas materialize. Take a one-year sabbatical. Teach a midlife renewal class. Hold a wisdom circle.
“I’ll go without my cell phone for six days!” I exclaimed more of a surprise to myself than to Ted. A statement so bold, so daring, that it felt more like a challenge than an actual lifestyle adjustment.
“It will be good for me to unplug,” I said. “I mean, how hard can it actually be?”
I was about to find out.
The First Cut Is The Deepest
Let me make one point perfectly clear. I did have my laptop. I’ll use the term “unplugged,” loosely.
When I stepped into the Seattle Airport terminal, I had only one goal: connect with my colleague Stefania, whom I was to meet and share a cab to our event.
I sat near the baggage claim and popped open my laptop and quickly launched Outlook and sent an email to our team’s program manager.
“I left my cell phone at home,” I wrote with great haste. “Please text Stefania and let her know I’m in baggage claim.”
While I waited for Stefania to arrive, I sent an email to my two adult children, and all my closest friends—the ones I text on a regular basis. The subject line? “I left my cell phone at home.”
Much to my surprise, I found Stefania with great ease. We quickly grabbed a cab, and soon we were on our way to downtown Seattle, under an ominous sky that was about to release a torrent of rain.
“You must feel like you’re missing an arm,” said Stefania, repeating a popular refrain I would hear for the next six days. “If I left my cell phone at home, I don’t know what I would do. I use my phone for everything.”
The words Stefania spoke echoed in my ear and resonated with a clear knowing—a deep understanding. I did use my cell phone for everything. It is both an instrument of practicality and a gadget of distraction in equal measure. Morning, noon, and night with great frequency, I either check my phone for texts or email. But mostly I use it for entertainment. After all, how can the world continue to spin on its axis without me knowing about it? Korea and the nuclear escalation, Donald Trump’s wearisome tweets, wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes. Hollywood’s outing of Harvey Weinstein. Why did Chris Pratt and Anna Farris divorce? Did Lady Gaga really wear those short shorts to the World Series?
The constant barrage of electronic information creates a form of anxiety. A collective chorus of digital voices all screaming to be heard. My only saving grace is that I am a social media consciousness objector—no Facebook or Instagram, anymore. Still. I spent so much time impulsively checking my phone, mainlining that hit of dopamine that I felt utterly, and completely lost without my phone. And then I began to grieve.
“I know,” I said to Stefania. “I do feel naked—stripped of my instant connection to the world. It’s gonna be a long six days.”
A Simple Twist of Fate
The next night would be spent with my aging mom and brother. When I arrived at their front door with my suitcase, backpack, and purse they were surprised.
“Why didn’t you text me?” my brother asked me. “I would have picked you up.”
“I left my cell phone at home,” I said deflated, downtrodden, weary.
“Oh man, it’s like losing an arm or a leg,” said my brother. “That’s too bad.”
And it did feel like “too bad” for a while. Like giving up coffee in the morning, or not drinking a glass of wine at night. A punishment. The price to pay for a bad habit.
That night there would be no online reading of Quora—looking for answers to “What is your one-minute hack for travel? What advice would you give your younger self? Is it really better to be rich than middle-class?” Instead, I read from myriad magazines my mom accumulated: Reader’s Digest, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone. Kinda like being at the dentist without the drill. I began to unplug.
In the morning I accepted that there would be no digital distraction to keep me from connecting to my mom. We held many lengthy conversations without a buzz, beep, or ring from my cell phone. No distraction. This level of intensity is not for everyone. I understood addiction in a new way. After all, when a smoker takes a nicotine break, it’s an acceptable form of breaking concentration. That’s how it is when I check my phone. I want to take a break from the chore at hand. This multi-tasking gives me energy, or is it anxiety? Either way, I was unplugged. And I was starting to like it. I felt a tremendous burden of having to respond lift from my shoulders. There would be no check-in, “hey, how ‘ya doin’?” texts, or even email checking on my laptop. My mom’s home was Internet free. The liberation buoyed my spirit. “I left my cell phone at home” was a good excuse to unplug.
Until I had to continually ask people for rides.
The Kindness of Strangers
The truth is, like most women, I’m super good at giving, and very bad at receiving. This vulnerability makes me feel weak, especially when all I want to do is show the world that I am strong. It’s the “me-do-it-me-self,” state of mind. And the reality is that we all need to be less independent and a little more dependent on one another—it’s what makes us human. The ability to continue the life-affirming cycle of giving and receiving.
In the spirit of building this receiving muscle, I asked the neighbor across the street for a ride to the hotel I would stay for the balance of my trip.
“Wow,” he said. “That’s kind of far. It’s gonna take us more than an hour to get there. I’ll do it if you fill my thirsty tank.”
“Sure,” I said shrinking, the pain in my solar plexus expanding with shame. “Happy to do it.”
The next morning, I hopped into my neighbor’s white Ford pick-up truck.
“Too bad you don’t have your cell phone,” he said, checking Google maps for the best route to reach our destination.
“I would feel like I lost my arm,” he said wistfully.
“I know,” I said, marveling at how this arm-leg metaphor became the visual representation for loss of a cell phone.
“Thanks for the lift,” I said to my neighbor. I pulled $30 from my wallet, placed it on the center console and waved goodbye.
Help! I Need Somebody. Help!
On Monday morning, I went to the hotel front desk and asked the receptionist which taxi cab best serviced their hotel. I told her the business event I would attend was only three miles away.
“Don’t you have Uber or Lyft on your cell phone,” the receptionist asked me.
“I left my cell phone at home,” I said, embarrassed once again at my oversight.
“Oh my god, you poor thing,” she said, acting like a mother hen to her wayward chick, tucking me under her wing. After all, how could someone possibly survive on this planet without their phone? A person to be pitied and protected.
“I’ll call you a cab,” she said with a hushed voice, in hopes that no one would overhear my lack of cell phone dilemma. Then she quickly slipped into the back room to make the call.
As I waited, a sense of dread came over me. That ominous feeling when doom is inevitable. And I was right.
“They’re not coming,” she said. “Three miles is not worth their while.”
“They’re not coming?” I asked. “I have to get to the event. What am I going to do?”
She smiled as a professional courtesy, instantly detaching herself from the outcome. Apparently, this chick would fledge the nest sooner than later.
“I need a ride!” I said, “Is there anyone here who can take me? I need help!”
At this point I’d had enough of being cell phone free. My six-day experiment took a downward turn that surprised even me. This state of vulnerability, reduced to asking for help, having to rely on the kindness of strangers hit a raw nerve. I was totally and completely at the mercy of the hotel staff. I imagined a company policy banning hotel guests from riding in a personal automobile as an insurance liability. Yet there was no taxi that serviced the hotel. I was at a complete loss on what to do because I LEFT MY CELL PHONE AT HOME!!!
An older woman, probably a manager, given her confident stature and commanding presence, emerged from the back office. This woman was everything I knew I should be. And at that exact moment, I felt like I was the polar opposite of her—a weak, humbled woman asking for help.
“Derick from maintenance can take you,” she said in a cool, calm voice. She dialed her cell phone and made the call.
A few minutes later I found myself sitting in a low-rider styled Cadillac. The bass-heavy sound system laid down the bottom note harmonizing with the high frequency I was on. An exhilaration to finally be on my way.
“That’s too bad about your cell phone,” said 25-year-old Derick from maintenance.
I didn’t have the heart to even agree with this kind stranger when he said, “If I left my cell phone behind, I think I’d be alright. Seems like you’re doing pretty good.” I smiled, thanked him for the ride, and got out of the Cadillac.
Mother and Child Reunion
My flight landed at the San Jose Airport an hour late. I didn’t worry too much about it, because my husband’s favorite apps is “Flights Stats” an airplane flight tracker. After all, I could not text “taking off” or “landing” to him in our traditional form of communication. With this app, which he uses on his cell phone, he knew exactly what time my plane would arrive.
After six long days, I arrived home. And there it was—my rosy gold iPhone 6s Plus. An inanimate object looking so innocent and guilty at the same time, all protectively wrapped in a red leather case, waiting to be opened. In that moment I came to realize what it meant to be in a personal relationship with a cell phone. A trusty companion. A source of comfort. A navigational beacon guiding me through the streets of life. My digital arms and legs within the matrix.
I picked up the well-worn case that held my cell phone and brought it next to my heart. A sweet reunion. I might have gone even so far as to give it a quick kiss if Ted had not interrupted me.
“Would you like a glass of wine?” He said, holding up a half-sized bottle of 2014 Rambauer Cabernet, our traditional homecoming wine.
I looked up at Ted, and then at my cell phone. I felt the luscious pull of checking emails, reading texts, answering phone calls. An overwhelming sense of anticipation at not having responded for six full days to the siren call of my erstwhile companion—my iPhone. The dopamine hit, the quickening pace of desire, filling the empty place of longing that the crevice of unplugging left behind.
I pulled the cell phone away from my heart, gave it another quick look of desire, placed it back on my office desk, walked over to my husband, and reached for the full glass of wine.
“Cheers,” I said. We clinked wine glasses and took a long, deep drink of the elixir.