Why we need to unplug

Friends call to chastise each other for being slow to return text messages or e-mail — as though the ability to communicate in half a dozen new-fangled ways makes constant attention to every one of them morally imperative.” — Martha Beck

IMG_2355I didnt realize the damned thing was missing until my husband caught me off guard.

“Wheres your cell phone?” he asked. “Does it need to be recharged?”

“Gosh, I dont know,” I said, faking genuine concern. I couldnt even recall the last time Id used it — other than to take photos of the cats to post on Facebook. Trying to appear responsible, I dug through drawers and underneath the car seats. No cell phone.

Thats when my husband remembered wed just dropped off a carload of discards, including old clothing and purses, for a church rummage sale.

And that’s how we ended up back at church the night before the sale, rummaging through my discarded handbags and coats. Just as I suspected, my phone wasnt there — and it hasn’t turned up since.

Cell phones are essential if youre a traveling executive, a detective, or a pregnant woman close to labor. And theyre a godsend when your teenager is out past curfew or your car breaks down after midnight on a deserted rural highway.

But I refuse to treat any gadget as if its part of my anatomy. In my ongoing quest to achieve serenity — at least on a part-time basis — I find it helps to unplug as often as possible. And that’s why I’m often caught without a cell phone. On purpose.

Despite the fact that I’m solely responsible for the care management of a parent with advanced dementia, there are times when I need to be unavailable. And despite the fact that I’m an outgoing, social person, there are times when I simply don’t feel like gabbing. And I don’t want to carry another electronic reminder of “missed calls” and new messages in my purse or my pocket. When I return home, I know I’ll find enough of those in my email and in the voicemail on the house phone.

Lately I’ve noticed that most people seem more stressed, desperate, and frantic than ever — as if life were a series of dire emergencies to be handled right this minute. Some psychologists suggest the problem is linked to our cultural addiction to cell phones and social media. Or, as author Loretta LaRoche observes, these days we cant even run an errand to the supermarket without a cell phone, a pager, and other electronic devices.

“We now look more like a member of a SWAT team than someone shopping for groceries,” LaRoche writes in Life Is Not a Stress Rehearsal: Bringing Yesterdays Sane Wisdom into Todays Insane World. (Broadway Books). “God forbid we should be out of touch for ten minutes,” LaRoche quips. “And since we have the contraptions there with us, what the hell, we can call home and tell everyone we got bread.”

I don’t want to carry another electronic reminder of ‘missed calls’ and new messages in my purse or my pocket.

At a writers conference I attended a while back, somebodys bleeping cell phone disrupted — three times — a wonderful lecture given by a best-selling author.  Days later, the same thing happened at a funeral service. At the drug store last week, I had to listen to another customers cell conversation while waiting in line for my prescription. Oblivious to everyone within earshot, the woman chattered on her phone, punctuating every sentence with the “F” bomb.

On the road, every other car is driven by an idiot with one hand glued to a cell phone and the other barely guiding the steering wheel. Ive watched these drivers swerve in and out of lanes, fail to use turn signals, even run red lights.

“We all know that technological advances have made connection easier than ever before. They’ve also led some people to think that breaking away is a violation of the social order,” writes Martha Beck in “You Have the Right to Remain Silent,” an essay on why being disconnected, periodically, can be good for one’s mental health. “Friends call to chastise each other for being slow to return text messages or e-mail, as though the ability to communicate in half a dozen new-fangled ways makes constant attention to every one of them morally imperative.”

As it happened, I did end up replacing my missing cell phone with another one. Right now, the thing is dutifully recharging on my desk, where it’s likely to remain until I need to take a quick photo of the cat.

Summer unplugged?

By isolating himself at Walden Pond, Thoreau hadn’t run away from life. He’d run toward it. Why couldn’t we leave our lives of quiet, digital desperation and do the same?” — Susan Maushart, from The Winter of Our Disconnect

Once in a while, we all need to unplug. Friends who’ve been visiting this site for a while know I spend less time hanging out here in the “Home Office” once summer arrives. Escaping outdoors — sans laptop — restores my spirit and makes me feel whole again. I’m ready to start this week.

As it happens, I’m reading Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and A Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale. It’s a compelling (and often hilarious) memoir detailing how Mausart, a journalist, and her kids made the difficult decision to live without technology for (gulp) six months. Using current research to back her premise, the author shows how limiting our use of technology, including social media, can enrich the quality of our lives and deepen what she calls “real-life” relationships. As soon as I’m finished, I plan to review the book in a column.

But I’m not totally unplugging this summer. Unlike Maushart, I don’t have the willpower to go for more than a week without checking Facebook, blogs, and e-mail. Through August, I’ll continue to post links to my newly published material; or I’ll rerun favorite (previously published) essays in keeping with the season.

Meanwhile, I’m still micro-managing my mother’s life, keeping a watchful eye on her dementia and health-care issues. Trying to find my balance in the midst of it all has been the toughest challenge I’ve faced in a long time. Whenever possible, I follow Thoreau’s sage advice to “Simplify, simplify.” Right now, things with Mom are relatively calm — and I am working to keep them that way.

When you get a chance, please fill me in on what you’re up to this summer … Will you be blogging more or less? Spending more time at the beach or in your garden? Planning a graduation party? Spending less time at the office? Please send me a cyber postcard before you unplug.  –CL

— Top photo: My Japanese garden, a favorite backyard escape. Bottom photo: A clematis arching over the gate in our backyard. All photos by Cindy La Ferle. —