Four years ago I gave away my smartphone. This is why.
There’s this photograph of my dad. It’s 1984. He’s sitting in front of his gigantic CRT monitor, his hands on the keyboard. He’s looking behind him at me, holding the camera and taking his picture. He is in the middle of working and he is eager to get back to it.
In 1984, my dad is a single father. He cooks and cleans and helps me with my homework. He sings songs on his guitar. He’s why I love Rachmaninoff and why I gobble books like they are cake. He tells me every day that I can be a writer. He also runs a small computer business at home, seven days a week. So I am spending a lot of time standing behind him. Grabbing a moment of his attention before he returns to the blinking cursor.
My dad and I live in the Silicon Valley. On tv, parents are architects and lawyers but the kids at my school? Their parents work at Intel and Apple. (Suzy’s dad works for Atari and so she owns every single Atari game ever made no matter how obscure, including Cookie Monster Munch and Pepsi Invaders. Whenever I go to her house, she says, “What do you want to do?” and I stare at her, thinking, “YOU OWN EVERY ATARI GAME IN EXISTENCE, IS THIS A TRICK QUESTION? DO I HAVE TO PRETEND I WANT TO DO SOMETHING ELSE?”) I am fascinated by computers, which seem like a way into my ideal world, one that rewards exceptional brains instead of exceptional bodies.
On Christmas Day, 1984 I open the biggest box under the tree and find my very own Atari 800XL – with a 5 1/4″ floppy disk drive! I use it to program in BASIC. I use it to play B.C.’s Quest for Tires and to write a story of my grown-up famous writer self in the far-off futuristic year of 1994. On the news, Peter Jennings says that someday everyone will be able to use their computers to talk to people thousands of miles away. I can’t wait.
By 1986, my dad has gotten a new computer and given me his old IBM XT which not only runs DOS, but the brand new word processor Word Perfect too. Inspired by Annie Rice, I write a vampire novel starring a vampire named Midnight. Yes. Midnight. (It will remain, for the next 20 years, the worst thing I have ever written.)
In 1991 Peter Jennings’ predictions come true. I meet a boy named Todd online, using Bitnet Relay on a 14″ black and white monitor. I go for a four day visit and I meet Todd’s exceptional brain in person. I never go home.
Four years later, Carolyn Burke starts an online diary and I look at it and think – hell, I could do that. So I teach myself HTML and in 1995 I begin my own online journal called Coffee Shakes. Ten years later I teach myself to edit audio so I can produce my own podcast, and then I teach myself to use Linux because I want more control over my computer.
I’m telling you all of this because I want to be clear: for thirty years, I LOVE computers. I am an early and enthusiastic adopter of all things digital. Without computers, I wouldn’t know Todd, and without Todd my son would have never been born. Computers have shaped my life in a thousand astounding ways.
And then, in 2008, I buy a smartphone.
So now I have a computer in my pocket and I can’t stop looking at it. Every time my 10 year old son and I exit the subway station, I am walking and staring at my phone. He’s talking a mile a minute and I’m saying “uh huh” and “yeah” and he could be describing an eight foot tall wasp about to sting me to death, I have no idea what he’s saying, I’m too busy jabbing the email icon with my finger like I am underwater and the new email messages are an oxygen tank and when I see the little red notification number I take a deep, deep breath.
After a year of this, my son asks me to put away my phone when we’re together. I promise I’ll leave it in my backpack (hey, there’s lots of room now that I don’t bring books with me) but then I just need to check the –
And what if I –
Besides, it doesn’t –
Anyway, how bad can –
I start keeping the phone in my pocket again. After a month, my son asks me to put it in my pack. Rinse. Repeat.
There is this picture of me.
In the living room
on the bus
at the restaurant
in the audience
and I am holding my phone in both hands. I am looking behind me at my partner, at my son. I am in the middle of checking Facebook and I am eager to get back to it.
It is Saturday. It is Monday and Thursday and March 7 and the afternoon morning evening – it is every single day.
And I really wish that this could be the part when I am standing in front of a mirror staring at my phone and I slowly look up and think, “MY GOD SAGE, you’re staring at a screen instead of your life!” and I throw my phone on the ground and stomp it into pieces – but it isn’t.
This is the part when I stare at my phone for the next six years. From 2008 to 2014, for 2,556 days I stare at my phone. Those little red notifications keep popping up. It’s easy. It’s satisfying, like popcorn at the movies. Salty and crisp. I stop writing, I stop reading books. Now I am a writer who doesn’t read. Now I am a writer who doesn’t write.
In 2014, I do not have an epiphany. I am not lying in the gutter at 3 AM checking Facebook because I’ve forgotten where I live.
In 2014, I am asked to perform my 75 minute solo show. My 75 minute solo show that has two pages of actual script written and no ending. I have a month to write the script and memorize the show and in a blind panic – visualizing myself reduced to standing in front of a hundred people eating a marshmallow really really slowly and pretending it’s performance art – I shut down my Facebook account and deactivate my phone, promising myself that everything will go back to normal as soon as the show is over.
I write the solo show script and I rewrite it and I rewrite the rewrites and I scrap half of it and then I scrap half of what was left and I rehearse a thousand times and I perform it to a sold out audience and get a standing ovation and the next day I run back to my phone and my Facebook account. How was Lisa’s trip to Mexico? Did David figure out how to make that pie crust? DO I HAVE ANY NEW LIKES?
And here’s what I discover, as I eagerly read a month’s worth of posts. Nothing interesting has happened. Not one damned thing. All that time spent on my phone, thinking, “I’d better check!” and it was ALWAYS dull, and I ALWAYS thought, “Well, later there will be something interesting.” But there never was. So I deactivate my personal Facebook account again, keeping a business page to promote my storytelling performances and workshops. I give away my smartphone.
Why am I telling you this?
For six years I combated boredom and loneliness with little red notifications, but it turns out that little red notifications are a rubber sword. I was prostrate with boredom, I was lonelier than I’ve ever been in my entire life. And reading articles like this one made me say – oh. I’m still in there. I don’t have to be a writer who doesn’t read, a writer who doesn’t write.
I give away my smartphone, and this is the part when I start paying attention to my life. From 2014 to today, for 1,460 days, I read books. I draw people on the subway. I have long meandering conversations with my son. I start visiting every library in Toronto with Todd. I take French classes. I write a second solo show, “Zablotz”. I read books and books. I begin a monthly board game get-together with my friends and now I’m paying attention instead of pretending I need the washroom so I can check if there are LIKES. I write “Snow Queen in North Korea”, a solo show I’ve been intending to write for eight years. I fall into books. I tumble into them like I never left. I ask friends out for coffee and listen to their stories and laugh. I look out the window. I daydream. I get bored and inspired and sad and excited.
But mostly, mostly I am remembering what it feels like to sit near a window full of sky and wander the world by the simple act of writing one word, then the next, then the next.