Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Burner Phone

Having a smartphone is a little like having a dog. In the beginning, when it's new, it can be so much fun figuring out all the little tricks you can make it do (play fetch! Download Instagram!), and you want to show it off to your friends. You get a custom case, or buy a collar at the upscale doggy boutique on the trendy strip. It's there when you wake up and when you go to sleep. You start to make plans around the dog ("Can't go out of town for the weekend, I've got to watch Mr. Mustache") and around the phone ("We need to turn around, I left my phone back at the house"). And over time, you forget what it's like not to have a dog, or a smartphone.

Except here's the thing: dogs are living beings capable of love and affection. Smartphones, on the other hand?

When I was a kid, my parents sometimes left us with babysitters to do whatever they did on parent-dates; I always envisioned totally fancy restaurants with, like, harpists in the corner, but it was probably closer to cute bistros and driving around without their three insane children. This was an era when parents would routinely leave their children with semi-vetted high school students for hours at a time. A more trusting time, maybe. (I remember watching the Miss America pageant with one babysitter, who microwaved marshmallows and chocolate chips together for a dessert that even I, in my sweet-crazed youth, knew was a bridge too far.) This is a time before cell-phones. Leaving the kids alone with a teenager who would give them diabetes did not necessitate the use of a telephonic tether.

After my first year of undergraduate studies, I was torn about whether or not I should continue at U of T or just fling myself off a bridge, so I split the difference and moved home for a year. I acquired my very first cell phone, a silver plastic Motorola flip phone. It had three basic functions: calling, texting, and invoking a frantic attempt to disconnect whenever I accidentally "connected to the World Wide Web," an event marked by four minutes of a pixellated spinning globe and an error message. Most of my calls still came into my parent's house: the reception was better, and I liked being able to cradle the phone under my ear as I baked cookies. I suspended the cell phone after a few months, and paid out my contract in eight-dollar increments (because even when you're actively avoiding the phone, Bell Canada will somehow find a way to charge you for it).

After I moved back to the city, I split a land line with a few housemates, and engaged in a Byzantine scheme of shared bill payments and message-taking. When I moved out on my own, I kept the landline and got an answering machine, and took delight in creating stupid outgoing message (the halcyon days of youth, before every caller was a prospective employer!). It was only in 2012 that I finally buckled and got a cell phone, so that my boyfriend and I could text. Not just a cell phone: a smart phone.

Man, those first few days were a rush. It was a flurry of downloading apps and inputting contacts, and texting for the first time in years. I sent photos to my parents and played Tetris in bed. I took delight in the fact that I could watch YouTube videos in the tub and screw around on Pinterest all hours of the day and night.

Now it's two years later, and I've got a problem.

Anytime I could be on my phone, I am on my phone. Mike puts on a movie, I pull out my phone. I'm glued to the handset deep in the underground tunnels of the TTC, and I'm reading 45-page New Yorker articles on a 2 1/2" by 4" screen. I can feel my brain changing with phone ownership: I'm disappointed when I don't have any texts to reply to, or when no-one has validated me by liking a recent Facebook post. I'm easily distracted. I refresh over and over, looking for that perfect news item that will release me--ahhh, is that it?

When I'm away from my phone, I feel a sense of lightness. It sounds like hyperbole, but when I'm at the farm or the beach or traveling internationally, I know that my phone is basically a glorified camera, and it's stowed out of sight. But the second--the second--I think I might be able to connected to a signal and get online, I am there. Mid-conversation? Sure. Right after sexy times? Yep! I'm a monster. I take a stack of cookbooks into the tub with me to unwind and then I hunch over my phone like a gargoyle.

And I hate it! I hate feeling tethered all the time, and I hate feeling like I'm waiting for something to show up on my social-media doorstep that will somehow fill my life with sparkles and glee, and I hate how my brain itches for a fix if I put my phone down for more than a few minutes. And I have no idea how to fix this, because I'm clearly longing for some connection, some sparkles and glee in my life right now. And while those things can't come from my phone, the seduction--the idea that they might, if I spend enough time there--is ruinous.

When this phone finally breaks, I'm going to do myself a favour and seriously consider a return to the land line. If I can't do that, at least trading the smart phone, with all its bells and whistles and Instagram filters, for something a little simpler. I want simpler. I want the kind of real connections phones used to bring: the human voice, and time spent together even when we're far apart.