Sometimes a Cigar Is (Should Be) Just a Cigar

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.” (Henry David Thoreau)

 

I’m about to say something so heretical, I can already hear the gasps of disbelief and nervous laughter all the way from the West Coast:

I miss my old flip phone.

That’s right. I miss my Verizon Samsung flip phone with its archaic texting set-up (no separate keyboard) and its crap camera that was really only good for taking close-ups of your jean-clad arse if you left the phone in your back pocket when you sat down. This last is more of a guy thing. Somewhere, I feel certain, there are men with online photo albums composed entirely of their denim-covered derrières.

Before you do an eye roll and dismiss my flip-phone fetish as “one of those old people things,” I would like to direct your attention to a story on Time.com about millennials who still use and prefer flip phones. According to a survey cited in the article, 13% of 25-34 year olds like their flip phones, and—this will really blow your mind—an even greater number (15%) of 18-24 year olds are flip-phone users.

Does this mean the phone-that-is-just-a-phone is poised to make a comeback? Can it be that people are searching for something more meaningful to do with their lives than snapping selfies? If only.

Okay, confession: The Time story is from 2014, but that’s not so ancient. Everyone reading this post was already alive in that year. In a different sense, though, 2014 does seem like another lifetime, an existence I dimly recall when people still went out to the movies and someone sensible was at the helm of the government. Sigh.

But Ame, I hear you saying, why do you yearn for that crappy little flip phone? Don’t you love that you can drain your bank account in an afternoon of frenzied shopping simply by tapping your sexy new Smartphone on that little white cube? Hasn’t it qualitatively enriched your existence now that you have a keyboard that anticipates—rightly or wrongly—every next word you wish to text? That you have a world of .gifs at your fingertips? Or apps like Android’s Flush Toilet Finder, and Is It Dark Outside which, I kid you not, tells you whether … it’s dark outside.

Okay, I know smartphones make it easy to bank online from anywhere, check the weather in Dubai, or pinpoint a leaky window.  And yet … I long for a phone that does only one thing: Be a phone. And here is why.

Multitasking is the fast track to insanity.     

Psychologists have pretty well debunked the efficacy of that 1980s’ Type-A wet dream, multitasking. Turns out that though you may be able to do two things at once, say, walk and chew gum, you cannot concentrate on two things at the same time. 

Even those who haven’t entirely forsaken multitasking acknowledge that it’s both a time and energy drain. It takes us about 15 minutes to mentally switch tasks, and there’s a certain amount of cerebral friction that comes from dealing with multiple distractions. The day flies by without much to show for it. To boot, your brain may become addicted to this state of distraction. Bye-bye focus.

My old flip phone never invited me to watch an episode of Stranger Things while tweeting to friends and playing Super Mario Run. It was just there when I needed to tell someone my car had broken down at a major intersection during rush hour.

I am not a Finger Monkey. 

Critic Anne Billson, recently declared: “People who watch movies on phones (especially if they think they can leave valid critical comments on imdb) should be shot.”

While I do find this a tad harsh, it should be noted that Anne made her comment on Twitter, a medium known for encouraging impassioned, if not always well-considered, reactions. But beneath the emo, she makes a good point: No one is going to watch Magnolia or Schindler’s List—both clocking in at 3+ hours—on a screen measuring 2¼ x 4 ¼ inches, a size suited to Finger Monkeys and  Pygmy Rabbits, but not people.

Nor are readers likely to scroll through War and Peace (1,296 pp.) or Infinite Jest (1,079 pp.). I could barely get through the Wiki article on kangaroos I used as a test case for the “ease” of reading on a Smartphone.

Reading is made for curling up in a large, comfy chair, or nestling among piles of pillows, snug beneath the blankets in bed. It’s about the feel of paper beneath your fingers as you turn the pages, and reveling in a wealth of words you don’t have to squint to decipher.

Brevity may be the soul of wit but it’s murdering journalism.

“Old person! Old person!” I hear you shouting.

Not so fast. While it’s true I won’t see 20 again in this lifetime, a wealth of decades provides (along with wrinkles) a useful yardstick to measure change. I used to freelance as a magazine writer, and I watched the average length of articles shrink from pages to paragraphs to 500-word blurbs as increasing numbers of publications went online. It became impossible to make a decent living writing pay-per-word. I continue to subscribe to The Atlantic because it still publishes articles worthy of the name, with stuff like well-researched content and in-depth analysis.   

In a Slate.com article, Jack Shafer cites a revealing study which found that people who get their news from print sources “remember significantly more news stories than online news readers.” Print readers also recall significantly more topics and remember more main points. Only when it comes to recalling headlines does the online crowd match print readers.

Shafer, who cancelled his own print subscription to the New York Times, lured by the sexy design of the online version, was back to home delivery within a year. “What I really found myself missing was the news,” he explains. “Even though I spent ample time clicking through the Times website… I quickly determined that I wasn’t recalling as much of the newspaper as I should be. Going electronic had punished my powers of retention.”

A paragraph here, a page there—what is this thing I’m reading?

A reviewer on Goodreads lamented that more and more books are making less and less sense. Half-baked plots. Twists that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Cardboard characters with incomprehensible motivations. She wondered how so many of these spotty reads were selling.

I wonder how many readers even notice.

I think “gaps” in a novel’s plot, structure, and characters reveal themselves readily when we read a printed book, but maybe not so much when we’re scrolling through a page or two while waiting on the subway platform, then scanning another half dozen paragraphs while standing in the checkout line at CVS. With the noise and movement of the world all around, who’s to really remember if Mrs. McGillicuddy was at the manor on the night of Lord Dudley’s murder, or if her name is actually Ms. McQuade and she dresses as Lord Dudley on her nights off from the massage parlor? Details—and sometimes entire plotlines—are easily lost in the flitter flutter of smartphone reading on the run.

I want a life apart from my phone.

In a 2014 Pew Research poll, 46% of smartphone owners reported “they couldn’t live without” their phone. Among millennials, 87% said their smartphones never leave their side.

Well, I can, and do, live without my phone much of the day, often leaving it in the jumble of notes and manuscripts on my desk, ignoring it until it rings.

I know it seems like the ultimate definition of personal freedom to head out into the world each day with nothing more than the clothes on your back and a phone that offers every app modern life requires, but I don’t want to reach for my smartphone each morning (as one user reported) to shut off the alarm and find myself automatically scrolling through my Twitter timeline.

In an age where nearly 40% of people under 35 interact more with their smartphones than they do with friends, family, or co-workers, I still enjoy going for a beer with friends or having dinner out with my husband—and talking to each other, nary a smartphone in sight.

I also like to take a walk or go for a bike ride without wires coming out of my head, my texting fingers idle by my side.

I like a thing to be just what it is.

Irony of ironies, a UK survey reports that making phone calls is not among the Top 10 uses we make of our smartphones. We are more likely to check email, trawl Facebook, shop online, watch YouTube videos, even check the weather than phone someone.

“I honestly can’t remember the last time I used my phone to call someone,” one user admitted. “I get incoming calls, but I usually just ignore them.”

As someone who has worked phone banks for political campaigns, I can attest to the truth of this statement. Almost no one picks up.

I like a thing to be what it is. Just that. I don’t want a stove that doubles as a dishwasher, or a microwave that also serves as a TV and hair dryer.

When I go to the gym, I take my iPod, not my phone. That’s because my iPod contains my workout  music. That’s all it does—play music—and I don’t want a perfectly good gym tune like “Build Me up Buttercup” to be interrupted by a text, or a notification that I’ve got 200 new messages in my Inbox. I go to the gym to get away from that.

On road trips (where I do carry a phone in case of breakdown), I use my portable Garmin GPS that sits on the dashboard. It does one thing: provides directions. Why do I prefer this geriatric invention to the Google Maps app? In a complex situation, like driving into New York City, I like to see the entire grid of streets and on-off ramps without having to take my eyes from the road or juggle my phone between my knees. Do I have to navigate five lanes or three? Will I need to bear left on the off ramp? That’s the beauty of something with only one purpose: All its components are geared toward doing that one thing well.

In a world of 2.2 million apps, where the number of smartphone users is expected to top 5 billion in 2019, I am certainly Don Quixote here, tilting at windmills. But there are worse characters to be, and I still think nothing is lovelier than a summer day on my deck, a warm breeze riffling the pages of the book I’m reading, a gin-and-tonic at my elbow. And if you should stop by, I’ll snap a photo of you. With my Nikon camera. That’s all it does—take pictures. I love it.

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Keep Walking

The only journey is the one within.  (Rainer Maria Rilke)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll state upfront that I have often—half jokingly, half seriously—referred to life as a minefield. Running, running down the days, the years, in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. All the while, one eye out for those pesky tripwires, ducking, dodging the myriad hazards until I land on the one that blows me sky high, game over. An event, hopefully, far off in the misty future.

This is not as dark a characterization as it may sound. I would describe myself as a happy person. I have a major sense of whimsy. Love to laugh, love to joke. The minefield thing is more of a heads-up approach to the great unknown that greets us each morning. And the near-miss can be quite exhilarating, just as I imagine it is on a real battlefield.  Ha-ha, dodged that one! There’s a sense of inner strength. The ability to endure.

But what happens when we encounter one landmine after another—family illness, natural disasters, a precipitous drop in circumstances, a nutso president and his arsenal of threats? The constant state of high alert wears us out. When will there be good news? Can we make it to a place where we can draw a free breath?

Wisdom Through the Ages

As any trawl through Twitter will attest, most of us seem to have a need for guideposts. A map through the minefield, or at least a large supply of encouraging words.

Sometimes this encouragement wears a stiff upper lip:

F.E.A.R. has two meanings:

Forget Everything And Run

OR

Face Everything And Rise

The choice is yours.

(Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Sometimes, it appears as a balm to a wounded heart:

One small crack doesn’t mean that you are broken;

it means that you were put to the test and you didn’t fall apart. (Linda Poindexter)

Thomas Jefferson, in his famous “10 Rules of Life” suggested (Rule #9) that we Take things always by their smooth handle,

while Winston Churchill cut straight to the chase: If you’re going through hell, keep going.

Perhaps the most famous example of such words of wisdom—WOWs, we’ll call them—is the “Serenity Prayer,” written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Sufi Poets, Hedgehogs, and Anxiety

My personal WOW comes from Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th-century Persian Muslim poet, scholar, and Sufi master. Rumi’s writing are beloved the world over. A 2014 BBC story hailed Rumi as America’s bestselling poet. That’s a longer run than Shakespeare can boast.

So what does some Sufi dude born in 1207 know about life in the 21st century? How does a poet who lived before the invention of the printing press speak to us who navigate the digital age?

Up top, I spoke of life as a trip through a minefield, always ducking and dodging as we race toward the hazy future. But, it’s more often a confused slog of uncertainty (as opposed to outright catastrophe), and uncertainty makes us anxious. Faced with a disaster, we tend to deliver: roll up our sleeves and get to work. Uncertainty, on the other hand, can paralyze. Like a hedgehog, we curl up in a ball and wait for clarity to strike. Or we stumble about, unfocused, grasping wildly at every straw.

And Rumi absolutely got this. You don’t need to be born in the age of the iPhone X to recognize our need to believe we run the show. Our craving to have control over our lives. It’s the most basic of all human tendencies. And yet, of course, we don’t. The folks in Puerto Rico couldn’t turn Hurricane Maria away from their shores. The concert-goers at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas couldn’t vanquish the bullets of a madman’s bump-stocked semi-automatic rifle.

Something Approaching Grace

So somewhere in my wanderings, I came across this verse from Rumi, typed it up in 24-point bold, and taped it to the bookcase by my desk:

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.

Don’t try to see through the distances,

That’s not for human beings. Move within,

But don’t move the way fear makes you move.

When the weight of uncertainty threatens to sink me, these lines tease my brain to look beyond the moment, to consider something outside my flailing angst. For almost two decades, I have sifted Rumi’s words for a way I can live with “what is” with something approaching grace. I’m still pondering, still learning. This is merely my interim report. What I’ve gleaned so far.

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.

We are creatures of ambition. We love to make plans, set goals, imagine ourselves moving smoothly from success to success. We crave “places to get to.” It is hard, hard, hard for us to move forward without these destinations to propel us. Like a person wandering the desert, plans and goals are the oasis we thirst for, a mirage always on the horizon, just over the next hill. We may get there, but rarely the way we imagine. And if we do, the reality of the mirage may be quite different to what we fantasized. As John Lennon said, Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. 

It’s not that plans and goals are bad or futile, but we need to recognize two things: 1) We create them. Our pictures of dazzling accomplishments and ideal lifestyles are self-imposed, the children of our own brain—they have no mandate in the natural world; 2) They can go south at any moment and often do.

If our happiness, our very ability to function, depends on getting into an Ivy League school, making partner at the law firm, or having our novel published by one of the “Big Five,” we make ourselves vulnerable to the vagaries of life. Ask anyone in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. One day, you’re making breakfast, going to work, dreaming of the new motor scooter business you’re going to start this winter, just in time for tourist season, and the next day you’re homeless, stumbling about your hurricane-wrecked island, searching for drinkable water.

Rumi says keep walking. Walking is life.

Don’t try to see through the distances,

That’s not for human beings.

But we do try, over and over. We want to know what lies ahead. We want to shore up against any and all disappointments, disasters. We have no say about the circumstances of our birth, nor (discounting suicide) the hour of our death, so we scramble like hell between these endpoints to foresee the future, and prepare.

I don’t read this as we should do nothing with the knowledge we have at hand. Rather we do today what we can do, and let neither our hopes blind us to reality nor our fears cripple us. We join a campaign to get our town to commit to renewable energy. We donate to a legal fund to defend Dreamers. We write the next chapter of our novel. We study for the exam. The outcomes are unknowable. We can only act in the moment.

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a big fan of history, partly because I simply love stories, and partly because I want to understand the patterns of human behavior. Over the years, two key things have emerged for me:

1) Everything you have, including your life, can be taken from you at any moment. Think Nazis. Think ICE. Boko Haram or Czar Nicholas II. There are no guarantees, no talismans. The trick is to somehow acknowledge this truth while living each day with joy and generosity and hope. That is grace.

2) We tend to focus on the threats all around us. Survival instinct, no doubt. What we fail to see, cannot see in fact, is the thing that may happen to throw a monkey wrench into what looks like doom. The discovery of a vaccine for polio. The tiny island of Britain shutting down Hitler’s voracious advance, alone, for two years until America joined the fight. And there are people out there right now inventing plant-based plastics that won’t damage the environment, and high-tech sieves to render ocean water drinkable.

There is as much hope as threat in what we cannot yet see.

Move within,

But don’t move the way fear makes you move.

 Ah, this is the one I puzzle over most. I get the “don’t move the way fear makes you move.” Don’t delete your manuscript because 20 agents turned down your novel. Wake up tomorrow and query Agent #21, and if no one bites, ever, keep writing because it’s what you love. Don’t abandon fighting for a more humane and cooperative world because white nationalism is showing its ugly face across the planet and Trump is in the White House. Make phone calls to defend Dreamers. Raise your voice in Town Halls for diplomacy, not war. Bring a sick neighbor a meal. Give a stranger a genuine smile.

Okay, I get that. But what does it mean to “move within?” Within the limits of the day at hand?

Gandhi  said: “I do not want to foresee the future. I am concerned with taking care of the present. God has given me no control over the moment following.” Taking care of the present is good. It’s all we ever live, really.

Move within the confines of our own head? Change the perceptions that color how we view the world. The assumptions that drive our actions.

How would the quality of our life be different if we saw our mistakes not as failures but as practical wisdom gained? If we viewed setbacks not as insurmountable roadblocks but as opportunities to explore new and different paths?

What if we were to relish the journey of this day rather than tizzy over some imagined endgame?

To Look On Tempests

Searching these deceptively scant lines for Rumi’s meaning, meditating on his many subtle layers, has been comforting, energizing, life-affirming. Heeding it has been much harder. I still exist on the far side of grace, that state in which I can face the truth of each moment without panic, without despair. To look on tempests, as Will Shakespeare said, and remain unshaken.

To keep walking. Whatever.