The Phantom Buzz

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“Table for five,” I say to the greeter. “I think there’s a reservation.”

She looks for the name I give her, then glances up at me. “Is the rest of your party here?”

“Almost,” I hear myself say, when, really, it’s anyone’s guess. It’s an end-of-semester lunch with colleagues. They’re giving and grading exams, having last-minute conferences with students.  Not me. I’m retired.

She looks around. The restaurant, a popular joint in Detroit, is mostly empty at the moment. Within the next half hour it will be packed.

When she turns back to me, I tell her they’re on their way.

She leads me to a table near the front of the restaurant. Once I’m seated, to pass time and avoid further eye contact with the greeter, I take out my phone. Next to me, two thirty-somethings are also busy with their phones, dispensing with eye contact. Surveying the room, at every occupied table I notice how many individuals, in groups and by themselves, are dining quietly by phone light.

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Which gives me pause. Can I do it?

Can I put my phone away, just sit, and be fully present?

According to a recent article in the New York Times, it might not be a bad idea to put down your cell phone. “An increasing body of evidence,” Catherine Price writes, “suggests that the time we spend on our smartphones is interfering with our sleep, self-esteem, relationships, memory, attention spans, creativity, productivity and problem-solving and decision-making skills.” All that, and so much more, I’m sure.

Try letting your mind wander for a change, another Times article says.

For God’s sake, why can’t we just BE, the way we used to be?

In the restaurant today, I decide to be decisive. I put my phone away. I’ll try being. I’ll open myself to the environment, to the mini-scenes taking place around me, let my mind wander.

I survey the wall of liquor bottles behind the bar, which reminds me of the first bar I frequented, at 18 years of age, a moldy Rathskeller rank with the scent of old mold and spilled beer; glance out the window at the homeless man across the street singing his heart out, the same guy I saw last time I was here; remember my old friend Ludlow, who lived in a cramped apartment just around the corner from the restaurant, an apartment so small he kept his artificial Christmas tree up–and lit–year around; try to listen to conversation going on around me, one of my favorite indoor sports, more difficult these days because 1) people in restaurants are frequently too busy attending to their phones to engage in entertaining conversation, and 2) in my dotage I have grown somewhat hard of hearing, which makes me wonder: Is anyone in this room wearing a hearing aid? I look around, checking out ears.

Motion outside the restaurant catches my attention, a solitary guy smoking on the sidewalk.

And here comes the floating waiter, the tall one with the light step who does not move his arms or shoulders while in stride; the look on his face is beatific. He combines being and workingness.

After ten minutes of just being (including moments of self consciousness–Why is that guy just sitting there? Doesn’t he have anything to do?) I see my colleagues push through the restaurant entrance. At the table we catch up: How are we? We are good. The wait? No, not long, thanks, just ten minutes or so. Retirement suits me just fine. Yes, I miss the work, especially the students, but no, not the grading and no, you’re right, not those students. We consult the menu and the wine list, recite orders to the beatific one, who nods a slow, knowing nod and, flexing his memory, writes nothing down.

A few minutes later, he returns with wine, sets down glasses. I hold up a hand. No wine for me, thanks. My colleagues look shocked.  What?

Call it a pause or hiatus, I say. A reset.

I’ve arrived at the quit. Another one.

#

I’m reminded of a few lines from Sylvia Plath: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.”

So it is with quitting. An art. But unlike Plath and her dying, like everyone else, I’m not very good at it.

I smoked cigarettes for a couple years out of high school, until I tapered off, substituting joints for cigarettes. The quit lasted a few years. Then, through graduate school and into the early years of my work and married life, long after I had given up the joint, I smoked cigarettes on weekends, at wedding receptions and cocktail parties, then heavily through the writing of a doctoral dissertation.

This was before the patch, before nicotine gum, before the robust acknowledgement that, medically speaking, smoking was a bummer.

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Ludlow was in a constant state of quitting. On and off he employed a set of special filter attachments that reduced tar and nicotine. Ten filters, ten weeks, a gradual reduction in carcinogens helped you wean yourself from the habit. In some cases.  He used them for a few years, to regulate how much of a hit he needed. Today I’m a five, he would say. Another day he was a seven. At a Christmas party one night in his tiny apartment, I noticed he was off the filter cessation program altogether. I’m going full Marlboro, he said with a shrug. For the holidays, you know, you just need a good boost of nicotine. Next week he was back on the filters.

I finally quit cold turkey. It was difficult. And liberating.

#

In a casual survey of the literature on quitting, I find lots of how-to articles. How to quit smoking, vaping, drinking, how to quit sugar, Facebook, weed; how to quit your job; how to quit saying yes, quit saying no, quit worrying about people’s expectations, quit holding onto the past, quit making to-do lists.  You’ll find the five, the ten, the fifteen, the twenty-one things you need to quit in order to be happy. How to quit being bored.

If I looked a little longer, I’m sure there would be a five-step program on how to quit quitting.

Among all the subjects in quit lit, the smart phone is conspicuously absent. Jeremiads, yes; screen time is making us dumb, antisocial, forgetful, etc; invitations to quit, no.

When I was still in the classroom, many of my students couldn’t go five minutes without picking up their phones. A recent study of 2000 Americans found the average person looks at her phone 80 times a day, ten percent of the study participants, 300 times a day. At the height of my smoking addiction, I smoked pack a day. Twenty cigarettes, at six minutes a cigarette, is two hours a day. You can find out how much time you spend on your phone.  Me? About the same as smoking, a couple hours a day. That does not make me happy. How much of that time do I actually using my phone as a phone? Very little.

#

“Bow wow.”

When I was eighteen and had come out as a smoker, one of father’s pals summed up the habit with those two words. “Every ten minutes, every thirty minutes,” he said, “bow wow.” He mimed reaching in his pocket and pulling out a cigarette.

For some time now I’ve been aware of the phantom buzz.  Around the part of my body where I keep my phone, often in a jacket pocket, the same place I kept a pack of cigarettes, I feel a buzz. I don’t hear it; but I definitely feel it. Was that my phone? Is that a text? An email?  Even when my phone isn’t there, I feel the buzz.  It freaks me out.

Phone addiction used to be generational. Those darn kids. Adults are catching up, big time. A recent study by Common Sense Media, conducted online and by phone, surveyed 500 pairs of parents and teenagers, and found that  “while parents feel increasingly glued to their phones, attitudes among teenagers moved in the opposite direction.” Young people are still more phone addicted than older, but the difference is narrowing. Kids are saying to their parents, Put it away.

Senior couple taking a selfie.

More adults are taking their devices to bed with them, using them within five minutes of going to sleep, waking up to check them, looking at them within five minutes of getting up in the morning. With the concomitant degradation of sleep.

And the degradation of shared space.

Who doesn’t have an older friend or relative who, new to the smart device, hauls it out to share photos or video (Hey, look at this!) or disappears into the digital cocoon while the visit, party, and/or dinner conversation goes on around them?

Put it away.

The addiction is powerful. “Dopamine starts you seeking,” according to Psychology Today, “then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text.”

Smart phone is the new cigarette. Dopamine is the new nicotine.

#

When I quit smoking, I went through a period of time when I didn’t know what to do with my hands. In muscle memory, I could feel the repetitive motion of raising a hand to my mouth. It was eeire, and unnerving. The smart phone now presents a similar repetitive motion problem. Take out your device and check in.  Check in for what? Nothing in particular. It’s just something to do with your hands.

The reviews are in for a new device, the No Phone, which is the equivalent of methadone therapy for device addition.  Says Fast Company: “A security blanket phone addicts are taking seriously.” Time Magazine: “A simulation of your comfort object, helping you slowly abandon it.”  The New York Times: “Always have a rectangle of plastic to clutch.”

That’s what it is: a rectangle of black plastic with the dimensions and weight of a digital device, on sale today at Amazon for $12.  You can’t make calls, you can’t check texts, email, or the Internet; you can’t consult your calendar or find out how close you are to taking 10,000 steps. You can’t play Solitaire. The manufacturer describes it thus: “With a thin, light and completely wireless design, the NoPhone acts as a surrogate to any smart mobile device, enabling you to always have a rectangle of smooth, cold plastic to clutch without forgoing any potential engagement with your direct environment. Never again experience the unsettling feeling of flesh on flesh when closing your hand.”

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Slip it in the hip pocket of your jeans, in a shirt or jacket pocket, close to your heart.  Just knowing it’s there will give you a sense of security.

#

That day in the restaurant, five of us got through most of a lunch without anyone taking out his phone. They had wine. I had a gin and tonic without the gin.

There is real pleasure in quitting. For me, it’s the forgetting and remembering. You forget about wanting a cigarette, about wanting alcohol. When you remember, it’s a rush. I don’t need that any more. I forgot all about it. I have control. 

Less phone time? Today I’m not sure I can do it, not sure I want to do it. That day is coming. I can feel it—in the phantom buzz.

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