Each evening I begin teaching my adult English as a Second Language Zoom class with a question. Sometimes the question is straightforward: “What’s your favorite food?” Other times it is provocative: “If you had five minutes with President Biden, what would you tell him?”
One question caused such an uproar that part of me wishes that I could have swallowed my words or locked them up and thrown away the key. On the other hand, the discussion was lively and informative, and in the end, I was glad I asked it.
The question was: “Do you think you could live without your phone for one or two days?”
As it turns out, my question was prescient. For me!
Recently, driving along the Garden State Parkway, about 20 minutes north of my house, I suddenly suspected that I had forgotten my phone. As I proceeded onto the New York State Thruway, the cellphone mystery became as annoying as a hangnail. Finally, I asked my daughter, who was my passenger, to check my bag.
“No phone, Mom,” she announced, afraid to see the expression on my face. I couldn’t blame her. This meant that while on vacation for the next six days, including my birthday, I would be taking a time machine back to an earlier era.
But once the initial shock of going cold turkey faded, I tried not to grouse too much. Besides, being phone-less might help me understand this appendage to my right hand. Is it a luxury, a necessity, or something in between? In a few days, maybe I would be able to answer my own question.
I knew the next 144 hours would be challenging. I talk on the phone and check messages all day and night. I obsessively look at the news and weather and move to the rhythm of My Clock’s reminder alarms and Google Calendar. My Notes app is like having a personal secretary at my fingertips. I compulsively check Google Classroom to review student assignments. Google Maps is my compass. Google Translate makes my world smaller and friendlier.
My vocabulary instantly improves when Safari takes me to the dictionary. Having the Duolingo app on my phone makes me feel like “uma mulher inteligente” as I try to learn some Portuguese for an upcoming trip to Lisbon. The Photo and Camera apps are constant sources of pleasure. Although actual phone numbers are a blur, Contacts connects me to my little world in a flash. The New York Times Cooking app unites me with chefs and home cooks around the world. Without it, I am sure I would starve!
Call me old-fashioned, but I never use the phone while driving or crossing the street. Nonetheless, that darned phone had become attached to my body. Just as Pinocchio’s nose had grown longer with each lie he told, perhaps my fingers also lengthened with each click and swipe. I was afraid to look.
I predicted that without my phone, I would feel so discombobulated that I would crave the phone like people crave their morning coffee.
But that was not entirely the case.
I noticed that gradually, I missed my phone less and less. Accustomed to glancing down at it, or searching for it because I often misplace it, I felt liberated without it. I was no longer at its mercy. My attention span improved. I felt less jittery and more focused on the moment. Not only did I look at people’s faces for the first time in years, I even noticed the color of their eyes. The phone had diminished my immediate world, while expanding my virtual one.
Furthermore, I realized that it is the instant gratification that seduces me, not only the actual information or connection I get with the click of a key. Getting immediate answers is like a rush of adrenaline.
I began to remember life before cellphones existed. It seemed like ancient history when people kept their private lives — well, private. During my six-day trial, I found myself annoyed when people chatted and FaceTimed in public. How rude it was to transform public space into their personal office or living room.
By the time I returned home from my vacation and spotted the lonely phone on the kitchen counter, I didn’t rush to embrace it. I unpacked, checked the snail mail, and watered the plants. Then, I moseyed over to the phone and began reading my messages.
What had I concluded from my phone-less adventure? It wouldn’t be the end of the world if I didn’t have my phone for a short time. But for a longer period? Well, I might have to run another experiment. There was no great epiphany; whether for a short or long time, moderation is the key.
On the other hand, when I had asked my ESL students if they could live without their cellphones for a day or two, they told entirely different stories. Moderation would never work for them. One after another, they shared the ways in which their phones are literally their lifelines. They hunger to see spouses, elderly parents, children, even the beloved dogs they left behind, often scattered around the world. They want to be reunited with families, whether it is at the dinner table in Brazil or the bomb shelter in Ukraine.
Overcoming different time zones, they text and use FaceTime, Zoom, and What’s App video chats. They use apps I never heard of. When I ask about email, they laugh. Clearly, I am the dinosaur in the virtual classroom.
They connect so much with their former lives that I wonder when they have time for their lives in New Jersey. But clearly they do, with their phones playing essential roles. Those phones provide immediate access to job opportunities, changes in work shifts and information on public transit schedules. Obviously, Google Translate helps them out in a pinch.
Thirty years ago, my Israeli cousin told me his mobile, as he called it then, was his oxygen. How could anyone be so attached to a device, I wondered. He must be exaggerating. But after listening to my students passionately defend their phone usage, I understood that their phones are their oxygen, too.
In 2001, my husband and kids purchased their first cell phones. I didn’t really want one — neither did I want to be left behind. So I joined the 21st century and wondered what I would do with this device.
Twenty-two years later, when I forgot my phone on the kitchen counter, I wondered what I would do without it.
Merrill Silver and her husband live in Montclair; she’s a freelance writer and teaches ESL at JVS of MetroWest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Hadassah magazine, the Forward, the New York Jewish Week, and other publications. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com