Sunday, June 18, 2017

In the morning sun or on the dock of the bay without a cellphone

Six years ago, I lived in a foreign country and used a prepaid, push-button cell phone with a 1990s interface. It didn't have GPS – I had to figure out where I was going. It didn't have an app for translating – I had to carry a crappy dictionary around. It didn't have a touch screen – I had to tap the 1 button four times to type an á. It didn't have email – I had to note what I wanted to write later and send the email when I got home to my computer. It didn't even have a camera – I had to carry one of those around too.

I rarely texted because each message cost money – 10 centimos to send and 2 centimos to receive.

I was alone all the time, which meant I had to entertain myself by exploring the city and making art. I filled notebooks and drawing pads with some funky creations – now buried in Rubbermaid totes.

I don't really do that stuff much anymore unless I specifically add 'write' or 'draw' or 'finish project' or 'go to X' in my iCal with an alert.

I text and email all the time when I'm bored. Or I absent-mindedly scroll through sports apps to check the current National League leaders in on-base percentage for some reason.

I'm never really alone because my friends are just a WhatsApp message away, even if they're sitting next to me.

I went to a wedding yesterday and spent time during the reception watching Instagram videos that my friends took of my friends during the reception. We were all together, looking at pictures of stuff we had just done. In a way, the curated real-time social media experience exceeded the actual events because we looked handsome and carefree and we knew we'd get a lot of likes.

Before the reception, a few of us played whiffle ball in the yard at the venue and I pitched to a nine-year-old while holding my gray suit jacket in my left hand. A friend filmed us and made it his Instagram story. Watching that video, thinking how cool I looked – like I was in a J. Crew ad – and hoping everyone else would think so too, felt better than actually standing out there in the wet grass throwing to the groom's little cousin. The video delivered that little hit of superficial fulfillment.

It happened gradually these past few years, but I am now the cell phone-addicted millennial cliche I didn't expect to become. I have to hide my phone in my backpack and concentrate to zone out on the train. I watch three screens at once, rarely concentrating on just one thing at a time.

I just paused while writing this to consider checking my phone because I sent a WhatsApp message to a group thread a half hour ago and remembered that I hadn't yet received a response. Fortunately, my phone is in another room so I could more easily concentrate on Sit On Things.


I was walking home from a grocery store earlier, holding a few bags that prevented me from accessing my phone, when I started thinking about "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay."

The character in Otis Redding's classic sits in the morning sun and the dock of the bay for hours, watching the water, "wastin' time." He talks about feeling listless even after making a big change (moving from Georgia to San Francisco). He is unwilling to sift through all the advice he gets and he seems reluctant to commit to meaningful personal change beyond the geographic.

I interpret the lyrics to mean that Otis' character experiences anxiety and mild depression. He thought a drastic change from a restrictive environment to a new, more dynamic setting would ignite him, but he's starting to realize that moving somewhere new – even a cool place like late-60s San Francisco – doesn't alter your thought patterns and emotions. It's just a superficial change of address unless you start working on yourself. Like all of us, this guy would benefit from seeing a therapist.

I can relate to Otis' character because I left the US (back when I had the crappy cell phone) for the same reason – I thought a drastic change of scenery would be a quick fix for deeper growth. But I was still the same person inside and I responded to people and situations the same ways I always had. Along with two stuffed suitcases, I brought the same neuroses and fears to Spain.

I definitely benefited from not having a smart phone because solitude forced me to learn directions, the metric system and a new language much faster. I had to trust myself.

I think Otis' character uses all that alone time on the dock of the bay to probe his fears and make some decisions for himself. By disconnecting, he begins to slowly overcome that inertia and, I hope, to trust himself too.

Stability - 2/5  Emotional instability exacerbated by compulsive cell phone use, perhaps mitigated by boredom and meditation

Cool Factor - 3/5 Even though you're not gonna get any likes sitting on that dock without facebook

Difficulty - 5/5 Fear and self doubt can be our greatest obstacles. 

Perilousness -  4/5 Change is scary, trusting oneself is too

Added bonus - 4/5 Less anxiety

Overall rating - 18/25 Emotional growth

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