“Sorry I didn’t text you back, it’s too hard to use my dumb-phone,” my chic twenty-something niece joked with me over the phone.
“Anna!” I responded, horrified, “how are you surviving without your smart phone?” I asked from the comfort of my bed where I cradled my IPhone while I charged my Nook.
“Oh I love it!” she said. “I feel so liberated. My smart phone died, so I am using Grandma’s old dumb-phone. I don’t know if I can bear to go back. Nobody can reach me all the time, I’m not checking emails from bed, and I just have my thoughts to myself.”
“Are there any drawbacks?” I asked, fuming because my news app wasn’t responding fast enough.
Anna thought quietly for a moment,
“Well, I can’t check the bus schedule. But generally this is my new life. If someone wants to meet me, we pick a day and a time, and that’s it!”
Imagine that. No texting to say, “I’m in the car. I’ve parked the car. I’m entering the restaurant. I see you!”
Who said youth is wasted on the young? The most heroic words often emerge from the mouths of babes. Ok, this baby is 26-years-old, but she’ll always be my little mini-me; the younger, hipper, and artsier version of myself. If my sister let me, I would adopt her.
A dynamic art gallery associate, my niece is a dyed-in-the wool Chicago native and never ceases to make me proud. She slices through traffic on her bike, reads Chuck Palahniuk, makes her own beer, and serves a mean vegetable lasagna to her avant-garde friends off her grandmother’s china.
“That’s it!” I told Anna, “I’m going on a technology diet” I said from my bed, and put all my devices in the drawer. I reset my IPhone so I could only use it for calls, and deactivated my Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
The first day was bizarre. I felt like I had no friends. I stopped going on the internet, only turned the TV on late at night, and checked out Goodbye Columbus from the library instead of reading my tablet.
At first, my brain needed time to decompress. It was like I had come in from a very bad traffic jam, and sat in a quiet, sunny garden. I just knew there was life in this old mind, it just needed time to acclimate to the silence.
Reading my Phillip Roth book reminded me of why I wanted to be a writer in the first place. I love exploring, writing and reading about our morning pursuits, and the afternoon ennui that inevitably settles in. The book made me hungry for my own trip, so I decided to head into the great city of Chicago the next day to march through the streets I adore.
I brought nothing with me but my book, my journal and a pen: the holy trinity of creation. I walked through the German Christkindlmarket at the Daley Plaza and watched people drinking hot cocoa out of tiny, ceramic boots. I passed the green lions perched outside The Art Institute with their newly adorned wreaths. And I sighed when I saw the skaters whizzing around the ice at Millenium Park.
At The Bean, I sat down with my journal and began to write. I didn’t take a photo and post it on Facebook. I didn’t read that other mothers were at their child’s soccer game. I didn’t hear the breaking stories of murders, war crimes, or public disasters. For one beautiful morning, I had a private love affair with the great city of Chicago. No frenetic postings. No guilt.
After writing in my journal for a couple of hours, I got a call from my daughter and her boyfriend. They were taking the train from the suburbs and we agreed to meet at 1pm sharp in front of the Lions. No mother is an island, and I met them with joy.
“Mom!” My 16-year-old daughter said about her boyfriend, “Cody has only been to Chicago twice in his whole life!”
A sheepish smile spread across his face.
“Cody!” I said, teasing him, “I’ve been to Paris more times than you’ve been to Chicago.”
And with that, we linked arms and walked up Michigan Avenue together. I shared my love for the historic buildings we passed. There was the Carbide & Carbon Building dressed in beautiful black and gold. I explained about the Wrigley Company and the chewing gum that started as a giveaway inside boxes of baking powder. And of course, the story of the Great Chicago Fire.
“Our city buildings were made mostly of wood, and the whole place burned down. So Chicagoans got up, dusted themselves off, and built a new city.”
We walked through Grant Park and looked at Agora, the headless, armless iron sculptures by the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. Had I leased my own brain to the countless voices that sped through the air wirelessly? I decided to take it as a sign that I was walking through life without my thoughts to myself. This was going to have to end.
“Speaking of Polish legends,” I winked to the kids, “let’s go to Grandma’s.”
When we got to my mom’s Oak Street condo, she dished us out hot bowls of vegetable bean soup, like her Polish mother had taught her long ago. On the table sat a good old fashioned newspaper and a paperback novel. When I told her about the Polish artist, she began to share her own stories with pride.
“Chicago has the largest Polish population of any city outside of Poland.”
There were no cell phones, no IPads, no TV screens. We may have gotten the history wrong on some of our stories, but we didn’t stop to Google the facts.
The wind was bitterly cold when we headed home that night. My hands were cold but my stories were getting warmer. My chic niece was right. It felt good to take a break from technology. It took three different Polish women to liberate my mind.
I wasn’t sure if I would ever fire up my smartphone to full capacity again. The city got into my empty head and had begun to rebuild my burned out brain. What could I do if I dusted myself off and began to rebuild again?
Walking around with my own head on my shoulders: how avant-garde.