Maybe It’s Time For A Digital Diet

This essay originally appeared in Palo Alto Patch.

Juliet’s Balcony

I don’t know where I lost it. Perhaps on the train between Verona and Florence. Or at the restaurant overlooking the hills of Tuscany. It might have been at the nightmare-inducing Torture Museum in San Gigmignano. But it didn’t matter where it was, because now that my cell phone was gone, the rest of my trip to Italy would be about this unplanned and unwanted digital diet.

I don’t think of myself as one of those addicts that must check her Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, and so on, every second of the day. I refuse to answer the phone during dinner. I do my best to not tweet and drive (although I have been known to sneak a peak at email during a red light). I don’t check my phone during business meetings and I will never incorporate twitter-speak in my daily conversations. Really, how much longer does it take to say “laugh out loud” rather than the ignoble “LOL”?

But being without any immediate means to contact my children, keep abreast of the news, find the address of that delightful trattoria I heard about, confirm the train schedule, pull up the car rental agreement, get directions from my hotel to the airport, find my husband in a crowded conference center, watch the season of the Good Wife I had downloaded for entertainment, confirm what year Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, or (and here’s my secret addiction) get my daily horoscope, well, life as I knew it was deeply altered.

The most pressing concern was not being in constant contact with my teenaged children. As it stands, we call,  email, and text each other any number of times during the day. Most of it is logistical: confirming pick ups, dinner schedules, forgotten homework. Some of it is educational. I’ll send them articles they might find interesting or text ideas for an essay one of them has to write. What really matters are those rare sentiments they pass on in a fit of gratitude or to warm me up for some later request. I don’t care why they send them, I save every “ILU” and smiley face they deign to throw my way.

That said, I knew the kids would be fine. They were in good hands with my in-laws who graciously flew out from the East Coast for a little grandparent/grandchild bonding time. As for work, I had made it clear I was taking a vacation, a real vacation, and would not be available.

It was all of the other little things I found daunting. How would I find my way from one point to the next? How would I know what restaurant to try if I couldn’t consider the reviews online? How would I research the history of the Verona Arena? What if I needed to contact my husband? I began to ask myself, how did we do it before?

When I was nineteen, I traveled for two months around Europe and then stayed for a semester in France. I spent a full year researching the trip including, where to stay, what to see, how to get from one place to the next. I planned meeting points with friends and had back up alternatives if we missed each other. I scheduled weekly phone calls with my parents and I knew where the American embassy was in each city to which I was traveling in case of emergency. Of course, the moment I arrived, I threw out all of my plans and spent the next six months delighting in the unexpected.

And here I was twenty years later, unintentionally doing the very same thing. Talk about a life book-end.

The first challenge came when I had to drive from the hotel through Verona to the conference center where I was to meet my husband. We didn’t get the expensive navigation system Hertz offered because I knew I would have my phone. oops. Now, I had to buy a map and figure out the way all on my own.

When I got lost, I had to stop and ask for directions. At the gas station, the attendant didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian. Together, after much laughing and gesticulating, I finally figured out what he was trying to tell me (left, right, left, and so on). Before I went on my way, the attendant kissed both my cheeks, looked me in the eyes, and said, “buona fortuna!” It wasn’t life changing, but we’d had a moment; one that still makes me smile.

The next day, while my husband was working (the excuse around which we planned this trip), I ventured out to discover the town. With my phone, I would have looked up all manner of information (the history of the city, the best sites to see, where to have lunch).

Instead, I let my feet take me. I found a church on a side street where excavations revealed a pre-Roman temple. At a nearby clothing store (can’t be in Italy and not shop!), I learned of a trattoria off the tourist path, one they claimed only the locals knew about. It was up the hill above town. I lunched on the freshest spaghetti al pomodoro I have ever tasted while overlooking the medieval city tourists visit for a look-see of Juliet’s balcony.

It was at dinner the next night that brought it all home to me. My husband had not lost his phone, but he had managed to lose his ATM card. After enjoying our meal on the veranda of a small restaurant overlooking Lake Garda, he googled his bank’s emergency contact number, called them to report it missing, and then decided to check his email and text the kids. He wasn’t trying to be rude, he was doing what I would have been doing if my phone had been by my side.

Here is what I realized, cell phones are both a blessing and a curse. My husband was lucky to be able to immediately contact his bank halfway around the world. If he hadn’t, we may well have suffered financial effects. But it was the seduction of all of the many other things his phone could do which distracted him from the moment, the moment we had been looking forward to for oh-so long. I reached over and said, “Hey, let’s go on a digital diet together” and we did.

Enjoying Ourselves On Our Digital Diet

Now that we are home and my phone, which was found and sent back to me, is part of my daily life again, I am more conscious than ever of the myriad of ways smart phones are changing our lives. Some for good, others for bad. We will never be the same now that this small miracle of technology has become an essential part of our world.

The challenge we face is to find that place where this “essential tool” is useful and not destructive. Like all diets, this requires awareness and self-control, things I’m not particularly good at. Are you?

If you would like to go on a digital diet, you might consider reading “The Art of Focus: 5 Ways to Free Yourself From Digital Dependency” for Gwarlingo.Or, you could simply lose your phone…


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