While many aspects of daily life (clothes and dish washing, transportation, communication and food acquisition, etc.) in First World countries are, arguably, easier than ever before, one thing is more difficult now than at any other point in human history: unplugging.
Charging cords litter our floors, headphones sprout from the ears of passersby, outlets are cluttered with plugs, TVs light up the walls of every McDonald’s, sports bar, laundromat and service station, and cell phones bulge in the pockets of teenaged girls and buttoned-down businessmen alike.
It takes a rare storm, or an even rarer burst of willpower, to walk away from the 24/7 surge of connectedness that permeates every facet of our society.
These days, a modern-day Thoreau would need to locate a retreat much further afield than Walden Pond to find solitude and contemplation, it probably goes without saying.
Being a decidedly low-tech person already (I’m not necessarily proud of that; I’m scheming to have my daughter teach me everything she knows before she departs for college next fall, lest I lag in the 20th century for the rest of my natural life), it seemed reasonable to leave the cell phone behind when heading for an extended trip to Italy and Croatia this past summer.
After all, we’d be traveling with a group, whose leader had an international cell phone and ready computer access for emergencies, and wasn’t the point to absorb local culture and relax rather than stay in the loop on everyday stressors?
So, upon arriving at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport that July morning, my husband and I scanned our respective cell phones one last time for any urgent communication that might have rolled our way before turning off the phones and stashing them in the glove compartment.
Strangely, I felt somewhat naked, even as I hauled a suitcase, oversized carry-on, purse and jacket through the parking garage toward the terminal.
The habit of patting my pocket or outer purse compartment to verify the phone’s presence was rendered obsolete, and I tried to focus on the whereabouts of e-tickets and passports rather than worry about the absence of a silly cell phone.
Hadn’t I made it all the way to my 40s without a ready-made communication device on my person? I’m of the generation that waited in long lines at pizza joints to use a phone to ask for rides home on cold Saturday nights (somehow, someone usually answered), acted nonchalant while having deep conversations on the lone hall phone in college residence halls as 30 other students passed by at unexpected intervals and watched from my hospital bed as my husband called our parents on a hallway payphone to announce the birth of our first child.
Spending 12 days in Europe without a cell phone? Not a challenge.
But I hadn’t counted on psychological dependency.
After a smooth and uneventful flight to Rome, the sightseeing immediately began. There we were, walking ancient cobblestoned streets en route to the Trevi Fountain, immersed in the steamy heat of that remarkable Italian city with bobbleheads of Julius Caesar nodding to me from every souvenir shop window, when I felt it.
A vibration near my right hip, just at the spot where my phone usually rested in my pocket, demanded my attention.
I slapped my leg, reached for my phone and came up with….nothing.
“Ha, ha,” I laughed nervously to myself, remembering the phone was safely locked in a Dodge Caravan halfway around the world from where I stood.
But later, unmistakably, I felt it again–that familiar tremor, even as we neared the Pantheon in all its historic wonder.
Strolling through the marvels of the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, even the Sistine Chapel, I was haunted not only by the ghosts of long-dead Roman emperors, popes and slaves but also by the phantom vibrations of my Samsung cell phone.
Feeling like an idiot, but relaxed with a plate of pasta and a glass of house red at dinner, I confided to my companions about being stalked by my cell.
Sheepishly, my husband and at least two other adults admitted to having experienced the same sensation.
Taylor Swift’s advice to shake it off is harder than it sounds. Unplug? Go ahead and try.