I Used to Own a Phone (but now the phone owns me?)…

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What’s the longest you’ve gone without your cell phone?

Anymore it seems that our phones are also our internet portals – so maybe the question I should be asking is how long have you gone without the internet and your mobile phone? Here’s the reason I ask: I just went two weeks without turning on my phone/internet portal. And you know what? It wasn’t all that hard to do.

Now there was a time that feat wouldn’t have seemed so astonishing. We used to do all sorts of things, for hours, days or even weeks at a stretch, without checking the phone that was to become the omnipresent occupant of our pocket or purse.

For me my favorite “didn’t have a phone with me” story is about driving across country back to California after I got out of the service.

In 1986, when nearly every phone in existence was still firmly affixed to a wall by a wire, I was discharged from an Air Force base on the East Coast. My destination upon said discharge was the West Coast. At the time the only vehicle I owned was a very small, very old English sports car.

To say that car was intermittently reliable would be more than generous.

And when the day came to begin the 2,500 mile journey to my next destination I climbed in my little car, fired up its antiquated motor (which still had the option of starting via hand crank) and pointed it west.

Five days, two break downs and one sleepless night later I rolled into the town of Morgan Hill, California. That’s an adventure I will never forget. And it’s one that, in no way shape or form, involved a cell phone.

And while now that seems like an absolutely unthinkable thing to do without a mobile phone handy, the truth is we used to do it all the time – remember?

We used to go long stretches of time without pulling out our cell phones and calling someone, or taking a call, or looking up the weather, or driving directions, or videos of people getting hit in the crotch with golf balls, or, well, you get the idea.

And look, I’m not one of those “everything was better in the past” type people who believe the world has grown steadily worse in inverse relation to the amount of birthdays they’ve accrued, but I have to say – not turning on a cell phone or getting online for the last two weeks has taught me something:

We get online and use our cell phones way too much.

Now that’s not to say we don’t need our phones – of course there are times when we absolutely need them. Like say for example that time a while back when my kid broke down on the freeway in San Francisco during rush hour traffic – that was a time I was more than grateful to have a portable phone in my pocket. He got ahold of me and Loretta and we bailed him out of a bad spot before it had the chance to become a worse spot.

But how about other times? Like those times when someone is talking to you and yet you glance at your phone. Why do we do that? Didn’t that used to be rude? So when did rude become not rude?

And the reason we divert our attention to our phones, even though someone may be right in front of us and fully deserving of that attention, is that we feel we’re going to miss something.

But what are we really going to miss? An email with an offer for our dream job? A phone call from a long lost, very rich, dying relative?

Uh, no.

Based upon going 14 days without checking my phone I can tell you exactly what you might miss:

About 11 emails selling weight loss diets, 13 selling antidepressants, and 7 selling male enhancement pills (do all guys get these or is it just me?) and 3 emails offering deals in Ireland – and how creepy is it that the Internet knew I was in Ireland? Oh, and I even got messages telling me I’d won the Nigerian Lottery. Twice.

When I finally checked voice mail it was about the same story. The messages I feared might be there were not – you know, like the fire department calling to say the house burned down, or the IRS calling to say they’d like to chat about my last 3 tax returns.

What I actually had were a couple of random missed calls and a friend or two wishing me a fun time in Ireland.

And after all that here’s the analogy I’ve landed on: The phone and the internet are like the envelopes I get from my mail carrier – the vast majority of it is junk. And while that might be great for keeping the Post Office in business, it doesn’t improve my lot in life one iota.

I mean I don’t rush to open those “Mr. Gavin or current resident” envelopes, and I certainly wouldn’t open one as a real live human in front of me was trying to convey a thought.

So why do I do the same with the stuff on my phone?

The short answer is I don’t want to anymore.

But I have to tell you the weirdest thing happened when my plane touched down in San Francisco. When I turned my phone back on – after being off for two whole weeks – and watched it fill up with the emails and voice messages and text notifications, I started to fall back into the old habit.

You know the one, where you use the phone as a sort of distraction as you pretend that all the things happening on it somehow require your immediate attention.

And then it occurred to me that my phone is, much of the time, just that: a distraction. One that keeps me from being fully present where I am; keeps me from living totally in the moment; keeps me distracted.

Here’s to putting down our phones and living in the moment. And while my moment was two weeks long – I’m about to see if I can make it a little longer.

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Do you know where you’re going to?

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One night, a few years back, I had an interesting thing happen to me.

I was on a freeway – Hwy 99 in California’s Central Valley – heading home from Sacramento to Turlock. Turlock is where I lived then and though I don’t now recall what I was doing in Sacramento, I do recall this: It was a good hour and a half drive to get home from there.

I also recall that it was winter, because of the cold misty fog that was all over the road that night. But since I was in my truck – a big Dodge with an extended cab and heated seats – the cold and the fog didn’t mean much to me.

It’s funny, when you have a motorcycle; it makes you fully appreciate – in a way that’s hard to describe – a truck with heated seats on a cold winter’s night. I recall some nights riding my bike down that same freeway, in the cold, in the fog, wishing hard that I was already sitting home by the fire.

My bike is a BMW which, of course, makes other BMW’s particularly noticeable. So when I was heading south on 99 in my truck that night and started to come up on a motorcycle with very familiar looking features, I could tell pretty quick it was a Beemer like mine. But I could tell something else too: Though I could clearly see this guy’s tail light, it looked as though his head light wasn’t on.

And that’s not a good problem to have on a motorcycle at night.

Well I guess there’s probably no good problem to have on a motorcycle at night, but of all the possible problems, it’s among the worst. I know because it’s happened to me. And when it does happen, and it’s cold and dark outside, and you’re going freeway speeds but can’t really see what’s ahead of you, it can be pretty spooky.

At that point you have very few choices. The first, and probably best, choice is to pull over and shut the bike off. But if you’re a long way from home, and you don’t have whatever replacement part might be needed on you to fix your headlight then, well, you’re a long way from home with no way to get there.

Another choice is you just keep going and pull in behind a car and use his headlights to see what’s coming.

So I pulled my truck up next to the guy on the Beemer and matched his speed. I knew he couldn’t really look over at me as he needed to keep his head forward and his eyes on the precious little he could see. But I wanted to show him I was matching his speed before I pulled in front of him into his lane, which I then did.

So as I slightly sped up and pulled into the slow lane in front of the lightless motorcycle I settled in at about what speed I thought he could comfortably do, and settled in for the slow steady drive ahead.

I knew I couldn’t make any lane changes. I knew I couldn’t really speed up – and definitely couldn’t suddenly slow down. So for about next hour I drove down the freeway with one eye ahead of me and the other on the lightless motorcycle in my rearview mirror.

I guess that’s my way of saying that sometimes we’re leading in life, and sometimes we’re following. Some of you know that I started writing for the Herald back in June of 2011. What you might not know is this: At that time I was a refugee from the housing market crash. My industry had pretty much died on the vine, and I was scrambling to find what little stems of it were still alive.

I’d left Turlock to chase job opportunities – or what I thought were opportunities – which is how I’d ended up in Benicia. And in Benicia, on May 2nd of 2011, my last job in my withering industry shriveled up and died.

And it became time to write…