Friday, October 11, 2013

Quitting our Cult

From Seinfeld Episode 172 :"The Burning" 
(Elaine enters and has a seat.)

ELAINE: Here's one. I borrowed Puddy's car and all the presets on his radio were Christian rock stations.

GEORGE: I like Christian rock. It's very positive. It's not like those real musicians who think they're so cool and hip.

ELAINE: So, you think that Puddy actually believes in something?

JERRY: It's a used car, he probably never changed the presets.

ELAINE: Yes, he is lazy.

JERRY: Plus he probably doesn't even know how to program the buttons.

ELAINE: Yes, he is dumb.

JERRY: So you prefer dumb and lazy to religious?

ELAINE: Dumb and lazy, I understand.

This summer, Jeff and I went to his 20-year high school reunion, and found ourselves hitting it off with the husband of one his classmates. Somehow, it came out in conversation that Hubby and I do not have smart phones. We have, in fact, phones we got four years ago that were somewhat outdated then. They have never been connected to the internet. They have keypads.

We pulled them from our pockets. People pointed and laughed.

"So," said our new friend, "explain to me why you have these. Get me to join your cult. Pretend you're trying to convert me."

It turned out that this man is a designer of hand-held technology and it is his job to make sure his apps are so good that once you get a taste, you can't live without them. So he respected our position in a weird way; he knows this stuff is addictive. We were also great market research; if he could get us to leave our compound, what a triumph it would be for him and the cause of technology in general.

But this is not flattering. I don't want to be a cult member.

My friend Pom's assessment of us isn't particularly palatable either. Pom says we are hipsters. He knows we don't have wi-fi, a tablet, an i-pod or TIVO (or any other kind of dvr); don't stream Netflix; and we only have one computer: our Sony laptop on which I am currently typing, while it is plugged into the wall. We have records and a turntable. And a VCR. (We also have a DVD player, but not blu-ray yet).

But hipsters are counter-cultural for the sake of being counter cultural. We aren't, as I recently told my friend Jana.

"No, you aren't hipsters," she said. "You're just cheap and lazy."

This, while not very flattering either, is more accurate. Like Elaine in the above dialogue, I would rather be cheap and lazy than a religious fanatic.

The most flattering way to describe our position: We like to live simply and frugally. We don't want to constantly get sucked into a screen when we would rather be present in the moment. We don't feel the need to have the world in the palm of our hand. We can thank (or blame, take your pick) our parents for this. We were raised in low-tech families: the last on the block to get call-waiting, cable television and a VCR. The result is our profound ability to delay gratification where technology is concerned.

But I can see we've gone too far. For one thing, our parents now have iphones.

For another, my phone drops calls constantly, and can't read group texts, and generally doesn't function as I try to communicate with other people who have moved to the 21st century.

The no-smart-phone thing has become a very extreme position. And extreme position doesn't flow with my values after all. Though I value my health, I eat moderation. I drink moderation. I watch television...but I limit what and how much I watch.

I don't want to defy my values and become one of those mothers who never looks up during lunch with her kids because busy she's posting on facebook that she's having lunch with her kids. But nor do I want to teach my daughters that the only way to keep from abusing something is to stay away from it altogether.

It's what the apostle Paul in the New Testament called living in the world, but not being of the world; being able to stick to your convictions without needing to isolate yourself from everyone who thinks differently from you. That is the difference between legalism and freedom. The difference between having convictions of faith and joining a cult.

This summer, I took my kids on a 1500 mile road trip by myself this summer and Olivia got really sick, vomiting and with a 104 fever. As I was driving around a strange city looking for a Rite Aid in the dusk, I felt very afraid. What if I got lost, or needed a hospital? It suddenly seemed ridiculous to be so ill-equipped. Was I so afraid of abusing a smart phone that I would put myself in danger instead? Like someone who chose the inefficiency of a horse and buggy because they feared the danger of car accidents? It reminded me of the time a decade ago that I was lost in a seedy part of Santa Ana and searching frantically under my car seat for change so I could call someone for directions from a sticky pay phone. That weekend, I bought my first cell phone.

And this weekend, we're getting our iphones. We have already made a trip to the Verizon store, where a nice salesman laughed riotously when he saw our phones, but tried hard to speak kindly while delivering the bad news that they were worth zilch in recycle credit (no kidding). He also assured us that unlimited data wasn't necessarily as we wouldn't even know how to use it at first.

So watch me, friends, as I take a step into the 21st century, about 13 years late. I appreciate your patience with me. I also have appreciated your laughter every time I've pulled my little turquoise phone from my purse.

An in the future, here's what I would appreciate. If you see me at lunch with my kids playing with my phone instead of them, pull up this blog on your phone, smack me on the back of the head, and hand it to me. I promise to thank you for it. Face to face.