Unplugging (At Least a Little Bit)

I’ve seen many an article in which the writer talks about how he or she has gotten rid of smart phones permanently, and I’ll have to say that I’m not one of those people. Believe me, I fought even getting an iPhone much longer than is normal for a so-called millennial, but I finally got one three years ago. I don’t play games on it (although I did at first), and I’m not the type of person who has to have the latest version. I like it for the convenience of being able to take snapshots and videos of my kids and check my email on the run and make phone calls and look up obscure trivia all in one device. But that also doesn’t mean that I’m glued to my phone all day. My rule is that I simply don’t use it at all if ever I wake up in the middle of the night (unless, of course, I get an emergency call or text). It’s easy for me to ignore it. In fact, there are some times when I am so busy that I’ll got 12 hours without doing more than checking the time.

But then there are those other people who can’t pull themselves away from whichever device is their vice of choice (and see how “vice” is already there in “device” – it’s like it was planned that way). These people check their email if they happen to wake up at three A.M. They play Farmville at their children’s band concerts or ballet recitals. They talk through the checkout line at the grocery store and text while driving. A lot of this comes down to a lack of common sense as well as courtesy – blog topics for another day.

The iPhone isn’t my problem, anyway. We have a semi-joke in our house about “my” MacBook. We bought this computer almost four years ago when my husband went back to school. At the time, I thought it would be great to have after he graduated, in addition to our desktop model. And for the longest time, I didn’t do much with it. He took it to class, typed term papers on it – was even typing one in the hospital room when our second son was born – but then… well, I kind of took it over after he graduated. (Don’t worry – I did get him an iPad mini to make up for stealing his tech.) By that point, our desktop computer was on it’s last legs, but I wasn’t worried about replacing it – the MacBook was more than adequate. It’s where I do everything from this blog to typing my NaNoWriMo novels to doing my freelance work to editing photos and creating photo books (for me and for clients). I’ve taken it on every vacation since we bought it, including Disney World, and I’ll even carry it in the car to work on projects if it’s a ride of 30 minutes or more (and when I’m not driving, obviously).

But this weekend I’m going to leave it at home.

That’s right – I’m letting go! My in-laws are taking the kids Friday after school through Monday – the longest I’ve gone childless since November 5, 2007. And this time, instead of my husband working half the nights they’re away, we’ve actually booked a room at my friend’s bed and breakfast – a first for us. My elder son was shocked to hear that we’re going to be doing fun stuff, too. And here’s something really different for me, the planner: we don’t have a plan. We’re going to go and just do nothing – or anything. And I’m not taking the laptop. I’m not going to write at all. Now, it’s only going to be for one night, but these are baby steps, folks. While I love writing, my husband can tell you that sitting down to innocently write a scene turns into balancing the budget for an hour and editing for Fiction Fix and any number of other computer-related distractions. We’ll take our phones (and probably the iPad) so we can FaceTime our kids and watch Netflix to our hearts’ content. I’ve been so busy lately that I refuse to go on a vacation only to do more of the same while paying extra for the room. (And see – I’m even posting this blog early just to make sure I’m distraction-free.)

We’ll have our books and a new-to-us area to explore. It’s going to be the perfect pair-of-introverts weekend.

When Is It Okay to Have?

English: The iPad on a table in the Apple case

iPad in an Apple case (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, a small group of friends and I pondered when it’s okay to not just want but to have new things. We live in a commercially-driven, consumer culture, in which to have is often portrayed as the greatest good. To not have… Well, what’s the point of living if you don’t have the latest and greatest thing?

There has always been a disparity between the haves and the have-nots, but in a nation when even the poorest of us can have a free cell phone and access to computer technology through public libraries, it’s easy to mistake great strides in progress with a feeling of entitlement to those things progress provides.

Trying to pinpoint when our culture made this shift, I automatically thought of the iPod, the iMac, the iPhone, and the iPad, just to name a few. Now, I enjoy my Apple products, but why the focus on “i”? The way we treat these commodities as if we can’t function without the latest version, I think the more fitting prefix would be “my.”

But the problem has been around much longer than that. When was it that women decided that the fancier the diamond ring, the more they’re truly loved? When did it become not just okay but common practice to take out a second or third mortgage in order to pay for a wedding? When did we allow our children to become miniature dictators about their birthday celebrations, pitching fits amidst balloons, presents, and pony rides because it’s still not enough? When did we start labeling entrees that could easily feed two or three as a single meal, convincing consumers that normal portions are not enough?

Have I touched a nerve yet? Even those of us who strive to live more simply can’t help but be affected because we live in the middle of Overabundance and Overindulgence Central. And when the extreme becomes the norm, you look like the odd one out when you try to reclaim the former, simpler ways.

Simpler does not mean easier, by the way. Nowadays, for example, it’s a real fight to encourage kids to be creative on their own, without the influence of TV. Yet we have fancy flatscreens with hundreds of channels and DVRs to record all the shows that we cannot live without. We think about the joys of living in harmony with nature, maybe off the grid in a little cabin. And as long as that cabin comes equipped with wifi, well and good because God knows it’s going to get boring listening to yourself think too much.

I am just as guilty as anyone else, which is probably why I’m coming down so hard. While I’ve never been a technological pioneer (I’d rather let someone else figure out the glitches first), I have succumbed to the “i” fever and feel practically naked if I leave my house without my MacBook and my iPhone. I own ridiculous winter clothes that I either choose to wear in the heat (because I live in Florida) or that I refuse to get rid of because it snowed here in 1989, so it could happen again any time, right? I dream about a five-bedroom house, yet we’re a family of four. I don’t dream about cleaning all that extra space, of course, but wouldn’t it be nice for each of the kids to have his own room, plus a spare for guests, and an extra one for an office or just storage for all my – gulp – junk?

There is something addictive about wanting more. And simply getting more does not solve the problem. It’s the pursuit that drives us. It’s the difference between those who work 60 hours a week in order to pay the bills and those who work all that extra to be able to acquire more stuff that they don’t need.

My friend was worried about her desire for an iPad. Everyone has one, right? She salivates over them, while chastising herself at the same time because the money for an iPad could be money toward a good cause. Should we never get anything we want? Should we sell all our possessions to help the poor and take a vow of poverty to make things more fair? And what then? We see the iPad we wanted to begin with, salivate over it again, and then feel both envy and an undeserved self-righteousness that we are so good to deny ourselves what we so want.

I think both extremes are dangerous. On the one hand, you have people who obsess over things. They ruin their lives not only by buying what they don’t need, but by continuing to do so to their financial and emotional detriment. On the other hand, you have people who are bitter in their denial of self.

The problem lies in that people don’t care. Or maybe they care too much – about the wrong things. They don’t even try to justify anymore. It would be so easy to say, Once I buy this [fill in the product of your choice], I’ll be more efficient, and I’ll have more time to spend with my family. And that’s a good thing, right? But more often, we say, I want it, therefore I deserve it, and I don’t care what lengths I have to go to in order to get it.

My friends and I came to the quasi-comfortable conclusion that it’s not wrong in and of itself to spend money on a new iPad or a nice outfit or whatever. Sometimes a little gift to yourself can lift your mood, help solve a problem, or keep things on an even keel, so you don’t drown in the extremes.

But before you make that next purchase of whatever it is, think about the purpose your things serve. Or put another way: is the new iPad serving you, or are you serving it?