Hold the Phone: What It's Like Not to Own a Cell Phone

The other day I went to see David Sedaris. I don't get out much, so I was very excited. The theater was packed full of people with snazzy duds and sharp-looking hair-dos. It was a hip crowd, one that presumably had a sense of humor so of course, I strained hard to hear what they had to say.

I leaned to my left where a gorgeous couple sat spotlit in the glow of their cell phones; they didn't say one word to one another, but they looked fabulous. The group sitting in front of me passed their phones around, posing for photographs and commenting on the photos they took. The people to the right complained -- in a wry and eloquent tone, as if spouting witticisms at a cocktail party -- about their reception.

When he came onstage, David Sedaris was a tiny figure wearing what I assumed to be dark pants and a white shirt, standing behind a podium. We had cheap seats and from where I sat, all I could make out was a white dot floating behind a microphone. The room was dark except for the many little glowing screens floating in the foreground, bright rectangles repeating the same white dot in miniature. I love Sedaris and I'd put what he does near the top of my list of things that make the world a better place, but it struck me as some kind of messed-up mind-trip to be sitting in a room full of people watching a barely visible man read about his life from a book through their little pocket playthings.

When people find out that I do not own a cell phone on purpose, they can move quickly from sympathy to scorn. I see it in their eyes: Suddenly, I've got some freaky social disease. They back slowly away before I infect them with whatever is wrong with me.

Other people think it's sort of cute -- charming as a rotary dial, endearing as your great grandmother's doily collection -- not really the kind of cute you want in your house but a curious oddity you are glad to know. "This is my friend Anna who doesn't own a cell phone. Isn't that adorable?"

Others are full of concern. "Your poor family!" they gasp. "How do they get ahold of you?" No matter what I say to assure them that communication without a cell phone is possible, they continue to shake their heads and sigh, full of pity for my abandoned children and my poor, neglected man.

Still others treat my cell phonelessness as some kind of over-the-top political or metaphysical thing, an extravagant and all-consuming stance like living in a commune or being a low-carb-gluten-free vegan or wearing hair shirts and sleeping on a bed of nails or standing on a street corner wearing a sandwich board that declares "God is Dead but Google's Got You." "Good for you," they mutter with disgust, and then quickly change the subject.

You may think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. My cell phonelessness, which was OK 10 years ago, is no longer neutral. It's become abnormal, antisocial, and a threat to others. Cell phones are no longer just a choice you might make, like deciding whom to vote for or choosing not to have children or plastic vs. paper. According to the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of American adults now have cell phones, and in the last couple years I've noticed the mania ratcheting up to a full-blown obsession. People work, sleep, walk, and drive with their cell phones. Each year, cell phones play a part in more than 1.6 million car crashes. Forty-four percent of cell phone owners sleep with it next to their bed so they don't miss any calls or texts during the night. They take them out during movies, in the middle of conversations, and even during sex. Sixty-seven percent of cell phone owners check their phones even when they haven't rung. I can no longer simply agree to meet a friend at a place on a certain date without confirming on the phone several times, and if we do manage to meet up, their phone will inevitably be involved in our discussion.

I really don't get it, but when people say they can't live without a cell phone, I'm willing to believe it's true. Probably, they need it for work. Although I have been lucky so far (knock on wood), things like hurricanes and motor malfunctions and violent civil rights infringements do happen, and if this kind of drama isn't hypothetical in their lives, they should certainly have those phones and my sympathy, too. Maybe they have no home to hang a phone in. Maybe people really do need to be talking or available to talk all the time. Perhaps sometimes, texting really is more important than holding the steering wheel. Clearly most people seem to agree on this, so I'm willing to play along.

But I don't need a cell phone.

Still, for my birthday one year, my husband gave me one. While he showed me how it worked, I just smiled and nodded, trying not to say what came to mind, like where's the button for a foot massage, because that's something I could really use and if you want to know where I am at all times, couldn't I be fitted with a subcutaneous global positioning device instead? Sensing my suppression, he asserted that even homeless people have cell phones. I thought, if I was homeless he'd probably get me a necktie, but I held my tongue because I knew that this was supposed to be a loving gesture from my generous man and that maybe, just maybe, it could bring us closer.

The next day, when the phone rang, it nearly scared me to death. "Hello?" I gasped.

"Hi. It's me," he said. "What're you doing?"

"I'm driving the girls to school like I do at this time every day. Or I was driving until the phone rang and I had to pull over to dig it out of my bag. Why? What's the matter?"

"Nothing. I just wanted to see if it worked."

OK, so my first time on the cell phone wasn't transformative. The earth didn't shake, I didn't see fireworks. Maybe it just took practice. But every time the phone rang, it was the same: updates, reports, reminders, things that might be simply remembered (do we remember how to remember?) or left on an answering machine and dealt with later, at my leisure. Standing in a public place with a phone to my ear sharing my one-sided conversation with the world made me feel like a faker with a fancy prop, like Maxwell Smart with his shoe-phone, not powerful or connected at all but rather obnoxious and harried and vaguely ridiculous. So I stopped remembering to recharge it and eventually he got the message and took the phone back to the store.

Sure, a cell phone would be nice in an emergency, but still, I somehow manage to survive. A phone is like a baby barging in, regardless of where I am (on the toilet, in the middle of a juicy conversation, driving my kids to school) and demanding immediate attention. The cell phone is a cranky little boss that screams, Me, me, me! Now! Now!

Look. I promise you, my not having a cell phone is not going to hurt anyone. In fact, you might take some comfort from people like me (and Christopher Walken, Werner Herzog, and of course David Sedaris) who don't do cell phones. When you think you might die because you forgot to recharge your battery, when your teenager is expelled from school for texting the answers to the test or when some stranger sends you an unsolicited dick-pic, when GPS fails and your have to *gasp* pull out a map or ask someone how to get there, you can remember my story and know that you will survive. And if you get caught screening your calls, you can say, hey, at least I'm not like that weirdo who doesn't even own a cell phone.

I won't paint a mental picture of a world where people no longer know how to function without their devices, where people move only if guided by a cell phone at arm's length (or strapped to their wrists or their faces), where we're bombarded with personalized advertisements 24/7, where we speak in sound bytes and acronyms and never leave the house, just sit staring deeply at pixelated faces and words on a screen; a sci-fi scenario where, if you lost your phone, you'd lose your friends, your memories, your mind, and your life. I won't enumerate what we really risk losing: mistakes, fearlessness, synchronicity, depth, nuance, sensuality, memory, getting lost in your own mind, the present tense and an awareness of the to the real-life repercussions of our words.

I won't bring up other concerns like the fact that we still don't know how cell phones affect your brain (studies are inconclusive). And I know you don't like to think about how Big Brother (the government, Google, Facebook, etc.) is using your phone to monitor and profit from your every move. I promise not to point out how scary that is or wonder aloud if it's really worth it to sacrifice principles for convenience or ask if you really feel more connected than you did before you had a cell phone.

But fear isn't the reason I don't have a phone, just as fear hasn't compelled me to buy one. I simply prefer to be doing what I'm doing when I'm doing it. I think I'd always choose sex over sexting and I'd rather talk than text. The time I spend with the people in my life feels precious and rare and I don't like to be interrupted.

Yes, I agree cell phones can be fun and useful, but I still don't think I need one in order to exist.

But if you do, that's cool. You're cool. Yes, that smart phone is brilliant. And if I ever have a real emergency, maybe I can borrow it for a second?