Can A Would Be Bodhitsattva Justify A Cell Phone?

posted January 14, 2005

I officially hate cell phones. Not my cell phone. Your cell phone. My cell phone, I love and adore. And I spend way too much money on it. I have one of those unlimited plans where I can talk for two hundred and fifty thousand minutes per month, anywhere in the solar system and be charged a reasonable flat fee of a hundred and fifty dollars. My cell phone is also a camera, a word processor, a modem, a complete address book, a video game aficionado, an mp3 Player and most amusingly (I’m not kidding) a meditation timer, complete with yin yang symbol. I think it does the dishes too, but having destroyed one cell phone by accidentally flushing it down the toilet, I haven’t checked that last feature out yet. I have a charger to keep it juiced up on the road, and on several occasions I have refused to rent a car because the cigarette lighter AKA the input for my phone charger was non functional.

To keep from being arrested in New York, I have a hands free headset —many, actually since they break every month, and I factor that into the yearly costs. I assure my mother, who doesn’t like the combination of cell phones and automobiles on principle, that I always have a least one at a time that works. I have a little belt pack for my cell phone so I can go jogging and not have to have a pocket to put the phone in. God forbid I actually HOLD the phone. I go everywhere with the cell phone attached to my waistband and the hands free headset implanted in my ear. People think I’ve escaped from a mental institution because I will be walking through the park or down the streets of Northampton, the cell phone hidden beneath my coat, the headset hidden beneath my hat, chatting away to no one. Probably too loudly, since people who talk on cell phones always talk too loudly. And I really may be talking to no one. If no one answers, I leave long messages on the person’s voice mail. (Sometimes I listen to my own voice mail, but on those occasions I am not talking, just listening.)

Did I mention my cell phone is occasionally a novel? Or a self help book. I can download novels or any books and read them on the tiny screen, scrolling with my thumbs. I can also download audio books and be read to, which I vastly prefer. Right now I am listening to Anna Karenina. It’s a good book, but sometimes I get confused about what’s going on because I forget to reset the feature on the mp3 player from Shuffle (which works nicely when you’re listening to a mix of your favorite songs, but not so nicely when you’re dealing with two hundred and forty different chapters.)

One day right before Christmas, I went to Whole Foods to listen to Anna Karenina and do some last minute holiday shopping. I wore my coat and hat and tied my scarf over my face and hoped no one would recognize me so I could enjoy my bubble-like nineteenth century Russian escape in peace. Even though I love having a cell phone so I can stay in touch with all my friends, I don’t always like to actually see them. I prefer to keep them all safely within my address book. I am very committed to my address book. I have the name, birthday, address and at least three phone numbers for seven hundred of my nearest and dearest. But at Whole Foods two days before Christmas, I had to keep pressing pause on my cell phone—no small feat since the tiny pause button doubles as the 6 key and is hidden not only under my coat and attached to my waistband but also underneath the sheath of belt pack. I ran into three different people I knew, all of whom thought I was either rude or deaf for not hearing them when they said my name loudly.

“People shouldn’t say hi to you,” said my friend Annie, way too kindly. “They should know if they see you wearing enough layers in Whole Foods to keep you from freezing in the next ice age that maybe you don’t like to be bothered.”

But the thing is, I do like to be bothered. I must. Why else would I have the cell phone attached at the hip?

As I said before, what I don’t like is other people’s cell phones. Like, for instance, my fiance Tom’s cell phone. Now that I’m home more than I am on the road, the pleasures of having his virtual presence just a couple of buttons away wanes with the ugly reality that all of his other friends now have that same facility, while I, the woman in the kitchen with him, am rendered obsolete by my very presence. So when I came into the house with bags of groceries from Whole Foods to find him talking on the phone to some horrible person who was making him laugh and murmur sympathetic sounds, I put the groceries away as noisily and resentfully as I could and stood in the kitchen with my hands on my hips. When he didn’t respond, continuing his dreadful conversation, I whipped out my cell phone.

“Hold on a sec,” he said to the hateful person he was conversing with and pressed a button. “Hello?”

“Hi,” I said. “Um, I just wanted you to know, they were out of the kind of yogurt you like.”

I am watching a movie called Siddhartha, based on the Hermann Hesse book. In it, young Siddhartha has journeyed a long way by foot and stops to sleep in a convenient hut that has appeared next to a river. In the morning, a kind ferryman comes to wake him and says, “You have been asleep a long time. Here is a drink of water.” Sid drinks the water, and the ferryman proceeds to take him across the river.

“I have no home,” says Sid. “I cannot pay you.”

“Ehn,” says the Ferryman. “Don’t worry. I’ll catch you later. Pay me when you can.” Or something to that effect.

That’s when I stopped watching the film, because I had a group of writers come to my house at that point and I had to heat up the plum/cherry pie. But I kept thinking about how different life was then. First of all, that you could wander around (without a cell phone) and just kind of fall asleep in a strange place and not fear for your life. Second, that you could generally count on people to be friendly. Third, that people would share their water, which was often hard to come by. Fourth, (and now we’re deviating quite a distance from the film) that if you lived somewhere other than India where it was cold, just how much of your time you would have to spend keeping warm through the winter. You’d have to constantly chop wood to keep the fire burning to stay warm all day and all of the night (to quote the Kinks). Chop wood carry water. Walk long distances to connect with others, and because of this, people would be happy to see you when you showed up at their house instead of bothered; happy because they were lonely and you provided an interruption to their loneliness. So when you said, “I can’t pay you for your favors,” people said, “well, that’s ok. You’ve given me a purpose to the day, and I know it’ll all work itself out eventually. You’ve done me a favor just by showing up.”

Cell phones aim to minimize the distance. If I’m thinking of you, and I have my cell phone attached to my waistband (as I always do), I can call you right away and let you know that I love you. But does that mean that I do? No. Because first of all, maybe you’re like me and sometimes don’t want to be bothered. Or maybe I’m like me and sometimes want to live in my mp3 world where I control the shuffle of Anna Karenina and my fifteen hundred favorite songs.

When I’m driving in the car with Katryna, and she’s on the phone with her husband, Dave, and I’m on my phone with Tom, Katryna and I are continents apart. When one of us is on the phone and the other one isn’t, the other one gets testy (ok, Katryna doesn’t so much, but I do.) As a childless person, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve called a friend who has a baby, and while we’re talking, the baby won’t stop crying. The friend inevitably says, “I don’t know why the baby is crying like this! He never cries like this!”

I know why. That baby is smart. That baby knows perfectly well that his mother’s attention is diverted to that strange contraption wedged between her head and her shoulder. He knows she’s miles away.

I am definitely not calling for a ban on cell phones. After all I’ve invested in my own? And I have had countless precious conversations on that phone—conversations that would not have occurred otherwise. Moreover, back in the Dark Ages of 1987, when cell phones weighed as much as two phone books, I was rescued from a horrible car accident on the Connecticut Turnpike by a swanky business woman who was riding the wave of the future. But the conundrum reminds me of a New Yorker-esque cartoon that I would draw if I had the talent, of a couple in bed. The woman is reading a book called How To Save Your Marriage and the man is nuzzling her. The woman’s speech bubble says, “As soon as I finish this chapter, dear.”

The Comments

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  1. Nerissa, I just woke my sister up I’m laughing so hard! Your cell phone sounds like it could morph into a rescue boat or helicopter if you needed one!! I am strongly averted to other people’s cell phones as well…but after living in LA for 3 years, I now can’t live without mine…it is my connection to friends who are thousands of miles away. I just spent 2 hours from the Delaware Mem Bridge to little Ramsey, NJ on the phone with a friend I miss desperately…made the 2 hours pass so quickly…made me miss her a little less.

    But now I want a cell phone that plays songs and reads me books!
    See you Saturday…
    love, Kris

  2. What a super post, Nerissa! I was laughing outloud!

    It reminds me of a story my dad loved to tell when we lived in VT — it was about an old Vermonter who had no phone. A young man convinces the elder to get a phone, telling him how convenient it will be for the old man. But then the young man becomes frustrated because every time he calls no one answers. So one day the young man visits the old man — while they’re sitting on the porch the phone rings and rings and the old man makes no move to answer. The young man asks him about this and the elder says, “I got the phone for my convenience … not yours.”

    The Kinks referrance reminded me of something Charlotte said over Christmas. The Kinks “Christmas song” was on the radio and Charlotte insisted it was, “The Kinks and Mary in Bethlehem singing.”


  3. Nerissa,

    I hate cell phones too. I swore for years that I would never get one. However, after being stuck at the train station with no way to get home one too many times, I decided it was worth the investment. (However, I rarely have mine on and use it mostly for outgoing calls.) I felt like I was “selling out” when I bought the cell phone because I had vowed for so long that cell phones (not pants) were the enemy.
    So, in an attempt to stay “outside the box” despite selling out to mainstream America, I named my cell phone: Harriet, after a pet hamster I had as a child. Although some people name their houses, cars, bikes, musical instruments, and computers, I don’t think too many people name their cell phones!
    By the way, does your guitar have a name? I just started playing guitar a few months ago, and I decided to name it Deedee (after one of the first chords I learned!) I can play a few songs now, including some that you wrote. The one I’m best at is “When I’m Here.”
    See you in a few weeks!


  4. How did you manage to flush your cellphone down the toilet?

    I think that someday soon I’ll be listening to an interview with a musician, and he or she will say, “Yeah, I recorded, mixed, and edited my new album on my cellphone.”

    Also, the writer Peter David suggested that homeless people should be given hands-free cellphones to wear at all times. That way, if they’re talking to themselves out loud, people won’t assume they’re crazy.


  5. “I got the phone for MY convenience.”

    Melissa, I love that joke! My grandpa used to tell it, and he sounds exactly like the old-timer in the Pepperidge Farm ads.

    Nerissa, I adored the story about you calling Tom from the kitchen he was standing in! Thanks for belly laughs today.


  6. What I got out of this Posting is: “Cell phones are a bother sometimes but now that we all have them there is no going back”. That’s what I believe Nerissa is trying to say without using those words.
    I would have never gotten a cell phone if I was not so much in love with a beautiful young woman I met at a show one summer night. She lived over 100 miles away from me, so the cell phone was a way that I could hear her voice everyday. She’s gone now and the cell phone, {and contract} remain.
    Thanks Nerissa. Keep warm and see you on tour.

  7. It is a real hard thing to be sepperated from my cell phone, Working at three mile island nuclear plant they dont like them, mine doesnt work there well anyway but I trot out to the car to check messages. Im hooked! glad that Ill be done there soon


  8. “Can A Would Be Bodhitsattva Justify A Cell Phone?”

    You can try, but I think the true answer is the one you’ve been working at avoiding all along: No.

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