Why I Refuse To Get A Smartphone

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At a bachelorette party earlier this year, I pulled out my mobile device: a hunk of a Verizon LG Cosmos slide dumb-phone with a two-inch display and a single megapixel camera. (Eat your heart out, Zack Morris.) The guest beside me stared, a bit bewildered. When it finally registered that, no, I couldn’t possibly be typing on a Hershey bar, she asked, “Is that a joke?”

From her sincerity, you would think I’d made a lifestyle choice more extreme than simply opting not to carry the Internet in my pocket, like taking a vow of silence or joining the anti-shampoo movement. But I suppose some smartphone devotees would rather be mute or forgo Herbal Essences than lose their constant access. And so, it seems, I’ve become a case study.

“But how do you get around without a smartphone?”

I have a GPS in my car, but if I’m traveling on-foot I print directions and train schedules beforehand and carry them in my purse.

“What do you do during idle moments, like when you’re standing in line?”

I think—sometimes about my to-do list, sometimes about the great mysteries of the universe, but mainly about National Enquirer headlines.

“What do you do when you’re around people you don’t want to talk to and you want to look busy?”

I… talk to them. Aside from the occasional crazy, a handful of duds, and the French, most people are worth talking to—at least for a few minutes.

“How do you take pictures?”

I use a camera. And no, it isn’t a Kodak disposable.

But the most common question I get is also the simplest, and it goes something like this: “But…just…why?”

Here’s why:

My 24-year-old brother sits at the family dinner table, and his concentration drifts down to the palm of his hand. I prompt him to join our memory making and he mutters an excuse about work, but we all recognize those left and right swipes as the gestures of Tinder. While we bond and chew, he assesses and sorts the local talent. It’s undeniable. Worst of all, there is no endgame to his categorizing because, after dinner, he will be returning home, to an apartment outside that particular Tinder radius. His task is purposeless. It’s Solitaire, but with breasts.

Or the middle-aged woman who dines at the booth beside ours, Facetiming a relative back home while ignoring the person perched across from her, a young lady who drains her margarita and glances around the restaurant, perhaps concluding it would have been more social to stay at home with her iPad.

Or the room full of lonely freshmen who stew in insecure silence before class begins, shoulders slouched forward, eyes directed at their laps—scrolling, swiping, tapping, typing—completely unaware that the strangers beside them are ripe with potential for friendship. It’s all I can do not to walk in and shout: Pick up your stare! Make eye contact with one another. Look around; you already have so much in common, you antisocial T-Swift twerps!

I refuse to get a smartphone because I don’t judge the people who are entranced by their devices; I understand them. I too am guilty of such detachment, of the tendency to disconnect from reality in exchange for virtual reality. I’ve been on the other side of the screen, eyes glazed over, scrolling through Facebook, not reading people’s statuses so much as simply becoming more and more dazed by the dance of the pretty bright lights. Really, I’m no more sophisticated than a moth. There I am, pupils constricted, caressing the track pad, my precious, while my husband recounts his day, or while my puppy poses before me with her baleful eyes and perked hound ears. And I miss it. I slip into the gray haze that hums between the here-and-now and cyberspace, and I fumble these small moments, these little drops of grace. I pretend to be present, nodding when I sense I should nod and grunting when I sense I should grunt (I can be quite convincing), while my consciousness flits in and out.

That drone in the ethers is hypnotic, time-consuming, and easy to slip into, but it’s far from fulfilling. I never emerge from my circuit of email checks, Facebook, Youtube, and Yahoo headlines with a satisfied sigh. I never think to myself, “By golly, that was a fine investment of my time! Given the choice, I’d do it all over again.” I typically feel more of an ick factor, like the hollowness of a hangover or the greasy film after indulging more than one serving of French fries. It makes me want to shower my brain.

And for what? What did I gain by clicking a tantalizing headline (a crucial lesson to learn: the more tempting the headline, the more likely the article is to disappoint) or by catching an Instagram photo of the eggs benedict a high school acquaintance enjoyed for brunch, the most over-photographed meal?

The real-life realm that exists behind my laptop screen—light refracting through a glass of water, my dog trotting around the living room with my sock in her mouth, my husband unknowingly singing “Any Way You Want It” because it’s playing in his ear buds—is riddled with observations sure to make me feel more content than even the most adorable Youtube video of a kitten swatting a pit-bull. But what tender moment I don’t witness—and I mean fully witness—I can’t appreciate. And if I get a smartphone, I’ll overlook more than just the divinity inside my living room. I’ll neglect priceless experiences on the train, over dinner, at the airport—wherever. I’ll be the doofus at the Grand Canyon reading tweets from Mindy Kaling. And sure, her musings are cute and clever, but I’m at the Grand Canyon for cripes sake! I’ll be the fool reading, “The Kitchen Hack That Can Cut Cooking Time In Half!” while my brother cracks a joke that won’t be half as funny the second time around. I’ll be the dead-eyed moron chuckling at a gif of a puppy while failing to notice the playful pounce of my actual flesh and blood puppy.

So I can’t get a smartphone; I know I couldn’t resist its gravitational pull, and I would forever live divided between the now and the infinite (and infinitely meaningless) cosmos inside my device. I’d never tune out of that domain so that I could fully tune into this one. I’d never again delight in the stuff so small you really have to pay attention to appreciate. I’d miss so much: The happy meanderings of the mind. The serendipity of uninformed wanderings without the shrewd assistance of Yelp, TripAdvisor, or Google Maps. And, most importantly, I’d miss the simple repose of my mind having nowhere else to be. No way, I’d miss too much.

Call For Submission. Singular.

WANTED

This is what it feels like to read some call for submissions. Or job postings. Or scholarship or grant descriptions.

Association of Astrological Writers and “Readers”
An award is given annually for a book released during a full moon in March of 2013 whose theme reflects one of the four Zodiac elements. Cardinal signs encouraged to apply. Scorpios? Get real. Submissions must be received psychically during the autumn equinox.

Literary Mechanics Unite
Two prizes of $1,000 will be given to owners of a blue 2003 Buick Lesabre whose fiction or nonfiction submissions of 1,234 words contain the phrase, “Ladies, start your engines.” Entry fee is $30, but that includes a 10% discount off your next oil change. (PS. To those owners of blue 2003 Buick Lesabres– your lights are on.)

Global Heritage Foundation
A prize of $500 is given once a decade to a writer whose ancestry can be traced to all seven continents. Yes, I’m talking about you, Abanu Hernandez.

Christine Literature Center
A grant of $20 is given annually to Christines with a Ch. Writers named Kristine, Kristin, Kiersten, or Kristina need not apply. You can cheep your K and shove it in a cheyhole while playing a chazoo.

Gomez Fan Club
A prize of $1,000 and publication by Sserp Smadda is awarded every Halloween to horror comedy writers who can sing the Addams Family theme song backwards. Deadline for submissions was last Wednesday.

The Bi-Board of Trustees
Awards are given biannually to bilingual bisexual bicyclists living in a bicultural region. For writers who are currently in a biracial relationship with a bigot biologist (or were within the past month), please indicate as much in your query.

The Midwest Spiritually Struggling Writers Foundation
Publication is given annually to a Wisconsin native who currently lives in Missouri and was raised Baptist but is now not really practicing– not because he/she is an atheist per se but because he/she doesn’t know how to rationalize a God that could allow bad things to happen to good people. Strong preference will be given to a former Wisconsin Baptist writer who has visited a temple, synagogue, mosque, or music festival in the past year, just to see what it’s all about.

Association Founded By Satirius Frank Mockingbird III’s Father

An award of partial ownership of the family Myrtle Beach timeshare and lifelong guilt will be given to writers by the name of Satirius Frank Mockingbird III. Eligible writers must occupy a bedroom in my house. And keep it tidy, Satirius.

The Mayor and Minister of Beaver Crossing, Nebraska Alliance

A reading at Beaver Crossing Community Library will be awarded to the writer who has resided in Beaver Crossing, Nebraska for more than six years (but not exceeding seven years). Writer must have on-call availability.

The BP Good PR Campaign Grant

An award of $10,000 and publication by B & P Books will be given to a writer whose manuscript portrays the multinational oil and gas company as the essential hero in an effort that saves the nation and its citizens. Animal rescue would be a bonus, but is not required (we aren’t looking for fantasy, after all).

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Want to give the gift of laughter this holiday season? Look no further than I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean. It’s the perfect book for your sister, cousin, neighbor or cleaning lady.

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Hey, if I don’t plug my book, who will?

Paris’s Finest

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We’d schlepped thirteen miles from one side of Paris to the outskirts on the other end, and the Tour de France by foot transformed us into les miserables.

We’d walked that far partially because my mother heard about a church that was somehow associated with Joan of Arc and assumed that’s where she was burned at the stake, and partially because we’d seen a flyer emblazoned with the Brazilian flag that advertised a Capoeira (Brazilian martial art) meeting. Since my brother Greg, a Capoeira enthusiast, was, and remains to this day, convinced that the best way to experience another culture was to experience how that culture experienced Brazilian culture, and since we’d soaked in enough museums, cathedrals, statues, basilicas, palaces, and tombs to weary a French historian, my mother decided to throw Greg a bone. A bone that landed thirteen miles away.

Both purposes were a bust. The first stop on our pilgrimage landed us before an uninteresting building far from any other tourists, in a seedy neighborhood that convinced me, if a Joan was murdered there, it wasn’t the saint– it was Joanie from le block who ran with the wrong crowd and was shot in gang related violence. Otherwise, if that truly was the site of Joan of Arc’s burning, we three and some French pigeons were the only living things in the world to know about it.

Greg and I collapsed into the lap of a Joan of Arc statue while our mom poked around the premises, sure she’d discover a plaque that would validate her conjecture. But all she found were cigarette butts and empty bottles of Bordeaux, because even French thugs have a sophisticated palate.

We continued our journey to the address indicated on the Capoeira flyer. A park. A park which, of course, was vacated. Either the ninth rule of fight club was that flyers should misinform, or the Capoeiristas fled when they saw our sorry asses approaching– feet dragging, mouths slack, eyes deadened, limping toward them like a trio of slow, but ravenous, zombies, straight out of Le Walking Morts.

Now, in the middle of Nowhere, France, after a fruitless expedition, dizzy and aching from exertion, our choices were: 1) Kill each other or 2) Eat. Since we were too tired for the former, we looked for a restaurant.

As recent college graduates, Greg and I were frugal, and when you convert frugal from American dollars to euros, you get a couple of two-bit Scrooge McCheapos. We managed to sniff out the most inexpensive eatery within hobbling distance.

A very charismatic Frenchman seated us in a very empty restaurant– which, considering the French appreciation for food, should have been our first red flag. But in our defense, we weren’t looking for red flags since flags waving in France tend to be white.

We’d been dining at these low-cost establishments for several days, and were well versed in the strategy of ordering a selection, knowing odds were at least one item would be inedible. So it didn’t take long for us to relay to the friendly waiter that we’d take the chicken, fish, and beef.

“Oh, no. You don’t want the beef. You want an extra order of chicken. The chicken is very good today. Very good,” the waiter said, his head bobbing as if his nodding affirmation might hypnotize us.

“Thanks for the recommendation, but we’ll take the beef,” we said.

“Really, believe me. Go with the second chicken. You don’t want the beef,” he said.

“Thanks. Again. But we’ll have the beef.”

“Okay, we don’t have any beef,” he said, his smile now strained.

While we waited for our food to arrive– two chickens and a fish– I asked our waiter to direct me to the bathroom.

“You don’t need the bathroom. It’s better if you don’t need the bathroom,” he said, his smile so fixed and forced it seemed his face was seconds from exploding.

The bathroom was downstairs at the bottom of a long, narrow, and steep staircase– the type Indiana Jones might have descended carrying a torch, a torch which would have come in handy considering the area wasn’t powered by electricity. The only modicum of light was the flickering of a votive candle at the end of the tunnel, whose flame danced on the bathroom sink in the catacomb below. A blind person would have navigated the space better, guided by his heightened sense of smell.

But the blind man’s heightened senses wouldn’t have served him later, when the food arrived.

The quality of the food was immaterial, beside the point. We were so hungry and tired that commenting on, let alone complaining about, the leathery meats or flavorless sides would have been as absurd as a Rottweiler pausing before his bowl to request a pinch of salt. We ate, not for enjoyment, but for survival.

It was Greg’s turn to pay, but he was out of cash. Luckily the window of the restaurant displayed stickers for Visa and American Express, so he handed the waiter a credit card.

“Oh no. Believe me, you want to pay in cash,” the waiter said.

“No, thanks. I’m going to use this credit card.”

“It’s much better if you pay in cash. Trust me. It’s better,” the waiter said, insisting.

“No, really. I’d prefer credit card,” Greg said.

“Okay, our credit card machine is broken.”

Anxieties of a New Author

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  • What if my book totally bombs?
  • What if I become so famous I lose sight of what’s important in life? (Ha!)
  • What if my family feels obligated to buy the book?
  • What if they don’t?
  • What if nobody shows up to my book reading? Or worse, what if only one person shows up and he/she sees that nobody else came?
  • While reading: Is my voice shaking? Are my pit stains spreading? Have I breathed even once since I started? Am I going to pass out right here in front of all these people? Might I puke?
  • When the price of my book dropped $2.50 only twenty-four hours after its release on Amazon: It’s been out a day and it’s already in the discount bin? What was Amazon thinking? “Well, these babies aren’t going anywhere fast– we better get them moving.” Or, “Fifteen dollars? Heh. Don’t flatter yourself, Author.”
  • When the price of my book jumped a dollar: Great. I guess sales have dropped and Amazon figures they have to charge more if they want to make any money on me.
  • I need more Facebook likes.
  • I need more Twitter followers. Maybe I should tweet at some celebrities and hope for a retweet. I spend an hour stalking celebrities and finally tweet at Ricky Gervais. My thoughts immediately begin to sound like a social media version of the Verizon Wireless commercials. “Did he retweet me now? Did he retweet me now?” Spoiler alert: He never retweeted me. 
  • Can my Amazon ranking BE any lower?
  • Okay, NOW can my Amazon ranking be any lower?
  • What am I going to do with all this book merchandise I impulsively bought from Vistaprint? Really, Alena? An, I THOUGHT WE AGREED TO PEE IN THE OCEAN tote bag? Your Chinese food take-out places gives tote bags away for free. Did you really need to buy one with your book cover on it for $14?
  • Oh good Lord– Is that a flaw on the book cover? Phew, just a poppy seed.

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*A portion of I THOUGHT WE AGREED TO PEE IN THE OCEAN book sales this week will benefit LOVE146, a nonprofit organization that works to end child trafficking.

My First Reading

Here’s a Youtube clip of my first reading ever, which took place at Monte Cristo Bookshop in New London, CT.

See that table of books behind me? I wrote those books! See those water bottles? Those water bottles were for me!

I was in a horrible car accident on the way home from that reading–we slammed into the divider at 70 mph and almost died– but I still think of it as a pretty good day.

Wax Off

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Last week a salon staff member stood outside her new facility and handed me a card for a free wax, completely unaware that this promotion would send me into a spiral of self examination.

I had to ask myself the crucial question. What do I value more: a deal, or a pain-free existence?

Deals, glorious deals. They are the kerosene that inflames my sparks of satisfaction into a mystifying inferno. A solid Groupon purchase puts a bounce in my step. When we earn enough movie theater points for a free popcorn, I waive that ticket around like it has the winning lotto numbers. As we enjoy our favorite lunch special, I meditate on how the exact same amount of food costs twice the price at dinner, and my eyes turn into those of a cartoon character hit over the head, spinning like slot machine windows until finally landing on dollar signs.

And so I happily accepted the free wax card. In fact, it made my day. A wax? For free? Hot dog!

Here’s my dilemma– I had no interest in being waxed.

There were three options listed on the card. Eyebrow, armpit, and (gulp) bikini. Eyebrow waxes are standard fare, and I would have opted for that except mine don’t qualify. When I was thirteen, my mother took pity on the awkward adolescence festering before her. There wasn’t much she could do about my slow metabolism or extensive orthodontic work, but the triangles that capped my eyebrows? Those clown brows? Well, there was electrolysis for that. I hope the technology for permanent hair removal has improved in the last fifteen years but, at the time, it entailed inserting a needle into each follicle individually and, I think– I think –-electrocuting little pieces of me into submission. Suffice it to say, I didn’t complete the procedure, and I’m fairly certain the whole operation was a long con of my mother’s to teach me to just appreciate the body nature gave me. In the end, most of the hairs in my unwanted triangles were zapped to oblivion, and the rest took one look at what happened to their neighbors and jumped.

If there is a routine that sounds more barbaric to me than electrolysis, it’s waxing. If only because that equally savage method of hair obliteration is only temporary.

But the salon’s website listed armpit and bikini waxes as worth $18 and $25 respectively. Not taking advantage of either FREE service would essentially be turning down twenty bucks.

I contemplated my situation for several days (there wasn’t much going on that weekend). To wax or not to wax? Was I really so financially comfortable that I could turn my nose up at that value? On the other hand, was I really so financially uncomfortable that I could endure the violent ripping of hair from skin, just because it carried value?

The matter was ultimately settled by the following hypothetical:

If a stranger on the street offered to give me twenty dollars if he or she could punch me in the face, am I so cheap that I would present my cheek for twenty measly dollars?

No, I finally concluded. Not for twenty dollars. For forty maybe, but not for twenty.

My 30 Before 30 List

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Phil turns 30 next month. This has reminded me that, while it’s too late for him, I still have time. Time to accomplish, to embrace life, to experience. Time to carpe diem the crap out of my remaining years. So here’s a list of things I hope to do. You know, before I’m in my (gasp!) 30’s. Some items are ambitious but most, well, are not. A lot of people’s 30 before 30 list have these great big dreams, like driving cross country or losing 15 pounds. I like to keep things more realistic and, aside from a few exceptions, the following list contains mostly attainable items. Still, they are items of merit, because I really do need to satisfy them before I’m 30.

  1. Learn how to pop the hood of my car
  2. Throw away all pants whose waist I hope I’ll  fit into one day but won’t unless the world ends and I’m surviving in a post apocalyptic world where I have to wrestle my food into submission
  3. Sew closed the hole in the sweater I still wear even though there is a hole in it
  4. Understand what an IRA is
  5. Flip through the CD book in my car and toss out what should be tossed out, no strings attached (ahem)
  6. Bake bread without Phil’s help so that when we have kids, he won’t be the favorite parent just because of his sweet bread recipe (sweet, here, meaning cool. It isn’t sweet bread)
  7. Sing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” at a karaoke night
  8. See Elton John in concert (If I see Elton John outside of concert, that too will satisfy this item)
  9. Watch Braveheart (Phil’s favorite movie)
  10. Beat Phil in Connect Four (I beat him once, but we had played ten games in a row and he was just tired and careless, so I don’t count it… I think we need some local friends)
  11. Sit in a New Orleans jazz club
  12. Rescue a puppy
  13. Buy a home (notice I did not use the word house, allowing room for flexibility ie condo, teepee, etc)
  14. Go to BB Kings for the Harlem Gospel Choir Sunday Brunch
  15. Apologize to my little brother for once convincing him that I was a vampire and reducing his five year old self to tears (Since he is a regular reader, I’ll consider this item done!)
  16. Bike around Governor’s Island
  17. Decide, once and for all, if I like cream cheese
  18. Cut bangs
  19. Grow the bangs out because they were a mistake
  20. Buy prescription aviators
  21. Secure a book deal
  22. Own a piece of furniture that isn’t a hand-me-down, didn’t require assembly, and wasn’t purchased at Salvation Army
  23. Give myself a manicure that doesn’t look as if I let my 4-year-old niece play dress up
  24. Wear my wedding gown at least once more before I outgrow it
  25. Dress up as Bellatrix Lestrange for Halloween
  26. Nail down a decent English accent (This item should come before #25 to optimize the impersonation)
  27. Sprinkle tarragon in something
  28. Memorize a summarizing sentence of what Phil researches
  29. Buy a mini torch for making creme brulee (I can save the actual making of it for my 40 before 40 list)
  30. Wear lipstick