I never take my phone out on the water in Mission Bay, where I go to stand-up paddle board a couple of times a week. Sometimes I wish I had it to capture a picture of, say, the thin man setting giant bubbles free on a little beach below Riviera Drive; or the rainbow colored shirts of eight rowers and a coxswain outside the ZLAC Rowing Club; or the array of green, yellow, and blue sails bobbing in the Mission Bay Sportcenter marina. But more than I love sharing pretty San Diego vignettes on Insta, I love not knowing what time it is, how long I’ve been out on the water, or who’s trying to call me.
Aside from that weekly hour or two on the bay, my phone is always with me. I use it to take calls, send text messages, check my calendar, order food, take notes, sign up for yoga classes, check the weather, get answers to every question I ever have (“Hey, Siri”), make appointments, cancel appointments, navigate, meditate, listen to music and podcasts, check my email, take pictures, shop, bank, find recipes, plan my weekends, read restaurant reviews, wake up, count my steps, scroll through Instagram, browse Facebook, watch perfume reviews on YouTube, pay bills, sell things on ebay, set reminders, buy movie tickets, and check the wind speed and direction before I head out for a paddle on the bay.
This morning, however, I did none of that. Last night, I left my phone on the counter, along with a note for my husband Mtume (who gets up earlier than I do). “Please take my phone and hide it,” the note read. “Don’t give it back to me until next Saturday.” When I got up to make coffee, my phone was gone.
Mtume didn’t like that I was leaving home without a phone. “Please get a burner today, Lizzie,” he implored. I said I would, and then I drove off into the cool, cloudy Saturday morning, knowing nothing about the water and weather conditions that awaited me.
Now that I’m here, it turns out to be beautiful and overcast, with a light wind off the ocean. I start at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center at the same time as the SDSU women’s rowing team. I set off east, in the direction of Fisherman’s Channel, while they head south. As they glide toward Ventura Cove, a group of rambunctious males standing outside the San Diego Rowing Club hoots and hollers its approval.
Once across the middle of Sail Bay and out of the way of a single waterski boat, I turn north toward the Catamaran Resort, taking in the sights of early morning volleyballers, joggers, and fishermen on the shore. On the way back toward San Juan Cove, I see hundreds of brown birds with long thin beaks standing on the sand outside the aquatic center, along with hundreds more fluffy gray bird babies. If this were any other day, I would make a mental note to check my phone as soon as I got back to my locker to do an internet search for “flock of long beaked birds San Diego.”
But I don’t have a phone, and will probably not remember to look it up the next time I’m in front of my computer. As I float in front of the birds, another paddle boarder glides within shouting distance. It occurs to me that Google is not the only resource for getting questions answered. “Do you know what kind of birds these are?” I call, pointing to the flock.
She paddles over, swoons at the babies, and says, “I think they’re sandpipers.”
It turns out she is right — western sandpipers.
Vacation from connection
Phoneless, I leave my Eastlake home on a hot, hazy Tuesday afternoon. I head out on foot, going east on Olympic Parkway toward the familiar dirt path on Wueste Road that winds along Lower Otay Lake and around the back side of the Elite Athlete Training Center. In the hour that I’m gone, nothing of note happens. I don’t break my ankle or need an ambulance for any reason. I don’t see any rare flower or undiscovered animal that needs to be Instagrammed. I see the same rabbits and skydivers and fuzzy fountain grasses that I see every time I take this walk, but this time with no phone stuck in my waistband.
I want to try a full week away from my phone because I have been losing hours a day to stupid apps and scrolling and message-checking and browsing. Time keeps disappearing out from under me, and my brain hurts. I’ve tried to curb my usage. I’ve installed apps that tell me how many times I pick it up in a day, set limits for myself on certain apps, and programmed my phone to tell me when I’ve reached those limits. All that has done is increase my efficiency at bypassing the limitation settings.
I begin to test living without my phone for short periods of time. It starts with the walk in my own neighborhood. And then I branch out.
One day in June, I turn off my phone at 7 am and commit to leaving it off until 1 pm. I want to get out and explore, so I head for Cafe Virtuoso in Barrio Logan, where I meet up with artist Mary Jhun. Yesterday, Jhun promised to make me a map of her favorite spots in the neighborhood, and this morning, she presents me with two maps, both hand-drawn on thick, cream-colored cardstock.
One map shows a bird’s-eye view of the area between Kearney Avenue and Harbor Drive to the northeast and southwest, and the Coronado Bridge and 16th Street to the northwest and southeast, as well as the area south of Harbor Drive where Cesar Chavez Park looks toward Coronado. The other map zooms in on the area southeast of the Coronado Bridge, mainly along Logan Avenue. Both maps include streets laid out precisely in straight lines, red dots to indicate safe walking areas, tiny little buildings and itty bitty drawings next to restaurant names to indicate the type of food to be found there. Jhun has also watercolored here and there, blue for the water at the edge of the park, green for the grass. The map is a work of art, and much more appealing to follow than anything I’ll find on my phone’s little screen.
I have no idea what time it is when I leave Cafe Virtuoso and begin to follow the red dots of Jhun’s map south on National Avenue. Maybe 11:30? What I do know is that I’m hungry. I scan the drawings on the map, a tiny slice of pizza at Dough Nation on Newton Avenue, a miniscule croissant at Panchita’s Bakery on Cesar Chavez Parkway, a teensy burger and fries at Mish Mash on Beardsley. In the end, I opt for Steam Box Tamales, the little tamal cart a couple of blocks up. It’s sitting on a loading dock in front of the South Bay Fishery. I order two tamales and am told there’s only one flavor left: cheese and jalapeño. So that’s what I get. I sit at one of two bistro tables on the loading dock and eat my tamales with a plastic fork. This is usually a time when I would be checking for messages or social-media stalking old friends and boyfriends, but today I watch cars passing on National Avenue and listen to the couple who runs the tamal cart sing songs and talk baby talk to their grandchild on FaceTime.
When I leave, it occurs to me that I still don’t know what time it is, which disorients me and gives me some anxiety. But it’s easily remedied. I pass a man in a parked truck with the door open and ask him for the time. It’s 11:56.
I follow the red dots down Cesar Chavez and toward the tiny little boats and the Coronado Bay Lookout. On the way, I pass the Posh and Polished Nail Lounge and The Fade Factory Barbershop, which are not on the map, and walk beneath the Barrio Logan sign, which is. After I pass the tropical fish mural on the side of Restaurant Depot building and cross the trainyard, I come to the grassy field of Cesar Chavez Park, and beyond that, a playground and then a long pier that looks out on Coronado and the bridge.
On the pier, a couple of bearded dudes sit on a bench blasting heavy metal music and a group of three office-dressed women eat from lunch boxes at a picnic table in the semi-shade of a gazebo. The sky is overcast and cool, the way it often is in June, and the water is choppy.
A woman in a blue dress, Dodgers baseball cap, and a denim jacket approaches the end of the pier. She takes a picture of the view with her phone. I sort of wish I had my phone to take a picture of the view, too.
“Are you going to Instagram that shot?” I ask.
“No. I wasn’t going to. I should, though, shouldn’t I?” she says. “I have a friend who works in Coronado, and I was just sending the picture to say, ‘Hi. I can see you. Can you see me?’”
We get to talking. I tell her I have no phone. She tells me she would love to not have a phone, but she works in real estate and has to have it on at all times. We discuss phones, our overreliance on them, but also how they’re good to have when you’re a woman who likes to hike alone.
“Even if you don’t use it, you should have it while you’re out there,” she says. “I think they can ping it even if it’s off.”
I get back to my car at 1:00 on the nose. When I turn on my phone, there are 11 text messages and a series of panicked voicemail messages from my mom threatening to call my neighbor to come check on me if she doesn’t hear back soon.
All day every day
Three months later, and I’m trying again. After a series of brief interludes without my phone, I slipped back into using it all day every day, first thing in the morning, last thing at night. I use it to wake up, and I use a meditation app to go to sleep.
On the last Friday in September, I park my car on the south side of Wall Street in La Jolla and then dart across the street toward the Athenaeum Library. As I pass in front of Puesto, Marisol Rendón jumps out of a parked Mini Cooper with her arms open wide. “We didn’t know if this was really going to happen!” she says, her voice exuding delight and surprise over the fact that we have managed to meet up despite my phonelessness.
Her husband Ingram Ober and their son climb out of the car, and the four of us walk the half-block to the library to see an art exhibition in the Claye’s Gallery by their friend Nikko Mueller. Rendón, Ober, and Mueller are all art professors, Mueller and Rendón at Southwestern, and Ober at Palomar College. I met all three last weekend at the birthday party for Rendón and Ober’s 11-year-old daughter, who goes to school with mine.
Rendón and I had briefly mentioned visiting Mueller’s exhibition together, but we made no solid or even tentative plans. Looking back, I’m wondering why I didn’t just find her email address and send an inquiry that way. Instead, I sent a note in an envelope by way of our daughters on Monday morning.
“Make sure you give this to Dylan,” I said, not completely confident that it wouldn’t go the way of all the lost permission slips and water bottles and jackets that had been last seen entering her backpack over the years. She promised she would. And when she came home from school on Tuesday, she handed me Rendón’s response. “I’m off on Fridays,” she wrote. “That would be a good day to meet.” On Wednesday, I sent another note letting her know I’d be available anytime after 10. On Thursday, she responded, “How about 11 am at the Athenaeum?”
By the time I received that last note, it was too late for either one of us to confirm or cancel, since any response exchanged wouldn’t be received until after school on Friday.
And now here we are.
We head into the gallery where Mueller’s abstract, geometric work hangs on and leans against the white walls. A tall sculpture rises up from the floor near the center of the gallery, and a series of painted book sculptures are on display around the room as well.
I ask Ober if he had the same uncertainty about whether we’d actually meet up today.
“No,” he says. “I lived without a phone for as long as I possibly could. I think there’s a lot more accountability in not having one. You told me three days ago that you were going to be here, so I trusted that you would be.”
His voice takes on a nostalgic quality as he describes the “hippie commune” days of his youth.“Every Wednesday was a sweat lodge at this guy’s house, and if you had a job for somebody in your town or somebody was looking for you to hire you, you’d probably find them at the sweat lodge,” he says. “You’d walk in there in the dark, and be like, ‘Hey, is Chuck here?’ And you’d hear, ‘Yeah, man. I’m here.’”
As we walk slowly around the gallery, leaning over every now and again to read the titles on the book bindings, Ober explains that he doesn’t feel the need to create phone rules for himself (“I hate rules,” he says), because he doesn’t have an addictive personality. But he does have to lay some down in his job as a 3D arts educator. Often, students come to him with a photo on their phones of something they want to create. But he tells them he won’t discuss it until they’ve put it on paper.
“We have to have rules about phones and how we use them as a reference,” he says. “You’re going to make an object you can physically touch. I want to talk about it from your drawing in your journal so we can have it and model it and talk about it.”
Rendón worries that some of her students don’t see the differences between social media images and thoughtful, intentional art. She tells a story about a student who was just messing around with some objects, took a picture, and posted it on social media. And when he received a positive reaction, he played it off as intentional.
“It was nothing,” Rendón says. “The fact that he got a reaction was enough for him. He said, ‘I’m fine with it.’ I felt it was not ethical.”
But even though she believes “the phone is taking away so many essential things in life,” she admits it has its perks. For example, she likes her app that helps her identify the constellations, and says that without her navigation app, she’d stay lost forever.
I turn off my brain
When I lived in New York, I took great pleasure in being able to recite a series of alphabet soup directions off the top of my head. I could tell you exactly where all 27 subway lines would take you, and could even give you the names of the 400-plus stops in order, backwards and forwards. I took pride and pleasure in having conquered the city’s underground transportation system, and felt confident I could do the same anywhere in the world. But when I moved to San Diego in 2007, hearing Mtume say things like, “Just take the 805 to the 8 to the 163,” made me clamp my hands over my ears and rock back and forth.
Today, there is meaning in those words where once there was none. But my brain has gone mushy over the years as I’ve come to rely on my phone for navigation. I feel uncomfortable and uncertain making even the simple 10-mile jaunt to the Chula Vista Mall from Eastlake this afternoon without help from my trusty friend Siri.
I know the general direction I’m going, and I’m pretty sure Broadway is involved somehow, but that’s about it. I don’t spend much time in West Chula, but I have been there enough times that I should at least know the cross streets and whether or not I’ll get there by driving west on Orange Avenue. I turn off my brain when I get in the car these days. I listen to music or podcasts and just turn when I’m told to. I use the navigation to go places I’m familiar with, and even when I’m heading home and don’t feel like taking the five seconds to figure out where I am in relation to the closest freeway.
When I leave the house again, Mtume is out on Saturday dance-class-and-errands duty with our daughter, so I leave a sticky note on the microwave for them to meet me at BESHOCK Ramen at 6:15. And then I head out to catch a movie at the AMC in West Chula.
I go west on Olympic Parkway, thinking maybe I’ll try my luck by continuing on Orange Avenue and taking it all the way to Broadway. But at the last moment before I cross the freeway, I decide to take the 805 up to Telegraph Canyon. After exiting, I go left and continue on to L Street. I’m thinking maybe the mall is at Third Avenue and Broadway, but something tells me those streets do not intersect. I’m pretty sure they both go North-South.
I decided to commit to Broadway, but I don’t know which way to turn once I get there. Once again, it occurs to me that rather than cursing the whole no-phone thing, I can just ask someone. As I pull up to a red light, I see an arm hanging out of the passenger window of the truck beside me.
“Excuse me,” I call. “Which way is the mall? This way or that way?”
The bearded man in the passenger seat repeats my question in Spanish to the driver, who contemplates it for a second and then leans over to say, “The mall is that way.” He’s pointing north, so I turn right when I get to Broadway. A few blocks later, there it is.
After the movie, I take the 5 north to the 15 north to meet up with a group of women in Tierrasanta, mainly because I’m supposed to get together with one of them tomorrow, and we haven’t set a time. But she doesn’t show up, and I don’t have her email address. So I cheat: I borrow someone’s phone. And then I stay too long. I’m supposed to meet Mtume at 6:15, but it’s 6:15 by the time I leave. It doesn’t occur to me that I could call him, too, with the borrowed phone. Instead, I rush south on the 15, take the 94 West and continue on F Street. Then a left on 13th to Market, where my man and the little one are waiting.
On Sunday morning, I wake up anxious about all the people who don’t know I’m without a phone. So I ask Mtume to open it and check my messages for emergencies. He does. And, while there are no emergencies, there are some urgencies, which I handle, and then some. Ten minutes later, Mtume stands over me with his hand out.
“That’s enough, Lizzie,” he says.
Before I hand the phone back, I cheat again on behalf of my daughter, who asks please please please will I just text her friend’s mom to see if she can come over today? On Tuesday, I sneak down to the bathroom in the man cave, where Mtume has “hidden” the phone from me and call him at work, because we never did solidify the after-school pick-up plans. On Wednesday I finally buy a burner phone for $20 at the Best Buy in the Otay Ranch Mall. When I show Mtume, he looks concerned.
“How long are you planning to do this?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I’m thinking I might give up my phone for good.”
He high-fives me.