October 2012

At the cell level

By David Feela

There’s nothing like entering a dimmed theater to dramatize how thoroughly our senses slam shut, especially if it’s a sunny day outside. Sensory deprivation, that old story of having to rely on, even if just for a moment, yourself.

Stepping through the swinging doors at the back of the auditorium, I’m blinded by the near-dark, my irises shocked, my feet unsteady and stumbling along the aisle, trying to zero in on a good, centrally located seat.

But when I glance from side to side, focus like an airplane pilot approaching a runway, I can navigate any landing, no matter how hazardous, thanks to the theater public’s insatiable urge to fiddle with their cell phones.

The impulse might seem completely understandable, because the movie hasn’t started, so what else is there to do? Certainly not talk with the person sitting beside you!

For one thing, letting a lot of people who aren’t with you in the theater know that you are at the movies is a questionable strategy for maintaining any sort of disguise that the darkness affords you. Bilbo Baggins had a similar complication while trying to sneak his newly acquired Precious away from Gollum, the ring glowing in his pocket the whole time, insisting that it be taken out. Harry Potter probably felt the same itch while masked by his cloak of invisibility — a compulsion to illuminate at least the tip of his wand.

Of course, you don’t have to go to the movies to notice how pervasive the use of handheld electronic devices has become. It’s also a bit perverse, that having bought tickets for a big-screen adventure, so many people can’t put aside their little screens.

Sensory deprivation is apparently a challenge in this technology- driven world. Researchers at the University of Glasgow found half of their respondents checking email at least every hour, some clicking 30 to 40 times each hour. They likened this behavior to an addiction, a dysfunction that I would add seems to be happening at the cell level.

I’m still surprised when someone near me, perhaps in the same grocery aisle or checkout line, suddenly starts talking, as if to the air, inevitably beginning the conversation with the explanation of where he or she is located at this particular moment. I have overheard so many “what are you doing now?” conversations that I could be an eavesdropper, except I have no desire to listen in. I just can’t avoid it.

But now I understand that maybe the person answering the call can’t help it either. Texting does limit the intrusion, and I am astounded to see what fat human fingers can accomplish on those teeny-weeny keypads.

When I taught high school, I always had to warn at least one student in every class to put his or her cell phone away. One girl in particular after being warned once, complied with a smile and put her cell phone into her purse. I thanked her. She smiled again. I continued my lesson until I noticed that her hand was still in her purse. But she was looking at me, watching me write on the chalkboard, nodding, and all while her purse twitched on top of her desk.

I am not trying to preach intolerance for the public’s use of handheld devices. I am just amazed at how many people have relationships with their cell phones. Dating couples holding hands, but each with a firm grasp on a cell phone in the other hand. We wear our devices like jewelry, one eye on the traffic, the other on the possibility that someone needs to know what we’re doing. We sit down at a table and the cell phone gets placed on the tabletop, beside the bottle of beer, like a conversation opener.

A lovely lady named Gladys once made a salient point about phones. Her phone started ringing as I rose to leave. She followed me to the door, the phone still ringing. I said I’d let myself out if she wanted to answer her phone. She winked and said, “I got that phone for my convenience, not for whoever is calling me.”

When she made this remark, cell phones didn’t exist. At the time my home telephone was one of the last party lines in Montezuma County. Gladys has been disconnected from this earth for nearly 25 years, but for me her signal is strong and still coming through.

David Feela lives in Montezuma County, Colo.