Monday, February 17, 2014

A 15 Day Blast to the Past

Last week I returned from a 15-day cruise to Hawaii.  Sailing out of San Francisco, we spent five days at sea, four days in Hawaii, and five days back at sea, including a quick pit stop in Mexico, before returning to San Francisco. 

But what I liked best about this trip wasn’t mentioned in any of the cruise line’s marketing collateral. It wasn’t the endless supply of cruise cuisine like Eggs Benedict, shrimp cocktail and buttery lobster. It wasn’t the entertainment, shopping, or shore excursions. It wasn’t even the ideal weather, good company, and endless laughs.

It was being offline. Disconnected.  Unplugged. At sea there wasn't online access unless I wanted to spend a dollar a minute tethered to the ship’s designated computers, which uh, no, I didn’t.   

And so, for 15 unprecedented days I didn’t check emails or peruse Facebook for crazy dog videos, cute kid photos, or “I just pigged out on a quart of coffee Hagen Daz ice cream” laments. I didn’t play Words with Friends or Candy Crush, didn’t surf YouTube for music videos, didn’t text friends, and didn’t monitor my weather app for the latest temperatures. I already knew what the temperature was because I was outside feeling it for myself. I wasn’t wasting time reading about the polar vortex on the east coast or the unprecedented flooding in England.

It was on this cruise that I realized just what an insidious intrusion smart phones have become, packaged as an essential need. We can’t put them down, not for one second: we eat, walk, talk and live with our phones as if they were a bodily extension like our hand or foot. In elevators, stores, restaurants, and coffee shops, waiting in lines, driving cars, crossing the street, meeting with colleagues, talking with friends and shopping, dining and exercising, we are constantly, simultaneously, forever checking our phones and responding to “pings” like Pavlov’s dogs. 

Never mind the time or place. Nowhere is immune.

Such as the dark winter evening I was walking my greyhound, Olivia and using a flashlight to navigate the pitch black streets. Turning a corner, I plowed into a woman who was also walking her dog, but didn’t see me because she was busy texting on her phone. Last August, my good friend Mark, who’s a local DJ, invited me to join him for a concert that he was emceeing for one of my favorite bands, Chicago. In our front row seats we were so close to the brass section I could actually smell their sweat. Not that the young woman next to me noticed. She was too busy watching the entire performance through the video she was making on her phone. At the gym, I see people lifting 50 pound weights with one hand while reading their phone in the other. And what about that recent photo in the Chronicle of the newly-wed couple dancing at their reception? The bride was checking her phone and the groom was holding his. 

Really? It’s that important?

On my cruise I read four books, including two massive novels that were over 400 pages.  I forgot how much I love diving into a good book without simultaneously playing Words with Friends, losing myself so thoroughly and completely that when I look up from the pages, hours later, I experience a temporary disorientation. You mean I’m not hanging out with an orphan in New York who is harboring a stolen painting?  

Shipboard life included conversations where I didn’t keep an eyeball peeled for texts, emails or alerts. I wasn’t privy to the personal and often inane one-sided blither of people barking about their laundry stains, idiot co-worker, or rash that just won’t go away. For 15 days it was just like old times, when people lived in the present without posting every thought on Facebook or photo on Instagram; when eye contact was made with people instead of screens. We gave our full attention to conversations without sneaking that sidewards glance we’re all too familiar with. Best was when we just relished the silent beauty of a sunset or serene stillness of the smooth seas. 

It was unexpectedly wonderful.

And then we docked in San Francisco and phones were whipped out like we’d just landed on Mars and were gasping for air and those little devices in our desperate clenched fists were oxygen tanks.

But for 15 glorious days we were unplugged and offline; disconnected with our phones and connected with the present. 

That was the real vacation.

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