A Pocket of Calm

We don’t get a fog a lot in Toronto, and on a foggy night about a month ago the Christmas lights were particularly lovely -- dreamy and soft. I was on the way home from a meeting and thought the lights on house on a corner were so pretty, I wanted to take a picture to show the girls. I paused at the curb opposite the house, and took my phone out of my pocket. I still had my mittens on, but I needed my fingers to use the phone, so I wedged the phone in my left hand, wedged between my fingers and the fleshy base of my thumb. I used my fingertips and thumb to remove the mitten from my right hand, and as I did so the phone slipped, or my grip relaxed. For the longest second ever recorded, my phone fell toward the storm drain I had just realized I was standing above.

It might have stopped on the drain -- I suppose in some other universe it did -- but it bounced on metal grate and then slipped into the opening at the back of the drain and disappeared. I stared at the space where it wasn’t in disbelief, trying to work out how to undo this thing which had, after all, only just happened. It happened so recently it was still basically “now” and therefore there must be some way, I thought, to have it turn out differently.

Why must time only travel in one direction? Surely if you catch a mistake soon enough, you should be able to undo it? If you really didn’t mean it? Yes, if you’re using a computer (maybe), or in conversation (sometimes), but when your mistake involves gravity, water, electronics, and the wrong side of a municipal storm drain, it is usually undoable.

I stood helplessly near the drain for a few moments, considering whether to attempt a wacky rescue, but it was dark and foggy and I was on a road and I was pretty sure I had heard a plop. I went home, tail between legs, feeling careless, stupid, and unaccountably sad for my little phone which I had, unwittingly, grown very fond of.

After I stopped sobbing our first impulse was to immediately replace the phone with another of the same model: the financial equivalent of “undo”. But we didn’t act immediately, and the next day I realized we don’t really have $600 for a new phone (come to that, we didn’t really have $900 for it last year, either) and I didn’t like the precedent that replacing it would set. If either of the girls lost or destroyed a phone or computer, through carelessness or bad fortune, we wouldn’t leap to replace it immediately with another of the same quality -- not to Teach Them a Lesson, but because we don’t have enough money to be so free with it. “Consequences” aren’t a form of torture devised by parents and teachers, they’re real things which happen to real people.

So I investigated the options. Apple doesn’t sell refurbished iPhones, but I could get a refurbed iPod Touch for $220. Add a dumb phone for $50 (on contract) and I would have almost all the functionality of the iPhone 5S that’s now underwater (and probably frozen solid). There was also a chance (now extinguished) that I could inherit a phone from Blake when his work phone was upgraded, and even a chance that the City of Toronto would be able to dredge my phone out of the drain -- apparently they do that! So I didn’t get a new phone straight away.

And then something strange happened. I didn’t miss my phone.

I was calmer. I was happier. I read more books. I worried less.

I stopped reading Twitter. I stopped reading longform journalism and blog posts about emotionally stimulating topics. I knew less about the sorrows of the world. I didn’t know when my friends were having a bad day, and I learned about the Charlie Hebdo attacks from the radio. I didn’t receive email -- other people’s demands on my time -- as soon as it was sent, but rather a couple of times a day, when I was in a position to deal with it properly.

It turns out that me knowing about all those sad and stressful things as soon as they happened wasn’t helping; it wasn’t helping the world, because my worrying turns out to have no material impact whatsoever, and it wasn’t helping me because I was sad and anxious about things I couldn’t do anything about.

I still want to know what is going on in the world, good and bad, but I don’t seem to need to have all that good and badness in my pocket, retrievable at all times of the day and night. I’m okay with getting the good and badness in controlled doses at specific times of day, and using the rest of the day to deal with my own personal good and badness.

I still don’t have a phone. I miss it a little bit, but the functionality I miss is the functionality I enjoyed in my PalmPilot: the calendar, the to-do list, the notes. When I get my new phone or iPod, I won’t install Twitter. I probably won’t even set up email. (I will install Instagram because I do miss cat pictures!) My phone will be a tool to help me do the things which are important to me, not an eternally-open channel for the whole world to tell me what is important to them.

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