Figure It Out

Sunday, June 9, 2013

I lost my cell phone in September.

I somehow managed to lose my cell phone after having it in my car, and before leaving my house again. I know I had it in the car, I did not leave the car between when I had it and when I got home, except to go into my house. It did not turn up in my car. It did not turn up in my house. I took that as a sign from God that I should no longer have a cell phone. I’ve missed it maybe twice since then. (Though I have a trip coming up that might be complicated so I guess we’ll have to see how that turns out.)

One of the things that people say a lot when talking about new technology — usually in a breathless, incredulous voice — is, “How did we ever live without this??”

The answer is that when you didn’t have that technology, you wouldn’t have tried to do a lot of the things you try to do now. You wouldn’t go to a concert with 20,000 people with vague plans to meet up with friends at some point during the day. You just wouldn’t. You would set up specific plans, with multiple levels — I’ll meet you at one o’clock at the west entrance. If I’m not there, then we’ll meet at two-thirty at the concession stand where we usually get popcorn. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll just see you at the bar afterwards.

Or whatever.

You would agree to something and then all parties would attempt to do that thing. And it would work out, usually. And if it didn’t, no problem, because you wouldn’t have made everything dependent on this thing that had all kinds of uncontrollable variables and might not work the way it was supposed to.

You would just do something else, it would be fine.

Also people had different kinds of infrastructure that were replaced by later technologies.

In the memoir of her life that my Aunt Blanche wrote, she talked about how her family and their close friends who lived next store, before the advent of telephones, would hang a dish towel out the window if they had something to tell the other person.

You’ve got mail.

Prior to the advent of ubiquitous communication, you would also sometimes end up with unexpected free space.

I remember one of the last trips I took without a cell phone, when someone needed to change plans at the last minute because they were under the weather. I didn’t get the message because I’d already left the place I was staying by the time they called, so I showed up at their house at the appointed time. Then I felt bad that they were sick and there I was anyway.

I had plans later that afternoon, but no phone to set up something else in this newly opened gap. So I went to a park down the street and sat in the grass for a few hours and napped and read a book until it was time to go meet my other friend who I was getting together with in the afternoon. It was lovely.

And it made me think about the tradeoffs with continuous communication devices.

Having a way to receive information continuously is great, you can make plans at the last minute and change things around if you need to. You always know what’s going on. You can be maximally productive, if something opens up, quick, you can set up something else. No wasted time, no wasted space.

But what does it mean to waste time?

I sat in the grass and read a book and watched the bikers and joggers go past, and looked at the water in the Potomac River. I remember so much about that day, because it was so beautiful, and such a vacation from my usual trips where I have things packed together, trying to get together with two or three or four different groups of people every day, moving from one thing to the next to the next.

Having no cell phone makes it hard to coordinate a lot of different things in a single day, especially if anything changes. But is that bad?

The immediate cause of this line of thinking was because I took Friday off from checking messages entirely, and thus missed the message that told me I didn’t have to be at work on Saturday at seven-thirty after all, I didn’t have to be there until nine o’clock. So I went to work an hour and a half early.

Oh well. I sat and read the New Yorker for an extra hour and a half. Poor me.

And this made me think about a time when I lived in DC, when I played soccer, and the pre-season tournament we were playing in was moved from a field out near Manassas to a field near Fort Belvoir. These fields were both a pain in the keister to get to, and they were nowhere near each other. The field change came the morning of the tournament.

This was in 1994 or 1995, when a few people I knew had pagers, but no one had a mobile phone. If you needed to talk to someone you called them at home or at work.

We were able to get in touch with everyone except one person who was taking a class in the morning and then going to the games straight from there. She was planning on missing the first game but would be there for the rest of the afternoon.

She lived with her parents and she worked like eighty hours a week, so she wasn’t the easiest person to get in touch with in the first place. She only played with our team occasionally but she was really, really, really good. She was also a really great person. I did not want her to drive out to Manassas and find herself at an empty soccer field, with no indication of what had happened. I knew she would never play with us again if that happened, and I would feel really terrible about the wasted time and gas and everything. I just did not want that to happen.

I had to figure something out.

I talked to the person who knew her, who had called and found out she was at a class. I said where is the class? She said, “It’s at Georgetown.”

My brother went to Georgetown for undergrad, and I had taken a continuing education class there, so I knew the basic layout and I knew that there wasn’t a lot of parking there, there was really only one main lot.

I said, “Find out what kind of car she’s driving.” So Tegan called Michelle’s dad back and got a detailed description of the car.

I drove to the parking lot where I thought it might be and drove around looking for the car. I found the car. I put a note on the windshield — “MICHELLE, Today’s games have been moved from Linton Hall to FORT BELVOIR!! See you there!!!” I drew a map of where the fields were.

I went to the games.

Michelle managed to find us after the first game. I saw her, I said, “You made it!” She was like who put the note on my car, was that you? I said it was. She said, “Oh my gosh, that was amazing!”

And it’s true. It was. But it wasn’t that hard, I just had to think of it in the first place.

So my point is, if you want to make something happen, you can make it happen, and there are a million options for making something work. If the most obvious choice (just call them on the phone!) isn’t going to work, think of something else.

Hang a dish towel out the window.

I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who considered driving around a parking lot at Georgetown looking for someone’s car to be a viable option, but I was right, it was, and it worked. Michelle got the message, she made it to the games, she played with my team for two more years, and we all lived happily ever after.

So there.

Humans are a creative species. That’s what your brain is for.

Figure it out.