The first time I saw a beeper I was probably 8 or 9. It was on the belt of a family friend who was a doctor. It was mind blowing at the time to think that no matter where he was, the hospital could reach him and he would get up, find the nearest phone and in minutes be updated on a patient or called into action.
At the time it seemed like an amazing innovation. Eventually all sorts of people started to carry beepers. It was no longer just doctors on call who may be needed urgently by their office. It was the police, business people of all varieties, even drug dealers. Those little black beepers eventually gave way to the cell phone and now we are all “on call” all the time.
The cell phone has changed everything. We had this babysitter when I was a little kid who was out of central casting. She was a thousand years old and wore those pantyhose socks rolled down at her ankles. She would arrive, (an experience that was always accompanied by my mother wearing Aliage perfume), my parents would greet her with the relief in their voices that I recognize in my own at the arrival of the sitter. They would kiss us goodbye, and leave the number of the restaurant on a notepad in the kitchen should anything go wrong. As soon as they drove away Mrs. Carter would fall so deeply asleep on the couch that we would put tissues over her nose just to watch them shoot up into the air with each massive snore. She was not overly concerned about emergencies.
Now of course many of my friends have apps where they can tune into their children’s baby monitors from wherever they are. Not only are they reachable via cell, but at the slightest blush of anxiety over the wellbeing of their child, the first pang of missing them, they can log in to their bedroom. It doesn’t just relate to children, I often find myself feeling vaguely rejected because I emailed someone a non urgent request and have not heard back within hours.
Our sense of urgency is off balance. We text to say “on way” as we are leaving the house to whoever is at our destination. We carry our phones from place to place like Linus and his ever present blanket. We have feeds of information pouring in from all over the world, our childrens’ bedrooms, CNN, Twitter, Instagram; all of it keeps us up to date on our universes big and small.
I think that all this “on call” doesn’t always bring with it a sense of connection but instead allows our anxieties to rule the day. We are all always slightly on alert should we be needed, a level of edge that I am quite sure my parents did not feel when they left us in the care of the world’s oldest babysitter. In some ways, feeling constantly plugged in means we are never actually anywhere. A friend of mine with a teenage daughter told me that if nine of her daughter’s friends are together, they are all texting the tenth friend who isn’t there. Locked in constant communication with each other regardless of location.
I am not sure we all have more to say, or more to worry about. We just have more access. Recently, I have taken to keeping my phone on silent all the time and, for the most part, buried in my purse. I am not a doctor, and yoga emergencies are rare. Should one of my children be in trouble their schools have enough numbers that they would reach me. I did not consciously break the habit of treating my phone like my woobie. It happened slowly. I just kind of stopped answering it, and eventually people stopped calling or expecting to hear back right away. Amazingly, the world has continued to turn. When something urgent has come up, the message has made its way to me in plenty of time. I also feel liberated from my feeds. I engage them rather than the other way around. If I want updates they aren’t hard to find.
I don’t know if I can stop being “on call” altogether, but I do know it feels way better to live on my own non-urgent terms. Sometimes less is more, even for those of us who work on the fly we need to learn how to stop treating everything as if it were urgent and re-learn how to be unavailable. If you are telling someone you love more than once a day to “wait a minute” or “one last thing” you might be teaching a lesson you don’t want them to learn. When we are constantly plugged in somewhere else we send a pretty clear message to the people we are with: someone somewhere is more important than you are. I know in my case the people I am with are usually the ones I care about most. I am going to stop asking them to wait while I multi-task the universe. The universe won’t notice but those people that I care about certainly will.