Obsessive Cell Phone Disorder

At the opera I found myself checking my phone three times (okay maybe it was four) to make sure it was off.  While Gen Y-ers’ cell phones seem like organic parts of their bodies they don’t even have to think about, I can never quite trust that mine isn’t going to misbehave somehow. I tell myself I am just a conscientious theater-goer.  After all, if my phone were to suddenly blare its raucous Latin ring in the middle of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, I would definitely wish “not to be.”

I do know other people who triple-check their phones; I am certainly not the only one. But are we merely being careful and courteous, or are we being neurotic, like people who can't stop washing their hands?  Let’s check for symptoms:

Obsessive Cell Phone Disorder (OCPD) Diagnostic Guidelines

How many times do you look to make sure your phone is turned off or set to “silent”?

1. At a live theater performance, a wedding or a funeral: 
    a)  Once (Only once is a little cocky in these venues, but it’s definitely non-obsessive.)
    b)  Twice  (Normal, especially at an opera or a serious play.)
    c)  Three times  (Okay, well, better safe than sorry.)
    d)  More than three times (You’ve checked it already! My god! OCPD!)

2. In a movie theater or at a lecture:
    a) Once (Totally appropriate.)
    b) Twice (Borderline, unless you are alcohol-impaired.)
    c) Three times (Ridiculous! You need behavior modification therapy. But don’t worry, I’m sure there’s an app for this.)

3.  In class, in a meeting, at a dinner party or at a restaurant:  

     a) Once  (Not exactly compulsive, but maybe a little overly-cautious.)
     b) More than once (This would probably be considered a sign of OCPD. On the other hand, you could just be clinging to laudable but outdated notions of propriety.)

4. At a family dinner:
    Turn my phone off?  What are you trying to do, kill me?



“Sorry…Hav to tke important Skype call….ttyl”  my chat window read.  And just like that my friend vanished.

For ten minutes, I had been waiting to Facebook chat with this person--who had been tied up multi-chatting, as was his wont--so I could tell him my news. I had finally gotten his full attention (or what passes for full attention nowadays) and was madly typing something I felt was fairly interesting when…wham!  I was dumped for the Skype call.

“Hmm,” I thought, after a fleeting letdown feeling.  What does have priority, in a society where everyone is continuously plugged into several communication outlets at once?  Is it a matter of who it is who is contacting you, or is it first-come, first-served?  Or is it, perhaps, a decision that is based on the form of technology itself? 

I suddenly had this vision of the rock-paper-scissors game I used to play as a child (rock breaks scissors; scissors cut paper; paper covers rock.) It’s a game that has been used for decades--by adults as well as kids--to decide various issues, from figuring out whose team goes first to resolving legal disputes.

Does Skype beat IM? Does a text on your phone beat a Facebook chat?  When you are at a cocktail party, is taking a call acceptable?  If you are on the phone, should you put the person on hold because you have a text coming in? 

Call me old-fashioned but I believe that face-to-face interaction should almost always take precedence.  And, all things being equal (that is, the person with whom you are communicating is not in the middle of telling you he has a gun to their head and is about to pull the trigger), I believe that because a call--of any kind--involves a live person, it should be considered more important than chatting or texting.  IMing on Facebook may be happening in real time, but people do tend to multi-chat about unimportant things on the computer.  It’s more of a “while I am waiting for something in my life to happen” kind of pastime, so therefore probably least important of all.  (Never mind that we should all be reading a book instead. I have given up Luddite lecturing for Lent.)

It would be a lot easier if there were some hard-and-fast rules in this area, rock-paper-scissors style. Social rules are good for us; they lesson the possibility of confusion and misunderstanding. Okay, so here it is, folks: Face-to-face interaction trumps a call (Skype or other); a call trumps a text; a text trumps IMing.  One, two, three…go!

With this strict hierarchy in place, when my above friend got his Skype call I would not have been taken aback even for a second. I would merely have clicked quickly out of Facebook Chat and called someone up on the phone, knowing that that way, I might finally win the battle for a conversation.

Of course, I’d have to find someone who still answers his phone.


What Gumption

Am I the only person who is bewildered by the amount of chewing gum left on the sidewalk?

Not just on sidewalks, but on every possible pedestrian surface, New York City is speckled with thousands of round blotches, roughly the size of a silver dollar and ranging in color from light gray to black.  These more or less permanent spots are remnants of masticated gum which has been discarded and then flattened, either by foot or by wheel.  One of the most disgusting--if relatively minor--aesthetic aspects of urban life, gum pollution is to me one of the most mysterious.  I mean, once you’ve had the frustrating and humiliating experience of stepping on still-sticky gum, how could you possibly let a chewed piece of your own fall naked to the cement? 

Considering the staggering quantity of this gum waste, it seems downright spooky that in the twenty-some years I have lived in the city I have never actually seen anyone spitting a piece of gum onto the ground.  Not once.  I can’t even picture it.  (Do the perpetrators lean over and let the gum drop straight down from their mouths, or do they shoot it out like a pop gun?  Do they deposit the wads surreptitiously into their hands before sending them earthward?  Do they look both ways to see if anyone is watching?)  And it’s not just me: No one I asked has ever seen gum-dumping either.  Like most people, I have observed pedestrians doing many unforgivable things, including but not limited to: neglecting to pick up their dogs’ poop; spitting (the non-gum kind,); dropping lit cigarette butts, half-eaten foods or paper trash to the ground as they walk ; or even--less frequently, thank God--peeing against the side of a building.  I mean, I am not an oblivious person.  So why haven’t I seen these excreting gum-chewers?

Sometimes I try to imagine unusual scenarios that could justify this particular breach of civilized behavior: An alcoholic, having fallen off the wagon, chews a stick of Doublemint to cover tell-tale breath when suddenly he sees his AA sponsor coming down the street and must ditch the evidence; a woman with sudden tooth pain is terrified that a piece of Trident Sugarless is pulling out her brand new filling and so impulsively expels the offending substance; an adolescent confronted by a ragged stranger lets loose his Bubblicious to ward him off. The thing is, you would think I could find someone who has personally witnessed the commission of this litter crime.  I suppose if I really want to solve this puzzle I am going to have to keep watch at odd hours.  I may be able to discover bands of wild bubble gum gangs who come out only at 4:00 AM, chewing like mad and catapulting their gum all over the place.

There is a possibility that over-zealous artists or graffitists are the culprits, for at least a portion of the gum splotches.  I have learned there are people (I found some on the internet, I’m not kidding) who simply love the look of sidewalk gum.  One person has even made a Webgallery of photographs featuring blobs of squashed gum contrasted against different types of cement--kind of an ode to the urban polka-dot.

But perhaps folks just like to leave their mark behind, the way they do when they scratch their initials in wet cement or tree bark.  Exceptionally sentimental gum spitters may even come back to visit their old gum:  “See that one there, honey?  That’s my gum from when I was fifteen and I was on my way back from Jersey Boys.”


A Miss Mingle Muse

On the Number 1 train I look across the car and see a man, probably in his early thirties, balancing a huge poinsettia in his lap.

I study his face.  He looks tense; his eyes are examining every quivering red leaf, over and over.  My guess: He is bringing this as a gift and is not sure whether it is the right one.

I imagine him arriving at his destination--the apartment of a young woman he has been dating.  This is the first time she has invited him to her place for dinner; it is, perhaps, the Big Step.  She flings open the door and greets him with a bright smile. She has bouncy hair and a slender figure. She leans toward him, kissing him lightly on the lips, and then looks down at the pointy red blooms in his arms.

“Is that a poinsettia?”  Her smile has wilted unexpectedly.

“Um, yeah.  For you.  From me.”  Feeling a sudden sense of impending doom, he holds up the pot so that the top tips are just below his nose.

“Oh…thanks.  But…I don’t think that’s good for cats.  Can you just leave that out here?”  Deflated, he sets the plant next to the doormat and follows her into the apartment.  He sees immediately that she does have cats.  Plural.  In fact he spots four of them, and suspects more hidden under pianos and divans.

As he takes off his coat, he makes a mental inventory of the Match.com responses he had gotten the night before, seeds and whispers of possibility which he had not believed he was going to need.


Elevating Manners

I'd just been to a three-hour opera, a cocktail party and a painfully long talent show; so when I say I was tired, that's an understatement.  I was head-throbbingly tired.  The kind of tired that causes your whole being to become focused on the act of getting home.  I counted the minutes in the subway (only three more stops!), then the subway steps (okay, just a few more to the top).  At last, the final stretch: the short block to my building.  (Thank god, two minutes more and I can take my shoes off and lie down.) 

As I entered my lobby I saw I was in luck: My extremely slow elevator was there waiting for me!  A neighbor, a man who lived on the eighth floor, was already standing inside the car. We made eye contact and I smiled in greeting. Then to my dismay--which was swiftly followed by outrage--he looked away and the doors closed in my face.  It felt like a physical slap. I wanted to cry.  How unbelievably rude, I thought.  So typical of the brutal narcissism of modern society.

I took out my frustration on the Up button, pushing it furiously and repeatedly.  As I watched the elevator ascend to the 8th floor, then inch back down again, I  vowed to give my neighbor a piece of my mind the next time I saw him.  And then--there he was when the doors opened.

"I'm SO sorry," he said earnestly. " I pushed the 'Open Door' button but it didn't work.  I wanted to come back down to make sure you knew I didn't do that on purpose."

How happy this small gesture made me!  It only took five minutes out of my neighbor's life, but how many people would have gone to the trouble?  I was at once embarrassed I had thought the worst of him and cognizant that within our reach is a much higher quality of life, if only all of us were to behave as this man did.  We often forget that tiny acts of kindness, behavior that takes into account the well-being of others, can truly elevate our lives.