Hold on: I'm on my cell

  In the last year I’ve done something that deeply offends some of my small-town neighbors: I’ve acquired a cell phone.

Back when I was among the land-lined gentry, I used to think a cell phone was a reflection of lifestyle. People with mobile lifestyles -- you commute to work, step out to meetings, travel to customer sites, and wander the city for a social life -- need mobile phones. People like me -- I work at home, and if I’m not there or at the coffee shop or microbrewery, I probably don’t want to be found -- don’t need the extra expense.

When I traveled to an urban environment, I usually wished I had a cell phone. When I returned home to my small town, I usually didn’t care. But then my wife and I remodeled everything in our house except my office -- moving out for six months in the process -- and suddenly my life straddled two locations. I wanted telephones in both, and the cell was clearly the best option.

Since acquiring that cell phone, however, I’ve realized it’s not just a matter of lifestyle and convenience. It’s one of philosophy.

My friend Gary travels far more than I do, and admits he hates the extra hassle of finding a pay phone, checking his messages, and hoping that in returning a message he isn’t setting off a game of phone tag. But he refuses to get a cell.

A nature writer, Gary has a well-documented catalog of stories of people requesting inappropriate wilderness rescues. On a very basic level, they’re not taking responsibility for themselves (your feet hurt? Call a helicopter!). But on a deeper level, Gary says, even if you don’t use it, bringing the cell phone into the wilderness implies a fear of solitude, which he sees as the very reason to go to the wilderness.

I agree with him, and so I don’t take my phone into the wilderness. (Actually, a couple of weeks ago I did. Forgot to clean out my pockets before leaving. Luckily for me, in the wilderness there was no reception and the phone turned itself off.)

My friend, Anne, is also a fan of solitude. "A thought need not be expressed," she says. "It can just sit in your mind, as a thought." With the ability to be in constant contact, any time you have a thought, you’re tempted to call someone to express it. Even when you’re not in the wilderness, the cell phone leads you to absurd levels of over-cautiousness ("Now just in case…") and over-vigilance ("Now don’t forget…").

Anne lives a simple life, pared of nonessentials and full of commitments met. Even with just a landline, she finds many of her incoming and outgoing calls unnecessary: "too soon, too mad, too needy, too, too, too…"

That simplicity is one of the big draws of the small town, why Anne is happier here than she was in the city. No wonder she mistrusts the cell: It’s the tool of that city, come to haunt her. But the other day a cell-phone incident reminded me of another such draw, another way this tool detracts from our small-town life.

I was in the coffee shop when my cell phone rang. (Actually, it buzzed. I have it set almost permanently on stun.) It was my friend, Steve, so I decided to answer it, but as soon as I did I felt bad. Steve was calling to set a time to meet at the microbrewery, and I tried to respond softly so as not to interrupt the other patrons. But if I wasn’t going to be fully invested in the conversation, why not just play phone tag?

Meanwhile, I’d been pulled out of the coffee-shop environment. I’d lost focus on what I was reading, was no longer aware of who sat at adjacent tables, had intentionally broken the community connection of that place. And for what?

Part of the simplicity of the small town is its total immersion. Your neighbors are also your co-workers, and your golf buddies, and your waitresses and plumbers. So you don’t flit among multiple settings, you don’t multitask among multi-communities. As in the wilderness, you take on increased responsibilities to heighten a certain solitude, in this case a shared solitude of this tight-knit community isolated from a crazy world.

I still have my cell phone, I still like its convenience on the rare occasions when I’m moving around. But in a small town, I’m continually reminded that connectivity comes in multiple forms, and sometimes we need to let the others ring more loudly.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He answers the phone in Red Lodge, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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