All FOMO All The Time 2/16/18

I grew up with a rotary phone attached to the kitchen wall whose coiled cord I’d snake out into the half bath, with it’s sliding pocket door and framed print of a sailboat, for private conversations. They were punctuated by the humiliating shouting of my mother, "five more minutes!" Phone calls were expensive and all of my friends were out of town. Sometimes she’d set a timer for ten minutes, and that was the limit. I’d heard of kids who had phones and TVs in their rooms. We did not. Also? We all knew a lot of phone numbers by heart.

We had newspapers and terrible sitcoms and no remote control. There wasn’t much to watch anyhow and TV time was highly regulated. We played unsupervised, forced to go outside and stay there until dark. In Harvard Square there was a place called out-of-town news where you could get papers from all over the world; a place I went to look at job classifieds in San Fransisco when I was planning to move. We used pencils and paper and notebooks and our hands were required to move across the page or some of us got proficient at typing on typewriters with white corrective tape. Word processors were next, and I had a boxy Macintosh in college, for writing. We had to wait until we got to a library to look something up, questions held in head and gut, wonder to sit with. We were hens on eggs. Patience was a virtue. We lived with gaps, wandering, staring out into space. Space in general. We had to unroll our windows with cranks and push down buttons for locks and turn around to see behind us. More space, more movement.

I remember card catalogues. Microfiche, paper cards at the back of library books stamped by hand by a human. Life before debit cards, mail order catalogues. So. Much. Waiting. You had to get cash at the grocery ATM or write a check or use a credit card. There wasn’t much to fill life’s blank spots. You had to wait to see pictures you took a week ago: you dropped off film, crossed your fingers and picking up a collection of mysterious images with negatives in a separate sleeve. Before my godsend digital camera, I used a completely manual Pentax without so much as a light meter, it went everywhere with me. I had a hand-held meter when I could borrow one but also I learned to bracket and intuit apertures and shutter speeds because patience was built-in to life. You had to know how to spell because nothing took up the task of finishing words and auto-correcting thoughts. Doesn't each new generation tell this quaint tale of obsolescence? 

You had to watch TV shows when they were on or record them with VHS tapes which I never ever did and you read one book all the way through. Maybe you were lucky and had the multi-volume Encyclopedia Brittanica in your house. We bought a beta tape player when VHS wasn’t yet popular and watched our first movie at home when I was in middle school, I was so excited. Chariots of Fire. That stirring soundtrack? It was gravitas.

Today there is some transcendently creative TV and we can stream whatever media we want a la carte like single songs instead of having to buy a whole album to consume slowly like expensive spirits; one album with which to become intimately acquainted: lyrics, cover art, stories-- memorized. We can easily have five books going, New Yorker piles gathering dust, hundreds of Pinterest folders, emails and photos by the thousands, a thousand channels of everything, a thousand ways to get the news, mountainous virtual piles. 

As a child I was obsessed with pioneers, prairie folk and Grizzly Adams’s fugitive adventure in the Rocky mountains. My fantasy even as a tween reading Mother Earth News, was going off-grid and sewing and growing everything I’d need. I’d funnel energy from wind and sun for my modest existence, growing food, oil-painting, reading Alice Walker books and playing banjo with a few sweet kids who’d help me knit our clothes and can our produce. 

My phone though. It’s lifeline to a new community of friends, a primary source of networking, a field-specific idea-sharing space, a source of education and inspiration. It’s also a cigarette pack; living just as close and precious in my pocket or somewhere I can see it as anything deemed worthwhile. It used to feel so electric, getting a new pack of smokes, smacking it against my hand a bunch of times to pack down the tobacco, sliding off of the cellophane, turning one over inside the pack for good luck. Panic at being without. Surge of dopamine on that first inhale. Quit for good in my late twenties, but I still remember. My friend Sarah doesn’t even own a cell phone. It’s wild, rebellious and cool how sure she is she doesn’t need it. She doesn’t, you know?

Like everyone, I’m scrambling to keep up with feeds, digital classes, books everywhere, podcasts-- always toggling, always hungry, barely finished digesting one thing before I’m on to the next. It feeds my curious mind in ways I adore. Nowadays I get surges from sugar, likes and comments, positive feedback, learning. I’m a junkie for these jolts of buzzy pleasure not to be confused, as Robert Lustig warns in his new book, with happiness. Pleasure = need more, happiness = i’ve had enough. Desire/satiation. We are a thirsty nation.

I’m not even sure where I’m going with all of this. I wonder- can I or anyone who wants to go back to the starting line of emptiness do it, as tethered as we are? How will I handle this as a parent when the other kids start getting smart phones at ten years old? How will I control my own urges? Isn’t boredom fertile and beautiful, a precursor to something interesting? Can we still go deep with all these choices scattered finely as mist? 

Grab a handful of air and your hand will be soaked. Listen to piles of stuff and stop remembering where it all came from-- the floating wisdom/stupidity orbiting you. What about the frightful modeling I’m offering my son, who wants “his” phone to carry around, an old IPhone filled with pictures and music. How will this play out? I wish I could go back to the time before he’d tasted sugar or seen stuff on a screen. I tried to protect him for as long as I could. But we live in the world. 

A couple of years ago in a class I taught, several moms who knew each other kept giggling with their babies and saying “FOMO, FOMO!” I didn’t even know what it meant. I had to ask them. “Oh, fear of missing out”, they quipped. 

The lingo of a generation. We didn’t have that fear growing up because we didn't see or hear or show so much. We didn't all document our granular lives like the girl who couldn't have been more than ten I saw taking a selfie while going down the slide at a bounce-house partyBut now we do (fear, document), and how quickly it seeps in and takes over. It’s all FOMO, all of the time. The way to handle it is still unfolding. Unless you just say no. 

Erin JadeComment