Thursday, December 13, 2018

#DoNotDisturb: How I Ghosted My Cell Phone to Take Back My Life

Jedediah Bila wrote #DoNotDisturb: How I Ghosted My Cell Phone to Take Back My Life after she came to the realization that she was spending far too much time--wastefully--poking around people' social media pages and not living her own life. Messages or alerts from friends of friends and exes of exes would buzz on her phone and she would jump to attention, her Pavlovian stimulus fully charged. These distant people demanded (and got) her attention even though what she got out of their posts or alerts was entirely useless information. Bila would stare into her phone all day and into the night. #DoNotDisturb shares her story of how she got her life back when she turned off her phone. She didn't only get her life back when she did so: she also got a husband. Talk about a reward for turning off your phone!

I approached this book with the prejudice that I was going to rip into the author and all cellular-obsessed people like she used to be. I still am going to be merciless in my condemnation of 95% of the population as weak and impulsive lazy non-thinkers. I use that percentage based on Bila's assertion that 95% of the American population now owns a cell phone. I do not believe this figure. I think that Bila just chose the highest percentage she could find when researching how many Americans who currently had cell phones. The larger the figure, the more dramatic the effect. My own opinion--opinion, mind you, not anything based on my own research--is that this percentage is about twenty points lower. In any case, the number of people who have a cell phone far exceeds the number who don't. And they're ruining the peace and quiet of those around them.

The disappearance of quiet is nothing new. I work in a public library, an institution that long ago ceased to be an empire of shushing. Our library used to have a no-cell phone policy. Can you imagine anyone enforcing that now? What sound irritates you the most? For me, it's that five-note high-pitched bird tweet that signals a new Twitter message. I hate that sound. It is too loud, too frequent, and always invasive. As I turn into a crabby old man I have no compunctions telling people who are being too loud on their mobile phones "You have a mobile phone. Be mobile." I must admit that I stole that line from a TV show. I recall watching Hyacinth Bucket walking around her house with her new cordless phone just because she could. I wish cell phone users would realize they don't have to be anchored to one spot--like landline users such as myself--when they are having a conversation. Noise, interference, interruptions...all part of the modern world and I realize that fighting it would be a losing battle. Some steps have been made to restore the peace, and I do appreciate the phone-free train cars I have travelled in. Bila however had to come to the realization that she couldn't wait for other people to design phone-free train cars for other aspects of her life. She had to restore the peace herself. And one way to do that was to go phone-free. 

She couldn't stop her phone use on the spot. She had some weaning to do. First of all she dropped scores of Facebook people (they weren't "friends" at all) and deleted some apps entirely. Bila grew amazed at how less stressed her life was when she wasn't devoting so much of her time in other people's lives. She could appreciate the blue sky, and the different shades of blue within it. She was aware of people, animals, sounds and not centred on her little screen as she shuffled from place to place. It was as if she had discovered the real world for the first time:

"...I now had my eyes open to it all and had made the decision to put my phone away. I was like the sober friend in a room full of drunk people, the only one seeing things clearly." 

Bila had an epiphany when she rejoined the real world and started to live life again in the moment. Her personality and overall outlook changed immediately. She was happy to walk around Manhattan, looking up, not down. She was living life in the moment, appreciating sunsets and not obsessively taking photos of sunsets. She was enjoying the beauty and serenity of sunsets, and not taking selfies with sunsets, or editing or filtering her photos of sunsets before posting them on Instagram. She is not kind to people who seem to let the pleasure of the moment pass them by for the sake of social media:

"Back then, before these digital doohickeys dominated our world, we lived the lives we were living, instead of constantly trying to capture a perfect representation of those lives to post on social media, for us to then check obsessively for views. Or likes. Or whatever. Over and over." 

She has no sympathy for parents who would prefer to watch their children's concert through a tiny phone screen versus watching the wide scope of the event in an auditorium:

"When I'm at a cousin's kid's middle school chorus concert, seeing all the parents there with their phones up in front of them, recording, taking near-constant photos and selfies, texting them, posting them on social media instead of actually listening to and feeling the music, I anyone ever actually just where they are at the moment, in the moment? Do we even know how to do that anymore?" 

When I saw the original lineup of Bananarama in concert this past February, I was the only person in the front row who was not filming the show on an iPhone. I might be overthinking this, but I did get special attention from Siobhan Fahey, my favourite group member. She smiled at me and gave me the thumbs-up. It could have been in response to me knowing all the words to their songs, but perhaps it was in appreciation for seeing me actually enjoy the show in the moment, and for not preoccupying my attention by recording it. Would I ever watch a video I took of the concert anyway? All YouTube clips of the Toronto concert are of horrible quality. How many parents play back--even once--the cell phone recordings they made of their children's concerts? They miss the show the first time in real life by recording it, and don't even bother to see a woeful recording on the narrowest of screen playbacks. It's one thing if you're not in attendance at a concert: you're not there. Nor are you even if you are present, ostensibly watching it in real life in real time, but if you're recording it all by watching it through a tiny screen, you're not there either:

"What I find unappealing: when I'm at a performance, and the audience is recording, checking their phones for something, taking a photo, sending it, posting it, FaceTiming their friend in the middle of it all. Awful. How about going back to the idea that--if you're not there, YOU'RE NOT THERE."

#DoNotDisturb was a rapid read because it was written in an oral style. Bila even included some dialogues. She used lengthy hyphenated phrases to excess, starting from page 2: 

"That said, I'm not one of those I-had-to-walk-five-miles-to-school-barefoot-in-the-snow-uphill militant memorialists..." 

and continuing almost to the end at page 233:

"Venmo often becomes yet another look-at-me, look-what-I'm-buying-and-doing, I'm-important-because-you're-paying-attention-to-what-I'm-doing sad by-product of the tech boom."

While indeed oral stylizations, this superabundance of hyphens was still an annoying sight to stumble across the printed page. I wish the author had restructured her sentences to express the same sentiments by avoiding all hyphens. 

Bila answers those who claim they carry a cell phone only in case of an emergency. I get that so-called concern whenever I explain why I don't have a phone:

"'But what if I'm needed in an emergency?'
"Which brings me back to the hundreds of years that people existed and survived without cell phones, emergencies included."

As a former teacher, Bila is worried about the next generation. Children are growing up using cell phones and laptops while still toddlers. Parents are nose-deep in texting rather than tending to their children. When she was a teacher, Bila frequently had to deal with interruptions in class:

"...the second a phone would buzz or light up, they'd stare at it momentarily, then lose all attention in the project or assignment at hand. Additionally, so many students I taught wound up being on medication for attention deficit disorder. I wasn't sure if the increase in this diagnosis correlated with the onslaught of devices, but I had a suspicion." 

Her suspicion is bang-on. I do not shy away from debating why I believe AD(H)D is a myth. Tough love from parents by removing their children's electronic devices will go a long way to save the underused brains of our youngest generation. No one, not just children, thinks anymore. People are not testing their memories or their power of recall. When I walk home from work I am obviously not plugged in. If I'm thinking about something and can't recall a fact or figure, I try to remember what it is. I test myself to try to recall it. I have twenty-five minutes to do so before I can check the Internet at home. Those who have Internet on the go on their devices would simply type their question into Google and get the answer within seconds. Do they even pause to think about anything? Do they have any skills of patience when the knowledge they want can be found in seconds? This continual state of having immediate information and providing only partial attention severely limits one's ability to focus, and could possibly also lower one's IQ.

Bila laments:

"It's been a while since I've seen a child hang out in a park, crouched over a puddle after a rainstorm, stick in hand, tracing through the surface area, watching the water ripple toward the edges, thinking, daydreaming. Or a kid on an airplane staring out the window, intrigued by the movement of the baggage handlers coordinating the freight on the tarmac. Nowadays, what do I see? Children glued to big tablets in their hands, clueless to their surroundings, entranced by the make-believe, engaged in a process that pulls them mindlessly along a predetermined trail engineered by some Silicon Valley twenty-something.
"But alas, who am I to judge those kids? I only started noticing so much of the world when I finally put my own phone down."

Indeed. No one has to totally give up his or her cell phone. Just put the damn thing down. You might--just like Bila--meet your future spouse because you looked up.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store

Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store by Bruce Allen Kopytek was a weighty paperback about Canada's preeminent department store chain. At 464 pages, I approached the book thinking that although it would be highly informative, it would nevertheless be a slow read. My first impression was pleasantly disproved the moment I started reading. Kopytek managed to write a lengthy and super-detailed corporate history of the retail giant while maintaining a personal touch. The result was an addictive read, a page-turner, especially since I knew something about Eaton's and was waiting for the author to arrive at certain parts about the company's history. The author filled the book with testimonials from Eaton's customers and employees going back decades, which made the read all the more enticing.

The book started at the time of Timothy Eaton's birth in 1834 (although the Eaton family tree in Appendix B stated his year of birth as 1843) and his emigration to Canada as a young man of twenty. He was a merchant who built an empire literally from coast to coast in all ten provinces. Eaton's was not strictly a chronological read, which was fortunate because that would have made it a boring book. The first Eaton's Santa Claus Parade was held in 1905 yet the chapter about the parade only followed the chapter about store expansion and renovation in British Columbia in the 1970's. I knew that Kopytek had to write about the Eaton's parade tradition as well as the company's decision to cancel the parade in 1982. I just didn't know when he'd eventually get to it. This element of suspense--as I never rush ahead to peek at the pages to come--kept me on the edge of my seat as I ended each chapter. You could say I was waiting for Santa, and in a sense I was.

I can remember the Eaton's store on Queen Street in Toronto, and that the Queen subway platform had an escalator that led directly into the store. You did not have to leave the subway station first. If my memory serves me correctly, I remember the synesthetic pleasure of arriving from the subway platform into a bakery. Now wasn't that a smart idea for greeting customers? What better way to attract customers and to fill their heads with good thoughts than to tempt them with the aromas of freshly-baked goods? Timothy Eaton would have been proud.

Eaton's expanded from coast to coast, always trying to keep itself modern by updating its stock as well as renovating its premises. What might have seemed like a marketing blunder or over-the-top egotism was the establishment of a second major Eaton's store in downtown Toronto, merely blocks from its original location. The two stores managed to stay in business for over forty years, until the opening of the major retail colossus known as the Eaton Centre in 1977. Kopytek spent extreme detail on the architecture of each Eaton's building, whether it was the new Eaton Centre or a suburban mall anchor store. I do not have an architectural background so I had to look up some terms, such as "chamfered corners", but other structural terminology was satisfied by a photo of the store or design in question.

Kopytek filled his book with photos from Eaton's interiors, Eaton's catalogue images and store ephemera. I remember the store's metallic shopping bag dispensers, often found by the escalators. While one would certainly get a bag with every purchase, it wouldn't be one of these large shopping bags, which were made of a thicker paper and had U-shaped handles. One year in the 1970's I fell in love with the TV commercial and jingle "Eaton's Uncrates The Sun", and I bought one such shopping bag as a memento. I still have it:

I also have a small collection of old Eaton's boxes, going back to the fifties. I always place these boxes--unwrapped, of course--under my Christmas tree. I decorate "under" the tree until Christmas Eve when I place real wrapped presents there. Kopytek included photos of Eaton's ephemera from various decades. I only wish that he could have included colour pictures as some of Eaton's themes (green and, at the very end, aubergine) were quite vivid.

In the summer of 1982 Eaton's announced that it would be cancelling the Santa Claus Parade due to its extravagant costs. The store could not have foreseen the backlash of negative publicity it would receive. What the store did not realize was that people still fondly thought of Eaton's and knew the store by name as the sponsor. I enjoyed this recollection of the need for having multiple Santas on parade day:

"A dark-blue and red Eaton's van following Santa carried a second Santa, in case of a problem, along with a nurse and doctor should the excitement of the day overwhelm the parade's celebrity. In most cases, the backups were not needed, but mishaps during the parade were not unknown, ranging from an alcohol-soaked Santa who announced, 'Merry Christmas, you little bastards!' when greeting the crowd assembled to receive him to the sober but no less comical one whose 'jolly' stomach, padded out with a feather pillow, had become soaked by rain, causing his pants to drop as he ascended the ladder to the store."

Yet the downfall of Eaton's did not start with its cancellation of the parade. Eaton's ended its catalogue sales in 1976, not being able to compete with rival Simpson's. In effect Eaton's "handed over $300 million in sales to its greatest rival." The writing was on the wall. Consumer shopping was changing and Eaton's became less relevant with lower-priced retailers and having to fight a reputation that it was a store only your mother (or grandmother) shopped at.

The only criticism I had with the book was that the original newspaper advertisements were reproduced such that their text was wholly unreadable. That's what happens when you reduce a newspaper page to fit onto the page of a book. I could still read all the original copy with a magnifying glass. I am however most appreciative that Kopytek included so much detail about Eaton's culled from the nation's newspapers. He also filled the book with photos of every department store from across the country.

Kopytek ended his book with a timeline of the T. Eaton Co. Limited. It summed up major company events on a single line, but he erred with two dates. I know this, because the dates do not exist:

"1929 Calgary Eaton's opens (February 29)" and "1969 Eaton's Highfield Square (Moncton, NB) opens (February 29)".

Neither 1929 nor 1969 was a leap year. Did he mean 1928 and 1968? Or a different day in February?

The last book I read and reviewed was Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China by Jan Wong, and by coincidence Wong is quoted in Kopytek's book, where she shared her memories of shopping at Eaton's in Montreal (known in Quebec as Eaton) and Toronto. I am happy to say that I awarded five stars to Wong's book as well, and both she and Kopytek wrote to me after I complimented them on each of their books.

As with Eaton's merchandise, Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store by Bruce Allen Kopytek comes highly recommended.