Back to the Past... By Robin McCoy

An old photo (a grainy print gone digital) to accompany musings of bygone times 

An old photo (a grainy print gone digital) to accompany musings of bygone times 

“The modern world we live in is one of constant distraction, where taking the time to connect with ourselves and have the patience to do is becoming more and more difficult.”  -Marina Abramovic

It began twenty-six years ago, at Lincoln Center in New York.  The creator of this website, Arrington, was sound asleep in her seat, missing both the Jerome Robbins Ballet and the accompanying Goldberg Variations.  Maybe it was because Arrington was missing it all that I felt compelled to really appreciate it, but for whatever reason, it was the most magical performance I’d ever seen.  I fell completely in love with Bach’s Goldbergs and have been on a long quest to hear them again live.  Opportunity finally knocked. 

December 19th, 2015.  Park Avenue Armory, NYC.  Enveloped by the Abramovic method of preparing the audience for listening to classical music, Igor Levit performed the Goldbergs.   I’d cheated and read right through the spoiler alert in the NY Times review, so I knew that we’d be leaving our cellphones, cameras, watches, and stuff, in lockers before entering the performance hall. 

Noise cancellation headphones were handed out. Programs were not. (They would be offered as we exited the hall when they could be enjoyed without being a distraction.)  Lights were dim.  Seating was canvas deck chairs in concentric circles around the concert grand piano.  The packed house reclined in total silence for half an hour.  Then a gong sounded, headphones were removed and the performance began-a performance worth the twenty-six year wait.   It was perfection.  

The knowledge that cellphones would be stashed in lockers before the performance, planted the seed for our “Back to the Past” weekend.  New York had been our home for five years and we always reminisce about the early days of our marriage when we visit.  The City is changed, but much remains the same.  Our lives are changed, but much remains the same. 

My husband, Tom, the father of the sleeping little girl, used to be able to leave his work behind.  When we vacationed with siblings who worked in business, Tom would comment, “I’m so glad that unless I have a patient in front of me, there is no work I can be doing.”  So while our siblings fretted over deals going haywire and papers needing to be faxed, Tom built sand castles, and hunted shells and enjoyed being present with those in his presence. 

We used to get along just fine with only our wits to guide us.  The idea of needing a cellphone to go about the business of ordinary life would have been ludicrous.  But now, the notion of not needing a smartphone to orchestrate daily life results in “Luddite”.

My request of Tom was both simple and unnerving.  Let’s leave our phones at home.  Let’s go to a city we know and love and expect that the earth will not stop spinning and the stars won’t fall from the sky and nothing bad will happen that wouldn’t have happened even if we’d had our phones in our pockets.  And so we did.  And nothing bad happened.   The Armory was still on Park Avenue and Washington Square hadn’t moved.  We planned in advance rather than on the fly.  We paid attention to where we were.  We didn’t take a picture of the bottle- we just enjoyed the wine.  We wandered into a charming shop we would never have found if we’d been looking at the “best of” lists online.  We were present in each other’s presence.  It was simple and it was magic.

Our children’s reactions were predictable.  One who loves the latest and greatest gadgets was a bit bemused.  One who believes in keeping technology in its place (which is to say, the background) was delighted.

And the craziest thing about the experiment wasn’t how easy and delightful it was, but how others reacted to it.  We didn’t broadcast we had no phones, but when you don’t have one, you realize how much the world of commerce and communication relies on electronic “connectedness”.  When I called early to reconfirm dinner reservations and was told I should do so the day of the reservation, I explained that we would be traveling without a cellphone so doing this would be hard.  Could I please assure them that we would show up as planned, even though it was a deviation from their normal process?  The first person said, “Wow.  That is cool.  You’re really leaving you cellphones behind?”  “Yes, that is the case.”  He was more than willing- actually enthused about breaking the “day of” reconfirmation requirement and offered a hearty welcome to his restaurant.

This happened with every call.  It happened when we spoke to a fellow concert go-er as we reclaimed our possessions.  Her relief at being reunited with her phone was palpable and she was incredulous that we had abandoned ours as we had. You could have imagined this being the reaction if we’d said we just left our baby in a hamper at Penn Station- but a cellphone! It happened again, checking out of the hotel, when we asked the desk clerk if she could print our boarding passes, as we were traveling without phones.  Smiling more sincerely than expected, she said, “That’s amazing.  You’re without your phone, intentionally?   Sure, I’ll print those passes.”

You would have thought we’d given up our place in the lifeboat. But all we’d done was leave our cellphones at home- on purpose.  All we’d done was be present to the wonders around us.  All we’d done was live for one weekend as we’d lived for most of our lives- without the distraction of a device that used to remain plugged into a jack on the kitchen wall.

We took it all in stride and didn’t feel too superior since we both knew it really was as close to doing nothing as you can get.  And we didn’t feel noble because as soon as we got home, we had a reunion with our phones too.  Would we do it again? In a heartbeat!  And the world might be a nicer, more connected place if you would too.

“The modern world we live in is one of constant distraction, where taking the time to connect with ourselves and have the patience to do is becoming more and more difficult.”  -Marina Abramovic