The other day I did an incomprehensible, dreadful, noxious, scandalous thing—something so shocking to the conscience that it threatens the gossamer social fabric that tenuously binds us together as a people and a nation.
I left the house without my phone.
I know, I know! But hear me, please.
My daughter was visiting us from Denver. As is our tradition on such occasions, we get a meal from that Southern California institution—the envy of hamburger lovers everywhere—In-N-Out. I looked at the clock and saw it was 11:15 a.m. On a Saturday. Which meant the cars would be lining up and I’d better get going to snag our grub.
I grabbed my wallet and keys and hopped in the car. As I pulled out of the driveway I patted my pocket.
Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. (Job 1:21)
Halfway down my street I thought, Should I go back and get it? Nay, I must go get in line! Also, In-N-Out is only five minutes away from my house. What could happen in that span of time that would necessitate communication? An earthquake? Possibly! This is L.A., after all. But that was a chance I was now willing to take.
When I pulled in behind a moderate line of cars, I wondered, Now what? I couldn’t check email, scan Feedly, or play a quick game of app backgammon. Why, I could not even tweet!
What to do, what to do? Well, here you are. In line. Waiting to order. Why don’t you try something different, like observing something?
Good idea. What did I see? A parking lot. Wait … next to the In-N-Out building itself—three lovely palm trees.
One of the things I love most about my hometown is the palm trees. You see them everywhere, often in serried rows observable from the freeway. Nothing says L.A. more than a burnt-orange sunset with palm trees silhouetted against the sky.
Okay, so what else did I see? Nearby those palms was one of the ugliest eyesores of our current landscape—a cellular transmission tower. Is there any man-made thing on earth more opposite Michelangelo’s David or the Venus de Milo than one of these dull, gray snarls of protuberant antennae and parabolic receptors?
The symbolism was not lost on me. Here was a perfect metaphor of our hyper-connected state, the loss of appreciation of beauty due to digital pervasiveness.
There! I now had irony to go with my observations!
And soon I would have grilled onions to go with my cheeseburger. I observed the young man who was tasked with taking orders from car windows. During peak times, In-N-Out uses a real live person to speed up the ordering process. It’s the toughest duty in the whole operation, especially when the sun is beating down on the asphalt, as it was that day.
But the young man could not have been more pleasant. In-N-Out trains their people well. I have not met one sourpuss there. Unlike many other places these days.
I started to ask What if about this fine fellow. What if he took an order from a guy in a black sedan, and saw a gun on the seat? What if someone passed him a sealed envelope (and what would be in it)? What if a flying saucer got in the car line and a green alien asked for a Number 2 with a Diet Coke?
Story sparkers from observation. What a concept!
Which brings up the idea of a diary or journal. I have it on no less an authority than Ward Cleaver that this is a good thing for a writer. I give you this excerpt from a Leave it to Beaver episode called “Beaver’s Secret Life.” Beaver’s 6th grade teacher asks the class what they’d all like to be when they grow up. Beaver chooses writer. That evening, the subject comes up at dinner:
What made you decide to be a writer?
I think it’d be neat making up stuff and getting paid for it.
Sure, Beav. They got guys in the publishing company that fix up your grammar and spelling and stick commas in and junk. Some writers don’t even have to write at all, they just holler their whole book into a machine.
Gee, Dad, that’s really neat. Can you get me one of those machines so I can start being a writer?
I don’t think it’s quite that easy.
That’s right, Beaver. I think your first step should be to do what Somerset Maugham did.
Was he a writer?
With a name like that what do you think he was? A linebacker for the Colts?
He kept a diary, Beaver. He jotted down everything that happened, you know, people he met, interesting things he did.
Then when he was ready to write he had all that background he could get stories from.
Would you get me a diary so I can start making up junk?
Sure we will, Beaver.
So what about you? Do you keep a journal or diary to record interesting things and people?
How are your powers of observation these days? Has your smartphone atrophied them?
Do you feel naked if you don’t have your phone with you?