What Are We Missing?

by James Scott Bell

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.

No phone!

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?


49 thoughts on “What Are We Missing?

  1. I like to carry mine for the safety factor, since I don’t live in a big city (or a city at all) but I don’t use it much. Just can’t handle that tiny screen. If I’m waiting while my husband has to stop at the post office or the bank while we’re out doing something else–“Just a couple quick stops” I’m likely to pull up a book. I think I’ve been reading the same book on my phone for three years now. No clue what it’s about, the title or author, but it’s what pops up when I open the reading app.
    I’d rather people watch (although most places these days, it’s watching people on their phones. One guy at our Sunday coffee place was actually listening to a podcast–not loud enough to identify, just loud enough to annoy. He’ll be dead in my next book.)
    And no, I never kept a diary or journal, but several of my characters have.

  2. Notes? Yep. I have yellow legal pads (the little half-size ones) scattered about the house and in the car. And in my outdoor work pants pocket—I like to do manual labor around my house—I have a tiny little notebook and pen for jotting down story ideas.

    I do keep a phone on me, but mostly for emergencies and calls to my aging mother so I can listen to her accent and practice my German.

    • I used to take all sorts of notes, too, Harald. On napkins, biz cards, etc. I must admit I do it on a Notes app now on my phone, or Google docs, as it makes them easier to read and find. I am not averse to some of the advantages of phonedom…

  3. I turn my phone off often, and when I leave home, I don’t usually carry my phone. When I think I SHOULD carry it for safety, I turn it on silent. It’s not specifically that my observational skills diminish with cell phone usage, but that my attention span dwindles (and I feel stupid, somehow, I swear).

  4. The “can’t go anywhere without my phone” syndrome is a symptom of modern day stresses. How’s about people that take their phone out during public restroom visits and carry on lengthy conversations? Perhaps watch an episode or two of Seinfeld?

    Yesterday I had a couple stop in front of my porch (where I was sitting, in plain sight,) and carry on a lengthy conversation, phones in hand, scrolling madly, trying to decide if they were two/tenths of a mile or six/tenths of a mile from their intended destination. Which I probably could’ve told them – if they’d just asked – seeing as how my entire town is one square mile. Oh well. Good story fodder indeed!

    • How’s about people that take their phone out during public restroom visits

      Ed, did you hear about the Latvian chess grandmaster who was caught cheating in a restroom stall with his phone? Really.

      Love your story of the clueless couple. Just ask a human being!

  5. Loved the Beaver scene, Jim, esp. Wally’s line “With a name like that…”

    As Terry says, I watch people watching their phones and imagine the chronic neck problems they’ll have in a few years.

    I imagine the criminals who make clean getaways b/c potential witnesses are riveted to their screens with ear buds in and never notice the holdup, mugging, rape, etc. that’s happening two feet away.

    A pair of ospreys built a nest atop a cell tower near our house, as if they’re thumbing their noses (uh, beaks) at human technology. Good for them!

  6. Loved Leave It to Beaver! Thanks for the great memories, Jim.

    My husband is not what one might call technological; he just learned how to turn on my old laptop last year (he now knows how to get Amazon and YouTube, but that’s about it). When I insisted that we get him a phone in case of emergencies, he chose a flip-phone. He sent me a text once from the garage. It took two weeks for me to receive it. Two full weeks! Needless to say, the whole phone discussion ended there. He’s just not a guy who needs technology, and I love that about him.

    So, yes, I might always have my phone on me when we go out, but I never look at it unless I receive a text or call. We much prefer enjoying our surroundings, soaking in nature, and engaging in good conversation. I see couples scrolling through their phones in restaurants, and I find it so sad. Why go out to eat with your significant other and not speak to each other? I don’t understand it. When I shut down my computer for the day, we talk and laugh all night. I wouldn’t even consider picking up my phone. Unless, y’know, I shoot a quick message to Jordan about a cool new series. 😉

    • It really is sad, Sue, how true face time is being replaced by screen time, in places where we normally used to talk. See it all the time. It’s almost comical.

      Gosh, flip phones. I remember how cool I thought I was when I got mine. That CLAP when you shut it. Flicking it open with your thumb. Looking like I was talking to Spielberg.

  7. Good morning, Jim.

    I love your idea for let’s-pick-on-cell-phones. When I began your post, I glanced at my desk and discovered that I had left my cell phone on the kitchen table. Good. But I dutifully went and got it. I turn my cell phone off each day at my day-time job. I have secretaries who can answer the real phone. And not only that, I have been inundated with robocalls that are targeting my phone and text messages (in spite of being on the do-not-call list). I tell my wife I want a Lindsey Graham sledge hammer for my next birthday, and I’m going back to an old fashioned flip phone.

    I don’t keep a journal, but I do keep a folder of interesting hobbies. We do a procedure at out office, which I won’t name. It is the job of the nurse to keep the patients occupied discussing their passions and interests, so they won’t be thinking about what I am doing down below. It’s amazing what a little Valium will do to get men to open up about their unusual hobbies and passions.

    And no, I don’t feel naked when I am without my cell phone. I feel liberated. You quoted Job 1:21. There has to be some verse, somewhere, in the good book that would remind us that if the Lord wanted us to walk around with our nose in a phone, he would have given us a hand sprouting from our forehead. I haven’t found such hand yet. And if I do, I will amputate.

    Thanks for the post. The catharsis is wonderful.

    • Steve, perhaps we can slightly jostle the ancient Hebrew text of Job 31:1 to read, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully upon a phone.”

    • Steve, I saw an interesting medical anomaly on the news. They spoke of documented cases of horn-type bones growing out of the occipital bones of young adults caused by always looking down at their phones. Any truth to this?

  8. RE: Journaling: I’ve journaled for many many years. Granted, some days it’s nothing but a brief line or two and some days I write a lot. And when I get story ideas, I put them in separate story idea files.

    RE: cell phones & tech: Life hasn’t turned out the way I expected. Having graduated high school in 1984, when the big and honkin’ 50 lb. computers were first coming out–the ones with black backgrounds, green cursors and Prodigy, I thought I was in love and was going to be technology entranced for the rest of my life. After all, I had already graduated from the amazement of a simple standard typewriter to the IBM Selectric where you’d type a line it would keep in memory then the keys would spit it out like magic.

    I was genuinely excited to get my first cell phone–literally the look and size of a man’s shaving kit (I remember on a long road trip my Labrador Retriever puppy didn’t travel well and accidentally had diarrhea all over it. But exteriors of shaving kits clean up well. 8-).

    But here I am 35 years later, completely underwhelmed with cell phones & technology in general. I’m sure people will gladly argue (who doesn’t like to argue?) against it, but in my observation it has taken away people’s ability to function as decent human beings, but I’ll leave it at that.

    But one final irony about cell phones & how obsessed people are with them: I’m regularly around medical professionals whose job it is to teach OTHER medical professionals. These are the people who should know what’s good for the human body. It has been shown that constantly staring down with your head bent forward is terrible for your cervical spine–I’ve heard that for every degree your head is bent forward it adds 10 lbs. of pressure to the spine. Yet, like almost every other soul in the universe, you will see medical professionals, teaching & otherwise, walking around with their head bent toward their cell phones. I’m sure the cynicism of John D. MacDonald could have a field day with it in a story. 😎

    As for me, I have one. Use it for talk & text and nothing else & keep it far away from me as often as I can. Especially on weekends where I leave it in the other room.

    As far as cell phones & their effects on our observation skills: I leave you with a video I first saw while taking a situational awareness/safety class. You can view the very brief video here:


    • Thanks for the funny video, BK. But it reminded me of something sad and serious, like that fight that broke out at Disneyland, and instead of trying to stop it people whip out their phones and film it. Good thing the Good Samaritan wasn’t checking out the discus scores on his phone.

      • Yep, it’s like an entranced video/gamester zombie effect that has come over people. FIlm first, help/warn second (though there still are some people out there paying attention).

  9. I can see the line from In-N-Out stretching down Valley View and around the corner on La Palma Ave. One of the memories from my extended stay in LA. Two years ago already! Aaaaargh!

    Thanks for the reminder to observe and ask What if?

    • I usually get a Double-double, protein style (very carb friendly) and skip the fries. If I’m feeling extra peckish I might ask for a packet of their sauce, just to gild the lily, as they say.

  10. I like your Notes app idea. I have too many notebooks. They’re all over the house—2 or 3 on the nightstand for 3 a.m. inspiration. Half the time I can’t remember what great idea I wrote where. Now, when I am out and about, I take a photo of something interesting and then I dictate into my phone how I would like to add that to my WIP. Organizing notes is my downfall. I waste so much time searching.

    BTW, Did your food order come Animal Style or regular?

  11. Great post (I must admit I am totally missing my In-N-Out -Torrance girl- thanks). I keep a little notebook that has a pen slot so I can write observations constantly. It is a must for writing and for my job (I’m a DJ). Things are always happening and inspiration really does strike. There have been occasions when I haven’t brought my notebook. I usually grab anything to write on or text myself.

    I am a people watcher. In college my friend Darren and I would sit along the wall and just observe everyone and then make up their conversations for each other’s amusement. I still do something similar with my husband. If we have a decent wait for dinner out, I will make up stories about the people in the bar (and often scratch details into my notebook). Thanks for the kickstart.

  12. I reluctantly got my first cell phone a dozen years ago when my vehicle became less than dependable. Before I retired (the first time), ten years of that highly technical career were in a 24/7 on-call status. Without a cell phone, the only time work couldn’t reach me was while I was in the car or making a quick shopping trip. Once I realized I had to be able to call for help, I chose a pre-paid, flip phone. When I’m home, it resides on the dining room table, and I make a thirty-yard dash to pick up before a call goes to voicemail. I constantly have to remind friends I don’t text. And I never answer any call if I’m driving.

    What I do enjoy is the freedom to focus on what I’m doing. To see a beautiful cloud formation, to hear the birds chirping, and watch people around me. Being unattached to my phone affords me the chance to enjoy the colorful vegetables surrounding my steak, to see the sear marks and hear the sizzle. And to check out the intriguing dishes the waiter’s delivering to the next table.

    I may be far behind on the technology curve, but I’m up close and part of what’s going on around me–and far less stressed.

    P.S. Thanks for the tip about the Hatchette’s MacDonald reprints, Mr. Bell. I just treated myself to the entire series in paperback. I can’t wait to get reacquainted with McGee and Meyer.

    • That’s another good point about our current condition, Suzanne. People think you can text anybody anytime. So we don’t have to see anybody face to face, and we don’t have to talk to them, either!

  13. I’m of the Stephen King school of journaling – it’s a good place for bad ideas to go. I do jot down what I call details on occasion. Normally, I’m so fixated on my WIP that all my ideas go into it.

    My other love is photography. I always carry my phone because it is the best camera for walking around and documenting what I see. I have eight different camera apps that do everything from emulating a regular camera, slow exposure, low light exposure, blah, blah, blah.

    For story ideas, I design a new book cover (I’ve learned to work Photoshop fairly well) and start my outline form in Scrivener. Even if the idea later dies, I might pick it up in the future. And iCloud is wonderful. I do something on one machine and I can get to it on any another.

    Does having an iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air, and a high powered iMac desktop make me a techno-dweeb?

    • I have to give props to the phones for research, Brian. When I go on location I do take a lot of pictures. I guess there’s no holding back the dweeb in all of us.

  14. Loved the reference to Leave It To Beaver. (Do you suppose Eddie Haskell was that guy Terry overheard listening to a podcast at a coffee place? Give him a long, slow death, Terry.)

    I carry my phone all the time. I plug it into my car and listen to podcasts or audio books when I’m running errands or sitting in the drive-thru. Probably stunts my observational skills, but at least I’m learning a lot.

    • I do listen to audiobooks when I drive long distances, Kay. Good grief, what’s happening to me? I’m extolling all these virtues of the smartphone now!

  15. Thank you for the reminder to get off our phones and observe. It’s a lost art. I do keep a journal and write about things and people we meet while traveling in our RV. Remarkable some people are still alive. ? And to answer your question – Yes, I feel naked without my phone! And I hate it.

  16. I don’t need a smart phone, but I carry a stupid flip phone which works perfectly for riding around in my jeans when I’m outside alone doing moderately dangerous yard work and in the car for emergencies. People who don’t pay attention to what is going on around them are the first to die or be victimized. So, smart phones outside equal stupid humans.

    Journals and diaries for writers are valuable because they teach you to write every day and pay attention to what is happening. They anchor you to the present. As sources of stories, they have no real use. If someone is different enough to become a character, you’ll remember him. Going back through a year of entries to find one description is a waste of time.

    I am, however, a believer in notes on a current or future project. I bundle current notes in my book bible. Future projects have their own files with those notes.

  17. I carry a phone on which I load minutes with cards I purchase at the grocery store. It doesn’t do e-mail. It can’t text. It doesn’t do Facebook. It’s a phone. That’s all it is.
    I once had a near top-o-the-line Samsung with all the bells and whistles. It ate so much of my time and I generally had little or nothing to show for it. Then fate intervened.
    Somebody washed my wife’s phone with the laundry. I saw it as an opportunity. I gave her my phone and replaced it with the cheap card model I’m using now. I’ve never been happier.
    During breaks at work, I’ve got a book out, reading. The other 599 people in the room are staring at their phones.
    There was nothing on that first phone that I truly NEEDED beyond the ability to make and receive calls.

  18. There is the story about two regulars in a coffee shop complaining to the manager – There is a guy over in the corner. He is not on his phone or a tablet or a laptop. He just sits there drinking coffee, like a psychopath.

  19. I’m an editor, so I’m on the computer way too much time. So I use my phone as a phone. No games, no apps, nothing but the basics. I only use it to call or text people, sometimes to get directions in an unfamiliar area. When I’m out, I notice everything and everyone around me (oh, I also use it to take photos of fantastic or unusual scenes). I am fully aware of and in tune with the real world, and I’m able to connect wholeheartedly with people around me. I am free to observe people, nature, interactions, etc. and use these insights to make an author’s story more authentic when content editing. Real life is so much more fascinating, complex, and wonderful than virtual life! 🙂

  20. I keep my phone with me, but, I don’t have a data plan, so no games, no apps, no internet. Seeing people tied to the digital distraction makes me wonder if they really see anything- they might notice it or look at it, but they don’t *see* it, don’t experience it.

    If the phone stays home, no biggie. It’s not that I’m a technophobe, but I still view my phone as an emergency measure, like if I get a flat or break down (though the reception in the boonies really stinks).

    I tried the Evernote thing, and taking notes with my phone, but then I resorted back to handwriting my lists, notes, and observations. Now, I keep a small notebook and a couple of pens in my handbag. If something strikes me, I pull it out, make my notes, and put it away again. When I wrote them on my phone and read them back to myself, all I heard was a monotonous voice. I didn’t hear my own (or even a character’s voice). There’s no way I can inflect notes on a phone, like an astericks around or a line underneath something worth noting.

    Well, that and I can’t seem to spell anything with that tiny little keyboard. I seem to spend more time correcting my misspellings.

    I will admit, the camera is pretty handy.

  21. Like Terry, I carry my phone for safety, but keep it turned off. That’s my quiet time, when I think about my writing. I did walk off without my credit cards when I went to the supermarket on Saturday — now, that was a disaster.

    • You reminded me of the time I left my drivers license at the health club and forgot about it. The next day I had to get on a plane for a book tour, and stepped up without my ID. Luckily it was Burbank Airport and the TSA folks give me a full wand then let me get on.

  22. I told myself I would never be one of those people carrying a phone every place. Yet, here I am making sure my phone is always with me. I love taking photos of our 2 years old grandson. Love being able to video chat with him even though he lives close to us. 🙂

  23. I love my phone. But it’s mine and I don’t let notifications bug me or allow anything to run in the background that I don’t want running. I don’t get dings for emails or dings for games.

    I read on my phone. It’s better than the handful of books I used to lug around with me everywhere I went. I now have 2000+ books with me at all times. I use the phone–it doesn’t use me. 🙂

    I don’t ignore other people to check what someone else just said. How rude. I don’t use my phone to protect myself from the uncomfortable feeling of being alone in a room full of other people. I watch them do it instead. Lots of great story ideas there. Good manners are good manners wherever one is and if a phone steals them away, I have to wonder if one had any to begin with.

    I use OneNote on my phone for notes and research, and for access to the same when I need it while I’m away from my computer.

    Sometimes I even write on my phone. OneNote is good for that too.

    As for the journals and diaries, I have a great many of them, scattered everywhere, but my primary journals are all in OneNote. My phone makes it easy to access them at any time and add new entries whenever the need arises. 🙂

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