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Step Away from the Phone

Last Saturday night, my daughter and I sat in a cozy restaurant in Florence, Italy and  watched with amusement as the six tourists at the next table all snapped photos of their “Bistecca alla Fiorentina,” served by a friendly waiter (who later invited my daughter back for some vino after “mamma” went home).

If we had any desire to photograph our perfect pasta, we couldn’t because we left back at the hotel our cameras as well as my daughter’s Blackberry and my well-worn cell phone. The electronic tether was unhooked more by happenstance than by deliberate decision.  We didn’t want to lug even small “stuff” with us to dinner. The overloaded suitcase that we were dragging around for my daughter’s Italian semester made us lighten our load at every opportunity.

During my 12-hour solo train-and-plane ride home on Sunday I thought about the wonderful week we shared together, just mother and daughter.  Part of the pleasure, of course, is going on an adventure with adult children and sharing sights through their eyes.  It’s not unlike when they were small children and we delighted in watching them experience ordinary events like blowing bubbles or stomping in puddles.

Of course, travel with adult children means flexibility on both sides. We walked a little more than my daughter wanted and shopped a little more than I wanted.  (However, I was proud when she bargained like a true New Yorker for two leather bags in a Florence street market.) The lesson learned (again) was that vacations with the entire family or simply a parent and child can be as just bonding—and fun—with adult kids as with younger children.

The sojourn was savored even more because we weren’t distracted by the blinking light of her Blackberry or the ring of my cell, turned off thanks to outrageous international call rates.   I managed to limit email thanks to the very slow wireless connection. Those electronic tethers are like bringing dozens of other people—and their queries and concerns—along for the ride.  Does that text asking “How’s your trip?” or the cell call from a friend with a quick question need to be answered in the middle of the Sistine Chapel?  Do we need to be moody over the breakfast cappuccino because of a annoying email? We are conditioned not only to answer all those messages but to keep checking to see if anyone is trying to reach us.  While baby boomers are addicted, our adult children are even more so.  Witness a group of college students, particularly young women.  The required accessories:  phone in one hand and skinny latte in the other.

“Alone Together,” a new book by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, examines the downside of our e-habits.  In an interview with Fast Company magazine Prof. Turkle dubs our indiscriminate use as “technological promiscuity.”  Why must we always stay connected? She believes that the text and email messages give us “a sense of approval and validation.” Somebody out there likes us!  One key question-and-answer from the interview:

You mention how when people see the little red light on their BlackBerry, indicating a message has arrived, they feel utterly compelled to grab it. Do you personally experience that compulsion?

I recognize it with my email. Somebody said of email, “It’s the place for hope in life.” It reminds me of how in Jane Austen, carriages are always coming, you’re waiting, it could be Mr. Bingley’s invitation to a ball. There’s some sense that the post is always arriving in Jane Austen. There’s something about email that carries the sense that that’s where the good news will come…I try to figure out what it is that this little red light means to people. I think it’s that place for hope and change and the new, and what can be different, and how things can be what they’re not now. And I think we all want that.

“How things can be what they’re not now.”  But many times the “now” is worth taking time to enjoy, whether on vacation or at the dinner table or while waiting in a line with a friend. Instead experiencing the “now,” we check our messages.  Sometimes it takes heavy luggage to leave the tech tools behind, to silence the constant e-buzz and to “value the passing time” as author Roger Rosenblatt writes.

And sometimes our children can teach us that lesson. As we sat in an open-top bus winding up the side of a mountain road to the postcard-perfect village of Fiesole, my daughter urged me, “Stop taking photos and just soak in the moment.”

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