Take a walk on the mild side

This past summer, my friend Mark Benz pulled me aside at the gym in Bristol and said, “I nearly killed you.” Mark is a retired metallurgical engineer and an extremely big-hearted guy. He is also scary smart. So, when brilliant, good-natured people might want me dead, I pay attention. “You were checking your iPhone or writing a text when you were crossing the street,” he continued, “and you were completely oblivious to traffic.”

I nodded. The good news? When he had said he’d nearly killed me, he wasn’t thinking retaliation for something I’d done. He didn’t want me dead. The bad news? Apparently, I could have been run over by a car because I was acting like a self-important moron as I crossed Main Street in Bristol.

The truth is, I am hooked on my smart phone. I readily admit it. When the Blackberry was the phone to own, they were christened crackberries because some people’s addictions were so profound. My dependence on my iPhone might be even greater than it was on my Blackberry — not necessarily because the iPhone is a superior product, but because my need to be connected to everything going on in the world is so much more pronounced. Professionally and personally. And I’m not alone. An awful lot of us have become tethered to our smart phones.

Exhibit A? In a recent Vodafone survey, one of out three Brits said they’d answer a cell phone call during sex. One out of two said they’d answer their cell during a wedding. And nearly three out of five would press talk while — to use that great British euphemism — in the loo. (I spend a lot of time in airports, which means I have witnessed the following far too many times to count: The backs of eight guys at eight urinals all talking straight into the wall, with either an earpiece on the side of their head or a cell phone pressed between their shoulder and ear.)

Exhibit B? Sleep experts are starting to worry that young adults may be losing precious shuteye because they are going to bed with their cell phones on the nightstand beside them. In some cases, they do this because they use their phone as their clock and their alarm; in others, it’s because (and here I am conjecturing) they don’t want to miss a text or a tweet, even if it comes in at four in the morning. I know when I’m traveling I use my phone as my alarm, because I have found hotel wake-up calls to be spectacularly undependable. Also, when I use my phone as my alarm, I can check my facebook feed at four in the morning, so I know precisely what my friends are reading, watching, and posting in the middle of the night. Kidding, obviously. I only need to know what they’re reading.

Then there are the folks who are incapable of shutting off their phones while in the audience for a movie or stage play. Worst of all, of course, are the drivers who mistakenly believe they can drive and text simultaneously.

There is a line between being productive and being obsessive, and my sense is that it’s not an especially fine one. Likewise, there is a line between connection and distraction, and that line is not subtle either. We all know how dangerous it is to text and drive. No good ever comes from texting and driving. Never.

Yet people do it.

Likewise, you shouldn’t text while riding your bicycle, but people do that, too. Just ask Bobby Valentine, whose week began with him crashing his bicycle after trying to read a text from second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and ended with him getting fired as Red Sox skipper. (The official scorer ruled the accident an error on the manager, not the second baseman.)

Well, now I will add to that list walking and texting. It’s a bad idea. It took me years to master walking and chewing gum; I will never perfect walking and using my smart phone. The last thing I want is to get run over while reading an email.

So, this morning, I send big thanks to Mark Benz — and I promise I wasn’t multitasking when I wrote this.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 7, 2012. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” was published in July.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.