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I broke my phone before my vacation. You won't believe what happened next.

The answer: I didn't have a phone on my vacation.

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Emily VanDerWerff

Jul 12 2021

9 min read

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The night before I left on a week-long vacation, I dropped my phone in the shower.

Here is the part where literally everybody who hears this story asks, "Why did you have your phone in the shower?" And the answer is simple: I listen to podcasts while I shower, duh, and I have yet to invest in a waterproof bluetooth speaker, even though every time I drop my phone in the shower (because, yes, it's happened before), I think, 'God. I should get a bluetooth speaker.'

But all of the other times this has happened before, the phone snapped right back to life. This time, it seemed to have done so again. But about an hour later, the touchscreen slowly but surely started to fail and now, the phone is very fancy and will turn on and things, but you can't make it do anything, because a touchscreen is an important part of a cellular device.

At first, the prospect of traveling sans phone nearly made me collapse in terror. But then I realized I had spent most of my life without a smartphone and had presumably managed just fine. I could get a cab from the airport. I could use a computer for most things. I could do this, couldn't I?

I could! Outside of a few issues (my inability to do two-factor authentication locked me out of my work email, which was maybe fine on a vacation), not having a phone was something I could deal with. What's more, I really did turn into the worst parody of a phoneless person. I could experience so much more because I wasn't looking at a screen. But sitting near the shore of Lake Michigan with friends on a beautiful day took on more meaning when I actually focused on their reactions.

After a while, the fact that I didn't have a functioning phone became kind of a bit. I kept talking about how present in the moment I was, like a parent trying to get their teen to look at a random bird instead of the TikToks and the Snapchats and the Facespaces.

Which, of course, got me to thinking about Emily Burton, yet another version of myself from an alternate universe. This Emily is a 56-year-old political columnist for the Omaha World-Herald (newspapers are still very hot in her universe). She is a newspaper lifer, a secret lesbian, and a single mother to 16-year-old Susana, whom she adopted.

Here is a column that she mysteriously filed this very week after she also took a trip to Chicago for a fun vacation. As always, my communication with alternate universes is not to be questioned and is both factually accurate and backed up by scientific data. Also: As we all know, images do not survive the transition between universes, though alt-text does.

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Put Down That Phone, and Look at This Bird

Burton's Bliss

by Emily Burton

[a stipple portrait of a white woman apparently in her early 30s smiling smugly, as though she just proved a point beyond debating]

Some free advice for President Joe Biden if he wants to win re-election in 2022: Get our teens to put down their phones for a few minutes already!

I was recently in the Windy City of Chicago with my beloved Susana. It was a vacation we had long needed after my "Strength from the Center" speaking tour had left me winded and out of sorts. Susana suggested a week's trip to Chicago to unwind and celebrate the July 6 holiday.

(She also wanted to see her romantic partner, Bex, though she only told me that after Bex arrived at our hotel room, dressed in a suit of finest velvet. I'll give Bex this: I may not understand the nature of their quest for an identity, but they are a snappy dresser.)

As we descended from the skies above to land in Chicago, I pointed out the window. Below us, fireworks burst all across this great, silent nation of ours. I pointed them out to Susana, but she was engrossed in her tiny screen. That's all she does some days is stare at her phone.

I've heard from other parents who have it even worse. A New York City cab driver I talked to on my "Strength from the Center" speaking tour told me that he had heard about a teen who was so infuriated when his mother took his phone that he flew into a murderous rage and burned down the family home. Thirteen people died in the ensuing inferno. At least my Susana only rolls her eyes when I tell her to put down the phone! I have 911 on speed dial if she's ever driven into a phone-spurred rage!

By an accident of timing, I had left my own phone at home. What I found was that I could experience Chicago with fresh eyes. I'd been to the city many times, most recently on my "Strength from the Center" speaking tour, and I have always loved its Midwestern hospitality and the many fascinating roles it fills as a major transportation hub.

Without my phone, it opened up to me anew. I saw the beautiful young people along the Lake Michigan shore. I saw the trees lining the sun-dappled streets. I saw a most interesting songbird of an orangish hue, and when I asked Susana to look up what it might have been on her phone, she said she hadn't seen it. By then, the bird had flown away!

"Would it kill you to put down that phone and look at a bird or, God forbid, your mother for once?" I said.

She had no response, and for the rest of the trip, she was better behaved. She and Bex even treated me to a fine meal at P.F. Chang's. Bex has had so many fascinating experiences as a non-binary individual, and they told me all about Chicagoland's LGBTQ+ community.

What's more, Susana came to see how nice it could be to really focus on someone who's not on a shining little screen! When she, Bex, and I went to see the new Marvel film, Black Widow (an excellent show, with Scarlett Johansson still Hollywood's most talented performer), she complained frequently about the person in front of us who would not shut off her phone screen. Finally, Bex kicked the little miscreant's seat, until she scowled and stalked out of the theater. At least we could enjoy Ms. Johansson's excellent acting and prodigious talent in big-screen splendor!

That's how I know it's possible, Mr. President. You have a bully pulpit, sir, and you could tell the teenagers of this great nation to put down those phones and get back out there! Yes, we need a robust national service plan, but the only way we'll get there is by getting rid of the phones, so young eyes can see this great nation anew. I believe in you, Mr. President. Do you believe in America's youth, after all this time?


Talk back to me: What are you putting down your phone to look at? Any bird stories to share?


What I've been up to: It's true. I really did go on vacation. What's more, I actually stuck to that plan and didn't do any work, whether for Vox or just for myself, while I was away. This is the dawning of the age of new Emily!


What you missed if you're not a subscriber to the paid edition: Drew Gillis's piece on what makes the movie version of Little Shop of Horrors so essential is a terrific read on a film I've never given enough credit.

Little Shop is a text that could easily collapse under the weight of itself. Aside from its outrageous plot, the film has to balance disparate tones and moods, shifting between (and often blending) them at rapid speed. It is keenly self-aware but not winking, thankfully avoiding the trope of breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge how ridiculous its circumstances are. Little Shop manages to win over even the harshest musical-theatre skeptics (the people who go “How do they all know the words to the song? Did they go to rehearsal?”) because it so deftly creates a world where truly anything can happen, and its characters accept that world at face value. 


Read me: I try to keep up with true crime stuff for Arden purposes, and a friend recently recommended Becky Cooper's We Keep the Dead Close as a must-read in the genre. Lots of folks would disagree. The Goodreads reviews are peppered with people who found the book's focus on Cooper's investigation of a long-ago murder at Harvard, rather than the crime itself, frustrating. Why would we care about Cooper's quest? But I found it a mesmerizing read, a thoughtful look at the ways in which the stories we tell about the past (and about the crimes there) contaminate the samples we take. It's a really great book, and I'm going to be thinking about it a lot as we work on season three of the show.


Watch me: I have tried to not watch stuff while I was on my vacation, too, so here's a YouTube video I haven't checked out but know I will like, about the long, unlikely road of Hadestown.


And another thing... Okay, I did watch one thing this week...


Opening credits sequence of the week: "It's about two astronauts" is a literal lyric in this show about two astronauts who travel back in time. Also features the text "Also Starring Imogene Coca as Shag."


A thing I had to look up: I did actually work out a rationale for why Independence Day is on July 6 in Emily B's universe, but that's not really looking something up, is it? Oh! I had to look up how to spell "Johansson." I so often do.


This week's reading music: Succession theme song by Nicholas Brittell


Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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