Thursday, August 14, 2008


I don’t like your cell phone.
A new semester is edging up and as I prepare projects and syllabi for the new classes, I have to consider how to communicate my intolerance for cell phones. Every student has at least one and they guard them as if the little devices house some sort of life support system. Over the years the phones have slowly migrated from their origins deep inside a purse to a pants pocket and most recently out in full view on a desk or table top. No longer do you have to endure the mysterious ringing of the invisible phone during class while every student looks around wide eyed feigning innocence and hoping it’s not their phone. Now you can see the phone vibrate across the table. You’ll see the student grab it but instead of silencing it and putting it away, they’ll answer it or check the new message, or text a message back.

To fight this total lack of respect for education, I now start each semester by telling students to keep their phones silent and out of sight. Still, they just can’t break the addiction and I’ll either see them sneaking the phone up to their ear shrouded in a pulled up sweatshirt hood or I’ll hear the vibrate function and see them slip out to take a phone break outside. Of course some of these phone conversations contain emergency information that would otherwise not wait until after class. “My roommate just got dumped by her boyfriend”. “My boyfriend is on his way to pick me up”. And my favorite one from last semester was when a father called his daughter to tell her a famous actor had been found dead. Anyone can see how these things trump a quality education.

I spend hours on the road each week and these students are joined by a chorus of drivers who seem to have developed a new high tech appendage. Their tires drift aimlessly from one lane marker to the other. Not content to talk with one hand and drive with the other, they apparently use their knees to steer while holding the phone with their right hand and make wild hand motions with their left. Yes, hand gestures to a person who cannot see them….go figure. Others have some piece of metal or plastic hugging their ear and wander down the interstate appearing to have an animated conversation with an invisible passenger still gesturing but using both hands this time.

Talking on the phone in class is distracting and just plain disrespectful to everyone involved. Talking while driving is dangerous no matter how great you think you drive. But that’s not why I hate your cell phone.

I have one. Since I’m on the road at odd hours it seems like a smart safety item to have nearby. I never turn it on and have not needed to charge it since spring. I don’t know my number and the last time it rang I couldn’t figure out which button to press to answer it and hung up on my wife. I do not reject technology and I realize how helpful it can be to have a portable phone in many life situations. The thing I object to is the mindless wasting of valuable time.

Wait, what does that mean? How can I be wasting time if I’m talking while driving? Isn’t that just multitasking? What about talking in class or during breaks or while I’m eating with family or friends? Couldn’t that be considered using my time wisely? No. Not even close.

Let me explain. I’m talking about the value of time spent inside your own head. Time to think and to work things out. Time to allow your mind to wander and explore. Time to stretch and cultivate new ideas. Time to focus on and enjoy what is happening right here, right now.

With a busy schedule I value any time I can find for myself. These moments can be found anywhere if I pay attention. Waiting on someone to show up for an appointment provides several minutes of quiet. Walking across campus allows the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. Driving to and from school and work creates hours of time to consider projects, develop sculptures, and plan out exhibition schedules. Your friend ducking out to take a call may even allow you to playfully mock their plugged in nature during a meal. For the person paying attention and carefully observing their environment any of these moments would be not only polluted, but destroyed by having to stick a phone in their ear and endure the distraction.

For me these moments of peace provide the perfect opportunity for problem solving. While working on an idea for a sculpture or a drawing there are many times when I just don’t know what to do to a certain area. I’ll have a few images rolling around in my head and in my sketchbook but none of them feel right for the specific piece in question. The artwork needs a certain amount of visual weight in an area yet the image needs to communicate a specific idea to the viewer. A quiet moment may allow me to slip several different ideas into that specific spot and question the line quality, the texture, the color, the possible interpretations involved. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been driving and suddenly realized that something about a new sculpture is all wrong and needed to be excised. I can’t count the number of wonderful and horrible ideas I’ve had while waiting for someone to show up for a meeting. And on good days I may even be able to discern which ones are wonderful and which ones are horrible. Some of my best work has been the result of embracing these moments.

Moments that I refuse to surrender to distraction.

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