Taking Off My Headphones

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With a portable CD player, I often ran out of battery every time we traveled; headsets were the norm, although I remember how they always broke in one way or another. Jumping on the iPod bandwagon in high school, I typically used it on the bus, or sitting on my swing-set for hours as a form of relaxation and escape. I liked that earbuds were becoming popular, but the Apple brand seemed to be the only ones that wouldn’t fall out when I put them on.

In college, I scuffed up my second generation Nano from carrying it around campus so much, and went through several pairs of those tiny speakers because they were either getting worn out or crushed in my backpack. I would honestly just walk to class or work out at the gym like I was in another world, daydreaming about all the things that I wanted to do or whomever I had a crush on at the time. There were a lot of playlists involving John Mayer, Kesha, The Glee soundtrack, and 80’s power ballads.

As my final semester progressed, I started to leave my beloved device at home; I realized how silly I looked wearing a shit-eating grin for no apparent reason, and most likely came across as unintentionally rude when my friends tried to say hello or have a conversation, and I didn’t respond because I couldn’t hear. I accumulated many scrapes and bruises from tripping and falling (i.e. not paying attention), and received the occasional dirty look due to bumping into random people on the sidewalk. Yet I also wanted to take everything in and appreciate all that was Iowa City, because come graduation I wasn’t going to have it anymore.

As I ride a lot of public transportation in order to get around, I choose to challenge myself beyond just being hands-free. I make a point to thank the conductors and bus drivers for making getting from point A to point B as easy as possible. If I’m at a store where there’s a cashier or barista, I’ll ask them how their day is going. The goal is to always take as many opportunities as I can that allow me to engage with the world around me, especially if it’s uncomfortable at first.  And most of the time, it is.

It’s enlightening to say good morning to fellow walkers passing by in the neighborhood, or to give someone a genuine compliment and see just how much it makes them smile. I’ve discovered that meet-cutes still exist, and that you can flirt on the CTA without being a creep.

Yet, it’s just as disheartening when you want to start a conversation, but you don’t want to yell over Bruno Mars or the latest TED talk. Sometimes I’ll notice that nearly everyone around me is staring at a screen, like it’s a shield from all the apps and online games that we’ve seemingly become addicted to. Shortly after the election, I witnessed a situation between two women where one used a racial slur against the other because her baby was being too loud (giggling, not screaming or crying). I was wracked with guilt over not having done more than just tell the shocked young lady to have a good day before getting off at my stop. And it’s tough wanting to be kind, but to not put myself in a potentially dangerous situation when sitting near someone who’s drunk or looks like they’ve been taking some kind of substance.

I’ve been practicing, but I don’t always get it right. As a partial introvert, I understand those who don’t have the energy to make small talk after a long day. For some, their commute is the only alone time they have before going home to a house-full of kids or roommates. If you can’t communicate much during the day, it’s normal to want to return text messages or personal emails as soon as you get the chance. And as it goes, sometimes we just do things out of habit. If you want to change your habits, you have to figure out why you have certain ones in the first place.

When it comes to being in public, my hunch is that it has to do with fear; the fear of giving someone the wrong idea if we give them the slightest bit of attention. The fear of ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fear of being alone with our thoughts, and having to face the possible truths that come with them. These fears are valid, but what good will come of allowing them to dictate how we interact with our surroundings? You can ignore the person making crude/sexual comments about your body, but that’s nothing compared to standing up for your humanity, with dignity. You can get pissed at the person attempting to talk your ear off, or calmly explain that you’ve had a tough day and that you’d like to be left alone.

We can’t backtrack and act like technology doesn’t exist, or wish that it would just disappear. We need to learn to deal with it, to peacefully coexist instead of making it the enemy. You don’t have to completely unplug, but at least start by turning the volume down or wearing one earbud and leaving the other one out. If you’re going from one place to the next, focus on doing something positive (like smiling or holding the door open) rather than just avoiding taking out your phone. It takes baby steps, and at first it feels really weird, like you’re missing a limb or you have this wide open space to contend with. I’m still not entirely used to it, and I find myself mindlessly scrolling from time to time. A lot of it is generational, because I remember what it’s like to grow up without being attached to something at all hours, so that makes it easier to take a break from it.

I want real, face to face connection, and I’m not ashamed to say that I need it. If that makes me an old soul and a lone wolf, so be it. I’m willing to be a leader in order to feed myself.

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