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The Ties That Bind

Jan 25, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 18 • By DAVID SKINNER
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I am not a free man. I have kids, a wife, a job. I am, as they say, tied down. This means that no matter where I go, I remain tethered by invisible strings of love and obligation to people who depend on me—and on whom I depend.

The Ties That Bind

But for a couple of hours a day I slip the knots. I do so by simply leaving my house or my office and taking with me no communications devices—because I don’t own any.

That’s right, I don’t own a cell phone. Go ahead, laugh. There’s something funny about it, like a character in a Jules Feiffer play who admits, with an embarrassed catch in his voice, “I’ve never been to Europe.”

The decision to do without was easy for me. I was not a phone person to begin with, and the little spare money I had when cell phones first became popular I preferred to spend on beer. Also this: In my life people never said things like, “Can you believe what just happened? We’ve got to talk to Dave, stat!”

These days I find beer more affordable, though I still tend to be frugal. And the number of people who might ever call me with an urgent matter has ticked up slightly, from zero to maybe two. Yet I continue resisting the siren call of monthly charges and personalized ring tones.

When pressed, I can always borrow a cell phone of my wife’s—for some reason, she has several. A couple of years ago I was planning a short business trip with a new colleague, who looked dumbfounded when I told him I didn’t have a cell phone. “Can you borrow one?” he asked. “Sure,” I said. Waiting for me at the airport, he called to ask where I was. “I’m right over here,” I said, my voice carrying naturally to his ears because I had already seen him and was only 20 feet away.


Another reason I’ve resisted is that I treasure my Alone Time. Bicycling to and from work, I fear no interruption as I coast along and let my mind do what comes naturally, which is remarkably little, unless it’s morning and I’ve had a cup of coffee, in which case I make up long strings of puns. If I’ve had two cups of coffee, my mind gives stage to elaborate plays of ambition in which my disparate literary endeavors become unified in a brilliant fictional rendering of political-sociological-philosophical truth -spanning multiple generations and centuries of history—in verse. See, it’s not a good time to call.

I might have questioned my policy on cell phones recently, as I stood outside the Daughters of the American Revolution in downtown Washington. Instead I was thinking about the DAR’s street address: 1776 D Street, NW. How did they finagle such an excellent number, I wondered?

I was having more Alone Time than I wanted, waiting for someone named Jen and her husband. Jen works with my wife, Cynthia, and that afternoon she had sent out a Facebook message saying she had extra tickets to see The Pixies at Constitution Hall. Cynthia knew I’d love to see The Pixies and so volunteered to watch our kids while I went out on what she called a “blind friend date” with Jen and Mr. Jen.

Cynthia had spoken to Jen about the arrangements. The rendezvous was set for 8:45 P.M. at 1776 D Street. The Pixies were going on stage at 9:00.

The time was 8:50 and then 8:55. I was standing by the DAR’s side entrance, the address clearly marked, half a block down from the bustling entrance to the concert hall, and there was no sign of Jen. But, I thought, she has kids, and I know how hard it can be to get out of the house. At nine o’clock, I began chewing my fingernails. The Pixies were performing their album Doolittle, which has 15 songs on it, most less than three minutes long, some under two. At that very moment I was probably missing their opening track, “Debaser.” Soon I’d be missing one of my favorite songs of all time, track number five, “Here Comes Your Man.”

At 9:25, I decided to check Will Call before, in all likelihood, going home. To my surprise, my ticket was there. Ushered in the dark to a seat, I watched the rest of the show. But I never did find Jen and her husband.

When I got home, Cyn asked if I’d actually seen any of the concert. After a while, more words were spoken, but they were of that dreaded species of marital utterance whose phrases seem braided with sighs, and both parties feel they know the other a little too well. I gathered that Jen had called Cynthia when she didn’t find me in front of the theater. And Cyn felt responsible that her friend had been standing around waiting for me. She was also upset that I had missed part of the concert. I tried to understand her frustration, but then the conversation took an ominous turn. “Please,” she said, “tell me again why you don’t have a cell phone?”

David Skinner

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