I'll Try Anything Once: Living Like It's 1955

I cut myself off from technology for 24 hours as a way to get a few questions answered. The answers were not at all what I expected.

Apr 10, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way I live my life lately. That’s what one does, unfortunately, when she is newly single and spends 4 hours in a car every Thursday and Sunday, and countless more hours snowboarding alone on the mountain.

I claim I am happy and I truly believe that I am. But because my lifestyle is non-traditional, because I don’t ever want to get married or have children, I get the sense that many people have a hard time imagining that is true.

What would happen if I made the same choices I make now in 1955 -- an era where the assumption would be that I’d marry and become a housewife? What would happen if I chose to be truly and completely alone in a time when most women didn’t make that choice? Would I love it then as much as I do now? Would I thrive? Struggle? Become a complete and utter alcoholic? (Ding ding ding ding!)

There are just a few of the questions I couldn’t get out of my head after seeing “Maple and Vine,” at the American Conservatory Theater last Wednesday Night.

In the play written by Jordan Harrison, a Manhattan couple who feel overwhelmed and unfulfilled with their lives in 2012, choose to leave it all behind and immerse themselves in a community of 1955 re-enactors in the hopes that a slower, less risqué life, a life where you "go places" and "talk to people" will leave them feeling more satisfied. 

This community is fully dedicated to a complete reenactment of 1955, which means the main characters must give up all of their modern day luxuries, swapping sushi for sundaes, cell phones for charades… the rat race for racism.

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It would be nice to have milk and eggs delivered daily. By a hot milkman.

Without giving too much away, one couple at least does, ultimately, find a sort of serenity in this world where most of their decisions are made for them. But with retro (and upsetting) attitudes toward gender, race, and sexuality, I was disturbed by just how much of themselves this couple was willing to sacrifice in their attempt to be content. After all, if one has to give up so much of one’s self to be content is the happiness even real? 

There was only one way to find out.

I had to spend an entire day living as though I were in 1955.

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The morning of the experiment. OR: Every girl should own a house coat. OR: I feel a bit like (fat) Betty Draper in this pic.

The Rules:

No email.

No Internet.

No instant messenger.

No text messaging.

No phone – unless I was in my home, in which case my iPhone could masquerade as a landline.

No iPad, iPhone, iPod, Kindle, computer.

1950s dress required, as best able from what was already in my closet.

In short: If it didn’t exist in 1955, I wasn’t allowed to use it. Especially not the devices that keep me so connected…and distracted.

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Forbidden items: iPad, Kindle, iPhone and yes, gasp!, even my beloved Breathalyzer!

The night before the experiment, I was already stressed. I’d escaped modern technologies before, but only by actually escaping modern life. In the last decade, it feels like the only times I’ve been without Internet are when it wasn’t available, like on camping trips. And even though I’m totally addicted to being constantly connected, it’s easy enough to forget about Twitter and Facebook and Foursquare and Path and the other 800 social networks on which I am active when I’m drinking wine by the fire under the stars. Plus, it’s not like I go camping alone, so there’s always sex.

When I woke in in the morning, I was immediately disconcerted. My typical morning involves getting out of bed to brush my teeth, grabbing my phone from the kitchen, and climbing back in bed where I check text messages, the weather, Twitter, Facebook, work email, and personal email.

That’s right: I do all of that before I even get my lazy ass out of bed. Then I get up, shower, and start working (sometimes in an office, much of the time from home).

But on Thursday, I got out of bed and just wandered around my apartment aimlessly for a few minutes. I honestly didn’t know what to do. I grabbed an issue of Harper’s Bazaar that had been lying on my desk unread for weeks and flipped through it.

“They had magazines in the ‘50s,” I told myself while trying to fill some sort of void with pictures of over-priced jewelry that will go out of style in two months.

I finally got in the shower and proceeded to wake up. I’ll be perfectly honest. One of the first things that happened in the shower was that I realized my housekeeper hadn’t cleaned it the day before. Tell tale sign: Hair in the drain.

I immediately wanted to text my best friend who has a roommate who “tests” their housekeeper by leaving things like dead flies in the corner (what?) to tell him about my unintentional test. But then I realized I couldn’t.

Then I realized that was probably a good thing. Most people share those mundane thoughts with their significant other (or Twitter -- same difference for many), and I needed to get used to not having someone to share those things with. I could do this.

Then I started thinking about what I was going to wear that day, a task I usually try to conquer in the shower. A 1955s hairstyle was in order; I’d need to Google that to figure out -- oh crap. OK, I’d have to make up my own 1950s hairstyle.

I’d also need to check the weather -- what the hell. Fine. I’d wear the only dress in my closet that might even pass as somewhat 50s-ish.

I was already enjoying this whole “fewer decisions, fewer problems” scenario.

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This is as 1950s as my closet gets.

As the morning progressed, I realized how dependent I was on communicating with my friends -- and “Internet” friends -- via the Internet. I sign on to Instant Messenger and someone pops up on my screen with gossip, news, a need for advice. I log into Twitter and I have access to hundreds of people’s timelines in which they share interesting stuff about themselves and the world.

I can see where people are going on Foursquare, what they’re photographing on Path, and witness all of their nervous breakdowns on Facebook. I might work at home alone in my dining room, but this is how I stayed connected with people.

Now… I had nothing. Just me. My apartment. And the deafening silence of solitude.

I wish I could say something amazing or dramatic happened as I went through my day, but mostly it was just status quo, albeit it a bit lonely. I was unable to check the weather for my weekly drive up to Tahoe, so I was completely taken aback when I found myself driving through sleet and snow over Donner Pass.

As the ice built up on my windshield wipers, creating a muddy mess I could barely see through, I cursed my patent leather heels and wished for Uggs. There was no way I was pulling over in that outfit though. I finished the drive almost blind.

When I arrived in Tahoe City, I felt silly hurrying through the grocery store parking lot in the midst of a snowstorm in a fancy dress, but no one even gave me a second glance. As I shuffled through the grocery store aisles filling my cart with food for the weekend, I thought someone would acknowledge me -- that my outfit didn’t fit in with the snow boots and wool hats -- but not one person made eye contact.

Between the lack of human interaction and not having a cell phone, text, IM or email, I was starting to feel invisible.

No matter what happened though, I didn’t ever get down because my best friend was driving up to Tahoe later night. Total solitude is bearable, it turns out, if you have something to look forward to, much like I suppose a 1955 housewife couldn’t wait to serve her children their after-school snack and hand her husband a cocktail while she hangs up his hat and coat.

When I called him a little later to ask what time I should expect him to arrive, however, he informed me that he wasn’t going to come up until the following night. It felt like he’d punched me in the stomach.

I'm usually not so emotional, but I actually felt my face get hot, the first sign that tears are on their way. I hung up quickly, not wanting to overreact. After all, he didn’t owe me anything. I’d put myself in this ridiculous bubble, both for the day and for life. Just one more thing I needed to get used to. 

But still: I was sad.

I started wondering what I was missing. Who had emailed me or texted. What had gone on in the world that day. How much snow we were going to get that night. All simple questions I would normally have answered instantaneously with the press of a button.

That’s when I realized I’d been standing in the kitchen watching a pot of water come to a boil. For 10 minutes. 

I spent the next hour or so in a haze. I drank a glass of wine while I watched snow fall outside the window. I walked around the rented cabin and discovered knickknacks and photographs I’d never noticed before. I folded laundry. Poured another glass of wine.

Eventually, I nestled into the couch with a book and started to read. I figured I only had a few hours to kill before it was time to bed. 

Which is when another friend I share the cabin with surprised me by opening the front and stomping the snow off of his feet.

“Wanna go grab dinner?” he asked. 

“You have no idea,” I answered.

Nothing magical happened at dinner that night. We walked in the snow to the restaurant down the road. We had a few drinks. Talked about stuff I can’t even remember. I joked that I couldn’t check in to Foursquare when I was so close to becoming the mayor of the restaurant, but it didn’t actually matter.

We had a question once that Google would have answered, but in solidarity, my friend left his phone in his pocket. Turns out, we didn’t need to know that exact second. Life would go on. 

No, nothing magical happened at dinner. Except that, for the first time in a long time, I was fully present. For the first time in a long time, not one other person on earth, save for my friend, knew where I was. For the first time in a long time, I was the kind of person who put her present company ahead of everyone else. For the first time in a long time, I was disconnected, but completely connected.

For the first time in a long time, I was happy.

I use social media as a crutch. It keeps me entertained when I sit on my couch alone and drink wine. It makes me feel important when it recognizes I frequent a bar often and awards me a mayorship. It allows me to keep up with my friends’ lives without ever even speaking to them. It gives me a sense of belonging.

Turns out, if I had to live in 1955 when none of that existed, I probably would be a housewife and a mother. I say I love being alone and I do, but perhaps that’s only because I’m never truly alone.

That being said, next time I’m out to dinner with a group of friends, I’m going to do a better job of being present. After all, that’s what the people I love the most in life deserve: my undivided attention. So  next time I get to the restaurant, I’m going to do what I should have been doing all along. Reach into my bag, grab my phone, and turn it off.

Right after I check-in on Foursquare, tweet an adorable picture and tag us all on Facebook.

“Maple and Vine” is playing in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater through April 22nd. If you like dark comedies and escaping for a few hours, it’s definitely worth checking out.

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