I stood at the threshold of Gate B1 at the Portland airport and looked down the line of passengers. Every single one was staring at a cell phone. Around the room, people stared at phones, tablets or laptop computers. As I joined the row, I itched to look at my own “electronic devices,” but I pulled out my notebook and my pen instead.
I had over an hour to kill. Flying these days is a matter of hurry up and wait. Having made it through security, I was now free to eat, drink, and stare at my phone. Or surreptitiously watch other passengers.
Across the room in a square of sunlight by the window, a little girl about 5 sat on the floor with her mother. I assume it was her mother. What happened later made me wonder.
The girl stared at a tablet while the mom combed her long blonde hair. I could hear a cartoon voice coming from the machine. Look up, I thought. Look around. Each stroke of the mother’s comb seemed like a devotion. Outside, planes warmed up on the tarmac. The Portland sky was a mass of clouds forever changing shape. Soon we would be flying above those clouds. Look up, little girl.
At least the mother wasn’t staring at a screen. As I watched, she divided her daughter’s hair into sections and braided it into a long thin braid that hung nearly to the girl’s waist.
I looked down at my notebook for a minute. When I looked up, the mother had put the comb away and was staring at her phone. Mother and daughter sat in perfect parallel, both cross-legged on the floor, all attention on the devices in their hands.
No! I don’t have children or grandchildren, but I imagine if I were the grandmother, I’d be arguing with my daughter about taking away the screens. My daughter would probably respond, “Oh Mom, she’s fine.”
Maybe it’s not so bad. After all, I grew up always staring at a book. I still don’t go anywhere without something to read. Maybe it’s just a different form of distraction. Sometimes reality is just too hard. But I worry about what all these screens are doing to our minds.
Just before we were called to board, the mother and daughter got up, approached the gate, and talked to the attendant. To my surprise, the girl ran toward the jetway onto the plane by herself. The mother gathered her things and walked away. The child was going to fly alone. Off to see her divorced dad? Visiting the grandparents? My youngest stepson traveled on his own between parents when he was young. It’s a sad thing. The flight attendants take good care of the unaccompanied children, but he was always sick with stress when he arrived.
At the end of the trip, as I got off the plane, I saw the girl again. The plane-cleaning staff were already at work as she waited for her escort off the plane. She looked so alone in her pink leggings, white top, and braid coming undone in front.
Four days later, at Gate 29 in San Jose, I waited with people of all nationalities and races. Plenty stared at their phones, but this time I noticed the man across from me was reading a book while his wife typed on her laptop. Two teens nearby carried fat paperback books. Two Asian boys huddled over what I assumed was a phone or tablet. But no, it was a Rubik’s cube.
Here and there among the gates, I saw tables and play areas set up for kids with books, games, and coloring supplies. That gave me hope. Kids get bored and cranky. Hell, I get bored and cranky. But let’s all look up. There’s so much to see.
My dad turned 96 on Tuesday. I had to be there. It was a quick trip boxed in by my church job obligations. My father and I sat in the sun watching the squirrels and robins. We talked and talked, and we ate so much cake—five times in three days. We also ate tamales, raviolis, and Yankee pot roast. Hand me my stretchy pants and my stomach pills. I felt my heart rip open as I climbed into the taxi to go back to the airport, leaving Dad watching from the door. But it was worth it for the time we had together.
I realize if you’re reading this, you’re looking at an electronic device. When you finish, put that device down. Look around. If there’s someone else nearby, give them a hug. Who knows when you’ll get another chance?