Last year I bought a gold Casio watch from someone on Depop. It only cost me $30 because it had some light scratches around one corner. By now, the damage has spread, and all around the bevelled edge of the watch face the gold plating has lightly worn away to reveal the pink copper beneath.
To go with my gold watch I also bought gold earrings and a gold chain. I had hoped to look like Instagram comedian, star of COVID, and certified hottie, Jordan Firstman. He has thick gold hoops and layered chains that mix with his dark chest hair in an aspirational display of flamboyant masculinity. While his jewellery (and apartment) looks expensive and clean, the gold on my cheap imitation jewellery has also by now worn away, revealing their fleshy alloy insides. I have rose gold wire-rimmed glasses. I had originally wanted yellow gold frames but couldn’t find any in the shape I wanted; now at least this pink hue matches the rest of my jewellery. The gold starts out shiny and special, and then I wear it every day and the special top layer chips away bit by bit, leaving behind a plain interior and a dirty residue on my skin.
I bought the watch in one of my many (so far ultimately futile) attempts to use my phone less. I wanted to get into the habit of punctuating my days by looking at my wrist for the time instead of my phone, a baby step in changing my habits. When I was a kid I wore a watch every day, always on my left wrist. I remember my school friend Sarah also wore her watch on her left wrist but had to take it off when we did handwriting exercises because she was left handed and her watch dragged along the paper as she wrote, tearing the edges a little bit. I had a Winnie-the-Pooh watch with honeybees for hands and an elasticated metal wristband that pinched the little hairs on my skin.
I wanted to get into the habit of punctuating my days by looking at my wrist for the time instead of my phone, a baby step in changing my habits.
When I started wearing the Casio last year my habits did start to change, quite quickly in fact. I began looking at my wrist for the time rather than my phone. I did still make a regular error though, when I went to look at my watch I always turned over my right hand, the ghost of a faux-habit, never a wrist I’ve worn a watch on but the hand I always hold my phone in.
In mid-March, when more and more countries were beginning to be overwhelmed by COVID, I was living in New York. I had moved there for an adventure, a challenge. I moved because I felt like I needed to change the direction of my life in some exciting way. I had only lived there for three months, working at a children’s bookstore in Park Slope, when it was time to come home. Things moved very quickly, as they did everywhere. On Monday I was asking my group chat if it was a ridiculous idea to come home and throw it all away; by Wednesday I was wondering if booking a flight two days away instead of one was leaving it too long.
I flew home to my parents’ house in Brisbane and quarantined with them. They had also just returned from visiting family in New Zealand. Pretty rapidly I became addicted to my phone, checking Instagram, dyeing my hair and posting the results, posting videos of my parents attempting to Zoom their friends, checking WhatsApp messages, Twitter, Instagram DMs, iMessage. The Screen Time app was reporting higher and higher daily and weekly averages and I felt disgusted with myself, almost certain that I could actually feel my brain leaking vital cognitive liquids, getting cloudier and soupier every day. I started leaving my phone in other rooms of the house or not charging it at night but then I would only replace it with other screens, playing Animal Crossing, or watching television, and feeling like I was missing out on something all the same. This moment, this day that I left my phone behind, would be when I missed something major or when everyone would forget me.
This moment, this day that I left my phone behind, would be when I missed something major or when everyone would forget me.
This is something I’ve remembered recently: When I was a kid and I was bored, I really didn’t like watching DVDs. My brother had an XBox (before consoles connected to the internet) and I didn’t like playing that either. The reason was the same, though hard to articulate precisely. I always felt a small something, maybe like fear, before starting them. I always preferred to watch television, even when there was nothing particularly ‘on’, because I knew, and this part I could articulate even then, that when I was watching TV I was looking at the same thing thousands of other people were watching. I knew if something happened in the world, what I was watching would be interrupted by a news break. When I was watching TV I could be reached.
As a teenager I had a mobile phone but very few friends I would text regularly. If I chatted to friends it was on the family computer, on MSN or Myspace, or in later years, Facebook. I remember being a child in the 90s and catching snippets of shows and movies about being a teenager, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Dawson’s Creek, 10 Things I Hate About You, and thinking the most teenage thing ever would be getting yelled at by my parents for hogging the phone line. That white, chunky, cordless phone was a symbol of teenage connection, but by the time I actually was a teenager the technology had already moved on.
Even though I was beginning to use social media more, TV was still where I felt the most connected, in a deep subterranean way, to the most people. When I was watching a DVD or playing a video game, or when the house got really quiet, all of my family members reading books or working in the garden, all the devices switched off, I felt scared and I felt alone. It is odd, this memory. It was an admittedly odd mental state.
I don’t know why, but I am always waiting for news to come in. I am always waiting for everything to change. Now that I no longer own a television, I know my phone is going to be the device that brings the news. I am always in a state of anticipation. Whenever I receive news about anything, big or small—my writing, a job, a friend, the illness that defined my early 20s—it is through my phone.
Do all children of the early 90s live in this state of expecting, and fearing, change constantly? I still remember eating peanut butter toast one morning before school and my brother calling out to my mum to say that there was something weird on the TV. I thought he meant a bug or lizard, but it was the news of the Twin Towers falling that had interrupted the airing of Cheez TV.
When I have travelled, and when I lived in New York for those brief few months, I looked at my phone less. I was in a different time zone to almost everyone I knew. While everyone at home slept, I could put my phone away and not think about it. Everything felt stable and safe, any news to report would be delivered in their morning, my vigilance could be relaxed.
Whether I’m hoping for good news or fearing bad news, it is always the same unpleasant feeling.
Whether I’m hoping for good news or fearing bad news, it is always the same unpleasant feeling. It is a desperation and a bracing. I hope to get it over with, for the change to come so I can know it and know what I need to embrace it. Though I also know that when it does come, and it is embraced, it will inevitably be absorbed into ordinariness once again and I will move on to expecting the next thing.
Turning over my left hand or turning over my right, is the ordinary way I punctuate the ordinariness of passing time. It doesn’t change the rhythm, it doesn’t make it faster or slower, more beautiful or less. I look at my hand, I know where I am, I know I am in the same time as everyone else. I brace myself for good news and I brace myself for bad, and I move on from it in the same way. But the good news: a loving text, a phone call, a gift, photos of a new pet, good results, a flowering plant, good weather, good coffee, good baking, a new haircut, while my desperation for this news is abject, my need to see them on the phone a little hollow, it connects me to people I love and lets me know they are well. This news, this time, lets me know that things are still okay. In those moments I can see both layers: the things that shine and the dull material that gives shape to everything.
Supported by the City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants