Unplugging in Chicago

I recently came to a sad realization: One of my longest, most stable relationships over the past three years has not been with a boyfriend. It's been with my BlackBerry.

Sure, my Blackberry Bold can be slow, occasionally runs out of energy, disappears from time to time and wakes me up with an annoyingly loud beep. But it is, without fail, the last thing I look at when I go to sleep and the first thing I look at when I wake up. Yes folks, I sleep with my BlackBerry.

  • ( Nancy Trejos/the Washington Post / ) - At check-in, a clerk locked the author's BlackBerry, backup cellphone and laptop in a safe in the hotel office.
  • ( For The Washington Post / ) -
  • ( Nancy Trejos/the Washington Post / ) - Without the Internet to help her create an itinerary, the author relied on the travel guides and brochures in her hotel room.
  • ( Nancy Trejos/the Washington Post / ) - When she desperately had to make a call, she used a calling card and a pay phone, if she could find one. This one was inside the Art Institute of Chicago.

( Nancy Trejos/the Washington Post / ) - At check-in, a clerk locked the author's BlackBerry, backup cellphone and laptop in a safe in the hotel office.

And why not? I do everything on it. I use it to communicate with bosses, friends and family; to get directions to wherever I'm going; to read the news; to store phone numbers and other important information; to schedule appointments, listen to music and even play Sudoku.

But most importantly, my BlackBerry connects me to Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Gchat so that I know what my friends are thinking, doing and eating at any given moment. I admit it: I'm that annoying person who nearly knocks you down in the street because she's too busy looking at her phone to notice you. I'm the diner who keeps her BlackBerry on the table next to the cutlery. I'm the runner who checks her e-mail while waiting for the crosswalk light to change.

In my defense, I'm not the only one with a digital addiction. A recent study found that 72 percent of Americans check their e-mail while on vacation, on weekends or on other non-work days. And in another study last year, 200 University of Maryland students who were asked to abstain from social media for 24 hours and then describe how they felt used words such as miserable, anxious, jittery and crazy.

I could identify. Lately, I'd gotten to the point where I couldn't even go to the water fountain at work without my BlackBerry. This was alarming enough to force me to take drastic action: It was time for a digital detox vacation. "Think of it as exploring the Land of Silence," one of my friends said when I told her of my plan.

As Facebook and Twitter increasingly take over the world, many hotels and resorts are starting to offer travelers an escape from the digital world. Yoga retreat company Via Yoga offers digital detox retreats to Mexico. At Petit St. Vincent, an island resort in the Grenadines, the only way to communicate with the staff is to hoist a flag on a flagpole in front of your cottage: Yellow is for service, red for "Do Not Disturb."

For my three-day detox, I chose the Hotel Monaco in Chicago, which has a one-bedroom "Tranquility Suite" that seemed like the perfect place to unplug. At check-in, you can have your electronic devices locked in a safe in the office. And in your room, you can relax with heating pads, sleep masks and a sound machine. Or soak in the Jacuzzi. Or lounge on one of the window seats overlooking the Chicago skyline and the river. All in the Land of Silence.

The night before I headed out, I prepared for a life unplugged. There are only a handful of phone numbers that I know by heart - my sister's, a couple of friends' - so I jotted down some important ones in case of emergency. Like my parents' number. (Shame on me for not having that memorized.)

The next morning on the plane, when the flight attendant uttered those dreaded words - "Anything electronic must be turned off" - I rushed to update my Facebook status one more time: "off to Chicago for a digital detox. no blackberry, laptop, facebook or twitter until friday. wish me luck."

I didn't know what to do with my hands. My seatmates had switched their phones back on as soon as the plane touched down. As we waited for our gate to be cleared, I left my BlackBerry in my backpack and leafed through the in-flight magazine.

At the hotel, I paused to figure out my next move. I've gotten so used to planning my trips via the Internet, right down to studying restaurant menus when trying to decide where to eat.

Let's face it, BlackBerrys and iPhones have made traveling so much easier. Lost? Pull out the GPS on your mobile device. Not sure where to go for dinner? Tweet to your followers or use one of any number of restaurant-finder applications. Want to find out what time a museum closes? Google it.

But on this trip, I'd have to travel the old-fashioned way. I'd have to talk to people face to face.

I handed the front desk clerk, Frances Ferrero Rocher, my BlackBerry, my backup cellphone and my laptop.

"That's my life," I said.

"We'll take good care of it," she promised.

My room wasn't ready, so I had time to kill. Normally this would involve e-mailing or Facebooking. Instead, I enlisted Frances's help in planning my itinerary. She suggested ice-skating at Millennium Park, strolling through the Art Institute of Chicago, having a drink at the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building. If I wanted to see a play, she said, I could get discounted tickets at Hot Tix. "Make a left out the door, then another left, then a right on Michigan Avenue and a right on Randolph," she instructed.

Why had I stopped relying on the hotel staff for help? Frances cares. My BlackBerry doesn't.

Armed with all my information, I headed to the South Water Kitchen next door for lunch. Usually when dining alone, I read people's tweets or e-mail friends. Eating alone feels less lonely when you're Gchatting with a friend. Without the protection of my BlackBerry, I had to find something else to make me look and feel busy.

At the table next to me, two men sat tapping away on their phones, ignoring each other. At another table, a woman let her soup grow cold while she chatted on her phone.

As I dug into my ahi tuna salad, I leafed through the latest New Yorker. After a bit, I found myself thoroughly enjoying a profile of AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong.

And I felt an odd surge of pride at once again being able to read something longer than 140 characters.

"Do you know where I can find a pay phone?" I asked the Bank of America teller.

I'd bought a $10 calling card at a CVS pharmacy (tough to find; most of their calling cards are for loading minutes onto a cellphone) and wanted to call Second City to find out about showtimes. The teller gave me a strange look. She was probably trying to figure out whether I was broke or a drug dealer, and given that I'd stopped in to deposit checks totaling $1,200, a drug dealer was probably the more logical conclusion. "There might be one next to a bus stop?" she said. Then she summoned her manager for his input. "Maybe the train station?" he offered uncertainly.

On the way to the Art Institute, I found myself admiring the architecture that makes Chicago so special. I also spotted many signs saying "Caution: Falling Ice." Had I had my BlackBerry, I can guarantee that I would either have missed the beauty of the Chicago Cultural Center or gotten hit by a chunk of ice.

At the museum, I strolled through the impressionist exhibit and found myself staring deeply at Monet's "Water Lily Pond, 1900." I found the way the trees were reflected in the water mesmerizing. The pale colors - pink, green, blue - were so soothing.

Then someone's cellphone rang. My concentration shattered, I moved to another gallery.

Later, on my way to the bathroom, I spotted a pay phone. I dialed the 800 number on the calling card, plugged in the code, then dialed the Second City number, which I'd gotten out of a guidebook in my hotel room. An automated recording told me that I could buy tickets. . . online.

I called the Chicago Tribune's main switchboard to reach a friend whose number I hadn't written down. He didn't pick up, so I left a message telling him where I was staying. Next I called a cousin who lives in suburban Chicago. Again I got voice mail. "Call me back," I said, then caught myself. "Well, you can't call me back. I'll call you."

Feeling defeated, I walked to the Hot Tix store. (I can't remember the last time I'd physically gone somewhere to buy concert or theater tickets. I'd gladly abandoned the days of standing in line for hours outside Ticketmaster, praying that U2 tickets wouldn't sell out.) I was torn between two Second City shows. The cashier had seen both and helped me decide by giving me his reviews.

A few blocks later, I stumbled onto a Radio Shack and went in to buy a camera. While setting it up for me, the assistant manager asked me where I was from. Soon we were chatting. I asked him for dining recommendations. Before I knew it, two other employees were hovering around, suggesting restaurants and activities. A young woman named Shenita logged on to a computer to find a theater schedule for me.

Somehow, everyone was becoming my own personal concierge.

I called 411 from a pay phone to get connected to Trattoria No. 10, a restaurant that Frances had recommended. "Walk to Lake Street where the aboveground train is, go in the opposite direction of the train to Dearborn," said the hostess. "Make a left at Dearborn. Pass the Goodman Theatre. Pass Daley Plaza and the Picasso. We're on the right hand side of the street."

I jotted the directions down, but I still got lost. Oh, if only I could check Google Maps! I asked a random man where Dearborn was. "I dunno," he said. Could he not have pulled out his phone and GPS'ed it? The next person pointed me in the right direction.

Waiting for my salad at the restaurant, I wrote a postcard to my parents, something I hadn't done in years. I found myself struggling to write legibly. The digital age has ruined penmanship.

My plan for the afternoon was to see a matinee. Should it be "Million Dollar Quartet" at the Apollo Theater or "9 to 5" at the Bank of America Theatre? I'd read good reviews of both in the Time Out: Chicago that I'd bought to get ideas for things to do. Geography and time would be the deciding factors. But I don't wear a watch (who needs one, with a BlackBerry?), so I needed the waitress's help. According to her, it was 1:30 p.m.; the Bank of America Theatre was just four blocks away, while the Apollo Theater was a 15-minute drive away.

That settled it. The box office line for "9 to 5" was long, but I got a ticket for $10 from a woman selling hers outside the theater. It put me in a nosebleed seat right in the middle of a high-school drama class on a field trip.

As we waited for the show to start, the two girls in front of me stared at their cellphones, texting. "You're texting when you can be talking," the boy sitting next to me said to them. They ignored him.

As I watched the play, I worried that I'd never connect with my Tribune friend. He'd left a message at the hotel, but when I'd tried him back, I'd gotten his voice mail. With my BlackBerry, I'm never alone even when I'm alone. My digital detox was making me feel lonely, and I really wanted to see him.

During intermission, I searched for a pay phone, but no luck. Back in my seat, I saw that the boy sitting next to me had a cellphone, and impulsively, I asked to borrow it. I reached my friend, and we agreed to have a drink at the hotel after the play. Was it cheating if I didn't use my own cellphone? Nah, I told myself.

Back at the hotel, I was happy to see a familiar face. But after the fourth time my friend checked his BlackBerry, jealousy took over. Not only did I want to check my e-mail, too, but I also resented his BlackBerry for taking his attention away from me.

"Can you please stop that?" I finally asked.

He grudgingly put it away.

By my third day of detox, I was starting to enjoy it. I liked not having to dig through my purse to make sure that I wasn't leaving my phones behind every time I exited a cab. I liked sitting on the window seat in the Tranquility Suite and thinking rather than texting. I especially liked soaking in the Jacuzzi and not crafting an e-mail in my head. And I slept deeply as the sound machine played waves in the background, with no BlackBerry alarm clock to rustle me out of bed.

My room was filled with so many cushioned seats and pillows that all I wanted to do was to sit and read. I liked my suite so much that I didn't want to leave it. I was Girl Uninterrupted, and it was nice.

At the same time, I missed not being able to e-mail or text a friend or tweet when I had great mole sauce at Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill, or when I saw how deep the Jacuzzi was, or when I overheard a funny conversation about raccoons at the theater.

"I can't believe you lasted this long," Mark Hanner, assistant front office manager, said when I asked him to retrieve my gadgets as I checked out.

Apparently, neither could my BlackBerry. When I hit the "on" button, there was no response. I frantically searched my backpack for the charger. Mark plugged it in, but the screen remained black. There was no hour glass. No bar. "Oh my God, did we kill it?" I asked.

"No, we'll bring it back to life," Mark assured me.

We stared at the BlackBerry, ignoring other customers who were trying to check in. The hotel lobby had turned into a BlackBerry emergency room. I paced around, worried that I'd have to spend another day with no access to e-mail. I walked around the corner to calm down over a cup of coffee. When I returned, Mark had good news. "I see an hour glass," he said.

Slowly, my BlackBerry revived. About 15 minutes later, the e-mails started trickling in: 100, 200, 300. The number eventually topped 700. I started going through them but soon realized that there were very few that I actually wanted to read.

I logged back onto Facebook and Twitter. But I couldn't think of a clever status update or tweet.

I returned to Washington. It took me another two days to announce to the Twitterverse that I was back online.

 
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