How I fell in love with my mobile phone.

by Alysia Patterson Mueller, Air Force spouse

The other day I came across an article about a study of the way the human brain responds to an iPhone. The researchers had set out to prove that people are addicted to their phones-the same way we might be addicted to alcohol or cocaine or chocolate. They were surprised to learn that, actually, we love our phones. That’s right: Our brains respond to our iPhones in the same way that they do to the actual people we love.

I could have told them that.

Nowhere is the human-phone relationship perhaps more pronounced than in a military marriage. For the better part of three years my husband has lived, essentially, inside the confines of my cell phone.

This Boy/Girl/Phone love triangle began back in 2007. I was going to school in Chicago and Matt, stationed at Buckley Air Force Base, lived in Denver. Or, rather, he lived inside my pink Motorola Razr. When I moved to Kenya the following spring to work as a TV reporter, I took a Blackberry with me. Some days we exchanged upwards of 100 e-mails through that phone. My Kenyan coworkers took to calling me, only half jokingly, “a beacon for crime,” due to my habit of obliviously punching away on the Blackberry while sitting in traffic with the window rolled down or walking through Nairobi-notorious for its street crime-with my head buried in my phone.

What can I say? I was in love.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., to finish graduate school, Matt and I resumed our habit of texting and calling at all hours of the day and night. My cousin, who generously shared her studio with me for the summer, is either a very heavy sleeper or a saint who pretended not to notice me texting under the covers at 2 a.m. on work nights.


GOING PHONE-FREE

But before long, Matt and I had the chance to cast aside our phones in favor of a connection in living color. I moved to Denver, where we could test out the relationship without the mediator (safety net?) of a phone or computer. We shared a matchbox-sized bedroom in a small house, with an extra rack hung in the closet for my clothes that was always collapsing under the weight of my wardrobe. We squabbled over the dishes and the heat.

Turns out relationships with real people in physical spaces require a great deal more compromise than those in the digital universe.

But I soon came running back into the arms of my palm-sized digital lover. Matt deployed to Iraq in March 2009 and I rekindled things with my old flame – now maroon-colored and sporting a “qwerty” keyboard for easy texting.

TRULY COMMITTED

For an entire year, I was determined that phone would never leave my side or my sight. When it did, I’d work myself up into a separation-anxiety induced panic, combing the apartment, the car, the entire city in a search that usually ended with me uncovering the phone buried between my bed sheets.

When your husband is deployed, losing your phone is more than an inconvenience-it’s downright scary. You’re instantly filled with the fear that you might miss one of his few and precious phone calls. And then, the stomach-sinking feeling when you find the phone and see “Missed Call,” knowing there’s no way to call back and he might not have another chance to call you for days. Your phone becomes a security blanket-your only link, physically and symbolically, to the person you love.

I slept with my phone under my pillow every night. I alienated myself in social situations by obsessively checking my messages. I would go out with friends and disappear for hours to talk on the phone. If I was being rude, I didn’t care. I only had eyes for my phone.


DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS

I often think about how different military marriages must have been just 50 years ago. Women have been seeing men off to war for ages, but it’s only in the last decade that communication with the homefront has evolved to the point where many of us get weekly calls and e-mails.

In my case, the communication often comes daily. I wouldn’t trade the constant contact for anything, but there are times when being compulsively tethered to a cell phone compromises my ability to live in the present.

Retreating to the comfort of my e-mail or smartphone or g-chat window is a tempting tactic to avoid the loneliness of real life. My marriage is conducted in a virtual reality and keeping up with life in two different worlds can be a challenge. I imagine that wartime brides of days gone by lived more easily in the present without the distraction of a computer or phone. After all, the mailman only comes once a day.

When Matt returned in the spring of 2010, I fittingly traded in my old phone, which by this point had been irrevocably battered after a year of channeling my angst, frustration and despair (I’ll even admit to flinging it across the room at one point). I purchased a shiny new smartphone and regarded its multifunctional talents for e-mail and Internet as borderline superfluous: Matt wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But less than two months after our wedding in August of 2010, Matt was tasked for deployment to Afghanistan. Once again, I crawled back into the wiry arms of my phone.

This time around, though, I’d upgraded. Now we could exchange e-mails to the tune of a Dr. Seuss book: On a bus, on a plane, on a train; On the beach and before a speech, in the air, on a chair and at the state fair. We e-mailed here, there and everywhere.

So it was no surprise when, toward the end of his deployment, that phone started to peter out. With Apple about to release its newest iPhone, I decided once again to act the part of the fickle lover and trade in. This new phone is equipped with a personal assistant called Siri. You can ask Siri questions question like, “Where can I go for pizza?” or direct it to do something for you, like schedule a meeting or send a text.

One night, I decided to test the limits of Siri’s capabilities, asking questions like, “Where is Mongolia?” I gave it multiplication problems and asked it to convert measurements. Then, just to see how it would react, I said, somewhat tepidly into the speaker: “I love you.”

“That’s nice,” Siri said in her lilting robot voice. “Can we get back to work now?”

Persistent, I repeated: “I love you.”

“You can’t,” Siri replied, matter-of-factly.

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