While my mom drives the 45 minutes to Downtown Austin, I pull out my mobile, open Reddit, and read the new posts in r/relationship. In what seems like an instant, we arrive and are pulling up to the entrance of Lone Star Lunar Bowl.
As I get out, Mom says, “Have a good time and tell me about it afterward?”
I give her a mock salute, then go inside to join my new friends. In the bowling lane cafe, we sit down, and soon are watching a video together.
A young girl, at most 7-years old, is saying, “When my mom is looking at her mobile, no matter what I say, I can’t get her to talk back. I want her to listen to me, sooo much, but I can’t. She’s in a different world.” Tears are in her eyes.
Amanda clicks the remote control and the screen goes dark.
“How does that make everyone feel?”
A steady clamor from well-arranged bowling pins being violently disordered breaks the stillness (for reasons I don’t understand, we always meet at bowling lanes).
I decide to talk first because someone very important is here today.
“I don’t have children. I’ve never had a girlfriend, but last week on Reddit I gave Adam in Florida relationship advice. He said his wife was demanding he return home before 10pm on weekdays. I told him he shouldn't tolerate his wife imposing such a childish curfew, and he should think about getting a divorce. Adam agreed, said he was happy someone finally understood him, and then that’s the last time I heard from him.”
They're listening, so I go on.
“For the last 72 hours, I've hit the refresh button over and over. That's all I've done. I can’t stop wanting to find out what happened next. But I’m wasting my life like this. I need to change, but I don’t know how to get started.”
“Thank you for telling us your story, Jason,” Amanda, the meeting leader, says. “You’re in the right place.”
The smell of wood polish, cheap perfume, and the muskiness of my public speaking anxiety fill my senses. My head is spinning and I wish I could look at my mobile to ground myself.
Kate, who, by her appearance, seems to have not visited a hairdresser in years, gets our attention.
“Yesterday,” she says, “before starting the boys’ laundry, I thought I’d watch a few #cleantok videos to get into the mood. Four hours of #cleantok later, the house is still a mess and little Noah is already back from school. I feel so ashamed of spending 4 hours doing nothing.”
Everyone nods. Four hours is nothing compared to the time I’ve wasted.
She continues, “In university, I majored in International Relations. My professor said one day I’d work at the United Nations. Now I have RSI in my thumb from a decade of Candy Crush, and then the next App and the next App. RSI, that’s repetitive stress injury for you Gen-Zers.”
She gives me a quick glance.
She smiles confidently at the group. “I want to start living, and not spend my life just pushing buttons.”
I know she’ll be scrolling cleantok videos 10 minutes after she leaves here. But, not wasting our lives is something we can all agree on.
Brad, a middle-aged man with a dark beard beginning to turn gray, speaks up next. “Work at the UN? I relate to politics. I’m awake until 3am every night discussing politics on Facebook. I’m only getting 4 hours of sleep, at best. After the Stanlowski leak, I thought I need to let people know what the real truth is. I’ve posted to all 100 US senators’ timelines yesterday, and then I woke up today without a single reply.” He laughs bitterly seemingly at his own wasted effort.
We chuckle in commiseration, and perhaps at the idea of a rando in Austin trying to change US national policy through 3am Facebook posts.
Brad continues. “I think I'm addicted to information. It all started one day, the day I watched the news that Michael Jackson died. Over the course of the day, more and more information came out, and it all felt so important. Since that day, I’ve never stopped checking the news every few minutes. The video we watched made me want to spend more time with my son. I think I’m a mess and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Amanda claps for Brad. “By telling this meeting your experience, you are doing something.”
She scrunches her forehead in concentration for a second, and speaks next. “As most of you know, I’m a clicktivist. I spend all day retweeting hashtags, promoting good causes. I've spent entire years of my life doing this. But then I go out my front door and everything is exactly the same as before.”
She seems more benevolent than I am. At least she's not screwing up complete strangers lives.
“While I'm doing this, my boyfriend, who is not into any of my causes, is most likely watching other women on porn sites, while I'm busy trying to save the world." She gives us a salacious knowing grin about male late night browsing. “So, last night, after we watched TV, I remembered what we talked about here, put my mobile phone in a drawer and went upstairs without it, for the first time ever!”
We clap again. I give a tiny shoutout. “I wish I could do that!” And then realize I'm not sure what part of the story I'm trying to join in on exactly, but I am feeling more a part of this each time I come here.
There’s one person who hasn’t talked yet. This will be interesting.
“I’m Dante Husk.” He flashes his trademark smile.
I can’t believe he’s in the same room as me!
“I received my prostate cancer biopsy results last week, and I realized, for once, I didn not want to update my 147 million followers. But, just the four of you. That was a revelation to myself.”
We all clap instinctively at his flattery. But, Prostate cancer?
"That's all I want to talk about that today." He pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket, and says, “I had Ethrem Vandar prepare a meditation for us.”
He begins speaking slowly.
“Breathe in through the soles of your feet.
Feel the air coming through your body.
Breathe out through a hole at the top of your head
With each breath,
Feel all the useless information,
The jealousy and anger,
Leave your body.
With each breath,
Let go of empty excitement,
Making it to the next level,
Receiving a like,
Gaining a follower.
They don't control you anymore.
It's all been set free.
You feel calm.
You feel alive, again.”
Despite Dante’s poetry reading being very weird, I am feeling strangely relaxed. Maybe this can work.
In contrast, Dante is so excited he jumps out of his chair and paces the room as if he’s ready to jump on someone. He stands behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder. Could I get prostate cancer that way?
Taking his hand off of my shoulder, he says, “That’s all from me today. Thanks for letting me share. And. I plan to update the max number of followers on my site to four next week.”
Brad's face is turning red. Worried about losing his followers? Not a problem for me on Reddit, but..
“You're not really going to do that,” I blurt out. I say it in a voice far louder than I intended.
“Excuse me?” Dante says.
“That all sounds nice, but it's never going to happen. Money, right?” A sudden wave of excitement is making me feel out of control.
Amanda cuts in. “I can see you have some strong opinions, Jason. You should talk me about them after the meeting. And now for the next order of business–” she says, swiftly moving onto the next topic.
I want to say something more, but she doesn't give me a chance to speak. Her talking goes on and on. Meanwhile, my face is burning hot, like how I feel after I lose a fight on Genshin Impact. This is a fight? Wait. I realize I've never had an argument with a person in real life until now.
My consciousness slowly tunes back in to what they are saying.
“That was amazing. Thank you, Dante,” Amanda says, “We have come to the end of our meeting. I’d like to thank everyone for coming today. Jason, can you read the closing statement?”
Me? Oh no, my turn. Someone passes me a laminated A4, and I read it out loud:
“Through our social media addictions,
we have learned we will never be smart enough to impress everyone,
beautiful enough to make everyone love us,
or loud enough to make everyone listen.
If we seek affirmation from the outside,
we will fail.
We will learn to love ourselves and each other.
This meeting of Analog Anonymous is finished.
You may switch your mobile phones back on, now.”
Everyone in front of me hurriedly pulls out their mobiles to check their messages.
I decide to simply watch for a while.