Prairie Dogs | Benjamin Kunkel | Granta

Prairie Dogs

Benjamin Kunkel

The original idea, I admit, was mine, I take responsibility for that, and not only for that.

At a small dinner party my wife Helen and I hosted back in November, it seems like a long time ago now, several friends, new friends, not people we know very well, were complaining about how much time they spent on their phones, they were lamenting with early-middle-aged fatalism that their phones had long since been getting in the way of their reading real books, of their conversations with their children, of their exercise routines and their work, I remember that what struck me at the time was that anyone at all was still willing to complain out loud, even fatalistically, about a battle between us and our phones that everyone else already agreed had been so completely lost that the defeat was no longer even mentioned anymore, and it was then that I had and voiced my ill-considered and ultimately disastrous idea.

‘We should have a phoneless party,’ I said to the couple consisting of new friends as well as the couple – the Charlies we call them, a man named Charlie and a woman named Charlie – who counted as older friends, I looked at my wife (we are still married) and said: ‘Why don’t we have a phoneless party, a phone-free party? We could have it on New Year’s Day? A day free of phones?’

I suggested that on January 1st people could come over in the morning, for brunch, and then stay all day, hanging out and listening to records in our living room, and/or hiking or (if there was snow) sledding in the park, before returning to the living room and the fire, and in deference to our new friends’ enthusiasms – one of them, the woman, Sandra, was and I suppose still is a psychedelic entrepreneur specializing in little color-coded pills delivering different quantities of psilocybin powder representing everything from the most modest microdose up to a full-blown mind-rearranging trip – I also suggested that the guest room upstairs could function as a chill-out room, if that was still the term, for people who were tripping and didn’t feel like engaging with the whole living-room social experience, and if there were MDMA-takers among our guests at the phoneless party these too could be accommodated, in their own room if they liked, for example in my and Helen’s bedroom, and anyway the whole scene and event could function as a be-in (a term I knew hadn’t been current for fifty years or more, and used facetiously) of undistracted company and recreation facilitated by, among other things, the absence of our phones that were otherwise (not that I said this part, that would have been unnecessary) all the time breaking up our attention into scattered meaningless fragments of amusement and dread.

‘It’s like they do this at plays and concerts these days, sometimes,’ said Sandra – such a wholesomely pretty white woman, with broad, vaguely rural features, and immaculate peaches-and-cream skin, that she might have been the model for a fascist propaganda artist of some kind – who’d already warmed to the idea. ‘They make you hand over your phone.’

‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘We have this old wooden trunk in our bedroom. I could lock the phones in there.’

Helen too seemed to like the idea, possibly because of the prospect of our taking a bunch of drugs with friends as if we were still young, not so long ago I’d joked to her, when she’d been pressing me to take edibles before a movie, that youth was about telling yourself you really needed to stop doing so many drugs, while middle age, as it turned out, was about telling yourself you really needed to start taking more drugs, I should mention that Helen and I don’t have any children, only a cat named Harriet, so for us there really was no excuse not to spend more of our weekends becoming wiser, happier, more sexual beings by way of appropriate doses of mushrooms, MDMA, weed, et cetera, and in truth it was usually me who dragged his feet before this prospect, I suppose I was afraid that weed or mushrooms would only sharpen my attention to the horrors of the world, both the discreet grinding horror of collapse and the more spectacular horrors of state-led or freelance massacres, not to mention ‘natural’ disasters, and on account of these hovering intimations I feared I might not have such a good trip on mushrooms or edibles at all, meanwhile as for MDMA I knew that rolling (was this the term anymore?) on molly (was that the term either?) couldn’t do much for me so long as I continued, like approximately half the people I knew, to take my daily SSRI.

‘If we’re going to do this,’ Helen said brightly, ‘we should send out an invitation soon. That way people can arrange babysitters.’

Helen I won’t physically describe, she is a beautiful woman with little beside kindness in her eyes, but I find that once you are married (in my sole experience of the phenomenon so far, many of my friends, having been married at least twice by now, would be better qualified to say) you don’t really see the person anymore after a while, instead you merely recognize them, they become so familiar in their features as almost to forfeit their features completely, a little bit as if they were your own feet or something, which you never pause to study or even to see before pulling on your wool socks.

‘Oh yeah – great idea – we can hire a dog-sitter,’ male Charlie was adding to the conversation, being, with female Charlie, the owner of a large, beautiful and needy Great Dane by the name of August, a name I’m sure I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

The dinner party in question took place on Friday November 18th, I know this because I can still see in my Gmail that it was on Tuesday November 22nd that I sent out the invitation, to more than twenty friends, to a phone-free New Year’s Day party that was to get underway with brunch and last until people felt like going home, hopefully after dark, not that the arrival of dark (as the email didn’t need to say) indicated such a long day when the days are so short not even two weeks past the solstice, and our house lies so close up against the foothills to the west of town, that the sun will have set, on early-winter days, before 3.30 in the afternoon.

Benjamin Kunkel

Benjamin Kunkel is the co-editor of, most recently, Who Will Build the Ark? Debates on Climate Strategy from ‘New Left Review’.

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