The Longest Day: My Excellent Adventures Offline

April 27, 2009 at 3:22 am (By Amba) (, , )

I. I don’t know exactly what made me decide to take an Internet sabbath yesterday.  I think it was Twitter that was the last straw.  Now I had a new thing to run and check every few minutes, and before each segment of my workout, and instead of vacuuming, and . . . there I was, ending a long yet too-quick day, already riddled with time online, by catching up with the whole Twitter stream and even trying to goose it along a little bit, refreshing the browser in the hope that someone would still say something . . . My disabled husband was deteriorating from neglect (and my deadline excuse ended Friday), my young Siamese cat came and stared intently cross-eyed into my eyes, touched my face with a paw to invite me to play, and I couldn’t be bothered because I was reading somebody’s damned tweet, or writing one.

I was disgusted with myself, and a little alarmed.  When I first got to New York, 21 and very shy, at some point I realized I was using a glass or two of wine to loosen up socially.  That dependency set off an alarm bell and I stopped drinking anything alcoholic for a while.  This was like that.

I didn’t have any big plans to quit — going online is not a dangerous drug, after all, it’s a semi-productive and understandably beguiling activity — just take a day off to break the insidious stranglehold it was getting on me, like some caressing, immobilizing vine.  The only way to do it was to decide that going online Sunday was simply not an option.  When at one point I needed to look up a medical item in my archived e-mail — the only time I touched the computer all day — I felt a stab of panic and hope:  how could I do that without getting today’s e-mail, and thereby getting sucked back into the vortex?  Much as I felt the sick habitual tug, I really didn’t want to go there.  Simple:  turn off AirPort.

But what if my parents try to reach me, and worry? They’ll call you, idiot.  Better yet, you call them.

II. An hour or two in — time spent doing chores with uncommon focus and dispatch — I think, I feel like a better person already.

I think about how much fun it will be to go online tomorrow and post about what a better person I was when I wasn’t online.

Notice that with chagrin.  Think, what the hell.  Might as well go online right now and write a post called “Failed Experiment,” concluding that I am a bad person.

Oh, no you don’t.  Not an option.

So then I think of writing all these thoughts down so I can make them into a funny post tomorrow.  (And I actually did:  otherwise I’d never remember all this.)  My funny post will be famous:  most e-mailed!  Most tweeted!  And then I think, what the &%@#?!  I’m not online, and I’m still online!  I’m still playing the game, still not playing with the cat, cleaning up, or working out, much less attending to my husband.

III. Every time I have a thought, even a trivial one, I feel an urge to share and/or display it — because I can.  Each thought coins itself in crisp, sharp words, almost as if already typed out.  But if I don’t actually type it out, it will quickly blur, and then dissolve and be washed away without a trace, the way most thoughts in human heads were before all this was invented.  Why did you think they were called “passing thoughts,” dolt?

The reality, though, is that even if I do type it out, it will still blur, dissolve, and be washed away.  We’re all thinking into the Intertubes the way we’re pissing into the plumbing:  the vast majority of our thoughts merely mingle as they flow through the sewer system and out to sea.

No matter.  If I’ve typed mine out in a public place, even if no one sees or remembers them, I’ve written my “Kilroy Was Here” on an underpass of the universe.

IV. I develop a grudging new respect for the people who are online to flog blogs and Twitter for commerce.  At least they’re getting something out of it besides primate jollies.  It’s mortifying to be spending so much time in what is essentially glorified grooming.

V. God, there’s a lot of time out here!

On a usual Sunday morning, the beginning of This Week overtakes me:  I look up from the computer screen and I’ve already missed the first ten minutes.  This morning I wait for ten o’clock and it dawdles and dallies toward me.  It’s 9:50! I go into the bathroom and read an old Vanity Fair for half an hour.  I come out and it’s 9:55!

This is refreshing, especially when you’ve been feeling like you were lashed to the front of a bullet train hurtling deathwards.  I feel as if I’ve suddenly stumbled on the secret of long life and it isn’t, like we joke in my family, Keep breathing! It’s Quit tweeting!

There is lots of time — more than you know what to do with — and there is also a superabundance of free attention to lavish on each thing you do, to surround it with from all sides.  Each thing you do is very three-dimensional; you have time on your hands and bandwidth in your brain to contemplate it from infinite angles, like Picasso.  You realize you’ve been living in Flatland — everything reduced to a screen.

I discover what I’ve been escaping from.  I discover the bleakness of paying steady attention to a mentally disabled companion.  I discover that it would be possible to clean house incessantly, as my mother almost does — there’s always one more thing to put away or wipe up — and what does it get you?  A clean house.

J confounds all my resolutions to dedicate myself to his revival; all he wants to do is sleep.  So I tackle my files.  I compulsively organized them once before, but then for a year or more I just threw everything into a bottom file drawer, to be sorted out “later.”  But now it’s later:  I’m going to have to do the taxes, so I tear through these piles of paper fast and furiously, throwing an enormous amount out (envelopes, fly cards, bill inserts) and organizing the rest.  Being an all-or-nothing kind of person, I save and file scrupulously by date things I know I’ll probably never need.  Unless the IRS audits me.  But I don’t feel there’s order unless there’s order down to the bone.  That’s why I let things get into such a mess, if that makes any sense at all.

It’s only when I take a break from filing that I feel a pang of the urge to spend my break online, and it’s only habit — each pang gets fainter, like fading echoes.

I do laundry.  I hand-wash my delicate shirts.  I vacuum.  Finally J wakes up and agrees to work out with me.  And he starts to come out of his decline and daze.  For the first time since before I went to Florida, he can stand up with the walker just long and strong enough for me to grab the waistband of his pants (I’m standing on the bed with one foot on the seat of the wheelchair) and swivel him into the wheelchair.  He does some vestigial stretches and karate punches sitting down, and I see the moment when he comes even more into focus.  After we work out I take him to K&W Cafeteria for supper.  We come home and I watch The Negotiator and In Treatment with him.  I get him into bed.  I play with Rainy for a good long time.

Only then do I warily circle around writing this.  I feel as if I’ve completely lost the fevered beat, and it feels good, like finally getting free of an earworm.  It’s reassuring that I can de-adapt so fast.  And it’s pleasurable, so I’ll want to do it again.

VI. I still don’t think the Internet is a bad drug.  On the contrary.  The blogosphere and the Twitterverse are places of amazing ferment:  a hive mind to which each brings a dab of nectar; a teeming sourdough starter for the next culture.  Their genius — and their jonesiness — is being at once a place to chatter and brag and play for laughs, as comes so naturally to us tribal primates, and a place of contagion and mutation, an agora where ideas cross-fertilize as fast as viruses swap genes.

It’s just that, like anything, it isn’t everything.  And when it starts to become everything, it’s time to turn off, tune out, and drop in.  Real life is the mother lode.  The more you go there, the more you’ll have to bring back.

~ amba

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