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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18 Comments

  1. realpc said,

    I agree about the internet. If I’m waiting for anything while at work I check several blogs and maybe comment, and then I feel guilty and not sure how much time I spent not working. If I get into some kind of blog debate it can start taking a lot of my time. I think blogging and commenting is great writing practice and it’s terrific to get immediate responses to your ideas. It really does help us think and figure out what we really believe, and express it carefully. But just as you said, it can be a drug. And it can also become depressing because there is so little politeness or consideration for feelings, when people are anonymously disagreeing with each other.

    I do exactly the same thing as you with drinking wine, or shopping, or anything that starts to feel like a time-wasting addiction. I want to have control over my time and what I do with it, not be a victim of compulsions. So I have cut back on blog-reading and commenting, and I never even tried to find out what Twitter is.

    Technology has made it possible to never be alone and never experience silence. No one can understand why I don’t have an iPod to listen to while walking. People used to make their own music, and they used to have time to think and meditate.

    I am not against technology and I appreciate a lot of great things about the internet. But as you said, it is a question of keeping things in balance and not letting them take over your life.

  2. amba12 said,

    Who needs an iPod when they have a brain full of earworms?

  3. Donna B. said,

    I tried twitter and I just don’t find it interesting. It’s like some blogs, there’s just not quite enough “there” there. Or maybe there’s too much there and it overwhelms me. I don’t think I could ever get to the point of always wanting to check it.

  4. amba12 said,

    It’s probably just a matter of not wanting to miss out on anything. More social than intellectual. Whispers in the high-school hallway.

  5. GN said,

    Real/ Amba…. totally agree about the Ipod – don’t own or want one … not for any reason other thhan all those cassettes and CDs that still please me and are not quite as portable …. wanna hear music on the run … hum

  6. Ron said,

    One of those real world things I would like to do with my InterFriends is cooking…If you come up here somehow/sometime, Amba, I would to set up some cool meals for us….and movies too!

  7. amba12 said,

    That sounds really good to me.

  8. Callimachus said,

    “My funny post will be famous: most e-mailed! Most tweeted!”

    Your self-reply to that is the gist of it. Any medium that continually re-sorts itself by “freshness” is sand on the beach at low tide. Sandcastles have a longer life than blog posts. The sun and the moon only pass over once a day.

  9. amba12 said,

    Yes, I was well aware that was a self-fulfilling anti-prophecy!

  10. amba12 said,

    On the other hand, the one thing I wrote that has really lasted, that I can’t shake, that will be carved on my tombstone, is this quote — a throwaway from a women’s-magazine article.

  11. Ennui said,

    Donna B., I agree re: twitter. Especially when the twitterer is a writer who will later incorporate the tweets into a longer piece (Lileks does this quite a bit). It’s like one of those early 20th century X-ray movies of someone masticating their lunch. Probably not an apt metaphor inasmuch as the final product would be … but you get my point. With respect to the appeal of twitter, I think Amba probably nailed it – girls passing notes in the hall. Christ, you’d have to be Dr. Johnson to be really effective as a writer in that format.

    Amba, I wonder if blog writing will prove to be any more ephemeral than, say, print journalism. Did people save newspapers (I mean for reading not for fish wrapping)? In any case, I never did. Opinion columists might have their pieces collected for a book but how much of the paper is that? (Note to self: there was microfiche – the stuff was available). Meanwhile, I can think of quite a few memorable blog posts – mostly the long form posts of the kind you write. With the shorter format (twittering before twitter) it’s all just a blur of “heh/indeed.” I’m curious as to how you see your internet writing as compared to your print writing (if you see blogging as more “act” than “art,” for instance).

    I also wonder if, fifty years from now, some obsessive picture straightener will collect old blog posts the way Lileks collects matchbook covers and postcards (I say this in love :) ). On that note, I have a hard time imagining anyone writing out six postcards a day, receiving at least as many, day after day. Damned (near) immediate feedback. Our brains weren’t ready for this.

  12. amba12 said,

    Christ, you’d have to be Dr. Johnson

    Or Basho.

  13. amba12 said,

    Having done it (largely the women’s-magazine version, ’cause it paid a living wage) for decades, I can tell you that print journalism is pretty damned ephemeral. (Although it seems the above referenced quote will never die.) It’s interesting that as a magazine fact checker, I got the word from my editor in chief that a magazine version of any quote or controversy (in the case I’m thinking of, from the 1920s) is an untrustworthy secondary source, but that a newspaper story in the New York Times of that vintage can be trusted as a primary source. (See my later post on saving newspapers. Not in the hoarding sense.)

    I worked much harder on magazine articles than I do on blog posts, because they had to be structured. A blog post can wander and free-associate. It’s much harder to plan and execute than to be spontaneous. And a blogger is free to be trivial, flabby, or mediocre some of the time, which is relaxing. Although I will say there are certainly blog posts I’ve taken a lot of trouble with — and also that blogging has made me more fluent and “unstuck” in “official” writing (not that I’ve done much of that lately), probably just by keeping the spigot open.

  14. amba12 said,

    Our brains weren’t ready for this. That’s why some of us can get so stoned on it. It’s like everything that makes us human in a pill — thought candy-coated in the social.

  15. Rod said,

    Amba:

    You are at your best when you turn the camera on yourself, examining with an observing eye and a ruthlessness worthy of Rousseau. In your post I see the centrifugal pull of electronic information, most of which is tangential to your life; how it keeps edging out work and relationships as your gaze returns to it, and how you pull away and feel drawn again.

    The internet is a visual Siren, calling to those who hear its song, enticing them away from the voyage of real life. Its promise is blissful freedom from boredom.

    Hard to believe we lived half our lives without a monitor in sight.

  16. amba12 said,

    It was really, really good to force myself to live a day that way. Because the knack comes right back. It only takes a few hours. It’s there, waiting in the wings. (Although I’m sorry to say I’ve spent a lot of today hunched over the computer … much of it talking about what it was like not to be hunched over the computer.) And the two worlds really are rather antithetical, or mutually exclusive. When immersed in either one it is hard even to conceive of the other: life without a monitor … or life with one. And I’ve been both places within the space of 24 hours. So strange.

  17. amba12 said,

    Its promise is blissful freedom from boredom. I think you’ve put your finger on something major. Pascal said: Nothing is so intolerable to man as being fully at rest, without a passion, without business, without entertainment, without care.

    One thing I didn’t manage to get into that post, except maybe in the word “riddled,” was the hectic, sort of motheaten feeling of being online, as if your attention was stretched tight and punched full of holes at the same time. It also gives you (or at least, me) the illusion of being important — your presence necessary in so many conversations. Like a Hollywood producer taking several meetings at once, with several phone lines on hold at all times.

    Another one I quoted on Twitter recently was Nassim Nicholas Taleb saying, “Anyone saying ‘I am busy’ is signaling a certain degree of incompetence.”

  18. Ron said,

    Boy, if your quote is true, I feel like the bull stud of the Internet! Thanks for the ego stroke!

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