31 July 2011

Dis Cord

My summer leave from Singapore coincided with my sister, Valerie, an adjunct professor, assigning her class to spend a day unplugged and write about the experience. For 24 hours her students were to go without pods, pads or phones. No movies, mobiles, or magazines. Texting, tweeting, and television were off limits. X-box was axed and electronic readers expelled. I accepted her challenge to turn off, tune out, power down.

Over the winter, our country house in New York was gutted. Walls were torn down, new electric and plumbing installed, and hard oak floors lain. While the contractor was able to make it livable for our summer vacation with a shower stall, kitchen sink and refrigerator, he didn’t connect television cable or a landline. There were no signals for Wi-Fi or mobile phones. We didn’t even have a transistor radio! With no electronic enticements, Valerie’s assignment would be a walk in the park.

My day unplugged was 9 July. James and I drove from Ohio to New York the day before. Family back home was waiting for a call letting them know we made it and family and friends in New York were waiting for word we’d arrived. I couldn’t make contact to confirm visits with friends made in advance. I brushed it off knowing that everyone would forgive me once they understood my predicament and my “assignment”. Without a care, James and I stood in the early morning sun looking across the meadow to the pond. He kissed me on his way to play golf and I set out to weed the garden.

Immediately I felt the effect of no media. When in Garrison, I wake listening to Morning Edition on WNYC. Then I tune into The Brian Lerher Show. My mind was free from the urgent chatter. For the first time weeding didn’t feel like a chore. It was as if I were weeding in rhythm with birds, cicadas, and the playful wrestling of the squirrels. I was thinking about the thanks I’d give Valerie for doing me the favor of weeding in peace. Then my stomach began to rumble.

My body talked and it asked for lunch. While eating my sandwich and chips on the patio table I found myself hungry for media. I liked the company of voices and/or reading the opinions of the day in the New York Times when eating alone. Left with my own thoughts, I began to question why I was on this media fast. Why did I decide to go without uncensored entertainment and free press - the things I craved most while living Singapore? Before I got too flustered I decided to grab an apple and return to the garden’s delight.

This time, however, instead of weeding being wonderful it was war. My thoughts quickly turned from bluebells and cockle shells to radio shows. Usually when I weed I have a battery-operated transistor radio by my side; never worked in the yard without it. I grew irritated by the sounds I thought tranquil in the morning. My garden tools became weapons. Stab, yank, throw. I do without my favorite programs while on the island-nation, why would I deny myself the pleasures while being home? Stab, yank, throw. I was missing This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion. Stab, yank, throw. But if I chose a weekday I’d miss The Leonard Lopate Show as well as Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart. Stab, yank, throw. How dumb could I get? I was going to miss my ultimate joy, listening to John Sterling and Susan Wolman announce the Yankees’ game! Stab, yank, throw. Yeah, thanks, Val, for the favor! Stab, yank, throw.

I pulled weeds with the force and energy necessary to shovel a snow-covered icy driveway. Exhausted and drenched in sweat, I lay back on the stone wall. I stared at the carnage. The remains of enemy plants laid wilting and browning in the hot sun. I was breathing heavily, straining to hear if my body was asking for a Corona. Was it time to shuck corn? Fire up the grill? Should I expect James at any minute? I was feeling out of touch with the day.

After I caught my breath and surveyed the killing field, I decided to get a beer. It didn’t matter what time it was. I was on a vacation not a dis-mediation! My fury subsided with the suds and I gained control of the situation. I began to grasp the reality of my situation. I wasn’t missing communication, I was missing information. Surprisingly, I realized that my days were segmented by media’s schedules and not by visits to my inbox or wall. I listened to x program in the morning and read y periodical in the afternoon and laughed with z at night. With new insight the day grew delightfully long.

After weeding, I clipped flowers for a vase and unpacked the boxed household items. I found my transistor, but respected the radio silence. After sweeping the driveway, I took a long walk and thought how I appreciate that media and communication are 24/7. When I was growing up, TV stations would sign-off between midnight and 2:00a.m. MTV’s first year on air did not run videos 'round the clock. Today I can switch on anytime I want and satisfy any need I have. However, the news cycle is slow, postings are ordinary, and entertainment is predictable. What earth-shattering program or event could possibly happen one day that would not be rerun, recapped, rewritten or recycled the next?

James and I finished the night eating and drinking under the patio lights and night stars. He came home victorious from his day on the links. Because I felt victorious too, he agreed to finish the night unplugged. We had that what-could-be-better-than-this attitude. We laughed and talked about nothing in particular, often stopping to comment on the frogs croaking by the pond, the bats darting around and how everything tasted better than it ever had.

I learned two things after living 24 hours unplugged. First, the day is enjoyably long when radio shows, inboxes, message machines, and nighttime jokes don’t shape my waking hours. Second, the replay isn’t always as good as the real thing. I missed Derek Jeter’s home run 3,000th major league hit.

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