Unplugging, II


phone leash (n.): a measure of distance, in time (minutes, hours, day) or space (feet, blocks, miles), a person can be from their phone before anxiety kicks in.


There was a time when we read books. I don't mean nibbling on a few pages here and there between glances at the phone and the television and the laptop perched precariously at the foot of the bed—I mean really read, like forget-to-eat-refuse-to-sleep read, like read until the words get fuzzy and the sky gets dark.

There was a time when we saw beauty. I don't mean acknowledging it through the glowing rectangle of a cellular phone or relegating it to a frozen filtered square on the internet—I mean really got lost in it: dumbstruck, breathless, speechless. Immersed.

There was a time when dinner with a few friends was just that, when legions of others didn't chatter in our pockets or scream from the tabletop or holler up from our laps. There was a time we talked to each other on the train, when we smiled at each other on the sidewalk, when we could go days or weeks without checking back in with the world. There was a time we could detach, live simply, just be.

We're obsessed with these little glowing rectangles of ours, and the big rectangles too. The cell phone, the apps, the email and the social media that's anything but, the cameras and the headphones and the watches that whisper sweet nothings from our wrists. I watch adults playing Candy Crush on airplanes and drivers updating their profiles on highways and grown men who can't enjoy a Sunday outside without checking sports scores every twenty minutes. I watch a world that can no longer focus, and I mourn for it, for the generations to come who may never know what stillness is.

I can't slow the ship, but I can jump off the boat. And bit by bit, I've been lowering myself into those tranquil waters. I've never had much of an internet presence, spare this little blog, and months ago I went further and reduced my phone to its critical functions: dialer, messages, map, music. But still, I feel tied up in a net I just can't get out of.

So last week, I cut the phone leash altogether. I tethered my phone to its power cord and it's been at home ever since, and in just one short week so much is different. I feel more aware, more focused, more still. I ask others on the street for the time and for directions, and the fear of getting lost, of missing out—of whatever—has washed away more quickly than I could have imagined. And this week, a little more. A break from email for the rest of the year, the realization that the world will keep spinning just fine if I don't check my email for a few weeks or months. It's as silly as it is freeing.

This isn't hermitude. I'm still here and I'm still reachable and I still want to see the beautiful faces of this little world, but for now I'm reachable just on terms I can manage: in days, not seconds.

Appiness will not bring you happiness, no matter what the glowing rectangle might promise you. Wondering just how strong a hold the internet has on you? Consider cutting a cord—for the week, for the rest of the year, for however long you can—and see what you think. There's a big beautiful world out there, and if all you're doing is looking down, you just might miss it.



It grew from the sides of the hand like an awkward aberration, and we eyed it curiously. Hairy and knuckled and new, our opposable thumb stood proud, looking down upon the other digits in contempt. It alone was special, the only of its kind in the wide world. It watched the fingers fumble, and it said, here, let me do it. Artfully and delicately it moved, plucking berries from bushes and fibers from fronds. With its guidance we made fire, pelts, weapons, homes. We carved spears and we knotted twine and we stood up straight to gaze out at the four-legged beasts, and the thumb beamed.

It made us who we are, and it all it wanted in return was a little recognition. But we humans are not an appreciating bunch. We took the thumb for granted; we forgot that it alone had made us special. We built machinery to do the work of a thousand thumbs and we went to war with ourselves, hiding the thumb away beneath clenched fists. In biology class we revered the heart and the brain and the eyes, but never the thumb, and the thumb weakened, atrophied, became nothing but a chewtoy for the teething child.

Never again would the thumb be so foolish; never again would the thumb give so willingly. The thumb plotted and planned, and it built itself an altar on which to stand, a podium on which to prance and pace and parade. It demanded our attention and gradually we obeyed, and before long we were spending hours each day at our thumb's command, sliding it up and down on its glowing crystalline stage. It grew wild with power, this thumb of ours; no amount of tribute was ever enough. The first minute of the morning, the last moment of the day—for our waiting rooms and our bus rides and commercial breaks it came, and still it was not content. New proclamations were issued. and it came for our toilets, our family dinners, our car rides, even our sex. It alone was special, the only of its kind in the wide world. It tolerated no false idols: not our head nor our spirit, our dreams nor our passions.

Our heads grew smaller and and hearts grew hard and our eyes could no longer gaze into the distance, and the canyons and the cliffs and the coasts, no longer marveled at, left in search of kinder admirers. But we didn't notice because we weren't looking. We became nothing but vehicles for the thumb, and slowly our beings eroded away with the landscape. And all that was left was a greasy old thumb and a greasy white screen and by the time the thumb finally realized it was lonely, it was too late.

Where the wild things are


"I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” – John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

The year draws to a close; and with it, another chapter. It has been a quiet year—a year of reflection, of stillness, of planning. A softened edge, a yearning for the familiar, a reprieve from the monumental adventures of years past. Oh, there's been no shortage of beauty and escape; indeed, I melted the summer away with sweet sojourns to lovely, familiar places. Off to the great lands west and north of here, by my count nearly five weeks of it.

The east, too, earlier this winter: another six weeks spent seeing and sensing and surviving India and Nepal. Oh, and moves abound: a great upheaval of my little house not once, not twice, but three times, a move not just off the old lot but off the old grid altogether, a move from a life shackled by power lines and electric cords to one free of it all, a life dependent on the sun and the rain for sustenance, power, water, heat—the way it should be.

Despite the changes, restlessness. I feel ready for another adventure—great heaps of them, really, but one will do for right now—and so again we're off, me and Lauren and a little engine that could: off to the mountains to learn the news, off to the desert to hear the silence, off to the deepest corners of nature to find where the wild things are.

Namibia. Courtesy of the internet.

We leave for South Africa on the 20th. We'll land in Cape Town and pick up a truck and—just as soon as I learn how to drive a manual 4x4 behemoth on the opposite side of the road and in the opposite seat in the car—we'll venture north to Namibia, north to the world's oldest desert, its darkest skies, its most remote vistas. We'll spend three weeks just wandering in this, our tiniest of houses—just a stove, a tent, a water jug, and a trusty pair of axles—chancing upon whatever canyons, whatever elephants, whatever beauty nature will afford us. Oh, and then back to Cape Town for our last few nights south of the Sahara. Open roads, fenceless fields, a nation twice the size of California with a quarter the population of New York City—this is Namibia; this is freedom.

Namibia. Courtesy of the internet.

But freedom lives many lives, and this is not the last. I write this post with fingers still greasy from this morning's work: a few final twists and turns in the nuts and bolts of my shiny new touring bicycle. Months behind schedule, it's finally here and ready to ride, and when I return from the Kalahari Desert forty days and nights from now, it has some ideas on where to go next ...

Namibia. Courtesy of the internet.
... as always, more to come (but with more regularity this time around).

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