It was too grand a plan, this idea of mine. I was embarking on my annual trek to visit my brother in New York and thought, How grand would it be to not only take a vacation from work, but heighten the sense of escape by staying offline? I would be unreachable (except in case of emergency). I would chronicle my daily experiences in Word instead of WordPress, upload one or two quality blog posts at the end, old-fashioned-like. I would be free.
Even before I arrived, I imagined how proud I’d be for committing to be more present when visiting. I would let moments exist in their own space, savor them, and then move on. Not everything needs to be documented – “Hey, look at me!” – all the time, I remembered. Nor do I need to always see what everyone else is up to. I would reciprocate the excellent company of my brother and my sister-in-law by giving them my full attention.
The morning I left, I deleted the Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Hangout and Instagram apps from my phone. I spared Paper and Tumblr since I use those mostly just for reading. (I kept WhatsApp because Kaylee’s in Europe and that’s how we’re communicating, so, of course.)
I would use my laptop only to work on my novel, freelance assignments or otherwise write offline.
I confess, I also had a bit of ego in the game. I wanted people to miss me.
Here’s how it went:
“On vacation!” I posted to Facebook in the form of an out-of-office auto response. Before I could log off, a friend noticed that I’d typed “back Thursday, June 10,” which put my return several years in the future instead of one week away on Thursday, July 10. People riffed. It was pretty funny.
My attempt to disconnect from work failed. Despite pronouncing myself “unavailable,” I ended up checking my email because I needed some key piece of information, a flight time or receipt confirmation or such. And then I would notice meetings being scheduled. Flyers being made. Questions about events arising. A mistake I needed to fix.
To be clear, no one forced me to respond to all these emails – emails were going happen regardless of what I was doing away from the computer and disregarding my vacation assertions by answering them was wholly my fault. But once I’d entered into dialogue, I had to see the conversation through. I ended up on email daily.
I needed to get online to plan my days. What would the weather be like? (Hot and muggy was a given, and really, I could’ve just gone with that, but no – let’s look at the exact temperature and percentages.) What would the surf be like? (This proved to be critical, as I was able to catch an early bit of Hurricane Arthur out in Long Beach.) Did we want to try to get tickets to a show? (Yes, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch was sold out.) How much money did I have left in the bank? (Yikes. Also, oops.)
Where I succeeded, the first couple days, was in not using my phone as the sole source of comfort and distraction. I people-watched. I eavesdropped. I took photos as something to remember the trip by instead of using them to holler, “I am here! Right now!” at my online friends. I was not that person only half paying attention to the world around her and that felt great. As one should do in New York. Or life.
The world contracted to be whatever Tag, his wife Jen, and I were doing, saying, making happen. This included visiting the Transit Museum, driving out to Long Beach for the aforementioned surf experience, fireworks over the East River, bicycling out to Rockaway for a day at the beach, East Coast-style.
It was during the Fourth of July party that I first slipped. Inspired by all the America-themed face paint adorning the people around me, I made a little Vine. They loved it.
And because I was trying to coordinate with a few friends via Facebook messaging (using Paper, which is Facebook, but almost totally not), I couldn’t help but notice messages from other people on various topics. Upcoming shows. Questions about references. Etc. You know how Facebook tells the sender when you’ve read their message? I hate that because once that’s noted, I feel like I have to respond. So I responded. (Note: Not everyone suffers the same sense of obligation.) In the course of these interactions, I’d see something someone posted that I liked. So I would “Like” it.
Then my daughter texted me, “Why aren’t you liking my Instagrams?” Good question. I missed keeping up with her journey and the comfort seeing her photos brought. So I reinstalled Instagram. And then I uploaded a photo. And then another.
My music column was due. I went back online. Finished with a minimum of fuss and far too many puns. Took a breath. Rented a bike. Rode alongside my brother through Brooklyn, Queens, out to Rockaway.
Despite all this, my internet use, especially that of social media, was notably less than usual. Yes, I’d posted to Vine and Instagram, but neither of those accounts provoke conversation, just the occasional quiet cheer. Staying off Facebook was huge – no newsfeed to get sucked into, no back-and-forth about the photo or topic du jour. I appreciate the ways in which Facebook allows me to keep in touch with people far away, to promote events, but not using it reminded me how much time using it takes up.
Then the holiday weekend ended and everyone but me went back to work. Staying off social media when alone proved much harder, especially when waiting for things as one does in New York. Facebook and Twitter are my go-to time killers. Instead I opened Notes and typed out things I wanted to remember when I wrote about my trip.
Until the moment when I found myself cycling over the Brooklyn Bridge. I caved. I was excited about what I was doing and wanted to share it with someone, so I did: I selfied and posted.
I also decided I wanted to write about biking in New York City versus biking in Humboldt, which rekindled my internet interactions. I could’ve waited to write the post, but I knew that the inspiration would probably flag if I didn’t take advantage of it.
As could have been predicted by now, I did not look away in time and found myself immersed in comments instead of turning wholly to the other writing assignments I’d given myself. This was my last day in the city and I’d planned to spend it combining two rare opportunities, one being in New York and the other having uncommitted hours to string words together.
Sitting in a Manhattan park, using the free wifi, listening to the two guys beside me workshop their poetry/rap/beats illustrated a good fortune I should’ve better utilized.
Little by little, my disconnection never quite happened. But I did shift from habit to thoughtfulness. If I’d been staring into my phone, I would not have caught the sunset between buildings as the train whisked by. If I’d been checking in to Facebook during brunch at The Sea Witch or dinner at The Pickle Factory, the conversational flow would’ve been more sporadic. Instead the constant flow led to the kind of dialogue more likely to happen face-to-face than over chat. Eye contact is awesome.
That’s what I hope to hold onto – the streamlining. I did not reinstall Facebook or Messenger on my phone and I’m thrilled at the lack of notifications. Again, I realize some people can leave things unread, but I suffer from a sense of responsibility to those trying to contact me. As it is, I decide when I want to access Facebook (via Paper), which allows me the power over it. And because Paper encourages reading outside of one’s newsfeed, I find myself intrigued by headlines announcing creative endeavors, social justice rulings, etc.
I plan to hold on to that power.