Monday, February 12, 2018

Think: Fast

I really like my screens. Some of the actual devices are different from what normal people use (see: here), but I'm dependent on them nonetheless. That said, I like quite a few things that aren't very good for me. In fact, if I'm being honest, I'll admit that I don't always enjoy them responsibly or in moderation. Let's just theorize that it's possible to engage in something bad for you, and enjoy washing it down with something else bad for you. I don't know how many servings there are in a can of Pringles chased with a package of Oreos, but I'll bet it's more than what should be consumed in one sitting over half a season of Breaking Bad.

Sometimes when you're trying to get a handle on a habit that's not very good for you, engaging in a fast (or "cleanse"--though that word is just a little to defecatory for my liking) is a good way to get things started.

Sometimes, it's your wife's idea.

A spouse serving as the impetus for healthier living or other lifestyle upgrades isn't unheard of. For example, I serve as our family's unwavering advocate of farmers' market produce, exercise, weekly church attendance, heating with wood, and raw milk. In addition to campaigning for screen-free time, my wife makes sure that we attend any and all parent-teacher conferences and school open houses, have frequent family dinners, keep in touch with friends, volunteer for stuff, and go to all the recommended medical/dental/optical appointments. We've joked about needing an additional spouse who would specialize in housekeeping, flower gardens, and paperwork management. For those not partnered, advice is widely available from parents, magazine articles, click-baity thumbnails, and pretty much anyone else who navigates vice and virtue and has an opinion about it.

We did our first Screen-Free Week® many years ago when our elder child was in elementary school. Back then it was basically cutting out TV and some occasional web-surfing (via Netscape Navigator?, on dial-up??--could have been). Now our digital lives and our IRL lives are more complexly intertwined.

As part of this project, I kept a journal in a spiral-ring notebook. And I don't mean an app called "Spiral Ring Notebook®" (which I've just invented, so plan to pay me a couple of bucks when you've developed, patented, and marketed it). I mean an actual stack of lined paper held together with a wire. Using a pen. It was a strange few days.

Later, I typed the whole thing into Blogger more-or-less exactly as it was written--spelling corrected, of course. As a result, you'll get to see what my writing looks like before the editor has had her way with it. You'll notice, as I did, an especially complicated relationship with verb tense and sentence structure. Commentary interspersed in italics. Truth is, the longer this post spent in my drafts folder, the more tinkering this got--allegedly for clarity. Not too sure it helped. Be glad that I didn't have any handwriting-ish fonts to subject you to. Look for that in Slackerguide: The Book.

The first morning of this began at 6:45 AM. Not early by some standards, including this household's standards when school is in session, but quite early in summertime. Normally, the day would start with the child watching Octonauts while her father reads all of Twitter. This is screen-free week, so this is not how things started.
Breakfast had been completed and the father and his daughter are playing Connect 4. It's not yet 9:00 AM. This is not normal.

I don't know why this entry is written in third person. I seem to be attempting to impose some distance--as if studying an anthropological subject. Whatever the cause, it didn't last.

I find myself treat-seeking. I walk into the kitchen and vaguely want something. Not so strange for me, I guess, but it does seem intensified by this.
I also lost track of time while reading my magazine. When most of my periodical reading moved to online providers, one factor is that there's always a clock in view. I didn't know how much I relied on this until I tried reading on paper again.

Note: Further research indicates that I was probably in search of dopamine. There is a book making the rounds called Bored and Brilliant:How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self by Manoush Zomorodi. The gist is that we've flooded our brains with the quick fix that a ping on our phones gives us, and in so doing have kept our brains from reaching "default mode," which sort of depends on boredom to do its thing. 

The bit about losing track of time is related, as it turns out. Staying centered on one task is a rare and unfamiliar state in our connected lives.  

Side note: Dopamine is also found in Cheetos.

One of the advantages of screen-free life is that you and your spouse can talk more. The problem is that we watch TV with a twitchy finger on the pause button and typically spend several hours watching one hour of programming. Without TV, we're left to talk about a much more limited range of topics--no zombies, Secretaries of State, slutty highlanders, etc.--mainly we're left with Real Life.

Note: This entry seems to have been the climax of my dissatisfaction with Screen-Free Week®. The whiny tone, the swipe at my wife, and the ode to a normal life with television are all indicative of how unpleasant I had become by this point. We did probably have an argument, maybe centered on a topic of our life, family, household, or those things in combination, but that wasn't because we didn't have screens. That's because we're living a life together and stuff happens that we need to deal with. There was a sense, however, that without the easy diversion of television and social media that things were baseline a bit more serious and grown-up. 

In my experience, people engaged in fasting often get this way. I remember Good Friday fasts--growing up, we abstained from solid food for all of Good Friday every year--in which my whole family wasn't really speaking by the end of the day. Two hours of church contemplating the Crucifixion and our culpability in it was a particularly difficult way to end the day.

Also mentioned in this entry, the slow TV progress thing is true. In our early days, we'd to try (and fail) to cram all of our discussion into commercial breaks. We were left with the decision to talk over the show already in progress, or try to remember what we were thinking through twelve more minutes of TV until the next commercial. Once we switched to TiVo and later to Netflix, we were able to make the TV conform to our preferred pace. Now we can indulge in all of the real-time predictive analytic and character diagnostics we want. Actually, we could just compile a transcript of these discussions and publish it as a standalone blog, or maybe a podcast.

The record ends there. In part because I've never been very good at following through with journal writing, but also because things got easier and I didn't feel the need to chronicle my suffering. I was eventually distracted by the sorts of things that advocates of this concept are always going on about. I started Infinite Jest, a book so substantial and dense that I may never finish it--at least in what is for the moment a pre-apocalyptic reality, furnished with running water, electricity, and the Internet. I didn't take up a whole new fitness routine, but I may have added a workout or so to my normal efforts. If nothing else, these diversions lessened the suffering to the point that I didn't feel the need to scribble it in longhand. Also, it's possible I temporarily lost the spiral-bound notebook.

Looking back on the previous paragraph, I see that each of those things sheds some light on this whole experiment--well, maybe not the bit about journal follow-through: that probably more effectively sheds light on this whole blog experiment.

First, things do get easier. Giving something up is difficult at first because it is wrapped so tightly with your entire life. Case in point, when we have a power outage I not only continue to flip light switches for the duration, but I keep thinking of things that I could do to pass the time, like watching TV by candlelight. I have a lot of trouble adjusting to a new reality, not just mentally, but in a real tactile sense.

Second, I did take on some things that could objectively considered quality replacements for the low-quality screen time. Reading, talking, and exercising are virtuous endeavors--just ask anyone who regularly takes part in them. 

The thing about the notebook is real too. In my early days of teaching, I had a folder called "Originals"--actually, it probably said "Orriginals"; I'm no good with double-consonants--from which I'd copy worksheets. Because I teach music, these documents included music excerpts held on with sticky-tape. Keeping track of these things and not constantly leaving them on the copier glass was a real burden that has now been alleviated by the fact that I can print directly to the copier from my computer. Organizing in digital space is easier, in part because I don't even need to remember where I put stuff, at least when I can make a decent guess about what I named the stupid thing. 

In the end, I'm not sure that the digital fast has made any lasting improvement. I'm back to refreshing news feeds more-or-less continuously in a vain search for better news--or at least bad news affecting the other guys. It was useful in one sense, however. I proved that I could be separated from these devices and that the world would go on turning without me keeping such a close eye on it. Maybe a longer experiment would lead to more lasting change. Maybe I could try a fast from other unhealthy vices. These things have less power when you know you can give them up for a time when you decide to put your mind to it.

Or if your spouse does.

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