Off the grid for seven days

July 12, 2010

I am a self-confessed news junkie. A guy whose favorite day in eighth-grade social studies was current events. Even earlier, at age 12, I wrote a letter to “60 Minutes.” So incensed was I over some long-forgotten story. With the Internet, the access and obsession have grown that much stronger.

What was once a daily commitment to news is now an hourly compulsion to click on a news alert, check an RSS feed, see what’s being tweeted, and otherwise refresh and renew my view of the world, even if it’s just through e-mails and the constant flow of news links sent to me by clients and staff.

And so, with all that as a backdrop, last week I headed into the great backwoods of central Pennsylvania with the intention of going off the grid for as long as I could. Seven days, if all went as planned, with no cell coverage. The iPad at home. A backup laptop with a dead battery in reserve that could be fired up with a power supply in an emergency.

Day One: Friday, July 2

Travel and provision day. Time to hit the road, and purchase groceries and fishing tackle. The day before a holiday weekend is slow for news. I wouldn’t be missing much. So I easily switched the satellite radio to music instead of the typical CNN, CNBC, NPR, and Fox hash and rehash.

Still, I caught myself repeatedly tapping the pocket of my cargo shorts, a nervous tick to assure a quick draw of the cell phone if fate required it. But alas, not there. So by noon, my mind was racing. Had the stock market continued to fall? Who advanced in the World Cup? How long would the heat wave persist? With no news, I was groundless. Without fact or opinion, I was stressed by the lack of context.

By evening, a slow-moving river and an even slower porch ceiling fan helped me to relax. But still, who was winning and losing? What about the unexpected? How was the world changing? I couldn’t help but wonder.

Day Two: Saturday, July 3

The holiday brings no news, I rationalized, when I awoke early and began planning for the Fourth of July family get-together. I would be missing little, if anything for the next two days, making it easier to maintain radio silence. A busy afternoon of family and friends kept me outdoors, away from thoughts of my iPad and iPhone.

Our family’s amateur fireworks show, some 50 500-gram shots reflecting over the water, distracted my thoughts. I forgot it was the first day of the Tour de France. After all, it was just the prologue. The world as it’s constructed by news was becoming more and more distant.

Day Three: Sunday, the Fourth of July

A national holiday limits news, I figured. Then I recalled when I was away over Thanksgiving and the Dubai credit crisis hit. Wasn’t that on a holiday? I thought to myself. It was such a big news story that morning. Ruined my day. Dubai was crashing. Could the rest of the world sustain? It never affected my life one way or the other. Still, I had to know. What might be happening similarly today? I was haunted by all that I might be missing.

Day Four: Monday, July 5

Still the national holiday. The markets were closed. The mania toggled off. I bathed early that morning in a cold mountain stream, fresh off a bike ride. Nothing on me had a lithium battery to drain or manage. My mind and pockets were free of the cell phone, text messaging, e-mail, and the media. No noise. The heat built throughout the day, but not my anxiety. By dinner, I felt no urge, no compulsion. No need to know what was happening in the world. Might the addiction be waning?

Day Five: Tuesday, July 6

An early breakfast at The Barnyard, where $5 gets you more pork, eggs, and potatoes than the old cardiologist recommends consuming in a year. With it came a side helping of realization. I awoke this morning feeling a little bit better about the world.

You see, typically, as part of my heavy media diet, evenings end with two opposing views of the world brought to life by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow from the left, and Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity from the right. As a PR person, I watch both MSNBC and Fox to understand how to craft an argument regardless of whether it’s real or ridiculous.

And now being away from it, I realize that two hate-filled hours a night tends to taint your perspective come dawn. So this morning, I had no residual anger over what Barbara Boxer or Karl Rove said the day before. Instead, the day looked a little brighter. The sky a bit bluer. Four days off the grid had shown me the intrinsic negativity that goes with media. Ah screw it, I thought to myself. I still love the news. Cold turkey is tough.

Day Six: Wednesday, July 7

In the world I am now moving in, news isn’t mediated. Rather it’s immediate, delivered from friend or acquaintance. Curvin, a Mennonite woodworker, showed up early to fashion a gun cabinet out of antique yellow pine. He speaks slowly, against expectation. A hello brings a slow-drawn “Riiiiight.” He eyeballed and measured the fitting. Then he appeared silently over my left shoulder as I sat on a porch rocker.

“So how’s business with you?” he asked as a first-time reference to me about anything other than cabinetry.

“Good,” I replied. “And with you?”

“Slow. Real slow,” he said slowly.

And with that, his words triggered my fear. Business is slow even for a Mennonite cabinetmaker. It all had to be the result of the news, I thought to myself. Unknown to him, market forces had conspired, a housing collapse transpired, and 10-percent unemployment afflicted the nation.

The news would tell me more, give me an idea of how to navigate from here. Certainly, the talking heads of CNBC could give counsel. Maybe The Huffington Post could finger-point some capitalist culprit. Or The Wall Street Journal would place the blame at Obama’s feet. I had to have it. Please, oh God, give me the news.

So with that, I pulled out the drained laptop and plugged it in, one day short of my goal of being off the grid for seven days. In seconds, it awoke to the WiFi and my life lit up again. Google stood at attention. The Dow was up. Lance fell down. Germany and Brazil stumbled. LeBron left town. The squawk was back in the box. All seemed right with the world again.

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Ike Lichtenstein
8 years 9 months ago
Well, I loved your story about going off the grid. The ending I had chosen had you tossing the extra laptop away and staying off the grid a few more days maybe forever! I "kicked" the news junky habit a few years ago and today I turned in my enhanced cable box for one with basic cable – no premium anything. However, I have a new habit – I am starting a new business, having discovered the benefits of social media marketing which is why I am reading this blog – trying to connect with people that have something useful… Read more »