Unplugging (At Least a Little Bit)

I’ve seen many an article in which the writer talks about how he or she has gotten rid of smart phones permanently, and I’ll have to say that I’m not one of those people. Believe me, I fought even getting an iPhone much longer than is normal for a so-called millennial, but I finally got one three years ago. I don’t play games on it (although I did at first), and I’m not the type of person who has to have the latest version. I like it for the convenience of being able to take snapshots and videos of my kids and check my email on the run and make phone calls and look up obscure trivia all in one device. But that also doesn’t mean that I’m glued to my phone all day. My rule is that I simply don’t use it at all if ever I wake up in the middle of the night (unless, of course, I get an emergency call or text). It’s easy for me to ignore it. In fact, there are some times when I am so busy that I’ll got 12 hours without doing more than checking the time.

But then there are those other people who can’t pull themselves away from whichever device is their vice of choice (and see how “vice” is already there in “device” – it’s like it was planned that way). These people check their email if they happen to wake up at three A.M. They play Farmville at their children’s band concerts or ballet recitals. They talk through the checkout line at the grocery store and text while driving. A lot of this comes down to a lack of common sense as well as courtesy – blog topics for another day.

The iPhone isn’t my problem, anyway. We have a semi-joke in our house about “my” MacBook. We bought this computer almost four years ago when my husband went back to school. At the time, I thought it would be great to have after he graduated, in addition to our desktop model. And for the longest time, I didn’t do much with it. He took it to class, typed term papers on it – was even typing one in the hospital room when our second son was born – but then… well, I kind of took it over after he graduated. (Don’t worry – I did get him an iPad mini to make up for stealing his tech.) By that point, our desktop computer was on it’s last legs, but I wasn’t worried about replacing it – the MacBook was more than adequate. It’s where I do everything from this blog to typing my NaNoWriMo novels to doing my freelance work to editing photos and creating photo books (for me and for clients). I’ve taken it on every vacation since we bought it, including Disney World, and I’ll even carry it in the car to work on projects if it’s a ride of 30 minutes or more (and when I’m not driving, obviously).

But this weekend I’m going to leave it at home.

That’s right – I’m letting go! My in-laws are taking the kids Friday after school through Monday – the longest I’ve gone childless since November 5, 2007. And this time, instead of my husband working half the nights they’re away, we’ve actually booked a room at my friend’s bed and breakfast – a first for us. My elder son was shocked to hear that we’re going to be doing fun stuff, too. And here’s something really different for me, the planner: we don’t have a plan. We’re going to go and just do nothing – or anything. And I’m not taking the laptop. I’m not going to write at all. Now, it’s only going to be for one night, but these are baby steps, folks. While I love writing, my husband can tell you that sitting down to innocently write a scene turns into balancing the budget for an hour and editing for Fiction Fix and any number of other computer-related distractions. We’ll take our phones (and probably the iPad) so we can FaceTime our kids and watch Netflix to our hearts’ content. I’ve been so busy lately that I refuse to go on a vacation only to do more of the same while paying extra for the room. (And see – I’m even posting this blog early just to make sure I’m distraction-free.)

We’ll have our books and a new-to-us area to explore. It’s going to be the perfect pair-of-introverts weekend.

Bread and Circuses and Why I Write

The chase

The chase (Photo credit: focusshoot)

I grew up on all kinds of nature shows. My dad has always been fascinated with all things wild, and since he was in charge of the remote, I saw quite a bit of PBS and Discovery Channel back in the day. Later add channels like Animal Planet, TLC, and NatGeo, and I was in nature heaven. Was.

Steve Irwin 1962 - 2006

Steve Irwin 1962 – 2006 (Photo credit: pauliepaul)

My kids love these kinds of shows, too. When we can find them. My elder son recently took an interest in reptiles, and so my husband told him about Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, and looked for some of his old shows on the web. I’m glad for this resource because good luck finding anything like that on TV. We finally found a different reptile guy with some shows on Netflix, but it’s rare to find a good nature show on TV anymore.

Then this week I just happened to see this article about Animal Planet’s Call of the Wildman: “Animals Are Injured in This ‘100 Percent Fake’ Reality Show.” Not only is it bothersome that apparently animals were drugged for a good number of these shows, but the attitude behind it all is what drove this deception to begin with. In 2008, Animal Planet’s president Marjorie Kaplan said, “We’re looking to be an entertainment destination, not a natural history channel.”

I suppose this makes sense, considering that I can never find the good old lioness-chasing-a-hyena type show anymore. Still, it sickens me how so-called reality TV (or what the article calls “guided reality”) has taken over.

Think about TLC – The Learning Channel, for goodness’ sake! What do you learn there? I’ll tell you: what not to wear, how to make a cake that looks like a person, and how bratty, four-year-old beauty pageant contestants behave at home (and worse).

Who came up with the idea that we need to watch how people supposedly live in order to be entertained, anyway? Hey, I’ve got an idea: follow me around with a camera all day. I’ve got two young boys. It should be entertaining, right? Well, maybe not. I know! You can jazz it up by putting us into some kind of controversial situation. Or rile my kids up, and make them drive me crazy.

Someone please tell me when reality became so fake.

As my mother pointed out when I mentioned the Animal Planet article, human nature hasn’t changed much over the millennia. As we did in Ancient Rome, we continue to do now: give us bread and circuses (food and entertainment), and we’re pacified. Just because we’re not watching slaves-turned-gladiators slaughter each other anymore doesn’t make us more sophisticated. Instead, we exploit people who are too ignorant to know that the world is making fun of them (or worse yet – they don’t care and just want the money); we turn ludicrous contests into “must-see” TV; and we stage all kinds of nonsense in order to make people think that the so-called “Wildman” is a hero.

I’m not saying that all TV shows are worthless or that tuning in upon occasion is bad. Hey, my husband and I used to love watching Top Shot and cooking competitions on the Food Network. But at some point, enough is enough. Nowadays, people think that the only way you can break into the music or cooking or fashion industry is to win a competition on one of these shows. And if you don’t, you’re worthless. Whatever happened to trying to break into your industry of choice the old-fashioned way – by forging out there and proving yourself without all the attention and sensationalism? And whatever happened to being entertained by, I don’t know, a professional entertainer instead of a “real” person’s stupidity?

All of this got me thinking. As my regular readers know, I am an avid reader, and my dream is to be a published novelist. Years ago, I was forced to consider both why I read and why I write, which goes right back to bread and circuses, right? No, I’m not talking about reading The Hunger Games. I’m talking about reading and writing indiscriminately.

Back in the days when I attended my friend and mentor Ari’s fiction workshops, he sometimes cornered the class by making us think about things we often take for granted. We knew that, according to the Gospel of Ari, we always had to read something, but he also wanted us to consider why we were reading. And we went around the room, each of us saying why we read. On another occasion, we had to say why we write.

Here are the answers that Ari did not want to hear: “I read to escape” and “I write for the money.”

I can’t remember what I said, but if Ari were to ask me now after years (okay, over a decade) to think about it, I have plenty of answers. I don’t read fiction to escape but rather to augment my life. I read to find out what could happen if. I love it when an author creates a setting (dystopian America) or a character (vampire) that is obviously not real, but I believe anyway. I love it when a story transports me to a new place, and I don’t even have to leave my couch. And as an introvert, I can meet all kinds of new people without ever having to introduce myself.

As for why I write, if I’d had the guts, here is what I would have said:

Of course I want to make money writing fiction. That’s why I’m not getting a useful degree that will get me some high-paying job. I’m young enough to still have the hope to make a living writing novels.

But that doesn’t mean writing any old novel. Unlike Animal Planet, I’m not going to change my M.O. mid-course to make a buck. I sometimes joke that if I decided to write Forty Shades of Pink or something raunchy like that, I would make it big. But at what cost? And besides, I can’t write that kind of garbage, anyway. At the end of the day, I can only write what brings me joy – which is what I want to read but simply hasn’t been written yet.

So I continue to be a starving artist (or nearly so).

There are writers out there who can memorize a formula and whip up a story that fits the mold. And people will continue to read them. People who maybe haven’t stopped to think why they read. People who have never considered that fiction can be more than an escape or sensationalism.

But I am not one of those readers or writers, so I’ll keep writing what moves me. I’ll go against popular culture and do something really real for a change. I’m happy with who I am and what I do – with not a single camera in sight to document how I go about my life – and I’m trying to raise my kids to find that same satisfaction. It’s going to be tougher for them than it was for me, but thank goodness for parental controls, archived TV shows, and zoos. We can keep it real just fine on our own.


Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I have the love-hate relationship with technology that almost everyone seems to have nowadays. I kept my dumb phone for the longest time because I didn’t want to get sucked into the world of iPhone lovers, yet now I am one of their ranks. I didn’t want to internet bank, didn’t want to read ebooks, yet I no longer mail checks to pay bills, and not only do I own a few ebooks, but I’ve even e-published a short story.

This week, a friend mentioned a village that houses a radio telescope that is so sensitive that there aren’t any cell phones within a certain number of miles. Intrigued, I did a little research. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is located in Green Bank, West Virginia, and there is a 13,000-square mile area around this observatory in which technologies like cell phones, Wi-Fi, TV and radio broadcasts simply don’t work. I wonder how people can live in a place like this. Certainly there must be some technology, but I imagine it’s like stepping back in time, somewhat.

On a much less drastic scale, I remember my friend Amy’s blog post last year, regarding her struggle with turning off the TV. It was well and good for her, I thought at the time, but I was not willing to even consider giving up my TV. Of course, at the time, I had a new baby and counted on the TV to get me through the three A.M. feedings—and those many nights when Ian didn’t sleep at all. There were maybe three shows that I followed regularly (shows that I actually sat down and watched every time a new episode aired), but everything else was mindless viewing.

Fast forward to where I am now: I can’t remember the last time I followed a particular program. Downtown Abbey? Never seen an episode (didn’t even know how to pronounce it until someone corrected me). I don’t know when this phenomenon happened, maybe when I was in the middle of a good book and just chose not to watch. Also, as the baby got older, and then my elder son started going to school five days a week instead of two, my life got a whole lot busier. The few spare minutes I had to myself weren’t worth wasting by watching some other mom making a spectacle of herself on “reality” TV. I have enough of my own reality to deal with, thank you very much.

From time to time over the past year, I’ve thought of Amy’s post, often reflecting that, if it were just me, I could get by with the local news and Netflix. There is something strangely powerful about the TV; it is hypnotizing. One night after the kids went to bed, the TV was still on, and I suddenly realized that I was waiting until the commercial break before getting up to brush my teeth. It wasn’t even a show I care about. My husband and I laughed about how we got sucked into the program simply because it was on.

The technology is even more disruptive at work. As a bookkeeper for a small business, I am dependent on crappy accounting software that, unfortunately, is pretty universal, so it’s what our accountant requires us to use. At least once a week (and more often once a day), the software crashes, despite the fact that it’s the latest version, and I rail at the computer and how stupid it is. Then, while I’m waiting for it to restart, I pick up my iPhone and check my e-mail.

Yet I can’t be too mad at this technology, without which I couldn’t have this virtual monologue. But it does drive me nuts that we’re so dependent on it. When the power goes out, we forget how to function. God forbid a cash register goes down, and a clerk can’t count change without the register doing the math. A time traveler from the nineteenth century would most likely think us completely inept.

Speaking of time travel, I started a series of books last year, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, in which the protagonist travels from the 1940s to the 1700s and decides to stay, despite the lack of technology. I mean, we’re talking cold baths, here. Not only that, but after returning to the twentieth century, she still chooses to go back in time again. And all for love. Now, I’m not advocating giving up hot showers (please, no), but I do think that there are some things that are more important than super fast download speeds and whatnot.

My five-year-old is at the age now where he has several television shows that he likes, and if I weren’t paying attention, I could easily let him rot in front of the TV all day. When he asks why I won’t let him watch as much as he wants, I remind him that we have a house full of toys and a backyard where he can play now. I’m fortunate that he often remembers on his own, and tonight, he won my heart again. He was excited that we have a new table, where he can do his schoolwork and drawings. Right now, he’s finishing a poster about black bears, which he’ll share with his class on Monday. And he asked if I would sit with him at his new table and have a “conpersation” about his poster. “And then we can just talk about other things or play games and stuff,” he said. You can believe that his request did this mama’s heart good.

So can you do it? Can you turn the TV off for any evening? Or can you put your smart phone down for an hour, resist the temptation to check your e-mail or play another round of Words with Friends? Cutting my TV consumption down was the first step; now I try to use my iPhone less when the kids are up. What can you do to allow all the wonderful technologies of the twenty-first century to aid but not impede on your life?