Correspondence, Connectivity, Screens, and Free-Range Joy

[lightly edited]

It takes me 2-3 hours to get the kids to sleep at night. And then once they’re down, I take an hour or more to unwind. Which is foolish. I can’t afford to lose that precious sleeping time – I surf the web, play Angry Birds – it’s stupid. A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article on the addictive qualities of the internet – and while I take the tone of alarm in the article under advisement, it rings a bit true (and how ironic that I read it on the net via social media). I’ve thought before – I’ve observed in myself – about the way I keep clicking around in circles – Facebook, Google Reader, e-mail, Twitter – around and around hoping for an update, something interesting or funny or pretty to look at, for that little “zing” of pleasure. I remember when we did experiments with white mice in my college intro psych class, the intermittent and unpredictable reward was the addictive one. The little mice kept clicking and clicking the little lever, because the next click could be the one! That brought down the food pellet! Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t. But even after we cut off the food supply, they kept clicking and clicking for a long, long time. A line in the article on internet addiction said something about people foregoing sleep in order to mess around online, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m losing my mind.

What would our lives be like, without all these screens?

When I was growing up, we were unplugged most of the time. When we lived in a two-room adobe house in a village in Peru’s “ceja de selva” (brow of the jungle, or highland jungle), our only connection to the world outside that village – besides walking trails – was a ham radio. The first thing we did every time we moved out there was to set up the antenna, stringing the long lines into a tree or up a bamboo pole. The first thing I heard every morning as I woke up under my mosquito net was the crackle of static and scratchy voices, my dad checking in with our call number – “OAX29 a OAX6, cambio.” “Adelante, OAX29.” And that was it. Over and out.

I have this memory. As an adult it has become “my happy place,” a moment in time suspended in a golden bubble of pure joy. I am 7; I am playing in the shallow creek that runs past the village, under the light shade of the guava trees that drop dried flowers all over the sandstone boulders dotting the creek. The sun casts a sparkling net through the water, where fish dart over the gravelly bottom. This is the only place in the village where my sister and I are allowed to go barefoot – we could get hookworm from the manure that free-ranging farm animals leave to dry under the sun, but the rocks are clean – so now I revel in the grip of my bare soles on the rough sandstone. The water is cold on my feet, the stones warm in the sun. I jump around from rock to rock, and I sing. It’s a Sunday School song, and I believe that God is watching me right this moment, that God is embracing me as warmly and closely as the sunlight embraces my young brown limbs. I am alone with God, with God and with my pure heart-lifted happiness.

A couple years ago my dad told me that our time in this village was the most difficult time in his and my mom’s 40-year career with the mission. This is the village where he first got sick, completely debilitated by one illness after another (he has never recovered. He has been sick for 32 years). There were times when we ran out of food, literally nothing to eat in the house, and then at the last minute someone would come by with a gift of dried red beans and rice, a papaya, a hand of green bananas.

But I remember pretending to float paper boats in the dew on the grass that lingered in the shadow of the church building next to our house. I remember climbing those sandstone boulders, finding the vacant shells of enormous snails piled between the rocks – snails the size of oranges, which people would cook and eat with manioc and boiled green bananas. I remember helping an old woman pull cotton seeds from the bolls, and I marveled at how heavy the seeds were, how light the cotton. I remember the utter silence of noon. This village was inaccessible by any motorized vehicle – we rode horses two hours from a little airstrip in the next village over to get there – so not even the distant drone of traffic interrupted the silence of the world at siesta. Only the occasional rooster crowing, dog barking, the distant rattle of pots and pans. The smell of wood smoke and guitar music at night brings it back to me in an instant. We would lie under our mosquito nets on church night, my dad would read us a bedtime story by candlelight while the village children lined up along the bamboo wall to stare at us – a row of black eyes all along the crack in the wall, a row of little fingers bracketing each nose.

This was our life without screens.

When we would visit the capital city to stay with my cousins, my sister and I would sit on the stairs and stare at the clock, counting the minutes and seconds until 10:00 when the children’s programs would start on TV. Then we’d run up to the family room to play with Legos and watch cartoons all day long. In the afternoon we’d watch the A-Team and Knight Rider dubbed in Spanish (I was shocked the first time I heard Mr. T’s actual voice – nothing so gruff as the Spanish-speaking actor who dubbed his part – and I always thought Kit’s name was “Keith”). We had no defenses against TV. We had no… I want to say filters, but that’s not quite the right idea. We had no guards, no screens. We couldn’t imagine choosing not to watch it.

I installed a site blocker on my laptop, in order to focus more on my work. It’s been good. I had completely broken my celebrity gossip habit for awhile – until the Cruise-Holmes divorce sucked me in again recently – but I found that I don’t need it anymore, I don’t want it. I don’t seek it out. I just don’t go there. (Oh, and a good Brangelina story has the power to pull me in as well. And maybe Kate and Wills. But that’s all. Really.) I still trawl Facebook – and I’m glad I do, I’m glad I stay connected that way, especially overseas. But it’s imperfect.

Here’s a crazy story. I saw a FB update on my cousin’s page – my favorite cousin, mind you, the one who looks like Bon Jovi and is about as free of bullshit as anybody I know in the world. My cousin had built a tree house restaurant in NYC, and there were all these photos of the grand opening, and the label on one photo of “Simon and his lovely girlfriend Lynn.” And I went huh? The last time I saw Simon was at my uncle’s – his step-dad’s – funeral three years ago. At that time he’d been married to Sabina (born Sara, she changed her name when she became a dancer) – a women I’d never really clicked with nor cared for much. They have one child. So who was Lynn? I checked Sabina’s FB page and saw she’d gone back to using her maiden name. Neither of them listed anything in the “relationship status” box. I mulled over this for weeks. Weeks. I mean, how do you ask your cousin whom you’ve been in touch with on Facebook fairly regularly over the preceding two years, “Hey, I saw that you have a girlfriend. What happened to your wife?” Weird, right?

So finally I wrote him – Hey Simon, what’s up with you these days? Fill me in! I seem to have been out touch for far too long. Facebook seems to create the illusion of keeping in touch but it’s far too brief, too superficial… How is Chloe? What happened to you and Sabina? (I’ve been working over and over in my mind just how to ask that question… but it looks like you’ve both moved on???) Fill me in – and he responded that yes, he and Sabina split up three years ago.

Three years ago.

My favorite cousin got divorced, and I didn’t even find out until three years later? How disconnected can I get?

It still bothers me.

When I was in high school my boyfriend was three years older than me and so graduated first and went to college in the US while I stayed in the jungle. It was all snail mail then, and even more than that international snail mail. It usually took about three weeks for a letter to change hands. Sometimes when we were in the village it would be months, and then I’d get five letters all at once. I remember how my palms would sweat and my hands trembled as I opened each one, savored every pen-stroke, fingered the paper his hands had touched. He would draw our initials entwined together elaborately. Our romance continued until my first year in college. Being closer to him – Illinois to Iowa – I realized that I didn’t really like him all that much anymore. But oh how sweet the pain of longing for my distant love through those high school years! We constructed an intensely dramatic arc around the torture of missing each other all the time. It couldn’t possibly last (and I’m so very glad it didn’t).

It’s just wild to think about it now – how our one long-distance call during those years lasted thirty minutes, cost me $70, and got cut off abruptly when terrorists blew up a power station somewhere between me and the coast.

Now Gimli and I skype with our parents about once a week. It’s free. It’s face-time – sort of, anyway – and even though sometimes the connection is dropped, we can usually pick it right up again.

Which is the better connection, then?

All this to say, I don’t quite know how I feel or what I think about my online life. Or the ways I use digital media, or how it uses me. Clearly, blogging and connecting to other bloggers has enriched my life tremendously, and I hope I have contributed to the enrichment of others. On the other hand, the way I currently use it is robbing me of sleep. And when we lost Illyria’s cat? Gimli’s anger was about 98% about the fact that I was playing a game on my phone instead of paying attention. And yet, I let the kids watch videos or play with the iPad way more than I want to or think I should – because it’s easier. I can get stuff done while they’re thus engaged without constantly moderating conflicts. But what is this doing to their brains for the long-term? My husband likes to joke that “what’s good in moderation is great in excess!” (Tara wrote about this half a year ago and I’m still thinking about it…)

So, a 2000-word free-ranging ramble about various indirectly-connected topics… apparently that’s my blogging MO these days.

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5 Responses to “Correspondence, Connectivity, Screens, and Free-Range Joy”

  1. tara Says:

    i was surprised at how quickly i picked back up the internet circling after my power outage induced ‘fast’. it was nice to be gone for a while. i also discovered how little i missed in 4-5 days off which makes me wonder why i circling endlessly looking for updates.

  2. jjiraffe Says:

    This is a wonderful post: so well written. I loved reading about your experiences as a child in a world with no TV and little connection to the world of the media.

    My dad sent me an article recently comparing excessive internet use to “electronic cocaine.” I do use my phone a lot waiting for the next “fix”: text, comment, FB updates and yes, the whole Tom/katie thing. It’s…not good, and I forgo sleep for this stuff too.

    • Elizabeth Says:

      So how different is it from caffeine? or sugar? or wheat? All these things I think my life might be better without – but that I enjoy and use? Hard to know.

      Thanks for the compliment 🙂

      • Decemberbaby Says:

        Really well written post, and you’re right – there are so many things in life that we might be better off without… but they’re fun, or convenient, or – in the case of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse – sanity saving.

        We’ve settled for no cable and no TV set in our house, but TV episodes and movies on our laptops from time to time. And as much as our kids love to watch Pixar movies, they can still have a fabulous time outside with a pinecone and a stick. So moderation, once again, seems to be where I’m going with this one.

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