Something odd happened the other day. I was on a plane. That part wasn’t odd. It was my 3o4,394th flight in a week, I think, so I was pretty weary. Put it this way: When I got to the airport, I looked up at the Departures Board to confirm my gate. And I couldn’t find my flight to New York on there. It was baffling. I was leaving at 2:41 but there was no flight to New York at the time. I started to get preemptively angry. Where’s my flight? Was it canceled? Why wasn’t I alerted? Was I there on the wrong day (this has happened)? What was the deal here?
Then I realized I couldn’t find my flight to New York because I was actually flying to Kansas City.
It reminded me of a road story my buddy Vac likes to tell about the time he woke up groggily, stumbled to the door, opened it, looked outside and thought, “Damn, they didn’t put my newspaper out here. This hotel stinks!” He then stumbled back to bed, climbed in and only then realized that he wasn’t in a hotel. He was at home.
Anyway, this is not about the road, not exactly. I was on the plane semi-dozing when the little bell went off, the one that indicates the plane is now above 10,000 feet and so wireless internet is available. I have my pattern down. I get on the plane and immediately close my eyes and try to get in a short nap. This is fairly easy because I take Dramamine before every flight, and it conks you out (none of that “non-drowsy” stuff for me). I doze off and then hear the little “bing” sound, and I’m up. I get my computer cranked up. I hook up to the Internet. I do some work. I like working on a plane because it makes the flight go by faster. I’m writing this on a plane right now.
Well, this time I got up and fired up the computer and … there was no Internet. It wasn’t that the Internet was down exactly — the “GoGo Internet Network” was not listed. No networks were listed. And by the way, no, this is not a Louis CK gag about Internet not working on a plane. It’s sort of the opposite.
“I’m sorry,” the flight attendant said as she walked past me. “The Internet is not working.”
“OK,” I said. So I put my computer away and pulled out the new Bruce Springsteen book “Born to Run.”
And, I have to tell you this: The next 90 minutes of reading were among the most blissful I can remember.
I’m not sure I can quite get this across: It was WEIRD. Understand, I read all the time. I’ve been reading the Springsteen book for a while — book post coming soon — and I’ve been reading a couple of cool novels, and I’ve been reading a ton of Houdini things. All of it has been good. I probably spend six hours every day reading something or other and it’s still enjoyable.
But this reading was different somehow. I found myself INSIDE the book in a way that I haven’t felt in a long, long time.
The answer, obviously, is that I was finally unplugged. I know that. We are so rarely unplugged. Do you remember the first time you realized that you were tethered to the world? I remember the exact date: July 4, 2005. We were driving from Austin back to Kansas City, and as we closed in on Oklahoma City, my cell phone rang. This wasn’t exactly the wild pioneer days of cell phones, they had been ubiquitous for some time. But it was before the iPhone, before smart phones in general, before Twitter was founded, before Facebook was Facebook, before …
Even then, though, phones rang, and I picked up, and it was my editor at The Kansas City Star telling me that Hank Stram had died.
“I’m driving in Oklahoma,” I said. It went without saying that I was also on vacation.
“I know,” he said. “But Hank Stram died.”
I pulled the whole family, in-laws included, into a hotel in Oklahoma City. And I wrote about Hank Stram.
That’s when I first began to understand that the cell phone wasn’t just a convenience. A short time earlier, there would have been absolutely no way for my editor to reach me. What would have happened? They would have made due. Someone else would have written the story. I would have written about Hank Stram a day later. The world would have kept on spinning. But in this relatively new world, I was tethered. You were never out of touch …
Well, that’s not true, not then. You could leave your cell phone off. You could not answer the cell phone.
But then there was email. And then there were texts. And then there was social media.
For a while, the only place where you could really disconnect was a plane.
And then there was wifi on planes.
This isn’t a complaint, not exactly. The hard truth is that I LOVE being connected. It fits my manic mind. I’ve always envied those people who could just lay out at the beach for hours, listening to the waves, every care in the world pushed off to a later time. I have never been able to do that. I sometimes ask people, “What do you do to get out of your own head?” They tell me about golf or mountain climbing or running or yoga or just being at the beach. I should try it more, I guess.
But I love the engagement. I love the action, the pulse, the rhythms, the little buzz of the phone that tells me someone is trying to reach me. I love keeping my mind occupied. I love learning stuff, and there’s so much stuff to learn. I love quick-reading stuff, and there’s so much to quick-read. I love engaging. And, of course, more than any of it, I love writing pointless and long posts like this one.
And I don’t think that much about the basic question: What do we give up? I guess in the end we give up tiny little pieces of ourselves. We give up presence, if that makes sense. I am so rarely fully present. I still love to read, but reading is not quite as engrossing as it used to be. I love to go to the movies, but movies aren’t quite as absorbing as they used to be. I love watching sports on television but all along my mind wanders just a a little. What’s on Facebook? Oh I just thought of a joke to Tweet. Wait, I just felt the email vibration.
It just occurred to me: I think this is why I love driving my girls to school every morning. We don’t listen to music. Nobody is allowed to on their phone. We just talk. It’s my favorite part of the day. And I think it’s because for 20 or so minutes, I’m fully present.
People talk a lot these days about unplugging. Adult coloring books seem to be one way to unplug. Yoga again. One friend has determined that he will not look at his phone or email until noon every day. I’ve tried some of that stuff, but it doesn’t really work. If I’m unplugged, I just worry about what I’m missing. I worry about what people are talking about. I worry that one of my phone apps has a big fat !16! as a badge. I can see it in my mind. I don’t know about you but I DESPISE when there’s a big number on an application badge. My wife will routinely have something like !461! on her email app, and when I see it I feel like the entire world is falling apart.
All of which is to say: the other day, on the plane, it all just came together. The Wifi was down so there really wasn’t anything I could do to connect. I was on a plane so no one could call me. I couldn’t really write anything because without the Internet to lean on I was likely to have a bunch of ??????????s in my text.
Instead, I let everything go and just read about Bruce Springsteen’s longing, his hunger, his pain, an I felt it deeply. Maybe I can figure out a way to get that feeling again. Maybe I can use one of those unplug apps that take away distractions. Maybe I can get rid of some of my gadgets (tougher — I love gadgets). Maybe ..
Maybe I will just wait for the next plane without Wifi.