The nights were the worst.

With all fast asleep within the house around me, it seemed as though the entirety of the remaining world was trapped within the hard metal shell of my desktop computer.

The emails, the text messages, the Facebook wall posts. The up-to-the-minute news updates in perhaps the most eventful time in human history.

The streaming television. The 24-hour Christmas morning that is Amazon. The YouTube – dear God, how I missed YouTube and the time-sucking variety offered therein.

I could have none of it – not on my desktop machine, not on my phone, not on some tablet, phablet or Kindle. No internet for me, my friend, and by extension, no television. I had taken a vow of abstinence, and while it was only two days and two nights of web-free living, the pain set in fast.

Let me make one thing clear: I’m not that guy you see out in public, phone in hand and all attention directed there. When I’m out of the house, I rarely miss the internet at all. I welcome road trips as time away from the magnetic attraction of email and Facebook, and from the endless nags of the connected world.

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At home, though? When the work is done and all I have are long hours to fill? Give me my internet, bro, and keep it coming. A sitcom on Netflix here, some deep nerd research there. Maybe a few hours of history, political analysis and videos of people getting hit in their groins on YouTube. The internet means instant gratification and knowledge on command. Now I was going without and the aforementioned pain made itself known in an exciting variety of ways.

THE DAWNING: MOTORCYCLE HAND GRIPS

Saturday afternoon, working on my motorcycle in the yard. I noticed that my hand grips were worn down to nothing and decided to get some new ones at once. Amazon would have been an easy way to go, but no. Amazon resides on the internet and thus, to me, it was verboten. I’d have to go to a local brick-and-mortar store, but was it open?

In any internet browser these days, you can pop in the name of pretty much any business, big or small, and its hours of operation will appear on the very first page. Handy stuff. That’s how you find out whether George’s Pizza is open when you have a hankering for pie at 2 in the morning. It’s how you come to know it’s no use making the trip to Home Depot at 10:01 p.m. on a Sunday when you need an emergency ballcock spring for the toilet.

So, I needed to know if the motorcycle store was open, but I couldn’t look it up. Just give them a call, right? Sure, if I had the phone number. But since I began using phone books as kindling around 2002, something as simple as a phone number was beyond my reach. Was there still such a thing as “Information”? Just dial 411 and ask for the number?

Moot point, as it turns out. Since my phone is connected to the internet, I had shut it off, and this house hasn’t been equipped with a land line in 10 years or more. My options were to find an old-fashioned phone booth with the phone book still intact or just take a ride over to the bike store and see if I could open the door.

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Which is what I did. It had closed roughly two minutes before I arrived.

Both Saturday and Sunday morning I read the newspaper cover to cover. This is how I got my news all weekend. Since we ditched cable a couple years ago —settling for web-based programming — I couldn’t even fall back on TV news sources I generally dislike during my lost weekend. No CNN, no FOX, no nothing.

It made me think about a time before the internet and before 24-hour news cycles. Back in the day, one got news in daily doses via the newspaper, or tuned in for the evening news on television. By today’s standards, news traveled at a glacial pace. And if you go back to the period before television, it was slower still. How did they cope, I wondered, without minute-to-minute updates, the bulk of them completely unsubstantiated and transmitted snarkily via Twitter?

Reading the newspaper was nice and nostalgic, but still I felt the tidal tug of technology. It was the small stuff, mostly.

I stumbled upon the Dear Abby column but noticed that some other lady was writing it. Whatever happened to Abigail Van Buren, I wondered? Was she dead? On strike? In prison?

Who cared, really? But when I remembered that I couldn’t look it up until Monday, suddenly it seemed like I HAD to know. Something as simple as a 10-second Google search was now forbidden, which turned an insignificant piece of information into something pressing and out of reach, like an inner itch.

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The Sunday paper was a blessing. It filled chunks of time I normally would have spent slumped at my desk, robotically scrolling web pages. The Sunday paper is absolutely jam packed with news and entertainment, yet its offerings are finite. No hyper links, no auto-play videos, no email addresses to which to fire off instant rebuttals.

I read a guest column by Lewiston lawyer Elliott Epstein and was stirred by the subject on which he wrote. I had thoughts. Deep thoughts, and wanted to write him at once to commend his analysis and offer my own. But without access to the internet, what was I going to do? Sit down and hand write a letter to the attorney? Tuck my thoughts away until Monday and hope that my passion for the task would survive that long?

The internet allows us to react instantly to the things that move us. That can be a great thing or a terrible thing, depending on what that reaction is and whether you were sober when you made it. In my case, it was nothing at all – by the time the internet embargo was over, my thoughts on Epstein’s column had faded to a barely remembered rant in a quiet corner of my mind. What were those thoughts again? Something about the sacrosanct nature of private property? Without the internet, whatever ideas I had on the matter were not registered on the permanent record that is the net.

Later. Night again. The internet Jones was upon me. I missed YouTube like a vanquished lover. Had Stefan Molyneaux posted a new video today? Was Jonathan Turley opining about legal matters? What were the latest developments in Syria? What about North Korea? China? Russia? Turkey?

There were rumblings about gunfire in Lewiston and someone had mentioned something about a blaze at Burger King. Surely the Sun Journal would have stories up on the web and there was no doubt buzzing to be had on Facebook. Not for me, though. There might be a hundred updates in my email and a dozen secret squirrel tips in my Facebook private message folder, but they might as well have been on the moon. Through the simple act of yanking the ethernet cord out of my computer, I had reduced my own capacity for telecommunication to 1989 levels. I had slammed the prison door of isolation behind me.

RABBIT EARS TO THE RESCUE?

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What I wouldn’t have given for an hour of Netflix. Just a bunch of “Cheers” reruns would have served as a fine distraction, or maybe I could take a look at the “13 Reasons Why” clip that had people in such a stir.

Inspired, it occurred to me that I had a TV antenna kicking around somewhere; just a cheap little unit I could screw into the television to access local channels. I dug it out from beneath the bed, clawing for it like a junkie tearing into his stash. I screwed it in, aimed the other end toward the southern sky, and waited for the entertainment void to be filled.

The world opened by the TV antenna was surreal. “Wonder Woman” reruns and “Night Court” and “Columbo.” The images were jumpy and prone to freezing. The broadcasts were plagued by endless commercials that seemed to spring out of the mid-1970s. Ronco is still selling knives? Enjoli perfume is still a thing?

Frustrated, I flicked through the channels until I found some NHL Stanley Cup action. The Capitols vs. The Penguins! Bingo! Weekend saved!

But the broadcast was junk. It would freeze and stutter and break apart at key moments. I found myself standing on a chair, holding the antenna high above my head and doing a strange dance in a mostly vain effort to restore order to the hockey game. This was the kind of thing TV enthusiasts had to endure back when “All in the Family” was an edgy new sitcom on CBS.

I found my low point. Had I become so addicted to the white noise of entertainment that I couldn’t handle two nights of relative silence?

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I flung the antenna into a closet and shut down the TV. I went into another room and picked up a paperback novel, marveling over it as though it was an ancient artifact from a forgotten epoch. In a time before the internet had annihilated my attention span, I used to read two or three of these suckers a week. Now, to my great shame, resigning myself to the reading of mere paper and ink felt like punishment.

In an attempt to escape the allure of the internet, I traveled all the way back to the 1960s hippie generation. I joined a crowd of dropped-out hedonists, traveling the country by boxcar, drinking wine on beaches and pontificating on all of life’s great mysteries. The whole time, the internet tugged at me.

Reading Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” at 10 p.m. (it felt like 3 a.m.) I came across a line about a young beat poet who had purchased all his clothes at Goodwill. Gee, I thought. How long has Goodwill been around? My impulse was to go look it up. Once I remembered that I couldn’t do so, I suddenly wanted to look up the history of Goodwill reeeeeally bad. I mean, it seemed all at once like a matter of life and death, and the fact that I couldn’t just pop onto Google to find the answer was maddening. It was like an itch in my amygdala.

THE RUINS OF OUR CYBER ADDICTION

How did one answer such pointless questions back in the day? Did they wait until Monday so they could go to the library and search for information that way? Did they go to the nearest Goodwill store and ask a harried clerk about the origins of the organization?

When I was a kid, half of everything I learned came from the encyclopedia. Need to know the chief export of Guam at 4 in the morning? Britannica had you covered. On fire with wonder about the circumference of the moon? Check the volume M-N and you’d find your answer. Back in the day, the encyclopedia was the internet, one without the clutter of Tweets, pop-up ads and cat memes. The sad fact is, like the painfully absent phone book, I don’t have any encyclopedias anymore either.

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If the world wide web ever crashes into cyber dust, knowledge will fly away from us like frightened bats. We’ve become so hooked on the easy access to everything it provides, surely our brains are less adroit than they used to be. Surely we remember less because we are no longer required to – why commit a phone number to memory when you can easily store it in your cloud-based address book, available anywhere you go? Why remember facts and figures when you can jot them down in Evernote, to be accessed again only when that information is needed.

In the end, I spent my final hours of unconnected existence grumbling over the pathetic nature of cyber addiction. Bored to fury, I cleaned everything in sight, sweeping and mopping areas that hadn’t seen sunlight in 25 years. I fixed things that weren’t broken. I cleaned and organized my closet and drawers, to the point where my socks are now arranged alphabetically. I did productive things, and resented doing them rather than delighting in the fact that I have been given a gift of silence and free time.

Weird business, addiction.

Ironically, I had originally intended to make my break from the internet a week long, or even two – a longer spell would have provided more opportunity for adjustment and adaptation. Who knows? After such a long stretch without the distraction of the web, I might be writing poetry by now, or painting great art or building a better mousetrap.

Alas, a longer stretch was not possible because without the internet, I wouldn’t be able to do my job, and how sad is that? Back in the mid-’90s, I did just fine with a notebook, a Rolodex, microfilm for background research and a hard-wired telephone. These days? A good 75 percent of all my communication is done through email or social media, and just about all research is done through online search engines. Breaking news isn’t scribbled in a notebook, it’s posted at once to the web. It’s an online business in a hyper-connected world.

So, Monday morning I got up and plugged that ethernet cord back into the computer. The internet was back in an instant, and with it all the brain-cluttering aggravations that go with it. A dozen emails that demanded immediate response, the bink of incoming text messages and bonk of new voicemails. There were Facebook messages to be read, reminders of bills due, nags from the bank, nags from work, nags from people I didn’t want to talk to.

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While I had spent the weekend missing the good things the internet has to offer, I had forgotten to also savor the silence of its absence. Sighing, feeling no relief at being connected again, I got about dutifully answering those messages that needed to be addressed. If only I could make swift work of them, I might find enough time left in the day to order that ballcock spring on Amazon.

The Sunday paper was the new internet for the disconnected writer. 

Our readers, unplugged

When I announced that I was going to take a weekend break from the internet, several people (on the internet) weighed in with their thoughts.

“You’re going to love it,” said one.

“You’re going to hate it,” said another.

Turns out they were both right.

As it happens, lots of people make a habit of taking breaks from the internet. Once I was back from my own, I jotted down a few of their thoughts on the matter.

Heather Kern, Lewiston
 
“I try to do this regularly. I was nostalgic for the ’70s when we had three channels and a really long phone cord that reached to the closet. My disconnected days are much happier. Feels like taking a shower after working in the yard.
 
 “The older I get, the more I feel I need the break, especially since November. I get the highlights (or low) about news and issues, but otherwise try to limit ‘screen time’ to derby communication and educational pursuits. As amazing as technology has become, I really do miss the days of a Matrix-free life and fantasize about tossing all my devices and connecting with a yard full of chickens or goats instead.
 
“I think breaking news is what pushed me over the edge. The announcements, the repeats, the rehash, the commentary and the ribbon all to say life as we know it will never be the same, using every variation of every cliche possible. I had media blahs, turning into fatigue, followed by downright aversion. Especially when the term “fake news” morphed from a buzz phrase to completely meaningless in a matter of weeks. Weren’t the ’80s a beautiful thing? — said no one until 2016. I could go for some Aquanet and Cyndi Lauper right about now!”
 
Kelly Briggs, Auburn
 
“Many people, especially millenials do not know the good old days of not having the internet. I miss those days so much. Days when your life wasn’t on public display. Days when no one knew where you were, what you had for breakfast, if you were at the gym, etc. When a phone call from a friend was how you kept in touch, maybe even a letter.

“We didn’t need to check what hundreds of people were doing on Twitter or Facebook because it was non-existent. So it’s not surprising that I, being an ’80s baby, as well as many of my classmates have felt the need to unplug once in a while. We know what it was like before Snapchat, Instagram and various other parts of the internet started to rule over us all. There was a time where we could go to the gym, be on a date, make dinner and NO ONE would know about it. How did we survive? What if all of my friends didn’t know that I watched “Jerry Maguire” and it was spectacular?

“We didn’t think that way. If you wanted to stay in touch with a friend or family member you had to call, write a letter or stop by their home. If you wanted to find a person to date, you met them out in the real world, not on a smartphone app. We went to blockbuster to rent movies. To apply for jobs we had to drive to businesses to fill out applications with a pen and paper. It makes me sad to think that kids will never get to experience this.

“Life was nothing short of extraordinary before going digital. I try to unplug almost every day, even for just a couple hours. Charging my phone in the other room is one of the ways I do so. Last year I spent a week at camp hardly using the internet and it was the best time I had the entire year. I was able to be in touch with nature and really connect with life in a way that I felt like I lost. There is life beyond your computer screen, you just have to open your front door to find it.”


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