The Distinct Relief Of Being (Partially) ‘Off-Line’

I’ve been off blogging for a while, and for good reason: I’d been traveling and did not bother to try to stay online during my travels. Interestingly enough, had I bothered to exert myself ever so slightly in this regard, I could have maintained a minimal presence online here at this blog by posting a quick photo or two–you know, the ones that let you know what you are missing out on, or perhaps even a couple of sentences on my various journeys–which might even have risen above the usual ‘oh my god, my mind is blown’ reactions to spectacular landscapes; network connectivity has improved, and we are ever more accessible even as we venture forth into the ‘outdoors’; after all, doesn’t it seem obligatory for travelers to remote ends of the earth to keep us informed on every weekly, daily, hourly increment in their progress?  (Some five years ago, I’d enforced a similar hiatus on this blog; then, staying offline was easier as my cellphone signal-finding rarely found purchase on my road-trip through the American West.)

But indolence and even more importantly, relief at the cessation of the burden of staying ‘online’ and ‘updated’ and ‘current’ and ‘visible’ kicked in all too soon; and my hand drifted from the wheel, content to let this blog’s count of days without a new post rack up ever so steadily, and for my social media ‘updates’ to become ever more sporadic: I posted no links on Facebook, and only occasionally dispensed some largesse to my ‘friends’ in the form of a ‘like’ or a ‘love,’ my tweeting came to a grinding halt. Like many others who have made note of the experience of going ‘off-line’ in some shape or form, I experienced relief of a very peculiar and particular kind. I continued to check email obsessively; I sent text messages to my family and video chatted with my wife and daughter when we were separated from each other. Nothing quite brought home the simultaneous remoteness and connectedness of my location in northwest Iceland like being able to chat in crystal clear video from a location eight arc-minutes south of the Arctic Circle with my chirpy daughter back in Brooklyn. This connectedness helps keep us safe, of course; while hiking alone in Colorado, I was able to inform my local friends of my arrivals at summits,  my time of commencing return, and then my arrival back at the trailhead; for that measure of anxiety reduction, I’m truly grateful.

Now, I’m back, desk-bound again. Incomplete syllabi await completion; draft book manuscripts call me over to inspect their discombobulated state; unanswered email stacks rise ominously; textbook order reminders frown at me.  It will take some time for me to plow my way out from under this pile; writing on this blog will help reduce the inevitable anxiety that will accompany me on these salvage operations. (Fortunately, I have not returned overweight and out-of-shape; thanks to my choice of activities on my travels, those twin post-journey curses have not been part of my fate this summer.)

On to the rest of the summer and then, the fall.

Barbara Tuchman Contra Hot Takes

Barbara Tuchman kicks off the preface to her Practicing History: Selected Essays (Ballantine Books, New York, 1981) by writing:

It is surprising to find, on reviewing one’s past work, which are the pieces that seem to stand up and which are those that have wilted. The only rule I can discover as a determinant–and it is a rule riddled with exceptions–is that, on the whole, articles or reports which have a “hard,” that is to say factual, subject matter or a personally observed story to tell are more readable today than “think” pieces intended as satire or advocacy, or written from the political passions of the moment. These tend to sound embarrassing after the passage of time, and have not, with or two exceptions been revived.

I sometimes try my hand at satire on this blog; those efforts survive here, sure to embarrass me in the future. And I’m often mortified by the pieces I write during election seasons; they strike me as a too quick, superficial at the best of times. But I don’t intend to stop writing either kind of blog post. For I write here to ‘practice,’ to keep writing–even as, and especially because, many forms of ‘writers’ block’ imperil my writing elsewhere. (Put it this way; if I didn’t write something here, I would have all too many days when I would not have written anything at all.) I publish the posts I write because the act of publishing acts as closure, compelling me to move on and not be tempted to return to the post to fiddle with it–even as I hope someday to return to the ‘scratch on the surface,’ to dig deeper, perhaps turning the little ditty here into a more elaborate essay. Despite this being a digital platform, I have no hopes that any of the writing will endure–even as I continue to entertain the fantasy that someday my daughter will read some of it.

Tuchman’s larger point is directed at ‘hot takes,’ at the effort directed to being topical, at the desperate attempts to stick one’s oar in the flow of opinion, to ‘contribute’ something, anything, to an ongoing discussion, failure to participate in which might be viewed as an abdication of responsibility by some who have appointed themselves pundits.  This pressure is especially acute now given the phenomena of a viral news item, one whose ubiquity in your social media feeds suggest the whole world is doing nothing but paying attention to every aspect of the incident reported. Tuchman suggests we’d do better to let our powder dry out, to bide our time, so that we may write in more considered fashion (perhaps with more ‘factual, subject matter’ too.) This is not a new point, but it is interestingly made by a historian here, one used to writing about matters that are sometimes long-forgotten. The historian knows the present is not the most important time of all; that much water remains to flow under the bridge, to join the voluminous oceans that have already done so.

Paying Attention To The Muses’ Visits

In The Year of Magical Thinking–a book on which I will write a bit more anon–Joan Didion quotes her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, as saying that having a notebook handy–to write down a thought, an idea, filed away for future reference and deployment–was the difference between being able to write and not.

There is much truth in this utterance of Dunne’s.

A couple of years ago, when I started blogging here, I would find myself thinking about blogging topics as I walked to and from work (or my gym). On those occasions, I would wait till I got home to scribble my thoughts on a notepad on my desk. But sometimes, those thoughts were too fleeting to survive; I would, with some dismay, and often, mounting panic, rummage in my memory stores, seeking desperately to find that little flash of inspiration that had suggested itself as such a fertile avenue of written exploration. Bizarrely enough, it took a few months before I started to do something about this state of affairs.

Unsurprisingly enough, I relied on a technical aid: the ubiquitous smartphone. I began making tiny notes on a ‘scratchpad’ on my phone, quickly writing down, misspellings and all, the fragments of whatever thought had crossed my mind as I rode the subway and read a book. I hoped to return to these later. Sometimes I did, and found the seed was still a viable one, and I would turn it into a full post. Sometimes, on re-inspection, I found a mere incoherent ramble, a passing fancy that would not bear the weight of writing on it.

I did not just write down ideas for blog posts, of course. On some occasions, a tactic for resolving a  sticky section of writing in a book project would suggest itself to me–‘get rid of the section on X‘ or ‘move the bit about Y to the end of the chapter’–and a way out of an impasse would become crystal clear. Again, here too, on actually sitting down and confronting the text, my assessment of the worth of the putative brainwave could change; my visit from the muse had not been as fruitful as I had previously imagined.

There are times, and I always pay for them, when I forget the wisdom of Dunne’s observation, and I am too lazy to pull out my phone to write down my supposed inspiration. I cannot be bothered to put down my book; my phone is in my backpack; the subway is too crowded. Whatever the reason, I reassure myself I will make notes when I arrive at my destination. But I almost never do. And thanks to a peculiar transience associated with such thoughts, they do not survive and persist. Irate at my lack of attention, they move on to more attentive and grateful minds. I call out again and again, but they are gone, leaving not even a wispy trace in their wake.  There is no way to call them back again, except perhaps to get back to work.

Learning From Freud: Addiction, Distraction, Schedules

In An Anatomy of an Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted and The Miracle Drug CocaineHoward Markel writes:

At some point in every addict’s life comes the moment when what started as a recreational escape devolves into an endless reserve of negative physical, emotional, and social consequences. Those seeking recovery today call this drug-induced nadir a “bottom.”…The bottom that Sigmund experienced featured far more than the physical and mental ravages of consuming too much cocaine….Most recovering addicts insist that two touchstones of a successful recovery are daily routines and rigorous accountability.

As Sherwin Nuland noted in his review of Markel:

Around 1896, Freud began to follow a constant pattern of awakening before 7 each morning and filling every moment until the very late evening hours with the demands of his ever enlarging practice…writing, lecturing, meeting with colleagues and ruminating over the theories he enunciated in such articulate literary style.

Markel goes on:

It appears unlikely that Sigmund used cocaine after 1896, during the years when he mapped out and composed his best-known and most influential works, significantly enriched and revised the techniques of psychoanalysis and…attempted to ‘explain some of the great riddles of human existence.’

Because I consider myself an excessively and easily distracted person, one who finds that his distraction makes him miserable, I was struck by the description of the ‘drug-induced nadir’ that Markel refers to. In noting my own state of distraction, I wrote:

Like many users of the Internet I suffer terribly from net-induced attention deficit disorder, that terrible affliction that causes one to ceaselessly click on ‘Check Mail’ buttons, switch between a dozen tabs, log-in-log-out, reload, and perhaps worst of all, seek my machine immediately upon waking in the mornings.

The effect of this distraction on me is not dissimilar to that experienced by other sufferers: I sometimes feel a beehive has taken up residence in my cranium; my attention span is limited to ludicrously short periods; my reading skills have suffered; writing, always a painful and onerous task, has become even more so. Because of the failure to attend to tasks at hand, my to-do, to-read, to-write, to-attend-to lists grow longer and cast ever more accusing glances my way. Worse, their steadily increasing stature ensures that picking a starting point from any of them becomes a task fraught with ever-greater anxiety: as I begin one task, I become aware that several others are crying out for my attention, causing me to either hurry through the one I have started, or worse, to abandon it, and take up something else.

And:

I experience distraction as a fraying at the edges, a coming apart at the seams, a sundering of the center–whichever description you want to use, it’s all that in my feverish imaginings and experiencing of it.

Since my primary mode of distraction is ‘Net distraction, I’d like to offer another description it. I sometimes use ‘screeching’ or ‘scratching’ in trying to describe the activity in the inside of my cranium that makes me want to stand up and run away–and check mail or reload a page–from reading or writing. All too quickly, when working on a computer, I need ‘release’ and the act of moving the mouse so that something else appears on my screen promises relief. A change of screens, that’s all it is. And ironically, I can never take in whatever it is that I switch to. My mind is too blank at that moment, still perhaps processing residual irritation. Then, seething with rapidly accumulating anxiety about my still-on-the-burner work, I switch back. A little later, the ‘scratching’ begins again. I jump in response. Repeat ad nauseam.

And then, I thought about some of the techniques I’ve used to try to combat these these states of mind and being:

In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.

This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.

Or:

I have tried many strategies for partial or total withdrawal: timed writing periods (ranging from 30 minutes to an hour); eight-hour fasts (I pulled off several of these in 2009…to date, this remains my most successful, if not repeated since, intervention; since then, somehow, it has been all too easy to convince myself that when I work, I should stay online because, you know, I might need to ‘look something up’); weekend sabbaths (only accomplished once, when I logged off on a Friday night, and logged back on on Sunday morning); evening abstentions (i.e., logging off at the end of a workday and not logging back on when I reached home). None of these strategies has survived, despite each one of them bringing succor of a sort.

And I went on to conclude:

I do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction.

I take some solace in the fact that the strategies I have adopted–even if unsuccessful–at least put me in some very good company.

It’s Not Like The Good Ol’ Days Here

Writing on this blog has become increasingly onerous. For the first year of this blog (which I put online in November 2011), I was in between book projects, and was able to blog almost every day (I was also keen to establish a writing habit and stuck quite rigorously to a schedule); then, my daughter was born, but I was on paternity leave, and then later, on academic sabbatical, and so, was able to find the time to write a post quite frequently. But in the past few months, I have returned to teaching full-time, and have balanced that with both a book deadline–due at Temple University Press by January-end–and parental responsibilities. (The ongoing variability in my daughter’s sleep patterns has meant that I’m exhausted and sleepless more often, and simply lack the inspiration and energy to write. Needless to say, this has affected my reading capacities as well; many library sessions of ‘study’ have seen me helplessly nodding away, unable to keep my heavy-lidded eyes open.)  Working on a book has meant that quite often when blogging, I’m distracted by the thought that valuable writing time, energy, and imagination is being ‘used up’ here when it could be used to polish a still-rough manuscript (one which has already missed the first deadline at summer’s end). And of course, teaching full-time–three classes, all new preparations–means less time for writing blog posts, or even thinking about them. Very often, a full day of teaching leaves me exhausted the next day as well. (I realized quite early in my teaching career that even a seventy-five minute ‘performance’ is physically draining in ways not quite understood by those who don’t teach.) I had hoped that I would be able to blog about my teaching–the actual material discussed in class, analyses of discussions with students, responses to questions raised, and so on–but that hasn’t been quite how it worked out.

The sum result of all of which has been that gaps in my blogging have grown, and quite often, when I have been able to put up something here, it has had a ‘dialed-in’ feel to it–something rushed and under-cooked. The gaps in blogging continue to grow; I’m appalled at the number of ‘absences’ I have logged in the past  few months. (Sometimes I have fallen off the blogging wagon for as long as a week–and that has been without going on vacation.) This failure to blog, to keep up the schedules and standards I was used to, or demanded of myself, has at times introduced a deep despondency. At times, I have wondered whether this blog is viable at all. But the thought of shutting it down is deeply depressing too. It would feel like an abandonment when the going got tough.

For now, I plan to continue. My blogging frequency will not be what it once was–as it will have to be if I continue teaching a full-load and working on my book projects. An academic book project has been languishing for two years now and needs to be picked up again if it is ever to be completed.

Perhaps the only consolation is that at least I will still be writing; if not here, then elsewhere.

On A Minor Fast

I went on a little fast today. It lasted seven hours. But before you snicker at my pompous announcement of insignificant renunciation, do consider that I did not give up food or drink for that length of time. (Indeed, I made myself a four-egg omelette in that period and ate it with gusto.) Rather, I gave up the Internet for that duration; I did not check email; I did not look at Facebook or Twitter. And I did not do this while being confined to a Zone of No Wi-Fi. Rather, I did it at home, with a broadband internet connection in working order.

Ready to dispense accolades now?

In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.

Since then, I have never managed to internet fast voluntarily. When I have, it’s been because I did not have a working connection–perhaps I was flying across, or to, continents, perhaps I was in a national park. When I got connectivity, I checked back in. In 2012, I bought a smartphone, and put myself further along the road to perdition. For on the  phone, I installed Facebook and Twitter apps–and the GMail client. Now, there was no getting away from the constant check-in: waiting for a bus, a doctor’s appointment, on a subway above ground. I had willingly, deliberately brought home, much closer to me, that which I had already sensed often made me come undone.

These complaints about digital distraction are not new; many, like me, write similar plaintive notes. But we cannot seem to do without it all: the email, the constant monitoring of a timeline or a newsfeed. I certainly rely upon Facebook and Twitter to post links to my blog posts, and remain infected by an unshakable anxiety about utter and total anonymity were I to stop doing so.

This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.

My sabbatical is over; a full-time teaching load is upon me again; my daughter wants, and deserves, more attention; time for writing is ever more precious.

What did I get done today? Some writing; some reading. Nothing more could be asked for.

Now, to do it again.