Last month, we arrived at my mother-in-law’s house for the weekend to find that the cable TV and internet were out, not to be repaired for several days.
Being away from cable news and Netflix nudged us to connect more deeply with other things. It was a nice fringe benefit I’m trying to remember now that we’re immersed once again in an endless news cycle and entertainment on demand.
Lack of reliable internet service in many parts of rural Louisiana often means more than mere inconvenience. In a world where so much commerce unfolds online, such poor access can be impoverishing. The pandemic lockdowns, which placed a premium on Skype and Zoom, were also a vivid reminder that virtual technology is, in many ways, a wonderful lifeline.
Understanding both the blessings and burdens of those innovations sometimes requires us to put laptops and clickers beyond arm’s length, a critical distance that our 24/7 media culture seldom affords. That’s why my recent sideline from the information superhighway didn't seem so bad.
In the quiet of rooms where the TV was silent and every other screen was blank, I could hear the house speak its daily secrets. A clock on the end table tick-tick-ticked, doling out the morning’s minutes by the teaspoon.
On the patio, a cardinal called, its trill radiating through the trees like ripples on a pond. Rain drummed the roof as dutifully as a metronome, its music sometimes broken by a teakettle sighing on the stove.
What I also heard, from a room beyond me, were the voices of those I love. In the absence of other distractions, the women of the household had turned to talk — discussions too faint for me to fathom, though I sensed from time to time the murmur of revelation, sympathy or laughter.
It made me think of “Growing Up,” journalist Russell Baker’s eloquent memoir of his Depression-era youth. “Often, waking deep in the night, I heard them down in the kitchen talking, talking, talking,” Baker recalled of his childhood relatives. “Sitting around the table under the unshaded light bulb, they talked the nights away … talking, talking, talking.”
Baker evoked household conversation as a form of theater, a pastime that faded as radio, then television, became the center of family life.
Also eclipsed was the pleasure of sitting alone with a book, something else I did during my weekend offline. I’d been trying for weeks to finish “Seed to Dust,” Marc Hamer’s new memoir about his years as a hired gardener in Wales. Now, within the space of my media fast, the afternoon stretched out like the long, linked tubes of a telescope, finally focusing me on the printed page.
Such are the benefits of life beyond a screen. Which is why, in the long summer now ahead of us, I’ll try to remind myself that all of my devices have an “off” button.