Tales from Digital Rehab: Kayaking is Not Multi-tasking

“We live in a media culture where we are buried in information,
but we know nothing.

Ken Burns

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve just returned from five days on a marshy island called Cedar Key in the “big bend” corner of the Gulf of Mexico – where the Florida panhandle meets the peninsula.

Before I left I started disconnecting.

First I Googled the phrase “off the grid” and found images to use for my cover and profile photos on Facebook. I have not looked at Facebook since.

Then I posted an auto response to my email that said I was gonna be “off the grid” for a few days – “off the grid” being defined these days as “no signal” on my mobile devices. There was still plenty of electricity at our destination – and WiFi in a lot of locations – but I made a conscious and deliberate decision to be “unplugged” for a few days.

As we were driving down to the island – about 11-1/2 hours with stops along the way – I went a step further in my digital rehab: I removed the Facebook apps from my iPhone and iPad.

Wednesday night, once Ann and I had settled into our accommodations (provided by AirBnB, naturally…), I opened my e-mail one more time, cleared the inbox as well as I could and closed the application. I haven’t checked e-mail since. I think this is the longest I’ve gone without looking at email in about 10 years. Probably longer.

Nor have I been on Facebook. Or Twitter (which I don’t use nearly as much as Facebook anyway). Or LinkedIn or Pinterest. And I can’t really say now that I miss any of it.

I don’t miss the deluge of digital narcissism – including my own – or the constant comparison of my virtual existence to that of my friends and colleagues.

In the absence of these distractions, what I have discovered is a measure of continuity in my own thought processes that is both strange and exhilarating. I am now in the midst of a giant leap in the recovery of my own space and time.

And I might owe it all to kayaking…

* * *

Ann's been at it for a while...

Ann’s been at it for a while…

Kayaking is relatively new to me. Ann has been at it for a while. She got herself a kayak about three years ago, and has wanted me to get one too, but I have not been all that interested. I’ve gone paddling a time or three, and actually found it rather enjoyable, but I’ve been slow to make a more solid commitment to it.

Until a few weeks ago…

First, Ann had talked me into trying stand-up paddle boarding. I’d always thought that particular water sport just looked sorta stupid. Standing up on a surfboard and paddling it? It just looked dumb.

Then I tried it. We took a lesson from an outfit that supplies boards and lessons on Percy Priest Lake.

First of all, just going out on Percy Priest Lake was something of a revelation. As much as we like lakes and getting on the water, we’d never thought much of Percy Priest, based largely on one experience years ago when it just seemed sort of dirty and neglected.

But when we went out on the paddle boards, we launched from a marina in a cozy cove that seemed very different from our previous recollection of Percy Priest Lake. About half-way through the paddle board lesson, I turned to Ann and asked her, “so, umm, we never come to this lake because…. why, exactly…?” We’ve been back a couple of times since.

One of those occasions was for a sunset paddle board gathering with the same outfit we’d taken the lesson with; We went with our neighbors Tim and Evelyn, who are somewhat more avid canoe-and-kayak types than I am. Ann and Evelyn have gone paddling together on several occasions, and this time we all went together.

Before we went to the lake, Evelyn needed to stop first at REI to get a new paddle.

While we were at REI I saw this blue, 10-foot sit-on-top kayak and just decided rather unexpectedly, “OK, I’ll get that one.” This one was on sale for less than $600. Unfortunately the blue one I wanted was already sold, and the only one they had left was a hideous bright orange color (think UT: go Vols), so I had to special order the blue one and of course it wound up costing more like $800. But a week later I had my own boat. We took it for a maiden voyage on Percy Priest Lake on a Sunday afternoon, and three days later loaded it onto Ann’s car (aka the “KTV” – the “Kayak Transport Vehicle”) and headed for the Gulf.

* * *

His and hers kayaks await at the  launch ramp

His and hers kayaks await at the launch ramp

The house we were staying at was located on the north side of Cedar Key, on a large lagoon called Rye Key. The house had a dock and a ramp, and the first day we were there we launched the kayaks and went paddling around in the lagoon, among the islands and oyster bars, the reeds and the mangroves, under a bridge to another corner of the island. We’d been told we could paddle out of the lagoons and marshes and into the Gulf and all the way around the island if we wanted to, though without a map (or a waterproof GPS), we were pretty much lost and just paddled around in circles.

But here is where I made the discovery that serves as the title for this post.

Paddling has a rhythm to it. You get your whole upper body involved in your forward progress over the water: reach out with the paddle on one side…. push with your upper arm at the same time you pull with your lower arm, and rotate your torso with the motion of the paddle… finish the stroke on one side and the other end of the double-headed paddle is automatically in position for the next stroke on the other side of the boat. Now rotate in the opposite direction and push and pull with the opposite arms… and then repeat again from the first side….left… right…. left… right..

A kayak – especially a “sit on top” model like the one I have now – sits more “on” the surface of the water than it does “in” the water, so it doesn’t take more than a few strokes to get yourself up to a modest forward speed and settle into a steady rhythm of rotate-push-and-pull…. left… right… left… right…

And suddenly you realize: THIS is what it’s like to do JUST ONE THING and get a rhythm going… to get into a “zone” where you’re not thinking about a dozen or a hundred or a million different things. The rhythm itself pushes out the noise, and with just a few strokes the mind and body together are focused on the simple task at hand: propelling a little blue boat over the grey-green water of a Florida bayou.

And I realized: this is what has been missing from my life for far to long. This kind of focus and concentration.

In that environment, it does not take long to stop thinking about email and Facebook. Paddling that kayak gave me a very satisfying taste of something that has been absent from my life for far too long: a simple, singular purpose, an interval of time free from countess distractions pulling my attention in infinite directions and shattering any semblance of concentration.

A few minutes of kayak paddling is the exact opposite of my normal, digitally mediated reality.

There is no multi-tasking – no illusion of doing many things at once when all you are doing is paddling a little boat across a salt-water lagoon.

* * *

Most of the time, I live in a fragmented and distracted world where the only consistency is an addiction to fragmentation and distraction.

Facebook is the most glaring expression of this predicament.

I have recently taken to describing my interaction with Facebook by comparing it to the way I felt about Scotch and vodka in the year before I finally stopped drinking (November, 1987 – almost 27 years ago). It really does have that quality to it: it is something I do more out of force of habit than for the actual benefit gleaned from the experience.

Which is not to say that there is NO benefit to the virtual interactions that constitute life online. Rather, what I’m trying to say here is that my “connection” is habitual to the point of obsession, not constructive to the point of any lasting benefit. See Ken Burns, above.

Now that I think about it (since, hello, I can actually think straight for a change!) the parallels to my substance abuse history is more apt than even I initially realized.

My real exposure to psychoactive substances started at the end of my senior year in high school, in the summer of 1969. I smoked dope – hash, mostly – with some frequency through that entire summer.

But it wasn’t until I got off on my own, during the first weeks of my “higher (ha!) education” on the campus of George Washington University in September of that year that the compulsive habit (ok, the addiction…) really kicked in. Sometime during those first months of being on my own I discovered “one hit pot” – the stuff that could get you pretty well stoned from a single tiny pipe-bowl – which made it pretty easy to stay stoned all day.

Which is pretty much what I did from 1969 until 1987. I was the case that disproved the theory marijuana was not “addictive.”

Alcohol – first wine, then scotch and vodka – entered the substance stream over the course of the ensuing two decades, and somewhere along the way a fair bit of cocaine as well.

I can see now that my engagement with Facebook followed a similar path.

First there was the internet itself. I have been “online” since 1979. Let’s see, that’s what, 35 years now since I got my first 300 baud modem and plugged into a service called “The Source” that predated Compuserve, which predated AOL, which predated the global Internet. The first 20 or so years – the dialup years – are analogous to that summer of 1969. I was only online intermittently – when my modem actually dialed into the world online. Sometime around 1998 I got connected via cable modem, which is never disconnected. The one-hit version of the Internet had arrived…

And then in 2005 or so I started using the Palm Treo 300 mobile device, which let me check e-mail whenever and where I was. Now I could take my one-hit version of the Internet with me wherever I went. It was like having a pipe in my pocket.

Similarly, Facebook became a factor in my online existence sometime in about 2008. The interaction was casual and infrequent at first. But sometime in the past two years or so Firefox added a “pin tab” feature to my default browser, which meant that I could have a small tab in the corner of my browser window where Facebook was, essentially, open 24/7.

That was the Facebook equivalent of discovering one-hit dope in 1969.

It was always there, and I was always on, just one tab-click away. When I was waiting for the computer to do something else – process a file, print a document, import photos – I could just flip over to Facebook and scroll through what I have lately been calling the “random trivia generator.” And once I was there I’d just keep scrolling, long after whatever task I’d been waiting for had completed itself.

* * *

As a long-term recovering “poly-holic,” I have often had an abiding respect for people who have undertaken the 12-step program for some form of compulsive food issues.

It is taught in the opening pages of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that “half steps availed us nothing.” For me, that may be the single most profound passage in the whole 400-some pages of the Big Book. It embodies that notion that there is no relief from the life-threatening depredations of alcohol and drug addiction short of total abstinence. I know that proposition generates its share of controversy in the medical and rehabilitation communities, but it has worked for me for almost 27 years now.

And I am one of the fortunate ones, because after about 90 days of abstinence in late 1987 and early 1988, I was pretty well released from whatever compulsion it was that compelled me to self-medicate through most of my young adulthood.

I discovered relatively early in my recovery that I can live quite comfortably without the rituals of drug and alcohol consumption as part of my daily existence.

I now aspire to find a similar release from the compulsion to check my fucking e-mail and Facebook all the goddamn time.

Except that I also know that I’m not going to be able to engage with much of the outside world without finding some accommodation with the distracting and disintegrating influence of digital media.

Hence the analogy to people who use the 12-step program to deal with food addictions. I’m on their program now.

People who have obsessive compulsive issues around food consumption cannot afford the luxury of absolute abstinence from food. Not for very long, anyway.

So, while “half measures” may avail nothing to the recovering alcoholic, the recovering food addict has to find some way to moderate their behavior or they will simply starve to death.

For now, at least, I intend to enforce a fairly high level of abstinence. I will probably open my e-mail for the first time this afternoon, delete most of what has arrived over the past few days, and then close the app again for the rest of the week. I’ve posted an auto responder that says I’ll be “off the grid” for at least that long.

If you really need something from me, send a text message… <sigh>.

And I will continue to observe a moratorium on the Facebook and Twitter; This post will only show up in those sites because I have a plugin for my WordPress installation that automatically links my post to those services. If you are reading this and you do have a comment to share, please post it here, because if you post it to the social media, I’m not going to see it. Not this week, anyway.

I have had a lot of thoughts and ideas rattling around in my head all summer, and have felt powerless to focus on any of them.

What’s the first step? “Admit that we were powerless over alcohol… and our lives had become unmanageable.”

Which I now readily admit is exactly where I am with respect to what has been my life’s blood for more than three decades.

“I am powerless over digital media and my life has become unmanageable.”

So I expect to be pretty scarce in the social media for a while, until – like the food addict who has to effectively manage their intake of nutrients – I can devise a routine that manages my connectivity to some level of engagement beyond a 24/7 attachment to the Random Trivia Generator.

* * *

Happy kayakers on "Dog Island" - Cedar Key behind us.

Happy kayakers on “Dog Island” – Cedar Key behind us.

So over this past weekend and into this week: no Facebook, no Instagram, and perhaps more importantly no e-mail. I know from looking at the account through a web portal that there are roughly 300 messages sitting in my inbox this morning, the day after returning from 6 days on what could just as well have been another planet. I also know that probably 90% of those messages are meaningless distractions, just like Facebook’s random trivial generator.

So my email program remains unopened this morning, and I have not dropped in on Facebook now for almost a week… and the whole experience can be described in a single word: liberating.

For the time being, at least, I am free from outside distractions, from the endless tug of what others need and want from me. And while the depth of thought may still be relatively shallow, I’m beginning to get a sense again of what “concentration” feels like.

It feels a lot like paddling a kayak.