Life Without the Web

I'm Back on the Web. Help!
What happened when I gave up the Internet.
Aug. 12 2010 2:39 PM

Life Without the Web

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Illustration by James Sturm.

8:10 a.m.: My co-worker Michelle was planning to swing by my house and reconnect my computer to the Internet after dropping off her kid at day care. But I couldn't wait till she got here. I jumped onto my wife's laptop.

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Sitting at the kitchen table, I checked on some logistics for my upcoming trip to ComicCon in San Diego. I Googled my graphic novel Market Day, which came out in March, just as I went offline. If I'd been online, I'd have been checking for new reviews daily (if not hourly) over the last four months. Instead, I spent 30 tidy minutes skimming the critical reactions.

As my daughter got ready to go off to day camp, I started dancing in the kitchen. I was experiencing a pretty nice adrenalin rush after getting my first Internet fix in four months. That the book was well-received didn't diminish my buzz, either.

9:36 a.m.: Michelle arrived. I was transfixed by the sight of several thousand e-mails pouring into my inbox. Took about 15 minutes.

Over the previous couple of days, I had already composed a half-dozen work-related e-mails, which I sent out right away. I decided against sending an "I'm back" group e-mail to family/friends/colleagues. That would only generate more e-mail, which I want to avoid.

9:53 a.m.: Started "Operation Inbox": reading/sorting e- mail.

11:00 a.m.: An NPR producer called and asked me to chime in on a piece he's putting together about Alvin Toffler's book Future Shock. Forty years ago Toffler's best-seller predicted that fast and furious technological and social changes would eventually overwhelm us. Amen, brother.

11:33 a.m.: Operation Inbox continues. The overwhelming majority of mail received was pure junk that got deleted without a second thought. Then there were hundreds of not-quite-junk group e-mails from causes/artists/organizations that I am sympathetic to. Received in dribs and drabs I may have clicked through to their Web pages, explored an issue, admired photos of an exhibition. Getting them all at once was too much. Deleted them all.

When my book got a nice review in the New York Times back in April, there was a flurry of congrats e-mails. A score of e-mails from friends, colleagues, and former students sending along new contact information or just saying hi. Some I am close with, others not. The automated e-mail response they all received informed them of the dates I'd be offline and that their e-mail would not be read. Well, I did read them, but I felt relieved that I didn't have to respond to everyone. I always hated that about e-mail, the sense of obligation that I had to respond to everyone. What a waste of time and energy. Hope I'm better at that going forward.

I was saddened to receive news from an old friend who just learned he had cancer. He sent a group e-mail to all his friends updating them on his condition. Responded immediately.

12:20 p.m.: Finally leave my house. Head spinning. Walked down to my studio, first stopping at Center for Cartoon Studies to pick up my mail. Received this letter from Amber from Laramie, Wy.:

Illustration by James Sturm.

Vowed never to read my Slate column's comments.

1:00 p.m.: CCS-related meeting concerning this fall's visiting artists and thesis advisers. Now that I'm back online, I need to start pulling my weight around here. I have always enjoyed inviting cartoonists to visit White River Junction and engaging with advisers concerning the seniors, but right now I have a knot in my stomach. The reality is I need to become a regular e-mail user again. I knew this day would come, but now that it's here, it feels really sucky. I fear compulsive e-mail checking is around the corner.

1:43 p.m.: Feeling increasingly anxious. Called my wife (recently returned from England). Ranted about the way the Internet is affecting my brain. How anxious I already feel. Rachel reminded me that I'm leaving town the day after tomorrow—the family is taking a three-week vacation to California, and I am always anxious before traveling. So much for cause and effect.

2 p.m.: With all the excitement about being online, I missed lunchtime swim hours (11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.) at the nearby rec center. Usually I'd just go the next day, but today I felt a desperate need to swim; it's my antidote for anxiety. I Googled the pool hours and saw that two lanes were still open till 3 p.m.. I jumped in the car and headed over. Unfortunately, later in the day the rest of the pool was packed with kids.

Adding insult to injury was the fact I forgot my goggles. There is usually a plastic bin full of orphaned goggles, but it was empty, all the kids having snatched them up. I wear a contact lens in my right eye; in the left, I'm legally blind. Squeezing shut my good eye, I started my laps. My bad eye is good enough to just see the line on the bottom of the pool and keep me swimming straight (and not bonk my head on either end). With my field of vision dramatically reduced, I did my laps, and all the commotion and anxiety fell away. My commitment to limiting myself to only one day a week online never felt stronger.

3:10 p.m.: Back at my studio. I usually have Internet access there via my neighbor's hookup. (I pay the electric bill, and he lets me onto his network.) He changed the password while I was away. I need to call him to get plugged back in. Or do I?

Worked for an hour selecting images and preparing files to send to the Museum of the City of New York for a Denys Wortman exhibition in November.

4:15 p.m.: Walked over to CCS and sent images. Once I was online I checked my e-mail. Already some new messages. Opened Firefox and jumped onto CCS's message board. I was so out of the loop I couldn't possibly play catch-up and read every thread. I started at least three posts but couldn't zero in on what I wanted to say. I've always had trouble writing fluidly and quickly on message boards. I only have so much writing anxiety I can put up with, and I want to save it for my books.

5:30 p.m.: Home for dinner. A neighbor and his three kids joined us as well as two CCS alums who will be house-sitting while the family is in California. We went over the ins and outs of the house (and care of the bunnies!). It was a wonderful Vermont evening. It had cooled down a bit from a recent heat spell. Good friends, good food, some beer and wine.

I was aware every second of the laptop in my backpack. Resisted the urge to sneak upstairs and check e-mail. That this impulse was not exorcised over the last four months felt tragic.

8:45 p.m.: Cleaned kitchen.

8:55 p.m.: Stopped cleaning kitchen. Began writing this column.

9:01 p.m.: Stopped writing column. Checked e-mail.

9:02 p.m.: Wrote column while checking e-mail while posting on the school message board.

10:45 p.m.: Finished cleaning kitchen.

11:10 p.m.: Went to bed.

Illustration by James Sturm.

Postcript: Slept poorly. Up at 6 a.m. Went right to my studio (without checking e-mail or getting online). I'm safe there with no Wi-Fi connection. Felt hungover.

It's obvious I am going to struggle before getting a handle on this Internet thing. But despite how disconcerting my first day back was, I'm optimistic I'll eventually get to a place that feels normal. I discussed with my Slate editor doing an 11th column—one in the fall to see how all this shakes out once the dust settles and I resume a normal work routine. For now I'm excited for the family vacation—and having limited Internet access.

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James Sturm is the director of The Center of Cartoon Studies, a MFA Degree-Granting College in White River Junction, Vt.