Life Without the Web

What If I Only Use the Internet on Wednesdays?
What happened when I gave up the Internet.
July 14 2010 10:05 AM

Life Without the Web

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I'm often asked whether I'll give up the Internet altogether following my four-month hiatus. The answer to that question is no. How could I? How could anyone in this day and age? Once upon a time, getting rid of your television seemed like a radical step—a bold social statement—but it's nothing compared with living permanently without the Web.

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Even my brief hiatus is predicated on help from the people around me who are online. My Center for Cartoon Studies co-workers have been very accommodating—printing out memos, evaluations, and syllabi and calling to schedule meetings and relay messages. These are all things done more efficiently with e-mail. None of these things are that big of a deal individually, but over the course of several months they add up. At least I'm in a sympathetic environment (working at a school whose core mission is nurturing creativity), and it's to the staff's credit that I haven't felt resented (whether I'm actually resented or not, I can't be sure).

Working with people outside of White River Junction, Vt., is more challenging. I'm currently planning an exhibition in New York City and several book projects. At first, curators and editors were understanding, and several even mentioned that they'd enjoyed these columns. Everyone felt that doing business by phone was quaint. But the novelty seems to be wearing off. My phone calls are taking longer and longer to be returned (the perfunctory pleasantries that phone calls require does get tiring). My fear now is that diminished communication might result in the projects being compromised in some way.

I'm similarly concerned that not being on the Center for Cartoon Studies' message board—especially at this time of year, when incoming students begin to post—diminishes my effectiveness as the school's director. Students move to White River Junction from thousands of miles away, and right now is when they are most anxious. I like to be accessible to address any concerns or offer reassurances. This is the first year I have not been able to "connect" with them before they arrive.

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Over the last several months I've been in the initial stages of putting together my next graphic novel, and being offline has had a significant effect on my work. An initial outline has taken shape, and it's been exciting to see themes emerge and watch characters take shape. But I'm at the point now that I need more visual reference to move forward. A large chunk of the book takes place in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), and without more visual references, it's impossible for me to begin fleshing out scenes. I've spent a few days at the library at nearby Dartmouth College, but I've had little luck finding images of the region in the era I'm interested in. I need to spend some time on the Web or better yet, arrange a trip to Istanbul. But that, too, is impossible until I'm back online.

On the home front my wife, Rachel, is away on a three-week printmaking residency in England. We've only talked once in the first week she's been gone. This is the most out-of-touch we've been in 12 years of marriage. My mother-in-law has been the Internet conduit between Rachel and the kids. It would be rough-going for my daughters without that connection, but then again, what if they didn't have the option to exchange e-mails with their mom for 21 days? Would it be so tragic? I doubt any permanent damage would result from three weeks without daily communications. A couple of phone calls a week and some actual letter writing would probably do.

I, however, am now painfully aware of all the little online chores Rachel did that made my life easier—from getting directions to social events to checking the operating hours of the local library. I feel a lot more disconnected since she's left.

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I'm also more cut off from sports than I intended to be. Two weeks into my Internet fast the local ESPN affiliate went belly-up. I don't have a television, so this was a major blow. When the Mets were on the West Coast I couldn't even get the scores in the next morning's Valley News. Several nights a week I now find myself sitting in my driveway catching a few staticky innings of Mets baseball broadcast on WFAN; only on my car radio can I get this station all the way from New York. And the Mets are playing well! As soon as I am back online MLB radio will be streaming. I hope Jason Bay starts hitting by then.

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At times being unplugged for three-and-a-half months has fooled me into thinking I've overcome a personal demon. But I'll know for sure in two-and-a-half weeks. As much as I look forward to getting back in the Internet saddle, I am dreading it even more. I don't trust myself to behave. I am afraid I will fall easily into old compulsive patterns.

I've been mulling my plan for re-entry for a while. Several people have recommended software that prevents your computer from connecting to the Web after a set amount of time each day (programs like Freedom and LeechBlock). My fellow cartoonists Alison Bechdel and Evan Dorkin credit these programs for helping them keep focused on their work. I'm not sure this would work for me. Each day would be its own mini-drama as I strategized about how best to use my allotted time online. My brain would still be preoccupied with the Internet on a daily basis.

A while back a friend suggested a different approach: a "reverse Sabbath." The idea was to have only one day a week of Internet usage, and it's starting to grow on me. Spending one day a week online would allow me to pay bills, catch up on e-mail, do research, send photos of my kids to family, and read my favorite blogs (the Comics Reporter and Tea and Carpets).

Which day I choose would make all the difference. Weekends are out because of family and the fact that 90 percent of my e-mail is business-related. The beginning of the traditional Jewish Sabbath, Friday, was the first day that came to mind but I rejected it because the impatience that screen time breeds would be a huge liability heading into the weekend and dealing with my two spirited daughters.

After considering each of the other weekdays, I decided to go with Wednesday. They don't call it "Hump Day" for nothing. Maybe a big dose of Internet juice would be just the thing to transform it into "Get-Pumped Day."

Ideally, "Wired Wednesday" will be a beacon of connectivity and productivity. I'll begin with an hour of e-mail and then tackle a punch list created during the previous week of all the things I need to take care of (researching grants, gathering visual references, downloading music, paying bills, etc.).

So that's the plan for now. I hope it works, but I'm not overly optimistic it will. Few things in theory ever work out as planned.

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P.S.: Thanks to Jessica in Los Angeles for the mouse sticker!

P.P.S: The first illustration is a slightly altered panel from a 1954 issue of Buzzy comics.

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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.

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