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How To Clean Your Kitchen

I had an old draft sitting around from last summer which I wrote in the throes of frustration. Back then, Facebook wasn’t the privacy problem it is today. It was still a distraction; it was still full of endless streams of garbage.

by Joey Kyber on Unsplash

It is easy to hate Facebook nowadays. Or anything that requires some social element. Here we are, feeding the animals our livelihood in exchange for obscure self-worth. To think there was a time not all that long ago when no one gave a damn about vacation photos.

Two things happened on the eve of my 32nd birthday. I stewed bitterly over something I saw on Facebook which I can’t even recall the details. I also watched Paterson.

The Facebook thing. Or maybe it was Twitter, who knows. Render off the fat and everything starts to look the same. Everyone is mad at everything. Everyone believes they are right about whatever it is they believe. Conversations turn into arguments and eventually no one wants to talk to anyone. Just like assholes at the library, I was consistently subjected to loud conversations from people I hardly knew about topics that probably need no discussion.

Then I saw Paterson — the most recent Jim Jarmusch flick, released on Amazon. Adam Driver plays a young bus driver named Paterson, who lives in modern-day Paterson, New Jersey, and writes (by hand!) fabulous poems about the world around him.

Then he does nothing with them. He doesn’t post images of these handwritten poems to his Instagram account; he doesn’t type it out in a handful of characters to Twitter. Paterson is absent from social media. Hell, the guy doesn’t even own a phone. Overall, Paterson seems like a pretty well off, a happy-enough guy for it. Of course, the film is not without conflict. But without technology in the way, what does evolve in this story carries significantly more weight than it would otherwise.

Credits rolled, I deleted everything social from my phone.

It was time to clean the kitchen.

I used to frequent a yoga instructor who would always allude to “keeping people out of your kitchen.” He’d say this while kneeling on a mat pointing to the ethereal space between his ears — his head. Your kitchen — the fistful of gray matter between our ears that dominates everything.

When they gray matter gets fucked with, the entire self goes with it. Bad days ensue.

by David Straight on Unsplash

It took me far too long to realize that “up in your kitchen” is an idiom as old as baseball and trash-talk. The idea is still the same: if your kitchen isn’t clean, you can’t cook. No cooking means no nourishing means we eventually all become corpses.

The irony here: everyone relies on the streams of endless content — packaged as “feeds” — for some mental nourishment. Nobody feels any better after an hour of bottomless scrolling.

“Everyone is wishing you a happy birthday on Facebook,” my wife tells me over lunch. This is the day after Paterson, after the deleting of apps (but not the accounts) from my phone. That morning I had participated in a lazy (well, I made sure it was lazy) yoga practice at Red Rocks. After lunch would be an afternoon at a local music festival in the middle of the city. I only received three genuine birthday wishes that day, all through text messages. The rest I saw were the generally insincere well wishes from brands and companies that wanted me to cash in on my festive mood with 20% off whatever I bought from them before midnight.

I accepted the free taco coupon. Everything else was trashed.

The rest of that day was taking a few photos that were never shared for likes. At every stage, every performance, a collection of phones live-streamed or Snapped or Instagrammed out to the audience beyond the ticket gates. With enough focus, the footage could be harvested and the whole festival could be pieced back together in a chaotic montage of angles and those little stamp filter things that go on everything.

By the end of the day, the phone that typically needed to be charged twice over still retained 77% of its battery.

This is not the manifesto of a retroactive ludite. I am not going to shirk modern responsibilities to hole up in a cabin heated by wood fire and survive solely off venison (although, should the opportunity volunteer itself…).

No, this is an observation to the thing that most of us are bothered by, but can’t quite name: Ambient Conversations. Like a busy room where everyone chatters so much you can’t finish a thought. Or how I can’t write if I know the words to the song I’m listening to. All of the social media which serves as the center point to our lives today is built on the idea of conversation.

People you know, or don’t know, shouting into the void. Other people shouting back. Comments sections. Reactionary emojis. Entire news segments built around the latest thing the president Tweeted. Stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter but is paraded before us anyway.

These conversations and the profile pictures and usernames tied to them, they tend to fuck up your kitchen.

I used to like saying “Everyone is always mad at something.” I guess it was rather alarming to discover that people went seeking out things to be upset over.

The solutions ended up being pretty simple:

1. Instagram went back on the phone. It is the only app I genuinely love to use. The only one that I genuinely missed during the blackout. The ambient conversations are minimal.
2. I only pay attention to the things that people intentionally want to speak with ME (and only me!) about. I’ve turned email notifications back on for a lot of the social apps to alert me when I’m directly tagged in or am invited to something.
3. Save for notifications from a select few individuals; my phone is silent and dark.
4. 20 minutes of news in the morning. That’s it. There was a time when news was dished out in 22-minute segments with commercial breaks. That was it. Then The Simpsons came on. I want to live in that world again. I have refined the news sources I need down to a single RSS feed. I may not know as much about the world anymore or what my friends think of it, and I’d love someone to convince me that this is a bad thing.

Everything got a lot quieter. The kitchen is cleaner. Maybe it’s time to learn to cook.

A follow-up — The Kitchen after a few months

Fret not; social media is as annoying as it has ever been. Only now data privacy is top of mind, and everything is ruined by the Russians.

After re-reading and recalling Cal Newport’s ideas on Social Media versus Social Internet, the solutions from a few months back got a slight facelift:

  1. Instagram is still on the phone, but I don’t post much to it. I chat with a lot of people through the app, but my own content doesn’t go up there. I grow weary of my work being reduced down to a 3-inch image that is seen for a second. When I go out and a bit of booze is added to the system I tend to add a few stories to the mix.
  2. I still prioritize text messages and phone calls over every other medium.
  3. Still quiet. Even though Zillow always finds a reason to buzz at me. (Deleted)
  4. Not much for news during the week anymore, at all. I get all of the news from a newspaper that gets delivered, in print, to my house each Sunday and whatever I catch Lester Holt talking about before Jeopardy! airs.
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