Holiday Digital Detox

Cut the Cord this Christmas

This Thanksgiving we initiated the first holiday tradition I can see sticking with: total digital detox. We’re talking all-screen cut-off for our family of four.

There had been maybe two days in the past eighteen months I’d turned off the Blackberry completely, and a few short spells where we’d banished all screens as punishment for something our girls had or hadn’t done.

We somehow avoided giving iPhones as pacifiers while they were babies, and never let them loll as toddlers swiping iPads in strollers. We don’t allow screens before school, during meals, or after school before homework. We try to police the perimeter of no-screens for at least an hour before bed, but plenty of evenings we’ll still watch a movie last thing. As parents, I think we’re more typical and hypocritical than we are sticklers. The total retreat from all things digital was my elder daughter’s idea.

Wednesday night she’d said at bedtime, “Could we one time have one day where none of us are on screens?” I mumbled something wistful and guilty, which she took patiently, but the challenge needled me.

Sitting up later with my husband, I realized that the next day, Thanksgiving, would be the ideal and only foreseeable opportunity for going fully no-screen as a family. No one could reasonably expect us to be working or attending to emails then. Since we’re British immigrants in America we have no wider family for whom a holiday call would be mandatory, and, because for the first Thanksgiving ever we weren’t anyone’s guests, or hosting friends until Friday, we were entirely free to cut the cord. It felt like a little epiphany. For me there was the extra thrill and anxiety of truancy because I had planned to dedicate the day to a side project that needed time while the office was closed. My husband was immediately all-in. The whole no screen thing felt a giddy thrill even in anticipation.

I already had on Out of Office (which doesn’t any longer feel like a real reprieve — more a slightly belligerent way of saying ‘give me a minute’. I love the recent German initiative http://http://time.com/3116424/daimler-vacation-email-out-of-office/ which deletes every email received while Out of Office is on), but it still felt necessary to do a cleanse before abstaining, so my husband and I both shot off a volley of responses last thing.

Thanksgiving morning, the girls were sitting on the sofa just opening up the laptop as I came down to make tea. When I said they should put it away, my eldest was a little dismayed; she hadn’t meant the no screen thing to kick in right away. But when I said there’d be no day better, she and her sister, though this was the first she’d heard of the idea, happily snapped shut the laptop and that was that. The lack of resistance was slightly spooky, and I was kind of curious to see how difficult a whole day might be.

Figuring radio would be admissible, out of an actual radio, I turned on NPR. The news was bargains, with the reporter recommending getting a jump on Black Friday by “shopping deep and shopping long online this Thanksgiving Thursday”. The prospect of a holiday being spent internet shopping for the next holiday in line was as dispiriting as the annual Black Friday images of mall shoppers mauling each other in their seasonal rush for wide-screen TVs. I turned the radio off.

Resisting the nicotine-like urge to check messages, we had a leisurely breakfast and everyone peeled away to do the things they wanted to do. For the first time in ages, the day felt like it had space.

We hit a hitch when the girls had written a play and wanted — needed — to type up the writing so it could be printed sufficiently big and clear, but then I remembered the ancient typewriter. They ran excitedly to dig it out, and we listened to the keys tip tapping away under the chatter of their collaborating.

Other stuff we did: reading, playing UNO, roller-skating, writing for fun and in pen. Matisse copying, nail painting, backgammon, walking the dog, ping pong, drawing, bracelet making and baking pies. That might sound nauseating. There was also quite a lot of fiddly typewriter ribbon replacing. Come noon two of us were also drinking wine.

For our Thanksgiving feast Friday we were already planning Jerusalem’s take on turkey with sumac spiced burgers, so Thursday we were free to eat what we’d all most enjoy. Deciding got weirdly easy since for once we were all listening. We agreed on gruyere soufflé, green salad, pumpkin pie and ice cream.

The soufflé posed a problem when oddly not one of our cookery books had the recipe. We discussed using the landline to call a friend, but we realized we needed the iPhone to find the number and the one friend certain to know would be mid-meal in the city. Instead, my husband guessed measurements, and though it was it his second-ever soufflé it was — sorry — perfection. I, unusually, didn’t burn the pie, possibly because I was present in that particular way. We ate on the scrubbed wood table with mismatched napkins and raised a glass to family. I personally was very thankful for everyone being healthy, for having plenty of food and good work to do and for a day a long way from holiday history.

The next threat was when the girls wanted to film themselves acting out the little script they’d written. I was dangerously ready to relent when they got distracted by chickens needing feeding and moved on.

I expected pressure in the afternoon for a movie — not least actually from me — but no. Again a little spooky.

We were ready with the cheap reproduction record player but didn’t get to it. They played a bit of guitar. I don’t know. The day went on its way and felt like a well-lengthed day.

After the girls were in bed, my husband and I sat with backgammon and a bit more wine talking by the fire.

Waking next day we felt like we’d had a week’s holiday in Maine.

Of course the cord was quickly back intact. Coming into the kitchen my husband found me hunched in the charging corner, chin sinking into neck, thumbs jib jabbing in that way. Beyond the necessary neck correction, with the digital influx came all the normal worries that whatever I was doing wasn’t what I ought to be doing, and the house needed cleaning and come to think of it painting amid the fleeting gratifications and escalating anxieties of an ordinary day. But even as we were back to full tilt at everything, something of Thanksgiving’s still center stayed.

The whole holiday season can seem willfully designed to heighten feelings of inadequacy and the pressure to spend. The challenge to cook a Bon Appetit feast for twenty guests on immaculate kitchen surfaces, to lay out turkey tail napkins and polished silver and establish competitive, elaborate traditions to keep children close, can feel a lot like tyranny. Add to that the mandatory family, and enforced jollity of the “festive” season, and the unhappiness for everyone whose template doesn’t match the ideal is all too real.

Since it seems the Cosmos is God and so many of us are whizzing past religious differences, it can be complicated to know what traditions to pick. I feel I’ve found one way to make a family holiday I’m fond of.

We’re not really anti-social or seeking festive-alternatives: Christmas and New Year will mean being in a bigger circle with plenty of conventional tradition. But now that I know what it is to be, and feel, in the same place as a family, it’s tempting to try for the same every Sunday.

Wishing everyone a merry digital detox.