Six months unplugged
Back in June, with the start of my sabbatical year, I decided to (mostly) leave Twitter. And a few months ago, I took stock of that decision and found it (mostly) good, at least for me, at this moment in my life. It’s certainly meant I’m less attune to what my community is thinking about and doing, but it’s also meant participating on less outrage and callouts. For all their necessity, I was burned out on out of proportion public shaming of people in my community and was glad to leave it.
But over the past six or so months, I unplugged from more than just Twitter. For example, I’ve only been answering emails on Friday mornings, creating a ritual of a tasty breakfast and coffee at a local cafe. It reminds me of what physical mail used to be like back in the 1980’s: accumulating a pile of mail and sifting through it to find that special correspondence, tossing out the junk, paying a bill. Spending 2–3 hours doing that in a cozy seat, surrounded by plants and community has been a joy.
I also (mostly) unplugged from meetings. For the most part, my default has been asynchronous chat or face to face, and mostly with my wonderful collaborators, postdoc, doctoral students, and undergrads — or when I’m traveling, with the people nearby. This has created two really distinct but strong types of experiences. In person conversations have offered rich, nuanced, interpersonal communication in person, with all of its wonderful complexities. These have always been possible, aside from during the pandemic lockdowns, but doing them without the constant hum of the broader world in the background has made them feel far more spatious. And the asynchronous chat — Discord message here, a Slack message there—has been like little tiny transactional links between those conversations, keeping us connected and in sync, just enough to make it to the next in-person encounter. This freedom from meetings, especially virtual meetings, has made life feel a lot more like maintaining relationships than transacting information.
I’ve also largely unplugged from the constant stream of news. Rather than pulling up NYT or watching Twitter for the latest happenings, I’ve switched largely to a carefully curated set of podcasts that I listen to on Sunday while I do house chores, intentionally lagging local, national, and world events. This certainly means I miss out on the crises of the day, but it also means that when I get to Sunday — a day that’s already more peaceful than most—when I hear the horrors of the week, I’m in a mental space with capacity to really process what they mean and how I should respond. And the podcast format helps with that, because most podcasts that talk about the week’s news (e.g., the Slate Political Gabest, On the Media, the Ezra Klein Show) go intentionally deep, synthesizing what’s been happening over a week, a month, or even decades. For example, now when I hear the latest horrible anti-trans legislation popping up in my state, I have context, ideas, and space for how to write my state’s representatives, rather than just in situ reactive vitriol.
Although it might not seem like unplugging, I’ve also stopped trying to get places quickly in cars or public transit. Always racing to the next destination felt necessary at times, but I missed those times in my childhood walking around my neighborhood, moving at a human scale. I missed being present in nature, seeing the life around me, and immersing myself in its inherent tranquility. This means I’m often walking on trails or through parks to pick up a dinner or meet with friends, and when necessary, taking light rail to another part of the city to meet up with a friend. The fastest I move otherwise is on my electric scooter, which still has every element of immersion in nature — more so when it’s raining!—but at 15 mph, I still, hear, and smell most things around me. Some of my favorite ideas from this year have come from this moments of quiet outside.
Finally, perhaps the most abstract way that I’ve unplugged is by creating art. There’s something so inescapably immersive about putting my full attention on some idea, some vision, some expression, and trying to bring it to reality. I spend most of my days, from the moment I rise to those last bits of consciousness, dreaming about the possibilities of what I’m creating, eager to bring them to life. This is unplugging in that I’ve put my attention on something in and emerging from my mind rather than on the happenings of the world. To ignore the buzz of daily human activity is a great privilege — one I think the tradition of sabbatical has at it’s core—but I think it can be essential to enabling great art.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what of the above I want to keep when I return to industrialized faculty life in the fall. Are these even possible? Most of my colleagues don’t reply to my emails for at least a week, if not longer, so it’s not like I’d be out of step with their pace. Most of the meetings I’ve had in the past weren’t necessary, so it might just take some courage to refuse unless they really are. Saving the news for the weekends seems easy to sustain. And slowing my pace of transportation might just mean counting that as my exercise for the day.
But the art—I don’t know where I’m going to find the ~25 hours of focus time per week in normal faculty life. I’ll plug back in to industrialized teaching, which will take at least 15 of those hours. I’ll plug back in to industrialized faculty and administrative meetings, which will take another 8. My email volume will double, taking 4 hours instead of 2. And suddenly I’ll be back to 45 hours a week of scale-induced chaos, drama, and decision making. Perhaps this is the price of being plugged in.
Until then, expect for me to be quietly painting with code, eagerly manifesting my dreams in peace.