The air is soft and sweet, ringing with what all my life I thought were insects, but which Bob tells me after consulting the internets, are invisible frogs. I sit in my rocker on the back porch Astroturf, the wooden seat softened by a paisley thrift store cushion, bare feet resting on another cheap chair, waiting.
Although the sky is white, the lawn, the crepe myrtles, and the roses are tinged yellow. I don’t know where Dorian is on the map this morning because I have not yet turned on my laptop. My browser can wait until I’ve had my fill of cocoa. I absorb the morning, with my journal, my reading glasses, and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac beside me.
We lost our wifi for a few days at the end of July. I had been working at the kitchen sink with half an eye on the rain sheeting off the roof when lightning struck outside the window. I jumped back at the same moment a loud pop on the other side of the room propelled Bob from his desk. He’d seen smoke above our Wi-Fi hookup, and our internet was out. I watched him loosen the backplate on our dead modem. Tiny bits of porcelain fell out, and there was a charred scar beside a shattered capacitor.
Bob ordered a replacement modem and rigged up a hot spot from his phone so that I could get online. He’d be flying to Houston in the morning, and I’d be disconnected until UPS delivered the new modem, stuck alone in the house with my flip phone and magazines. I assured him I’d be fine. I don’t need my browser, I told him with a cocky smirk. I have a rich and satisfying life outside The New York Times, The Atlantic, Gmail, Google, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
I used the hot spot to look at my calendar, and the weather, and sent emails saying I could only be reached by phone for the next three days. I was tempted to say that I’d be technologically marooned because our modem got hit by lightning, that Bob was going away for nine days with his smartphone, that the new modem wouldn’t reach our front porch until Friday, and that there was a chance I won’t be savvy enough to hook it up without Bob’s big brain to guide me. I was tempted to type all of this and more, as if they were my last words. To type while the typing was good, before my screen faded to black.
The next morning, I watched Bob drive off the in the dark and went back inside the house. I connected to the Mobile Web on my phone and found that I could access a handful of CNN headlines but nothing more. I tried to write but was distracted by the day yawning ahead. Finally, I grabbed my wallet and the mail and got into the car, switching on NPR before backing out of the garage. In town, I sat in front of the post office listening to the 6:00 news. I drove to the grocery store and sat in their lot, listening to more stories.
Back home, I worked in the yard like I do most days. I tidied the house and worked in the kitchen, pining for my podcasts, wishing I had a radio. I read The Sun magazine and Aldo’s essays and made phone calls. “You don’t have a radio?” said one friend after another. By the second day, I didn’t miss my browser. I spent more time on the phone and reading. Bob and I talked a lot, probably more than we do when he’s home, both distracted by our screens.
It was a proud moment for me when I succeeded in hooking up the new modem. I clicked on the Google Chrome icon, my excitement mounting along with something else. I stared at my inbox, at close to a hundred new emails, and took a moment before diving into the deep waters of undigested newsletters, notifications, and personal correspondence.
Thirty minutes later, I had opened tabs for news stories I wanted to pursue and social media I needed to check before responding to friends. Now I was clicking through Facebook notifications, determined to reach ground zero, the flood of emails barely addressed. My chest tightened, and I recognized the feeling. It was fear, plain and simple. The fear that I would never reach the surface, never get a handle on things; that I wasn’t up to the task, that I was going to be left behind, and ultimately, find out that I didn’t belong and was condemned to a solitary, disconnected life. Primal fear began in my stomach and worked its way up through my chest until I was choking on it. I was drowning; sipping off a fire hose. I closed my laptop and went outside.
The next day, I bought a used clock radio for $2.00.
Just writing about my offline/online experience this morning, sitting on the back porch, waiting for the rain, has made my chest tighten again. I’m retired, I tell myself; any pressure to keep up is pressure of my own making. None of this is real: the notifications, the op-eds, the trending videos, and the “like” hearts. What’s real is the soul-baring dispatches from friends, which in the absence of email could be answered on paper or with a call.
It hasn’t started raining yet, but the traffic has risen from a dribble to a steady flow. I’m about to start a load of laundry, reheat some leftovers, and type this essay. I remind myself that when I open Chrome, I only need answers to three questions and that, if I wanted to, I could listen for those answers on the radio:
- Is what’s-his-name still in the White House?
- Are we still at war?
- When will the rain begin?