Life, unplugged

Vermont, C 2012 Liz GumbinnerI watched the bars slowly vanish…down to three, then two, then a faint little dot–hardly even a bar at all–which provides just enough signal on the phone to start to download that must-read webpage your friend emailed you, and then fizzle out. The fourth bar should never be allowed to count as a bar.

It’s forced unplugging. And i feels so different to me than unplugging by choice.

When I decide to put my phone away for an hour, I know, that like that a spare bar of chocolate in the butter compartment of the fridge, it’s always there should I need it. But at times when that final dot of a bar disappears and the eerie NO SIGNAL appears in its place, it’s a different feeling entirely.

In New York City, we all joke about the “dead blocks” – those short walks through Soho or the Flatiron District in which you know you’ll have to put down the phone for a whole 60 seconds until you arrive at the next corner. But this week, on vacation with my family in the wilds of Northeastern Vermont, somewhere between Nowhere You’ve Ever Heard Of and That Town That’s Not So Far From that Other Town, this thing happens often. A dead zone can be an entire neighborhood or (gasp) an entire town.


You can read more about my mostly pleasant (if admittedly a wee bit bit disconcerting) forced unplugging experience in Vermont this week over on today where I’m going to be contributing somewhat regularly. (Pretty excited about that!)

I’d love to know your thoughts too. As people who are clearly committed to the online space, either as readers or content creators (or probably both), can you unplug? An hour? A weekend? How long until you start to get twitchy? And is forced unplugging somehow different than you making the conscious decision to shut off your own phone for a period of time?

What a world we live in, eh?

Meanwhile…Maple syrup! Small-town parades! Grilling! Wild turkeys on the lawn! Circus Smirkus! VERMONT! Or as Sage still call it, Gramont.


39 thoughts on “Life, unplugged”

  1. Two days and I start having the withdrawn symptoms. Sweats, shakes, paranoia. It’s like I’m coming down off some drug that I’ve never even seen. Except it’s from the lack of Twitter.

    I’ll be honest though, those two days always feel amazing.

  2. Perhaps I shouldn’t say how simply delighted I am to be sitting by the pool while my daughter does dive practice. But I am, because I’m using the new-this-year wi-fi and catching up on blogs. It’s kind of heaven.

    But yeah, unplugging is good. 🙂

    1. I understand completely. Praise be the hospital wifi when I was waiting for Nate to come out of surgery.

  3. I can unplug for a week or more and not get twitchy… if I’m not home. We’ve gone camping in Maine with a group every year for a week in July (not in tents – in trailers) and I’ve always enjoyed going off the grid – no TV, no internet, only the radio, a lot like when I was growing up and there were 6 channels and no webs unless spun by spiders. No cell signal also means a true vacation from work for Hubby.

    The unfortunate side of technology is that access is spreading like a virus. The places once without a signal (like our campground) now has free Wi-Fi at the store, and I hear they’re trying to boost the signal so the whole campground can have access. Ugh!

  4. We go away for 8 days to a place that has *very* spotty cell service (standing in the dirt road out front might buy you a quick call, before all that searching the phone does for a signal kills the battery.)

    In the olden days of dial-up and my online job, I would use the dial-up and work for a few hours. But since then….we’ve gone cold turkey.

    I *really* like it. If I know that candy is there, I always eat it, sooner or later.

    I usually go to the library in the little town that’s about 6 or so miles away twice in the week. Several others accompany me. And I’m usually disappointed in that, in fact, nothing all that momentous has happened and my emails are no more or less interesting after a few day’s wait.

    I’d love to have someone turn off my FIOS for several planned hours every day.

    1. Your comment about nothing momentous – I think that’s really genius.


      It’s true, sometimes I check the mail and there’s something urgent or exciting or important. Most often it’s a whole lot of deleting.

  5. Somewhere, in some forum there is an exact same conversation being had about heroin…

    Food for thought.

    Enjoy the silence, it’s deafening but beautiful!

  6. I never had a cell phone until six months ago. I never have owned a laptop, tablet, etc. So, the whole mobile culture is new to me. I admit the smart phone is addictive but also a lifesaver during the many hours I have spent nursing my little one.

  7. I live in a deadzone. There has never been and probably never will be a cell signal here. We knew that when moving here 4 years ago and I’m finally used to it. At least we do have the internet ;;)

  8. We just came home from a vacation in VA, and there was No Cell Reception At All for eight days. After the withdrawal pangs the first day, I realized I was just running down the battery as the phone searched night and day for service, so I TURNED IT OFF. I hadn’t done that in a long time and after a few days I stopped caring. My 18yo niece however tried climbing on the roof to see if it would help (no) and then found a small spot on the top of a mountain while we were hiking that did work. She had about three minutes worth of FB and it just made her care about not having it all the more. Addicts. We are all addicts.

  9. At home, I have trouble unplugging, ignoring the siren call of the laptop. But on vacation, my phone goes off when we pull away from the house and doesn’t come back on until we pull back up to the house again. My husband still has his phone on, so if there were an emergency, people would still be able to contact us. But to be free-Free-Free! of that stress for a week or two is heavenly.

    And, then, of course, I devour all the media I missed when I was gone.

  10. While I could unplug more, a lot of times I’m mostly unplugged but still creating content. I am tweeting out a photo and corresponding back to the people who respond, but not reading any of the rest of my twitter feed. I often go for a few hours without checking in, particularly over the weekend, but then may spend a bit of time quickly catching up. But I miss it when I’m away. The truth is, I’m a much more social person than the circumstances of my life often allow me to be. Being online gives me the opportunity to share my life with others and let them share back, and that means a lot to me.

    I wasn’t thrilled when on a trip to a kiddie amusement park last week, I had to field a call from the office. My husband had one at dinner the night before. I wish there was more of a distinction between being online because it adds to my life, and being completely available.

    1. And here I am, responding to these comments a full 24 hours later because…I was pretty much unplugged.

      I LOVE your thought about being completely available. Believe it or not, when an employer first offered me a Blackberry about 10 years ago I took it but refused to activate it. They thought I was nuts. I said, I have a little Nokia; you can call me, but I don’t want to be available to you 24/7. Now that I’m in love with smartphones (and my work requires me being online) it’s different. But as you said, I’d love to get back to that distinction of access and availability.

  11. We were truly forced to unplug during Hurricane Ike. We had no power and…well no anything else for 10 days. The first day and a half was painful, but by day 10, I’d almost completely forgotten my phone and computer. Of course the power came back on and it ended. On the weekends, I’m much more unplugged. Once we get into an activity away from home with the kids, I forget about my phone or my iPod. It’s actually pretty liberating. While at home though, the lure of constant connection through my iPod via WiFi is very hard to resist.

    1. Is it social or work? I think that seems to be the distinction for a lot of people.

      Bloggers for example – if your blogging is your income, do you feel you can unplug the way someone else can?

      1. It never dawned on me to make the distinction! Most of it is social, so you are right, there’s little if any financial impact to me if I unplug. While I’m trying to build my social media presence, it’s not my livelihood (yet anyway).

        That said, I’m a project manager and do have a work Blackberry and here’s my rule: once I walk in the door at home for the night or for the weekend, I turn it off. Period. I’ve made it clear to my employer that my home time is MY time. Truth is, on my projects, there’s nothing I can discover at 10 pm that would be addressed before people are back in the office the next day anyway. When I’m on vacation, I’m off the grid as far as work goes. I leave behind enough of a game plan (where to find things in my absence, who to contact for critical decisions, etc) that life goes on even when I’m away. I’ve had jobs that encroached on my private time and I’ve walked away from them. My family deserves my undivided attention when my work day ends.

  12. Oddly, BlogHer is usually my longest unplugging of the year. I don’t take my laptop, don’t blog, don’t tweet and don’t usually need my phone unless I am looking up directions.

    When I’m on vacation, I like to leave the laptop at home because it is too much of a pain to lug and I don’t want to look at it anyway.

    1. Ha, my longest stretches of not blogging are often after Blogher. I feel a little blog burnout being immersed in it for 4 straight days.

      But on vacation? Well…iPad.

  13. I just tweeted you, but here’s a longer thought:
    I still don’t have a cell phone – well, okay, we keep a pay-as-you-go in the car in case of emergencies. At first this was a conscious choice: I didn’t want to end up one of those people always talking to someone else instead of the people actually present with me. I wanted to be be present.

    I felt good about that decision initially, but as technology has continued to advance I have found just as many ways to stay plugged in through my laptop (albeit bulkier ways). Not to mention that it is becoming more inconvenient to not have the other services smart phones are now offering, services that I can’t access otherwise. (For one, there aren’t many payphones around anymore, hence the payg.)

    So it seems my reasons aren’t as relevant as they once were. While we can’t actually afford the extra bill right now, I imagine it won’t be too long before we do. Besides, I get nervous that thumb-typing will become standard and I’ll become totally irrelevant.

  14. We just got back from 10 days in Asia, very unplugged the whole time. I found it liberating. Of course, now that we’re back, I’m once again surgically attached to my iPad…

  15. Once I get over the shock of disconnection, I kind of like it. It feels illicit, to be out of touch, no matter what horrendous crises of wardrobe might befall my best friend…

    1. I remember learning about Katrina fairly late because I was unplugged in Maine. I didn’t like that. But I do like realizing that I can be away from the latest celeb marriage gossip or totally unimportant he said/he said political debates and it doesn’t matter a lick.

  16. We went to Manitoulin Island that has total of… 10.000 people living on 1000 square miles. In translation, nobody is around you at any given moment. And cell reception… well, it was enough for pulling GPS maps and that’s it. And even that annoyed me at some point: my kids are enjoying the scenery while I’m praying to loin god by looking at GPS location on my smart phone. There are total of 4 major roads there, are we going to lose critical turn at major intersection? I have powered off. I was content to look at deer and sand cranes and foxes and not spend a single millisecond on my email. It really is a beautiful thing, this physical life around us (said crackberry addict).

  17. My country is the capital for texting last I checked. Apparently, even for 3rd world dwellers, it is very hard to put down the phone. When I was still in school and it’s a crime to not be in touch with your friends for more than an hour, that was the case. Now, I barely touch my phone. My most frequent caller is my mom who calls me like twice a week. So I could go an entire week without charging my phone or a couple of days without using it. But I think that is mostly because texting and calling had been replaced by Facebook as the main source of communicating and getting in touch with friends.

    I AM glad I do NOT have internet on my phone. It’s freedom. 🙂

  18. I barely have a cell phone. Someone wanted to send a photo to it the other day and I laughed and had to tell her my phone is just a phone and couldn’t receive photos and she looked at me like I had dropped down from outer space. But I’m always either near a land line at home or a land line at work. The cell phone is for odd stretches of time in other places in case of emergency.

    The people I know who are addicted to them seem to have shorter attention spans than they used to. I had a stand partner last season in my orchestra who checked facebook on her smart phone every time we had more than half a dozen bars of rest in our part. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, because maybe she was using her time in a way that made her happier, but maybe we’re not supposed to be entertained every second. Maybe she should have been more present in the music we were working on, even during the moments we weren’t playing. I don’t know.

    But I am on my laptop most of the day, so I am familiar with that itchy feeling that happens when I’m disconnected. When we go to our family’s cottage in Michigan our internet is spotty at best, and most of the time I wind up being grateful for it. I feel more connected to the people in front of me instead of people online.

  19. Next week I’ll be flying to Texas with my two little ladies under 2 and while I haven’t even thought of what – or how – I’m going to pack for all three of us for 12 days AND try to put it all in one suitcase… Or how I’m going to navigate the airport and layover… My only concern is that the teensy, weensy little town that we’ll be staying at is most likely one of “NO SIGNAL.” It could go one of two ways, and I’m hoping for the more pleasurable, vacation-like experience rather than twitching, withdrawals and nightmares. Wish me luck!

    1. Load up with apps that don’t require a wifi connection! You’ll be in good shape. And good luck!

  20. My family vacations in Nova Scotia every other summer at a resort that we’ve been going to as a kid. There’s no cell service and until recently there was no internet. And even the internet is only available in the main lodge, not in the cabins. The bonus to this is that it also forces my husband to unplug as well. Neither of us bring our laptops. To me, it’s truly a vacation.

    I’m in the minority in my company at my level, but I do not want to be available to my job all of the time. No one life depends on the work that I do, and the world will not end if I’m unreachable for a week. Invariably I come home from vacation to voicemails and emails from co-workers stating “I know your out-of-office message says you won’t be accessing email and VM while you’re away, but I’m sure that’s not really true, so…” And 99% of the time these emails can wait until I get home and for the other 1% the sender finds someone else who can help them. It takes a lot of work on the front end to tie up as much as I can before going on vacation to minimize the chance of “emergencies”, but it’s worth it. I want my kids’ (and my) vacation memories to be of having true family time and not feeling like work keeps getting in the way.

    1. those messages…that’s the problem right there. People not only don’t expect you to be unplugged, they don’t believe it when you are. Wow.

  21. I unplugged for a few hours one day—usually the time of day when I’m practically glued to my computer—to see how much it would affect me. The biggest benefit of course was that my toddler got uninterrupted time from me. I’m actually pretty good about not checking my phone when he’s around, but imagine not even having it on at all.

    The second lesson I learned was how much of my life was connected to the online world, and not so much in the let’s-waste-time-on-Pinterest-or-Bejeweled-Blitz stereotype. Things like handling my finances or finding recipes—tasks that are needed to run a household but all rely on turning on the computer.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be able to unplug for extended hours. My work requires technology, for one thing. And secondly I just don’t think we’ll be able to run a house offline, or even computer-less. Still, these unplugged hours are a good reminder to unplug when you can, when it’s not so important, and when other people need you more than Facebook.

  22. A friend of mine likened our addiction to being plugged in to the old boiling frog scenario:

    If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put it in cold water and turn on the heat, it doesn’t notice it’s being boiled to death.

    If you’d told us 20, 15, 10, even 5 years ago that we’d carry our phones with access to email, texting, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumbler, and, oh yeah, phone calls, with us at all times, checking in frequently, we’d be overwhelmed with the thought.

    But if you turn up the heat slowly, we don’t notice what’s happening to us. Makes me want to unplug for a while. Well, maybe an hour. We’ll see.

  23. Oh this is so tough. I work from home now and when I’m good I turn off my computer and shut the office door once I pick up my kids, other days… not so much.

    I try to be honest with myself about what I am doing on-line. Obsessively checking the site stats for my blog is different from checking my email to make sure the editor was ok with my recent column.

  24. We recently went on a weekend trip to a friend’s mountain/lake cabin and experienced total no service. It was really refreshing, actually. There is definitely a withdrawal period, but then that weird, “I should be looking at a screen. It’s been ___ seconds since I looked at a screen.” feeling disappeared and we talked, played games, drank stuff, stared at the gorgeous view, and lived in the moment. It was really nice. Hope you had a similar experience.

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