Last year I ruined my summer vacation — a two-week idyll at my wife's family cabin on a lake in northern Ontario — by bringing along a modern convenience that was too convenient for my own good: the demon iPad.
Instead of contemplating nature, I checked email. Instead of paddling an old canoe, I followed my Twitter feed. Instead of grazing on great (or merely amusing) novels, I stuck to my workday diet of four newspapers each morning.
And that was the problem: I was behaving as if I were still in the office, tethered to the unending news cycle. My body was on vacation but my head wasn't.
So this year I resolved to try something different, a social media experiment in reverse: withdrawal from the Internet. Could I manage to unplug?
I knew it wouldn't be easy, since I'm lousy at self-denial. I rarely pass up second helpings, and my exercise regimen can charitably be described as intermittent.
But I was determined. I started with a physical restraint: handing the iPad to my wife, who helpfully announced that she was going to use it to read a 630-page novel for her book club and would not be inclined to relinquish the tablet for even a moment.
Then, a stroke of luck: The cellphone signal at the Canadian cabin was spottier than in the past, making my attempts at cheating an experience in frustration.
I was trapped, forced to comply with my own good intentions. Largely cut off from email, Twitter and my favorite newspaper websites, I had little way to connect to the world except for radio — and how much radio can one listen to, really?
I had no choice but to do what I had planned to do all along: read books.
To wit: two detective novels (Michael Connelly); Siddhartha Mukherjee's history of cancer research (initially daunting but utterly absorbing); and one long-delayed classic, Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" (a cultural upgrade at the insistence of my daughter the English major). Not all beach reading, but definitely books capable of transporting me to worlds I didn't know. I experienced criminal intrigue on the streets of L.A., cutthroat battles between cancer labs and the psyche of a London social butterfly in 1922.
And there were old magazines to conquer. I once had a friend who kept all his back issues of the New Yorker and insisted on reading them in the order they had arrived, beginning with the oldest. He was always at least eight years behind. I'm not that bad, but every summer, to the amusement of my daughters, I pack a box of New Yorkers, Atlantics and other magazines that piled up through the year. Last year, in thrall to the Internet, I barely cracked the box at all. This time, I made great strides on catching up.
I'm not claiming that I cut myself off from the Internet completely. Every few days, we biked into the nearest town and, as a reward, sat on a park bench in front of the public library to use its Wi-Fi. And back at the cabin, we suffered through an agonizingly slow dial-up connection once a day to check email.
This tale of semi-deprivation has a happy ending — for now, at least. With determination and deep breathing, plus the steely support of my novel-devouring spouse, I triumphed in my vacation struggle against the Internet demon, realizing finally that it was me, of course, not the iPad, that was the problem.
I knew I had won when we passed a Starbucks and my wife asked if I wanted to stop to use the Wi-Fi. "Don't need it," I said, trying not to sound too smug.
However, as we return to post-vacation normalcy, a sterner test begins: Can I stay on the wagon now that I'm back at work? There are times when the compulsion to know what's being said right now is overwhelming (and for me, sometimes it's crucial to my livelihood). And I have no intention of giving up my membership in the cult of immediacy.
But I hope to resist the temptation to reflexively check my email every five minutes, which often leads, as long as I'm looking, to checking my Twitter feed and a website or two.
A vacation is supposed to help you reset your brain to become more productive. Here's hoping this one worked.