It’s been coming all summer. Many days I felt like tipping my Internet computer out the window of my second floor office. I even said so to my husband a few times. But this week the Internet and I had a genuine falling out.
On an early morning walk a few days ago, I heard a bird: kik-kik-kik-kik! Loud. Almost like the jungle calls in the old Tarzan movies. I couldn’t see the bird, but I knew that call yet I hadn’t a clue what it was. It bothered me for days. Wasn’t a blue jay or a crow or a hawk. Not one of the regular songbirds. What was it? And why couldn’t I identify it? This wasn’t like dumping state capitals when you turn 40, or the old why-am-I-in-this-room memory loss. No, this was brain fog. I finally realized the bird was a flicker.
Then I got an email marked “Urgent Photo Request!” from a photo researcher for United’s in-flight magazine. She desperately needed a high rez image of the cover of a little book I did ten years ago, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, a flat-fee deal for a paperback that would sell in Kmart. The magazine’s sidebar would have a snippet comparing older illustrations of Grimm’s tales to today’s friendlier versions.
Instead of going to my writing first thing, I searched for the book. My comp copies are stored in enormous vintage suitcases that weigh tons. I lifted and shoved and scrabbled through shelves, finally finding a copy in my files. Next I scanned the cover and three images, sent them to the researcher, got back a chirpy “thanks.” I’d blown half the morning on something trivial because of an “urgent” email.
Besides distraction and brain fog—I can remember URLs more readily than my nieces’ birthdays—the Internet feeds on my tendency toward restlessness and agitation. It wasn’t always like this.
Remember the early days of the Internet? Dial-up? Kind of clunky, but exciting. Email, the World Wide Web, and Amazon . . . messages from far-flung friends, looking up facts, buying books only. It was like going to Grandma’s house. Now the Net is more like those Red Riding Hood topsy-turvy dolls. Sometimes you get Grandma. Sometimes the wolf.
For years I’ve turned on my computer at 6:30 in the morning to take care of emails and business I hadn’t finished the day before. After supper, I go back to the computer and try to quit before 7:30, but often it’s 8:00 or later before I’m off. I go to bed at 9:00, so there’s not much “free time.” During the day, I check my mail several times, interrupting the flow of my work. Weekends are spent cleaning the house and updating my blog, processing photos, updating web pages and my website, sending emails regarding school visits and promoting my book. By Sunday evening, I’m cranky as hell.
And then there’s the “quick fact check” that turns into an hour or more of link-hopping, blog-reading, book-shopping, music-video-bingeing, and Etsy-popping. Thank God I’m not hooked on Pinterest. Yet.
It’s hard to describe my particular problem. Surfing the Net, which I do several times a day, makes me feel confused and uncertain. It creates obsessive thinking and drives my mood downward. My work days are longer because of these jags and I am unhappier. I’m not addicted (I took the test) because I can’t wait to get off the computer and dread getting on it.
So why not just turn the sucker off? I have but then I turn it back on. I’ve covered the monitor with a towel, like trying to fool a canary into thinking it’s dark outside. I pull the towel off. The only thing that will work is to move the Internet computer out of my office entirely. Sunday evening, I’m putting it in the garage for one month.
There are qualifications to my sabbatical: I’m doing it for five weeks—one month at home and the final week I’ll be at Bell House on my usual writing retreat where there is no Internet anyway. I will go to the library Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to check my mail and conduct business. I’ll make notes of facts I need to check and do it then. But there will be no blogging, no blog-reading, no book reviewing, no photo editing, no shopping, and no flitting around.
My husband said it will be hard. Yes. And it’s hard making this public announcement, like telling people you’re going to lose 30 pounds by Christmas. But the minute I made this decision—yesterday afternoon —I felt like I’d been let out of jail.
Here’s what’ll I gain right away: One) more desk space! Two) the ability to walk in my office and sit down at my work computer and begin writing. I hope the brain fog will lift. I hope some of my restlessness will dissipate. I hope my mood stays lifted. Mostly I hope I’ll be able to set bounds on the Internet computer when it comes back in my office.
And maybe I’ll even have more time to do this.
Wish me luck.
The highlight of my summers growing up was going to the Prince William County Fair. For weeks we planned what we’d wear (one year’s fair outfit included red-and-blue dyed squaw boots from Memco that turned my feet beet red and indigo), what we’d do first, and what we’d enter in the exhibits. Mama entered her sewing, canning, and vegetables from our garden. In 1964, my eleventh summer, I decided to enter something, too.
I’ve always loved county fair—the crunch of straw underfoot, the rich warm smells of farm animals, the heightened excitement that makes everyone feel like a kid. So when my friend Donna invited me to go with her family to the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair, I was thrilled. 2012 marks the fair’s 274th, the oldest in Virginia and possibly the United States. It’s not as big as the Prince William fair, but it had all the corndogs, cows, cotton candy, and carousel rides you could want.
We went nearly every day to visit the animals and check on that day’s judging events. In the summer of ’64, our dreams were pinned on winning ribbons.
First stop, the rabbit and poultry barn. Boys with buzzcuts gawked at mop-headed chickens. Ducklings lay in a fuzzy heap, fast asleep, though one black duck fixed me with a beady eye. In the adjacent cage, baby turkeys paced like junkies in rehab. (My mother had an expression for restless people: “He’s tracking like a turkey.”) Two roosters vying for the title of Foghorn Leghorn crowed continuously, exhausting the lop-eared rabbits that sprawled frog-legged on their cage floors, flat as flounders.
We visited my favorite place first, the rabbit and poultry barn. I itched to pet the cute Bantam hens and admired the Best in Show rosette on the cage door of a Flemish Giant buck the size of a coffee table. If only we could win one of those ribbons!
Next we toured the Arts and Crafts show in a building too large for what it promised. Dust motes seemed to shimmer with ghosts of industrious fair-goers in years past—bustling housewives who entered the best of their baking and farmers who weighed their vine-ripened watermelons with pride. Here, vegetables were represented by a few tomatoes and baked goods seemed limited to trendy cupcakes and cookies.
The Home Arts building bulged with towering seven-layer cakes, brilliant displays of roses and zinnias, watermelons that bowed the plank shelving, and rows of canned jellies and jams that glowed like rare gems. Calico aprons were pegged on a line. Racks were draped with pieced quilts and crocheted tablecloths, different as snowflakes.
I lingered by four card tables, each set for a themed dinner with a matching floral arrangement. The first three prize-winners displayed sleek modern vases spouting ornamental grasses and a few blooming stems. The fourth table wore an old-fashioned lace tablecloth with paper birthday plates and napkins and a plain glass vase with pink roses. The “pity” fourth place ribbon pricked me like a thorn.
Mama and I scanned the shelves. Her canned peaches had failed to place. The winner’s perfect scalloped halves cascaded inside the Mason jar like dahlia petals, but I bet my mother’s peaches tasted sweeter. Mama’s lima beans, grown from seed, arduously dusted and hoed, looked sad on their paper plate. She got second. If only the judge had sat down to a bowl of her succotash! Her pattypan squash took third place. We walked over to the sewing area. The green velvet dress she had stitched for me on her old Singer earned another third place. The prize-winning entries—complicated suits and evening gowns—were beyond my mother’s skills, but that green velvet dress made me feel like a Russian princess. Two white ribbons, one red. But no blue.
Outside, we strolled down the midway, eating corndogs and watching an acrobatic act. I remembered when the sideshow was the entertainment, that, and “hoochie-coochie” dancers. The four of us rode the Ferris wheel. The breeze felt heavenly as our gondola gently rocked. I remembered the two-seater cars with the bar across laps and how the operator would pause each car at the top to hear girls scream. We went around and around, then settled back to earth softly as a raindrop.
Mama warned me to stay close, that gypsies might kidnap me. If only they would! I’d live in a yellow and red wagon and ride rides and eat cotton candy every single day. My stepfather braved the Merry-mixer with me, turning a little greener on each spin.
We were late getting to the Home Arts building. The last category had been judged. And it was mine.
As we passed the Arts and Crafts building on our way out, I glimpsed my eleven-year-old self, standing nervously in front of the entry desk the first day of fair week. The man had looked at my drawing curiously.
“We don’t have a youth category for a picture like this,” he said. “I’ll have to put it in the adult category. What’s the title of it?”
“‘House on Haunted Hill,’” I said faintly, realizing my smeary pencil drawing on mimeograph paper stood no chance against grown-up artists.
“Should be called ‘Haunted House on a Hill,’” the man said, laughing at his own joke.
All that week I passed by my entry. It looked small and insignificant beside framed oil paintings and beautiful watercolors. Now, after the judging, I walked up to it again and stared incredulously at the blue ribbon hanging beside it. Mama proudly watched me collect my prize money, a check for one dollar and twenty-five cents. My first earnings as an artist.
Mama entered in the fair every year, sometimes taking second or third, but never first. When she died, I found her ribbons from 1964 pressed in her mother’s Bible. Mine was there, too, no longer first-place blue but a faded purple.
My mother’s ribbons are still as bright as hope.