Early-November travels: A book festival in Singapore; a trip to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors, eat all the foods; then a few days in Shanghai, for the second time this year. After a decade-plus of stubborn travel-minimalism, I give in and buy both a neck pillow and a fanny pack. The night before our return flight, we have dinner with my dad, for my birthday, at a Peruvian-Argentinean steakhouse in Shanghai’s Former French Concession. I am 36.
Julia and I both catch the same nasty cold toward the end of the trip. A stress cold, I’d like to believe – the kind that infiltrates after a period of vigilance, comes the instant defenses are relaxed. (Does this mean that I’ve finally relaxed?) A week out, I’m in my least favorite part of recovery, when the body aches have gone but the cough remains, and gets particularly violent at night, lying horizontal, chest sticky with fluid. I sleep with an extra pillow under my head and don’t remember dreams, only remembering coughing, and waking up in the dark wondering what time it is.
Yet. Due to some combination of optimism and melatonin, I wake in the morning, refreshed. A small miracle.
I write this week’s letter without internet. I don’t need the internet to write. (To send, yes, but not to write.) I’m staying put in Michigan for the rest of the year, and doing my best to simulate the environment of a writing retreat, so I can finish draft two of the manuscript. I unsave the wifi password from my laptop. Disable web browsing and email on my phone (and get Julia to set the screen time passcode so I can’t re-enable them). I allow myself TV in the evenings, podcasts while driving, and I borrow my mom’s laptop for the occasional email check and internet search.
This is partly inspired by a conversation with a new friend in Singapore, another part by Dave Eggers on the Ezra Klein Show, talking about our distraction engines:
It’s like having a television on the desk when you’re in college. You’re at a lecture but you’ve brought a television, and you put it on the desk with the screen facing you. Next to the television is a phone. Like, imagine an old-type, standard phone with a receiver in it. You set that up next to you. You set up a little movie theater, you set up a stack of letters you want to answer. All while your professor’s trying to talk. We forget that all of these things are in that little device. It is like the most profound combination of powerful distraction, and it’s all in front of you.
A useful macro, to un-collapse that which has been collapsed. To make physical that which has taken psychic space, psychic weight. So as to better be able to ask: What am I really trying to do? And what do I need to do it?
The answer to the latter: Less than I think.