Not crack or crystal meth, not heroin or OxyContin, but it is like crack – hooks you like a big old bass on a lure. No, it’s (anti-)social media and the 24/7 sound bite mill.
All of it is bad for your head – the outrage machine of cable news and the dopamine addiction of likes on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. It’s designed to get you stirred up, angry, make you feel lonely and inadequate so you’ll buy something. It’s toxic and it’s designed to keep your eyeballs glued to a little screen. It’s a terrible way to live your life.
I had to learn to turn it off, unplug and go down to the wood shop. I have been building it for years, carefully collecting the tools that allow me to make wood bend to my will. I bought my big power tools, but many of my hand tools are old hand-me-downs: chisels and whetstones from one grandfather, saws and planes from the other. Sometimes I get the old ones out just to remember the men who earned their livings with them and made my life a possibility. Yet, this is no museum for squishy nostalgia; the best tools are absolutely my own.
There is a lot of something else in my shop: scrounge wood. My neighborhood has a lot of old houses and a lot of alleys. When people do remodeling projects they often put the old wood which has been pulled out of their houses out in the alley for the city to pick up. Some of this wood is ancient and wonderful. I have been cherry-picking the scrounge wood for years. I have racks full of pieces waiting to become furniture or jewelry boxes. Old wood is likely to be of better quality originally, and having aged for decades, it has greater dimensional stability. I like the idea of salvaging beautiful old wood.
The wood shop got started in earnest when I moved into my old house. It’s 92 years old at this point. I love it but it’s built of wood and parts rot or break over time and must be replaced. I’ve built window sashes and sills, door frames and storm windows, plus several pieces of furniture and shelves. I built kids’ toys, picture frames and decorative boxes which never seem to stick around very long.
The shop becomes immersive which can be a blessing at times. One needs to be laser-focused when working with power tools – a momentary lapse in attention can result in a serious injury. Fingers don’t grow back. Yet, it is that intensity of attention which provides the immersion. When one is fully focused on making a cut with a table saw, one cannot have the mind elsewhere. That means not thinking about all the crap that normally makes us crazy, the crap that we dwell on and ruminate over, and cannot turn off. The shop makes me turn off all that other stuff, and that can be really nice.
I’m a news addict, twitter junkie, politics obsessed kind of guy. I can watch political news for hours on end until the frustration and anger rages like a fever in my brain. I also have serious hypertension – shocker huh? Disengagement from the outrage machine is a critically important act of self-care for me. Running power tools isn’t relaxing for most people; this is a solution that works for me. The idea I’m trying to express is that it is important to our health and intellectual life to be able to fully unplug from the information torrent of cable news and social media, and it requires a powerful attraction to help us let go.
I’ve read a lot about “digital detox” and it sounds interesting, but largely impractical. How often can you rent a cabin out in the woods for two weeks and leave all of your electronic connections at home? And if you could, would you really want to do that? I recently spent three days in the mountains with no Internet or cell service. It was a pain in the ass. Yes, my brain got relaxed a bit, but there is also an increase in anxiety about not knowing what is going on and being cut off from communication. What if I got sick? What if one of my kids needed to reach me with something urgent?
The shop serves as a limited digital detox for me. It steers me away from staying glued to screens. Again, the power tools are not everyone’s cup of tea. For others, the method of unplugging will be different. Perhaps it’s baking a loaf of bread or reading a paper book. Walking, riding a bike, volunteer work or going to the gym may all serve the concept. I saw a tweet by one lady who said that splitting wood with an axe is emotionally rewarding to her. Something as simple as listening to music will work if you’re a person who is strongly moved by music (I am). I think that Goethe was getting at the same thing when he said:
“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I have been working on a concept I call “Mental Sovereignty,” meaning simply, “Who rules your head?” I think of it as the capacity to take charge of our own mental lives. It’s a way to reclaim our time. Without that we become screen zombies, the intellectual undead.
There is hope. We can break free, if only for a little while, but it does require identification of the issue and a decision to do something about it. John Prine was on to something oh so long ago when he sang, “Blow Up the TV”