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How we unplug: 7 ways to escape the roiling seas of modern life

Sébastien Thibault

Sébastien Thibault

The power of the walk

Five minutes into a walk, I can feel it working.

My shoulder muscles start to melt, my arms hang loose. The tightness that grips between my eyes releases. My feet move like the swinging of a pendulum—steady, propelled by the abiding law that a body in motion stays in motion.

I don’t need to read scientific journals to know the power of walking. What mystery could ever be solved without a detective pacing a room, the gears of his brain seemingly turned by the padding of his feet?

Still, science has certainly had its say. A 2014 study showed that walking, particularly outside, “opens the free flow of ideas” and increases creativity. In another, researchers determined that the foot’s impact during walking significantly modifies and increases the supply of blood to the brain.

When you walk, you are wholly engaged, present, pulsing from toe to head. It’s a motion—one foot in front of the other—so elemental I cannot remember a time when I could not do it.

But I do remember a time before the internet. What was billed as opening up the whole wide world is now a world unto itself. Information and commentary rush so steadily, so constantly, that taking even the briefest pause for reflection feels like standing still in a rising tide.

Before I stroll off into the evening, my day has invariably been reduced to a five-by-three inch electronic patch, from which images and sounds and words appear like magic. Twitter is chirping. Facebook is poking. Yelp is yawping.

So I leave, and it quiets. The online world vanishes; the real world grows bigger, and me smaller within it.

Time slows. Life becomes tangible again. Trees drop their leaves while my dog marks every curb, sending her own signals into the universe. People smile or don’t. I pause at corners, wait for the light to change while cars surge past me in a hurried stream. I keep walking. —Hannah Sayle

Cynic’s retreat to the Loring dog park

As an immigrant, I’ll always have a misty sentimentality for the nation’s better nature. America stands up to bullies. Its leaders are big enough to swallow criticism. Its people respect the quest for a better life that’s drawn wind-beaten, storm-battered aspirants from across the globe since the 16th century.

But these days, I’m just not certain that Americans find these to be worthy values.

To retreat from defeatism, I take Shorty the beagle to Loring Park. She walks with her tail up, nose stuck to the ground, floppy ears gathering the neighborhood news to her overactive hound brain.

There’s a dog park at the border, behind old oaks. It’s a half-block run inlaid with grass, gravel, and a bridge to nowhere.

A half-circle conference of Adirondack chairs is where the humans sit, chattering about the consistency of the Rottweiler’s stool and the Frenchie’s new diet of boiled chicken and rice. No one talks much about work, as though there’s an unspoken rule forbidding it.

Each canine newcomer is greeted with unapologetic enthusiasm. In the ensuing tumble, no one stays on top forever, and no one takes a pinning personally. The variety among dogs in shape, size, and color surpasses the variables among humans, yet no dog ever questions another’s doghood.

There are universal rules of play. Humpers always get humped. All toys, no matter how much money was exchanged for them, meet the same end. And everyone knows that if you’ve come bearing treats, there’s no such thing as other people’s dogs.

I’m very happy to look and say nothing. I don’t even have a name here, as far as anyone can tell, save for Shorty’s Mom.

A wooden totem proclaims the law of this land: “The reason why a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue.” —Susan Du

In the comforting embrace of the Mall of America

Twitter isn’t fun. Not anymore. Logging on long enough to read even one @dril joke means unloading the latest in a miserable barrage of the political (Kavanaugh hearings!), the pop cultural (Louis CK’s comeback!), and the personal (that kid you were crushing on has bad opinions!).

But it’s too late. I’m an addict. My stupid thumbs spend hours on autopilot, refreshing and refreshing on the off chance they might find a good Elon Musk meme to drop in a group chat.

So when I find myself spiraling blindly into an online K-hole, I do what any reasonable person would do. I go to the Mall of America.

I realize the mall is, like, the physical embodiment of Twitter. I know everyone is supposed to hate it. But powering off my phone for a few hours, wolfing a greasy Auntie Anne’s pretzel, telling the high schooler restocking Rick and Morty merch at Hot Topic where I got my tattoos—it puts me back in my own 14-year-old mallrat shoes, a time when things were (or weren’t, but at least felt) so much simpler.

After taking the escalator to Level 4, I work my way down, walking slowly, counterclockwise, around each floor. I pass Hooters and Hollister, Jamba Juice and Journeys, marveling every time at the human yearning for buying enough flat-brimmed caps to support five (5!) different Lids.

I like seeing gaggles of girls smelling Lush bath bombs, eavesdropping on people looking for gifts, and catching the moment a flustered dad finally caves and hands a heaping Coldstone cone to a screaming stroller demon. It’s all so damn... human.

Margaritaville. Rainforest Cafe. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. This is the America I can still relate to if I squint hard enough—a little tacky, a lot over the top, attempting to sell you a $30 T-shirt on your way out—made manifest in 96 acres of retail and restaurants.

A new pair of Levi’s can’t halt climate change. A soft pretzel dipped in cheese won’t help Congress pass gun reform. But they can get me out of the mindless scroll cycle long enough to make those things feel urgent and worth caring about again.

The mall reminds me there are people behind the ironic avatars, people who are mostly good, people who sometimes want nothing more than to scream on an indoor roller coaster together.

And honestly? I just really love the Hard Rock Cafe. —Emily Cassel

Rescue me, North Shore

The internet was a toxic swamp long before November 2016, but the events of that month cranked the acrimony to 11.

Three months later, I landed a new job as a web editor, which presented a 40-hour-a-week front row seat to the frothing, rabid maw. Now I receive emails with subject lines reading, “Fuck You!” the body offering only scant explanation: “Sent from my iPhone.”

This is what it’s like to toil within mankind’s most debased, deranged, and dehumanizing beast. Though I do enjoy the GIFs and online check-cashing.

Yet for the modest price of five gallons of gas, I can see the Superior National Forest spill off cliffs into the horizon-kissing expanse of Lake Superior. Once hiking boots hit the ground, it’s impossible not to feel like Minnesota is harboring some majestic, 150-mile-long secret, as if the glaciers carved us our own chilly Big Sur and the world at large isn’t the wiser.

The eight state parks dotting the shore—as well as the Superior Hiking Trail—are egalitarian portals to this magical landscape: gnarled roots looping through beds of pine needles, churning waterfalls, craggy rhyolite outcroppings that jut dramatically out of Superior’s three quadrillion gallons (!) of crystalline water.

In this place, it’d be downright sinful to twitchily scroll a smartphone. Thankfully, I’m never tempted.

Waxing Thoreauvian about the North Shore feels semi-vulnerable. At this very moment, I know that someone, somewhere, is about to light me up in the comments section as a “brainless cuck,” his insults spiraling upward from there.

That’s fine, since I also know the primitive, restorative purity of Gitche Gumee is just 2.5 hours away. —Jay Boller

Still life in Como Park

“Oh, look at that.”

I glance up. It’s a fellow visitor to the Como Park Conservatory, an older man with feathery white hair and thick glasses. He’s noticed my sketching.

It’s usually older folks or young kids who approach when I’m drawing. Generally speaking, it’s a hobby more appreciated by people with time on their hands.

He asks me if I’m an artist. I say no. My job requires keeping up on all news—everything everyone is ever talking about, and some things they aren’t. It means I spend most days staring at my phone, trying to read the entire internet.

Think of it as trying to drink an ocean. My girlfriend, my therapist, and I all know that if I continue, I will be a broken-down husk before I’m 30—a person who will never truly care about anything ever again. There’s always the worry, the lead brick in my chest, about the crumb I miss.

I do not tell the man at the conservatory any of this. He kindly compliments my work and tells me I should really do something with the sketch when it’s done.

What he doesn’t understand is that I’m not sketching because the picture has value. I’m sketching because the flowers are beautiful, and drawing them forces me to look at them. It forces me to see something that merely is, and not in a way that is consequential or timely or important to anyone who is not in the room.

The world turns, the flowers grow. It is pure, indifferent loveliness.

I have done this before, in front of a Hellenic sculpture of a man beating a centaur to death at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I have done this in the begonia section at Gertens, on a rainy afternoon at Black Sheep Pizza, and in the 90-degree heat of a backyard on a summer day. The benefit is not in the subject itself, or the drawing. It is in the seeing.

I thank the visitor. He bids me goodbye. In an hour or two, I will finish this piece, and I will feel empty—in a good way.

I will feel as though I have finally seen everything that needs to be seen. Then I’ll go home and ask my girlfriend about her day. —Hannah Jones

This spy’s life

As I unwrapped a cherry-red Panasonic tape recorder on my seventh birthday, I knew instantly what it was for: eavesdropping on grown-ups.

Soon, I’d slyly accumulated cassette after cassette of private adult conversation. Even after one tape revealed that I’d be getting a C-3PO model for my eighth birthday—spoiling the surprise and reducing me to disappointed tears—I refused to curb my spying. I needed to hear and know everything—especially everything I wasn’t supposed to. I still do.

That is why I will never unplug until the day some nefarious foreign adversary disables our power grid. Or, you know, when I die, I guess.

Wherever I am, in coffee shops or on buses, I can no more tune out strangers’ conversations than I can will myself to grow three inches. Knowing this, I put off getting a smartphone for as long as I could. I correctly predicted a future of absolute immersion in social media.

Twitter is a compulsive eavesdropper’s dream, as randos willingly divulge their most intimate secrets and most inane opinions. They never stop.

And so my life has become that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer , where a demon wounds Buffy, infecting her with the power to read minds. Her inability to stop overhearing the babble of other people’s thoughts starts to drive her insane.

I welcome that insanity. Like every 21st-century adult, I’ve tried to sanely disengage from technology. This did not make me a person who used his phone less. It just made me a person who felt guilty about not using his phone less.

I’ve endured cycles of binging and purging. I’ve attempted to moderate, and I’ve failed and accepted that failure.

Yes, I realize that my overconsumption is not healthy. But do you realize that no human behavior is healthy? Each of us is an anxiety-generating supercomputer trapped in a decaying meat cage. No matter how many apps we delete, we will find some way to immiserate ourselves.

My childhood Panasonic abuse didn’t kill me. I’ll survive my adult Galaxy J7 abuse too.

Or, you know, I won’t, I guess. —Keith Harris

Friendship at the Bryant-Lake Bowl

Nothing good can come from reading online comment sections. I know this. Yet I almost always wade through them, pretending that I will gain some added insight to the story I’ve just read.

The greater truth: I’m just looking for drama.

I am occasionally the recipient of vitriol:

“Omg no one is being racist you weak crybabies.”

“This lady needs to shut up already.”

“Actually, you don’t know what you are talking about, precious snowflake.”

On days when I’ve had enough, I turn off my laptop and head to Bryant-Lake Bowl. Hanging out at a bar offers the chance to briefly connect with strangers, to catch some passing positivity among people enveloped in the warmth of drinks and the freedom of having nothing to do but enjoy yourself.

Sometimes a friend and I play a game where we guess what’s going on at other tables. We spot a man and woman one seat over. Their laughter is a little nervous, the conversation eager, and they’re holding their beers, not drinking them.

“Blind date? Job interview?” my friend guesses.

The couple doesn’t stay long. But they hug and smile sheepishly before leaving.

A man in a Black Lives Matter shirt offers my friend a dollar in exchange for a cigarette.

“I’d like to give you two cigarettes,” she says, “because I love your shirt.”

He smiles and thanks her. We talk, sharing a genuine moment of kindness before he heads to the bus stop.

Three beers in, a dude sitting alone feels confident enough to put down his book and join our conversation. He’s new to the city, and is having a hard time making friends.

“I recently read that, in a moderate-sized city, you could meet someone at a bar,” he says, “and it would take you months—maybe even years—before you’re likely to run into that person again.”

He’s probably right. But for this small moment, we have made a precious and necessary friend. —Jessica Armbruster

Marvin Gaye defeats the End of Days

The outrage machine at the fractured heart of America makes the bad news dominating headlines so much worse. National tragedies, political debates (is that redundant?), and even joyous celebrations can all be tainted by the venom.

It can convince anyone that the sky is falling, that the End of Days is near, and that all hope is lost.

My antidote is dropping the needle on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which begins to melt those fears away as soon as the pulsating groove of the title track kicks in.

The 1971 masterpiece is an anguished reminder of our long history of racism, inequality, and injustice. Yet there is an undercurrent of hope, that a better way forward is possible if everyone is truly heard, seen, and counted.

What’s Going On still resonates because the issues Gaye raises so eloquently remain tragically unresolved. Through its profound and poignant 35 minutes, the music tunes out the din of the day, recharging spirit and soul.

When I eventually reconnect with the outside world, I rededicate myself to playing a small part in making it a better place. Gaye’s songs give me hope when I need it most, and provide a beacon of light amid the darkness of our time. —Erik Thompson

Photo credits: Lucy Hawthorne; Glen Stubbe; Emily Utne; Emily Utne