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Tuning Out 

In the land of the two-eyed people, the blind man can sometimes be king

  • Jim Campbell Illustration

I own a basic cellphone. Very old. If they still made those huge brick ones, I would probably have one.

I own my phone out of necessity, not entertainment, and I only got it a couple of years ago.

I see my friends clamor and claw for the latest nerd catnip from Apple, but I can’t see the need, I guess. In the hunter-gatherer sense, it’s pointless. It seems like just another distraction.

I know, I know: I am starting to sound like a cranky old man, and I am only 30.

But I lived in Seattle for four years and worked at Microsoft. During that time, it was a culture of greed and gadgets. You were not invited to the party unless you had the new gizmo.

I played the game, big-time. Every sizable paycheck would fund this lust for techno toys. Fuel for my sensory overkill. MP3 player to drown out humanity. A Sidekick to drown out social interaction. DVDs to drown out the silence. Oh yeah, I had it all.

Then I lost my job and moved back home. I started to repel from the culture of “more more more” and found myself striving to strip down and de-clutter. It was the exact same process, only in reverse: less, less, less.

I started to notice it all around me. People choosing to drink the Kool-Aid. Tune out rather than engage.

Last month my wife and I were at Red Robin, and a family of four was sitting at the table next to us. The dad was in zombie mode, tuned in to his iPhone. The only time he diverted his gaze was when the meal arrived. The rest of the time his family just sat there in silence (or as much silence as Red Robin will allow).

The family left, the table was bussed, and then the host sat a single mom with two kids. Mom sits down and — as if on cue — whips out an iPhone and proceeds to do the exact same thing as the guy before. No joke. All in the course of an hour.

It’s all around.

We are offered a sensory buffet these days, and we seem to revel in it. Sometimes I need to take a pill just to turn my brain off and go to sleep.

Dr. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist who researched sensory processing at the University of California in the 1960s and ’70s, found a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory input correctly. So one day a person just finds themselves unable to process what their senses are perceiving. Lights are on, but no one is home.

Two days before being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, a writer and activist from Vermont, described feeling “flooded constantly by other people’s energy, by sounds, visual images, everything.”

She continued: “Everything comes in, but my brain can’t parse it fast enough … I become very disoriented and overloaded. I say too much, or stumble over my words, or simply feel paralyzed and mute.”

That’s a familiar feeling, and I don’t even have Asperger’s.

Of course, it’s easy to cry foul and say that our senses are victimized by a non-stop attack from every angle. But honestly, I find myself thinking back to those days when I dumped every dime into distraction, and I realize that most times I not only welcomed the onslaught, I went looking for it. The body is still just a machine with limits.

But I’m going to make it my New Year’s resolution to try even harder to tune in. Unplug. Catch face time not Facebook. Put down Angry Birds and go feed some real ones. Enjoy the slow things.

Sometimes the blind man is king.

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