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Wright Words: The 24-hour, technology-free challenge

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

For months I've wanted to write a piece about disconnecting myself from technology for 24 hours.

The hurdle? Actually disconnecting myself from technology for 24 hours.

I’m so dependent on my websites, email, Facebook and cellphone that I’ve doubted whether I could survive. What would I miss? Would I have withdrawals? Would my fingers glide across an imaginary phone and send imaginary texts to imaginary friends?

My wife, the professional optimist, insisted I could do it and last week encouraged me to finally launch my technology-free challenge. The ground rules were simple: For just one day, from noon to noon, I’d have no cellphone, no computer, no television, etc. Though driving the car was a must, I would even keep the radio and iPod off.

I posted the news a few minutes before noon on Facebook and Twitter and sent an email to a handful of my regular contacts informing them I was disappearing into a figurative cave.

I confess: It felt like I was saying goodbye to my two best pals as I closed my laptop and powered down my phone. I left them both on my desk at home and I kept looking over my shoulder as I walked away. I felt like a child looking out the rear window of the family station wagon as it pulls out of the neighborhood bound for a new life.

I watched until my electronic friends faded in the distance and blended into a small dot. I whispered, "I’ll miss you."

My first to-do item was an interview with a reporter from the local newspaper. Normally I would have texted, emailed or called to confirm, but I had to trust she’d be at my office as scheduled. She was, and for an hour, I’d completely forgotten that I’d left my pals on my desk back at home.

At 2 p.m. my wife picked me up for a late lunch. As we waited for our meals at the local Mexican restaurant, I began to wonder what calls or texts I might have been missing. My wife grinned at me from across the booth and said, “Deep breaths, big guy. Deep breaths.”

After lunch I returned to my office to sort piles and organize files. I found a long-lost insurance form, a thank-you note from an elementary school I visited last December and other mail so old it was postmarked “Plymouth Rock.”

I picked a few reader letters from a cardboard box and wrote handwritten replies. Then I walked to the post office and actually looked at the people I passed on the street instead of burying my eyes in a gadget.

At 4:30 I left the office, grabbed a small snack and stopped at the park near our home to make a few notes in my writing journal before heading home. Normally I might have sat at one of the picnic tables and jotted down ideas, but steady rain was falling so I stayed in the car.

It didn’t take long to finish my cold soda and bag of pretzels, and I hopped out of the car to toss the trash in a nearby can. But when I returned to the car, the door was locked. My vehicle has done this only once before — locked me out with the engine running.

Then, as if I were starring in a 1980s John Hughes movie, the rain turned from showers to buckets. Queue the on-screen music, Jason’s walking home in the pouring rain wearing slacks, a button-down and loafers.

It’s only half a mile, but the rain was gushing from the clouds like a broken fire hydrant. I might be tempted to make a Michael Phelps joke, but the water in a lap pool is only 6 feet deep. And don’t forget the currents! I could have hopped on the debris floating past me and flown a pirate flag.

When I arrived home and disembarked in my garage, one of daughters met with a sly smile and a question, “Why didn’t you call?”

After a hot shower and very little sympathy, the family had dinner and played a board game. The kids could have chosen anything they wanted, but they selected a game I haven’t played in so long I didn’t even know we owned it.

It was The Game of Life.

An hour later my 8-year-old made a comeback on his final three turns and won the game. I might describe his traditional victory dance, but it’s really not suitable for print — or viewing.

Before bed that night I actually read a book by someone else. Authors spend so much time writing and editing their own work that we don’t get as much time as we might like escaping into other writers’ worlds.

The next morning my instincts reached for my phone on the nightstand. It’s part of my routine to fire it up, download my email and check my favorite news sites for whatever I might have missed overnight. When I realized the phone wasn’t there, I think I heard my wife cackling from downstairs.

I usually keep my phone on vibrate and all morning long I thought I felt my phone buzzing in my front pocket. It’s like someone set my ringtone to “muscle twitch.”

After breakfast I returned to a project I started more than a year ago. I sifted through a stack of short stories and plays I wrote as a child. I also found journal entries I was assigned to write to my high school English teacher. I’d completely forgotten how often our discussions turned to religion and how we liked to quote scripture back and forth to make our points.

I also found poems I wrote my mother in second grade, several report cards and a note to a teacher in which I promise one day I’ll become a “perfeshinal writer.”

At 11:30 I took the long way to my office and contemplated all I’d seen, done and felt while I was unplugged from 2012 technology. In particular, I’d never realized how often we use our phones while waiting for life to catch up to us. We’re on them at the doctor’s office, while waiting for the flight to board, while standing in line at the store or hovering by the gas pump.

But while we’re trying not to miss anything, aren’t we missing so much more?

At noon I turned on my laptop, powered-up the phone and watched as an avalanche of emails and text messages suddenly found me. I’d missed some excitement here and there, a bit of interesting political news and four emailed offers to help smuggle funds out of Nigeria.

Not much when I consider what I’d gained.

I can’t promise I’ll take the 24-hour, technology-free challenge again anytime soon, but I can promise you it's worth it.

I can also assure my family and friends that I’ll try to do a better job of unplugging my phone more often and plugging into the game of life.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and the upcoming novel, "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or jasonfwright.com

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