Unplugging and truly escaping on a vacation has become more challenging every year. Corporate culture demands 80+ hour work weeks if you want to be seen as successful. It's taking its toll, even on a titan like Elon Musk. Additionally, we have to cope with FOMO, and technological advances that make it so darn easy to sneak a peek at your phone when you think no one is looking (SPOILER ALERT: they are). Additionally, in our polarized climate with news cycles spinning faster and faster, the fear of missing out is taking on greater meaning. Unplugging is risky business. It’s better/easier/safer to stay connected. Just in case. But I was proved wrong this summer. I learned the risk has never been more worth the reward than it is in 2018.
Evading the tentacles of technology used to be an art. Pre-smartphones – Nepal was great for me to avoid internet connections. Thailand was perfect for time zone-shifting. Hours away, work happened while I was asleep, and my replies fell on slumbering ears.
Now, smartphones and satellites mean I can be connected almost anywhere. What was once art is now like spy craft. And it’s not just work I’m trying to escape anymore. Taking a toll on my cognitive sanity is the constant churn of news and the tug of the social media blackhole that has my dopamine receptors begging for more, more, more. Where can a guy go to escape and reset?
How about 2 miles above land and hundreds of miles from the closest land mass? What if that was on the largest ocean liner ever built, crossing the North Atlantic? That opportunity sounded perfect. I immediately signed up for a 7-day voyage and vowed I’d pass on the Wi-Fi, which runs hundreds of dollars for just a few hours. What crisis could possibly be worth that? The awesome team at Ignite 360 has all things work under control, especially with the emergency signal we have in place.
More tantalizing was the thought of what it would be like to live in a world without the anxiety-inducing noise coming out of the Trump family and administration. Would detachment create even more distress? Could being cut off generate even more anxiety. Or, it could provide a moment of tranquility, a return to days gone by. That was the hopeful promise I saw in this voyage on the Queen Mary 2 – a week away from the chaos, i.e., the perfect vacation for 2018.
DAY 1 - EMBARKATION
Sailing west out of Southampton the last week of June, I checked in on the news one last time while I still had time. The end of forced separation of immigrant children from their parents at the southern US border was announced. The government plan to reunite the families, however, was still up in the air. It was a Sunday, so work emails were at a minimum and I had achieved a ‘zero’ for unopened emails. Here we go!
DAY 2 - WITHDRAWAL
I entered a new bubble as we began to cross the Porcupine Abyssal Plain. I deliberately shut myself off from all news. No cell service and no Wi-Fi meant no pesky headlines or Facebook posts slipping through. I ignored the daily US news printout left at our stateroom door. Twice, I eyed the start of the headline and “Trump” was the first or second word. I could feel the rise of ‘Trump stress’ so I immediately threw those away.
Sailing over the Mid-Atlantic Range of undersea mountains separating the North American from European tectonic plates, I moved quickly past news outlets carried on the onboard satellite ranging from BBC, Fox, and CNBC among others. If a true catastrophe struck, I’m sure it would make the rounds. I noticed how I was able to focus on other things, exploring the Queen Mary 2, sipping on an Aperol Spritz (or three) with our friends. Most significantly, I started spending dedicated time working on revisions to the book I’m writing about empathy and my adventures on ethnographies.
DAY 3 - DETOX
My husband and I met some wonderful people on board from around the world. First conversations often included politics and the latest events as we knew them at embarkation. But after we got our feelings and frustrations out, there wasn’t anything left to share on the topic. Starved of fresh “oxygen” in the form of content, all topics related to Trump suffocated. A nightmare for our attention-starved president but a welcome break for me.
Instead, we spent time learning more about each other. We talked about our experiences on board the ship, where we had traveled, our plans when we arrived in New York, the latest book we were reading. It was beginning to feel a lot like that ‘normal’ that now seems like it was from so long ago.
DAY 4 - RELAPSE
“Normal” didn’t last long. Cozied up in the Commodore Club, working away on a chapter revision, I overheard a woman as she looked up from her iPad, announce to her husband that Justice Kennedy was retiring. No!!!! Why did she have to do that? Why didn’t I have my earbuds in? IMPORTANT LESSON: If you want to stay in a bubble, stay in the bubble – wear your earbuds.
My brain started to spin. What does this pending court appointment mean? The tension was tightening the muscles around my shoulder blades, where I usually carry stress. What are all the pundits saying? Working the viewers up into a state of worry, all but guaranteeing they’ll stay through the commercial break to hear what’s next.
I went down into that dark space for about 15 minutes. Yearning to return to the solitude of the present that I was sitting in, I told myself there was nothing I could do about it in that moment and it’d be an issue when we docked and for months after. That did the trick. I let it go.
But more importantly, I did not bring it up in conversation with our new friends. That made me happy. It let me enjoy the evening dancing at the onboard disco.
Day 5 - TRANSFORMATION
Back in my state of temporary ignorance, we had an incredible lunch at the French restaurant on board. It was the day of the masquerade ball. My husband, Charles, and I decided the best costume for us would be drag, reprising characters, “Bobbi and Frances” we had done in the past for one of our shipboard friend’s birthday parties. We retreated to our stateroom and commenced the hours long transformation. Beard shaved, eyebrows covered in theatrical makeup, then applying layers of foundation, contouring, shadow, blush, lipstick, dress, wig and jewelry. Voila!
When we finally entered the room, all our friends were surprised and cheered when they saw our outfits for the night. (Don’t miss my experience searching for the perfect, flattering dress in a post next month – you can sign up below). The other passengers were also “surprised and delighted” but none more than the crew, who told us we were the first passengers to do drag on Queen Mary 2. In fact, I won ‘most glamorous couple’ during the Masquerade Promenade, escorted by one of our new friends.
DAY 6 – BLISS
Our last full day on board, slowly cruising down the Atlantic Seaboard. The sun was shining, everyone was out on decks. Still far enough away from land that we didn’t have devices extending from our hands unless we were taking one more picture. Dolphins, sharks and starfish were spotted in the water. I squeezed in some more writing as well as an hour in the sun. It was the last day without the tentacles pulling us back in.
I was enjoying the freedom from devices. Real conversations that went deeper than the transactional. Meals that didn’t involve a modicum of distracting obsession over how many people liked our most recent food photo. There was no work to stress over. And best of all, no presidential decorum breaches or insults blown up into hand-wringing, frenzied headlines. I believe I had finally reached a state of equilibrium again. Focused on what matters rather than what others want to make matter.
Just beyond the horizon was the US coastline, looming in the distance, visible only on maps. We were all cognizant of what was to come.
DAY 7 – RE-ENTRY
Gliding into New York harbor on a sultry pre-dawn July morning, I’m faced with the reality of having to turn my phone back on. I’m not sure which I dislike more, the gross humidity of East Coast summers or being sucked back into the vortex of headlines and notifications. The chaotic swirl of news, status updates, and chatter builds like a summer storm. For a fleeting week, I was able to escape. Granted, I had to go to extremes to do it, so I’m not sure how well I’d do if I stayed in the lower 48. My trip taught me that there is still life to be enjoyed and a world beyond Donald Trump. The next few years may feel long, but I know with greater certainty that this too shall pass, and we will enjoy a return to ‘normal.’
In the meantime, docked in Red Hook, the Statue of Liberty looks out on the QM2, standing tall and resolute, welcoming us and continuing to hold out promise and hope for the future. I feel renewed and so glad I took the risk of unplugging. My phone may be back on, and I’m knee deep in hundreds of emails, but I’m inspired by my experience. Inspired to re-prioritize my relationship to my device. No more mindless Instagram and Facebook browsing. Keep the news consumption to a basic to remain an informed citizen but skip becoming a policy wonk. And always remember how great it felt to be free on the open ocean. Wish me luck!
3 TIPS FOR UNPLUGGING ON YOUR NEXT VACATION
1 – Airplane Mode is your friend – leave your phone on that setting – you can still use it for photos to upload later. If you need GPS for navigation, turn off all your notifications of any sort. If someone needs to reach you, let them know where you are staying and give them that phone number.
2 – Wear Your Earbuds – if you are in a public space, even in middle of the North Atlantic, you are susceptible to overhearing someone else’s reaction to current events. Unless you have a travel companion with you to constantly talk, keep those earbuds handy and use them!
3 – Take Note – of how it feels, of what you are doing instead of browsing status updates, instead of consuming news. If that feeling of going without is better than the feeling you get of having, it’s time to reconsider your relationship to your devices.
Want to learn more ways to unplug and/or keep your curiosity healthy?