I had met this guy literally eight or ten minutes before, and he was now screaming at me from 30 feet up the trail. Everything was covered in wind-blown snow, and we were just sort of pointing ourselves uphill, keeping our heads down, and trudging on. The wind was gusting to probably 40 miles per hour, blasting us with frigid air and pellets of snow as we struggled toward the Continental Divide. He was yelling, “It lets you know you’re alive, doesn’t it?!?!” with a sort of smile on his face, shoulders hunched against the wind. I couldn’t argue with him. I was cold, tired of walking uphill, not really enjoying the abrasive blasts of snow every few seconds, and definitely not convinced that I needed to go to the summit. But I did not feel dead, or even numb. My brain and body were fully aware that I was Doing Something. I was outside, my heart pumping blood at a faster rate than normal due to the altitude, and the weather was slapping us around. We didn’t get to the summit. That was late 2005, when I had become firmly convinced I lived not for my office job, but for my time in the mountains, where I felt, as my new friend had noted, alive. A few years later, I got my first smartphone, allowing me to do many cool new things, but most notably, it enabled me to obliterate chunks of time staring at it, using my thumb to tap and scroll to see what other people were doing, or saying, or what they were saying about what other people were doing or saying. It was glorious. In 2018, the company that made the smartphone introduced a feature that would show me how much time I spent staring at my smartphone each day, which was, of course, appalling. I told myself I needed to keep up on Social Media Things and Regular Media Things and Important News Of The World for my work, and that my phone was crucial for me to do those things, and to communicate. This made me feel OK, but I kind of knew it wasn’t 100% true. I spend the majority of my work days alternating between a laptop, phone, and tablet, writing, drawing, and answering emails. I really do have a great job, because I get to make things for a living (even if I have to pay for my own health insurance). I consider myself lucky. But at the end of each day, I write down the things I did that day, and some days, I am a bit mystified, asking myself: What did I do all day? I am reminded of the 1991 movie City Slickers, in which Billy Crystal’s character Mitch has a midlife crisis after his 39th birthday. In conversation with his wife, Barbara, Mitch laments that he has a hard time explaining to people what he does all day at his job: “What is my job? I sell advertising on the radio. So basically, I sell air. At least my father was an upholsterer. He made a sofa, a couch you could sit on, something tangible. What can I point to? Where’s my work? I sell air.” The movie is 30-plus years old, and lots of technology has come into our lives since then. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling like Mitch at the end of a week of Zoom meetings, e-mail/Slack, and staring into glowing screens while I create digital somethings. When I shut down everything at the end of the day, my desk often looks exactly the same as it would if I had never clocked in that morning: One day a while back, I was having one of those days. In between meetings and writing and drawing, I checked the news and Twitter a few times. I can’t remember exactly what was going on at that time, just that I got a general feeling that the world was falling apart (again) and that I probably read several thousand words of articles and tweets and hot takes, 98 percent of which I’d forget about over the next few days as I continued my perpetual digital shuffle through the fog of information. Then I took my dog to the hardware store to buy some nails or paint or something, and interacted with three-dimensional people for just a few minutes: It was sort of like I found a life preserver to yank me out of the water I had been swimming in all day: Plenty of days, the subtle gravity of a laptop or a phone or a tablet feels omnipresent, a low hum behind all my thoughts, reminding me of the to-do list things I could be doing, and/or all the social media micro-happenings I might be missing. Those things often feel more urgent than taking time to roll around on the floor with our baby, or chopping vegetables and cooking a meal, or meeting a friend for coffee and actually talking to them in person, or going for a run—the types of things I know should be priorities. Because those tangible, non-digital things are really my life, right? I don’t have an app that tells me how much total time I spent each day talking to my wife, and running on a trail, and feeling the wind on my face, and petting dogs, and in the flow state of measuring and slicing and sauteing and stirring in the hope it will taste good. But I wish I did, because I think I’ve been gradually losing my appreciation for how important those things are, for a while now. I got up at 4:45 a.m. the other day to skin up and ski down our local mountain with my friend Forest. We crept up in the dark, each under our own headlamp bubble. When we got to the top and turned around, I looked at the rime-covered trees and realized I was really cold and should probably hustle down. I opened my pack to grab my mittens, only to realize I had packed one glove and one mitten, both left-handed. I crammed my quickly-going-numb fingers into them anyway. As we turned the first corner on the descent, the sun popped over the low-lying clouds blanketing the valley below, and it really was one of those “OK, that makes the pre-5:00-a.m. alarm clock worth it” sunrises, like the universe is tipping its hat to you. I yelled some ineloquent exclamation like “yeah” to Forest to acknowledge that I was seeing what he was seeing. I might have taken a photo, but my fingers were too numb to pull my phone out of my pocket. It didn’t matter. I could feel everything else.


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