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Getting Back to Nature, Despite Your Gadgets

I spent the Memorial Day weekend at my parents’ house on Cape Cod with eleven people and twenty-six portable electronic devices. Along with the nine cell phones were six laptops, two blackberries, three digital cameras, an iPhone, two Kindles, a hand-held digital music recorder, and a Nintendo DS.

It was quite an influx of electronics for a house that was distinguished throughout my childhood not only by its great view of the salt marsh but by the fact that it didn’t have a television.

“But what do you do there?” my friends would ask doubtfully when they heard I was happily heading off for a chilly spring weekend to a house without a television (and this was at a time when we had only a handful of channels and cartoons only aired on Saturday mornings).

What did we do? Pretty much what we did this weekend (see, I fooled you, this is not a post about how electronics have infiltrated and ruined a perfectly delightful beach house). This weekend, as in my childhood, we collectively, but not always together: walked on the beach, hiked around the marsh, went fishing, read books (on paper and digitally), hung out with friends, played baseball, gardened, fell asleep in lounge chairs, dodged the waves, played Scrabble, dug giant holes in the sand, jogged, rode bicycles, and, of course, talked a lot and ate too much.

I won’t say that the electronics didn’t make a difference. During a walk to the beach with my sister and her fourteen-year-old son, we wondered why dogs love to roll around in dead stuff (in a single morning, my dog got up close and personal with a dead seagull, a fish carcass and what appeared to be a fox skeleton).

As my sister and I suggested some theories, we came to the top of a hill, which prompted me to turn back to look at the view of the harbor but led my nephew to see if he had better reception for his iPhone. He did, and within seconds he had Googled the prevailing theory on dogs and dead stuff (we had guessed right, they do it to disguise their own scent from their prey).

Was it better to have the World Wide Web join us on our walk? Not really. But it wasn’t worse, either.

Having all this technology on a weekend “getaway” didn’t cramp our style, or prevent us from getting closer to nature and each other. But there was harm, and it was in the way the technology fills spaces. Like any habit, it’s hard not to check email, or surf through your favorite web sites, or play a computer game or send a text message if the technology to do so is close at hand. For children, it’s nearly impossible to get bored enough to aimlessly drift over to a book shelf and pick up a book that looks vaguely interesting and give it a chance. Or to wander outside alone with no idea why or what you’re hoping to discover.

Technology didn’t stand in the way of fun or togetherness, but it did keep the children among us from reading the way my sisters and I used to on our weekends away. It’s hard to say, however, whether those “boring” evenings in the Cape turned us into readers or if we were readers happy to have long stretches of time to lose ourselves in books. Of the four children with us this weekend, two are big readers and two are not. I’m not sure that not having laptops or cell phones handy would change that.

But it might, which is why this weekend reminded me how important it is to unplug ourselves and our children, as well as how much harder it is to do that when even something seemingly practical like a cell phone is loaded with video games, a camera, and Web access.

My parents’ path to having a television in their Cape Cod house was deliberately slow. For nearly twenty years, there was no television. Then there was a tiny black and white television with a dinky antenna and virtually no reception. Then there was a larger, color television with a VCR but no cable in a room you had to go outside and down a flight of steps to get to. Television was there mostly for watching tapes or for when you were desperate enough to watch the Olympics that you’d tolerate the fuzziness.

Finally, about fifteen years ago, ostensibly for the grandchildren, my parents got a larger television set with cable (and now a DVD player), but it’s still in the room you have to venture outside to get to. And that makes a big difference; you watch TV only when you really want to and not just because it’s there. Not surprisingly, hardly anyone watched television this past weekend.

Listening to me give my son a five-minute warning to stop playing Runescape on the computer on a bright, sunny morning this weekend, my father said that if he had children today he would take away the television and computer in June and not give them back until September.

Nice idea. But in his day, it was almost that easy—all he had to do was choose not to have a television. Now we have to turn off the world as our children know it.

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