On Not Being There

As I took a cell phone and netbook, it is inaccurate to claim I “unplugged” on a recent trip to Chicago. I did however go without newspapers and without thinking about work and the many things left behind, and being outside my routines and therefore in a sense outside my habitual self, I do feel as though I had.

It is a telling metaphor, this unplugging. One employs the word in its broad sense, not only to the electrical circuit but to one’s own body and, specifically, brain. Such today is the comprehensive material burden of connectedness, a word which could once have been rendered only in human terms, but now invokes the clichés of social media. Pulling out the electrical plug seems uncomplicated enough. It is so easy to walk away from connections of the Internet sort that not to do so has become the only thing easier.

I enjoyed being away. Even if one checks in now and again with Back There, no matter. Removed from one’s place and from the usual go-round, one flirts with an alternative self, with the person one might be in another time or in another place. “On holiday” means that one has vacated an identity, or at the least a function: the person who ordinarily answers to that name and title and call shall not be found at the number and address. Instead, one wakes in novel surroundings to circulate among strangers and to eat the upscale food of the Abroad Self. This alternative self needless to say dwells in a higher social and economic class, and so while the trip lasts there is much getting and spending. Nice work, and for a time you can get it.

You may already know Chicago as a city of extraordinary architecture and of apparent boldness and confidence, a place where the greatness of its past is in full evidence. It is a bit unnerving to sit in one of its many posh restaurants, situated in a stunning building, and to realize in this moment that every familiar cultural reference, from the art deco font of the menu to the jazz you are hearing, was inspired by this city. Unnerving, that is to say, when it occurs that very soon you will return to a place where no such inspiration has yielded such a legacy. From this thought it could only follow that the alternative self with which I was flirting was perhaps the better self, that one is a lesser person in a lesser place.

Perhaps. Once the there and away becomes the here, at least some of the charm of a place will have been forgone. Plugged in at Chicago, I suspect I’d soon enough discover myself in the circuit of routine. Even so, it would be a routine with a grand backdrop and among greatness.

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