By Emma Campbell
Elm Staff Writer
In an episode of the popular NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” Nick Offerman’s character, the compellingly ornery libertarian Ron Swanson, decides he’s had enough human connection. He destroys his cell phone, credit cards, and City Hall car park access keycard. He removes his name plate from his office door, destroys his pediatrician files, and demands the disposal of the photo commemorating his aptitude for food-consumption in JJ’s Diner, his favorite town eatery. Swanson is on the brink of purchasing an RV to live out of when his wife shuts him down, explaining that someone who is depended on by other people cannot live a life of total privacy. The story arc concludes with a charming compromise: Swanson buys an archaic cellular device with contact info to which only his wife and daughters are privy.
Swanson’s actions may have mostly been intended to make us laugh, but the motivations that push him to the brink of living out his own version of Thoreau’s “Walden” are pretty logical. The truth is, we are all victims of a mysterious grid system, where it is unclear whether our lives and daily conveniences are being helped along by humans, or machines.
An example of technological interference is browser cookies, which Swanson discovers while trying to purchase a “hand crafted mahogany wood model of a B-25 Mitchell Panchito aircraft” online. He is horrified when an ad pops up with his name. When asking his millennial assistant for the meaning of this, she replies, “Dude, if you think that’s bad, go to Google Earth and type in your home address.”
Once he’s recovered from his shock, Swanson disposes of his computer in the dumpster.
It is easy to view this storyline as parody, but Swanson’s behavior is not too far off from that of a few real people who, like him, are sick of having their privacy disrespected.
One of these is celebrity chef and acclaimed author Iliana Regan, who lived an illustrious life as the head chef of the restaurant, Elizabeth, which earned a Michelin Star rating six years in a row. Regan recently shook the world of celebrity cooking when she purchased a four-bedroom cabin in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, aiming to make a living renting out three of the four rooms to people in search of an escape from the grid, rather than cooking food for people who wish to remain on it.
Regan’s wife, Anna Hamlin, told a reporter from The New York Times that she is slower to adjust to her new lifestyle.
“I know we’re safer here than when we’re in the city, but I am scared of bears and I’m scared of old white men sometimes,” Hamlin said. “This can be quite isolating.”
The isolation is what makes the lifestyle so appealing to Regan. The former chef says she is relieved to be away from the heightened expectations of her old job, which was filled with pressure from investors, competitors, and especially Yelp, which Regan describes in her memoir as a 10-ton penis constantly “bonking you on the head.”
The thought of living in isolation, without internet, cable, cell phone reception, or even a next-door neighbor to remind you of the existence of living things that are not bears or squirrels, is an unthinkable choice to many of us. But to others, especially those who grapple with anxiety induced by a world seemingly intent on being loud, the allure of a life away from smokestacks and office buildings is hard to resist.
In “Walden,” a memoir focused on man’s relationship with his natural surroundings, Henry David Thoreau makes woodland sound hard to resist. He wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Was Thoreau valid in his findings that humans can only really enjoy life when they are not being handed things? Should we take a page out of Iliana Regan’s book by recognizing that we have the option to reject society if it gets too stressful? Perhaps we ought to follow in the steps of Swanson and smash our technological devices to pulp with the emergency hammer we all keep in our desk drawers?
You do not have to dump your computer or open a Michigan Inn to feel the cathartic effects of escaping the grid. Consider unplugging for a day. Turn off your phone and computer — if your workload permits — and take a hike or lounge on the green. Never underestimate the therapeutic powers of disconnecting.
Listen to Thoreau: “To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”