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The virtues of living virtually l Chuck's World


Last updated 10/16/2019 at 12:37pm

For someone whose summers are typically low-key seasons, this past one was an anomaly in the sense that I lost it.

I spent about a month traveling this summer, making several trips, and I’m estimating another month either planning or recovering. I could have used a heads-up on the recovery part, but I had a great time. I’ve spent decades enjoying Northwest summers, and I don’t mind at all skipping an unremarkable one in exchange for glorious adventures, but it was definitely skipped. I didn’t miss it, not really.

What I did miss surprised me. I became comfortable living out of a suitcase, sleeping in unfamiliar beds and driving on the wrong side of the road. I enjoyed being surprised on a regular basis, and realizing that routines and habits could be easily adjusted for the traveling life.

But I missed my computer.

It was funny to discover that I was so old school about technology, although I wasn’t surprised. I worked on my first computer network when I was still a teenager, over 40 years ago. It was a dumb job, data entry that took no skill other than being able to type reasonably well. Just summer employment during my college years, but I’ve never looked back.

I’ve had a personal computer sitting on my desk for three decades, a long time in digital years. With two kids and a spouse who returned to graduate school in her 40s, I’ve easily lost track of the devices that have floated through this household, discarded and upgraded.

And those devices changed, as they do. Phones and tablets easily slide into a pocket or purse, and they certainly added to the pleasure of traveling, but there was satisfaction in sitting back down in front of a couple of monitors with lots of real estate.

It’s a lifestyle thing, and I understand it. Thirty years ago, I ditched job security and became self-employed, and I couldn’t have done it without a computer. This is how my travel-impaired summers came to be, slaving over a hot keyboard, chained to my desk by the economics of freelancing. I had to live in a virtual world, although that didn’t stop me from taking trips.

I eventually discovered online maps, and became aware of satellite imaging. I began taking virtual hops around the world, frame by frame, clicking between countries. I started brushing up on geography, never my strength, wandering the world while sitting in front of a screen.

I headed north, then scooted east across Canada, amazed at how far my fuzzy sense of the planet was off. I was surprised at how big Hudson Bay was, and how quickly Greenland slid onto my monitor, then Iceland and Ireland. I flew that same route on a trip this summer, and looking out the window I remembered my map days, peering at the screen, imagining.

A couple of years ago, I decided to up my geography game. I began with Central and South America, nailing down Belize and Brazil, then moved on to Europe, Africa, and Asia. I had no interest in becoming familiar with each of the more than 190 countries on this planet, but I’ve got a handle on probably 120 of them, enough to know my way around the world.

Exploring a bookshelf in a rented house in Scotland, I came across a book about world history. It’s a subject I also felt a little shaky on, so I eventually borrowed it from the library, all 1200 pages.

And borrowed it again, and once again. It was mostly fascinating but occasionally a slog, and definitely not a subject to be mastered in a couple of sittings. It also made me sleepy, and I’d have weird dreams of Vikings and Vandals, barnstorming across ancient Europe and raising a ruckus.

Any number of my high school teachers could have explained this to me, and probably did, watching their words go in one ear and make a hasty exit on the other side. It’s hard to understand history without knowing the geography, and it was impossible for me to think about the geography of Latvia, for example, without wanting to know more about the place and its history.

This was the surprise. Tying two minor passions together, geography and history, illuminated and enhanced each. It’s the difference between standard and high definition, between 2D and 3D, between watching “Outlander” and walking the Culloden battlefield on a weekday. It’s the difference between awareness and understanding.

It’s the difference between knowing and not knowing, and it’s not just academic. When the Turks invaded northern Syria last week, I had no trouble picturing the border and remembering the history of that region. It didn’t make it less horrifying, just clearer, but I’ll take clarity over the alternative.

It’s the conundrum of living in this era, when information is easy accessible and overwhelming at the same time. I can wallow in the politics of the Middle East as long as I want, or I can watch “Succession” and then head for bed. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a choice.

But it’s still there, whether you’re skimming a couple of paragraphs on Wikipedia or diving deeply, and I’m grateful and a little surprised, after all these years. It’s not just that I learned something; it’s that it was always there, waiting.

It was a summer for the history books, in other words. Small world, indeed.


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