Escaping the Screen

There was one purpose for my journey to the Brooklyn Flea Market: to escape my computer screen.

But breaking the grip of a MacBook Pro’s 2-D, 17″ window onto the world takes a lot more than hauling a Web worker’s chair-sculpted ass up and out the door.

That glowing rectangle is not just a thing that can be walked away from. Not when you spend roughly 80 percent of your day in front of it.

At some point — about 3,000 hours in — the window hops off the table and nails itself to the wall of your perception.

What you once saw, you now watch. What you once felt, you now record.

Where there was the flow and music of nature’s complex, sensual software of human interaction, there is now a control panel stopping and going your heart with a click.

Come as you like. Leave when you want. Reboot, replace, copy, paste.

Repeat and you’ll see: Through this window, relationships are Web sites.

Drop by any hour. Refresh and scour for what you want. No costly, messy exchanges of fragile curiosity and glass hopes.

It is seek, find, click, scrape, escape. Risk-free. Cost-free. Scar-free.

Lifeless.

It is superbly ironic that I attempt to alleviate the isolating voyeurism intrinsic to a wired world by using the very device I rail against for conditioning us more and more every day to watch life rather than live it.

But that’s what I did on a sunny Sunday in New York.

It began with a bike ride over the Manhattan Bridge.

The trip across this span always loosens any shackles of worry I may be carrying. It’s the view. As you enter the ramp, the sky frees itself of the concrete needles pinning it to the city. Suddenly, you can see you are part of a planet, not just a city.

Traffic’s screeching dies away. Your ears re-calibrate, hear differently. The rumble of passing trains, like the heel strikes of marching boulders, no longer pummels your ear drums with its violent bouncing off a tunnel’s walls. The sound is free to dissipate, roll into silence like any good song does.

Your breath plays in gasps as you climb. The ascent is a gentle slope, but it’s long and painful. It sends fire to your legs. Places unreasonable demands on your urban dweller’s lungs. My appreciation of it has grown after reading a passage from Seth Godin. That humble hill is a test of my strength and, as Godin describes, a yardstick for progress that no effortless descent can provide.

But I still savor the thrill of moving so quickly that pedaling is useless.

Whoosh — past the walkers who inevitably carry sacks of ankle-biting groceries, past the observation points, over the pneumatic tubes counting the riders — and into a long curve, hugging it with a knee out as if I were atop a motorcycle doing 200.

And back to the street for a short jaunt to the flea market.

It was beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. From where I stood, I could admire the bridge’s sinews and the angry snapping of a U.S. flag atop the sculptural structure:

The market lacked the busyness I expected. Shoppers drifted easily amongst wide lanes between stalls selling jewelry, clothing, antiques, pizza, bicycles, paintings and more. Hurrying, that poison gas inhabiting every nook of Manhattan, had no claim here. The pace was succulent.

There were several ways I could experience this haven. The easiest would be to wander and watch, as the 17″ computer screen, still pinned to my mind, suggested. Maybe I would run my fingers over a trinket. Maybe lean into a painting to make out the details of the brushwork.

I circled once, looking, observing.

I felt the urge to check my e-mail, my RSS feeds, my Web sites. I wanted to shift my attention, to click my concentration elsewhere. Why did I agree to meet my friend? I could be home. Watching, reading, learning, clicking. Nothing in my search engine was here. The links, all irrelevant.

I put the sensation in contemporary terms, but it was the ancient reality of being a stranger in a new place. There are many ways out of this predicament. The computer screen mentality suggested I check the Internet. But that would only provide information, not connection.

Conversations could help. The “Hi, how are you?” one is a good start. But I wanted a little bit more — something more permanent. Something richer.

And I had just the tool to do it: another screen. In this case, my video-recording G1.

Making a little story about these craftspeople would be a perfect excuse to not just know them, but to remember them – and them me. To connect, right?

Through a screen?

This is Daniel. He turns discarded wood into useful objects.

Yoko wants Cameron Diaz to wear her jewelry. It seems the star has already made the discovery…

Taliah has a passion for bicycles.

Carla helps cobblers in Guatemala.

Making these, and writing this, I remembered: A screen is a tool.

It is not a connection, but a means to a creating a connection — the messy type, the one that can come with disappointment and sorrow. The one that costs you irreplaceable, non-copy-and-pasteable time and energy. The one that no search engine can find. The one that is made.

The essential one.

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