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The joy of being out of contact

I was in a hurry. My wife and I were leaving for a vacation in Paris the next day. So I didn’t give much thought to the canned email response I left for anyone who tried to reach me during the 11 days we would be gone.

“Out of contact” was what I put in the subject line, and my message was: “I’ll be out of contact until July 8. I’ll get back to you after that.”

As I say, I hadn’t given the wording much thought. I guess I didn’t want to say we’d be on vacation. That seemed like an invitation for a break-in, even though our daughter Sarah would be home holding down the fort.

“Out of contact” just came into my head. In Paris, though, I was continuously reminded how apt it was.

I left my Blackberry at home. So I wasn’t getting any phone calls interrupting whatever moment I was having before Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” in the Louvre, say, or while strolling in the Tuileries Garden.

Most of the time, Cathy and I were together, but, when we weren’t, I didn’t feel the need to call her to tell her what I was doing or seeing or experiencing. Or to find out what she was doing, seeing or experiencing. There was time enough for us to check in when we got back together.

During those first few days, when there’d be a lull in our sight-seeing, I found myself reaching to my shirt pocket to check for emails and then remembering that I didn’t have the Blackberry with me. I got over that.

In fact, I came to realize how much of a pacifier the Blackberry had become.

At home, there was rarely a real need to be checking for emails as much as I was in the habit of doing. It just filled some empty moments — when I could have been, well, thinking or just being.

In Paris, though, I couldn’t, so I didn’t. Instead, I took in my surroundings. I listened to the sounds of birds. I saw the tiny blonde toddler kicking a ball, and the frisky black terrier jumping into and out of a fountain. I overheard an old man on the bench next to me speaking, in French, about “Dixieland” to a middle-aged guy pushing a stroller.

Even back at the hotel, I didn’t check for emails. The “out of contact” message let anyone trying to reach me know that I wasn’t reachable. It gave me permission to play hooky.

Of course, people still sent emails. (There were hundreds waiting for me when we got home).

I knew enough about myself that, if I checked my email account, I’d begin thinking about the many things that would be waiting for me upon my return to Chicago — a story assignment, a dinner invite, questions from this client and that one, a friend seeking help to track down a news story.

I knew that I would take time out from our vacation to respond to some of the missives and would stew during the rest of our time in the City of Light about how I would reply to others upon getting back home.

That’s what I do in Chicago when I check my email. It would be the same in Paris.

Not knowing what was piling up in my account, I lived in a blissful state of suspended animation. (And, truth be told, when I finally looked at my emails at home, there was nothing that couldn’t wait.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Luddite. I like having the multiplicity of communication tools we have today. I like the freedom to call or email or text from just about anywhere, and receive calls, emails and texts.

But it all can be somewhat oppressive. In fact, it appears I’m not alone. On the day before we flew back to Chicago, a new international study was released by Cambridge University researchers, showing that a third of those surveyed in the U.S., U.K., Australia and China felt overwhelmed by communications technology and social media.

Well, for 11 days, I wasn’t among them. For 11 days, it was nice to take a vacation from all that immediacy.

It was a joy to be out of contact.

Patrick T. Reardon

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