Dropping Out of the News

How a political junkie gave up his BlackBerry and became the laid-back guy at the local coffee shop


I spent 25 years at Newsweek magazine as an editor and writer before it was devoured by The Daily Beast, and it used to be my job to obsess about the latest political tick tock, to give rapt attention to FOX and MSNBC, and to bore down into the 18th paragraph of the latest Washington Post story unraveling the true meaning of the Iowa caucuses. If I had a nickel for every time I read "It's all about turnout," I'd be a Dollar Menunaire. One of my daughter's first words was "Ito," as in Judge Ito from the O.J. Simpson days. That's because I propped her up in front of the trial every day when she was a toddler so I wouldn't miss a minute. "Your Beauty and the Beast video will have to wait, Princess. The bad man is about to try on some gloves!"

I've attended every political convention since 1996 and seen every acceptance speech live. I got down so deep into the minutiae of the Clinton-Lewinsky saga that clouds started to look like blue dresses and macadamia nuts. When I stood on the floor of the convention hall and listened to Sarah Palin say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick, I thought two things: I am in love with Sarah Palin, and the Republicans are definitely going to win the election. That's how plugged in I was to the pulse of America.

That was then. In April, I took a buyout from Newsweek so I could write a book and sleep a lot. Plus, the magazine was circling the drain, at least in part because we decided to try to be more like The Economist. Surprisingly to no one, that failed miserably. That's because there's only room for one weekly news magazine that people claim to read but don't. We should have kept doing what we had been for nearly 80 years: being the magazine people read but didn't go around bragging about.

Since I left, I haven't seen a single minute of the 258 Republican debates. I didn't even know the New Hampshire primary had happened until I saw the results the next day on a ticker crawling across CNN at a bar. In fact, I'm not even sure which candidates are still alive on the Republican side. Ron Paul! I don't know the positions of any candidates beyond the surface, and I don't care. I really don't. It's so liberating.

And it turns out I'm not alone. There are plenty of other people I've met on the outside who live without cable or BlackBerrys or smart phones, and they don't miss those things.  That's because they are hiking, and chopping wood, and going to church or visiting neighbors. I know there is nothing more tedious than listening to a reformed addict, but it's a revelation not to be hunched over a device all day, thumbs blazing, ignoring the world around me while vacantly awaiting the next tiny development in the incessant parade of mostly pointless political news.

Other people have known that all along. Take my dad, for instance. He keeps up with the world beyond the mountains via radio and the nightly news pulled in by antenna. And that's really all you need. He lives with my mom in the woods of western Virginia where I grew up, without cable or Internet. He can build a cabin with his own two hands -- and he has -- and kill a deer and gut and butcher it and have it in the fridge in under an hour.  He could probably even build the fridge if he put his mind to it.

A while back, I was visiting him and he told me he'd driven his truck to the little Goshen Public Library in Rockbridge County the week before and read some of my old Newsweek columns online. I was flattered and liked the idea of him making a special trip just to see what I'd been writing. He said he'd gotten the librarian to help him look them up on the computer. I said, "Next time you go, just use Google." My dad paused for a second and said, "What's that?"

That was probably the single moment in my life when I loved my father the most, and I wanted to be him, free of all of the technology and the pressure and worries that come with it.

That's not really possible in my current writing career, but I've moved a little bit in his direction since my exit from Newsweek. I've learned there are even other sections of the newspaper beyond political news. And you only have to read the parts of The Washington Post you enjoy, like Nationals baseball coverage and "Ask Carolyn." Is it me, or does she almost always take the side of the woman? I mean, sure Bob's in-laws are rude, but Amy should take a look in the mirror, too, you know what I mean? Now I get my Rick Santorum updates from Dan Savage in the City Paper rather than Politico.

And if I could vote for president today, I'd write in Liam Neeson, even though he wasn't born in this country. Hell, that didn't stop Obama from getting elected. Neeson can kill wolves with sharpened sticks and rescue kidnapped women from sex slave rings, two skills that will come in handy if the country's really going to hell as fast as the Tea Party people say. I don't think Mitt Romney could do either of those things, at least not as well. Maybe my dad could be Neeson's vice-president: Neeson-Tuttle: "We Have Guns and We're Not Afraid to Use Them." And nothing on earth makes you feel better about being 51 than knowing Neeson is 59. (Also, a good meme to start on Reddit would be Liam Neeson with a bloody wolf at his feet and the words: "They're always after me Lucky Charms." Someone should do that.)

Such are the things I think about now that I'm no longer paid to obsess about the news. Or I sit and wonder why, when you're in a coffee shop writing or just hanging out checking email, you never pause to think how dumb it is to ask the person who's been sitting beside you for five minutes to watch your laptop while you go to the bathroom or go outside to have a smoke. As if, you know, you and that person go way back. You made eye contact when he walked in and smiled knowingly at each other when you each had the same Mac product. So there is no way he would steal your $2,000 laptop. Have you ever stopped to think how a guy who looks and smells like Rasputin got that MacBook Air?

Some would say that I am a bad citizen, that instead of sitting around in coffee shops daydreaming I should become more engaged in this groundbreaking presidential race, and that our representative democracy in America was founded on the principles of citizen involvement, and ZZZzzzzzzzz. Wake me when it's over.

No, thanks. Instead of obsessing about brokered conventions or Obama's birth certificate, I've moved on to the life of book author and writing under the rubric "Americana" for TheAtlantic.com. (One of the regulars at my local bar asked me if that was the magazine with the cartoons.) I highly recommend book writing, by the way. It turns out you pretty much get to do whatever you want all day, with a little work thrown in here and there. You should quit your job and write a book, too. Right after mine is published.