Sitting by the lake, with nary a keyboard in sight

Even as you read this, I will not be looking at a computer screen. I will be looking at a lake. And thinking about Jews. Not because I anticipate a rousing chorus of Hava Nagila from the campsite across the way. Because of Paul Johnson’s observation in A History of the Jews that “The day of rest is one of the great Jewish contributions to the comfort and joy of mankind.”

We take this weekly rhythm of work and rest so much for granted that it is hard as well as horrible to imagine a life consisting of days of toil in endless dreary procession. You’d feel like you were working on a pyramid. Or for a modern corporation.

My editors, for instance, are much plagued by e-mail, which follows them like angry bees. There is archival evidence that it was once possible to put out a newspapers without instant communication. But woe betide the modern manager not available on Sunday. Even your humble scribe, fortunate enough to get a whole week away from the telephone this week, is also making a real, necessary, and overdue effort to restore a sane balance the rest of the year.

I read Johnson’s book as homework for my Canada-Israel Committee sponsored trip to Israel. And typing notes from it into my computer at about 63 o’clock in the morning in an airplane chair so cramped it would have caused comment in a Roman galley, I started wondering whether modern technology had not rather chained us to the oars as well. Especially as I discussed Sabbath practices with various people I met on the trip.

Among other things, a real, hard-core Jewish Sabbath means no work and no travel. Instead, you sit staring glumly at your family until finally, in desperation, you talk to them. Horrible. Or you sneak off with a book, because the rule against creating anything forbids writing, but not reading.

Detailed, laborious observance of the Sabbath, kosher etc., seems a commendably logical outcome of a deep religious faith in good works. But though I myself am not planning to redeem creation through my deeds, I was struck by how the Sabbath was a gift that keeps on giving. Its requirements seem singularly suited to man’s needs, though anthropologists and rabbis might disagree about why.

Then I asked myself: Might there be something I should avoid one day a week, not because it isn’t important, but because it is so important that, if not fended off with a stick, it will clamp itself around my leg and drag me down?

The answer came immediately. The computer.

So off it goes (normally on Sunday, as I am not remotely Jewish). I find my computer so useful that I spend much of my non-computer life hurrying to finish whatever else I’m currently doing and get back to it. Now I have one day a week where I’m not in this constant state of suppressed panic. I’m not less productive. I’m just less tense. Try it.

There’s an American non-profit organization PC-Turnoff (, founded by a guy appalled that his 14-year-old daughter was instant-messaging until well after midnight. It promoted Aug. 1 to 7 as “PC-Turnoff Week” to “Give your kids the gift of boredom” -- that is, stop overstimulating them and give them time to think and create. And do wholesome things like talking to others face to face (sell it to them as “chinware.”)

It’s excellent advice. But (file under “Jehovah was no fool”) one week a year is at once too much and too little.

It’s too much because it is, nowadays, a major disruption. Indeed, PC-Turnoff founder Joe Acunzo picked that particular week so kids wouldn’t have the excuse of needing the computer for school. But it’s also too little because, whether the kids find such a week an opportunity or an ordeal, it’s only once a year. Weeks off are great if you can get them. But what we really need is a wholesome rhythm in our school or work week.

Try it. You’ll like it.

Restoring something resembling a real Sabbath is just part of a happy battle against the accelerating pace of modern life. There’s a “slow food” movement to enjoy eating and even cooking. And Maclean’s just ran a feature on Carl Honoré, a multitasking journalist whose road to Damascus was the airport in Rome, where he read about classic fairy tales condensed into One-Minute Bedtime Stories. His first thought was “Eureka!”; his second was “Have I gone completely insane?”

He went home and wrote In Praise of Slow whose message, ironically, spread quickly. In fact, he says, people often ask if there’s an audio version for the car because they haven’t got time to read it.

They would have time, if they turned off their computers one day a week. Even if they don’t know a yarmulke from a kippah.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson