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STEVE LOPEZ

The rigors of life unplugged

May 06, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

Cesar Rodriguez knew he was addicted to electronic devices. But the Los Angeles 10th-grader had no idea just how sick he was.

"I can't stand it," he wrote in his journal on the second day of a one-week attempt to survive without television, iPods, cellphones, BlackBerrys and computers. "I woke up last night but I was still kind of asleep and I was having a dream about my phone and I started to bang my head against the pillow. I AM GOING CRAZY!!!"

On Tuesday, which happened to be day seven of the great experiment, I visited the still-shaky Rodriguez and the rest of Shannon Meyer's unplugged homeroom students at their downtown charter, the California Academy for Liberal Studies Early College High School.

Detox hasn't been easy for these BlackBerry babies. They were born into a digital world of wireless links, with headphones where their ears should have been. Meyer, trying to teach them something about true connectedness and solitary reflection, asked them to go cold turkey and take notes. With pen and paper.

Midway through the experiment, Meyer -- who is of the radical opinion that students and others should spend less time with electronic gadgets and more time reading old-fashioned newspapers -- had e-mailed me a progress report.

"We are all going crazy," she said. It seemed to me a little unsporting that she was e-mailing me despite having joined in the media fast herself, but she explained that she was making an exception only to answer work-related e-mails. As to the upside: "I think some of the kids have discovered they have younger brothers and sisters," she wrote.

Andres Lopez told me he'd been so bored he went to a barber and had his shaggy locks shorn, "Just to fill the void."

Jose Alvarez said he had tried Pilates and something even more exotic: "I cleaned my room."

Mario Canaba was turned so upside down, he actually played with some of his mother's day-care kids, but described the experience in a single word: "Painful."

Angie Gaytan lost track of the days and had a strange episode of disorientation in which she found herself staring at a piece of chicken

"I felt weird and out of order," Valerie Lira wrote in describing the experience of waking up and not turning on the television.

Rodriguez, confessing the media fast was "the hardest thing I have ever had to do," drank a lot of water, like a man trying to make it across a desert. At his lowest point, trying desperately to kill time, he accidentally broke a lamp.

"I was playing soccer in my living room," he said.

Nine of the 22 students raised a hand when I asked for confessions from those who had cracked at least once. Of those nine, most transgressions were not premeditated. Some reached without thinking for iPhones, or they checked text messages -- especially early in the week -- like worms that keep wiggling after being separated from their heads.

Jesus Alonzo was entirely up-front about the moment he broke. He was at a cousin's house, he said, when the championship boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton flashed onto the TV screen.

"Then I cracked," Alonzo wrote in his journal. "I had to watch the fight. It was a short fight, though."

Kim Figueroa's surrender wasn't pretty either.

"I was left alone," she said of the predicament she found herself in at home, no relatives around, deafening silence, the walls closing in.

Without a trace of guilt, she reached for the remote and clicked on the TV. And once she was under the spell of that pulsing blue haze, she couldn't turn back.

So what did Figueroa learn about herself?

"I have almost no self-control," she said unapologetically.

Centuries from now, however, anthropologists will look back on this experiment in human suffering and note some significant breakthroughs.

Daniel Romero read a book for the first time this year.

Lopez actually communicated with an uncle during a rare conversation about swine flu, politics and history.

Jenny Corona connected with her autistic brother, and, to her utter amazement, read an entire Harry Potter book in four days.

Without her headphones blocking out the real world, Flor Salvador heard strange chirping sounds.

"I didn't know we had birds!" she wrote in her journal.

Meyer, who might have had ulterior motives all along, said she found that the quality of her students' homework vastly improved. No one suffered any illusions about what would happen when the deadline passed at midnight Tuesday.

Some of the students planned to stay up to listen to music, watch TV or text their friends.

But others said that without constant stimulation, they felt as though they were more in touch with themselves and the world around them, and Lopez said he intended to voluntarily do a one-day media fast each week.

When I visited class a week earlier, Jamila Mohedano thought she'd be the first to crack.

Like several classmates, she said her family's meals were eaten around a television, and she'd have to lock herself in a room to avoid temptation.

So how'd she do?

There were some "anxious and nervous" moments at first, but the rest of the household agreed to at least turn the television sound off at dinner, and Mohedano gradually gave in to a slower rhythm.

"Reading in absolute silence is pleasant," she wrote in a 10 p.m. journal entry. "I can hear the crickets outside and the wind blow."

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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