Turn on, tune in ... disconnect
PORTLAND, ORE. — I need to find a culture coach, someone who will be my personal trainer for the information age. Instead of forcing me to run laps and do push ups, this individual would hang out with me for several hours each day and make sure I'm briefed on hot topics, trends, names in the news, and all major events and ideas sweeping across the national landscape.
Keeping myself up to speed on everything that's "happening" these days is almost impossible. Modern America is like a bullet train, and I seem to be watching from a parallel track, frantically pumping a little handcar as the big shiny engine pulls farther and farther ahead.
Evidence that I'm drifting out of mainstream society mounts daily. The latest example is a controversy swirling around author James Frey. His memoir entitled "A Million Little Pieces" recounts a checkered past marked by drug use and brushes with the law. But now The Smoking Gun - a website that ferrets out information using legal documents - has accused Mr. Frey of embellishing and even fabricating parts of his story.
Until this dispute erupted, I had never heard of Frey or his book. This is on a par with not noticing that a stranger has moved into your house and set up a tent in the spare bedroom. "A Million Little Pieces" sold about 2 million copies in this country last year. I can't believe I didn't see it in a bookstore window, or trip over a discarded copy lying on the sidewalk.
The numbers in this equation aren't in my favor. Two eyes and two ears can't cope with a media marketplace that's constantly expanding. Howard Stern has moved to Sirius satellite radio, but I don't know what he's saying because I don't subscribe, which means I'm also missing out on dozens of audio channels that would expand my awareness of artists in a wide range of musical genres.
In fact, the recording business slipped off my cracker long ago. If you say "Shakira," all I can tell you is she's a singer from South America. I've never heard her voice. Ditto for Beyoncé, 50 Cent, and a cavalcade of other high-profile performers whose songs reverberate around the airwaves.
Being asleep by 11:30 p.m. means I missed the recent dust-up on "The Late Show with David Letterman" when Dave and Bill O'Reilly did some verbal sparring. Such blunders make me a prime target for the consumer electronics industry, which just unveiled a new array of hardware and software at its Las Vegas show. Digital lifestyle is what they're offering, one that hooks up all your gadgets to the Internet and each other. "Every device connected and always on," is how one analyst explained the concept.
This is where a cultural coach would help me, by keeping track of TV, movies, music, politics, blogs, news, technology, and everything in between, every day. I'm not a Luddite or a whiner, but the indisputable fact is that some of my personal habits will never be compatible with an "always on" society. There are times when I need to disconnect from the world. In my house, the "off" switches will never become obsolete.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.