Present Opportunities

There’s a sense of responsibility to the warm lump of soft cat in my lap which supersedes all other urges to rise from bed or chair. No contest between this comfort and the obligations of the day, whether work or food or a shrieking kettle. How long will I remain here, trapped by devotion, under covers when there are matters ostensibly more pressing?

Moments only.

The minutes, hours, days are full of moments. She knows this, and in her own way remonstrates when I attempt more than pay her heed. This is why she sits on my book, or rests her paw on my writing hand. Because moments are each their own, and I must choose.

No Phones on the Field

I have been using my iPhone as a stopwatch, and sometimes for background music, during soccer practice for a while now. Not anymore. Last Thursday one of my players brought his phone on to the field as well and it rapidly became a distraction. I’ll be switching to the more analog way of keeping time.

Soccer requires intense concentration for at least two 45-minute periods. These kids already have trouble concentrating for more than 10 seconds on anything. Let’s not make it worse.

Skipping the Skip-nows

My children and I have been indulging in Screen-Free Week. We have read books, played games, and talked together. A week earlier they were binge-watching something or other in separate rooms on separate devices.

Screen-Free Week

Some days I regret being in this field–my life is defined by screens–but it has given me what one friend calls an Advanced Lifestyle. It helps to remember that there were reasons I chose a field where I could work from anywhere. Being a parent was one of them.

More important than being screen-free is spending time connecting with other people and in being, in some small way, the master of your fate. Taste life rather than submit to gavage. You are more than a consumer.

Impulses

ACTION REQUIRED, the e-mail demands, NOW. Give money. Sale! One day only! You might like this video. Sign our petition now or terrible things will happen! How was your test? Sign our petition now to stop terrible things from happening! What kind of furry animal are you? Fill out this spreadsheet with data from another database, then copy data from spreadsheet column A to spreadsheet column ZZ. What’s for dinner? ACTION REQUIRED.

But can you act when all of these demands force themselves upon your attention and you’re twitching this way and that attempting to satisfy every competing request?

We’ve been trained to act on our impulses immediately, and to expect instant gratification: Send an instant message to your daughter at school asking about whatever springs to mind or sharing something interesting; pop off an unread e-mail to your Congressperson objecting to the latest idiocy; watch a movie now in the comfort of your car; order pizza delivered.

Whereas earlier we couldn’t, and had to learn patience; now we can, and the discipline of patience is but a fleeting memory. As is our memory: Can you hold a thought in your head longer than it takes to tweet at someone?

Can you respect your time and another’s?

Can you think before you act?

I shop therefore I am

Shards

If you must
sit inside on a bright and lovely day,
focused--for definitions that mean unfocused--
on the screen of a computer,
not the world around,
then the shards of life caught in its web
offer beautiful solace.

Yesterday, while cleaning the screen, I found brief mention of Neja Tomšič’s Tea for five: Opium Clippers. It’s a transitory artwork, a happening, so I can’t experience it, but I’m struck by what tiny glimpse the Internet has given me of her work.

A Procrastinator’s Love Song

Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.
Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.
If I got up this morn, then I could do them too.
Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.

The first thing to do is to do the thing to do.
Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.
Then the thing to do is to do the thing to do.
Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.

There are things to do that they want me to do.
Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.
I don’t want to do what they want me to do.
Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.

Let’s find things to do that they say not to do.
Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.
Some of the things to do are things to do with you.
Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.

Things to do with you are the things I like to do.
Lots of things to do, there are lots of things to do.
Things for me and you.

(Baby I’ll be with you ’til there’s nothing left to do.)

Certainly Meaning Matters

One of my more annoying habits is to speak in uncertain terms: to use perhaps or probably instead of yes; to use maybe or unlikely instead of no. Everything always seems to be rather than is. I find it less annoying than my urge to cite references, which interferes with the flow of conversation, but my interlocutors probably don’t. I would guess they think they I’m waffling, but this is done more from doubt and an awareness of statistics than indecision or equivocation.

But there are some things of which I am certain.

It’s much more relaxing to watch the UEFA Champions League or the Cincinnati Reds, where I know I have no power to affect the results, than the turmoil in public education or trade wars or shooting wars, where I’m only probably impotent. I can feel the difference: the excitement, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat compared to the anxiety and frustration and hopelessness and despair.

In The Chomsky Reader (1983), Noam Chomsky discusses with James Peck our fascination with sport instead of politics, and speculates that it might have to do with powerlessness:

[T]his concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. … The gas station attendant who wants to use his mind isn’t going to waste his time on international affairs, because that’s useless; he can’t do anything about it anyhow…

Analysis of the effects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti noticed that adverse reactions to psychological stress increased after help arrived. That is, when the population was able to do something to help each other and rebuild, they were fine. When they were told to stand back and let their saviors do all the work, when they couldn’t act in response to the stress, their resilience failed.

The well-known Whitehall Study found death rates were inversely associated with one’s position in the power hierarchy, particularly with regard to one’s lack of control over one’s work: associated, that is, with powerlessness.

How are sports different that they are so casual? I’m not invested in the outcome. Whether the Reds win or lose will not affect me. I’ve not placed any bets on the outcome. It doesn’t matter. I certainly don’t care.

They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Some football fanatics get wrapped up in the result. For them it has meaning. They care enough to kill for it.

Should we expect the same of politics as it subsides into an identitarian team sport? What if this were a monarchy, where I knew my actions had no bearing, where I had no control over death and taxes?

What then? The Serenity Prayer, probably. Why not now?

There is a context where I can act, where I do have control, where my actions do matter: at home.

Let me turn my attention there.

Now

The iPhone crouches at the corner of my chair, well within reach. The iMac sits on the altar in the living room, but I can worship from afar by picking up the iPhone. The god of distractions is generous this way: it does not care what use you have for it, only what use it has for you.

Poetry rests in the little spaces between distractions. It waits in the silence for brief attention, patient, burdock along the trail.


There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money, all of it.

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

— Mary Oliver, “Moments,” Felicity (2016)

All These Many Voices

We, all of us, have something to say. So many of us found a voice writing on the web, broadcasting on YouTube, or talking through a podcast, not to make money or sell something–though some do start with that thought–but because we must.

Year over year, there are more songs, more musicians, more books, more authors, more movies, more actors, both absolutely and as a percentage of the total population.

Are fewer making a living from it? Fewer “capturing the value” of it?

The value is in the sharing. We humans are a talkative species of chattering, gregarious simians.

The Illusion of Perfection

One of my favorite stories of a political figure is of Jimmy Carter, who said, yes, I’ve sinned.

I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.

We know no one is perfect–we certainly aren’t–but we insist on believing others are. Our heroes must be, at all costs. Columbus, for example, who bumped into the New World by an accident of math, couldn’t possibly have been a brutal, ravening slaver. It would not do to admit that the emperor has no clothes or that the king has feet of clay.

After all, he’s just a man. — T. Wynette

Sherry Turkle spends a balanced chapter on the subject in Alone Together, but I’ve since run across a number of snide remarks bemoaning the cultivation of an image of perfection on Instagram or of editing one’s online personality on Facebook, at once more plastic and more permanent. This seems such an ungenerous assessment of how we use those tools, unlike Pinterest which is obviously solely aspirational, engendered perhaps by our American obsession with marketing our personal brand illusion. Why not see these, of necessity cropped, images as snapshot of beauty in the world?

Beauty’s where you find it. — Madonna

At times the entire project of the American Dream seems collapsed to nothing more than envy and covetousness, underlaid by a deep sense of unease. That’s more motivation than one can reasonably extract from the purchase of a large home with a large mortgage and a large garage filled with large cars. It’s exposed more in the frantic scurrying for a place in the Right kindergarten or avoidance of the Wrong school district, anxiety about getting into the Best college or joining the Prominent firm, as each of these choices appears to open or close future opportunity: My children won’t have a perfect life if I eat Frankenberries while I’m pregnant, if I’m not a Tiger Mom, if I am a Tiger Mom. We simply must do the one single right thing, but doubt what it is. The courage of our convictions is lost in the crowd.

There can be only one king of the hill. That’s how superlatives work. There’s only one greatest of all time. But these are terms for comparison within a group: relative positioning, not absolute. The argument over who is the best is absurd without context. Nevertheless, the struggle for position in this tribe of great apes matters. Because shit rolls downhill, one must fight for one of the few limited spots closer to the top of the shit heap. The ape on the top of the heap can’t show weakness.

Sports model society, to a degree. Not all the parents are LaVar Ball, nor do all sporting enterprises target the anxieties of parents, but a number are, and a number do, leading to the impression that one needs to specialize early, that one just has to join the elite academy team at age 8 in order to play in college at 18, if one harbors any dream of playing professionally. Have to be ready when those scouts come looking for the next 13 year-old star. Never mind that puberty happens. One could also move to Argentina and acquire a growth hormone deficiency in hopes of trying out for Barcelona. Not that either method works: Sales doesn’t like statistics that get in the way of money.

What happens to joy? What place has fun?

What if we looked at life, and particularly parenting, as an unfolding practice instead of something we have to perfect on our first attempt? What if we could make mistakes in public? What if we could admit fallibility? What if we could experiment? Does anyone have all the answers? Has no one seen nothing new? Is everything the same day-to-day? Why is it so hard to respect how things are and, at the same time, allow the possibility of improvement? What if curiosity and compassion were stronger than fear?

What if we said yes?

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” [Luke 18:16–17 (ESV)]

Connectivity

Respect for others’ time is difficult when you cannot see them. The telephone interrupts dinner, church, conversations. The burden of ignoring the interruption placed on the recipient no matter how respectful the caller intended to be. Social cues are missing.

The same for e-mail, or instant messaging, or the apps on that phone in our pocket.

The things that connect us disconnect us.

Escapism

I have not been bored since I learned to read. I would read anything and everything; and what with the public libraries and my family’s collection, I didn’t often run out of material. Unless there was a planning failure. If I forgot to stick a book in my pocket. Did you know other houses don’t have as many books? Did you know some have none?

Ours was a household of readers. We didn’t have a television until after I was the fourth grade, and that was a small black-and-white set kept in the spare room. Later, someone in the congregation gave us a cast-off color TV just before we moved back to Virginia. (My own sons are now that age. Time moved so slowly for me then.) I have few childhood memories of television shows; most are of books and places and playing. My grandparents’ houses were defined by smells and their libraries: brick, boxwood, and Classics Illustrated on Mom’s side; apples, bread, mathematics, photographs, and genealogy on Dad’s.

I would sit for hours and read, so deep in concentration that I couldn’t hear the world outside. Reading filled all the gaps in the day: walking down the street, sitting on the toilet, riding in the car, between classes. Still now when I finish a book I immediately look around for something else.

I’ve noticed that I have a habit of doing something similar with other entertainments–grasping for the next movie, the next update, the next web page–until there are too many things all at once, pulling in a multitude of directions, and I feel torn limb from limb. I stay up late restless, unsleeping, unthinking.

What am I not doing?

Patience, Grasshopper

A little attention goes a long way.

I’ve come to believe that a great deal of unnecessary coercion, what one might call excessive use of force, is directly related to impatience; to a misplaced urgency; to the idea that something must be done now, when I command, not later on its own time. We see this in the daily challenges of parenting, those quotidian sins of our life, beating the weaker as that merciless master the clock beats us: yelling at No. 1 Daughter to get in the car so we get to church — or anywhere – on time; shoving No. 2 Son on the bus every day for the first years of schooling; yelling at No. 2 Daughter to clean her room; throwing No. 2 Son in the water at swim lessons; threatening repercussions if the room is not clean, if the teeth are not brushed, if the music is not practiced, if the homework is not done, if the lights are not off. We see this present systemically, in ever earlier compulsory schooling, for example, with the requirement to read on schedule rather than when the child desires. It’s in our language, when we equate listen with obey, or when we force a plant to bloom.

It backfires. The bed goes unmade. They fail out of college. They stop singing. We express puzzlement and alarm at why a large percentage of adults give up reading when they have the option. The blooms fall off so quickly.

No. 1 Son started a fire on the sidewalk yesterday. He was so proud. He tells me he knows the secret to using flint and steel.

His grandfather has taken an interest in No. 1 Son’s scouting. They go to the meetings together. Each week Pop-Pop helps him with one of the rank requirements. Together they’ve come up with a plan to make Eagle Scout. No. 1 Son set the goal. Pop-Pop encourages and guides him along, helping to shape the vague intention into slow, steady, methodical action.

I sat this morning with No. 2 Son. He gets frustrated quickly with his practice, and angry with anything that isn’t immediately easy. After he calms down, he’ll return to the drums and continue, but it takes some time for his inner John McEnroe to pass. Watching this from behind the safety of my pressing tasks is both frustrating — he’s not getting it done! — and easy for me: the burden is all his.

But this morning I sat with him. I was interested in what he was practicing. I tried to play it. He showed me how to do it. I held the sheet music for him. I listened carefully. I followed along. He played without difficulty or complaint. We enjoyed our thirty minutes together. And then caught up with Ash and his Pokémon.

Such a small thing, attention and time.

Chaperone on the Field Trip

Without constant external stimulation, we might have to face the anxious terror of consciousness.

And so the increasingly urgent demand in a first grader’s voice as he asks again and again for the bus driver to turn the radio on. Meanwhile, I too grasp for novelty, though, unlike the child, I have the luxury of carrying the Internet in my pocket.

Andrew Sullivan: In fact, I’d argue, blogs could well be a milestone in the long history of journalism. By empowering individual writers, by reducing the costs of entry into publishing to close to zero, the blog revolution has only begun to transform the media world.

 

To write, the costs of entry are low, as soon as you become literate. To publish, however, the costs were high: ink, paper, and distribution. And so relatively few published. Now, the challenge is not to be published, but to be read.