Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The End of Absence

The Absence of the End of Absence

In Michael Harris’ well written and researched book, The End of Absence (Penguin, 2014) he explores the startlingly obvious truth that adults today over the age of 30 (roughly) are the last living witnesses to life both before and after the Internet and our current state of connectivity. We are the “straddle generation.”

 Anyone born now or in the last ten years can only know the wired world.  I’m 71, and I‘ve lived more than half of my life without any kind of computer or hand held device.  And, like the rest of us today I’m mired in all that owning a smart phone means. I am one of those 10 million scratching and clawing to be the first to purchase the newest IPhone. It’s a cliché to say that the world has changed in every way. 

Harris lays down a charge to those of us who know both worlds.  “Write about your experiences,” he prompts. We are the last who can so testify.  It’s not about comparing the “old ways with the new ways,” but it is about reflecting on the differences in ordinary lives.  “If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages.  We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.

A central hope in reading his book was to get to the last chapters in which I’d imagined he would give us some tips about how to manage this brave new world which has so little spaciousness or solitude in it.  He conducts an experiment to document his quest: he goes on a 30 day digital blackout, sharing daily notes of his experience during this “no email, no Internet time.”  Curiously (or perhaps predictably) there is hardly a line in this section during the unhooked days when he mentions anything other than his longing or anxiety with the desire to check his email or something.  His diary seems to be all about thoughts of this withdrawal. Oddly there is a total ABSENCE of ABSENCE experienced (or at least recorded in these diary entries.) 

What this points out is we don’t reclaim that spaciousness simply by turning off the gizmos when we allow our tech addiction anxiety to fill up the spaces now available.  What Harris misses illustrating in his month off the grid is what it might feel like to take advantage of the new found time.  What might it be like to dive into our ordinary daily experience (not just those mountain vista moments) and really live the moment.  I think that is what we have lost (if we ever had it) the capacity to engage and appreciate our lives.  Emily in Our Town got it right: “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?”
Harris’ final lines:  “Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job.  Your job is to notice.  First notice the difference.  And then, every time, choose.” (p. 206)  This, while an obvious injunction, is finally his only real advice. 
So, if we can’t bring back solitude or spaciousness as a fact of life, our single modicum of control is our attention.  We can notice how long we’ve been staring at a screen.   “ Then, every time, choose.” 
Then, . . . .every time . . . . choose. 
Then . . .every time. . . choose.
(I’m running out of ways to be emphatic!)
 This advice takes us back to Thoreau and his intention of deliberateness.   “I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.” 

I think there are two issues here.  One is deliberateness.  The other is mindfulness.
Once we have chosen to be in our skins and live the moment we are in currently we still need to discover how to relish the moment., how to live and appreciate the ordinary world we inhabit. 

I am reminded of a story from forty years ago.  I think it speaks to the second point.

The Penn State Walk
My second University teaching job was at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. As an Assistant Professor in Theatre Arts I had a lot on my mind.  I remember one particularly stressful day in the fall of my second year of teaching in 1976.  It was just after a fast lunch in the school cafeteria and I was walking at a rapid clip across the campus, rushing to the Theatre Arts Building for my three o’clock class.  I was in high gear.  My mind was racing with a growing sense of panic.  The inner monologue was something like this: “And when I get to the office I’d better photocopy the class exercise sheets, and then after the Voice class I have to go to rehearsal until 9:00 PM, and then I have to pick up the dry cleaning before it closes, and then I have to drop off the books at the library, and then I have to be sure to remember to call Ellen about tomorrow’s lecture, and then I have to get gas, and then.  .  .”  My mind had become a “demon date book,” barking at me.  As my frustration mounted, I tripped slightly on the path, and suddenly I heard a voice somewhere inside my head, speaking quite calmly and clearly: “Patricia, PATRICIA, did you know that all you have to do right now is walk to the Theatre Arts building?    So, why not just do that?” 
Wow.  YES!  That’s true, I thought.  All I can do right now is walk to the building.  I can’t actually do the photocopying or any of the other tasks I was listing in my litany of “things I had to do.”  All I can do RIGHT NOW is walk.  Why not do that really well?  Just walk to class.
 It was as if I had woken up suddenly.  I slowed down and began looking around at the colorful fall maples lining the path.  What lovely trees! As I walked, I noticed the beauty of the campus; I felt the crisp fall air brush my cheeks, I noticed the other people on the path, all hurrying, too.  All at once I was simply living that walk.  I can still remember everything about the scene and this was forty years ago.   All I was doing at that moment was walking to my office and living the day.
The End of Absence message is a wake up call, not so much to simply putdown our digital toys, but to find a way to learn to cherish the life we have.  Remember Emily’s exclamation.  Can we learn how to live every minute?
Thank you, Michael Harris.  You wrote an important book. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bring back Layaway

 Bring Back Layaway (repost of a 2011 blogpost)

In a New York Times article today the pollsters tell us that the majority of Americans are not thinking realistically. We have become a culture of entitlements.  Everyone wants to keep full benefits for Medicare and Social Security at current levels and the the same everyone doesn't want higher taxes.  We want our cake and eat it too.  Or the article is telling us:  We have a budget deficit because people want everything and they don't want to pay for it.  I think that this view of "have it now and pay for it later" is one of the most insidious aspects of our national debate, if you can call it a debate.  Credit card debt is at an all time high, and the prospect of delaying gratification for something we want seems not to be an option.  I am fond of telling the story of "Lay Away" and its rewards.  Here is an article I wrote.

The coat was red wool with large, tortoise shell button.  The collar could be turned up for both style and to protect against the wind-chill that blew in the winter in Virginia.  I wanted that coat badly, and thought about it almost continually.  I’d seen it first in the window of Lerners, a retail clothing store for women and girls on Broad Street in Richmond.  The prices there were lower than those at Thalhimers or Miller & Rhodes and significantly lower than the coat prices at Montaldos, a swanky women’s salon.  My mother had sometimes modeled at each of these fashion centers in Richmond during the 1950’s and 60’s.  I can’t remember if she owned any clothing from Montaldos.  I don’t think she did, although she always appeared to be elegantly dressed.

Lerners wasn’t the kind of shop that had fashion shows.  But they did have layaway.  Layaway was the working girl’s friend.  Five dollars down and four dollars a week, if you could manage it.  At $35.99 it would take nine weeks to “get the coat out.”    This would  work out perfectly for me to wear the coat to church on Easter Sunday, that is, if I was faithful in making my payments every week.  When you brought the item up to the clerk, she would carefully wrap it in a “layaway package” and attach the paperwork to the package.  “February 10, 1958, Layaway for Patsy Ryan,  2812 Monument Avenue, Apt 3.  Red Wool three quarter coat, number 34771, $5 down. Customer agrees to pay $4 a week until the debt is paid off, at which time, the coat can be picked up by the customer.  If the payments are not made in the agreed upon time frame, interest in the amount of 9% a month will be added to the price of the purchase.”

In the fifties there were no global credit cards.  The wealthy and some of the middle class were beginning to own department store cards.  However, credit for the masses wasn’t even a glimmer in a banker’s eye yet.  This system built character, taught fiscal responsibility (hello, legislators where are you?) and created incentive to save.  Saving is what responsible folks did in those days.  Buying something you had no way of affording was inconceivable.  I grew up with this sensible way of handling the acquisition of “things.”   I would like to suggest that we bring back layaway