Tunes are always involved, … and sometimes poetry

After a week of rain in the Pac Northwest, Sunday (emphasis is appropriately on SUN-day) offered sunshine and brought time for reflection — a sometimes-dangerous proposition.  And in keeping with my long habit of digging up old tunes from the back of my brain that fit (well, … sort of!) with a theme, this title is a variation of the theme of the Young Rascals’ 1967 hit, “Groovin’.”  It put a tune and playfulness to my thoughts as they chased along lines penned by one of America’s “magical” writers, humorist and cartoonist James Thurber, who said,

“All men should strive to learn

Before they die,

What they are running from,

And to,

And why.”

A spicy little slice of life hides in that quote.  A seemingly harmless rhyme, but rife with challenge.  For me, it jumped to the fore as my old cell phone petered out last week and I acquired a new one, — an “upgrade,” of course, called a “smartphone.”  Call me a throw-back to an older generation if you wish, but time has not yet allowed me to scan its three manuals nor have I watched and installed on my computer the CD that came with it to explain the many features.  I probably never will.  The more logical choice for me is to blindly grope my way through some of its primary features until I find what I need to support the bare essentials of my cell phone use — scant by today’s cultural standard.  There’s little time and less motivation for a guy like me to devote to such stuff.  I admire those who have the patience for it, but ADHD kicks in when I approach such tertiary tasks.

Note that I said “bare essentials.” I’ve already learned more than I need about the new phone.  I set it to interface automatically with my email, so now I get two vibrations and a screen notice every time an email arrives on either of my two email addresses — one for business and one for personal use.  Isn’t this great?!  I can make and receive phone calls and access email and the web on the fly, without a computer in hand (not exactly “new” technology); I can check out restaurants, find shopping areas, maps and GPS navigation, highway conditions throughout the area, and take photos on the fly (albeit relatively inferior in quality), etc.   There are many other applications that I can learn – probably right after I learn to speak Russian or Urdu.  Have nothing against them, mind you.  Simply don’t need them, so why clutter my life?

Nothing you can buy

Speaking of ADHD:  Have I gained anything with this new “smartphone” … really?  Yes, convenience.  That deceptive word that often tells us we need something more, something to improve or enrich our lives with new possibilities. But the word that’s missing in the Madison Avenue ad is that there’s a price to pay for this convenience, one that far outstrips the gain — at least, in my economy.  The “convenience” is a two-edged sword.  Anne Lamott, among my favorite contemporary authors, describes the scenario well in a recent Sunset magazine article (http://www.sunset.com/travel/anne-lamott-how-to-find-time-00418000067331/.  She spoke about teaching the art of writing:

I begin with my core belief—and the foundation of almost all wisdom traditions—that there is nothing you can buy, achieve, own, or rent that can fill up that hunger inside for a sense of fulfillment and wonder. But the good news is that creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.

Then I bring up the bad news: You have to make time to do this.

This means you have to grasp that your manic forms of connectivity—cell phone, email, text, Twitter—steal most chances of lasting connection or amazement. That multitasking can argue a wasted life. That a close friendship is worth more than material success.

Anne Lamott, “Time Lost and Found,” Sunset Magazine, April, 2010 (emphasis mine).

“Manic forms of connectivity?” Lamott nailed it.  Like the junior-high bubble-gummers of the ’50s with their transistor radios or the hippies of the ’60s with their beads, love and drugs, we have a burgeoning population that seems totally tuned out to anything else.  As noted by some observers, the present trend has gobbled up much of the 20-somethings through the 50-somethings and is like those earlier versions, — only on mega-doses of super-steroids.  But not much seems to come of their observations and concerns.  Our culture and this torrid love affair with electronic gadgetry — whassup?!  We opt for more and more convenience in our pockets, purses and briefcases.  And we ignore the greater losses that accompany the perceived gains — gains measured in nanoseconds and instant accessibility anywhere on the planet.

Come to think of it, this trend is actually more like open prostitution – or a hit-and-run accident – than a torrid love affair.  “Love affair” over-dignifies the phenomenon.  Our culture’s preoccupation with this connectivity is arguably as much a cultural regression as a development.  Despite the available technology’s touted array of opportunities and upsides, there are downsides that are mostly being overlooked.

Ever found yourself talking with someone when you realize, either through visual contact or the deafening silence on the other end, that s/he is totally unaware of what you just said – or that you just said anything?!  And that it’s likely (or clearly) because of the other’s absolute attention to the cell phone, laptop, or other electronic device that is contributing to their catatonic state of torpor?  Worse, — that the condition’s not likely to change in the next ten minutes?  Or ever?  And even worse, that there’s apparently little or no remorse for the rudeness?

“You know, I was just thinking the other day that maybe we should drive to the beach this weekend.  Whaddya think?  Stanley?  Hello, … hello, … HELL-OOOO!”

“Oh, just a sec, dear.  I’m trying to finish this email from …”

“Can we talk for just a minute?”

“Mmm.”

“Okay, … so when will that be?”

“Mmm.”

♫ ♪ Make the world go away ♫ ♪

I’ve sat in business meetings with leaders and execs who had shorter attention spans than a one-year-old because of preoccupation – no! total absorption, – with the latest vibration or ringing of their cell phone, or even desktop monitor.  Such interruptions included late-breaking scores in ballgames, text messages from their school kid at home, or casual phone calls from an old friend.  And I’m sure most of us have sat in living rooms trying to have meaningful conversation with folks who could not even make eye contact because of their focus on an iPhone or laptop.  How about the robots (zombies?) who walk down the streets under the spell of their hand-held devices?  Are they not mostly oblivious to real or potential friends and what’s happening around them?

Odds are, you’ve been behind those drivers who are everywhere “multitasking” on the phone — entirely clueless to the fact that they are delaying traffic, experiencing (causing?) a much higher rate of vehicle accidents, being no more effective for all their supposed multitasking, and setting a horrible example for the children in the car with them.  It seems that the default switch of these technology uber-users is set to respond, first and foremost, to the electronic signal  — not to the friend, family member or conversant who’s trying to personally interface. And “The Biggest Loser”?  Society in general and the friendships and true connections that might otherwise grow into close relationships, were it not for the constant, irritating interruptions from cyberspace. Ever been tempted to just walk away in mid-sentence?  I have.  I’m not trying to be rude as a response to rudeness, I’m just trying to find a responsive, reciprocal relationship.

Life in an iPhone

Perhaps the penultimate picture of the depth of our cultural addiction to these convenient contraptions (my emphasis, if you please) is a statement I witnessed in a three-way conversation with an employee and another manager where I worked.  The discussion, created by overt interruption of our business meeting by the other manager when he saw the employee walk by, centered on a wonderful new “app” featured on the iPhone and the manager’s desire to show it to the young employee.  This had no business purpose, absolutely nothing to do with our effort to resolve an accounting dilemma for the external auditors who were waiting in another room.  My point:  The young employee, upon watching the demo of the iPhone application, said, “Man, those things are so cooool!  You can almost live in an iPhone, man!”  [No comment on the quality of such a “life” is presently offered. ]  In this casual process, we lost an overt ten minutes of critical time (the other manager’s definition of the meeting at the time of scheduling) plus another three for him to recover his thought process and get back down to brass tacks.  Time is similarly wasted in the workplace every day and in a myriad of ways, not all having to do with electronic gadgets by any means.  But my point is still valid.

Consider the probable number of hours per day, all over the world, that employees in every level of industry and government spend on personal emails, Facebook, Twitter or some other instant-gratification- junkie hookup.  This is all time lost, hampering productivity with distraction, diversion, errors and repetitions of errors, and procrastination.  And then we attempt to make it up by pursuing what we describe as multitasking (which some research shows to be futile self-deception, an impossibility.  See, e.g., http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.htmlSee also “Multitasking works? Not really, Stanford study shows” on same webpage).  For what gain?

For sure, the computer age and electronic gadgetry that currently soak up all available minutes, hours and energy also add productivity and are not solely responsible for the breakdown in relationships, lack of productivity and other social problems and heartache.  I don’t want to overstate my case by implying otherwise and “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”  But they are a sizeable component.  Perhaps adjustments are needed in the interest of sanity and flourishing relationships.

The cost of misspent energy is best illustrated in an ancient story recounted by Anne Lamott in the article cited above:

I often remember the story from India of a beggar who sat outside a temple, begging for just enough every day to keep body and soul alive, until the temple elders convinced him to move across the street and sit under a tree. Years of begging and bare subsistence followed until he died. The temple elders decided to bury him beneath his cherished tree, where, after shoveling away a couple of feet of earth, they found a stash of gold coins that he had unknowingly sat on, all those hand-to-mouth years.

Ibid.

12 Steps?

This story, and Thurber’s quote, resonate within me.  A thorough cost-benefit analysis and questioning about the deepest, truest sense of what’s happening with all these gadgets is overdue.  We have largely forgotten how to talk, eyeball-to-eyeball; to spend the time to invest in another’s life – our spouse’s or child’s or friend’s or needy stranger’s; to sense and participate in the amazing and beautiful things around us, everywhere; to pick up on another’s joy or sorrow, need or expertise, or just chit-chat that brightens the day and lightens the load — or even calls us to thoughtful action.

There’s always lots of things that we can see
We can be anyone we’d like to be
And all those happy people we could meet just . . .
Groovin’ . . . on a Sunday afternoon
Really couldn’t get away too soon

We’ll keep on spending sunny days this way
We’re gonna talk and laugh our time away
I feel it comin’ closer day by day
Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly . . .
Groovin’ . . . on a Sunday afternoon

Do you think it’s time to set our gadgets with a personal message that reminds us to turn them off so that we can look up, smile at a friend, make a new one, or just take a deep breath and sit and think — instead of responding, Pavlov’s-dog-style, to every electronic signal that vibrates in our pocket or purse?  Can we find a balance? Hmmm.  [‘Scuse me, my cell phone’s ringing.]

Carpe diem. Vita brevis.

Michael

©  May, 2010.  All rights reserved by Michael E. Stubblefield

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2 thoughts on “Musin’ On a Sunday Afternoon

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