Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Come on feel the noise
I can't seem to fight the noise today. Jackhammers, literally right now outside the window, but virtual/visual noise, too. That might even be the defining factor for my lack-of-flow state right now. Is there a name for visual noise, a better name? Overstimulation maybe? We all know we're overstimulated. Over-booked. Multi-tasking when we should focus. Letting ourselves be assaulted with info, meaningless, unprocessed data, blinking ads. Sometimes I find it easy enough to block it out and just focus on what I'm reading or writing but sometimes I get tossed around on it all day. I always wonder whether it is greater in NYC, or if even in a quiet cabin in Vermont I'd find a million ways to be distracted. If you really want to focus, you will, right? I used to tell myself this but I believe it less and less. That is, I don't feel we can fully discount the "overwhelm" of our circumstance when thinking about our (in)ability to stay focused. [I find "overwhelm" as a noun incredibly irritating, but I can't think of what would better replace it.] I do think it really was easier pre-internet, even just pre-cable when you had to dial up to get online and you quickly got off so you wouldn't tie up the phone.
Election cycles mean even greater temptation to fall down internet rabbit holes. If I'm anxious about something (maybe a more useful metric would be "If I'm not anxious about something" as that is surely the more limited set of data)...I give into the noise more readily, hopeful for the latest Trump/Cruz embarrassment that will distract me, give me that momentary high of feeling like we're not definitely hurling ourselves toward large-scale, unmitigated disaster. [That's a low bar, but with the current state of the climate, here's NASA's page, sadly I don't think it's far-fetched at all.]
Today I can tell I'm too awash in the noise to write clearly. I can feel it before I write, so I tend to avoid writing, even though maybe those are the times I need to most urgently. Those are the times I need to find Adrienne Rich's "clearing of the imagination" (she draws on John Haines' description here of the critic's role as opposed to that of the poet). Sometimes a blog post helps me find a clearing of the imagination. Sometimes I just get even more lost in the thorns.
I belong to a generation that grew up still writing letters, still sharing one house phone. You had to deal with people's parents and siblings when you called. You had to face the disappointment of a busy signal or the line that kept ringing. To our parents, even the level of technological engagement that made long-distance calls routine (if still somewhat curtailed because of the costs) and long calls to local friends a daily habit, even that must have seemed extravagantly connected. Since the 16th-century at least, each generation, as Raymond Williams rightly notes in The Country and the City, looked back at a "simpler time" (real or imagined). Raymond alerts us to the fact that an idealized longing for of a past "simpler" time has been employed to dangerous ends. And it certainly continues to wield enormous power today. So it is on the one hand dangerous to look back with nostalgia. My Fox News relatives do it with an outrageous lack of awareness. Still I want to find a way to discuss the dramatic, sweeping changes in my lifetime that will be productive. It fascinates me, to have grown up with TV and the phone, and even a computer in high school, yes, but still (by today's standards certainly) limited interaction with technology, to what happened just after college, in the late 90s, to where we are today (average 11-hours / day on gadgets says Nielson).
One thing I've been thinking a lot about lately is how even when you separate yourself, turn off the computer, say, take a notebook and a pen and sit in a cafe or in a basement, windowless library, there is not the same sense of aloneness anymore. It's not a reasonable way to work, really, for more than a few hours maybe once or twice a week. Most of our work is deployed and managed through email; many of us rely on social media for promotion of various kinds. We have to be answerable, reachable, in our personal and private lives. I remember once when Wally's school nurse called me frustrated that she'd been trying to reach me for 45 minutes. It was outrageous that I hadn't answered my phone in that time. With young children, you're on call whether they are with you are not. I suspect many people feel the same pressures to be reachable, to their partners, parents, friends. Our system does not accommodate even brief sojourns off the grid. Yes, those of us privileged enough to take real vacations can defiantly define ourselves in email automatic messages as "off the grid"--but even then I suspect most of us are easily reachable and simply more discerning about what messages we choose to acknowledge.
I guess for shorthand we could say "mental space" - there is not the same mental space to which we once had access. Sometimes I try to sink back into that feeling of afternoons when I was in high school home by myself - where was my mom? Dara was probably at dance. I would sit at the dining room table with my homework spread in front of me, eat popcorn and girl scout cookies, stare out the window. I talked on the phone a lot. I ran back and forth to the piano and wrote fragments of songs. Otherwise I played CD's (REM, U2, or Miss Saigon) or the radio. But there was nothing tugging me. No disquiet about a million conversations going on without me. And a lot of times the friends I wanted to talk to might not have been home or else someone else was on their phone. I was forced to be with myself. We're almost never forced to keep our own company anymore. And when that company is anxious or sad or in some other way aversive, we're all the more willing to open ourselves up to the anesthesia of noise.
On Saturday Alex had arranged with a few neighbor families to come over at 2 to watch soccer. He talked it up too much with the kids into a kind of party. He made snacks and set them up in the livingroom, opened bottles of wine and put beer in the fridge. The kids cleaned their room and chatted happily about all the friends coming over to play. I was to head out to the library, but one thing or another kept getting in my way. One more chore I could get out of the way, one more item I could bring to drop off somewhere. At around 2 Alex was surprised no one was there yet. He sent out a reminder text. No answer. Fifteen minutes later, a slight disquiet - where was everyone? At 2:30, one family wrote saying they were sorry but not feeling well. Petra fell asleep on the couch next to Alex in front of the game. There was that moment when you just kind of turn from -- lots of people are late, but it's still going to be a big, fun, wild, messy afternoon -- to the awareness, the weirdness of it at first, met with resistance, and then finally the acceptance that not one single person is coming. Wally's sad face, and then Alex telling Wally, "You can do the ipad," with the sense almost that it was "only fair" that he be allowed to, given the disappointment. It wasn't a huge thing, not like no one coming to a birthday party or something, but still, I could remember that kind of feeling as a child, looking forward for hours and then someone gets sick and how suddenly the afternoon feels huge and cavernous. But I did not want Wally to jump to the ipad. I wanted him to, as the Buddhist-lites might say "sit with" the sadness, the disappointment. He begged, argued, he bargained, but I told him to take out a notebook or a game or to just stare out the window and later play Plants and Zombies on the ipad, but not right then, not at that moment.
I have to remind myself the same thing. Not to turn to the needle of technology like a junkie who needs an escape.
At the time I wished Wally had written something--anything--in his journal. Instead he started drawing dragon cards based on an ipad game I think. Another kind of message, transferred through another kind of medium. Why did I judge his method of expression? Deem it less worthy than my preferred (writing of some kind, including music). Drawing mythical creatures, he couldn't run from knowing what it felt like to be alone and quiet on a day he'd hoped for lots of loud happy children, for screaming and laughing, running and jumping on the bed and dumping wooden trains and tracks our of their boxes onto the wooden floor.
Instead he got to feel the quiet, clear space for the imagination.