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.


  1. (Girls rock your boys)
    I have so much to say about this incredible entry alas I have time for bullets-
    I was thinking about this today while my 7 year old son was laying on the couch not feeling well...just doing NOTHING is so good for him. Just to sit there and be. The only other time he has this is in the car because for better or worse he gets carsick and can't play on the iPad or watch movies or anything so he has to (gasp) look out the window or play I spy or 20 questions with us.
    What did I do 7 years ago while nursing or rocking a sleeping baby without my smartphone? Read? Write in my journal? Watch jeopardy? I can't remember. Which brings up another scary thought I've had these past 40 days as I've stayed home to bond with my newborn...while nursing we release oxytocin to bond with the baby...if I'm staring at my phone instead of the baby, will I bond with that? As if we need one more way to strengthen our addiction to smart phones or gadgets. And I know most nursing mamas have their phones or iPads within arms reach. Scary.
    That made me so sad about the soccer viewing party Alex had planned. I am an ambassador for a company where we issue social selling to create a marketplace for artisans in developing countries- pulling hem out of poverty, trafficking, etc...I tell my hostesses to over invite because only 20% of the people will show up...and I just assumed this was the case because people are weary of parties where they are expected to purchase something. And I totally get it. But this weekend my friend is hosting a party for me for friends to meet my new baby- i thought for sure everyone on the list would come! She sent out real paper invitations, and didn't get any responses at all. It wasn't until I personally emailed everyone that I got any response (and most of them are no's because of kids' activities which is a whole 'nother thing)...and I fully expect the ones who said yes to cancel last minute via text because that is what usually happens!!! was it you who posted that list about how to foster community? I think I did once of the things that resonated with me was to go to things you are invited to. Ok more later. 😊

  2. First of all - LOVE that you got the Quiet Riot ref!! (lots more very soon...)

  3. It wasn't me who posted that list! I'm so curious to have this discussion Holly...the breakdown of community (great book: Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam) a way I want to advocate for independence...not feeling obligated...making decisions that are best for one's family...simplifying...all qualities that would steer towards potential no-shows at parties, right? But on the other hand the no-shows, the non response..the empty room with bowls of olives and cheese ready to go...unused wine glasses...& the fact that people don't come b/c already booked with kids' activities --- no! Ugh! Just walked in and have to attend to a million things of course (not as many as you - congratulations!) but lots more to say and THANK YOU Holly.

  4. So here was my post about it-
    And #16 says attend home parties when invited

    So many of the things are obvious but imagine a world where people did these things as second nature?

  5. I can totally feel the deflated energy of the party that never happened and the afternoon stretching out "huge and cavernous" (I love that line). I have to say, I'm new to this revision of etiquette that happens once people have kids. We were invited to an Easter egg hunt this year at a friend's home. There were many families, about 27 kids total. I was rushing and slightly freaking out because we were 10 minutes late. Most people arrived on time-ish. But one family came 45 minutes late and held up the entire hunt. Another family arrived over an hour late, mid-hunt. Neither family had texted or called and both were unapologetic upon arrival. This surprised me. No-shows surprise me even more. I understand last-minute cancellations, especially in the case of sickness, but just not showing up? I never realized you could say yes to an invitation and then simply not attend. This really frees up my calendar!

    My brain has felt so overloaded lately with that incessant barrage of digital data. I do so much of it to myself, scrolling through inane social media feeds. I hop from essay to article to news item, skimming, scanning, thinking I'll return to them, which I occasionally do, but mostly it's an endless card deck of browser windows, which is sort of what my brain feels like, except less organized.

    Just reading the words "clearing of the imagination" feels like a deep breath. Yes, I need THAT.

    People in our age bracket (the word "generation" feels too broad), are uniquely located in this space of having experienced the last low-tech childhood. Our college years saw the birth of email and the internet, but they were so new I barely acknowledged their existence. I distinctly remember my friend taking me to the computer lab to introduce me to the internet, where I could supposedly find reference material for a paper. This was before search engines, before anything. It looked like a big mess to me, and my first question was: how do I know which sources are legitimate? And she said, well, you don't exactly. I was so aggravated; I stormed back to the library and its very reliable card catalogue.

    I remember those childhood days of making up our own fun. It involved a lot of imagination and sometimes stretches of boredom. And lots of music. I loved my record collection of 45s. We'd pretend we were a radio station and make up songs and commercial jingles and record ourselves on cassette tapes, play them back, laughing until the tears rolled down our cheeks.

    There's no denying the awesomeness of the tech age, but I do wish we could turn down the volume on distraction. I've got big-time brain fatigue.

  6. Holly -wait, I am thinking back to now and you're right I did post a list at one point. I don't know what it was from unless it was Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone or something related to that. I'll have to go back. Oh God, this is really bad - after I went to your list and posted there and said how great it was, I now see that I had posted from the identical list about building social capital here

    Okay! That is scary...shows how...porous? my mind is lately...

    I'd love to hear more about your company helping artisans build up their businesses, and I suppose these anecdotes side-by-side highlight the insignificance in some way of the "First World Problems" I'm describing. At the same time, I can't believe that about no one answering the paper invites (so classy to send them...what a shame no one has time to open their mail or write back...wonder if the same is true for checking Instagram).

    RE: skin-to-skin bonding with your iphone - first, I think it's amazing and great you are doing the 40 days of healing and resting and enjoying your family, but yes, this is a real concern about those early days. Man, to think so much has changed in just 7 years! It's incredible...most women home with their babies I agree now are nursing with their iphones/laptops in arms reach. At times I would have used an app for nursing if I could have.

    Sarah - You're right to identify (along with Holly) a new etiquette - is it a broader cultural shift or is it some new access you gain when you have kids (showing up late/not at all/no explanation)? I imagine people feel so stressed and find it so difficult to get out of the house with the kids that it feels like a more valid excuse, but it sounds like the folks you mentioned didn't even feel they needed one. The kids are license for increased solipsism, oddly.

    Yes! "My brain has felt so overloaded lately with that incessant barrage of digital data. I do so much of it to myself, scrolling through inane social media feeds. I hop from essay to article to news item, skimming, scanning, thinking I'll return to them, which I occasionally do, but mostly it's an endless card deck of browser windows," Yes yes yes! skimming, scanning, hopping, fleeing along, racing along...ugh ugh's so exhausting. And I guess I am pulling at 2 threads in the above post and not bringing them into any real coherent relationship - one is the overload that we can't control (signing on to email for work purposes & seeing a million awful news stories with a single click; ads running alongside our inbox, etc.) and then there's the part where we are the ones skimming and scanning along deliberately, rushing to tech as a break/escape/distraction...while nursing (b/c we're bored? can't sit anymore with our own thoughts?)...while "working" - & yet I want to be somewhat forgiving, approach the behavior with a recognition about how strong the pull real the addiction.

    I burst out laughing about the card catalogue - and the problem persists - (though it doesn't bother Trump, pointing to "the internet" when asked for sources).

    Long stretches of boredom - which we all now know were necessary for those moments of making up songs, playing them back, collapsing into giggles. Yes -turn down the volume seems to be a sensible approach for now.

    Thank you both, very much.


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