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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

“Honey, We’re Shrinking Our Brains!”

A New Device

A telephone company representative – a very helpful, pleasant young man, and I’m not blaming him one bit – convinced me recently to go for a new plan on my business phone line. Under the new plan, I would receive for ninety-nine cents a “tablet” that would let me do do everything but make phone calls. Hell, why not?

The tablet came, and it was cute. The rep thought it would arrive charged up so I could use it immediately, but such was not the case. The dark screen remained dark that first afternoon. I plugged it in and turned back to my bound and printed books, leaving the device to take on energy enough to be useful.

I won’t go into all the reasons for my disenchantment, because only one is pertinent to my point today: There is no keyboard. Oh, there is a tiny representation of a keyboard, but one cannot type on it. Not the way I learned to type, using all my fingers and whaling away at 120 words a minute. Impossible. Not enough room for hands. One is limited to poking at letters with a forefinger and hitting the wrong “key” as often as the one aimed at.

“This device,” I announced, “is not going to be my new best friend!” At this stage of the game, in fact, I don’t see myself using it at all.

Portability vs. Literacy

“But it’s so portable!” a friend urged in its defense, and I know that people love their small devices. The tablet, smaller than a pad and larger than a phone, fits nicely into a little leather zippered notebook carrier that can also hold all manner of cards and papers. It’s lightweight. Cute. Small.

But it is no use whatsoever for the things I do routinely on my Macbook, such as writing this blog post.

The tiny representation of a keyboard, limiting the user to forefinger poking or the two-thumbs method I see many people employing, discourages complex development of thought or imagery. It is ideally matched with the character limitation of certain kinds of social media, granted -- and we are told those limitations can produce a new kind of “poetic” expression. But how often, really, are word-limited blasts carefully composed and rewritten and distilled into anything memorable? There is more to a haiku, after all, than the prescribed limit of its syllables.

Real writing is real work. James Joyce’s “stream of consciousness” writing was not the author spewing out whatever passed through his own mind. It was his careful, line-by-line, imaginative construction of a created character’s thought process. Huge difference, kids.

The more difficult the mechanical composition process, the shorter the productions. The more instantaneous the forms produced, the greater the temptation to spew. To bypass reflection. To throw a rose or give the finger and move on, eschewing reason.

The debate over attention span continues: Is our attention span shrinking the more we read online, jumping from one screen to another like cats on a series of hot tin roofs? I submit that not only our reading habits but also our writing habits should be examined. Thinking, like sleep, can be shallow or deep. Lightweight devices, I’m thinking, encourage lightweight thought.

And no, not every communication needs to be a philosophical treatise. Of course not! But we don’t want to eliminate deep thought, do we? Make it obsolete?

A Shrinking Population?

When I began writing my first blog, Books in Northport, back in 2007, not everyone in the world was uploading photos and exchanging links on social media twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; instead, most of us who wrote blogs and followed those of other people dedicated a certain portion of each day to these pursuits. We composed our posts thoughtfully, and comments sections encouraged substantive exchange.

It’s different now. People around the world live every waking moment in the virtual world but “don’t have time” to read blogs (especially, I’m guessing, the wordy ones like this). It’s like asking people to leave a cocktail party for a public affairs lecture. Ugh! Where’s the fun?

The online audience in general is not shrinking, but what about the audience for serious discourse? Cat videos are ever popular. Super Bowl commercials are viewed over and over. T-shirt and bumper sticking sayings, ready-made, fly around Facebook. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s fun! Best part is, there’s no take-away, nothing to pack out and carry home.

This probably sounds like hectoring. I sound like a scold, saying other people should be more like me. I know how it sounds, but what I’m really saying is that it’s getting lonely on my virtual island. The cruise ships pass by, and tourists along the rail wave hankies and call out greetings, and that’s all very nice, but I am starving for deeper engagement. I am ready to listen to you, to read your words and reflect on them, and if you are willing to listen to me in turn, read my words, reflect on them, and respond in kind, you are a godsend! “We few, we happy few!” I want to shout on the rare occasion this occurs.

But I exaggerate. After all, I am blessed with a life partner whose active, nimble mind continues to engage with mine and with the world, and we have dear friends of whom the same can be said, whether or not they can navigate my blogging platform easily enough to leave comments. And anyway, I am what I am and have no real desire to become essentially different.

And so I go on, writing these long posts and corking them up in metaphorical bottles to be thrown out onto Lake Michigan. There’s nothing inherently wrong with cocktail parties. Some of us are just better in quieter contexts.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

One Step Back

Let frustration get the upper hand, and you could soon be up to your eyebrows in regret.

It could have been much worse for me this week, however, which goes to show once more that many decisions are better for having been postponed. My last post here on this blog was an expression of frustration – frustration widely shared, apparently, because more than one person suggested, even requested, that I edit that piece down for publication in our county’s weekly newspaper or the daily paper in Traverse City. One request was especially fervent. What to do?

I was reluctant. I’d said what I had to say and was not looking for a wider audience. Would anything be gained?

“At least think about it! And would you call me back and let me know what you’ve decided?”

I spent the remainder of the evening paring down an original thousand words plus to a manageable three hundred. (I recommend this exercise, by the way. For a real wake-up call, edit yourself ruthlessly to a word limit. Can you say it in 800 words? 600? 400? Whole paragraphs reveal themselves as self-indulgent, unnecessary and/or redundant, while sentences purged of clutter emerge taut and clear.)

Finally more or less satisfied with the result, I pulled up an old letter I’d had published in a Traverse City weekly last year for comparison. The subject of the earlier letter was affordable housing, and I’d expressed myself to my satisfaction in 300 words.

But I was struck by the glaring contrast between the two pieces.

My older letter, a response to a previously published opinion article, focused on one particular issue and analyzed problems with the opinion writer’s statements. Our differences had to do with a situation and how to deal with it, and while he was clearly conservative and I obviously liberal on this issue, the disagreement was pragmatic rather than blindly partisan. The tone of my letter was – and not by accident -- reasoned, calm, and dispassionate.

The newer 300 words were entirely different. They contained no analysis and no new facts. The whole thing was nothing but finger-pointing.

Important question: What is the point of writing a letter to an editor or, if you’re the editor, writing an editorial? What is the point of writing an opinion piece? Why wade into those shark-infested waters at all unless you hope to open a few eyes and minds to a new way of seeing shared terrain?

Partisan finger-pointing, even absent name-calling (which I always try to avoid), will never change anyone’s mind. It is not reasoned argument and not presentation of new facts. Those who already agree with you will nod and cheer, while those on the other side turn away in self-righteous anger. Everything, unless made worse, remains as it was.

Many people in our country today do see politics as a war. True believers raise their voices ever louder in a kind of locker room hysteria – finger-jabbing, shouting, name-calling, metaphorically shoving and trampling their opponents. But to join in that fray, on that level, if this is what we oppose, is to become the enemy, to give up principles, to hand over victory.

I’m not saying I don’t still believe what I wrote about party politics at the county, state, and national level. What I’m saying is that saying it did no one any good. Putting my words “out there” temporarily relieved my unhappiness and gave a few others a brief sensation of solidarity. I expressed my frustration. But really, who cares? I gave in to basically useless self-expression. That’s all. Everything remains as it was. Not a single mind was changed or opened to change.

Instead of becoming more and more partisan, what we have to do in our county is to focus calmly on issues. Where facts are distorted, those distortions must be cleared away in a workmanlike manner. Where facts are absent, they must be brought forth. And as much as we talk, we all need to listen, especially where we disagree, because no one’s mind will be opened by being hectored or lectured or treated like an ignorant, willful child. Wouldn’t your blood pressure shoot through the roof if someone treated you like that?

So now, in the aftermath of my online outburst, I want to say that I think all the more highly of those in politics who can remain undistracted by frustration, who do not give in to it but keep their focus instead on the work at hand. You know who you are. Thank you for the work you do!

There is no way toward a civil discourse other than by adhering to civility. The next ten months will be a trying time, but that can be a good thing. Rising to challenges can be good for us all. I know all this. But how easily what we know can be forgotten in the heat of the moment!

Postscript: I was tempted to take down the previous post but am leaving it up, my moment of weakness exposed, as an example to others and reminder to myself of what is not worth doing.