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Sometimes a Cigar Is (Should Be) Just a Cigar

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.” (Henry David Thoreau)

 

I’m about to say something so heretical, I can already hear the gasps of disbelief and nervous laughter all the way from the West Coast:

I miss my old flip phone.

That’s right. I miss my Verizon Samsung flip phone with its archaic texting set-up (no separate keyboard) and its crap camera that was really only good for taking close-ups of your jean-clad arse if you left the phone in your back pocket when you sat down. This last is more of a guy thing. Somewhere, I feel certain, there are men with online photo albums composed entirely of their denim-covered derrières.

Before you do an eye roll and dismiss my flip-phone fetish as “one of those old people things,” I would like to direct your attention to a story on Time.com about millennials who still use and prefer flip phones. According to a survey cited in the article, 13% of 25-34 year olds like their flip phones, and—this will really blow your mind—an even greater number (15%) of 18-24 year olds are flip-phone users.

Does this mean the phone-that-is-just-a-phone is poised to make a comeback? Can it be that people are searching for something more meaningful to do with their lives than snapping selfies? If only.

Okay, confession: The Time story is from 2014, but that’s not so ancient. Everyone reading this post was already alive in that year. In a different sense, though, 2014 does seem like another lifetime, an existence I dimly recall when people still went out to the movies and someone sensible was at the helm of the government. Sigh.

But Ame, I hear you saying, why do you yearn for that crappy little flip phone? Don’t you love that you can drain your bank account in an afternoon of frenzied shopping simply by tapping your sexy new Smartphone on that little white cube? Hasn’t it qualitatively enriched your existence now that you have a keyboard that anticipates—rightly or wrongly—every next word you wish to text? That you have a world of .gifs at your fingertips? Or apps like Android’s Flush Toilet Finder, and Is It Dark Outside which, I kid you not, tells you whether … it’s dark outside.

Okay, I know smartphones make it easy to bank online from anywhere, check the weather in Dubai, or pinpoint a leaky window.  And yet … I long for a phone that does only one thing: Be a phone. And here is why.

Multitasking is the fast track to insanity.     

Psychologists have pretty well debunked the efficacy of that 1980s’ Type-A wet dream, multitasking. Turns out that though you may be able to do two things at once, say, walk and chew gum, you cannot concentrate on two things at the same time. 

Even those who haven’t entirely forsaken multitasking acknowledge that it’s both a time and energy drain. It takes us about 15 minutes to mentally switch tasks, and there’s a certain amount of cerebral friction that comes from dealing with multiple distractions. The day flies by without much to show for it. To boot, your brain may become addicted to this state of distraction. Bye-bye focus.

My old flip phone never invited me to watch an episode of Stranger Things while tweeting to friends and playing Super Mario Run. It was just there when I needed to tell someone my car had broken down at a major intersection during rush hour.

I am not a Finger Monkey. 

Critic Anne Billson, recently declared: “People who watch movies on phones (especially if they think they can leave valid critical comments on imdb) should be shot.”

While I do find this a tad harsh, it should be noted that Anne made her comment on Twitter, a medium known for encouraging impassioned, if not always well-considered, reactions. But beneath the emo, she makes a good point: No one is going to watch Magnolia or Schindler’s List—both clocking in at 3+ hours—on a screen measuring 2¼ x 4 ¼ inches, a size suited to Finger Monkeys and  Pygmy Rabbits, but not people.

Nor are readers likely to scroll through War and Peace (1,296 pp.) or Infinite Jest (1,079 pp.). I could barely get through the Wiki article on kangaroos I used as a test case for the “ease” of reading on a Smartphone.

Reading is made for curling up in a large, comfy chair, or nestling among piles of pillows, snug beneath the blankets in bed. It’s about the feel of paper beneath your fingers as you turn the pages, and reveling in a wealth of words you don’t have to squint to decipher.

Brevity may be the soul of wit but it’s murdering journalism.

“Old person! Old person!” I hear you shouting.

Not so fast. While it’s true I won’t see 20 again in this lifetime, a wealth of decades provides (along with wrinkles) a useful yardstick to measure change. I used to freelance as a magazine writer, and I watched the average length of articles shrink from pages to paragraphs to 500-word blurbs as increasing numbers of publications went online. It became impossible to make a decent living writing pay-per-word. I continue to subscribe to The Atlantic because it still publishes articles worthy of the name, with stuff like well-researched content and in-depth analysis.   

In a Slate.com article, Jack Shafer cites a revealing study which found that people who get their news from print sources “remember significantly more news stories than online news readers.” Print readers also recall significantly more topics and remember more main points. Only when it comes to recalling headlines does the online crowd match print readers.

Shafer, who cancelled his own print subscription to the New York Times, lured by the sexy design of the online version, was back to home delivery within a year. “What I really found myself missing was the news,” he explains. “Even though I spent ample time clicking through the Times website… I quickly determined that I wasn’t recalling as much of the newspaper as I should be. Going electronic had punished my powers of retention.”

A paragraph here, a page there—what is this thing I’m reading?

A reviewer on Goodreads lamented that more and more books are making less and less sense. Half-baked plots. Twists that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Cardboard characters with incomprehensible motivations. She wondered how so many of these spotty reads were selling.

I wonder how many readers even notice.

I think “gaps” in a novel’s plot, structure, and characters reveal themselves readily when we read a printed book, but maybe not so much when we’re scrolling through a page or two while waiting on the subway platform, then scanning another half dozen paragraphs while standing in the checkout line at CVS. With the noise and movement of the world all around, who’s to really remember if Mrs. McGillicuddy was at the manor on the night of Lord Dudley’s murder, or if her name is actually Ms. McQuade and she dresses as Lord Dudley on her nights off from the massage parlor? Details—and sometimes entire plotlines—are easily lost in the flitter flutter of smartphone reading on the run.

I want a life apart from my phone.

In a 2014 Pew Research poll, 46% of smartphone owners reported “they couldn’t live without” their phone. Among millennials, 87% said their smartphones never leave their side.

Well, I can, and do, live without my phone much of the day, often leaving it in the jumble of notes and manuscripts on my desk, ignoring it until it rings.

I know it seems like the ultimate definition of personal freedom to head out into the world each day with nothing more than the clothes on your back and a phone that offers every app modern life requires, but I don’t want to reach for my smartphone each morning (as one user reported) to shut off the alarm and find myself automatically scrolling through my Twitter timeline.

In an age where nearly 40% of people under 35 interact more with their smartphones than they do with friends, family, or co-workers, I still enjoy going for a beer with friends or having dinner out with my husband—and talking to each other, nary a smartphone in sight.

I also like to take a walk or go for a bike ride without wires coming out of my head, my texting fingers idle by my side.

I like a thing to be just what it is.

Irony of ironies, a UK survey reports that making phone calls is not among the Top 10 uses we make of our smartphones. We are more likely to check email, trawl Facebook, shop online, watch YouTube videos, even check the weather than phone someone.

“I honestly can’t remember the last time I used my phone to call someone,” one user admitted. “I get incoming calls, but I usually just ignore them.”

As someone who has worked phone banks for political campaigns, I can attest to the truth of this statement. Almost no one picks up.

I like a thing to be what it is. Just that. I don’t want a stove that doubles as a dishwasher, or a microwave that also serves as a TV and hair dryer.

When I go to the gym, I take my iPod, not my phone. That’s because my iPod contains my workout  music. That’s all it does—play music—and I don’t want a perfectly good gym tune like “Build Me up Buttercup” to be interrupted by a text, or a notification that I’ve got 200 new messages in my Inbox. I go to the gym to get away from that.

On road trips (where I do carry a phone in case of breakdown), I use my portable Garmin GPS that sits on the dashboard. It does one thing: provides directions. Why do I prefer this geriatric invention to the Google Maps app? In a complex situation, like driving into New York City, I like to see the entire grid of streets and on-off ramps without having to take my eyes from the road or juggle my phone between my knees. Do I have to navigate five lanes or three? Will I need to bear left on the off ramp? That’s the beauty of something with only one purpose: All its components are geared toward doing that one thing well.

In a world of 2.2 million apps, where the number of smartphone users is expected to top 5 billion in 2019, I am certainly Don Quixote here, tilting at windmills. But there are worse characters to be, and I still think nothing is lovelier than a summer day on my deck, a warm breeze riffling the pages of the book I’m reading, a gin-and-tonic at my elbow. And if you should stop by, I’ll snap a photo of you. With my Nikon camera. That’s all it does—take pictures. I love it.

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Keep Walking

The only journey is the one within.  (Rainer Maria Rilke)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll state upfront that I have often—half jokingly, half seriously—referred to life as a minefield. Running, running down the days, the years, in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. All the while, one eye out for those pesky tripwires, ducking, dodging the myriad hazards until I land on the one that blows me sky high, game over. An event, hopefully, far off in the misty future.

This is not as dark a characterization as it may sound. I would describe myself as a happy person. I have a major sense of whimsy. Love to laugh, love to joke. The minefield thing is more of a heads-up approach to the great unknown that greets us each morning. And the near-miss can be quite exhilarating, just as I imagine it is on a real battlefield.  Ha-ha, dodged that one! There’s a sense of inner strength. The ability to endure.

But what happens when we encounter one landmine after another—family illness, natural disasters, a precipitous drop in circumstances, a nutso president and his arsenal of threats? The constant state of high alert wears us out. When will there be good news? Can we make it to a place where we can draw a free breath?

Wisdom Through the Ages

As any trawl through Twitter will attest, most of us seem to have a need for guideposts. A map through the minefield, or at least a large supply of encouraging words.

Sometimes this encouragement wears a stiff upper lip:

F.E.A.R. has two meanings:

Forget Everything And Run

OR

Face Everything And Rise

The choice is yours.

(Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Sometimes, it appears as a balm to a wounded heart:

One small crack doesn’t mean that you are broken;

it means that you were put to the test and you didn’t fall apart. (Linda Poindexter)

Thomas Jefferson, in his famous “10 Rules of Life” suggested (Rule #9) that we Take things always by their smooth handle,

while Winston Churchill cut straight to the chase: If you’re going through hell, keep going.

Perhaps the most famous example of such words of wisdom—WOWs, we’ll call them—is the “Serenity Prayer,” written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Sufi Poets, Hedgehogs, and Anxiety

My personal WOW comes from Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th-century Persian Muslim poet, scholar, and Sufi master. Rumi’s writing are beloved the world over. A 2014 BBC story hailed Rumi as America’s bestselling poet. That’s a longer run than Shakespeare can boast.

So what does some Sufi dude born in 1207 know about life in the 21st century? How does a poet who lived before the invention of the printing press speak to us who navigate the digital age?

Up top, I spoke of life as a trip through a minefield, always ducking and dodging as we race toward the hazy future. But, it’s more often a confused slog of uncertainty (as opposed to outright catastrophe), and uncertainty makes us anxious. Faced with a disaster, we tend to deliver: roll up our sleeves and get to work. Uncertainty, on the other hand, can paralyze. Like a hedgehog, we curl up in a ball and wait for clarity to strike. Or we stumble about, unfocused, grasping wildly at every straw.

And Rumi absolutely got this. You don’t need to be born in the age of the iPhone X to recognize our need to believe we run the show. Our craving to have control over our lives. It’s the most basic of all human tendencies. And yet, of course, we don’t. The folks in Puerto Rico couldn’t turn Hurricane Maria away from their shores. The concert-goers at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas couldn’t vanquish the bullets of a madman’s bump-stocked semi-automatic rifle.

Something Approaching Grace

So somewhere in my wanderings, I came across this verse from Rumi, typed it up in 24-point bold, and taped it to the bookcase by my desk:

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.

Don’t try to see through the distances,

That’s not for human beings. Move within,

But don’t move the way fear makes you move.

When the weight of uncertainty threatens to sink me, these lines tease my brain to look beyond the moment, to consider something outside my flailing angst. For almost two decades, I have sifted Rumi’s words for a way I can live with “what is” with something approaching grace. I’m still pondering, still learning. This is merely my interim report. What I’ve gleaned so far.

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.

We are creatures of ambition. We love to make plans, set goals, imagine ourselves moving smoothly from success to success. We crave “places to get to.” It is hard, hard, hard for us to move forward without these destinations to propel us. Like a person wandering the desert, plans and goals are the oasis we thirst for, a mirage always on the horizon, just over the next hill. We may get there, but rarely the way we imagine. And if we do, the reality of the mirage may be quite different to what we fantasized. As John Lennon said, Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. 

It’s not that plans and goals are bad or futile, but we need to recognize two things: 1) We create them. Our pictures of dazzling accomplishments and ideal lifestyles are self-imposed, the children of our own brain—they have no mandate in the natural world; 2) They can go south at any moment and often do.

If our happiness, our very ability to function, depends on getting into an Ivy League school, making partner at the law firm, or having our novel published by one of the “Big Five,” we make ourselves vulnerable to the vagaries of life. Ask anyone in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. One day, you’re making breakfast, going to work, dreaming of the new motor scooter business you’re going to start this winter, just in time for tourist season, and the next day you’re homeless, stumbling about your hurricane-wrecked island, searching for drinkable water.

Rumi says keep walking. Walking is life.

Don’t try to see through the distances,

That’s not for human beings.

But we do try, over and over. We want to know what lies ahead. We want to shore up against any and all disappointments, disasters. We have no say about the circumstances of our birth, nor (discounting suicide) the hour of our death, so we scramble like hell between these endpoints to foresee the future, and prepare.

I don’t read this as we should do nothing with the knowledge we have at hand. Rather we do today what we can do, and let neither our hopes blind us to reality nor our fears cripple us. We join a campaign to get our town to commit to renewable energy. We donate to a legal fund to defend Dreamers. We write the next chapter of our novel. We study for the exam. The outcomes are unknowable. We can only act in the moment.

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a big fan of history, partly because I simply love stories, and partly because I want to understand the patterns of human behavior. Over the years, two key things have emerged for me:

1) Everything you have, including your life, can be taken from you at any moment. Think Nazis. Think ICE. Boko Haram or Czar Nicholas II. There are no guarantees, no talismans. The trick is to somehow acknowledge this truth while living each day with joy and generosity and hope. That is grace.

2) We tend to focus on the threats all around us. Survival instinct, no doubt. What we fail to see, cannot see in fact, is the thing that may happen to throw a monkey wrench into what looks like doom. The discovery of a vaccine for polio. The tiny island of Britain shutting down Hitler’s voracious advance, alone, for two years until America joined the fight. And there are people out there right now inventing plant-based plastics that won’t damage the environment, and high-tech sieves to render ocean water drinkable.

There is as much hope as threat in what we cannot yet see.

Move within,

But don’t move the way fear makes you move.

 Ah, this is the one I puzzle over most. I get the “don’t move the way fear makes you move.” Don’t delete your manuscript because 20 agents turned down your novel. Wake up tomorrow and query Agent #21, and if no one bites, ever, keep writing because it’s what you love. Don’t abandon fighting for a more humane and cooperative world because white nationalism is showing its ugly face across the planet and Trump is in the White House. Make phone calls to defend Dreamers. Raise your voice in Town Halls for diplomacy, not war. Bring a sick neighbor a meal. Give a stranger a genuine smile.

Okay, I get that. But what does it mean to “move within?” Within the limits of the day at hand?

Gandhi  said: “I do not want to foresee the future. I am concerned with taking care of the present. God has given me no control over the moment following.” Taking care of the present is good. It’s all we ever live, really.

Move within the confines of our own head? Change the perceptions that color how we view the world. The assumptions that drive our actions.

How would the quality of our life be different if we saw our mistakes not as failures but as practical wisdom gained? If we viewed setbacks not as insurmountable roadblocks but as opportunities to explore new and different paths?

What if we were to relish the journey of this day rather than tizzy over some imagined endgame?

To Look On Tempests

Searching these deceptively scant lines for Rumi’s meaning, meditating on his many subtle layers, has been comforting, energizing, life-affirming. Heeding it has been much harder. I still exist on the far side of grace, that state in which I can face the truth of each moment without panic, without despair. To look on tempests, as Will Shakespeare said, and remain unshaken.

To keep walking. Whatever.

 

(Still) Out of Control

The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.  (Julia Ward Howe)

 

In my salad days, I wrote news stories and theater reviews for The Lansing Star, an alternative indie rag. Eventually, I had a weekly column. A little soapbox all mine own of social/political commentary. From all that ink, I clipped and saved a few of the pieces that meant the most to me. After the recent carnage on the Vegas Strip, I took down my dusty box of tear sheets, and pulled this one, penned in January 1983. I believe you will recognize much from it.

Following the piece is a brief but telling update.

Out of Control (1983)

Two years ago, on December 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered in front of his apartment house in Manhattan—shot five times in the chest and shoulder. He lost over 80% of his blood volume within seven minutes and was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, just one mile away from his home.

John Lennon was killed by a .38 Charter Arms revolver, a fairly common type of handgun, especially favored for its rapid-fire capability. He never had a chance—before he could even turn to face the man who had called his name, all five bullets had been fired.

The media reacted to his murder as if on cue, pointing to all the assassinations over the last two decades. Camera operators zoomed in on tearful faces in the crowd outside the Dakota Apartments where Lennon had lived with his wife and son. Famous personalities were rounded up to explain, conjecture, expound upon the moment.

Time and Newsweek ran special sections on Lennon’s life and death, alongside articles calling for tougher gun laws.

“This will be the turning point,” prophesized singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, a close friend of Lennon. “I think John’s death will do more for the cause of gun control than all the combined efforts of the past decade.”

The media had its week—tributes, memorials, rhetoric—and then we woke up one morning to find the newspapers had returned to Iran, the network news teams were once again consumed  with the economy. All the fiery speeches and inspired visions of a better world had been clipped, taped, and safely stored away by the historians.

Two years have passed and we are still on the dark side of that turning point Harry Nilsson and so many others spoke of. Around 20,000 more people have died since that night in December 1980—murdered by handguns on the streets of Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Lansing. The National Rifle Association (NRA) still runs one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, DC. Nothing has changed.

We’ve been busy with other things since that time—tightening up on welfare, trying to stop Japanese imports, deregulating business, and building nuclear weapons. The seeming urgency for stricter gun control which inflamed the passions of so many in recent times is almost passé. Last month, the gun control proposal in California went down to a quiet defeat. Yet the long list of handgun victims continues to grow, untouched by a generation of assassinations and murders.

In Michigan, a state in which the NRA has seldom been pressed into any serious action to defend the faith, gun control and the prevailing attitude toward tougher legislation is summed up on the bumper stickers of many pickup trucks: You’ll take away my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

There is no notable movement dedicated to gun control in Michigan. The NRA and the Michigan United Conservation Club have succeeded with steamroller precision in flattening the few attempts Michigan legislators have proposed: a requirement that all gun owners pass a competency test, a call for a mandatory two-year minimum sentence for anyone having a handgun in their possession while committing a crime. Both proposals were conservative in scope—benign in terms of gun control legislation that would prohibit the manufacture, sales, and possession of all handguns.

Current handgun registration practices and requirements vary from state to state. “Registration” may mean nothing more than being able to sign your name in one state, while another state demands that you have a record clear of felonies for x-number of years. But variations aside, it is still frighteningly easy to purchase a handgun almost anywhere in this country. America is the land of cowboys, gunslingers, and the Marlboro Man.

The NRA expends great energy (and dollars) to convince people that the constitutional right to bear arms means private citizens have a right to carry handguns. They prey on the uneasy paranoia of people frightened by the rising rate of violent crime (paradoxically, of course, handguns are the major factor in these crimes)—people who feel unsafe and uncertain. Just a “small” gun in the house for protection—just in case. There are now over 50 million “small” handguns in circulation.

As for protection, the number of incidents in which Mr. Upstanding Citizen has successfully fended off the “bad guy” by wielding his .38 are so rare as to not be worthy of statistical count. The “little gun in the nightstand drawer” or “the little surprise under the cash register counter,” however, kills thousands of people each year, either through accidents or during heated family quarrels. These homeowners and shopkeepers whose thinking has been paralyzed by anxiety for their safety and the protection of their property, wittingly or unwittingly aid and abet the rampant violence in America. Violence begets violence. Fear and paranoia breed violence.   

There is only one solution that will stop the killing: A total ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of handguns in the United States. Anything less is empty rhetoric. New Yorkers pointed out, after John Lennon’s death, that Mark Chapman could never have purchased his Charter Arms .38 in their state. The fact remains, however, that a gifted composer, poet, father, and husband died because Chapman could purchase a gun in Hawaii and bring it into New York.

The NRA is fond of saying that if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns, but who are these outlaws? Chapman was not a criminal until he pulled the trigger. By the time the smoke has cleared, and a person has legitimately been branded an “outlaw,” there is another body in the morgue.

Murder may be in the heart but opportunity is in the weapon—the gun is the great equalizer. It cannot be turned away by physical strength or ingenuity as can a knife or lead pipe. The gun makes no distinction, shows no deference, nor does it need to. Anyone can shoot anybody at any time and, with the advent of exploding bullets, be fairly certain of firing a fatal shot.

In the week following Lennon’s death, there were pages upon pages written in favor of stricter gun control legislation in moving, eloquent, thoughtful prose. But I am reminded of Dallas, November 1963, of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.—and how we’re still eclipsed in darkness waiting for the turning point.

The View From 2017

1) In the almost 35 years since I wrote “Out of Control,” around 450,000 more Americans have been murdered by guns. This number does not include suicides involving firearms, which is closer to a million for the same time period.

2) Not only has the frequency of mass shootings taken an uptick in the last 10 years, four of the six deadliest shootings (as measured by number of fatalities) since 1983 have occurred in that same decade:

Virginia Tech 2007 (32 dead)

Sandy Hook victims

Sandy Hook 2012 (27 dead)

Orlando 2016 (49 dead)

Las Vegas 2017 (58+ dead)

Nine months into 2017, we have already tied the record—seven—for highest number of mass shootings in any given year. There were 51 mass shootings for 2007 to 2017, a 60% increase over the total number from the 25 years prior to that.

3) The gun that killed John Lennon was a five-round, rapid firing handgun. Five rounds. Today’s semi-automatic weapons put that number in the shade. One gun aficionado estimated the possible firepower of a semi-automatic weapon (where the shooter has to actually squeeze the trigger for each shot) as 120 bullets a minute including the five-second pause to reload every 30 rounds.

Twelve of the semiautomatic rifles, including an AR-15, the Las Vegas gunman had in his hotel room were outfitted with “bump stocks,” an accessory that gives a semi-automatic gun the firepower of an automatic weapon—400 to 800 rounds per minute.

4) The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, DC. In 2015, alone, it took in $336.7 million. The following year, it spent almost $32 million to elect Trump through its Institute for Legislative Action, a lobbying arm that spends BIG on political campaigns.

The NRA is currently pushing two bills in Congress. The first would make it easier to purchase silencers. The NRA argues that silencers cut down on hearing damage in hunters, but opponents point out that silencers make the location of a gunman difficult to detect by both those in the vicinity of the shooter, and police officers attempting to isolate and stop the perpetrator.

The second bill on the NRA wishlist would override state laws that forbid concealed carry, allowing gun owners in concealed carry states to bring their guns (concealed, of course) anywhere in the country.

5) Who’s got the guns? According to a recent survey, half of America’s firearms are owned by just 3% of its citizens (an average of 17 guns per person). Who are these people, and why do they feel the need for so much firepower?

6)  Forty-two states require a state-issued permit to carry concealed weapons in public. Eight states, however, require no such permit. In Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming, anyone you meet may be carrying a concealed weapon and no one needs a permit to do so. All but five states allow open carry of firearms, and 31 of those states do not require a license or permit to do so.

7)  Florida was the first state to enact a Stand Your Ground law in 2005—the law that allowed George Zimmerman to fatally shoot Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old student, and walk away free. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law says homicide is justifiable if the shooter feels “threatened” in some way.

Since 2005, 33 more states have adopted some version of Stand Your Ground.  A study found that homicides have risen by an average of 8% in these states.

The Trajectory of Violence

It’s late November, 1963. The week before Thanksgiving, and the onset of holiday hoopla. I’m in elementary school and I come home for lunch to find my mother kneeling on the family room rug, the local daily paper spread out around her. She’s clipping articles about the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, an event that happened just yesterday. She looks up at me. “You’ll want these,” she says. “To remember this moment.” My mother, a lifelong Republican, voted for Nixon, not Kennedy. She can’t stand JFK and his wife Jackie, but she understands: This is a historic tragedy. Nothing like this has happened in my lifetime, or hers.

What we both fail to grasp on that day, is that this is just the beginning. In less than five years, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy will be dead, felled by gunmen. Kent State will see four college students shot dead by their own state’s National Guard for protesting the Vietnam War.

On that day in 1963, there are roughly 84 million guns in America. Fifty years later, there will be four times that number of firearms.

We are still eclipsed in darkness. Still waiting for the turning point.

Decisions, Decisions

“Be decisive. The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.” (Unknown)

My parents had volumes of advice for every situation. What’s more, they insisted I follow their pearls of wisdom. To call them “control freaks” would not be a stretch of the facts. They saw no good reason, they said, why I should make the same mistakes they had made (they never elaborated on the details of these woeful errors of judgment). They’d already been (whatever age I was at the time) and intended to save me the trouble. I remember stomping my foot and shouting (okay, screaming), “But I wanna make my own mistakes!”

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and no one else has yet stepped up to claim responsibility for them.

Of course, when I made my declaration for independent choice, I had no inkling of the scope or significance of decisions that life would throw my way, a Pandora’s Box of options about work and relationships and kids (and with the kids, more choices with weighty impacts). I just wanted to be the one to decide whether I could go to sleep-away camp that summer.

How Much of Our Lives Do We Waste Spend Making Choices?

How many decisions do we make in a day? When I googled this question, the phrase “various sources estimate 35,000” popped up in a myriad of entries. Having had the necessity of source verification beaten into my head by numerous journalism professors, I clicked away to discover that “various internet sources estimate 35,000” was a round robin of one site quoting another, the actual source a chimera.

I wasn’t alone in my search for hard numbers. A follower of Skeptics Stack Exchange, a Q&A site for scientific skepticism, was seeking the same holy grail:

Q: I saw [an] advertisement posted on the way to work today, and it made the claim that people make “about 35,000 decisions a day.” A quick Google search shows that this claim is widely parroted but never sourced. Is there any evidence for or against this claim?

A sampling of replies suggests decisions are slippery little beasts to qualify or quantify:

[The Pragmatist]: There are 86,400 seconds in a day. If we subtract 8 hours sleep, that leaves 57,600 seconds. So you would be making a decision roughly every 1.5 seconds. That does not leave much time to think about them, or to actually execute them!

[The Stickler for Detail]: Well, consider that as I’m typing this, each work choice is a decision. And if I notice that I mistyped ‘work’ for word, going back to correct it involves a series of decisions – do I backspace, use the cursor keys to move there, the mouse, or should I even bother to fix it? So there’s more than one decision per second – some of them in parallel, like spelling, word choice, sentence structure.

[Dr. Johnson’s Clone]: I don’t think this question is answerable without a coherent definition of decision.

The Mirror, which markets itself as “the intelligent tabloid,” dialed back the numbers significantly (but equally without justification), declaring: The average person will make 773,618 decisions over a lifetime – and will come to regret 143,262 of them.

There’s something admirable about that kind of precision, however unsubstantiated and ridiculous it is.

Let’s just say, we make a lot of decisions, and some of them don’t turn out so well.

If Choice is a Gift, Why Isn’t Decision-making More Fun?

The arbiters of how we experience life out there in the big world have their roots in our individual genetic make-up; our class, race, and gender; our family of origin and sexual orientation; where we grew up, the kind of education available to us, and the things we choose. Of all these factors, only our choices—the decisions we make—are within our control. Perhaps that’s what makes decisions so scary. The outcome rests squarely on us.

People approach the minefield of decision-making using a variety of tactics to avoid self-annihilation. There are the admirable folks who calmly weigh the facts at hand as they chart the pros and cons of each option (I like to imagine them bent over their Excel spreadsheets neatly graphing the chances of happiness with their beloved in 20 years time), after which they make an informed decision and move on without another thought.

Then there’s the rest of us.

 

  1. The Agreeables

Agreeables are, on the surface, very easy-going folks. Whatever movie you want to see is fine with them. You want to eat Italian tonight? Sounds great, they say. Would they mind if you leave your two sets of twins and your pitbull “Piranha” with them for a month? No problem, they grin.

Other people rarely have issues with Agreeables, but Agreeables have a big issue: They’re living everyone’s life but their own.  It’s a peacekeeping tactic that can blow like a bottle of bubbly uncorked after shaking. Agreeables are the folks who shock everyone by walking away from a decades-long marriage having never once complained. Finally, a decision they made independent of what others wish or think. Good for them I say. Better late than never.

But earlier would be better still.  

  1. Second-guessers

Second-guessers make decisions. The problem is, having decided, they keep on deciding, hashing their choices over and over. Would they have been happier with the apartment in Queens rather than the lease they signed in Brooklyn? The job they chose pays better, but the one they turned down offers more opps for advancement. Will they regret it down the road? Second-guessers are the people the maxim Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good was coined for.

The road to madness is paved with second-guessing. In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that while freedom of choice is essential to our well-being, many of us experience deep distress as we struggle to figure out which is the absolute best choice when faced with a dazzling array of possibilities. Second-guessers beat themselves up post-decision for (maybe) missing that ultimate choice. If no decision ever feels quite settled for you, Schwartz’s Ted Talk on the subject is well worth a listen. Bonus prize: His great sense of humor.

  1. Contingency Planners

Mea culpa, this is a category I know well. Faced with a decision, Contingency Planners try to foresee all negative outcomes so they can put out fires before they spark. In this way, Contingency Planners are the opposite of Second-guessers. We do all our suffering upfront. Once a decision’s made, we move on, but the extreme vigilance beforehand, as we scout every choice for hidden high-explosives, is cortisone-drenched, high-stress territory.

If Contingency Planners actually had X-ray vision, capable of seeing 20/20 into the future, all the angst might be justified, but we don’t, and The Future is a tricky beast—like Hurricane Irma—capable of changing course and intensity in ways known only to itself. There is just no way to know in advance if possible life-partner, Mike, will still have his great sense of humor, a penchant for spur-of-the moment getaways, and noteworthy abs in twenty years.

In many instances, we’d do just as well to consult a Magic Eight Ball and heed its counsel.

  1. The Defeatists

When I was in grad school, I lived in a large Victorian house with a dozen other students. We had a common kitchen, living room, and bath. One of the tenants—I’ll call him Jim—paid his rent by cleaning the common areas. He did a good job. In fact, Jim did a great job, scrubbing and vacuuming, evenings and weekends, while the rest of us were out falling in love, falling in lust, falling down drunk.

I mentioned this to him once. Actually, I had to shout to be heard over the vacuum cleaner.

“Hey JIM!”

He turned off the machine.

“Maybe you should take a night off, go out, have some fun.”

He frowned.  “I don’t know. What if I ask a girl out and spend all that money and then find out I don’t like her?”

“But what if you do like her? It could turn out great.”

“It probably won’t,” he said, and resumed vacuuming.

The Defeatist eliminates the risk inherent in all decisions by making one blanket choice upfront: To avoid the unknown. The Defeatist doesn’t know every new venture will end up a regret. They’re just freaked by the idea of regret itself. Except the regret of never having tried at all.

  1. The Abdicators

Abdicators, too, steer clear of making decisions but for a different reason: They like to leave their options open. All their options. While Second-guessers stew after a decision, fearing they might have made the wrong choice, Abdicators are certain something better always lies ahead, so why commit to anything in the present?  They don’t take the job offer because tomorrow or six months from now they might get one that pays better with more perks. They never commit to their current squeeze because they want to be available for the sexier, funnier, more understanding person they’re sure is over the next rise.

The problem for Abdicators is that other people do make decisions—take the job, sign the lease, commit to the relationship—leaving those who don’t with fewer choices and lesser options. As the Rush song says, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

  1. The Paralyzed

The Paralyzed would like to make a decision. They’re not afraid of commitment itself. It’s just committing to the wrong choice can have nasty consequences. You can really end up paying for a long time. Risk is, well, risky.

The Paralyzed imagine every decision in apocalyptic terms. Absolute Success or Abysmal Failure. But short of deciding to step off the ledge of the Empire State Building, very few choices are entirely irreparable. The first car I bought, based solely on its being the cheapest, only ran when it felt like it. But I’ve since added other criteria (like reliability) and now I have a much better car. My first husband, likewise, had his quirks and problems, but I learned what I need in a partner and now I have a wonderful husband.

Most less-than-optimal (or downright bad) decisions can be amended. Not without bruises, maybe, but you get a lot of good stories from your screw-ups, and sometimes a little wisdom, even if only the wisdom to know I never wanna do THAT again.  

 Managing the Uncertainty Factor

Chances are you haven’t hit The Mirror’s quota of 143,262 lifetime bad decisions (the 10,000 times you’ve chosen to make microwave popcorn with extra, extra butter at midnight don’t count—unless you have a serious coronary condition).

Chances are you are doing the best you can.

In the world of blog advice, there seems to be a penchant for writing things down and sticking them in jars—the best thing that happened to you that day, one thing you feel thankful for, the thing that’s troubling you most at the moment. So, if you’re wracked by paralysis or exhausted from second-guessing, feeling defeated in the face of risk or stressed-out by trying to predict outcomes into perpetuity—or maybe you’d just like to hand off all those pesky decisions to someone, anyone—then here’s a little “sticking things in jars” idea that might bring peace:

Over the next month, write down all the decisions you make that are more significant than whether to have Cheerios or granola for breakfast. Stick them in that fabled jar. Leave them to brew and go on with life. After six months have passed—yes, it’s a long time, but you need perspective for this—open the jar and read through your decisions.

Chances are you’ll discover mostly good choices, peppered by a few wrong turns. Many decisions, in hindsight, probably won’t seem like such a big deal—why were you so worried? And some you’ve likely forgotten completely.

The problem with life, hence decisions, is that everything may go to hell. And then again, it might not. (This is what makes us fork over budget-crippling premiums to insurance companies.) We really have no way of knowing how the future will play out, or play us. All we can do is to “act, act in the living present” as Longfellow wrote.

Maybe we should just get on with it. Make the decision. Cross our fingers. Take the leap.

And buy a Magic Eight Ball.

 

 

 

Back Away From The Edge

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”  Alvin Toffler

It’s 8:30 in the morning and I’m rushing through showering/hairwashing/teethbrushing,                            so I can get dressed and eat breakfast,                                                                                                                     so I can have 15 minutes to deal with the most important e-mail,                                                                        so I can squeeze in 1 hour and 45 minutes of writing before I go to the gym.

2:15 p.m. Really like to get some more time on the novel, but I’ve got a blog post to write, the garden needs watering/weeding/deadheading, there’s estimated taxes to do, and my Inbox has become an avalanche. I need to be finding markets for my short fiction. I need to be researching agents for my historical novel. But it’s my turn to cook dinner and I have to run to the store to get red peppers and garlic.

Oh crap, I forgot to tweet my last post @MondayBlogs. Stop, do that.

It’s 10:00 p.m. and I’m hustling like crazy—do the laundry, change the cat litter (still haven’t started those estimated taxes!)—because I really want to get to my current read before 1:00 a.m. And I haven’t spent a single moment on FB or Twitter. So I breeze through notifications, RT the books/blogs of my writers’ circle, and follow-back all my new followers—ping!ping!ping!—one eye on the clock. Strict 30-minute limit. I used to do a quick trawl of new followers’ feeds and send a brief thanks. No more. Attila-the-Hun could follow me and I’d hit the follow-back button reflexively. Time’s up!

1:45 a.m. I close my book, turn out the light, and review the many things I did not accomplish today, hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles. Tomorrow, I think…

The Age of Accelerations

Thomas Friedman, in his book Thank You for Being Late (an Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations), discusses how technology, market forces (globalization), and environmental stresses are accelerating simultaneously at an unprecedented speed. To shed light on what this acceleration looks like in the arena of technology, he cites Moore’s Law—the prediction made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 that the number of transistors one could fit on a microchip would double every two years.

Okay, let’s do the math. If you start with, say, 10 transistors on a microchip, after 30 years of biennial doubling, that chip will hold 327,680 transistors. After 40 years, it will contain 10,485,760 transistors. Moore’s Law has had a pretty good run for fifty years. It wasn’t until 2015 that some folks in the tech industry started suggesting Moore’s Law had taken its foot off the accelerator. But don’t expect to rest on your old iPhone. In March of 2017, Stanford announced, “As Moore’s law nears its physical limits, a new generation of brain-like computers comes of age in a Stanford lab.” Read: Faster. More powerful. More angels dancing on the head of a pin.

While admitting that these accelerations have outstripped our ability to adapt to and manage such high-speed change, both at the personal and societal levels, Friedman contends “we have no choice but to learn to adapt to this new pace of change.” The pace of the digital age.

But what if we can’t keep pace?

In his New York Times review, John Micklethwait notes  “In two and a half years researching this book, [Friedman] had to interview all the main technologists at least twice, because things changed so quickly. Like everyone else, he has no time to think… ”

Fifty years of doubling acceleration, in evolutionary terms, is Darwin on steroids. Massive steroids. But we’re a nation on opioids, in part I suspect because we can’t cope with such rapid change. We are struggling to adapt.

Darwin tells us that adaptation is the process that makes organisms better suited to their habitat. Adaptation occurs through the gradual modification of existing structures. When our environment changes slowly, we have the opportunity to fit ourselves to our surroundings. But when the changes whizz by, we continually lose ground, scrambling for a toehold.

Assessing the Long View

Let’s pull back the frame for a moment and look at some highlights on the timeline of human evolution:

55 million years ago (MYA): First primitive primates evolve.

8 – 6 MYA: First gorillas evolve. Later, chimp and human lineages diverge.

5.8 MYA: Orrorin tugenensis, oldest human ancestor thought to have walked on two legs.

1.8 – 1.5 MYA: Homo erectus is found in Asia. First true hunter-gatherer ancestor, and also first to have migrated out of Africa in large numbers. It attains a brain size of around 1000 cm3

500,000 YA: Earliest evidence of purpose-built shelters – wooden huts – are known from sites near Chichibu, Japan.

280,000 YA: First complex stone blades and grinding stones.

195,000 YA: Our own species Homo sapiens appears on the scene – and shortly after begins to migrate across Asia and Europe. Oldest modern human remains are two skulls found in Ethiopia that date to this period. Average human brain volume is 1350 cm3

50,000 YA: “Great leap forward”: human culture starts to change much more rapidly than before; people begin burying their dead ritually; create clothes from animal hides; and develop complex hunting techniques, such as pit-traps.

10,000 YA: Agriculture develops and spread. First villages. Possible domestication of dogs.

5,000 YA: Earliest known writing.

575 YA: The printing press is invented.

Not exactly a speed race, is it?

But we’re talking psychological adaptation here. Exponential changes across our environment, both social and technological, press us constantly to move faster, learn quicker, and accomplish more in less time. There is much evidence we are not doing well.

The Age of “Great Stress”  

The June 6, 1983 cover story for Time pronounced stress to be “The Epidemic of the Eighties.” Fifty-five percent of Americans, the magazine reported, felt “great stress” on a weekly basis. By 1996, Prevention claimed the number had jumped to 75 percent.

If you are 40 years old or younger, a world of rapidly-escalating stress is the only world you’ve known. Expectations for what you should be able to accomplish in the narrow span of a 24-hour day have soared since your birth and continue soaring. The work day, for example, is no longer 9 to 5, or even 8 to 6. In many cases, it’s 24/7—we are expected to take the call, respond to the e-mail, solve the immediate crisis (and there’s always a crisis) during evenings, weekends, and so-called vacations. In short, we are never off-duty.

The unending work day has resulted in mega-burnout for millions of workers. A group of Stanford business professors has estimated that job stress adds as much as $190 billion dollars per year to America’s healthcare costs. In January of this year, a new law went into effect in France to protect workers’ private time. Companies with more than 50 employees are now required to set hours when staff are free from the tyranny of emails. Cutting the electronic leash, as one French legislator put it. The German labor ministry enacted a similar law in 2014. The U.S. Department of Labor, however, does not yet recognize being on-call 24/7 as constituting “working hours” unless the employee is required to remain on-site for that time.

Too Tired to Live 

But the workplace is only one area where we are expected to accomplish a ridiculous amount of stuff. In the age of accelerations, everything has been super-sized. Subtly, and more often not so subtly, the one-two KO punch of rampant consumerism and envelope-pushing technology has stretched our expectations/assumptions about the “average” American middle-class lifestyle to the breaking point. Not only must our homes be kept to magazine-perfect standards, but they must be big homes with the kind of square footage once reserved for English aristocrats and Hollywood film stars, outfitted with walk-in closets (that encourage greater consumption), “smart” refrigerators that manage our grocery lists, and more bathrooms than residents. The yard surrounding these single-family palaces must be landscaped and regularly groomed. If we can’t manage it all ourselves, we have to hire help and work more hours to pay for it.

Our stuff mirrors our inner state: overloaded schedules and crammed to-do lists. We’ve got to schlep the kids to their many social engagements and enrichment activities. Find time for a workout at the gym. Call the plumber. Walk the dog. Schedule a mani-pedi. Visit the dentist and the optometrist. Shop for groceries. All this is exhausting, so we order take-out or a delivery from Blue Apron (if we have the extra bucks in our bank account) because we are too tired to cook. Too tired to invite friends over. Too tired to go out to a movie—it’s so much easier to stream whatever’s on Netflix, and we can watch it, sort of, while catching up on social media or texting the friends we’re too tired to see.

And if we find ourselves with a spare moment, we rush to fill it. In his humorous and thought-provoking essay One Hundred Seconds of Solitude, author Alex Mar speaks of being at a writers retreat at the MacDowell Colony. He was “churning out pages in record time” until he discovered a spot on the northernmost corner of his cabin’s front porch that had 3G access. Wired to the universe once more through his iPhone, he could not resist checking and rechecking his messages.

The treadmill is the symbol of our age, and if we can’t crank it up to 100 miles an hour, the bills won’t get paid, the project deadline will be missed, and no one will have clean clothes for the morning. But no matter how fast we run, we never escape the nagging sense we’re falling further behind. As Micklethwait noted, “Man has sped up his own response times. It now takes us only 10-15 years to get used to the sort of technological changes that we used to absorb in a couple of generations; but what good is that when technology becomes obsolete every five to seven years?”

You have to ask yourself, what is all this doing to us?

Chronic Stress: A Bad Cocktail

We are a stressed-out nation in a high-stress world. Many of us wear our stress like a badge: See me? I don’t collapse under pressure. Life is tough but I’m tougher. I can take it. While the sentiments behind such a declaration may be admirable—a testament to our ability to endure, “to take a licking and keep on ticking,” in the words of the old Timex ad—the results are anything but healthy. It has been estimated that 75-90 percent of all visits to our primary care doctors are for stress-related issues. And it’s not just adults who are feeling the crunch. College students, teens, and even little kids are reporting high stress. In the age of accelerations, stress “tends to be more pervasive, persistent, and insidious because it stems primarily from psychological rather than physical threats.”

The stress hormones released by our adrenal glands (adrenaline and cortisol primarily) when we’re frightened help us to think and act quickly. In an emergency, they can save our life. When the danger is past, they dissipate rapidly.

But chronic stress is a bad cocktail. Continuous elevated levels of stress hormones lead to a nasty list of health problems including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis, digestive problems, weight gain, liver disease, ulcers, and Type 2 diabetes. Sustained levels of cortisol also weaken our immune system and alter our reproductive system.

Non-stop stress hormones do a number on your head, too. Not only can they render you anxious and depressed, they actually create free radicals that kill existing brain cells and halt the growth of new ones. Good-bye memory. Hello impaired concentration.

The Mayo Clinic suggests these strategies to manage stress:

  • Eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise and plenty of sleep.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, and meditation.
  • Take time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music.
  • Foster healthy friendships.
  • Volunteer in your community.
  • Seek professional counseling.

There’s only one wee rub here: All these strategies take time. Time we feel we haven’t got and can’t possibly find.

What is Too Much?  

Some years ago, while doing research for a novel set in the early 20th century, I was struck by the references to time in the letters and diaries of that period. Never was an hour named. People harvested the crops “this morning.” The reverend’s wife will visit “tomorrow afternoon.” There was a dance at the grange “this evening.” Rural, small town life needed no timepiece in 1920. It was the farthest thing from the nanosecond.

Fast forward to 1985, the year I moved from Boston to western Massachusetts. I’m sitting on the deck of an informal seafood and burgers joint in Vermont, overlooking the Connecticut River. Everything is tranquility—except me. In this still spot, I’m suddenly aware that my nerves are humming at high speed, an inner noise I never noticed because the din of the city was so much louder. Now, thirty years later, that din is everywhere. We are all buzzing all the time. The merry-go-round spins ever faster. We can’t change the speed of the ride. We can only seek a different  mode of travel. A slow boat to sanity, perhaps.

The life of machines is only measured by how long they function, but human beings are infinitely more complex than the most intricate high-tech gizmos. Our lives have meaning beyond the number of tasks we can accomplish in a day, the speed at which we move.

Too often, I have the uncomfortable sense that I’m not actually in my life. I’m just ticking boxes in a never-ending flurry of activity to “get it all done”, or at least to keep from falling too far behind. What is enough? What is too much? There are no absolute answers to these questions. Except what our gut tells us. We need to be listening.

My friend Rachel’s parents grasped this. Journalists, authors, and scholars, they used their money not to buy a big house but to pay for household and other help that would free them to do the work they loved. Summers, they stretched their dollars by taking Rachel and her brother camping until school resumed. They led long, productive lives, but they did not live on a treadmill. They did not run a rat race. They understood the limitations of a day. Valued focus and purpose.

We cannot have it all, cannot accomplish it all, and trying to do so is what’s killing us.

The Reckoning: What is Essential?

So, we who are not machines, what do we really need? I offer a list here:

  • Healthy food and clean water.
  • The love of family and friends.
  • Exercise of some sort.
  • A place to call home and a way to pay the rent/mortgage for it.
  • Regular sleep.
  • A sense of general safety.
  • Frequent laughter.
  • Pursuits that bring us joy.
  • Access to medical care.
  • Basic clothing, basic household goods, a car or bicycle if we don’t have access to a good mass transit system.

Conventional wisdom says to ask yourself, if you died tomorrow what would you regret not doing? It’s a good question—if you can manage to winnow your bucket list down to a nonstressful length. But lately I’ve been thinking a better question might be: What would you most miss? I’m betting not your 24/7 workday or the struggle to keep up with Facebook and Twitter. Not your closets full of stuff. Or the endless list of repetitive home maintenance tasks.

Whatever you would most miss in this life—reading, writing, hiking, going dancing with your partner, playing with your kids, strumming the guitar, political involvement, painting sunsets, kayaking, hanging out with friends—whatever is on that list, THAT is what you should be doing more of now. And pare everything else back as far as humanly, fiscally possible. Because what else is your life for if not to engage fully with what you love most?

Perhaps more than anything, in this frazzled age of accelerations—where however fast we’re racing, the clock is racing faster—we need time to think. And time not to think.

No one will give it to us. We must claim it for ourselves.