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(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.

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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.

 

It’s Not Always Possible to Be Happy, and that’s OK

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” Robert Frost

 

The first house I owned was built in 1760, located on what is today the edge of the Quabbin Reservoir. As someone who had never lived in a home built before World War II, I was enchanted by all the colonial details: the 12-over-12 windows, the enormous block of local rough-hewn granite that sat above the fireplace (rumored to have taken six men to carry and install). I marveled, too, at the wainscoting in the living room—single boards measuring 3’ x 16’—made from King’s Pines, the oldest, tallest New England white pines reserved exclusively for ships’ masts by the Crown in 1691, but frequently nicked by local colonists for their own building purposes.

Discovering the history behind my new home made me curious about the history of the community. Who were these people who inhabited what would have been an isolated area in the years before the “horseless carriage?” How did they manage daily life?

Among the exhibits, artifacts, and papers I perused, it was a collection of women’s journals and letters I remember most, especially the ones dealing with the death of a child. Infant mortality was a serious threat well into the nineteenth century. For 1850, it’s estimated that almost 25% of white babies, and over a third of black babies never saw their first birthday. Virtually no family was left untouched by this kind of tragedy.

The women’s writing bears witness to the deep sadness such loss evoked. Letters filled with poignant reminiscences of a “wee one” asleep in its mother’s arms, a toothless smile on its lips. Heart-rending descriptions of a child’s last moments, gasping for breath or burning from fever. Sorrow, heartache, grief—they were part of the emotional landscape in the 18th century. Openly acknowledged and vividly expressed.

In the intervening years, much has happened to reduce infant death and combat disease. Pasteur formulated germ theory in the 1860s. An effective vaccine for tuberculosis became available in 1921. Penicillin arrived on the scene in 1928, a “miracle cure” for millions. But sadness is not so easily eradicated.

Death, displacement, loss, rejection—these things still dog us, an inescapable part of the human condition, as core to our being as an arm or a lung. Only our acceptance of sadness, our ability to deal with it or even to admit to it, has changed.

Sad Shaming

In a 2013 article for scientificamerican.com , psychotherapist Tori Rodriguez describes how startled she was to hear a patient apologize for talking about his painful experiences. “I’m sorry for being so negative,” the man said.

People who seek therapy presumably do so because they recognize the distress of their situation is greater than they can manage alone. Therapists don’t expect them to “put on a happy face.” But Rodriguez has noticed a definite uptick in the number of patients who feel guilty or embarrassed by what they perceive to be their own negativity. “Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture’s overriding bias toward positive thinking,” she says. “Problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.”

John Naish, author of Enough: Breaking Free From The World Of More, writes: It’s almost as though we must have a duty to be happy in today’s highly developed Western world.

Conversations you may have heard or had:

“Hey, how it’s going?”

“Good. Great. Everything’s going well.”

I actually knew someone who responded this way though her 15-year-old daughter had recently been arrested for prostitution, her son was in rehab, and her husband was jumping ship.

Are we in denial here or what?

A quick google on the matter reveals that, at best, we are confused about just how happy we can or should be, as the following subject lines attest:

Is Being Happy All the Time Possible?

Are Humans Supposed to be Happy All the Time?

Is it Normal to Feel Happy All the Time?

Why It’s Not Normal to be Happy All the Time

And, my personal favorite: 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Stay Happy All the Time

So, how did we get from those letters of our foremothers with their unabashed expressions of sadness and grief, to thinking we’re supposed to feel happy all the time? Where did this sad-shaming come from?

I can’t pinpoint the moment it arrived, but the $10 billion-plus (annual) self-help industry might be a good place to start.

The Happiness Industry

In 1952, a Reformed Church (RCA) minister, Norman Vincent Peale, published a book that would remain on The New York Times bestseller list for 186 consecutive weeks. The Power of Positive Thinking, using a blend of what can best be described as glib spirituality and pop psychology promised readers that if they could imagine it, it would come.

“Stand up to an obstacle,” Peale exhorted.  “Just stand up to it, that’s all, and don’t give way under it, and it will finally break. You will break it. Something has to break, and it won’t be you, it will be the obstacle.”

BigThink.com

By way of explanation, he offered:  “When you expect the best, you release a magnetic force in your mind which by a law of attraction tends to bring the best to you.”

It’s all a matter, as Peale would explain again and again in his next 45 books, of changing your thoughts. “Change your thoughts and you change your world,” he told a readership hungry to swallow the idea that eternal happiness was theirs for the believing.

(Interesting side note: Peale was a close friend of Richard Nixon and he officiated at Donald Trump’s wedding to Ivana. According to The Washington Post, Trump sings Peale’s praises when asked about his own religious convictions, and Peale described Trump as “kindly and courteous” with “a streak of honest humility,” touting him as “one of America’s top positive thinkers and doers.”)

The Power of Positive Thinking sold an impressive 7 million copies, but two decades later, the man John Rogers (AP) called “the pied piper of the self-help movement” crushed those numbers. Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones (1976) has sold 35 million copies to date.  Unlike Peale who had no mental health credentials—indeed, the psychology community was annoyed with him—Dyer held an Ed.D. in counseling. This, however, did not prevent him from frequently making equally questionable, facile (and highly profitable) claims such as:

It’s been proven that the thoughts we choose have everything to do with our emotions. I can tell you that a commitment to feeling good can take away a stomach ache, fear, depression, sadness, anxiety—you name it. Any stress signal is a way of alerting you to say the five magic words: I want to feel good.

Different Gurus, Same Message

Indeed, if Peale’s and Dyer’s writings were jotted on scraps of paper and mixed together, it would be hard to distinguish one happiness guru from the other. Try it.

Who said:

  1. Our happiness depends on the habit of mind we cultivate. So practice happy thinking every day. Cultivate the merry heart, develop the happiness habit, and life will become a continual feast.  

2. Feelings are not just emotions that happen to you. Feelings are reactions you choose to have.

3. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

4. When you get up in the morning, you have two choices – either to be happy or to be unhappy. Just choose to be happy.

5. Whatever people can imagine clearly with emotion, by creating a perfect vibrational match, is theirs to be, or do, or have.

6. The essence of greatness is the ability to choose personal fulfillment in circumstances where others choose madness.

(This last reminds me of the parody on Kipling’s “If”:  If you can keep your head while all about are losing theirs … it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.)

Here are the correct attributions: 1 and 4 (Peale); 2,3 and 6 (Dyer).

Number 5 is a quote from Esther Hicks (okay, I wasn’t playing completely fair). Hicks is an inspirational speaker and co-author of nine books, including the popular Law of Attraction series (Abraham Hicks Publications), whose seven titles include Money and the Law of Attraction: Learning to Attract Wealth, Health, and Happiness, and Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires. According to Hicks, the books are “translated from a group of non-physical entities called Abraham.” Hicks says she is simply tapping into “infinite intelligence.”

You betcha.

It’s a very appealing idea that one can be happy all the time—no one seeks pain—but is it true?

What unites Peale, Dyer, Hicks and a zillion other happiness gurus is this: Believing makes it so. But if it’s possible to be happy all the time, and it just depends on your willing it, then it’s a short leap to the conclusion that if you’re not happy all the time, it’s your own damn fault. Indeed, Dyer says as much in what may be the sad-shaming daddy of them all: You didn’t come forth into this world to suffer, to be anxious, fearful or depressed. Remember, your thoughts, not your world, cause you stress.

Tell that to a Syrian child who lost both parents and her home when her village was bombed, a refugee orphan whom no country wants to take in. Tell that child it’s her thoughts not her world that is causing her pain. It’s a mythology that can only exist in absolute privilege and the real twist is that it doesn’t even exist there. The monied classes are full of unhappy people who believed that a 5,000 square-foot McMansion, a bright shiny new car, and a load of the latest high-end digital gadgets and appliances would prove a talisman against sadness and disappointment.

We don’t need more and bigger stuff to insulate us from sorrow and pain. What we need is resilience.

Resilience and the Complications of Happiness

Resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress” (American Psychological Association). Though some of us seem to be more resilient than others, and all of us can increase our resilience, none of us can render ourselves impervious to emotional shocks and pain. “Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress,” the APA explains. “Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives.”

It’s worth noting here that it’s not only sorrow, disappointment, and grief that prevent us from being on a never-ending happy trip. It’s happiness itself. Happiness, as it turns out, is complicated. Just ask anyone who has killed time waiting for a preschooler to make her choice among the list of possibilities at the ice cream stand.

And though the choices change with maturity, the complications remain as we struggle to juggle work, family, friends, personal pursuits, and the need for solitude—all important contributors to our health and  happiness. As Jennifer Hecht, a history professor who studies among other things the history of happiness, says in her book The Happiness Myth, we all experience many types of happiness, but that doesn’t save us from experiencing conflicts. Putting our energies into one source of happiness, say, landing our dream job, takes time away from another source of happiness, our partner and children. Devoting ourselves to raising our kids means many fewer hours for alone time and our own interests. Alas, we are mere mortals and it’s impossible to stretch the day beyond 24 hours or to be in two places at once.

 The High Cost of Faking It

 Okay, so it’s not possible to be happy all the time, but is it even desirable to act as if we are eternally happy, happy, happy?

Consider the following scenarios:

Your house and everything in it burns to the ground.

You are robbed and beaten at gunpoint.

Your best friend betrays you.

You lose your job at age 50 and can’t find another.

Your spouse develops Alzheimer’s.

Your child dies in a car accident. (As a parent, I can hardly bring myself to even write that.)

Can you seriously imagine acting happy in the wake of any of these situations?  Would it even be remotely possible to vanquish all anxiety, heartache, and grief just by “choosing to be happy?”

Our language is awash in words for pain, disappointment, and sorrow because they are part of the human experience. These emotions happen to everyone. There ain’t no way around them. And attempting to suppress them may be the unhealthiest thing we can do. Refusing to deal with something consciously doesn’t stop our subconscious from dwelling on it. And dwelling on it. And dwelling on it some more. It’s only when we allow ourselves to experience and accept difficult emotions that we can open the door to making sense of our feelings and moving on. According to psychologist Jonathan M. Adler, “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being.”

You Can Handle This

 

I shared an apartment with a dear friend in my Boston days. Whenever she was sad or distressed, Terri cleaned like a madwoman. She once painted the entire apartment in a weekend after a break-up. In a painful place at the time myself, I watched her as I downed a tumbler of Jameson’s and played all the sad songs my record collection offered. Not the best of times, but we both got through it.  As my dad used to say, “This too shall pass.”

There are many ways to cope with unhappiness. Like Terri, you can throw yourself into projects while your heart calms. You can call a good friend—and if your friends only want to hear from you when you’re happy, it’s time to find new friends. You can go the gym—the workout will flood you with endorphins and do your heart good. You can write or paint or compose a song about what you’re feeling. Much of the world’s great literature and music has its source in difficult moments. I generally choose to “sit” with my pain. Or more precisely, to let my pain “sit” with me while I go about my day, allowing my distress to float through me, neither indulging it nor suppressing it.

And if you find your sadness continues to overwhelm you, there’s a world full of professional help out there. Seek it, and don’t apologize for “negative feelings.” None of us gets through this life without the aid of others. 

Personally, I have always taken comfort from the fact that the moment the bottom falls out—the punch in the gut when your world is turned upside down a little, or a lot—that’s the worst moment. In the seconds it takes to realize what’s happened, that moment is already in the rearview mirror. You’ve survived it. And from there, everything after is movement away, upward, toward the light.

Toward another chance at happiness.

 

 

Hang Up And …Live!

“The only time you ever have in which to learn anything or see anything or feel anything, or express any feeling or emotion, or respond to an event, or grow, or heal, is this moment … You’re only here now; you’re only alive in this moment.”   Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

I’m lucky to live in a state that has over 300 miles of rail-trails, so when I’m done with the morning’s writing (and it’s not January), I often go for a bike ride. Lose the tension in my shoulders. Let go of whatever problems my characters have posed for me that day (and those pesky people can cause real trouble when they choose).

My favorite loop, about ten miles out and back, takes me to Look Park, a vast oasis of  green lawn and blue ponds. The trail there mostly goes through wooded areas. At one spot, chickens and ducks waddle along the verge, scouring the long grasses and wildflowers for a snack to supplement their caregiver’s feed. The first time I saw them, I worried for their safety—so many bicyclists whizzing by—but over the years, I’ve come to realize they are proof of Darwin’s law:  Adapt or perish. They are obviously smart fowl.

At another spot, the land falls sharply away from the trail, and I glimpse the skeleton of a 1940s truck, blue in the patches that rust hasn’t eaten. Time. It’s always there, at some moments shouting, at others whispering.

No matter how scorching or muggy the day, a breeze lifts my hair, cools my skin, empties my busy brain, and I tune into the birdsong, tranquil. Which is what makes it all the more jarring when I pass a woman, walking with her toddler and talking into her cell phone. Seconds later, I cycle past another walker, this one with ear buds connecting her to an iPod while she texts on her phone, fingers flying over the keyboard. There’s even a bicyclist—and I’m not making this up—pedaling along while texting two-handed.

It’s lovely that all these folks are out here enjoying the rail-trail, but my question is: Are they actually enjoying the rail-trail?

Selfie Madness

We’ve all seen the absorbed texter (maybe even bumped into them!) walking through the airport, oblivious to others and their luggage or, like an errant pinball, caroming down a crowded city sidewalk only to step off the curb into traffic, unaware.

CAMERA cellphone user on busy sidewalk caminar-mirando-el-celular3People speak of life passing you by, but our digital addictions are causing us to pass by life without pausing to register its pulse. Texting. Tweeting. And then there’s selfie-madness.

In June, I was at a Yankees-Red Sox game with my husband. Since we only go once a year, we treated ourselves to field level tickets along the first base line. These seats aren’t cheap, so I was surprised at how many people around us spent the entire game taking selfies, their backs to the ball field. They seemed to prefer snapping photos of themselves attending a Yankees-Red Sox game to actually watching the play on the field. And it was a great game. Tense. The lead bouncing back and forth. Close score. But it often felt like my husband and I were the only ones following the action, a task not made easier by the bodies hurtling through our line of sight in search of the perfect location/angle/backdrop for a selfie.

The Digital Invasion

I first glimpsed signs of what would become our digital mania in 2003 while vacationing in Florence, Italy. We were visiting Il Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) when I noticed a man walking about with a video camera, filming, his wife and kids doggedly trotting after. Although camcorders still used videotape at this time, they had shrunk considerably in size from their dinosaur predecessors of the mid-1980s. And this man was determined to make use of their newfound mobility.

He continued filming as we strolled about the piazza, admiring Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise—ten dramatic bronze reliefs that depict Old Testament scenes on the doors of the Baptistery—and Giotto’s polychromatic marble-faced campanile with its della Robbia panels.

The camera remained glued to his face when we entered Il Duomo beneath the clock designed by Uccello, and traveled up, up, up the 463 steps to stand amazed beneath Brunelleschi’s architectural miracle of a dome, its interior graced with Vasari’s frescoes of the Last Judgment.

I never saw his face that day. In my mind, he remains a figure ambling about with a large camera where his head should be. I’ve often wondered if he and the family ever got around to watching the hundreds of hours I’m guessing he filmed during his Italian vacation. Or did he just move on to the next destination, camera at the ready, missing more moments of his life amid the wonders of the world? Perhaps he morphed into the guy I saw a decade later during another trip to Florence, a selfie stick strapped to his forehead, a camcorder suspended from its top, dutifully recording everything he was walking away from in the Piazza della Signoria, his face in the foreground.

Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

With smartphones, the capture of every moment is only a click away. On the same trip that took us to Yankee Stadium, we spent a morning in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were hanging out in European Paintings 1250-1800, soaking up the dark mysteries of Rembrandt, the pink fulsome flesh of Rubens, the broad Flemish landscapes of Bruegel. Darting all about us, like a gnat you can’t seem to lose, was a woman snapping photos of every painting. And not only the paintings, but the little description cards that accompanied each work. Snap. Snap. Snap. She paused only a nanosecond to capture Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher before buzzing off to give Franz Hals’s Portrait of a Bearded Man with a Ruff the same blink of her camera.

I can report she missed not a single painting, but in another, more significant way she missed them all. If that seems an exaggeration, pick up a postcard of Van Gogh’s extraordinary painting of a chair, called reasonably enough Van Gogh’s Chair, and compare it to the original that hangs in London’s National Gallery. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an amateur photo of a major artwork is… squat.

Patti LuPone Takes On The Texters

And when we’re not filming, we’re texting. Two years ago, while starring in Shows for Days, actress Patti LuPone grabbed the cell phone of an audience member in the front row who had been texting through the entire first act. The cast and audience had already endured four separate cell phone rings during that day’s show, so tempers were somewhat frayed.

“She was sitting in the light, so everyone could see her texting. It’s ridiculous,” LuPone said.

Lupone returned the phone after the performance was over, but gave vent to her distress. “I’m defeated by this. It’s not changing, it’s only getting worse … If something isn’t done, I will think twice before I get back on a stage again.

“It’s not [about] theater etiquette,” she explained. “It’s human etiquette. We’re living in an isolated society, the phone controls our every move, and we’ve lost sight of our neighbor, the people surrounding us.”

One of the great ironies of our cell phone addiction is that it was preceded by an innovation that freed us from our phones: the answering machine. They were a revelation, a revolution. No longer did you have to worry about missing an important call. It would be there on the little cassette when you got home. You were free to go about your day, or travel the world, without once thinking of your phone. It was a golden time, however short-lived.

Surprise: Pop Quiz!

Okay, I’ve had my moment on the soapbox. Now it’s time for you to play along.

When did you last:

  1. Take an evening off Facebook and Twitter to hang out with friends and neighbors?

2. Visit an art gallery or museum using only your eyes, no camera (photos of you and loved ones in front of the museum don’t count here)?

3. Pick a dining spot in a city not your own by walking along the streets “window shopping” restaurants and cafes rather than googling TripAdvisor or Yelp?

4. Enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine at a café with your significant other and no cell phones in sight?

5. Browse a brick-and-mortar bookstore—with actual shelves and real books you can open and read—rather than surf Goodreads for recommendations, then order from Amazon?

6. Go for a hike or a bicycle ride naked—no iPod, no earbuds, no smartphone?

If you can’t recall the last time for any or (yikes!) all of the above, I suggest you get out into the world immediately. Talk to real people. Listen to the sounds of summer—the buzz of bees, kids laughing, birds trilling, the lap of water at the beach. Literally, stop and smell the roses.

And give your texting thumbs a rest. For there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your mobile apps.