Technologies Part I: A World of Hurricanes and Time-Sensitive Texts

In addition to penning one of the funniest single scenes I’ve ever read in a novel, Jonathan Franzen proves via his editorial in May 29th’s Sunday Times that he is also capable of disarming candor, one of the only angles capable of rendering poignant anyone’s thoughts on a subject that has now been written on to the point of obscenity; the relationship of human beings with modern technology.

“The ultimate goal of technology,” Franzen says, “the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”

He goes on to deliver an indictment of the ways in which our obsession with personal technologies and “social” media feeds and enables a staggering narcissism. The reality he laments is instantly recognizable to anyone living in 21st century America. We are hounded by a constant temptation to check our devices, turn on our screens, and generally tend to our own business at the drop of a hat regardless of the circumstances or company we find ourselves in. Any day now we’ll hear of some groom Tweeting about his vows from the altar. Actually, we’ll probably see a photo of that moment captured on the best man’s smartphone.

To drive this point home, try having a conversation with someone who is actively reading a book. You’ll very quickly feel one of three things; their annoyance, their disconnection (they’ll ignore you), or you’ll find them setting the book down and turning to face you. It’s impossible to be simultaneously invested in both reading and conversing and be doing either well. And yet the social norm is listing more and more towards a place where it’s acceptable for people to perform any manner of tasks and activities on their phones or computers while supposedly spending meaningful time with other people.

Corporations and consumer culture couch the invitation to buy or utilize their products in the language of “connection,” when in fact we are being lured into a state of profound disconnection. Tellingly, we don’t see the dangers of overstimulation, the bleeding of our privacy, or the temptation to narcissism as such. No, we see them as our rights. We feel entitled to be plugged in; to both acquiesce to and indulge in a system that includes what author John Freeman has labeled “the tyranny of e-mail.”

The perversion of the verb “to like” is one of the most compelling lenses through which Franzen examines the perfect storm whipped up between the forces of consumer culture on one side and narcissism on the other. “Liking” becomes a replacement for loving when we only “like” those people or things that are either predisposed to like us in return or who do not have the capacity to reject us. We seek through our technologies, he ultimately asserts, the means with which to escape the pain of facing the reality that we, along with everyone we love, must suffer and one day die.

What does it cost us to remain present in each moment? To not send a text, scroll through iTunes, or fondle our mobile devices for the duration of even a fifteen minute face-to-face conversation with another person? The answer is that remaining present will require bearing the joy, sadness, and sometimes the hunger for love of another human being. We’re ambivalent about connecting to other people. We’re ambivalent about looking at ourselves in the mirror, for fear of what we will or will not find.

I was recently at drinks with a friend and was in the middle of telling a story when his phone buzzed. He immediately picked it up and started typing out a response to the text he’d just received. I stopped speaking, waiting for him to finish. Suddenly self-conscious, he said, “Keep going, this is time sensitive. I just have to respond to XXXX.” I didn’t keep going, though. He looked up at me again after a few seconds of silence, then set the phone down, visibly annoyed. I continued with my story. I didn’t apologize for his discomfort. I don’t think I needed to.

The Sousaphone Player Of My Heart

I was a block away from the Oswego Hotel on a quest to find the Sunday New York Times when I heard the sounds of brass and drums floating toward me on the chill breeze. Rounding a couple of giant motor coaches I found the eighty-odd members of a high school marching band rehearsing in a loose circle. On my return through the parking lot a few minutes later after being confronted with the fact that Canadians, given the alternative, would rather read British newspapers than American ones, my feet started tapping to the new tune burbling from the flugelhorns and tubas. Words came unbidden, fitting themselves snugly into the instrumental music…

Daisy dukes, bikinis on top
Sun-kissed skin, we’re so hot
We’ll melt your popsicle.

They may like their newspapers British, but Canadian teens (or their band directors) apparently have no problem importing American pop music. The band that was playing Katy Perry was a separate entity from the group I’d seen the day before, from a different school, blasting Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” from the steps of the Victorian Parliament Building.

The whole thing made me think of my cousin Randy who is a music teacher and high school band director in Ohio. The West Coast doesn’t have the same love for strutting drum majors that the Midwest does, let alone Ohio itself, home of The Best Damn Band In The Land. Randy, wherever this Sunday morning finds you, I’m thinking of you, sending out the sousaphone player of my heart to dot the “i” in our own script Ohio.

Gettin’ Tacked

Just read an essay by Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids on tattoos. He talks about getting a big chest piece and then pausing there, with nothing else, for several years. If you know me, you know that’s my story. Nate’s musings were fun to read as I contemplate re-upping. It’s fun to reminisce about the reactions each of my family members had to my first tattoo. Like Nate’s brother, I hadn’t told anybody I was getting it. Find more CWK goodness here







^^^^^^

Islands

I recently finished reading Barry Lopez’s seminal work, Arctic Dreams. The book is like a meal; lovingly prepared, hearty, something to linger over. In one of numerous incandescent passages Lopez describes the return to England in 1820 of Lieutenant William Parry and the crew of HMS Hecla from a long Arctic voyage. Parry disembarked at Peterhead and took a carriage to London, carrying with him all of the journals, maps and records gathered on their trip. In light of the separation of these written records from the rest of the crew, not all of whom could even read let alone write, Lopez reflects on the egalitarian distribution of experience—profound beauty and profound suffering—amongst Parry and his men.

I could only think what exquisite moments these must have been. Inescapable hardship transcended by a desire for spiritual elevation, or the desire to understand, to comprehend what lay in darkness. I thought of some of the men at Winter Harbor with Parry. What dreams there must have been that were never written down, that did not make that journey south with Parry in the coach, but remained in the heart. The kind of dreams that give a whole life its bearing, what a person intends it should be, having seen those coasts.

The sailors under Parry’s command were men who, for all their lack of formal education, were just as capable of receiving inspiration from their experience of the foreign creatures, vast moonscapes, and strange stars of the polar regions as were the most esteemed of the Royal Scientists and high-ranking officers accompanying them. Lacking the language or opportunity to articulate those experiences, to transcribe them for future generations, did nothing to lessen the impact of what they had seen and undergone.

I have returned to this passage often as I’ve contemplated what it means to be a writer. To be a writer is to be one who bears witness to one’s own story and experience as well as to the experiences and stories of others. In bearing witness to my own life I have found that there are times when language fails. There are places beyond the ability of language to describe, moments when what is required merges seamlessly with what is possible—moments in which we need only, and in fact can only, be.

I feel compelled, ironically, to attempt a description of such a moment. Sitting alone on my bed on a recent afternoon I felt the touch of the breeze on my skin as it moved through the open window, and observed the play of dusky light across the driveway just outside. I was filled with strong emotion and a sense of the transitory nature of my own life. How many things end quickly or too soon. How nothing lasts forever and that this moment too was already passing. In that moment time was meaningless; all I had was the present, the beauty and sadness it offered me.

You weren’t there with me on my bed and you’ll never know just how I felt, just as I’ll never know what it meant to stand in the light of an unending day and watch plovers wheel in the sky above the Greenland ice cap two hundred years ago. It’s alright. I have come to believe that part of living well in this world correlates not so much to our ability to comprehend and pin down the fluttering moths of our thoughts and experiences with words, but rather to our ability to receive the simplest of blessings with gratitude and in turn bestow those blessings on others. It is an ability in which our growth and skill are themselves a reflection of grace.

What then of my aspiration as a writer; to chronicle, to parse, to hew down to the essence of things? I affirm it as a good desire. The call to bear witness is a call to be heeded and blessed. Yet every person is an island, sheltering in his or her soul some virgin tract which by virtue of its very nature can never be accessed by anyone else. This is not to say that we cannot understand what it is to suffer, to love, to desire, to be in anguish. We can—the ability to share in the sufferings and joys of another is what makes compassion, friendship, relationship and love meaningful. But we can never be fully known by another, save perhaps God.

I am almost surprised to find that this reality engenders in me not primarily a sense of loneliness, but rather wonder, even while begging a question as to what we, as people, are for. Perhaps the point of life is in one real sense simply to be present. We don’t have to record everything for posterity. We can’t. At some point the continent of language ends and we push out onto the water of experience, the water of grace, where we live and move and have our being.

Be Kind To Your Past

My friend and fellow MHGS alum Joshua Longbrake shares some powerful thoughts on reading your past writing.” Not just reading your past writing, but reading your past behavior.

After having a conversation just yesterday in which I described a bunch of my old record reviews as “awful,” I think need some of this medicine.

^^^

“In life, you’re given three options (how generous of life):

1. Never write down a single word

2. Write things down, see goodness

3. Write things down, feel shame

These options are not exclusive to each other.”

Young Lion

Bin Laden is dead and some are rejoicing.  Freddie DeBoer has some wisdom to offer.

“That the good people in America want desperately to feel proud of the country again, I can understand, although “my country” is a concept I walked away from years ago. That people feel tremendous anger against a horrific person who committed inexcusable crimes, I understand. And that I am tempted to take up the flag and get with the communal program, I can’t deny. I’m human, after all. But I know how things start, and I know that, within the crowds of people crowing and whooping and letting forth with anger, hides the most dangerous impulse that ever resided in the human heart.”

I was turned on to DeBoer’s thoughts by the men of Patrol. Jonathan Fitzgerald had some good observations of his own.

“It is clear that, from all angles, the killing of bin Laden is understood as justice, but I am going to suggest that we’ve conflated our human understanding of justice with God’s justice. That Osama bin Laden is dead does not make the world a better place. It does not make us safer. It does not somehow magically remove a quotient of evil from the face of the earth. Russell Arben Fox, writing on the religious and moral implications of bin Laden’s death for Front Porch Republic says it well, “The moral plane of the universe is not somehow improved by the killing of a man.”

Death begets more death. Killing creates more killers. True, bin Laden will never again mastermind a plan to kill anyone, but someone else will. Someone else just did in the time it took to write that last sentence. And again. And again.

If we could accomplish God’s justice by killing people, if the death of an evildoer at the hand of another human is what would bring about justice, Jesus would not have come to die, but to kill…

But that’s not how God’s justice works. And it’s a good thing, too. If the punishment for evil was physical death, we would all be dead. In fact, death is the consequence of evil, but for saving grace in the person of Jesus. Death at the hands of another human is not God’s justice. It was Jesus himself who warned, “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” This is not metaphorical language. This is a truism that was true before Jesus came, and remains true long after.

Thus, we don’t exercise God’s justice by issuing out the death we believe evildoers deserve. In fact, we hardly ever exercise God’s justice at all because it is so counterintuitive to our construction of the concept. I’ll be the first to say that I fail in this regard, so I’m not going to ask any readers to do better. But, I believe that what I can ask, what we can do, is understand the difference, and stop conflating the two.

Osama bin Laden was evil. I still twinge with pain when I remember the way I felt for months after September 11, 2001. Here on earth, he deserved to die. But, then, here on earth, so do I.”

Belong

Some thoughts on what it means to be part of a group.

^^^

We can’t think about the idea of a group without turning our minds, sooner or later, toward that most primal of all groupings—the family.  We use the language of parents and siblings to describe our involvement in collectives as disparate as armies, sports teams, religious denominations, and the fan clubs of pop stars.  Corporations licit and illicit refer to their workers as The Family.  Like our flesh and blood families of origin, the various groups we seek membership in as we grow up and press outward into the world are each collectives of individuals bonded by a common story.

Prominent among the benefits of belonging to any group is safety.  In seeking out those with whom we share some common bond we often seek respite from, even solidarity against, that which threatens us.  Cue anti-immigration rallies, church small groups, all-women kayaking tours and LGBT softball leagues.  Groups offer the pleasures of camaraderie, affirmation, the opportunity to speak an intimate language—the reassurance that someone else shares our view of the world.

As with your family, groups have their drawbacks too.  Just ask anyone who’s been kept outside of one.  One of the greatest powers afforded any group is its ability to legislate membership, to police itself.  The more heightened the sense of belonging within any group, the more glaringly obvious the presence of an outsider.  We all want to be insiders, yet sometimes we seem to feel that there are only so many spots available before the potency of membership becomes diluted.

To whatever extent membership in any collective is predicated upon exclusion, there exists the potential for harm.  What’s more, there’s a real danger of blindness for those on the inside.  If diversity is an effective antidote for contempt the opposite is also true—homogeneity breeds it.

What, you ask, of prisoners? Wounded veterans?  Anyone in the history of middle school, shoe-horned into a random quartet for a group project in Algebra?  Do those in a subset not of their choosing “rejoice?”  Oftentimes not.  But, see, the secret ingredient with groups is time.  Time, that yeast by means of which the good and bad in any group dynamic is multiplied, becoming far better or worse.  The longer we’re part of a group the more secure we are in it.  And the more potential we have for being blinded, callused, desensitized to the experience of being left outside.