Why I Don’t Own a Cell Phone

Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), is a modern sage. Next fall, my writing students and I will read and discuss Chapter Eight, Always On. Maybe we’ll start with that subtitle. Do we expect more from technology and less from each other? If so, why? Since my first year college students will be card carrying members of the first always on, internet generation, that discussion could fall flat. More how? Less than what?

Dig this excerpt:

These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology. Most of the time, we carry that technology with us. In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption on your screen. In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. . . .

When people have phone conversations in public spaces, their sense of privacy is sustained by the presumption that those around them will treat them not only as anonymous but as if absent. On a recent train trip from Boston to New York, I sat next to a man talking to his girlfriend about his problems. Here is what I learned by trying not to listen: He’s had a recent bout of heavy drinking, and his father is no longer willing to supplement his income. He thinks his girlfriend spends too much money and he dislikes her teenage daughter. Embarrassed, I walked up and down the aisles to find another seat, but the train was full. Resigned, I returned to my seat next to the complainer. There was some comfort in the fact that he was not complaining to me, but I did wish I could disappear. Perhaps there was no need. I was already being treated as though I were not there.

Some people are incredulous when they learn I don’t own a cell phone. My students, last fall, for example. One couldn’t comprehend how I grocery shopped without the ability to call home and double check on what was needed.

Some of my friends would say I don’t have one because I’m a cheap, antisocial bastard. Only partially true, my parents were married when they had me. But those charming attributes aren’t the main reasons. I don’t have one in large part because you haven’t convinced me that your lives are substantially better with them. Convenient at times no doubt, but just as often I hear you lament how dependent upon them you are. At least among middle aged cellphoners there’s a nostalgia for simpler times when people weren’t always accessible, people sometimes made eye contact, and you might meet someone new in public.

Of course, ambivalent cellphoners could turn off their phones on occasion, but that defeats the whole purpose of instantaneous accessibility. Everyone expects you’re all in.

I’m sure my daughters are tired of hearing me say that I’m going to buy the next iPhone. I probably will conform sometime in the future, but I know once I take the plunge, my life will change. Thanks to you, I’m just not convinced it’s for the better.

Twitter is Like a Very Large Dinner Table

Facebook seems to thrive on nostalgia for the past. I like Twitter because it’s present tense in orientation.

Twitter is like sitting around a very large dinner table with guests you get to choose. I have little interest in faux, electronic, celebrity friendships. I choose guests who 1) make me laugh on occasion; 2) keep me informed about things I care about; and/or 3) share links to articles and videos about things I care about. Those I follow sit around the table and slide reading and multimedia material to one another saying, “Have you read or seen this?”

Sometimes Bill Simmons at ESPN, Alan Shipnuck at Sports Illustrated (golf writer), and John Dickerson at Slate can be funny. Among a few others, I follow Slate Magazine, the Atlantic Magazine, The Economist, Bonnie Ford, Atul Gwande, Walt Mossberg, and some of the bloggers I regularly read.

Most people think of Twitter success in terms of followers, the more the better. I’m more interested in the quality of the dinner conversation than the quantity of guests. And some people think the secret to more followers is to tweet more often. For me though, the more you tweet the more you have to make me laugh or keep me informed. If you tweet just because you like the sound of your tweets, you’ll soon join the ranks of former dinner guests.

Speaking of laughter, this skit is comic genius.

If You Think Education Reform is Difficult in the United States

Get a load of Mexico. Paragraph to ponder:

Supporters of the education overhaul say it is the only way for the Mexican state to recover control of the education system, which they say has been virtually taken over by the teachers unions. The unions hand out teaching positions, often disregarding competence, and these positions are then often inherited or even sold to the highest bidder. The unions have defended the practice of transferring positions as legal.

Here’s better news from The Atlantic. Mexico is Getting Better, and Fewer Mexicans Want to Leave.

And today’s Mexican culture update. Two Pop Stars Try to Revive Mexico’s Good Old Days, in Song at Least.

And a great vid from Julieta Venegas, Me Voy. No comprende, pero me gusto.

A Panacea for Improved Health

I have a neighbor who makes money off of his car. He carefully shops for an underpriced used one, then takes immaculate care of it, and then gets reimbursed by his employer at 50+ cents per mile.

I admire his fiscal discipline, but who wants to spend their weekend washing their car the way he does? One time he yelled at another neighbor who was washing the bottom 90% of her van. “You gotta start with the roof and work down!” Best comeback ever, “No one’s gonna see the top!” Blood pressure spike. And he routinely rips me for using the last bit of dirty water in the bucket to wash my wheels, but I tell him my goal is for my car to be 90% as clean as his in 10% of the time. And normally it is.

We’re all obsessive about something. One could argue I substitute exercise for car washing. Last week was pretty typical for April. Four runs for 28.7 total miles. Two swims for 6,000 meters and two bike rides for 90 miles. And an hour lifting weights. Total time, 11-12 hours. People like me tend to have a lot of fitness activity-based friendships and we often find the swimming, cycling, and running enjoyable in and of itself. We’d still go out and run, swim, and cycle even if there weren’t empirical health benefits tied to those activities. We’re lucky that our hobbies come with health benefits.

Some people no doubt think about my commitment to fitness the same way I think about people who obsess about the stock market’s every move and spend their days thinking, talking, and writing about money. There’s an opportunity cost to finance tunnel vision. Life passes by. Investing wisely is a means towards other more meaningful ends—like learning about other people’s interests and engaging with them.

Like extreme car washing, there’s a tipping point where a person’s fitness routine can detract from their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. That’s where “Doc Mike Evans” comes in. He asks a great question near the end of this high-speed informative whiteboard lecture—Can you limit your sleeping and sitting to just 23.5 hours a day? 

Like my quicker, more casual approach to car washing, Doc Evans explains how you can achieve most of my health benefits in much less time. Walk 20-30 minutes a day. Even better if you integrate walking as a means of transportation by living within a mile of your work, a grocery store, and other stores. And of course driving less is good for your pocketbook and the environment too.

Forget my approach of driving to the pool and overdoing it in the form of occasional marathons and triathlons*. Instead, as Doc Evans advises, walk 20-30 minutes a day and enjoy markedly improved mental and physical health.

Maybe you’re already a walker, but wish there were even more tangible health benefits. Evans explains how you can reap additional benefits by extending the time and distance of your daily walks. But since time is most people’s greatest obstacle, I suggest picking up the intensity by choosing more hilly routes. My running teammates probably get tired of me saying, “The hills are our friends.” When I don’t feel like exerting myself much, which is a lot of the time, I sometimes commit to a hilly route because hills force me to increase the intensity. As an added benefit, when I’m running up hill, my conservative Republican Nutter friends don’t have enough oxygen to complain about the current political scene. If you’re a Florida or Texas flatlander, move.

We expect complexity today, but this isn’t. If you want to enjoy an improved quality (and quantity) of life, take a ten minute walk sometime today. And then repeat tomorrow. And the next day. Extend it to twenty minutes next week. And repeat. Every day.

* This summer I’m going to be more family focused than last year. We’re looking forward to a fair number of visitors from afar, and at the end of the summer, launching Seventeen at a still-to-be-decided college. I’m #34 on the RAMROD waitlist which means I’ll definitely get in and Danny and I plan on running the Wonderland Trail in mid-August. I may throw in a few short/medium distance triathlons on unscheduled weekends. Or maybe I’ll just take a walk.

Betrothed and I walking

Amazing she’ll still hold hands with me after all these years

Adam Johnson Wins Pulitzer for Orphan Master’s Son

From the NYTimes. 

Mr. Johnson, 45, was cited by the board for an ‘exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.’

While writing the novel, Mr. Johnson said, he read propaganda and books approved by the regime. He eventually included Kim Jong-il, the late North Korean leader, as a character in the book. ‘I came to, not feel for him, but to see a human dimension in him,’ he said. ‘He was a very cunning person, a very witty person. He had flaws like all people. The more I studied him the more I realized that he was a very human figure.

Richly deserved award. Here’s my review of the Orphan Master’s Son.

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A Masterful Lesson

I watched a hell of a lot of golf this weekend. I do that one weekend in April every year. It’s a tradition like no other. If I played the same amount as I watched, I would have halved my handicap.

While watching, I marveled at my complete and utter dislike for Tiger Woods. Why do I want anyone but him to win? On Friday, why did I silently cheer when his half wedge at 13 hit the pin on a bounce and caromed back into Rae’s Creek? The Saturday morning penalty was icing on the top. Why do I root so intensely against him? Why does he bring out the worst in me?

My anti-Tiger mania is especially odd since I grew up in Cypress, California a small-medium sized suburban city six miles from Disneyland. It’s most famous for being El Tigre’s hometown. In my teens, I anonymously worked and played the same courses he did so famously in his well documented youth. And he’s a brother in a lily white sport desperately in need of diversity. And his talent is undeniable. And the way he grinds on every shot is admirable. But that’s the kindest thing you’ll ever see me write about him.

Was it the serial womanizing? No. My deep-seated antipathy precedes that downward spiral. Is it the Michael Jordan-like mix of constant commercialism and over the top materialism. In small part. Is it my nostalgia for Nicklaus and my childhood. In small part.

The much larger part came to me while watching Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera on the second playoff hole. Cabrera hit a very solid approach on the par 4 about 18 feet below the hole. Scott’s mid-iron ended up about 12-14 feet to the side of the hole. Clutch as it gets. Cabrera walked as he watched Scott’s shot in the air. When it landed, he turned and gave Scott a thumbs up sign. Class personified. Scott shot him one right back.

An epiphany exactly one week after Easter. “That’s it!” I realized. Humanity in the midst of the most intense competition imaginable. We’ll never, ever, ever see Tiger do anything like that. His intensity routinely crosses from the admirable to something that makes me root against him. We will never see Tiger applaud an opponent especially in a moment like that. Or reciprocate as Scott did. Never ever. Maybe it’s his dad’s fault, but Tiger learned to focus so intently on winning that everyone and everything else be damned.

I wish the golf press would make a pact and do us all a big favor and just stop interviewing him. He always looks so pained and he never says anything the least bit authentic. He always gives the answers he thinks will end the interview the fastest. The following dialogue bubble should be superimposed on the screen whenever he’s being interviewed, “How much longer until this god foresaken interview with this god d*mned idiot is over?!”

My position on Tiger will soften when a groundskeeper, a golf journalist, a waiter, a caddy, a Tour player, or anyone not on his payroll says something genuinely nice about him. Something that reveals his humanity.

I’m not holding my breath.

Mindfulness

Have you noticed? The term is cropping up everywhere. Alina Tugend, in an informative blog post that I borrow heavily from, explains:

Elementary school students practice it. Doctors practice it — and their patients. Prisoners practice it. There’s mindful eating that promises a healthier way of eating. And scans show mindfulness may change the way our brains function and help us improve attention, reduce stress hormones and even bounce back faster from negative information.

I dig Janice Marturano’s definition, mindfulness is “intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally”. If I could learn to intentionally pay attention to the present nonjudgmentally, my personal relationships would markedly improve.

According to Marturano, mindfulness isn’t only about reducing stress. Or about emptying our minds of all thoughts. Or about religion.

A few years ago I team taught a course with a friend who was taking classes in a mindfulness credential program. She’d occasionally fly from Seattle to Oakland for weekend courses. She suggested we integrate mindfulness training into our graduate course for teacher credential candidates. I liked her teaching instincts and philosophy so I agreed to give it a try even though apart of me worried that it might be New Age hocus pocus. In the end, it went beautifully and I became an advocate for mindfulness.

Martuarno explains the basics:

Find a quiet place to focus your attention — on your breath or perhaps on an object. It’s not deep breathing, but rather experiencing when the breath enters and leaves. Feel the stretch in the rib cage, without me doing anything. Can I notice when the mind takes a hike and redirect it? That redirection is the exercise.

Tugend adds:

There’s also what Marturano calls ‘purposeful pauses.’ Deciding that instead of thinking of a coming meeting while brushing your teeth you really focus on the taste of the toothpaste and the bristles and the water.

My attention is so scattered sometimes I think there’s only two times when I’m truly “in the present”. The first is when I’m exerting myself when cycling at high speeds in a group and the second I don’t dare describe since this is a family friendly blog.

Marturano again, “Take yourself out of autopilot and eventually expand that ‘being in the moment’ to other parts of your life.” 

Tugend says, “the idea is that over time you’ll feel more focused and more connected to yourself and others.”

Ever been at a large, raucous social gathering with someone whose unusually focused eye contact and attention made you feel heard and understood above the din? That’s mindfulness in practice.

Tugend again:

It sounds simple, but it’s not, because it so goes against the grain of how most of us think and operate. We want to get things done, to identify and fix problems. And that’s the opposite of what mindfulness is all about.

Christy Matta, author of the book “The Stress Response”, notes:

The way it’s presented in the media, people begin to believe it’s a magic pill. I’ll clear my mind and I’ll be peaceful and stress-free. If that’s what people think, they’ll be disappointed.

She adds:

If you go into it with the idea of reducing stress, you’re working against the very thing you’re trying to attain, because you’re aiming toward a goal. Mindfulness is about being present. You have to do it just to do it. You can’t strive for things.

Matta also cautions:

While being aware of your feelings may be nice when drinking a lovely cup of tea or relaxing in a garden, part of mindfulness is also uncomfortable feelings — not trying to change or judge them, but being aware of them. And that may not feel so pleasant.

Dr. Baime notes another common misconception about mindfulness, that it’s about learning to be happy. It’s not. Nor is it about eliminating stress.

Stress doesn’t go away, ever. That’s why we call it stress management rather than stress elimination. Rather, mindfulness can create a world where you experience depth, meaning and connectedness. You see joy and sadness more fully and settle more deeply into an authentic way of being.

That all important insight reminds me of a related book I previously recommended, “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking“.

Marturano says mindfulness is supposed to:

Help us spend less time worrying about the future or fretting about the past. We’ll gain perspective, listen better and step back to consider more choices and make decisions more clearly and intentionally, rather than reactively.

But Tugend cautions people not to assume that mindfulness is some sort of miracle cure. For example:

While It has been used to good effect in classrooms, it shouldn’t be used in isolation. . . . Mindfulness can increase attention and focus, and help children respond to stress in a calmer manner, but it also needs to be part of learning concrete emotional and social skills.

Tugend also contends it’s difficult to learn to be mindful on one’s own. She says:

There are some good books that offer guidance like “Full Catastrophe Living,” (Delacorte Press, 1990) by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Professor Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is considered one of the foremost experts on the subject.

“Everyone I spoke to,” she explains, “said that you need to take a course and perhaps go on a retreat to fully experience and gain value from mindfulness.”

Like Tugend, I can see why other people are drawn to it, given, as she says, “that we’re living in a such a fractured, information-overloaded world. We’re looking so far ahead to the next thing, we miss what’s going on in the present.” 

Guilty as charged.