Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet’s Blackberry’

Labor Day Fishing

September 2, 2019

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Canada Geese Keeping Me Company

Time is but the stream I go a–fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. 

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

On this second September morning, I still find the west Texas world comparatively cooler than what I knew during August. I found a shady spot again at a playa around 8:00 this morning, and again found the carp cooperating. I managed to land three of them, and lost two more. After two hours, I decided to call it quits when I caught a channel catfish the size of my hand.

Sitting in the shade in a comfortable lawn chair, I felt gratitude for a world that seemed to slow down where I sat. I chose to leave the national news alone, knowing it would most likely be more of the same–an avalanche of frenetic reporting on the same catastrophes and national embarrassments that I’ve know far too many years now. In the nineteenth century, Thoreau expressed dismay for a country that was living too fast when he was writing his Walden manuscript:

It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.

Today I found comfort in reading an article the theologian Paul Tillich published in The Saturday Evening Post back in 1958. His assessment of the American culture was that we had become a people, driven by an industrial society and recent technological advancements, in a frenzied horizontal direction. We were driven to work harder, faster, and produce more and more. He opined that we had lost our vertical sense of depth and no longer thought about the deeper issues of life that matter.

Robert Pirsig, in his celebrated work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wrote that our national conversation, thanks to mass media, had gotten out of control, like a mighty river flooding its banks and running shallow, silting up with debris of no lasting value.

The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated.

William Powers, in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry, warns that we will never achieve depth in our thinking if we are all the time distracted by our smartphones and tablets. Jumping from link to link, like a bird flitting from branch to branch, we find ourselves in a state of perpetual distraction, and never pause to reflect over the better elements of our lives. Two mornings of fishing have helped ease my mind as I’ve felt the stress growing due to a major presentation I am scheduled to make in exactly two weeks. Every day I work on this presentation, but thanks to the last two mornings of quiet fishing, I’ve found myself in a better state of mind and creativity to focus on the task that is coming on very quickly.

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The Carp were Active again this Morning

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Using my Size 13 Boot for Scale

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And then . . . there were the Little Ones

Thanks for reading.

 

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A Quiet Afternoon for Reflection

February 22, 2017

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Latest 20 x 16″ Watercolor in Progress

This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

After hours of house cleaning and domestic chores, I was ecstatic to find a block of a few hours to paint late this afternoon before dashing off to an evening commitment. Because of an impending One-Man-Show, I have had this desire to return to a Blues theme for a new series of paintings. This one is barely off the ground, and already I’m second-guessing the composition. When such happens, I choose longer gaps for merely staring at the painting from across the room, rather than going full steam ahead.

As I drew and painted and stared for long periods from a distance at this piece, I listened with delight to some YouTube book talks given by William Powers, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.  This book has changed my life profoundly, convincing me that I don’t have to blog daily, and don’t need to live a life chained to my smart phone, anticipating the next alert.

This evening, I will present a brief talk at a monthly gathering that we call “the Salon.” This is a small group of people I adore who love to discuss ideas once a month. Most of the group is retired, having formerly worked in education, industry, politics and journalism. The topics are always approved in advance, and last month I volunteered to lead a discussion over William Powers’s book.  Hoping that none of the salon participants will look at my blog before this evening, I’ve decided to go ahead and post the substance of my presentation.

Thanks for reading . . .

Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age[1]

Shelley listened to an interview on NPR with author William Powers who had just published Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.  She purchased two copies, giving one to me.  Henry David Thoreau, in the “Reading” chapter of his book Walden, writes: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”[2]  Over the span of my life, only a few books have marked new eras, and this book is one of them.  At any age, it feels gratifying, to think of turning a corner or opening a new chapter.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry, offers these words: “The simple act of going out for a walk is completely different today from what it was fifteen years ago. Whether you’re walking down a big-city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you’re carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along”[3]  I found this passage very confrontational to me personally.  It brought my attention to how obsessed I had become to being “connected” digitally, because of a smart phone that was continually beeping, always alerting me to my blog, facebook, emails and text messages—my life was being chewed up chasing all these prompts, and it took this book to point that out to me.

I am not sounding a negative note for our improvement of technology, this digital age. Technology has transformed my teaching in the high school classroom as well as teaching online at the university.  Technology has connected me to the art and business world.  Computers are wonderful as are smart phones.  But there are two elements attending this digital age that run counter to my idea of a quality life—one is the fast pace, and the other is the emphasis on connecting all the time with others.  The fast pace disregards the importance of time to mature ideas; the social connection neglects the importance of solitary space and depth to find oneself.

I am quoting a chapter title from the Powers book: “Digital Busyness is the Enemy of Depth”.  The point he makes is that when we spend our lives surfing the Internet, flitting from site to site, platform to platform, screen to screen, we are not experiencing the depths of life, but merely skimming over the surface of the media.  In 1963, Paul Tillich addressed the fortieth anniversary of Time magazine, pointing out that America “was a free society, to be sure, but one without depth: its ceaseless expansion, whether into outer space or on the production line, had created an almost irresistible temptation on the part of everyone to produce in order to produce still more.  Tillich exhorted the producers of cultural goods to stop moving in this one-dimensional direction—to come to a halt in order to ‘enter creation and unite with its power,’ in short, to add the vertical line of depth to the horizontal line of extension.”[4]

In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig pleaded for a more contemplative life, and wrote: “What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that’s the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.  The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement.  Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep.  The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks.  In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated.  “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow.  I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.  . . .   Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of  its own internal momentum.  Some channel deepening seems called for.”[5]

A major argument proposed by this book is that digital connectedness sacrifices depth.  One does not contemplate the qualities and meaning of life when clicking on links and flitting from headline to headline, text to text, opinion to opinion. It seems that the only motivation for such a lifestyle is to feel connected to humanity.

Well, I don’t believe that being connected to others is the sole quality of life. In Anthony Storr’s book Solitude, the noted psychologist maintains that Sigmund Freud shifted clinical opinion toward the emphasis of social relations as a measure of human quality. Storr argues for the merits of solitude, that an intrinsic outlook does not mean that the individual is lacking in human quality. In today’s world, so much emphasis has been placed on connectedness that many feel they are inadequate or uninteresting if they do not continually post on facebook or Twitter, or find someone to call or text on their smart phones.  Many feel chained to chat rooms and blogs on the Internet, convinced that the more connected they are, the more well-rounded and healthy their lives are. William Powers urges: “However, the external validation provided by incoming messages and the number of times one’s name appears in search results is not as trustworthy or stable as the kind that comes from the inside.”[6] I would also point out a relatively new best-seller by author Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

Is the fear of disconnecting a fear of loneliness or is it really the fear of irrelevance?  When I became immersed in my blog activity, I first regarded my daily posting as a matter of discipline, convincing myself that if I held myself to a daily deadline, like a newspaper journalist, that I would improve my disciplinary lifestyle in other areas as well. As time went on, however, I confess that what drove me was not a sense of discipline and self-worth, but rather the fear that I would become irrelevant and eventually forgotten, if I did not keep the blog fires burning by daily shoveling fuel into it via a new post.

The heart of this book argues that our age is not unique with the conflict between social connection and solitude, between speedy technology and plodding contemplation.  The author writes compelling chapters covering Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall McLuhan. What these great figures share in common is living in an age of technological advance with its temptation for speed, and they used it where it was beneficial, but refused to abandon their contemplative natures.  They consistently maintained that technology and shortcuts would not rule their lives.

In addition to the chapters of Powers’s book, I would suggest some of the New Testament Gospel accounts concerning words and practices of Jesus of Nazareth.  His words from John’s Gospel:  “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”  Think on those things for a moment: there are forces that try to steal from our lives—all we have is a measure of time, and whatever is taken is never recovered. Jesus said the thief takes, but he has come to offer abundance. Think about that rhythm—losing and gaining. And let me share a few examples from the life of Jesus that illustrate these rhythms.

After a full day of pouring out his life for the crowds in Capernaum, Jesus rose the next morning seeking restoration.  He departed for a solitary place, and there prayed. When his disciples finally caught up with him, they said, “Where have you been? Everyone is looking for you!”[7]  But of course.  That is why he left; he had already given, and now it was time to recover.

This rhythm of public ministry and private retreat is a thread running throughout the Gospel narratives. Jesus did not hesitate to urge that practice upon those whom he loved. There is a time for pouring out our lives, and there is a time to restore.  When his apostles finished their first preaching tour, they came back to him overflowing with success and enthusiasm.  They had given, and they were enthusiastic, but exhausted.  His words: “Come aside with me to a solitary place where you can rest awhile,” because there was so much coming and going that they could not even stop long enough to eat. [8]

When Jesus went to Bethany to visit in the home of the sisters Mary and Martha, Mary sat at his feet with the other men, transfixed by his spoken words.  Martha was prattling about the kitchen. “Jesus!” she urged, “Don’t you care that I have no help in here?  Tell my sister to come and help!”  His answer: “Martha.  Martha.  You are distracted over many things.   One thing matters.  Your sister has chosen that one thing, and it will not be taken away from her.”[9]

When the digital age distracts us to follow the myriads of links, meetings and tasks throughout each day, then we should remind ourselves of this: You are distracted, harassed by many things.  One thing matters.  Don’t let them take away from you that one thing.  It is O.K. to disconnect from this connected world from time to time and find yourself in the quiet gaps of solitude.

I believe that this rhythm of social and private has kept me alive and vital over twenty-eight years in a public classroom.  Yes, I have known burnout, but I also have known how to recover.  I have witnessed complex changes in technology and social networking and I have always heard that call for acceleration.  But that is not my life.  I still live for the reflection, the quiet, the delicious moments of solitude.  And I always seek for ways to make time for those things that matter the most.  All we have is a measure of time.  Ralph Waldo Emerson got it right when he wrote: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

 

               

[1] Presented at the North Arlington Salon, February 22, 2017.

[2] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Penguin, 1983), p. 153.

[3] William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (New York: Harper, 2010), p. 15

[4] Wilhelm Pauck, Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought  Volume 1: Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976),  p. 274

[5] Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Morrow Quill, 1974), pp. 15-16.

[6] Powers, p. 46.

[7] Mark 1:35

[8] Mark 6:30-32.

[9] Luke 10:38-42.

The Quiet Within

November 9, 2016

Alone with my Books

I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it.  There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighborhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil? 

Seneca, On Noise

Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at anytime and be yourself.

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

It’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there.

Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

I am nearing the end of a string of delicious hours in the quiet of my study tonight.  My reading has been broad, but probably the best moments were spent in William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.  Thanks to one of his chapters, I’ve returned to reading Seneca, and tonight uncovered a lovely article written by Jennifer Bowen Hicks: “Whispered Wills and Words That Bleed: On Transparency of Thought in the Essay” (http://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/craft/craft_hicks38.html).

An evening like this was long overdue.  The value of the lessons from Hamlet’s Blackberry, for me, is impossible to exaggerate.  Time is too precious to spend abundantly on the Internet and social media.  As Powers argues, flitting from link to link eliminates real depth from life, from introspection.  Every four years, I manage to get pulled into election chatter, and in the final months devote what is no doubt hundreds of hours to reading articles on the Internet and listening to news outlets.  Then the election comes and goes and I come away feeling I need a serious bath, a cleansing.  On this, the day after, I have stayed away from social media almost entirely–almost.  And now I am retreating to the wilderness to find that sanctuary I have been missing.  I need to recharge some batteries and reset my compass.

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Philippians 4:8

For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.

Proverbs 23:7

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Finding Sanctuary Inside a Coffee House

September 4, 2016

coffee tree

Tree Sketch from inside the Coffee House

That’s what depth comes to, really, taking all the stuff your mind has gathered in its travels back inside, to sort through it and see what it all means.  To make it your own. The only way to cultivate a happy inner life is to spend time there, and that’s impossible when you’re constantly attending to the latest distraction.

William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry

Late into Saturday night, Shelley Allison and I rode the new Dallas Streetcar to the Bishop Arts District in South Oak Cliff. Finding a relaxing space inside Espumoso Cafe, I opened Hamlet’s Blackberry and re-read the Marshall McLuhan chapter. I took heart in reading that McLuhan was not a linear thinker, preferring a more “mosaic” approach to presenting his ideas. Thinking back over three decades of classroom activity, I confess that I was never known for systematic and linear thinking myself. It’s probably too late to change that now.

During this holiday weekend, I have enjoyed the slower pace and the broader space to think through some matters worth thinking through. One idea that assesses my past is encapsulated in the quote posted above. While I don’t regard myself as a deep thinker, I nevertheless know that I have taken the contemplative life seriously at least as early as my college years, perhaps even sooner. Throughout my student as well as teacher life, I have found no satisfaction in bell schedules, deadlines and large group discussion formats that hindered rather than enhanced thinking. I have always known myself as an introvert, suited better to quiet spaces and sufficient time to work on ideas that matter. My years as a graduate student provided those spaces and times, and I have missed those kinds of work schedules since I graduated in 1987.

High school schedules separate subject matter by bell schedules, with less than ten minutes to transition from one class to the next, and transition the students must. For thirty years I have deplored that format, though forced to work within it. As a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Rollo May frequently strolled the neighborhood park after lecture classes under the theologian Paul Tillich, so he could think deeply, sorting out the content of those life-changing truths delivered in the lectures. On occasion, I myself have skipped particular convention sessions, because a joint-session orator would rock me with his/her public address, and I knew I had to find a quiet space in a lobby or coffee shop in order think through, sort out, and apply the notes I had scribbled hastily as the address was delivered. That activity was far more sacred to me than going into the next session to pursue a new topic, thus shelving the precious words just delivered.

In my personal life I have always read, indeed devoured books by the stack. This is more easily done during summer recess than during academic semesters. Now that I am entrenched in a new semester, I refuse to stop reading outside of class, and refuse to let my job push out this sacred activity of thinking in quiet spaces. Fortunately, I have one ninety-minute planning period per school day where I can pursue this ativity. And I’m even more thankful for this current gift of a three-day weekend to pursue my passion. During times like this, the smart phone is turned off and put away, and the laptop stays home. Thank you, William Powers, for getting my attention last year, convincing me of the value of unplugging from time to time. Social media can wait.

Thanks for reading.

Good Morning, America

August 12, 2016

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I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, . . . 

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to no one else.

Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing”

Good morning again, blogging and facebook friends. I unplugged from your company a couple of weeks ago, needing some time away to sort out some unsortable issues. After a week, I experienced little success in sorting, and then didn’t really know how to return to you, and still don’t, actually. Wayne White, a loving friend from high school days (http://www.doubledacres.com/), used to open his daily facebook with the warmest greetings to us all, and I still feel the warmth from reading his posts. So, here is my hope this morning to leave words of good cheer for anyone needing such. Wayne always encouraged us to spread the love, so I shall try.

A number of watercolors have been completed since I last posted, including the one above. This is a larger work by my scale (16 x 20″ unframed), and recalls a good moment from last spring while I was judging and workshopping at a plein air event in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, one of my favorite American towns for painting.

This summer has provided the luxury of grazing amidst many lush literary pastures.  A host of luminaries have shined a light before and within me throughout this sojourn, and I love them all for sharing their literary gift. During a joyful re-reading of William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry, I revisited this passage:

Depth roots us in the world, gives life substance and wholeness. It enriches our work, our relationships, everything we do. It’s the essential ingredient of a good life and one of the qualities we admire most in others. Great artists, thinkers, and leaders all have an unusual capacity to be ‘grasped’ by some idea or mission, an inner engagement that drives them to pursue a vision, undaunted by obstacles. Ludwig van Beethoven, Michelangelo, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr.—we call them ‘brilliant,’ as if it were pure intelligence that made them who they were. But what unites them is what they did with their intelligence, the depth they reached in their thinking and brought to bear in their work.

Balancing social encounters with a quiet contemplative life has made this entire summer truly unforgettable, with a host of splendorous emotions accompanied by a commensurate number of stumbles, bumps and bruises. That happens, and we should welcome it. After all, we know the sentiments of Henry David Thoreau as we continue to pursue the phantom of fulfilment throughout this Odyssey:

I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.

We know of that which Thoreau speaks. Each of us still tracks that phantom whose memory continues to haunt. And as Whitman observed, each of us sings our own carol.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

 

Into the Sanctuary

August 3, 2016

shadows

It all depends on the capacity of the soul to be grasped, to have its life-currents absorbed by what is given.

William James

On this day, the morning of August 3, 2016, I am retreating from the world, at least for a day, perhaps longer. For weeks, I have been immersed in people—family, friends, new acquaintances—and while soaking in the glow of their conversations, I unknowingly cut the moorings that secured me to the sanctuary that feeds my inner life. I have done this before, and there has always been a price to pay. I paid a heavy one this time. In response, with school and its daily crowd arriving in less than two weeks, I again retreat to my true shelter, my interior. I plan to begin a series of blind blogs, drafting my daily thoughts as before with the intention of launching them on the blog at a later time. For now, the blog and facebook will have to be laid aside.  It is time to find myself before I merge onto the school freeway. There is so much to sort out.

I have drawn strength daily from my dear readers’ kind comments, and I will miss that contact. I plan to return.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry

October 26, 2015

image

For my friends who requested it: Sunday I spoke at Arlington Unitarian Universalist Church on the topic of social media. I have posted the full manuscript below. The response was very positive, and I have good feelings about the encounter. Thanks for reading.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age

I still remember as though it were yesterday, the purchase of my first smart phone: a BlackBerry Bold 9000. The year was 2009. I was driving southbound on Bowen Road, five minutes from my home, and I did reach my home . . . thirty minutes later. The delay was not caused by an accident, but then again, perhaps it was. The phone buzzed on my console . . . and I had no idea what that meant. It didn’t ring. It wasn’t a phone call. So what was that signal?  The reason I was clueless was because I didn’t even know what a smart phone was.  All I knew was that my old cell phone was functioning very poorly, dropping calls, and losing battery power.  And it was pretty nicked up, having been dropped too many times. It was time for a new one, and I wanted a BlackBerry, not because I knew what it was, but because I had heard that “serious businessmen” carried them, and used them to stay organized.  I am chronically disorganized.  I could afford a BlackBerry, so I bought it.

So, what was that buzz?  Choosing to be safe at the wheel, I pulled into a parking lot, parked and checked.  An email notification.  Really?  On my phone?  I knew it had that capacity, but I thought I would have to look it up to see if anything was there, not that it would blurt out an alert while I was driving, for God’s sake.  I answered it, and then pulled back onto the street.  The phone signaled again, but this was a different sound.  Pulling into the next parking lot, I checked.  A text message.  Well, I already knew what those were; I just didn’t know the phone would speak up when it arrived.  So I answered it.  Back on the road.  Another signal.  Pull off to yet another parking lot.  A facebook notification.  Facebook?  On my phone?  Really?  Well, I answered that.  And then, a little further down the road, a different noise, this time my blog.  You’re kidding!  Someone posts a comment on my blog and my phone lights up?  Wow!  Now that’s what I call a “smart phone”!

I should have realized on that day what I had just stepped in.  But I didn’t. Now I am all too aware:  I had stepped into the Digital Age.  I was Connected.  Someone immediately taught me how to turn off all those notifications, but I did not want to turn them off.  I felt important to be reached out to, so frequently.  Earlier in life, I had found a measure of satisfaction with the Internet, with email messages, with facebook, finally with writing and publishing my own blog.  But all that had been done on the computer.  Every time I left the computer, I left the digital world of stimuli.

The book that has birthed today’s discussion, Hamlet’s BlackBerry, offers these words: “The simple act of going out for a walk is completely different today from what it was fifteen years ago. Whether you’re walking down a big-city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you’re carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along”  With my smart phone in hand, I was taking the global village with me at all times.  And I could not ignore the sounds, the prompts, the tugs that someone was trying to get my attention.  When my blog readership shot up to over 3,000 subscribers, I suddenly found myself in the position where I felt that if I didn’t publish something on the blog at least once daily, that I would become irrelevant, forgotten.  And so, my daily push for over one hundred hits on my blog became an addiction just as pathetic as Sarah Palin seeking ways to keep herself on that top 10 list of Yahoo searches, or Jerry Jones scrambling for ways to be mentioned on ESPN or the newspapers of the metroplex, or the 10:00 television news, or Donald Trump thinking up something else insulting to say so bored Americans will tune in to listen.  What I didn’t realize was that I was Owned.  I was not organizing my life, using the phone; the phone was controlling my life, making me jump with every notification.  I was pulled into a lifestyle where I could not stay away from my smart phone, the text messages, the email, facebook, the blogosphere.  And I didn’t realize it, though friends tried to tell me.

Henry David Thoreau, in the “Reading” chapter of his book Walden, writes: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” My friend Shelley listened to an interview on NPR about this book by William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.  Finding it on Amazon, she read a few pages, experienced that shock of recognition, and purchased two copies, giving one to me. Now, after reading it with sincere gratitude, I come gladly before you this morning to share some very liberating ideas that I believe have improved my life.  Granted this experience and set of ideas are still very new to me, I genuinely believe that I have come upon something of quality.  At any age, it feels gratifying, to think you could have turned a corner or opened a new chapter.

I do not wish to sound a negative note for our improvement of technology, this digital age. Never before have I lived in such an era, and technology has transformed my teaching in the high school classroom as well as teaching online at Texas Wesleyan University now.  Technology has connected me to the art and business world better than ever before.  Computers are wonderful as are smart phones.  I love blogging and (sort of) love facebook.  I appreciate the ability to text and send emails.  But there are two elements attending this digital age that run counter to my idea of a quality life—one is the fast pace and the other is the emphasis on connecting all the time with others.  The fast pace disregards the importance of time to mature ideas; the social connection neglects the importance of solitary space to find oneself.

I am quoting a chapter title from the Powers book: “Digital Busyness is the Enemy of Depth”.  The point he makes is that when we spend our lives surfing the Internet, flitting from site to site, platform to platform, screen to screen, we are not experiencing the depths of life, but merely skimming over the surface of the media.

When philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich addressed the fortieth anniversary of Time magazine way back in 1963, he pointed out that America “was a free society, to be sure, but one without depth: its ceaseless expansion, whether into outer space or on the production line, had created an almost irresistible temptation on the part of everyone to produce in order to produce still more.  Tillich exhorted the producers of cultural goods to stop moving in this one-dimensional direction—to come to a halt in order to ‘enter creation and unite with its power,’ in short, to add the vertical line of depth to the horizontal line of extension.”

In his celebrated book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig, back in 1974, pleaded for a more contemplative life, and wrote the following: “What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that’s the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.  The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement.  Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep.  The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks.  In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated.  “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow.  I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.  . . .   Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of  its own internal momentum.  Some channel deepening seems called for.”

A major argument proposed by this book is that digital connectedness sacrifices depth.  One cannot contemplate the qualities and meaning of life when clicking on links and flitting from headline to headline, text to text, opinion to opinion. It seems that the only motivation for such a lifestyle is to feel connected to humanity.

Well, being connected is not the sole quality of life. In Anthony Storr’s book Solitude, the noted psychologist maintains that Sigmund Freud shifted clinical opinion toward the emphasis of social relations as a measure of human quality. Storr argues for the merits of solitude, that an intrinsic outlook does not mean that the individual is lacking in human quality. In today’s world, so much emphasis has been placed on connectedness that many feel they are inadequate or uninteresting if they do not continually post on facebook or Twitter, or find someone to call or text on their smart phones.  Many feel chained to chat rooms and blogs on the Internet, convinced that the more connected they are, the more well-rounded and healthy their lives are. William Powers urges: “However, the external validation provided by incoming messages and the number of times one’s name appears in search results is not as trustworthy or stable as the kind that comes from the inside.”

Is the fear of disconnecting a fear of loneliness or is it really the fear of irrelevance?  When I became immersed in my blog activity, I first regarded my daily posting as a matter of discipline, convincing myself that if I held myself to a daily deadline, like a newspaper journalist, that I would improve my disciplinary lifestyle in other areas as well. As time went on, however, I confess that what drove me was not a sense of discipline and self -worth, but rather the fear that I would become irrelevant and eventually forgotten, if I did not keep the blog fires burning by daily shoveling fuel into it via a new post.

The heart of this book argues that our age is not unique with the conflict between social connection and solitude, between speedy technology and plodding contemplation.  The author writes compelling chapters covering Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall McLuhan. What they share in common is living in an age of technological advance with its temptation for speed, and they used it where it was beneficial, but refused to abandon their contemplative natures.  They consistently maintained that technology and the need for speed was not their life.

In addition to the chapters of Powers’s book, I would suggest some of the New Testament Gospel accounts concerning words and practices of Jesus of Nazareth.  After a blockbuster day with the crowds in Capernaum, Jesus arose before daylight the following morning, departed for a solitary place, and there prayed. When his disciples finally caught up with him, they said, “What is this? Everyone is looking for you!” His response: “Then, let’s move on to the next town, because I have a broader purpose.”

This rhythm of public ministry and private retreat is a thread running throughout the Gospel narratives. Jesus did not hesitate to urge that practice upon those whom he loved. When his apostles finished their first preaching tour, they came back to him overflowing with success and enthusiasm.  His words: “Come aside with me to a solitary place where you can rest awhile,” because there was so much coming and going that they could not even stop long enough to eat.

When Jesus went to Bethany to visit in the home of the sisters Mary and Martha, Mary sat at his feet with the other men, transfixed by his spoken words.  Martha was prattling about the kitchen. “Jesus!” she urged, “Don’t you care that I have no help in here?  Tell my sister to come and help!”  His answer: “Martha.  Martha.  You are distracted over many things.   One thing matters.  Your sister has found that one thing, and it will not be taken away from her.”

If the digital age has distracted you to follow the myriads of links, meetings and tasks throughout each day, just think on this: You are distracted, harassed by many things.  One thing matters.  Don’t let them take away from you that one thing.  It is O.K. to disconnect from this connected world from time to time and find yourself in the quiet gaps of solitude.

This is what has kept me alive and vital after twenty-seven years in a public classroom.  I’ve witnessed complex changes in technology and social networking and I have heard the call for acceleration.  But that is not my life.  I still live for the reflection, the quiet, the delicious moments of solitude.  And I always seek for ways to make time for those things that matter the most.

Thoreau wrote: “How many can date a new chapter in their lives from the reading of a single book?”  So, how is my daily lifestyle different, having read this book?  I still have a job, so I have to make preparations and show up daily to work and do my job.  I have a schedule to follow that the job dictates.  But when I am at liberty, I can make art, I can read, I can write in a journal, or go somewhere.  I no longer have to go online.  I no longer have to connect.  I no longer have to publish.  There is no need to show off.  I have no fear of being forgotten if I choose to stay offline for a season.  It is My Life.  I am taking Ownership of my life.  I am no longer driven by this sense of a digital publishing obligation.

What an age this is in which we live!  In many ways it could be called the fullness of time.  We can talk on the phone to people far away without paying those long-distance charges.  We can email a letter now, and not have to wait on the U. S. Postal Service to get it to its destination.  Never before have I felt so enriched by what technology offers us today.  Yet, we cannot forget the quality of face-to-face conversation or mailing the handwritten correspondence.  Ralph Waldo Emerson got it right when he wrote: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

Applying the Brakes

October 12, 2015

imageThe simple act of going out for a walk is completely different today from what it was fifteen years ago. Whether you’re walking down a big-city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you’re carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along.

William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry

This evening I went out to do some necessary errands, and as I backed out of my driveway, realized I had left my phone in the house. I didn’t even think for a moment of getting back out and going inside to retrieve it. Instead, I thought “Good!” and went on my way for about an hour’s worth of errands. Funny how I kept reaching for my pocket for a phone that wasn’t there. In response, I’ve set up a lesson plan for tomorrow involving social media and how distracted it has made us. I’m looking forward to the responses. At the end of this month, I’ll be giving a public talk on the book quoted above and what its message has come to mean to me.

For an hour before bedtime, I decided to push aside my assignments that are never completed (and probably never will be, as long as I remain a teacher–funny how the world expects us to work on this stuff throughout the school day, and until bedtime each night). Taking out my pencils, I began working on sketches again to relax and unwind. The one posted above I began several weeks ago, and then pushed aside, forgetting about it until now. I’m placing it inside a 5 x 7″ window mat that fits an 8 x 10″ frame. I’m going to offer it for $40. I’m surprised at how drawing has slowed down my frantic world, and I’ve taken the practice up almost daily. Maybe I’ll crank out a series of 5 x 7″ pencil drawings and see how they package. I had no idea they would look this fresh, torn out of the sketchbook and matted.

Thanks for reading.

A Thoreau Saturday

August 29, 2015

image“Home” means so many things. On the most basic level it’s simply a location, the place where one lives. It’s also the physical structure, the house or apartment that is home. Last, home refers to the environment that’s created inside that structure, a world-away-from-the-world offering refuge, safety, and happiness.

It’s this last idea of the home as sanctuary that’s absent from most thinking and decision making about technology.

William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age

Saturday could not have come sooner for me. The first week of school was exhausting, but successful, and by the time Friday evening arrived, I saw the weekend as a luxurious gift. I spent hours in a comfortable reading chair last night, enjoying my journaling and reading, while looking up occasionally at my recent artwork tossed all over the sofa across the living room from me, and feeling a sense of accomplishment.

I am loving this book by Powers that I have nearly finished reading. The current chapter is over Thoreau, and how he fled the modern telegraph and railroad sensations to live quietly in Walden woods. I feel that my home is an escape from the daily flood of data and deadlines that harry me throughout the school weeks. Home offers shelter in the evenings and weekends, and a chance to feel that I have gotten back to my real life. Reading this book has been a godsend, because the author discusses ways to keep social media from driving your daily agenda, hence taking over your life. Since I started reading it, I have become painfully aware of how much time daily I have given to facebook, texting, email, blogging, etc. and less time to reflection over what I actually want to do with my life. The book has been a precious gift, and William Powers has offered us genuine spiritual wealth in his writing.

Recent 20 x 24" Laguna Madre Watercolor in Progress

Recent 20 x 24″ Laguna Madre Watercolor in Progress

Today, I am hoping to go deep into this painting that I started this past week. Daily I feel the call that it puts out to me, and I want to engage in growing it to its fulfillment.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Focus

August 19, 2015
Pre-Dawn Drawing and Thinking

Pre-Dawn Drawing and Thinking

Of the mind’s many aptitudes, the most remarkable is its power of association, the ability to see new relationships among things. The brain is the most amazing associative device ever created, with its roughly 100 billion neurons connected in as many as a quadrillion different ways–more connections than there are stars in the known universe. Digital devices are, in one sense, a tremendous gift to the associative process because they link us to so many sources of information. The potential they hold out for creative insights and synthesis is breathtaking. The best human creativity, however, happens only when we have the time and mental space to take a new thought and follow it wherever it leads.

William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age 

Waking at 4:40 this morning in the predawn darkness came as a surprise, as well as a reminder that I had retired to bed early last night, exhausted by the past 48 hours of work-related activity. Returning from my restful two-week St. Louis vacation, I plunged immediately into the headwaters of new semesters at Texas Wesleyan University and Martin High School. After two days of meetings and conferences on both campuses, I collapsed and slept very well last night. So, refreshed and unable to return to sleep, I stretched, smiled into the darkness, rose and headed for the shower.

Rapturous solitude has enveloped me the past two hours, and I am smiling inwardly, knowing I still have two hours before my first meeting today. Coffee, sketching, reading and journaling have managed to combust some energy and enthusiasm for this new day. I now sense the percolating coffee pot as a metaphor for what my brain is doing. And drawing a sea shell has been relaxing, helping me ponder over things that matter in my life.

This book was given to me as a surprise gift over the weekend (how timely, just as school is beginning!), and I cannot say enough about how it has seized my attention in the richest manner. Throughout my adulthood, I have believed that a creative life demands solitude and a controlled focus that filters out distractions from a myriad of sources demanding attention. From my graduate school days, I have been excruciatingly aware of the difficulty of thinking and maturing ideas when deadly schedules filled every hour of every waking day. I was told that it would never get any better, and that I must learn while still in school to get control of this. I was told the truth. At age 61, I can honestly testify that my life has never slowed down, that work schedules and appointments have always demanded attention, and I never found a way to add a 25th hour to the daily schedule.

Six years ago, I added something to my daily work schedule: I took up this blog about the same time that I purchased a smart phone. Since then, every day, this phone has jangled to get my attention that something is happening somewhere–email, text message, phone call, private message, facebook, blog response–and I responded as failthfully as possible until I found myself in a spot where I worried that if I skip a day posting on my blog, I would become irrelevant. The digital age had managed to take over my life. How serendipitous for this book to arrive now, at the fulness of time.

William Powers does not trash our new technology. Rather, he argues that it serves us best when we create space for the richness of a “connection” to sink in, to take root in our lives, rather than clicking on to the next response, the next, and the next, etc. He’s right. The richness of a creative life evolving is still right there for the taking, but it requires some time, some quiet, some space, some slow down. And the digital obsession can crowd out creative expression just as effectively as a crowded social schedule, or working too many hours at jobs. Thirty-five years ago, I learned that I would think better and perform better as a graduate student if I would set aside a quiet time and space to sort out my thoughts and write reflectively, instead of cramming in one or two more books for research and footnotes. It became imperative to stop and let the ideas compost so they could flower into something precious. Today, I seek ways to turn off the digital machine periodically so I can sort out the gifts presented to me and see if I can find a more creative way to express these ideas and images, and so enrich my world and ours.

Thanks for reading. I’m not sure where this new insight will take me, but I trust it.

I make art in order to focus.

I journal always when alone.

I blog, knowing I am never really alone (and I like that).