Distractions

I know that many social critics these days, and many educators, complain that there are too many distractions in human lives. Social media, pop-up ads online, brief click-bait “articles” and screamer headlines, visuals that cause decreased attention spans, too much audiovisual stimulus brain noise.

I think I agree with them, but there are days I need distraction. My distraction tends to be of a non-electronically-mediated variety, but it is distraction all the same.

~

Diversion

It’s the hawk crying
or the crows vying
for territory
in the overstory,
maple trees and ash
and pine awash
with pollen and dew.
It’s the long view
the ache that underpins
what some call sins
as though pain’s earned.
Unconcerned
with absolution
the birds have won
my attention–
birds, and one
ray of sun.

redtail

 

National Poetry Month poem-a-day challenge for day 17.

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Continuing the discussion

The semester is almost over, and my students and I have spent a few weeks doing writing that relates to Cass Sunstein’s book Why Societies Need Dissent. As it turns out, this semester coincides with considerable current-event attention on protest, conformity, stereotyping, and other issues Sunstein explores in that text. Social media pushes the herd mentality, the “troll” mentality, and the ease of using shortcuts in thinking: justification through bad analogies, irrational responses, barely-considered ideas, culturally-entrenched concepts, knee-jerk reactions.

In other words, the gamut of human social psychology in 140 characters or thereabouts, with links, memes, and dudgeon.

A case in point that appeared on social media last week is a photo of a black man holding a sign that reads, “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.”

That was a photoshopped “joke” in which someone altered the last line of the protester’s poster. The intent was to assert that Michael Brown had robbed a store before walking down the middle of a Ferguson street, and the intent was clearly meant to suggest that Brown deserved to be shot by police–or, at any rate, to suggest that he was not “innocent.” I agree with the poster even in its altered state because I propose that none of us are innocent, and that none of us deserves to be killed. A suspected robber should be tried by jury and should be considered innocent until proven guilty because that is the way US law reads.

I do not claim that “It’s that simple.” Indeed, the situation is far from simple, which is why it feels so fraught and inflames such exertions of logic, law, and character defamation, and so many conflicting opinions–not to mention Facebook “purges” and irate newspaper columns and public protests. These are reasons that discussion can be useful. We need to continue the discussion, even though it is awfully difficult to do so.

~

If only we could listen to other perspectives. If only we could engage in discussion. I listened to two of my male students talking about being stereotyped. One claimed he was seldom troubled by harassment and not really bothered when people tried to stereotype him. “You’re not black,” his friend responded, “You’re Latino, or whatever.” The first man held up his arm: “Hey, man, I’m darker than you. What makes you black and me not?”

“Neighborhood. Money.”

“Look at you, bro! You’re wearing $185 shoes and new jeans. Dollars to donuts your family has more money than mine.”

They continued in this fashion awhile, sometimes asking me what I thought. If it was history that made them different, couldn’t the black man put it behind him? And he didn’t even really know much about “his” history, it turns out. If it wasn’t skin color that made one man feel less sure of himself on the street, warier, even in a “good” neighborhood, to what could it be ascribed? Was it just a personal issue? A neurosis? Was the Latino man clueless, or oblivious? Or just lucky up to now? Are these issues of confidence, self-esteem, bravado, or fear? Social issues or private ones? All of the foregoing?

And how does all of this relate to how young people of any background, religion, or color comport themselves in the world, deal with society and its assumptions, codes, expectations?

~

I teach writing. My job consists in instructing students in the perhaps arcane code that clear, concise, informational, and persuasive writing requires if they are to succeed in writing for academia and, later, the world of business information. I tell them: “This is what you should expect others/authorities to expect of you. It’s your choice to follow the conventions or not to follow the conventions, but you need to at least know what the conventions are.”

Meanwhile, I hope they recognize that they should follow the conventions of the rule of law; and if they choose to oppose the law, they should do so with forethought and initially, at least, within the structure of the law. But bad laws do need to be changed, and bad protocols need to be changed, and unarmed people should not be killed for brooking authority; and stereotyping–a very natural and automatic human behavior though it is–should be consciously questioned, even though yes, that can make the discussion difficult.

Ignore more?

One of my brothers-in-law has been visiting from Berlin during the holidays. His young adult children all live in the U.K., and it is enjoyable to hear what they are doing and how they navigate the world as they grow–having children of their own, pursuing academic degrees or careers in the arts–and finding parallels between their lives and their American cousins’ lives. My brother-in-law (Lee, a jazz musician, listen here on YouTube) told me he recently asked his older son what the most valuable skill for the next couple of decades was likely to be. The answer surprised him:

“The skill of learning what to ignore,” his son said.

When Lee pressed a bit further for clarification, his son explained that “information overload” and real-time social and other media, along with television and Google Glass and smart phones and whatever next gets developed, overwhelm the human brain to such an extent that people tend to lose the ability to sort or to prioritize. When we get distracted, we become less efficient; several recent studies suggest that there are costs to trying to do everything at once.

So, according to my nephew (who is studying neurology at Oxford), those of us who learn to shut out unnecessary information are likely to be more successful in a highly-communicative, highly-technological social landscape. The difficulty is knowing what kind of information is unimportant. Another difficulty is that our brains are wired to sense everything. In fact, our brains are already highly developed to screen out “useless” information. Managing an even more intentional focus will not necessarily be as automatic. It may be something we have to learn: i.e., a skill.

I think I need to re-develop my ability to ignore things. It seems likely that a lack of intentional focus and time away from technology would get me working on my poetry more than I have been. One way to regain this skill might be to recharge my mindfulness/meditation practice. The intentionality of the practice, and its conscious use of both awareness and screening or letting go, seems valuable enough over all that it would be well worth the time away from multitasking.

One possible “New Year’s Resolution,” then?

Ignore more.

QAL

Virtual, physical, personal

~

Redbud leaf in fall

Through the blogosphere, I’ve met some fascinating and talented people. The virtual connection, although I have learned to value its scope and immediacy, generally seems a bit wanting in connection for me. Even though I tend toward introversion, my favorite way to connect with people remains face-to-face. [Go ahead, call me old-fashioned.]

In the days of listservs and message boards, I first began “meeting” colleagues online. I signed up for the Women’s Poetry listserv (Wom-Po), which is still active today. One of the best things about that list, besides the fact that I learned a great deal about poetry/women’s poetry/teaching poetry/contemporary and historical female poets, is that I met many of my colleagues in person while attending writer’s conferences, readings, and similar events.

What joy for a person like me, who tends to be a bit reserved about meeting new people. For introverts, a virtual introduction and conversational exchange online–even just recognizing a name on the listserv–has made possible a route to social icebreaking at conferences like AWP.

This past Saturday, another virtual connection joined the realm of the physical when I got the chance to meet–in person–artist Deborah Barlow at the opening of her show at Morpeth Contemporary gallery. I’ve seen her artwork on her homepage; but as is often the case, viewing the work in person was revelatory and beautiful. And meeting the artist herself–also revelatory and beautiful!

I recommend her blog, Slow Muse, which has alerted me to many a terrific book on creative thinking, the creative process, and poetry as well as introduced me to several wonderful contemporary artists’ work.

As the seasons undertake the dying-toward-renewal process, I welcome musings and inspirations. The shining, textural depths of Barlow’s paintings offer another way of looking. As do good books and sunny mornings on the back porch.