Waiting for the eggs to finish cooking – open the news and check in on the entire world.
Going out to walk the dog – grab the headphones and listen to a podcast.
While the barista makes your coffee – check your email and delete a few unwanted promotional offers.
Your daughter steps out of the room to grab a book – find the right animated GIF to respond to your friend.
Putting the car in park and turning off the engine – look through recent photos I took so I can begin planning my next post.
Your wife is looking up something on the calendar – ingest some Twitter.
Waiting for the traffic light to turn from red to green – clear your Facebook notifications.
Taking a shit – scroll through Instagram until you’re ‘All Caught Up’.
When I was a smoker, I was always on the lookout for a break in the flow- that chunk of free time for a cigarette. Finished my meal a few minutes early? Step outside. Just arrived at the grocery store? One in the parking lot before I go in. Commercial break? I’ll be right back.
This was not usually a conscious effort. I was not actively thinking about when my next cigarette would be, but when a good ‘let’s grab a smoke’ moment would strike, my body would react instinctively. As if responding to a signal implanted in my mind under hypnosis, my hand would walk itself down to that rectangular bulge in my pocket, a fresh pack of American Spirits (or Marlboro Lights or Newports or whatever it was that year). I’d find myself carried out the door to the nearest open patio.
There was no inner dialogue with myself (Fancy a cigarette, Brian? I think I do, Brian. Then let’s go stand by a dumpster alone under that six inches of ledge protecting us from the rain, Brian. ). I never really asked myself because I never needed to ask myself. Asking me if I wanted a cigarette was like asking Rivers Cuomo if he wanted to date an Asian girl. It all happened automatically, a habit ingrained over years of mindless self-indulgence.
I may be overly sensitive to the gravitational pull of my iPhone, but I do feel the same impulses rising up. Unlike cigarettes, a smartphone isn’t inherently bad for you, which makes it more or less insidious, depending on how you look at it. In some ways it’s easier to quit cigarettes because you can look at quitting as a black and white choice. You can remove them entirely from your life, because you’re not also using them for anything productive or meaningful. When it comes to smartphones, however, we still would like to engage with them, which means we have to actually deal with the underlying problems, namely our fractured attention, our yearning for distraction, and our fear of silence.
Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into fall- the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
In the course of one year, new spring to dying winter, Charlotte’s Web explores the feelings that come with facing our own mortality. I’ve been reading it aloud to my daughter for the last week or so, and am struck by its simplicity- both the clarity of E.B. White’s writing and the idyllic farm life he portrays.
It’s hard not to get lulled into the nostalgic dream of pulling up the stakes and starting over on some wild frontier. Fern, an eight-year old girl, is given free rein to roam the countryside, as long as she returns home for meals and sleep. There’s not even a hint in these pages that something bad or dangerous might happen to her. Instead, the parents’ biggest concern is that their daughter sits on a milk stool in the corner of the barn and stares at the animals all day. The town psychiatrist explains that in her age group, most of the boys have far less interesting things to say than farm animals, which sounds about right.
But of course we suburbanites can have a golden-age nostalgia for farm life, seen through the lens of an Americana past, having only experienced it through books or their respective film adaptations. As Charlotte says, “People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.” In a world of Snapchat and selfies, it feels easier to hope that your daughter would rather sit in a barn all day, insulated from the Henry Fussys of the world.
Meanwhile Wilbur spends most of the time fretting about his impending slaughter, trusting in his friend Charlotte to save him. As we were reading it I searched my memories for how the story ends. Wilbur can’t die, and yet I’m certain it must end with tragedy, as it clearly foreshadows. And then I remember the unhappy twist at the end.
Remembering that, I found myself eager to finish it. Not to see the look of devastation on my daughter’s face when (spoiler) Charlotte dies, but to watch how she processes it. To see what she makes of the transition from the sad death of Charlotte to the new birth of her children. As someone who thinks about death a little too often, I wanted to know how she’d handle the idea that Charlotte wouldn’t be around forever. Well, of course my daughter was determined to deny it flat out, arguing to me that of course Charlotte will come back by the end of the book, flipping ahead and pointing to the illustrations of Wilbur talking to spiders as proof. Well I would never turn down a chance to talk about mortality to my five-year old, so away we went.
And yet imagine my surprise when it’s Fern’s journey that ends up hitting me so profoundly. Fern has such a good time on the ferris wheel with ol’ Henry Fussy that she turns into a positive brat, whining to her parents for more money to spend with Henry and intentionally missing Wilbur’s big moment. If Charlotte’s death is a useful lesson for children, then Fern’s sudden transition from childhood into adolescence was written for the parent reading along. One one level, the message is the same: seasons change, nothing is forever, so treasure your relationships with others.
We’ve read a few bittersweet books recently. After reading The Giving Tree the other day my daughter said she loved it because it was a “happy and sad one”. That describes everything, it seems.
I stood next to my daughters as they rode in circles on a carousel. It was the ultimate forced move into helicopter parenting- I’m required to stand there in case my two year old gets thrown from a plaster panda bear, even though she’s four feet off the ground, affixed with a massive leather strap, and all on a contraption moving at the brisk pace of three miles per hour.
As we turned in circles and I searched the horizon for balance, I thought about taking a picture of them. We’d been on carousels before and the natural inclination these days is to snap a few shots to archive as digital proof- See! Your childhood was fun! We gave you magic for only three dollars a ticket! Show that to your therapist when she starts to blame us!
But then I remembered, I already have pictures of my daughters on a carousel, I’m sure of it. One of the girls at least. So do I really need another picture of a kid on a carousel? I mean, it’s not like they’re climbing Mt. Everest here. It’s a goddamn merry-go-round. Maybe if they were actually doing something impressive, like a magic show or a spot-on Christopher Walken impression, then I’d get out the camera. But they’re just sitting there, mildly enjoying themselves.
What would I do with a picture of my kids on a carousel? I could send it to my wife, but she knows what they look like on a carousel. I’m sure she’s taken a few of these pictures herself. She’d get the text message, she might smile, then she’d scroll on by, not even saving it to her phone.
What about sharing it? I haven’t posted to instagram in months, so I’m not going to break that fast with this. Even if I could catch a truly authentic moment of happiness- hopefully with a little lens flare or golden hour glow, find just the right filter, a witty caption and ironic hashtag, etc- what would be my time investment here? One simple picture would turn into a series of jobs that may take my entire afternoon: photographer, photo editor, art director, copy editor, social media strategist. How long is this carousel ride anyway? Could I even look at a phone for more than a minute while spinning in circles? Just the thought of it makes me dizzy and overwhelmed.
So I didn’t take a picture. I stood a few feet away, at the request of my 5-yr-old, who wanted the world to know how independent she was. I watched as they went up and down, as we all traveled in circles between a pretzel cart and an H&M. And I wondered if I’d finally reached peak photography, peak social media, peak sharing. If we’d all start to feel dizzy from spinning in circles, bobbing up and down, staring at our phones.
Starting new projects is fun. A new beginning is adventurous, a journey into the unknown. I consider it a day wasted if I haven’t spent at least a few minutes imagining the start of some new project, new idea, maybe even a new life.
Unless of course we’re talking about something public. Something shared. Something new that’s going immediately out into the world. Then creating something new sounds intimidating. And journeying into the unknown sounds a lot less adventurous.
There’s plenty of good advice for starting at square one, for launching your next big world-changing idea. But most of that advice is terrible. Except for the advice to ‘just start’. That one seems pretty spot-on.