Repent, The End Of Yet Another Year Is Nigh

It is June 30th, 2015; half the year is over. Depending on your age, you will react to this news with indifference or a curious mix of panic, terror, and melancholy. My reaction, as you might guess by my decision to write this post today, veers–sharply–toward the latter.

Forty might be the new thirty, or perhaps fifty is the new forty, but whatever the latest form of the pithy consolation handed out to those who sense the downward slope on life’s hill, there is no getting around, over, or under, the sense of the precipitous acceleration of the clocks as one ages. The theory of special relativity has something to say about this, I’m sure, obsessed as it is with observers, clocks, measurements, and sometime twins doomed to age at differential rates, but the central problem at hand can be described quite easily: the days feel too short, the bright light seems to be approaching a little too quickly. William James, in a characteristically melancholy mood–don’t let his sometimes sunny optimism and flowing turn of phrase fool you–noted that “the days and weeks smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

(As the James reference shows, many bright minds have concerned themselves with this puzzling business, and they haven’t stopped:

Friedman, W.J. and S.M.J. Janssen. 2010. Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica 134: 130-141.

Janssen, S.M.J., M. Naka, and W.J. Friedman. 2013. Why does life appear to speed up as people get older? Time & Society 22(2): 274-290.

Wittmann, M. and S. Lehnhoff. 2005. Age effects in perception of time. Psychological Reports 97: 921-935.)

My particular morose take on the rapid passage of time is most acutely manifest in my worrying about about tasks completed or left unfinished and fretting over how to adequately allocate and manage time between my various personal, professional, intellectual, and existential responsibilities. The most depressing variant of this activity was my extremely imprecise calculation of the number of unread books I could see on my shelves, my Amazon wish list, and my ‘Downloads’ folder. As you might have guessed, my arithmetic confirmed my worst years: There are not enough years left for me to read them all.

My writing on this blog shows I’m a little obsessed by the speedy passage of time. Once–in a post written on July 1st, 2012–I made note of how travel slows down time, and on another occasion, on how a mere change of environment can have the same effect. These maneuvers are of limited efficacy: vacations do not last forever, and the unfamiliar, for an adult, all too rapidly becomes the familiar (that’s part of what it means to be an adult, the growing ease of the contextualization of life’s offerings.) I had hoped my daughter’s birth would slow clocks down, but as our family’s marking of two and half years of her life last week showed, that hasn’t helped either. Indeed, as many parents keep admonishing me, I’d better hurry up and take more photos and videos of these years, supposedly ‘the best ones of all.’

Time is running out; I’d better wrap up, and go do something.

The Clock-Watcher’s Punch In The Gut

Last Monday, as I taught my graduate seminar on The Nature of Law, one of the students in attendance turned to look at the clock: we still had some forty-five minutes to go in a two-hour meeting. As I saw this, I experienced a familiar feeling, one that, as usual, temporarily, if not visibly, incapacitated me, tempting me to call a halt to the proceedings right there and then. I didn’t, of course, but neither did I just get over it. (I’m blogging about it, am I not?)

I taught a university-level class for the first time, as a graduate teaching assistant, almost twenty-seven years ago. Thirteen years ago, I became a full-time member of the teaching faculty at Brooklyn College. All of which is to say: I’ve been teaching a long time. But no matter how old that gets, the clock-watching student always manages to cut through the haze and deliver a punch in my  gut. Some look left and right, some look back over their heads at the clock behind them. Doesn’t matter; they all make me feel the same way.

At that moment, I stand accused of a particularly devastating combination of pedagogical and personal sins: I am boring; I have failed to make the subject matter interesting enough. My pride is buffeted: I am not a riveting performer, entertaining and educating in equal measure; I’m not like those great teachers I keep hearing about who keep their students spell-bound and rapt with attention, sometimes keeping their uncomplaining and adoring brood in class well beyond closing time. Clock watching students seem to inform me, rather unambiguously, that their time could be better utilized elsewhere, that whatever it is I’m selling, it’s not worth their hanging around for it.

Little of what I have written above is ‘rational’, of course. Students are human beings and tire, just like I do. In particular, attending a night-time class is always onerous after a tiring day spent elsewhere, perhaps reading and writing dense material, perhaps working a full-time job. Sometimes clock-watching can be instinctive; we are used to the idea of calibrating our progress through the day with frequent consultation of our time-keepers. Classes are held indoors, and with windows granting access to what might be a more salubrious outside, who wouldn’t want to check on how long it will be before the frolicking begins? (This is especially germane now, here on the East Coast of the US, as we recover from a brutal winter and enjoy a glorious spring that has sent temperatures soaring into the sixties.)  Lastly, it is not as if all my students are so engaged in clock-watching. One or two out of twenty or thirty might do it; is that so bad? You can’t really please all the folks all the time.

And then, of course, there is dirty little secret that many students are well aware of: their teachers also watch clocks. They too want to be done subjecting themselves to this experience, which no matter how inspiring and edifying at its best moments, always carries just a tinge of terror: that unshakeable feeling that your ignorance, instead of your wisdom, will soon be on display.

 

Learning From Freud: Addiction, Distraction, Schedules

In An Anatomy of an Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted and The Miracle Drug CocaineHoward Markel writes:

At some point in every addict’s life comes the moment when what started as a recreational escape devolves into an endless reserve of negative physical, emotional, and social consequences. Those seeking recovery today call this drug-induced nadir a “bottom.”…The bottom that Sigmund experienced featured far more than the physical and mental ravages of consuming too much cocaine….Most recovering addicts insist that two touchstones of a successful recovery are daily routines and rigorous accountability.

As Sherwin Nuland noted in his review of Markel:

Around 1896, Freud began to follow a constant pattern of awakening before 7 each morning and filling every moment until the very late evening hours with the demands of his ever enlarging practice…writing, lecturing, meeting with colleagues and ruminating over the theories he enunciated in such articulate literary style.

Markel goes on:

It appears unlikely that Sigmund used cocaine after 1896, during the years when he mapped out and composed his best-known and most influential works, significantly enriched and revised the techniques of psychoanalysis and…attempted to ‘explain some of the great riddles of human existence.’

Because I consider myself an excessively and easily distracted person, one who finds that his distraction makes him miserable, I was struck by the description of the ‘drug-induced nadir’ that Markel refers to. In noting my own state of distraction, I wrote:

Like many users of the Internet I suffer terribly from net-induced attention deficit disorder, that terrible affliction that causes one to ceaselessly click on ‘Check Mail’ buttons, switch between a dozen tabs, log-in-log-out, reload, and perhaps worst of all, seek my machine immediately upon waking in the mornings.

The effect of this distraction on me is not dissimilar to that experienced by other sufferers: I sometimes feel a beehive has taken up residence in my cranium; my attention span is limited to ludicrously short periods; my reading skills have suffered; writing, always a painful and onerous task, has become even more so. Because of the failure to attend to tasks at hand, my to-do, to-read, to-write, to-attend-to lists grow longer and cast ever more accusing glances my way. Worse, their steadily increasing stature ensures that picking a starting point from any of them becomes a task fraught with ever-greater anxiety: as I begin one task, I become aware that several others are crying out for my attention, causing me to either hurry through the one I have started, or worse, to abandon it, and take up something else.

And:

I experience distraction as a fraying at the edges, a coming apart at the seams, a sundering of the center–whichever description you want to use, it’s all that in my feverish imaginings and experiencing of it.

Since my primary mode of distraction is ‘Net distraction, I’d like to offer another description it. I sometimes use ‘screeching’ or ‘scratching’ in trying to describe the activity in the inside of my cranium that makes me want to stand up and run away–and check mail or reload a page–from reading or writing. All too quickly, when working on a computer, I need ‘release’ and the act of moving the mouse so that something else appears on my screen promises relief. A change of screens, that’s all it is. And ironically, I can never take in whatever it is that I switch to. My mind is too blank at that moment, still perhaps processing residual irritation. Then, seething with rapidly accumulating anxiety about my still-on-the-burner work, I switch back. A little later, the ‘scratching’ begins again. I jump in response. Repeat ad nauseam.

And then, I thought about some of the techniques I’ve used to try to combat these these states of mind and being:

In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.

This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.

Or:

I have tried many strategies for partial or total withdrawal: timed writing periods (ranging from 30 minutes to an hour); eight-hour fasts (I pulled off several of these in 2009…to date, this remains my most successful, if not repeated since, intervention; since then, somehow, it has been all too easy to convince myself that when I work, I should stay online because, you know, I might need to ‘look something up’); weekend sabbaths (only accomplished once, when I logged off on a Friday night, and logged back on on Sunday morning); evening abstentions (i.e., logging off at the end of a workday and not logging back on when I reached home). None of these strategies has survived, despite each one of them bringing succor of a sort.

And I went on to conclude:

I do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction.

I take some solace in the fact that the strategies I have adopted–even if unsuccessful–at least put me in some very good company.

Then, The Eagerly Awaited Letter; Now, The Notification

Every weekday of my two years in boarding school bore witness to the implacable ritual of the mail from home: run to the teacher’s staff-room, ask for the day’s letters and postcards–sorted into piles corresponding to your ‘house‘–and then, surrounded by eager supplicants, call out the names of the lucky ones. At the end of it all, some schoolboys would walk away beaming, a letter from home eagerly to be torn open and read; yet others walked away crestfallen, left to look on longingly on those who had been lucky enough to have been the recipients of those postal missives. Perhaps our family had forgotten about us; perhaps we were ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps we did not matter; we were not important enough to be written to.

After I left boarding school, I continued to correspond with some friends by mail; I waited for their letters too, with some of that old eagerness. I would run down, time and again, to our building’s post-box, looking to see if the postman had brought goodies. This search was suffused with an irrational longing; I would check even the day after I had received a letter from my most frequent correspondent, somehow hoping he might have written two letters in a row. Sometimes I would check multiple times in a day when the the post-box remained empty; perhaps the postman had been late on his rounds, perhaps there would be two deliveries that day.

When I moved to the US, my mother wrote me letters regularly. The nightly check in the post-box, or, if my roommates had returned home before I did, on the table in the kitchen, quickly became another persistent ritual. I wanted to read her words, see her handwriting, establish contact with someone I had left behind, who I knew longed for me, and who I longed for in turn.

I never quite got over that craving for that touch, that contact, that reminder that someone had reached out.

The years rolled by. I discovered email. And the checking, the search for confirmation, grew and grew. Now, I check email–on all four of my accounts–constantly. There is a work account, a personal account, a blogging/social media/Twitter account, and lastly, an old work account, that for some inexplicable reason, I have not shut down. And there are Facebook notifications, Likes, comments, link shares, mentions, replies; there are Twitter mentions, retweets, favorites, replies. I check and check and check. On and on and on. It’s the first thing I do in the morning; it’s the last thing I do before I turn in to sleep; it’s what I do in the middle of the night if I cannot fall back to sleep after being disturbed–perhaps because of a bathroom break or my wailing toddler. (Like last night.)

I look at my inbox and see the count is at zero; my heart sinks. I see there are only spam or administrative emails; I am enraged. I post a link to a blog post and see no ‘likes’, a minuscule number of views; I am crestfallen.  I see no replies to my tweets, no mentions; I feel anonymous and ignored.

But when people do reply, and I reply, and they reply, and on it goes, I’m exhausted and seek to withdraw. Words spring to my lips but I feel too weary to transmit them through my keyboard back ‘out there.’ I crave attention and then shrink from it when it arrives. I want to ride this train, but I want to get off too.

I’m neurotic.

On A Minor Fast

I went on a little fast today. It lasted seven hours. But before you snicker at my pompous announcement of insignificant renunciation, do consider that I did not give up food or drink for that length of time. (Indeed, I made myself a four-egg omelette in that period and ate it with gusto.) Rather, I gave up the Internet for that duration; I did not check email; I did not look at Facebook or Twitter. And I did not do this while being confined to a Zone of No Wi-Fi. Rather, I did it at home, with a broadband internet connection in working order.

Ready to dispense accolades now?

In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.

Since then, I have never managed to internet fast voluntarily. When I have, it’s been because I did not have a working connection–perhaps I was flying across, or to, continents, perhaps I was in a national park. When I got connectivity, I checked back in. In 2012, I bought a smartphone, and put myself further along the road to perdition. For on the  phone, I installed Facebook and Twitter apps–and the GMail client. Now, there was no getting away from the constant check-in: waiting for a bus, a doctor’s appointment, on a subway above ground. I had willingly, deliberately brought home, much closer to me, that which I had already sensed often made me come undone.

These complaints about digital distraction are not new; many, like me, write similar plaintive notes. But we cannot seem to do without it all: the email, the constant monitoring of a timeline or a newsfeed. I certainly rely upon Facebook and Twitter to post links to my blog posts, and remain infected by an unshakable anxiety about utter and total anonymity were I to stop doing so.

This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.

My sabbatical is over; a full-time teaching load is upon me again; my daughter wants, and deserves, more attention; time for writing is ever more precious.

What did I get done today? Some writing; some reading. Nothing more could be asked for.

Now, to do it again.

Cutting Some Umbilical Cords (The Virtual Kind)

The day after the World Cup ended, I called my cable company and cancelled my cable and land-line subscriptions. (My phone call with my internet service provider’s customer service representative was long-winded, perhaps inevitably so given the number of inducements sent my way suggesting I only change the offerings in my subscription packages, but it was nowhere near as unpleasant as that nightmare Comcast call that went viral a few weeks ago.) And then, two weeks ago, I uninstalled the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone.

As far as attempts to roll back the tide of digital distraction go, these gestures give me a Canute-like air; they are minor in conception, execution, and probability of success.  Still, I suppose, they are not entirely insignificant either; they are gestures of a resistance of sorts, and that, even if quixotic, or perhaps because, can be suitably energizing. (The annual monetary savings on the canceled subscriptions promise a couple of airfares to domestic destinations.)

The desperation that provoked them has been alluded to by me here, in these pages, on many a previous occasion. Writing and reading, in these days of being ‘predisposed to interruption’ is harder than it always is; its still a privileged, leisurely activity, most assuredly, but it requires just a little more commitment when easy beguilement is only a tab or so away. This summer, like the others before it, seemed long and endless before it began, week after week stretching away, unoccupied, promising long hours of scholarship and rewarding dilettantism. And then, mysteriously, heat induced lassitude, the World Cup showed up in town, schedules decayed, and as the end of the summer beckoned, as did teaching with its new syllabi and bulging class rosters, so did postponements of publishers’ deadlines. In the panicky mood induced by this sense of a summer slipped out sight, the phone call to the cable company and uninstalled phone apps were no-brainers. I had little time left now for live sport; and I was growing a little nauseated by my mindless scrolling through News Feeds and Timelines while waiting for trains and buses.

Next week, I will travel–to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state–and plan to stay off the grid as often as possible; the relief promised by such abstinence is fast becoming a much-praised reward for the virtuous withdrawal. I look forward then, to not just the auto-back-pat but also the social approval sure to be sent my way. (I have often wondered, ever since I bought my smartphone two years ago, whether I would be able to resist the temptation to post photos to my blog while I was traveling; the answer, as I found after two days of struggling with blogging apps and poor cellphone service in Oklaholma and New Mexico, was that it was very easy to not want to be bothered once I was on the road.)

These little corners that I keep cutting, in an effort to clear some space in which to do work, to quell the monkey-brain, require little effort to identify; the hardest work is acting, and then, staying on the straight and narrow.

On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

Michael Greenberg writes of Jorge Luis Borges:

He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame.

Good advice, but not easily followed.

Borges’ advice isn’t easy to follow because the decision to continue reading is just another instance of that most insuperable of dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go? Should I press on to the summit, risking life and limb, or should I turn back, foregoing glory and the chance to prove myself against the unforgiving elements? I was warned, after all, that I would experience many, many, moments of utter exhaustion, that I would have to dig deep into reserves that I didn’t know existed. Should I persist in this floundering relationship and attempt to rescue it from the doldrums in which it finds itself, thus investigating the depths of my emotional and romantic commitment, or should I cut my losses and run, seeking a better partner elsewhere? The romantic was always supposed to be our sternest test, wasn’t it?

The reading of a book poses this question in particularly vexed form. We have been urged to show a little backbone in our intellectual endeavors; we have been warned pleasures of the mind are not so easily earned; we accuse ourselves, relentlessly, of indolence in matters of edification. We are convinced we are distracted and flighty, flitting from one easily earned pleasure to the next; we are well aware the classics are often ‘difficult’ and require ‘sustained attention’. If a book ‘bores’ us, surely it is our fault, not the author’s, and we should press on regardless, trusting the difficulty journey ahead will bring its own rewards soon enough. Glory, we well know, comes only to those who persist; those who take the first exit on the highway to greatness are destined to only enjoy minor pleasures. So, this boredom that afflicts us, surely it is a reflection of our intellectual infirmity, an entirely ersatz disease. Can its reports really be trusted?

Matters, of course, are made worse in this day and age, as we suffer the ever-growing deluge of the written word, online and offline. We learn every day, with growing dismay, of the decay of the reading mind, the growth of the 140-character missive. Boredom by book seems like an exceedingly common disease, possibly even over-diagnosed.

If we could only trust our own inclinations, our own expressed desires, Borges’ advice would be far more tractable. But we do not. They have gotten us into trouble many times in the past; we know they will continue to torment us so in the future.

Fears of premature abandonment aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: In the past year, I have abandoned classics by Stendhal and Balzac; my guilt lasted for several days, and it was not assuaged when, on reporting these surrenders to a friend, he responded, “Really? I’m surprised. Those are great reads!” Borges can at least rest content his writing will never bore me.