Thursday, January 3, 2013

In Which I Am Thinking About Being Here

This article in Slate caught my eye today.  Aside from the catchy 'Hey, be like Sherlock!' pop-culture analysis of it, the points in it are very important, and worth reading.  I believe we're losing valuable observational and experiential skills.

Mindfulness is something many people, especially those on spiritual paths, set as a goal.  We want to attain that state of being fully present in the moment, but we're surrounded by influences that fight against it.  The cell phone, tablet, and laptop mean that I can 'stay connected' wherever I go.  Sometimes, this is good.  When I'm getting ready for the Dionysium, when I'm planning the safety arrangements for a festival, if I've got a sick or injured friend who needs my attention, then it can be critical for someone to reach me or for me to check details.  If I worked an 'on-call' job, my employer would need some way to get hold of me.

But...why do we have so many 'on-call' jobs?  Sure, doctors and emergency responders make sense: what if there's a major emergency?  Even IT professionals make a certain amount of sense, though the ever-encroaching business of "You're expected to take one week a month 'on-call' in addition to your scheduled time, to adjust your schedule and limit your activities, for no additional pay unless you're actually needed," seems like companies' way of saying "It matters enough to us to sell 'full-time coverage' to our customers that we'll inconvenience and frustrate our employees, but not enough to have sufficient staff to simply *schedule* someone full-time."

A friend told me a couple of years back that the manager at her part-time retail job told her, "During the Holiday season, refusing to come in and cover a shift on your day off (without a doctor's note) or not returning a call to come in within two hours is grounds for termination."  Really?  To run a cash register at little better than minimum wage, you're supposed to agree to be 'on call' for over a month and willing to rearrange your own schedule to cover management's failure to anticipate business correctly?  That's wholly unreasonable.

But, as Philadelphia Story reminds us, "Miss Imbrie must eat.  And she also prefers a roof over her head to being constantly out in the rain and snow."  If the terms of your employment require it, and you need the job, you'll give up that control until you can find a better option.  I don't like that the world works this way, but it's not a thing I can change.

I see dozens of people every day giving up that control completely voluntarily, though.  They walk along, head down to text or tweet, they stop everything to read an e-mail whenever the phone buzzes, they surreptitiously check a screen five times over the course of a conversation. Sometimes I'm one of them.  It's occasionally a conscious effort for me to get through a movie without pulling out the phone to check IMDB and see who that actress is, or text a friend the funny thing I would have told her if she were sitting next to me, but I get through.

Over the last couple of years I've been working to take that control back.  It started with festival.  I turn my phone off once I reach the land, partly to keep it from draining its battery, but mostly to focus entirely on where I am and what I'm doing.  My festival experience is *important* to me and I don't want to miss it.  I want to be alert and aware of what's happening, to understand the shifting social currents, the changes in weather, the magical energies.  When I go hiking, when I work out, I leave the phone alone (it goes hiking with me, turned off and in the backpack in case of emergencies, but for all intents and purposes I am inaccessible).  When I have an evening out to dinner (with friends or alone), I try to leave the phone in my purse (I admit, when everyone else pulls out theirs to check, I usually give in and do the same).

I still keep Facebook and multiple chat programs open when I'm online, and flip back and forth between tabs and conversations, but more often now on a lazy Sunday afternoon I take my book or Kindle outside, onto the porch, to read and watch the bird politics play out in the loquat tree.  It's amazing how many people have said, "I texted you hours ago.  Why didn't you reply?" and been confused by the answer, "Well, I wasn't near my phone.  I was doing things."

I've definitely noticed a difference in my awareness of the world; it's become more pronounced since I started messing around with photography as well.  Now, I'll walk along, looking around, and think, "Hey, that'd make a really good picture," or "Man, I wish I had my camera so I could catch that sky."  I'm buying a new purse, one that will hold the camera, because it's a good trigger for immersing myself in and noticing my surroundings.  And when I have those moments, whether I have a camera or not, I stop and take some time to fix them in my memory, to store them away in my brain-attic.  I'm feeling an increasing connection to my world, growing depth and color and texture in my daily experience.  Every so often, I stop walking and talking and moving and interacting for ten or fifteen seconds, and try to just be *present*.  It's a lot harder than I expected, but it's getting easier.

Truth be told, I've also been playing the Sherlock game.  I look at a person or a thing and try to take in as much detail as I can, looking at clothes and posture and appearance, looking for signs of disease or parasites in the leaves of a plant, listening to intonations and inflections and which cat's bell jingles at a higher pitch.  I'm getting better at making small deductions with my observations, though I can't imagine having the incredible body of *knowledge* required to differentiate two hundred and forty-six types of tobacco ash.

The only negative effect, if it can be called negative, is the desire to run up to people like the guy I saw on the trail a few weeks ago, grab the cellphone out of his hands and the earbuds out of his ears and shout, "Hey, you!  You're in a beautiful place surrounded by wonderful sights, and for the last five minutes you've been glued to that phone, head-down and oblivious.  STOP IT.  LOOK.  JUST LOOK, RIGHT NOW, AT WHERE YOU ARE."

I refrain, though, because I can't know if this is the only tune-out time he gets in a week of vigilance, if he's listening to a birdwatching tape or looking up whether or not that was poison ivy, or if he just simply doesn't care to be mindful and engaged.  I may be happier this way, but for some reason forcibly applying happiness to others through abuse of their electronics is frowned upon by the legal system in this country.

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