So, besides causing me to look askance at the number of magnets currently adorning the outside of our refrigerator, this interview makes the book in question sound quite interesting. I suppose because I find myself well in the middle of that typical American family that the book promises to discuss.

As we are preparing for a move in the near future, Karen and I are entering the phase of preparation that I find the most beneifical: downsizing. We’ve made it a routine in the two moves we’ve made since marriage…and I hope it will continue…that we go through our stuff and start paring down various items that we just no longer need. Clothing is among the first things to go: if we haven’t worn it in a year, off to a clothing bank it goes. Furniture? If we’ve been saying that we could live without it, it’s time to take a photo for Craigslist.

This is partly a practical exercise in the sense that, whether you’re moving up or downsizing, moving is easier with less stuff. It’s also partly a spiritual exercise, because the more stuff we accumulate, the more of a position it can assume to use us instead of being used by us.

This is difficult, though, because Americans love our stuff. We accumulate it to make ourselves feel good (as the interview suggests), we accumulate it to indicate status and success to others, we accumulate it out of a desire to keep up with the proverbial Jonses. We accumulate it because we all seem to partially buy into the notion that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” All of that, and more, results in the fact that we accumulate too much stuff.

As much as we like our toys, I’m convinced that we should at least have a practical use for the items that we purchase. When we discover that we haven’t used something for an extended period of time, we need to part ways with that item. Because, when we hold onto things too tightly, they become a barrier between us and each other, between us and ourselves, between us and the Divine.

A few months ago, Karen spilled a glass of juice on our coffee table. She called for help, and I came running with towels. The first thing I scooped up was the iPad laying on the table. I did this despite the fact that the juice dripping down to the floor was landing on papers that were important to Karen. I justified this by saying that I was logically trying to preserve the most expensive item first, but the reality is that I didn’t act to preserve what I knew was important to her first. I really like my iPad, but it prevented me from seeing the most important thing in the picture.

I think that therein lies the ugly truth: our stuff does make our lives easier and more functional in a lot of ways. They also obscure more important things. They do it by nature, because the material realm is such a small portion of our existence, even though we focus on it almost exclusively.

Here’s to downsizing.

Photo Attribution: Surprise Truck under Creative Commons 

Directionally Challenged

Karen and I recently became avid watchers of Foyle’s War, a British police drama set during World War II that is both amazing historical commentary, as well as a jarring look into modern culture, all done with top-notch writing and an amazing cast. One of the things that I enjoy about an excellent historical series are the conversations about the period that it sparks. Last night, in the middle of the episode, the iPad was out to consult Wikipedia about some minute detail of law enforcement in the U.K., which of course in turn brings about interesting facts that neither of us knew, and conversation ensues.

Why, yes, we are a bit nerdy that way.

This show does an excellent job of capturing all of the little details of what life was like in the U.K. during the war. One of the details that  caught our attention last night was the fact that they took down the signs providing directions in places like rail stations, so that potential German invaders wouldn’t know which way they were going. Yet, all of the characters knew which train to catch.

The last time I visited New York City, I was never really comfortable with the subway. Had there not been someone in the group (it was Spring Break during my undergrad, if that tells you how long ago I visited) that knew the system, I would have been clueless as to which train to take, maps and signs or not. Of course, this isn’t the case for those who live in the city, but, as an outsider I was clueless. The effect was very disorienting.

Even driving around my own city, though, I rely on GPS to take me somewhere that I’ve never been. I remember thinking, when the GPS became part of our technological arsenal, that the part of my brain that is good with directions must be at risk of atrophy. I rely on turn-by-turn directions to get me across town to an office with which I’m unfamiliar, yet the characters in Foyle’s War knew which train to take with no signage whatsoever.

I wonder if the ubiquitous availability of our data causes parts of our brain to deteriorate from lack of exercise. I don’t just mean with directional signage, though. I mean that the amounts of literature and writings that were once memorized as a common practice aren’t any longer. I have no motivation to memorize facts, quotes, or references, because I can search them out on my phone whenever I need to “remember” them. In fact, I don’t even need to type them out…I can tell my phone to search for them. 

Karen commented once that, upon moving to the South, she noticed that no one knew how to do anything for themselves. That is, in New England, nearly everyone either knows how to repair what just broke on their car, for example, or knows someone who knows how to repair it and is willing to lend a hand. Here, no one even changes their own oil it seems. And I’m just as guilty of that as anyone. While this employs many people in so-called service professions, it also makes us frighteningly unable to be self-reliant in many areas.

When it comes to remembering things, I think we’ve lost a great deal of self-reliance. Since I’m into dystopian scenarios, I have to imagine what we would do if some catastrophic data loss occurred world-wide, leading to crashes of servers and breakdowns of communication. How much would we know? Even when I’m working on a car myself instead of taking it to a shop, I look up what I need to do on Google, and forget it soon after I’ve finished. Without instant access to whatever we need to know, we can’t remember it…which means that we don’t really know it.

Which, by that definition, means that we don’t really know much.

Photo Attribution: SMcGarnigle under Creative Commons

Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt

I like t-shirts. I like buying them to commemorate places I’ve been and things that I’ve done. I like getting free ones from local businesses and other places. In fact, in addition to the post-card collection that I keep to remember the places I’ve visited, I used to get a t-shirt from everywhere I visited as well (that was, until I realized that buying postcards alone were much more effective on the budget).

I have t-shirts from theatre groups I’ve been involved with, and even from specific shows that I’ve designed. I have t-shirts from faith-based functions that I’ve attended. And, of course, I collect Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts. I’ve gone through two t-shirts today alone: the one I’m wearing as I write this is a t-shirt from CNN headquarters in Atlanta that I purchased after touring the studios several years ago. Earlier in the day, I was wearing a t-shirt from a state park here in Virginia.

What I like about t-shirts is that they tell a sort of history. Each one commemorates an event, a person or people, a place, a memory of a time in our lives. Often, a t-shirt reminds us of more than one of those things.

Take the state park t-shirt I wore today, for example. Last summer, I was at this state park for work. I was seated at a picnic table near the water, when I looked down and found tiny orange creatures swarming up the white t-shirt that I was wearing. Horrified (have I mentioned that I’m not much of an outdoor person?), I brushed them off. Except they didn’t go away. I brushed more. For every one that was brushed away, ten took its place. Bug spray didn’t work. Nothing worked. Not knowing what they were, but becoming seriously concerned that they were either a mutant post-apocalyptic insect swarming me to devour my flesh, or, worse, the dreaded South-eastern plague known as chiggers, and since they appeared to have completely infested the t-shirt that I was wearing, I stripped it off, threw it in the trash, and purchased a new one at the gift shop. That was the one I was wearing today, and I have to smile whenever I wear it because of the humorous story that it represents.

Several of my Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts have been purchased while on adventures with Karen, one of which was our honeymoon. I remember those occasions when I wear them.

I remember productions in which I’ve participated, the fellow cast and crew members, the wild journey that each show involves if I dig a show’s t-shirt out of the drawer.

We’re a forgetful people, us humans. We tend to forget very formative and positive events in our lives without reminders, which is why nearly every major religious tradition places marker events and traditions in the lives of its adherents in order to remind them of critical moments in the history of their faith. Sometimes, I think t-shirts are like that for me. I frequently put one on, remember where I was and who I was with when I bought it, and I smile.

Because those good times are a huge part of what makes us who we are. And those moments are so important to remember.

Photo Attribution: deb roby under Creative Commons 

Digital Isolationism

Karen and I had some friends over for dinner tonight. Amongst this particular group of friends, there is a consistent loaning of books and good discussion following those books. In fact, over the years, Karen and I have had to keep a list of what books have been loaned to whom if we ever hoped to hold any chance of seeing their return to our shelves.

And some, let’s be honest, never make it back…but they’ve found a good home, so its not really sad. Its just that we frequently end up replacing those books.

At the outset of the so-called ebook revolution, there was much discussion about what one could and could not do with an ebook. I’ve written about it myself here previously, and I’m not going to re-visit an old topic again. It’s just that during our conversation this evening after our friends left, I commented to Karen that, sadly, loaning is one thing that I wish I could do with an ebook.

And, of course, it is possible with some books, at least through Barnes & Noble…as long as the publisher has the option set up for the ebook (and we know how suspect I find publishers’ motives), and the other person has a Barnes & Noble account, etc. Still, it’s not as simple as just handing someone a book along with a recommendation after dinner.

Karen and I occasionally read books together (it’s rare…usually one of us reads one after the other if we are interested in both reading said book), and are currently doing so. I purchased it as an ebook, and we take turns with the Nook. I had some downtime at an appointment the other day, and read through a couple of chapters on my phone. That’s one of the huge conveniences of the ebook world for me: we can purchase the book once and have the equivalent of multiple copies within the house. Loaning that book, though, becomes more complicated.

I don’t write this to be a technical critique of active or missing features, but rather to point out  the cultural implication that this technological trend sort of sets us up to be an even more individualistic, selfish culture. There’s a sense of ownership of the book and its ideas, and that, if you want to experience those, you need to buy your own copy (again, I’m sure publishers love that idea).

A couple of years ago, Karen and I pondered how to merge our music libraries. The complexity of the task led me to give up. The system is just inherently set up to work with two iTunes accounts under two different machines, or at least two different users, syncing to two separate iPhones. Putting all of our music on one computer only works when we each have a user account on that computer distinct from the other. The infrastructure is set up to work with individuals, not families or groups. This leads to some degree of isolationism, as we think of the family living room in which everyone is engrossed in an iPad or laptop instead of in conversation with each other, or the busy father who can’t put his Blackberry down at the dinner table. There’s a trade-off with all of our technological advances…something we’re giving away in order to gain  convenience.

As much of a futurist as I am,  I sometimes find myself wanting to forego some of that convenience, because the cost in the cost-benefit analysis feels as though it becomes too high.

Photo Attribution: jennifercw under Creative Commons 

Put Down the Gloves

Because I married an amazing woman whose master’s thesis was in the discipline of rhetorical studies, I’ve become sensitive to the types of rhetoric that appear in day-to-day life. It’s helped me as a writer, because I’m increasingly able to see and hear what an author is doing with a novel, or a screenwriter with a movie or television episode. Like all knowledge, though (to borrow Lawhead’s phrase), once it’s taken up it can never be put back down. So, now, I hear interesting rhetorical choices used everywhere.

One type that always stands out to me is the rhetoric of athletic competition. I think that the reason it stands out so much is because I’m no athlete (try to hide your surprise), and so it misses making its intended effect on me. It stands out everywhere, though…even Forbes magazine included some athletic rhetoric in its list of most annoying business jargon.

It’s interesting to me because, although I’ve never been anything that could be remotely compared to athletic, I still enjoy watching a good basketball game as well as the next guy. I was a huge NBA fan for some years, peaking during my undergrad days, and I remember some statements made by the players in ads that I thought were quite interesting as philosophical perspectives: things like, “the ball won’t come to you, you have to go get it.”

And I think that there’s a place for this level of competitiveness, primarily in the sense that it’s motivational when undertaking a difficult task. In all, though, I guess I think that the competitiveness is too universalized, too ingrained in the national psyche for our own good (need we look any farther than the violence in our own neighborhoods?). I can see how this type of language finds its way so easily into business culture, because that’s a world of cutthroat  and merciless tactics, the goal of which is to beat the other guy at all costs. But, really, isn’t that the sort of walk-on-everyone-else mentality that has been attributed to causing a great deal of national economic grief of late? I think we would do well to leave the athletic language on the court, instead of bringing it so broadly into other realms of life that are already occupying space in a competition-charged culture.

After all, competition is really about fighting…fighting to win, fighting to beat the other person, fighting to reach a goal, regardless of the obstacles. I’m all for reaching goals, but a little less acceptance of fighting would go a long way to fixing what’s broken in the U.S.  Don’t you think?

Photo Attribution: StacyZ aka Adore_One under Creative Commons