Shared Waves

Photo of Riverwalk, Yorktown, VirginiaLast weekend was a family weekend, as we were able to slip out of town for a bit and see some family that we hadn’t been able to see in person for quite some time. The fact that we were on the coast for the trip, instead of depressingly inland…well, that was just a wonderful bonus.

The last time that I saw my nieces and nephew, they were young. Very young. It’s strange, isn’t it, how that last encounter with someone becomes the fixed image of that person in your mind, even though you know, logically, that they have changed significantly since you last met? This weekend, my nieces were as tall as me, and that is when the realization dawned that it had been nearly five years since I had seem them.

Five years, four major moves, one daughter and two deceased grandparents in between our encounters…and that’s just on our side of the divide.

I often feel trapped by time. That is, I feel as though time is moving so incredibly slowly for me, yet so briskly for everyone else. I always feel that I am being left behind, that I’m somehow chronologically arrested. When I see the evidence of this much change during what I have felt to have been such a brief period of time…and almost non-linear experience…I begin to truly appreciate how briskly life charges forward. Somehow, despite an almost deja vu sensation as this occurs over and over in my life, I’m always surprised by it.

Along with this, I always feel so isolated in my own experiences, to the point of being astounded when I discover how shared our lives are with each other, how much more we hold in common than we hold separately.

Friday evening after dinner, we were walking along the beach. This was a fun area, with lots of shops and restaurants, yet quiet, not overly commercial…a very nice area in coastal Virginia. About eight of us altogether, catching up on what we had missed over those years, and enwrapped in our conversation as will happen in these sorts of reunions. Someone was holding a wedding reception on the beach, and the revelry was contagious. As we walked and talked and laughed, I noticed a man with a camera to our left pointing his lens toward the rocky shoreline to our right, where a young couple was standing. That was when I noticed that he had taken a knee, and that she was in tears, nodding her head in an emphatic “yes.”

We had just walked past a proposal, inadvertently interfering with the photograph of the moment, but experiencing it nonetheless.

We applauded and cheered. In that moment, I remembered Karen’s expression years ago when I revealed a ring over dinner. I saw the man’s face, all smiles and exhausted, nervous relief, accepting our applause in a surreal moment, and I remembered how I felt that evening, when our waitress approached our table in the instant after I had proposed and realized what had happened.

I know nothing of that couple, other than the fact that they are beginning a new adventure together after that night on the beach. I’ve imagined text messages of a ring shared with friends, congratulations and libations shared all around, and I’ll always have the memory of her tearful face and his broad smile in my mind. For that split second, we shared our experiences. I had a privileged glimpse into that couple’s life, and I understood that moment at some level because I had been there. I didn’t talk to them, and likely never will, but I know something of them, and will cherish the fact that we unwittingly encountered that amazing moment.

I feel sort of bad that we messed up the photo, though…

Visionary Education of a Geek

Visionaires, a toy series beloved by geeks. Photo by bergerbot, used under Creative Commons.One of the things that made living in New England so comfortable for me was the widespread geek culture. Comics, superheroes, science fiction, high fantasy, Steampunk…whatever your interests, there were groups of commonality. Wearing a t-shirt bearing the answer to life, the universe, and everything brought acknowledgement from the person taking your order at the local Five Guys.

In the South? Not so much. You receive some interesting chuckles, but…let’s just say that I’ve met many fewer Bronies in Raleigh than I met in Boston.

While I generally don’t wrap up an excessive amount of my free time in these sorts of geeky associations…that is to say, attending conventions and cosplaying aren’t currently in my list of hobbies…I find that the lack of common interests with people makes socialization difficult, even more difficult than it normally is for an introvert. Thusfar, I’ve met two people wearing Dr. Who costumes, and that was on Halloween. The geek ratio here is low.

When I was young, I enjoyed an animated program called Visionaries. The heroes were “Knights of the Magical Light.” It was (obviously) a fantasy piece. Each character had an animal counterpart that represented their personality, and into which they could transform. In addition, some characters carried a staff…a totem of sorts…that released a personified power: speed, strength, the power to shield others…you get the idea. One of the knights possessed the power of wisdom, and another the power of knowledge. These balanced the more physical powers…anyone knows that a healthy team of heroes needs to have these sorts of abilities in its ranks.

I had never explored the difference between knowledge and wisdom at that age…in fact, I largely treated them as synonymous until confronted with the likelihood that they were different concepts, as they were here represented by different characters. So, I began doing some research. I forget where exactly I did this reading…probably in the rather expensive encyclopedia set in which my parents invested for me when I was young…but I learned the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I then knew an important concept, thanks to the ideas presented by animated heroes. Not just trivia, mind you, but an important concept that would later even bear spiritual significance.

There’s no deep meaning to this story, other than to say that really important things can come from fun childhood entertainment…the sorts of interests that can stay with us into adulthood, and mark us as geeks.

My disappointment with the South and the noted lack of any sort of geek sub-culture here isn’t some warm and fuzzy need to belong and be accepted, although I find those things as nice as the next person. It’s the mentality that I encounter…a sort of underlying attitude…that these sorts of hobbies lack maturity or that they’re excessive escapism, a perspective easily disproved by the wealth of academic research out there on topics like the philosophy or theology behind various superhero story arcs.

Good art is good art, and there are always subcultures that grow up around it. Some of these subcultures can very much become obsessive to an unhealthy degree. Most of the time it’s not that. Rather, it’s those of us who weren’t the cool kids in school and who now have found a way to make a living doing things that we love, and who resonate with the deep, pervasive aspects of the human condition illustrated by these stories and characters. It so natural to identify with certain characters, to see the good in ourselves, and perhaps the good that we wish we could convey.

Or to respect them as the medium through which we learned important concepts about life growing up…knowledge that has hopefully led to wisdom.

Image attribution: bergerbot under Creative Commons.

When All Time is Screen Time

I wrote once before about how I saw our culture of ever-present televisions screens moving toward, and yet narrowly avoiding, the dystopian predictions that once lay 20 minutes into the future. I occasionally wonder, of late, if we’re about 15 minutes after that.

I spend many of my waking hours in front of a screen. It’s the nature of what I do for a living. Our schedules are busy, and I notice our daughter craving attention more, and resenting the screens that pry our attentions away from her…until she has the opportunity to watch what she wants on a screen. Then, prying her attention away becomes the task at hand, fraught with a host of unpleasant crying and occasional tantrums.

Given how guarded we were with her screen time initially, I wonder how far we’ve fallen.

A few weekends ago, we were traveling to visit family. My parents took all of us out to one of their favorite restaurants, where we attempted to have conversations and catch up…the purpose, after all, of those sorts of trips. The issue was that there were large flat screens positioned for each vantage point of the restaurant, each showing different programming, so that, regardless of where one sat, one had television to watch. I tried very intentionally to remain focused on the conversation, but the television drew me back within seconds of each attempt. The hour that passed during that meal was essentially lost, at least for me, as I heard little and contributed less, victim to the distraction of the closed-caption onslaught of images that drew me back, back, back.

And, when I did manage to return, I found our daughter showing the disappointment which has become all too familiar, so strongly desiring my attention to shift to her.

A former physician for our family had a large waiting room. What I remember most about that waiting room is the cacophony. There were, again, flat screens on each wall, all muted and closed captioned, with a radio station playing from above, as well. Add the conversation around you from others waiting, and I did well to hear my name called. That waiting room was an exercise in creating a true attention deficit disorder.

The city where we lived shortly after moving to New England had a very attractive coffee shop. The atmosphere was quiet, the hearth comfortably warm, the drinks of high quality, the surrounding conversation always good, except for…the television in the corner that was always tuned into, of all things, Fox News. Want to kill a wonderful atmosphere? Blaring news programming will be most effective.

The point is, whenever the television is available, it wins. No matter how devoutly we may wage war against it in favor of giving our attention to those we love, the programming will always be too strong an opponent. So, while I’m not given to using war metaphors for my examples, I’ve determined that the only manner in which to effectively combat such an enemy is to avoid the conflict altogether. When we don’t have an option? When the enemy awaits us, innocently disguised as the normal expectation in a waiting room or a restaurant? We lose. We’re set up for failure. It’s over before it began.

And I watch our daughter’s excitement when I am finally able to close my computer for the day and divert my eyes from the screen to meet hers, to engage in her world of play and imagination. Hers is an excitement that’s wonderfully contagious, and yet the kind that is borne of finally being able to grasp something that has previously proven so frustratingly elusive.

I watch this, and I realize how widespread the casualties of this war are, and how very, very important it is that we find a way to escape with what Salinger so well described as having one’s f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

Limits of the Unlimited

"Kindle 3" by Zhao! Used under Creative Commons.Recently, Amazon released an unlimited Kindle plan in which readers can use what’s affectionately known as an “all-you-can-eat” selection of books.  As long as you maintain the subscription, you can read these books whenever you like. The books are unlimited…or so, at least, is the illusion.

Now, it’s no secret that I hold no love for Amazon. However, through a series of unfortunate events that would take some time to explain, we have a Prime membership, and it doesn’t look like we’re getting rid of it any time soon.  I do not own a Kindle, as I intentionally choose to use Barnes & Noble instead, mostly just to give business to Amazon’s competitor. Even if I did own a Kindle, though, I wouldn’t use this so-called “benefit.”

Why? Glad you asked.

I’ve struggled with a love-hate relationship with e-books since I first bought my Nook. My book purchases are about evenly split between physical books and ebooks. One of the reasons that I prefer the Nook is that, whenever and from whomever I purchase an e-book, I want to make certain that it’s in what’s known as an ePub format, which is the standard for e-books and will work on most devices (unlike Amazon’s proprietary format). When I add a book to my collection, I want to know that I have that book in my collection, because there’s something about having a collection that’s extremely important. I don’t mean this in a materialistic way. I’m not advocating hoarding (we downsize our library by donating books occasionally, at least). I just recognize that there’s something important about being able to go pull the book off the shelf that has that thought or concept that’s on your mind so that you can reference the entire chapter. This is why we still have shelves filled with old undergrad textbooks, which do, in fact, come off the shelf on a somewhat regular basis.

Our bookshelves aren’t unlimited. Space on them becomes a topic of much debate in our marriage at times. Still, we devote a lot of space to bookshelves in our house, and I love the fact that I can retrieve a book from one of them to loan to a friend, to re-read, to reference. The books that are important enough to earn a permanent spot on these shelves are ones that have been of the most importance to us. They’re not beholden to a continued subscription fee. They’re always there, those words and ideas always ready to become a conversation piece when needed, a part of us. I think that an unlimited plan of this nature would cheapen that experience, devalue each book as some possession rather than something that has influenced me, in some ways profoundly.

I actually have enough of a disconnect with e-books in that regard, and sometimes wonder if, futurist thinker though I am, I might leave them behind altogether.

Perhaps I’ll do just that.


Image attribution: Zaho! under Creative Commons.