On Shopping and the Value of the Mundane

An image of winter gloves, used under Creative Commons.I’ve been shopping for a new pair of gloves.  This is a deceptively difficult thing to get right. When you live in New England, you don’t own just one pair of gloves, because the mid-weight gloves that you wear in December are useless in January and February. Having the right gloves at the right time of year is very important.

After Karen and I had been married for a couple of years, I joked that I was a master of the suburban jungle. We fell into a rhythm of grocery shopping every Sunday afternoon. This sounds mundane, but was something that I enjoyed. Our rhythm is no longer the same with two children, and this is true not only of grocery shopping, but of many other aspects of life.

Even within these interruptions, however, one adapts. We used to have these little outings as a family. Again, nothing huge, and often mundane….trips to a local store to pick up some items that we needed, then eating out. I love those excursions, even when they are something as trivial as shopping, perhaps for the right pair of gloves.


When our oldest daughter was younger, I took her for “cookies and milk” every weekend. This was an inviolable routine. Even when traveling, we made time. Even if it was as simple as grabbing 15 minutes at a coffee shop (which it frequently was), I made the time. As life progressed, this, too, began to happen less and less frequently, a fact that she has lamented to me recently. Now I find myself digging for ways to accomplish this simple act amidst all of the work that I have to accomplish, all of the daily life commitments that come with family…almost none of which, it occurs to me, involve leaving home.

This was a utopia long-predicted and, now that we have it…for all of its telecommuting benefits…I can’t help but wonder what we’ve relinquished. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I recall sitting upstairs in my favorite coffee shop, when a classmate walked in downstairs. I began to IM him (remember AOL?), and realized the absurdity of such an action. I walked downstairs and said hello. That was a precursor to today, as the absurdity of that moment becomes commonplace when we use Slack to talk to a co-worker who is only a few feet away.

Of all the face-to-face interactions that we abdicate, it is the interactions with my children and family that are most painful. As crazy as it sounds, those random weekend shopping excursions held something that just doesn’t spark when we have those same items delivered by Amazon. The convenience of having such a plethora of options for a new pair of gloves is somehow not worthwhile, because the substance of doing the activity together, even when it’s only shopping, is more important than the outcome of the activity.

That idea, though, is counter-cultural in an age of scientific pragmatism. We are, after all, only data, right? And thus intrudes a cognitive dissonance into my life. I love shiny new toys. I love that I can have groceries delivered to us on Sundays if we are overwhelmed with daily family responsibilities. I miss the act of intentionally doing those mundane things together, though. I miss it deeply, because it now happens so rarely. And thus, so do our connections with each other.

Except virtual connections. Those will never go away.

For whatever they’re worth.

Image attribution: Keith Williamson under Creative Commons.

Books as Hardware

My nookI subscribe to the Atlantic. I have off and on over the years. Most recently, my subscription is digital. I receive the latest issue each month on my tablet from Barnes and Noble. I’ve wrestled with ebooks since my first experience with them, but magazines make much more sense to me digitally. They feel less permanent by nature. Recently, however, I went back to reference a great article that I had read in the Atlantic, only to discover that issues past a certain date were no longer available.

As it turns out, this is an apparent choice on the part of the magazine, as all of their articles are available on their website after a period of time. I actually think that this is an excellent choice on their part, although I am frustrated that I can no longer access those issues when I want.

My discovery led to other disclosures, also, and these were much more disturbing. I can no longer download purchased ebooks to my local drive for backup or archival purposes. Barnes and Noble has intentionally removed the ability to do so, as has Amazon. What’s more, I can no longer open previously downloaded books. This is strikingly different from music and movie purchases from, for example, iTunes, which I can easily backup and archive. This decision on the part of the booksellers forces us to trust their clouds with our purchases instead of being able to have what we’ve purchased to read whenever we like. The opportunity for active censorship of what we have available to read in this scenario should make your hair stand on end.

Books aren’t software. What’s concerning about this trend is what it reveals. We hold books in lower regard than other mediums. We view them as fleeting, ephemeral–no more important than a blog post. Yet, it is in them that we preserve our cultural identity, in them that we experience other points of view and begin to wrestle with the most important aspects of our human condition. Our books contain such a vital piece of our humanity, because we’ve entrusted that to them. In devaluing them in this way, we’ve devalued our own human-ness, as well. We’ve declared that it’s expendable, that it’s only data…that we are only data.

Can we be surprised, then, at the way our civility devolves around us? I don’t think that we can.

 

Divesting Facebook

"Facebook." Photo of a woman holding a plain blue book in front of her face. Used under Creative Commons.

I suppose that I was a relatively early adopter of social media. I remember when Twitter functioned primarily by text message, but my roots go back even further. While I never boasted a MySpace account, I joined Facebook during grad school, when it was only available to students and faculty. I’ll be honest…I joined because one of my colleagues told me that it was a great place to meet girls.

Turns out that she was right: I met Karen on Facebook. As it expanded and grew, I found, or was found by, more and more old friends from the past (oddly, though, never anyone from my undergrad days). I posted to those friends updates to our 24-hour labor experience when our first daughter was born. Facebook was a huge part of my life for a long time.

As I became more and more aware of how carelessly the network regarded my privacy, though, my use of it waned. My profile sat for four years with no use, save the occasional professional necessity. Facebook was obviously becoming a rough neighborhood, even before recent scandals, so, a little over two months ago, I finally followed through with what I had wanted to do years prior. I deleted Facebook.

I wasn’t careless. I exported my data, I confirmed that what I wanted to keep was present, I sorted photos to make certain everything was there. Karen wanted to preserve our chats from when we were dating and engaged, but those were sadly unavailable…apparently Facebook doesn’t keep messages beyond a certain point. Then, I clicked delete.

For those of you considering this, Facebook gives you 30 days to change your mind. All you have to do is log back in! And certainly I was tempted…so much of my life was invested there, recorded there. I held firm, though. I didn’t need the noise in my life.

I was then forced to return to what I suppose would be considered an older way of doing things. I still ascribe to the belief that you should never delete anyone from your address book, personal or professional. Perhaps this comes from the fact that I am old enough to remember keeping a hand-written address book. I intentionally reviewed many of those contacts to make certain that I had them…the groomsmen from our wedding, for example. I’m also still connected to several of these people on other networks…LinkedIn, or Twitter…but there are some that I realize now that I missed. I mourn that I may have lost connection with those people, one the person who recommended that I join Facebook in those early days, the person one could say was responsible for Karen and I meeting.

Even more do I mourn the fact that we have permitted a state of affairs in which losing contact with loved ones is as easy as leaving a social network. We’ve allowed someone else to hold that most valuable part of ourselves for their profit, certain to lose some or all of our connectedness unless we choose to be complacent to their nefarious motives. I wish that we had kept this, were intentional about caring for one another deeply enough to make certain that we know how to keep in touch with each other….and then following that with the action of doing so. As revolutionary as social networking was, and as ubiquitous as it has become in our daily landscape, the effort of keeping addresses, and even of writing letters, meant that we truly stayed in touch.

I hope that I can find the space in my life for that intentionality once again.

Image attribution: Alatr0n under Creative Commons.

Scientifically Creative

Lately, I feel as though science and the humanities are placed into conflict. It sends me into a defensive posture if I let it, immediately pushing back on the diminution of the arts in favor of STEM as an ultimate educational goal, wondering at how competent use of our language seems of secondary importance to a child learning how to code. We cling to what is most natural to us, after all, and, while I work in the technological world, the humanities remain my first love.

Even in that statement, though, I’m taking the bait, because I’m categorizing them in opposition to each other. I don’t for a moment think that they should be. I’m a believer in interdisciplinary pursuits, and it’s only in relatively recent Western culture that we’ve began to see the humanities and sciences as even somehow separate, to say nothing of being mutually exclusive.

Still, I’m troubled by how I see science elevated to an ultimate concern, and find no small amount of irony in how we treat it as an absolute truth….that thing that our culture considers a reprehensible concept philosophically, but clings to scientifically with what borders on desperation. It’s dangerous to establish an absolute authority on a house of cards. Pseudoscience was once regarded as fact, after all, until it wasn’t. Prior to a specific point in history in which we had the technology and insight to say otherwise, living on a flat planet seemed a plausible theory to some, despite its basis in nonsense. While it would be considered blasphemous to say this in many circles, what we regard as scientific fact today always seems irrefutable until the underlying hypothesis behind that fact is discovered to be nonsense. As much as science likes to plant its flag of certainty into evolutionary theory, it seems to forget that it is, itself, evolving as a practice and discipline.

Think of how, in just your lifetime, theories have shifted on what is healthy to eat or not eat. A small example of exponential importance.

If, then, an underlying scientific principle should be discovered to be false, how much confidence in our society crumbles? When one’s ultimate concern falters, after all, the effects are wide reaching. This is a where faith comes in, but faith is seen as out-dated, something for the ancient or uneducated. And so our house of cards collapses.

I appreciate what a reader said in a recent issue of the Atlantic:

“Hardly anything in science is for keeps….That’s how the scientific method works…ultimately granting us not a measure of truth so much as a better approximation of reality.”Letter to the Atlantic, November 2018 issue, p. 15

Something that faith gives us is a love for mystery, a recognition that what we don’t…and, indeed, can’t….understand is far more beautiful than what we can. The belief that there is a reality beyond what we can measure and touch and visualize is integral to the human condition. To say that in the negative, refusing to believe in anything that we cannot see, touch, hear, taste or feel limits us as humans, places blocks on what we have the potential to be.


This weekend, as the holiday festivities came to a close, I took our oldest daughter to a science museum to which we have a membership. She’s quite the artist, our oldest, but equally loves the natural world, fascinated immediately by any new animal about which she has not yet learned. No one has told her that artistic scientists aren’t supposed to exist, and she is happy to be both.

As we walked around the new exhibits, I saw some changes from the last time we visited the museum a few months ago. Photography exhibits were on the walls, showcasing beautiful and artistic explorations of the scientific principle in place for the children to explore. In another exhibit, instead of a detailed and technical description of what was happening, a simple poem adorned one wall.

The two worlds had met. Our daughter took it all in, considering it natural.

As for me, I walked away with hope.

On Seinfeld and Wake-Up Calls

Photo of the restaurant used in the series "Seinfeld." Used under Creative Commons.When Karen and I moved into our current apartment, we reversed a decision that we had made only a couple of months into our marriage: we purchased cable. The reason was not actually that we wanted to, but that we received a better deal on our Internet package by doing so. For the first several weeks, we did nothing with it. Eventually, however, I connected the equipment, because why pay for something and not use it?

This decision has met with mixed results, but occasionally there is good. Stumbling onto occasional Seinfeld re-runs when staying up late is one of those unexpected positives.

I was enjoying one of those late night positive Seinfeld experiences last week. The episode centered it’s comedic digression around Elaine using a wake-up call service. Essentially, she paid someone to call her at a given time each morning and wake her up with conversation instead of an alarm clock.

Does this sound familiar? The premise might, if you’ve been around long enough. We used to do this at hotels, and you’ll still see it occurring in movies that we might now refer to as “classic.” When was the last time that you requested a wake-up call at a hotel, though? Some readers may see this as a completely foreign concept, something that they had never done. We have no need of this now, after all. We carry our alarms with us, in the personal computers in our pockets, likely also using them to track our sleep patterns while we’re at it. After all, health is important.

I think that the wake-up call service depicted in this episode of Seinfeld would have been a “disruptive” industry then, similar to ride-sharing now. Similarly, I know people to whom calling a cab is an alien idea, for whom “Uber” is a verb. Indeed, in the episode in question, Elaine be-friended her wake-up caller, and I often strike up friendly conversations with my Lyft drivers. These aren’t far apart, and these sorts of cultural changes are often a good thing. Of course, conversely, the wake-up call service also assumed a landline telephone, considered a concept of antiquity in many homes today.


For all of the excitement that accompanied my first mobile phone (a huge bag phone in my car that required an external antenna mounted on the back glass), I also remember the gift of my first landline telephone to connect in my high school bedroom. It was bright red. I remember calling friends. I remember using a post-it note to keep the request number of the local radio station next to the phone.

I also remember using physical maps and directions written on scrap paper to navigate long road trips to places I had never before seen, and wonder today if that part of my brain has atrophied, as the idea of asking for directions doesn’t even occur to me. I simply reach for my phone.

I read a post recently in which the author expressed longing for the days when we discovered blogs organically instead of by social media algorithms. I miss those days, too. I miss a different era more, though. This was an era of landline phones and computers that were luxury items instead of necessities. An era in which we thought about things before shouting them out, in which getting from one place to another required intentionality, not whimsical abandon. An era in which we looked for the thoughts with which we wanted to engage, and were not willing to have others make those choices for us.

This was a Seinfeld sort of era, a radically modern era at the time, too quickly left behind in our frantic scramble for the next new thing.

It’s one to which we can never return.

“The frantic abolition of all distance brings no nearness.” Heidegger, “Poetry, Language, and Thought” p. 163

Image attribution: dnorton under Creative Commons.