Avoiding the Conflict

There seem to be only two sides lately. I say “seems” because I don’t really find that to be a true state of affairs, but the power of rhetoric has convinced many of this perspective.

Like many others in America, I feel a good deal of angst, of frustration, and mostly depression. Like everyone else in America, I have strong feelings about what is going on.

Many of my colleagues and friends, or at least those with whom I talk on a daily basis, feel the same as I do. I regularly read tweets and hear opinions from people with the same perspective as mine. There’s no friction when we talk, but rather a shared angst. We’re in our own space, free of disagreement.


A long time ago, I had a dear friend. I always found us to have a great deal in common. We performed together, walked through life together. We had very candid discussions about very uncomfortable things, the stuff of a real life and of human beings trying their best to work through it. Late one night after a tragic event had occurred, even though we hadn’t seen each other for some time, this friend called me and we met for coffee to try to make sense of it, to try to cope.

It’s not like we always agreed, my friend and I. We had different opinions on things, we agreed to disagree at times. The things that we had in common, though, were a much stronger binding agent than any differences which we had discovered.

I should pause here and recognize that any friendship suffers a bit when one person moves any distance away. Karen and I have moved a lot in the past few years, and keeping up with friends has proven a challenge at times. Still, when I re-connected with this friend, we did what old friends do: we caught up, we mused about the things that had changed with each other, we laughed about the things that were the same.

This friend and I fell on opposite sides of the great political rift that has split our country. Conversations became heated at times on social media, but never un-civil. At the end of the day, we were still friends. Until the social media connection…which was really the only consistent means of communication that we used…was broken.

Because I still follow this old friend, I read what is written at times, and I feel a flush of frustration and anger. I want to respond succinctly, or even vehemently, to what I perceive as a course of logic in which no educated person could seriously believe. The old friendship, though, holds true, and so I ultimately just avoid the situation, making no response at all.

Neither is the correct solution.

You see, I don’t for a moment believe that our problem is the political climate that edges us closer to civil war again. I don’t think that the underlying current of hatred and bigotry is new, or somehow more powerful than before. As frightened as I am to raise my daughters in this atmosphere, the factors which normally receive the blame aren’t the core of the problem.

The issue is that we, all of us, for a long time now, have surrounded ourselves with people who are in the same space as we are. We speak with people who think as we do, who share our opinions. We feed off of that, we become encouraged. And then we become cast in stone, our opinions set. We won’t entertain other ideas, other thoughts.

We won’t have discussions with those who think differently, regardless of how close a friend the other person may be. Differences of opinion cannot be tolerated, will not be entertained. Opinions other than our own are simply wrong.

My freshman year of college, I had an introductory communications theory class with the chair of the department. This was slightly intimidating. She introduced us to a quote during that semester that has remained with me ever since. I have no idea to whom this quote could be attributed…perhaps it was to her…but I remember what she said verbatim:

“Civilizations advance or decline based on their ability to talk about their problems.”

We haven’t been able to talk about our problems as a society, as a culture, for years. Civil discourse eludes us, and public debate becomes a challenge to yell louder than the other person. All sides of the divide resort to violence. The basest of emotions drive our decisions, drive our actions, drive our beliefs.

We do exactly what I do with my friend on Twitter. We avoid.

Our avoidance has brought us to a dangerous position. We cannot talk. And so we are declining. Perhaps fatally.

You see, I’m not certain that our country can recover from this stagnation in discussion. I think that it’s likely too late, and that only cultural disintegration and chaos will follow. Hopefully, I’m mistaken. What I know for a fact is that, if there is any hope that our future will not become the bleakest of scenarios, then we have to stop avoiding.

We have to begin talking.

And before we do any of that, we have to listen.

 

Analog Holidays

Do you think about New Year’s resolutions in advance? Maybe I’m alone in that. I tend to consider them before Christmas of late, not because I want to craft resolutions that I know I can keep (although the temptation is great there), but more because I want to give some consideration to what I really want to accomplish in the new year.

So, if you’ve been reading here long at all, you know some of this back story, and the back story is that there’s a story…a novel, in fact…that I started before our first daughter was born. That was back when the writer in me took precedence over most everything else in my free time, and this story was something that I really wanted to tell.

I still want to tell it, but life sort of got in the way for a few years. I changed careers, I went to work for myself, we’ve moved too many times to count, we’ve had a second daughter who is now only days away from being a year old. All the while, pacing in the back of my mind like a large cat wanting free from it’s confines, has been this story, desiring to get out. I want to tell it…and other stories, as well…but the only outlet for words that I can seem to find time for is this.

Really, though, this is a symptom of the problem. Writing, at the end of the day, is the result of ideas, and one can’t have ideas if one doesn’t have time to think. Thinking often requires peace and quiet for me, or, at the very least, time to read and reflect and let my thoughts formulate into something that can become coherent. And to have ideas, I need other outlets. Every creative is this way, I think…one creative pursuit feeds another. So, the problem-solving with code that I do in my professional life does, in fact, feed my creativity because it’s a very creative pursuit, but I also need some other things, lest I begin thinking exclusively in arrays and methods with no hope of recovering any prose from the inner workings of my brain.

Knowing this as she knows everything about me, Karen surprised me with something for Christmas that I’ve been wanting for a very long time: a drum kit. It’s an electronic kit, one that I can play with headphones without disturbing children, and perfect to get myself back into practice with something that I loved years ago.

Putting the kit together was contemplative for me in an odd sort of way. In my high-school days, I could put assemble and disassemble a drum kit in my sleep, just as I was proficient in hanging lighting equipment and handling audio gear in the theatre. Lately, because my days seem to revolve around a keyboard, I have lost my patience with manually assembling things. This makes assembling a drum kit a remarkably spiritual experience in that it’s an exercise in patience-building. Who knew?


Something else that Karen and I have been discussing lately, and that sort of require assembly, are traveler’s notebooks. They have a devoted following of users, and we began watching videos from users who invest significant time and attention to customizing their notebooks with inserts and accessories. At first, I thought that this was a novelty for which I wouldn’t really have use. After all, I could count on one hand the number of times in a given week that I actually pick up a pen. The more that we considered it, however, the more attractive an idea it became. I suddenly could picture this permanent repository for my reflections, my ideas, my inspirations.

So, I opened my new traveler’s notebook this Christmas.

Analog holiday gift: a traveller's notebook

What I don’t want this to be is a materialistic thing. I’m not looking for retail therapy. I want this to be something that contributes to our (Karen is planning a traveler’s journal adventure, as well…she’s particularly enamored with bullet journaling) spiritual development.

As I wrote my first collection of ideas in the journal on the same morning that I’m writing this, I found myself slowing down. Hand-writing takes longer, after all, and the action of it seems to force a deeper consideration of the words being recorded.

So, I guess I’m shifting to a more analog way of doing things in my free time. Perhaps this was inevitable as my working life is entirely in the digital sphere. Hopefully, next year, I’ll be writing here about all of the positives that this change has brought about.

Happy New Year to you all.

In the Interest of Civility

comment_latest by Rob McMahon, used under Creative CommonsKaren and I have always watched a lot of British television, largely because we both grew up with PBS as a fixture. Thus, our childhoods established a fairly high standard for quality television. This was actually a really good thing for us in terms of shared interests when we met, because there was already commonality in programs like (small surprise here) Dr. Who.

While the repertoire has expanded over our decade of marriage, the love of quality has remained the same. Karen tends to enjoy a broader range of British programs than me (Jane Austin, while I respect her as an author, does little to hold my attention, I’m afraid), but something of this nature is frequently playing in the background.

Over dinner a few nights ago, we were discussing something that she had recently watched, and the phrase of greeting used when someone knocked on the door in the program. The conversation, I think, was involving our daughter and polite greetings to use with people in conversation. Karen landed upon the phrase, “Do come in,” when inviting someone to enter your home as one having a particular ring of civility and decorum.

From my vantage point, I love the poetry of this use of our language, but am not particularly hung up on formality.

The word used in that conversation for this sort phraseology, however, works against my dislike of formality: “disarming.” Karen settled upon the phrase, stating that these sort of greetings are “disarming” in their politeness.


When I think of our current state of public discourse in America, civility is not a term that springs to mind, and I’m not surprised because it is a reflection of our current state of interpersonal communication. We’ve lost tolerance for those with differing viewpoints from our own. We’ve lost interest in hearing other perspectives. Our accepted mode of debate is to talk louder than the other party so that their perspective cannot be heard, and, failing that, to openly insult others while on the public stage. Think of your mindset when a dinner conversation turns to one of “those” topics that you wish everyone would just avoid at family gatherings (the most obvious example currently being politics). We are immediately in a defensive posture when someone raises certain subjects, and move quickly to assume the offensive posture. We’re simply culturally conditioned to do so.

The thing about politeness, however, is just what we discussed over dinner that night: it is disarming. Politeness…treating the other party with a deferential respect and courtesy…brings down barriers to communication. It establishes a common ground immediately, removing the need for offense or defense. It allows the exchange of ideas and viewpoints in (at least initially) a mutually respectful atmosphere.

I think that a huge part of why our nation (and not only our nation) has grown so intolerant and closed-minded is because we assume that a given interaction will not start with a tone of civility, but rather be primed for confrontation. That assumption, after all, has been proven correct more often than not.

The challenge is that beginning an interaction with politeness takes courage. After all, there’s a chance that it might not be reciprocated. What it will always be is disarming, acting to lower the potential friction point of anything from welcoming someone into one’s home to launching into a debate on presidential politics.

The concept of being disarming is difficult in a culture marked by the desire…and propensity…to always carry a bigger proverbial stick than the other person. Our national identity, after all, is a sort of swagger that comes with being powerful. Something that simply doesn’t compute in our modern American mindset is that civility and politeness mean lowering one’s guard, placing oneself at an intentional disadvantage to the other person.

Sort of like how the fastest way to calm down someone who is angry is to lower your own voice so that they have to pause to hear you.

If nothing else, if we can muster no other form of civility than this, I think that all Americans would benefit if we would simply lower our voices.

There would be something remarkably disarming about that.

Image attribution: Rob McMahon under Creative Commons.

Glimmer of Hope

I’ve had a long-standing rule that I don’t write about politics in this space. I’m not going to violate that tonight. Sometimes, though, politics intersect with culture. It’s the culture that I’m writing about, so don’t find that off-putting.


A week ago was Halloween. I’m honestly not a big fan of Halloween, but I am a big fan of cosplay, and it’s fun to watch our oldest daughter pick out her costume and get excited each year, so I’m at least tolerating it for the time being. Last week, Karen and I decided to divide the responsibilities. She took our daughter around the neighborhood, and I stayed at home to hand out candy to the other children. There were some excellent costumes (my favorites were a Nightmare-Before-Christmas guy and goth Raggedy Ann couple), but what struck me was how, in true New England fashion, everyone was so polite.

We ran out of candy early. I had to tell one group approaching the door that we were out just before I extinguished our porch light. They smiled and thanked us before moving on.

Everyone was happy. Everyone was getting along.


The election season of 2016 has taken something ugly and brought it to the surface. I don’t believe for a moment that this election created our hatred…it was festering well before the likes of Trump whipped it into a fever pitch. Unfortunately, it has brought it to the surface. Sure, we’ve seen the footage of violence at rallies from both sides, but there are more anecdotal experiences, as well. I’ve seen people stop speaking to each other. One of my dear, long-standing friends told me succinctly during a Twitter debate to leave America. I’ve heard fear about today, election day…fear of intimidation, fear of sabotage. I’ve had more than my share of tense family conversations.

Certainly, I’m watching the news with much trepidation as I write this. I arrived at my polling place early this morning, though, with even more trepidation.

What I found surprised me.

The people in line were joking and laughing. People holding signs were thanking others for coming out to vote. A police officer was present. He was greeting those in line, and assisting those with disabilities that prevented them from standing for an extended time (it was a long line) to the front. Police officers are always so much more respectful in New England than other places I’ve lived.

At first it was a release of tension, perhaps…I think nearly everyone is tired of the hatred that has been passed around liberally over the recent months. Ultimately, though, it was more than that. There was civility, regardless of which political direction was going through any of our minds. There was a sense that we were in this together.

Just like last week, when the entire neighborhood…and those from surrounding neighborhoods…were so polite and kind to each other. Perhaps moreso, as today there were no masks behind which to hide.

This gives me hope.

Because after all of the ill intent that has been spoken and acted leading up to today, there is something after. Whatever happens tonight as votes are tallied, there is a life beyond. And, when the dust settles and the cults of personality fade away…whichever way this election goes…we must all still live with each other. We must find a way to be colleagues, co-workers, neighbors, fellow church-goers, again. We must heal from the hate.

We’re all still citizens of the same country, but we’re also all human beings. There’s so much more that we have in common than divides us.

From this small experience this morning, I’m hopeful that we’re beginning to remember that. I need that hope.

We all do.

Raising the Space Bar

Photo-Jul-09-11-03-58-PMA couple of years ago, I had a debate with a colleague about a comment that I made. The comment was that “our generation” had arguably seen the most significant technological change of any generation in history. He disagreed, feeling that the industrial age had brought more. Whichever side of the debate you might fall on, my rationale was that my grandmother, when she was still alive, seemed to somehow experience an arresting of her ability to grasp technology more advanced than a land-line telephone.

When I was young (and hold on, because I’m about to date myself), my family had a “party line.” That is, we shared a telephone line with my grandmother. If she was using the phone from her home miles away, and we picked it up to make a call, we could hear her conversation, and knew we had to wait until the line was free.

I had my first mobile phone when I was college. It was one of those huge bag phones that went in your console and connected to an antenna on the exterior of your vehicle. 60 free minutes was a big deal then, and I’m still in the realm of ancient history for many of you. I remember my grandmother calling that number and being baffled by the concept of voicemail. I would have messages from her asking if I was there.

When I was very young, I typed DOS commands into a huge, clunky computer in my bedroom. Now, the phone that I carry in my pocket has more processing power than computers that rendered the original Star Wars films.

My point is that, more than an explosion of technology, people of my age have seen an exponential increase of information, and a fundamental change in how we access that information. We forget what it was like “back then.” The idea that we used to keep a hand-written address book for all of our contacts is foreign, the fact that I went through undergrad taking notebooks to class for note-taking bewildering.


Karen and I got rid of cable almost immediately after we married, because there were just too many other ways to watch what we wanted to watch. As such, our daughter has grown up her entire life with no idea of television being anything other than a streaming video service (she knows the difference between Netflix and Amazon). And, yes, I understand that her entire life has been five years, but this has still been her entire life. When we were setting up utilities for this new apartment, however, we got a good deal by agreeing to subscribe to cable also (poor cable providers, struggling so hard to keep an ancient business model alive). We agreed and, for fun, I connected the box, mostly to remember what it was like to watch something on a network’s schedule again.

While we were watching something together a few weekends ago, my daughter and I decided to get a snack during a commercial break. As we got up to go into the kitchen, she pressed the space bar on the computer keyboard to pause the program. It didn’t pause. She pressed it again. It didn’t pause. She gave a confused look.

My attempt to explain the concept of “live TV” to her failed in almost every way, as there is no reference point for her, no scaffolding upon which she can build the idea in her head. It’s amazing to me to think of the lightning-fast pace at which our concept of “normal” accelerates, of how easily we forget…forget in a way that my grandmother, I think, did not, because we forget even the foundation upon which is built our current state of “normal.”

I wonder what our daughter will consider normal when she is my age? I wonder how antiquated the idea of streaming episodes of her favorite programs on Netflix will seem then?

I wonder if that memory will even exist outside of an entry in an external storage device.

I wonder what we will have lost with all of that progress.