The Gingerbread Man in Zombie Land


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THE GIFT OF ATTENTION

Lately, ever since I discovered Facebook, I’ve been finding it hard to give myself the gift of my own attention.  I am constantly trying to concentrate on five things at once, and so I end up unable to really focus on anything at all.  I am like a computer thrashing or hung up on an endless looping operation and no longer capable of doing any real work.

There was a time when I flipped on the computer in order to create. That time seems long ago, now that I am constantly receiving trivial inputs from multiple sources. I used to have ideas, some original, often synthesized from reading and prolonged thought.  Again, that was long ago and this is now.

Lately, I’ve found that I can write again if I simply close Facebook so that it doesn’t make a noise to snag my attention every time somebody “likes” one of my posts. These are called “alerts.”  They serve to rouse the somnambulant. Writers have always experienced the difficulty of sitting still long enough for the creative process to begin and then managing to stick with it long enough to realize a product.  Every excuse imaginable pops into a mind facing a blank page or screen. Hmm, I haven’t polished my shoes in a while. Wonder what those new lime-green Oreos taste like?

When I am afraid or unwilling to sit still long enough to develop some sort of one-mindedness, by the time I reach the middle of my day I  find myself exhausted and demoralized.  Better to fire myself up with a few cups of coffee early and then get as jazzed as possible before my blood sugar plummets and I become so irritable that I run screaming from my house.

When I analyze the emotion that led me to this place, I realize that I’m afraid of my own unhappiness.  I fear that if I don’t run fast enough through the tunnel of distraction, a real accounting of my situation will finally catch up with me and I’ll simply succumb.  I’ll die. It will kill me.

“Run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.  I ran away from a Little Old Lady and a Little Old Man, and I’ll run away from you, I can, I can.”

Running, especially running away, has a way of becoming a full-time job.  Part-time dalliances don’t pay off as well as concentrated efforts.  Gotta slow down.  Gotta choose my battles. After all, isn’t today a gift?  Aren’t I in reasonably good health?  If not now, when?  If not me, who?

Surely nothing good can come from a half-hearted effort.  If I try to read a book, talk on the telephone, play the piano and watch television all at the same time, I will excel at none of these. Last night I went to an enormous coffee house here on the top floor of a trendy shopping mall near a university. It was jammed with maybe two hundred students who were silently staring at their laptops.  No one was speaking.  It felt like church.

I remember skipping classes in order to hang out in the student union, drink coffee and socialize, but it was nothing like this.  As I recall, somebody kept playing “Leaving on a jet plane” by Peter Paul and Mary on the jukebox. I’m sure my friends and I were yapping on about something or other, but compared to that, this student scene forty-five years later was positively eerie. One might dare say creepy.

Maybe these were good students deeply engaged in their homework.  They seemed hypnotized. Someone deep in thought can look that way, but often someone who is thinking or reasoning deeply is moving about, sketching or talking to himself.  These people were staring at their laptops and making small movements with their mice. The only noise was mice clicks.

If all the young people are hypnotized, who is going to create the new products that can be streamed to a zombie audience?  Won’t they get tired to watching or listening to the products my generation?

Yikes!


Have computers really transformed our lives for the better? Hard to tell. Long distance communication and word processing have certainly advanced, but since most people don’t engage in creative thought, we’ve embodied the empty promise of cable television – hundreds of channels but nothing’s on.

Computer domination started in business then crept into our social lives, and now we are reduced to slathering idiots who press the “like” button when shown a picture of a cute kitten. This degrading transformation is so recent there’s nothing to compare it to, except maybe the onslaught of radio, motion pictures and then television.

I wrote my graduate thesis on a typewriter. For a long time when I was trying to make it as an actor, my day job was typing for lawyers. I remember when the first computers came in, they ran word star, which meant you had to memorize all sorts of clumsy commands in order to do word processing. I then learned UNIX in order to the same, on bigger, networked computers. I was thirty-eight years old when I bought my first VCR and fifty five when I bought my first cell phone.

Blaise Pascal said “most of man’s problems can be traced to the inability to sit alone, quietly in a room.” The older I get, the more I think he’s right. Currently, I have a phone, but no service, as I’m not sure I’m going to stay in this country long enough to justify buying another SIMM chip. By the way, in most of the rest of the world, any cell phone can be used to access wireless service, and all you have to do is buy a SIMM chip for a few dollars and then add minutes at any kiosk. It’s a brilliant system, and if you don’t use the phone much, as I don’t, cell phone service can cost less than five dollars a month. Of course the reason we don’t have it in the states is because the cell phone companies lobbied congress to allow them to dictate the possible terms of service.

By not carrying a phone with me, I spent less of my brain CPU waiting for or responding to calls. If I need to talk to someone, I’ll find a phone, but that rarely happens, maybe less than once a day. This lack of interruption gives me the opportunity to sometimes be lost in thought, or just daydreaming. This is what Thoreau called appreciating “the bliss of the present moment.”

Here, in South America, people seem to enjoy cacophony more than I do. Today I was eating in nice restaurant, but they had a television in every room, and even though no one was watching it, ithe one in my room was playing a comedy program with the volume was up loud. There were at least three televisions blaring away in the various rooms of this restaurant, and then, near the cash register, a radio was playing loudly.

I got the feeling they considered this chaos a gift to their customers. Yikes!