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Posts Tagged ‘intimacy’

From joyful community to fearful chaos

In behavior, blogging, culture, life, women on October 18, 2014 at 12:49 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Only a few short weeks ago, I blogged here about a community I had found on-line, one filled with women of all ages and races and income levels, from Edmonton to Los Angeles to Dubai to Mississippi. It was secret, and had, at the outset, almost 600 members, many of whom weighed in daily to share their triumphs — (work, dating, family) — and tragedies, (dead or dying pets, work frustrations, break-ups.)

They are mostly women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, gay and straight, polyamorous or monogamous and many looking (with little success) for love. I was, being older than many of these women, astonished and often appalled by the intimacy of the many details they chose to share there, with women many of them had never met and never will, women whose character and morals and ethics they have no knowledge of or experience with.

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The chickens soon came home to roost…

I was, naively, hopeful that this would be a place for fun, friendship, shared wisdom and a dozen of us living in New York met for brunch in early September and had a great time. The women were funny, lively, creative and I looked forward to seeing them again.

Not going to happen: I was kicked out this week.

It’s been a fascinating lesson in political correctness, tone policing and definitions of “derailment” — taking a comment thread off-message. I won’t bore you with all the details, but what a shitshow!

Talking about issues is important -- but when are you over the line?

Talking about issues is important — but when are you over the line?

The group’s small handful of volunteer administrators decided I should be banned for insensitivity. Which is, of course, their right.

I do express my opinions vigorously.

But how amusing that women there could rant for hours about others’ being mean to them — yet turn in a flash on anyone they felt wasn’t being sufficiently sympathetic to their cause(s.)

It soon — why? –devolved into a rantfest. Women raged daily about their oppression and others’ privilege, swiftly chasing down, or simply banning, with no notice to the larger group of their actions or why they took them, those who dared to disagree with them or whose opinions were deemed…unwelcome.

One woman I liked very much was dismissed from the group for her allegedly racist remarks.

Then another — anonymously, of course — took a screen-shot of someone’s comment and sent it to her freelance employer, costing her paid work and a professional relationship. Members legitimately freaked out at such a creepy betrayal of their mutual trust.

But, really!

Why on earth would you even trust a bunch of people you do not know?

For a group of women so oppressed by patriarchy, it was too ironic that one of their own proved to be such a vicious and cowardly bitch.

Membership had dropped, rapidly, by more than 40 people last time I looked.

I’m glad to have made several new friends through the group and look forward to continuing those online relationships, several of whom I’ve also met, and enjoyed meeting, face to face.

But it’s been a powerful and instructive lesson in group-think, competitive victimhood and endless, endless draaaaaaaaama.

I’m well out of it, sorry to say.

Have you been a part of an on-line group like this?

How long did it last and how much did/do you enjoy it?

The elusive mother

In behavior, blogging, children, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting, women on June 23, 2014 at 12:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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I loved this recent, powerful post by fellow journalist/blogger candidkay:

Those of you who told your mother all your secrets–and reveled in stories of her youthful escapades before you came along–will not understand what I’m about to write.

I didn’t really know my mother.

I was born to her and lived with her for many years but I was not privy to her essence. By the time I came along, I think it was long buried under disappointment, sadness and a sense of propriety.

I was born to her in her early forties, the last of six daughters. She was, by her own admission, more interested in her career by then than in birthing more children.

Of course she loved me. She loved all of us.

But I was always stymied by her lack of disclosure. I knew only about the “safe” stuff. Her parents losing their house during the Depression. Living on her grandparents’ farm. Editor of the school newspaper. Navy nurse during WWII.

I could piece together a patchwork quilt of her life but it was quite threadbare.

This rang so true for me.

Earlier this year, I pitched a story to a major women’s magazine about how women with distant or elusive mothers find other women, throughout our lives, who nurture us — whether friends, neighbors, a professor, a co-worker or boss — instead.

Then the editor asked me to write, instead, about my own relationship with my mother.

I couldn’t.

In some ways, I didn’t want to, as she is still alive and the story is complicated. I chose to leave her care at the age of 14 and moved in with my father; between the ages of eight and 13, I had only lived at home with her for two years, most of my time spent in boarding school and summer camp.

But also for the same reason as candidkay.

I just don’t know enough.

My mother and I — her only child — haven’t spoken in three years, nor have I seen her, as she lives in a city that takes me an entire day to fly there. We exchange no cards or flowers or emails.

She is in a nursing home, a sad ending for a woman with brains, beauty, a huge sense of adventure and the private means to enjoy all of these.

A photo taken when my mother was food editor of  a national magazine; me on the right

A photo taken when my mother was food editor of a national magazine; me on the right

But I know little of her life and she rarely offers details.

I keep putting off a trip out there, for several reasons. But I know one of them: my fantasy that we’ll suddenly get close, after all these years, is unlikely and quite sure to end in my disappointment.

Like candidkay I became a journalist, and, like her — like many journalists do — I have made my living for decades asking total strangers extremely detailed and intimate questions, about money and sex and death and struggle and family.

And they answer me.

So I finally realized, it’s her, not me.

Do you know your mother (well)?

Do your children know you?

And then, suddenly, it gets real…

In behavior, blogging, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 11, 2014 at 3:48 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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It was a sad, sudden shock to read this from a fellow blogger recently:

It’s raining, and the sky is overcast.  I cried.

I woke up to an empty apartment.  The water leaking from the ceiling is hitting a tin bucket, sending out an echo.  I cried.

Today, I am not strong.  But I’m giving myself permission to feel it all.  And I’m not so sure that’s weak, either.

It turns out, losing what feels like home is much more difficult than I thought.  Buddy.  Georgia.  They were my home.

I respect him and what we had far too much to shell out details to a semi-faceless-web, but I feel that to move on, I have to say this “out loud”; Georgia and I have gone our separate ways.

The blog, Key and Arrow, written by a young schoolteacher in Austin, Texas, has been a source of pleasure for me for a while now. Every Monday, she posts “Seven Things”, a recap of seven pleasures from her past week, charming and inspiring, with lots of photos of meals, her man, her dog…

Now the man and dog are gone and I, too, feel a little bereft.

The Internet is odd that way, all this uninvited intimacy with strangers, people we will likely never meet in person, but whose children and pets and lives become a part of ours for a while, possibly for years.

FINGERS ON KEYBOARD

Some people disclose a stunning amount in their blogs, as I have occasionally as well, including infidelity, mental illness, family strife and addiction. The Internet sometimes feels like a safe place to park difficult and complicated feelings, hoping against hope that someone else out there will read you and say:

“You, too? I thought that was only me!”

Admitting publicly, especially to strangers, that your life is actually complicated and difficult takes guts. We’re not all perky and shiny all the time, and blogs that reveal little of the writer behind it quickly lose me. There’s plenty of that faux fabulousness on Facebook already.

But doing so also means trusting that others will read you with compassion and empathy  — not schadenfreude and voyeurism. (It happens.)

It takes trust.

I like that it demands trust, as when intimacy is met with kindness, friendship blossoms.

In the past few years, I’ve become friends with several readers of Broadside and plan to finally meet and visit with two of them, both living in England, this winter; both moved from reader to new friend after I posted this very dark and personal piece about my mother.

I find these web-created friendships sustaining, as sometimes people thousands of miles away better comprehend us than our own families, colleagues or neighbors.

Do you feel close to anyone whose blog you read?

Or to your blog followers?

 

 

Do you fight with the people you love?

In behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, men, parenting, women on November 19, 2013 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Fight

English: Fight (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thought-provoking post here from Jezebel; (read the comments as well, lots of good stuff in there):

What is a fight anyway? A disagreement, sure, but predicated
on what? Miscommunication typically. Unrealistic expectations. Actions by the
other person that are perceived as selfish or thoughtless or simply not in line
with whatever one person in a relationship thinks are the perceived agreed-upon
values, stated or otherwise, of the relationship.

And a big part of all this confusion is usually this weird concept of
unspoken agreements. Can I just say right here and now that the concept
of unspoken agreements is super baffling? The thing where someone does
something and you’re supposed to know it means X or Y whether they say
so or not and return the thing to them you didn’t know they did in the
first place because it’s all supposed to be understood?

I bet more relationships have ended by failure to mind-read than almost any other crime of the heart.

So it goes without saying that lots of fights could be avoided by talking
more, by improving communication, stating/negotiations and expectations, and by
lowering expectations. But we are mere mortals over here, not Deepak
Chopra. Fights are happening. Deal with it.

Some people go through life (medicated?) never having a fight with anyone, ever. Over anything.

I’d love to be one of them, but it’s highly unlikely.

Jose, my husband, and I have been together 13.5 years. We had our first fight before our first date.

Yes, really.

But, once we met, we were together after that first night.

We laugh often and loudly. We wince at the thought of ever losing one another. We’re both stubborn, hard-headed and opinionated. We also love each other deeply.

But we’re not averse to verbal fisticuffs, an issue we struggle with still. We were both badly bullied when were younger and neither of us were trained or socialized to beat the shit out of our tormentors. Instead, we learned to verbally annihilate them. We got really good at that.

And both of us are tough, competitive career journalists, a profession that best rewards aggressive winners, not calm, gentle, cooperation.

We also grew up in completely different emotional environments. His parents never fought (in front of him.) My family yelled a lot. I hated it, but it was what we learned. So taking the gloves off, so to speak, comes too quickly, a habitual behavior that’s tough to break, no matter how essential to do so.

English: A fight in ice hockey: LeBlanc vs. Po...

English: A fight in ice hockey: LeBlanc vs. Ponich. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jose and I first fought, there was an underlying meta-fight, like gasoline poured into flame, of his disbelief, outrage and shock that we were fighting at all. For me, it was business as usual. It took a long time for me express my needs more calmly.

Like every couple, we also carry ghosts of old hurts, sometimes arguing ferociously not with one another, really, but with an unresolved bit of business from our past.

Everyone in a lasting intimate relationship must find a way to negotiate through conflict.

I really liked this recent post from another blogging Caitlin at Fit & Feminist, which addresses how grouchy and (regretfully) argumentative we can get when we’re really just hungry:

A couple of weeks ago I found myself embroiled in a bit of an interpersonal snafu.  I was trying to broach a sensitive subject with care and delicacy, hoping that I could not only get my point across but that I could do so in a way that was diplomatic and fair.

The problem is, I tried to do this while I was hungry.  And so instead of being careful and delicate, I struggled to find the right words to convey what I wanted to say, and then finally, I became frustrated and blurted out exactly the wrong words required by the situation.

After I finally got to eat something, I realized what I had done, but it was too late – the damage had been done.  And not only that, but the damage had radiated outward in a domino effect of fuckery, and I found
myself spending the next couple of hours engaged in a desperate attempt to put band-aids over all of the social wounds my hunger-fueled carelessness had wrought.

It occurred to me later that if you could go back over the past several years and catalog all of the times I had really stepped in some big piles of shit with other people, then dig deep down to find the underlying causes of it, nine times out of ten your excavation will lead you to an empty, rumbling, pissed-off tummy.

Here’s one of the best songs ever about a remorseful lover (successfully) rushing to the train station to re-claim his sweetie who’s about to leave him after a fight, recorded in 1996 by British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it
Train don’t leave, heart don’t break
Train don’t leave, heart don’t break

And here’s a brilliant post from American business guru Seth Godin about the corrosive effects of tantrums at work.

As readers here know, from a recent string of critical comments, I have little stomach for fighting with strangers. Fighting with intimates is stressful enough.

Do you fight with the people you love?

How does it turn out?

When your BFF goes AWOL

In aging, behavior, life, love on July 12, 2013 at 2:16 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you have a best friend?

I wish I did!

Best Friend Forgotten

Best Friend Forgotten (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new movie by Noah Baumbach, (whose “Squid and the Whale” I really disliked), addresses the push-pull of female friendship in your mid-20s, “Frances Ha.” It’s about Frances and Sophie, who meet at Vassar and are still BFFS at 27, but being pulled apart by work, life and boys.

Fans of the series “Girls” on HBO might find some of the themes similar, and Adam Driver, who stars in the series, is also in this movie.

Frances is a modern dancer, tall and gangly, financially struggling and a bit of a mess. She never brushes her hair and is repeatedly pronounced “undateable”, with which (ouch) she is quick to agree.

Sophie snags the banker boyfriend, Patch, and moves with him to Tokyo.

It really hit a chord for me and I left the theater, alone, an hour before sunset, feeling melancholy and wishing I still had a best friend like that, someone with whom I still shared a ton of history, in-jokes and the sort of sexual secrets that make for excellent blackmail material.

I lost my BFF, or she dumped me, or maybe or we just got fed up with one another — it was never clear or resolved or even discussed or addressed — about a decade ago.

We looked alike and were often mistaken for sisters. Hyper-competitive, in life and with one another, she’d say, “I’m the smart one.” I’d say: “I’m the pretty one.” Or vice versa.

I knew her mom and Dad and sister. I knew she’d always have a huge hunk of Brie in the fridge. She had three cats, one so enormous he could have doubled as a doorstop. I still remember their names.

Both bubbly, chatty Geminis, we were also both ex-pats who had moved to the U.S. and then to New York. She had a tiny studio in the West Village and we’d go dancing at Polly Esther’s and flirt with boys a decade younger, sometimes more. We both dated wholly inappropriate men. One of hers was a musician in a famous band who had very few teeth. Another was a friend of mine, but they argued constantly and eventually broke up.

Like Frances and Sophie in the movie, we sometimes platonically shared a bed and woke up giggling on a sunny Saturday with nothing to do and no one to report to. Bliss!

She held my hand while I wept really hard during my first divorced Christmas and climbed a hill in a snowstorm after the cab couldn’t go any further to accompany me to my first knee surgery — and caught me as I fell, tree-like, into the bathroom door afterward.

We traveled together to Venezuela where we both got trapped, terrifyingly, by the 1999 landslide that devastated the countryside. I got the last scheduled flight out, at 8:00 a.m., but she was stuck there for a week or more and returned home traumatized by the smell of dead bodies.

We went to visit her home country, where her father scared me by getting really drunk. We hired a small airplane and a pilot to fly us to where we wanted to go, meeting him at dawn. It felt exactly like the final scene in Casablanca.

But she met a man I didn’t like much, who boasted about his money and looked at me like I smelled funny and replaced all her charming furniture with his ugly, chunky, dark choices. She married him and moved to a huge lakeside house.

I saw little hope for our friendship continuing. And I was right.

It’s been a long time since we stopped being friends.

I’m lucky, though, to still have two dear girlfriends of very early vintage — one from high school and one from my first year of university. They knew me thinner, pre-marriage(s), before I left our native Canada for the United States in 1988. I see each of them once a year or so and keep up with them by phone mostly.

One of them, even though she was then living so far away she was practically in Alaska, came all the way to New Y0rk for my first wedding and again, in 2011, to Toronto for my second. We met when we eye-rolled at one another in our freshman English class. We added a few vowels to our first names and became The Pasta Twins. I still use the tattered, stained cookbook she gave me in the ’80s.

I pray that both of these women remain in my life for decades yet to come. It’s very comforting to be deeply known yet still well-loved, to share so much of one another’s long life histories.  We need to explain nothing — why we ditched that man or how our mother drives us nuts or the reasons we’re still chasing a few unlikely dreams.

We know.

Here’s a perfect list of 22 ways you know you’ve found your BFF, from Buzzfeed; 2,3, 13, 15, 16 and 20 really rang true for me.

Do you have a BFF?

Have you ever lost yours?

Loneliness can be deadly

In behavior, blogging, cities, culture, domestic life, family, Health, life, love, science, urban life, US on May 15, 2013 at 1:59 am
Poster for a New York showing of Children of L...

Poster for a New York showing of Children of Loneliness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Caitlin Kelly

Can loneliness kill? Apparently so.

The New Republic, in this piece, argues in favor of being more social:

Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and
paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and
get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a
supernatural being and your score on the UCLA Loneliness
Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or
a church can lead to what Cole calls “molecular remodeling.” “One
message I take away from this is, ‘Hey, it’s not just early life that
counts,’ ” he says. “We have to choose our life well.”

The story is long and complicated, and its underlying premise argues for more government funding for parents and young children.

But the larger point is an interesting one in a time when we are so connected by technology — thousands of you have signed up to follow me but will never meet me in person — yet often so lacking in true emotional and intellectual intimacy.

It took me a long, long time to make new friends when I came to New York. I was 30, and had always had very close friends and had made new friends easily. It was puzzling and miserable that I couldn’t seem to replicate that here.

But New York is a place where many people come with the absolute goal of making a lot of money and getting ahead and becoming powerful and famous — which all leaves little time to hang out for a few hours over coffee. New Yorkers also suffer the longest commute to work of anyone in the U.S., so even if someone likes you, they’re often sprinting for the 5:14 or the 8:22 back home to their own family.

I found the place annoyingly tribal; if you hadn’t attended the same schools as others, preferably an Ivy League college, you were simply persona non grata. College and graduate school as a sorting mechanism are powerful tools here.

I was lonely for a long time. In the past three or four years, finally, I’m happily starting to enjoy an active social life again, recently fielding two invitations to visit one friend in Pennsylvania and another at her house upstate. Last night, I met one friend, in from San Francisco, for a drink and another for dinner.

(Oddly, or not, they knew one another, having worked together decades ago for the same NYC book publisher and both [!] arrived with copies of their publishers’ new books for me to read. In addition to the three I had just bought {thanks, Danielle!}, I was now coming home carrying nine books!)

It feels really good to have friends you know for sure love you and are rooting for you. We need to be liked and valued, so see someone’s face light up with pleasure when they see us and lean in for a ferocious hug.

But building friendship also requires intimacy and intimacy takes time and effort, two things many of us have difficulty mustering up after a day of hard work (or looking for work) and commuting and caring for our families and pets and ourselves. Intimacy requires trust and being vulnerable and opening yourself up to someone new.

I paid a very high price for being lonely in 1998 when I became the victim of a con man. I was isolated, struggling financially, had not had a boyfriend in two years, was divorced and feeling as low and insecure as I ever have. The vulture swooped in — I was emotional roadkill.

After I survived that ordeal, I immediately joined a small, friendly local church. Living alone in the suburbs, without kids or any emotional connection to others living near me, I desperately needed community. I needed, and found, a place where I could feel safe again, and valued, and heal.

Have you ever felt terribly lonely?

What did you do to alleviate it?

Making time for friendship

In aging, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, love, men, women on March 19, 2013 at 1:35 am

On Monday mornings, I sometimes go to a friend’s home and sit in her kitchen and we talk. She pours me a coffee, and cooks or putters or sits at the table with me.

How retro! So 1950s.

How lovely.

Temple of Friendship at 20, Rue Jacob

Temple of Friendship at 20, Rue Jacob (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re very lucky. We both work from from home and can carve out time for face-to-face friendship.

I think it’s as essential as exercise and sleep, this sitting with someone who knows and loves you, or is getting to know you and and you’re peeling back the onion layers of who they are as well.

Friendship takes time.

And it takes face time, not just emails and Facebook updates or texts. I want to feel a fierce hug, enjoy a shared smile, provoke a loud laugh.

I’m now scheduling face time with a friend into every week, determined to strengthen my relationships with the women I’ve recently gotten to know — after decades living in my suburban town with few intimates.

Paris Exposition: Champ de Mars and Eiffel Tow...

Paris Exposition: Champ de Mars and Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, 1900 (Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum)

In the past few weeks, I’ve had some great moments with friends old and new. An Irish woman I met in 1982 in Paris — I was 25, on a journalism fellowship there for eight months with her — was visiting New York to make  a radio documentary. Meeting up with her somewhat wrecked my work that day, but there was absolutely no question which was more important.

We picked up our conversation with the pleasure and intimacy of people who had seen each other a week before, when it might have been decades — we couldn’t remember. She looked amazing. We sat at the bar and ate hamburgers and it was sheer heaven to be with her again.

Because I never had kids, I lost my friends for a while when they were exhausted and spoken for, tending to the needs of their families. Now their nests are empty and they are hungrier for intimacy beyond their family circle.

Last week I sat with a new friend, who, like me, is trying to re-invent herself professionally. Being American, she’s sure that just a little effort will be enough. Being Canadian, I raise an eyebrow and ask: “Really?” She’s a helium balloon shooting for the ceiling, bursting with naive optimism and I’m the string, tugging her back to earth.

As soon as I sat down, she asked: “You look sad. What’s going on?”

You don’t get that from Facebook.

Do you make time to sit with your friends?

Friendship? Who’s Got Time?

In behavior, domestic life, life on August 19, 2011 at 1:00 am
Three best friends

In the same room! Image via Wikipedia

If there is one ongoing lacuna in my life  it’s face to face time with friends.

I miss them.

I miss it.

I feel very out of step where I live, in a super-affluent suburb of New York.  People here, and in the city, seem to devote the bulk of their time to work, commuting, family and self-improvement, not to time spent among friends.

I know this likely feels tougher for me because I spend about 80 percent of my life alone at home, where I work. No office cooler jokes or chitchat leaven my days. I miss the eye-roll!

Nor do I have any family members nearby, all living far away in Canada.

I recently made a new friend while we were both attending a conference in a city far from our homes. He lives in Zurich and I live north of New York. It was one of those instant coups de foudre, an immediate meeting of the minds that I find so rarely and which is so blessedly precious. Maybe because I’m not doing most of the things women my age do: worrying about kids and grand-kids, climbing or clinging to the career ladder, racing back and forth to my country house, I rarely meet women here I can identify with.

Frankly, it also seems to be a question of money — I live happily in a one-bedroom apartment and drive a 10-year-old vehicle. The women near me here live in enormous mansions and often out-earn me by many multiples. We have little in common except our gender.

Tristan and I spent a fantastic day together, as it turned out we’d both stayed after the conference with no fixed plans or agenda. We wandered (!) the Mall of America, all 520 stores and 78 acres of it. A world traveler with sophisticated tastes, he wanted to eat lunch at…Panda Express, a fast-food Chinese joint. We went out for dinner and enjoyed one of the best white wines I’ve ever tasted, from Argentina, which he chose.

It was terribly hard to say good-bye and I realized how rarely I now spend an entire day with a friend. When you spend uninterrupted hours with someone, the conversation has time to meander, from your earliest histories to your favorite bands, from that day’s news headlines to sharing stories of a fantastic trip five years ago.

People are too busy.

I do have some friends here in New York, and am glad, but if I see them once a month, that’s a lot. If we meet for a meal, it’s hurried. No one seems to have the leisure to just hang out. Emotional intimacy is not something you can rush.

But you have to want it, and you have to make time for it.

So this past weekend, Scott came to visit, about a 90 minute drive from his home. We see one another about every three or four months, punctuated with chatty emails. We celebrated with a big lunch on the balcony and he brought a great bottle of red wine and then we sat in the pool to cool off and talked about everything from the recent London riots to our own writing careers.

I live in the U.S., a culture weirdly addicted to the overshare, the blurt, the unwanted confession. Tristan knew of the conceptual model — whose name I forget, but I learned in my cross-cultural work with Berlitz — that visually explains how Americans relate to one another. It’s the opposite of many other cultures. Within seconds of meeting you, an American will unload a ton of extremely personal detail, but later remain emotionally aloof and distant.

In Canada, and other places, people often initially appear cold and unfriendly, but they’re reserved — wisely and cautiously reserving intimacy as a precious resource.

Self-disclosure follows, but takes time. You can’t rush it.

Scott is one of my 427 Facebook friends, but we’re also quite private people and there is much that only emerges over time. There is always news so good, or so bad, you need to share it in the same room with someone, not diced into status updates. I find it depressing as hell when people I’d like to become better friends with tell me — on Facebook — they’ve just had major surgery or their partner has died.

Seriously?

How are your face-to-face friendships doing these days?

Are You Paying Attention? No, Really

In behavior on April 20, 2010 at 10:03 am
Handshake

Image by Aidan Jones via Flickr

It’s been said we now live in an age of CPA — “continuous partial attention” — as everyone texts and tweets and IMs and scans their Blackberry in the middle of a first date or a funeral. Writes tech expert Linda Stone, who says she created the phrase:

Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert.  We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves.  We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities.  If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus.  What’s ringing? Who is it?  How many emails? What’s on my list?  What time is it in Bangalore?

In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in.  This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER?  How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.

Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention.  There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well.  There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.

The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.

To look someone in the eye and give them our undivided attention for minutes, maybe hours, at a time seems now as quaint, and wearying and unlikely, as chopping wood to heat your house or hauling water from a well for every bath.

Attention is our most valuable resource. That you are taking, making, the time to read this sentence is — for me — an honor. I know there is no greater gift than that of attention.

A mother, nursing her baby. The hospice worker, adjusting an oxygen line or morphine drip. Great sex. Helping your kid learn to play piano or bunt or make an omelette. That’s one on one time. Focused attention. It builds trust. It’s intimate.

Here’s my question.

When someone blogs clearly to get a lot of attention, millions of hits and shrieking arguments and name-calling and links and fist-waving, what do you, the reader, perceive as their goal? What is its value?

From my side of the computer screen — however fun it all is for you and me and all those other bloggers and their readers — the attention of thousands of strangers (unless you’re supporting yourself, as some do, exclusively through blogging) will not pay your mortgage or student loan or drive you to the hospital or make your dinner or laugh at your jokes.

Is it simply the ego thrill that people are actually listening to you? Talking to you and about you to one another?

What real, essential difference does this make, to the blogger and to their readers? Is it the creation — or consolidation of — (new) community?

Or (fogey that I am) is the whole point simply to be watched/listened to/admired/quoted/linked?

Are we so starved now for anyone’s undivided attention in any form? (Clearly, yes, as reality television seems to prove. Do you really want to be known and remembered and memorialized for appearing on “Wife Swap”?)

And why are we, then, unwilling to give it?

I value connection more than attention. To sit across a table or sofa or bedside with someone I know well and who knows me or who’s taking the time to get there, a deeper relationship a valuable destination, as I am.

It takes a long time, if you are in fact at all private, as some of us  (even bloggers) still are, to slowly and respectfully unpeel the onion of someone’s personality and character. It took two friends of mine many years to confess, tearfully and fearfully, that each had been sexually abused as a child, or another, to tell me he is gay. It takes time and trust. A pearl is created slowly by accretion, layer upon layer of nacre finally producing something lovely and gleaming and precious.

I fear we’re becoming diamonds — or worse cubic zirconia — all hard and shiny, glittery things merely reflecting back to one another the shiny, polished side(s) we deem more marketable or publicly appealing. More eyeballs!

Without deeper connection, which only attention can spark and nurture, (think of a really great date), what are we doing? Or is ongoing, attentive connection now simply too…tedious?

Who Knows You Best? Really?

In culture on August 15, 2009 at 8:45 am
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I took out an empty Balvenie bottle the other day, knowing the janitor will see it. He won’t know it’s mine, but, as someone who empties the trash and recycling bins daily, he knows intimately what the residents of my apartment building read, eat, drink (and what and how often), order by mail, their fast-food preferences. By our discards alone, he knows us better than many of our friends or family ever will.

I asked a friend yesterday at lunch who knows her best. She didn’t hesitate.

“My mailman.”

Yes, even in our age of a dying U.S. Postal Service, it’s the guy who schleps all that paper who really knows what’s going on in her suburban home. As my friend said, he knows: 1) she’s Catholic, thanks to the church bulletins 2) when she was unemployed, thanks to the NY State Department of Labor envelopes, 3) when her son is seeing a physician, 4) which colleges he applied to and 5) thanks to the width of the return envelopes, which college(s) accepted him.

I asked another friend. She thought for a few minutes. “My IT guy at work. He sees absolutely everything in my email. He knows my bank information. He knows I’ve been having a little email flirtation with an old boyfriend. He knows what’s really true in my life.”

Right now my sweetie knows me better than anyone overall. But there are others who have seen specific sides of my character, particular flashes of neurosis or insecurity or fear or joy, that — as a prism refracts light into its separate colors — the particular situations in which we interact elicit:

My orthopedic surgeon. I didn’t plan to have an orthopod whose phone number I have memorized, whose receptionist I see so often I know when she’s changed her hair color or vacation plans, but two arthroscopies (2000, right knee, 2001, left knee, torn meniscus both times) and a shoulder repair (2008, bone spurs) means Dr. Maddalo and I have spent some time together, pre-op, post-op and in between. He once tried to stick a very long needle into my right knee to give it a little cortisone comfort. As he always does, he moved in to mark the spot first with a pen. As he hovered with the felt tip, I winced like a three-year-old. “It’s a pen!” he laughed, kindly. Being a writer and all, I did recognize a pen and could tell it wasn’t the needle. But I can be such a useless baby in situations medical that my inner infant roars to the surface like something out of Jaws. Lucky man, he gets to see it. He knows me.

My former fencing coach. A two-time Olympian and former Navy guy, Steve was no pushover. It was he who pushed me and some New York City friends into becoming nationally ranked saber fencers, pioneers in the 1990s as women in that sport. He wasn’t nasty or rude, but he’s a coach and it was his job to pushpushpushpush us into excellence. I was initially lousy, frustrated, really annoyed at how lousy I was. I disappeared from class for a month or so, sulking. I came back, determined to be better. He was delighted, a little surprised, or maybe not. He saw the competitor in me rise up and shout down the whiny sulking beginner. He knows me.

My mechanic. I’ve blogged here in praise of gruff, scarred, blue-eyed Bill. He’s kept me safe and sound for more than a decade. When I was single and very new to driving — I learned much later in life than most people — I could ask him all the stupid questions most girls ask their Dads or brothers when they are learning to drive at 16, or 18 or 21. He was patient and kind. When I bought my first car on my own and needed wise input, I test-drove 10 different models, from an Altima to a Miata, making copious notes on everything from headroom to the dashboard to acceleration. I narrowed my list to three, but immediately I really, really wanted the red Del Sol, a (since discontinued) Honda convertible. Bill knew I then lived alone, on a tight and fluctuating freelance income, had no one to come and rescue me if there were problems. He knows my town has steep hills that are treacherously icy in winter and how I love to drive, quickly, and take long road trips. He gave the Del Sol his blessing and, during the six years I owned it, it gave me some of the happiest moments of my life. Bill knows me.

My tailor. Azizi, a charming Afghan, has helped me attain style on a budget for years. When times were flush, he made me a coat of turquoise cashmere. When time were less flush, and I had to attend a black-tie event and wasn’t feeling terribly thin or beautiful, yet socializing with the young, lean and triumphant, he took an $80 taffeta skirt from Loehmann’s and made it fabulous.  He’s taken hems up, let out seams, cheered my first major writing sales, as he was building up his clientele and I was finding mine. Azizi knows me.

Who knows you best? Is it someone you’ve chosen?

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