Don’t read this post: the high cost of paying attention

By Caitlin Kelly

High above Paris --- silence!
High above Paris — silence!

One of the tedious tasks of suburban living, where most of us drive everywhere, is the constant need to pump gas.


The television screens and their incessant chatter right above the gas pump that some stations now inflict on offer to customers.

I would actually pay more for quiet gas-pumps. I so crave silence and downtime, those daydreaming moments we all need to just mindlessly stare into space for a bit…

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

I love teaching college; I teach two two-hour classes every Thursday.

But Friday? I’m wiped! Paying close attention to what I offer and everything my students say, however enjoyable, is also really tiring.

Paying attention takes energy!

The Grand Canyon -- whose profound silence makes your ears ring
The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring; photo: Caitlin Kelly

Where, short of the Grand Canyon or some other pristine wilderness, can you now luxuriate in pure, unadulterated silence?

Where, short of hiding in your own bed under the covers, (without your phone!), can you sit still and just think?

A new book explores the issue; an excerpt in The New York Times:

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.

What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.

The sad state of this commons is on display everywhere.

In the summer of 2011, just before Jose and I got married, he took me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat.

My friends, knowing how chatty I am, figured that would be essentially impossible.

The first few days, (which I chronicled here at Broadside every day), were difficult.

No sound, just beauty
No sound, just beauty

But the greatest gift of the retreat was not having to pay attention.

We were told, all 75 of us from around the world assembled in an upstate New York monastery, that if someone looked at us, we did not have to look at them, smile at them or even acknowledge their presence at all.

We were not there for that.

It was the greatest freedom I’d ever felt.

As I wrote then:

I just don’t want to know half the things that total strangers feel somehow compelled to tell me.

(How about you?)

Many times I’ve been chided here for being “unfriendly”, and in so doing breaking the social rules everyone else follows so obediently, when it’s never been my personal goal to be friendly. I choose my friends and intimates very carefully. I don’t need or want everyone to like me. The idea, in fact, somewhat horrifies me.

A journalist since college, I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy. I love that it requires me to win the confidence of strangers, of all ages and kinds, from convicted felons to elected officials (sometimes in the same person!) But it does mean I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they feel comfortable with me, and will share with me as much as possible in the limited amount of time we have, whether by email, phone or face to face.

To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.

By the end, we were deeply reluctant to return to the incessant noise and chatter of Western life. Jose and I went to a local restaurant, and sat at the bar…where we were bombarded visually and auditorily, by three huge television screens.

It was weird and disorienting and exhausting.

When did silence become such a terrifying concept?

Do you treasure silence and disconnection as much as I do?

Fifteen Ways To Make Your Blog Irresistible

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait f...
Reporters awaiting news of D-Day. Are your readers this eager to read your next post? Image via Wikipedia

I search every day for an hour for new blogs to subscribe to, but, frustratingly, often come up empty-handed. As a career journalist and author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books, I read and write for a living, so maybe I’m not the average reader in what I expect, or want, to find.

But all readers have limited time and attention.

These are the things that, for me, make or break a blog:

Is your blog overly personal? However fascinating your nephew or dogs or divorce feel to you, how much do they really interest your readers? What universal feelings or thoughts (fear, humor, embarrassment, sadness, anxiety) can you describe that we can all relate to and easily identify with?

Check your spelling, vocabulary and grammar. Messy copy shows a lack of respect for your readers.

I recently read a blog post using “pallet” instead of palate. Big difference. (Then there’s palette.) Spell-check is not your best friend. A dictionary is.

Is this post really worth sharing? Just because you saw or felt something doesn’t automatically make it interesting to others. Writing about it well to make a larger point does.

You’re being read worldwide — be inclusive. It’s easy to forget that the food, celebrity, neighborhood or issue you’re writing about isn’t necessarily a household word beyond your borders. Help us out with an explanatory link or some context.

Is every comment a big thumbs-up? Are you hoping to curate a lively conversation, (which, of course, doesn’t always happen), or just get a lot of “likes”? The best blogs aren’t about being popular, but compelling. Don’t be generic!

Are you playing it too safe? If, even behind a pseudonym, you’re not really saying something thoughtful and provocative, why bother?

Are you (even occasionally) funny? We all need a good laugh.

Move us! How do you want us to feel after reading a post? Sad? Outraged? Pensive? The determination to connect with us emotionally — and the skill to do so — makes the best blogs so distinctive.

Edit, revise, repeat. Do you bang out your posts in an urgent frenzy to share your views with the world, and hit “publish” right away? If this is your automatic habit, time to re-think. Very few pieces cannot benefit from a cooling-off phase, even a  few hours’ worth. Use every revision to make it tighter and stronger.

Grab us with the first few sentences. In journalism, it’s called the lede and it better be good. Hook ‘us in quickly.

Use paragraphs. A blog that goes onandonandoandonandon without a single line break, or paragraphs, is the written equivalent of the party bore.  Unreadable!

Visuals matter! A sea of text lacks imagination. Some of the best blogs are visual, whether a drawing (like the insanely, and deservedly, popular Hyperbole and a Half), photo or illustration.

Link to other people’s ideas. Share with us your finds: magazines, newspapers, radio stations, shows or podcasts, TED talks, websites, blogs, videos. This blog, {frolic}, is one of my favorites for all the links it offers: here’s a list of some cool magazines, some of which I’d never heard of.

The blog format isn’t sexy enough without great content. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s de facto fabulous. Just because it’s online and you have no editors to censor or control you doesn’t make it better than something in print. (Most editors improve our work, a lot.) It just means there’s no gatekeeper.

“Voice” matters most. You can write about almost anything if your writing voice remains consistent: funny, angry, wry, thoughtful, musing. Write with conviction and authority. Subscribers want to hear you.

Mystery Versus Celebrity

Greta Garbo.
Greta Garbo. Image via Wikipedia

I liked this piece in The New York Times, on the loss of mystery that is the concomitant cost of 24/7 visibility:

Garbo couldn’t exist in the 21st century. I mean Garbo the lady of mystery, not the rather dull, stingy woman who is reported to have resided behind the persona. And it’s not just because she was the product of an ancient Hollywood studio system that insisted on keeping its stars fixed in a distant firmament. (A photographic publicity image from the 1920s grafted Garbo’s head, I swear, onto the body of a sphinx.)

Today’s democracy of technology would, of course, conspire to put a fast and brutal end to the tantalizing demi-invisibility that Garbo sustained so well. Everyone who possesses a cellphone now is a potential member of the paparazzi. Let a latter-day Garbo poke her head into a cheese shop, or slip out to pick up a toothbrush at the drugstore, and you can bet her image will be all over the Internet in a matter of minutes.

The romance of people discussing their Garbo sightings in hushed voices, as if they had seen a ghost or an indigo bunting out of season, would be replaced by the diminishing boasting of trophy hunters comparing shots. Disgruntled friends of Garbo’s, whom she’d stuck with the check perhaps or cut out of her life, would start anonymously posting unflattering tidbits on the Web about the size of her feet and her infantile sense of humor.

“Oh, her again,” you’d say, when her face popped up on Gawker or And were the divine Greta (oh, perish the thought) reduced to posting desperately, “I vant to be alone,” we would all snicker in knowing contempt. “Yeah,” we’d snarl, “you and Lindsay Lohan, baby.”

The world, you see, no longer has any tolerance for — let alone fascination with — people who aren’t willing to publicize themselves. Figures swathed in shadows are démodé in a culture in which the watchword is transparency.

The current obsession with “knowing” a lot about total strangers — (the utility is…?) — strikes me as bizarre. I have been ordered, albeit nicely, to start Tweeting asap about my new book, which is still a work in progress, so as to build an audience, which, of course takes time. Gotta sow the field now to harvest the crop of fame and fortune next year.

I will do it because I am occasionally obedient, certainly eager for my book to succeed, but it runs totally against my principles and values. The thought of bleating into the ether on a regular basis….who has that much (interesting) to say? I find blogging challenging enough in this respect.

Being modest, whether about one’s body or spirit, is now seen as the mark of a rube. I love modesty and prize it in my friends and loved ones.  I like the idea, and the reality, of slowly discovering a new friend or partner at their speed, learning new things about them over months or years, maybe even decades. There are still many things I don’t know about my partner of a decade, and vice versa.

I think this is a good thing.

It took two friends more than a year to get up the nerve to each tell me they’re gay, which I’d suspected all along. Trust takes time. I hate it when someone I barely know tells me a lot about themselves, and that includes celebrities. When it comes to my own relationships, if I’m interested, I’ll ask, or more likely assume they’ll share intimacies when ready.

Maybe never.

That’s the delight of mystery.

Do you value it? What are we losing by denying it?

Are You Paying Attention? No, Really

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?