Monday, November 23, 2009

Who Took My Five Minutes?

Aside from Fuzzy Bear and Ben Bear, Milo's favorite toy is his Little Touch Leap Pad. It's a pink, bean-shaped, plastic thing, and when our friend Missy gave it to us, I was skeptical. I'm the sort of person who would go a Year Without the Internet; I'm also the sort of person who is suspicious of electronic toys. But, for many months now, this interactive book has been Milo's favorite -- and sometimes only -- solo activity. He turns the pages, and he presses the green "Go" circle, and in return, his pink, bean-shaped friend tells him stories.

His favorite of the books that go with this favorite toy is A to Z Adventure. It's been missing for more than a week. They're pamphlets, really, that you change out along with a corresponding cartridge, and it's a miracle that I haven't lost them all. But Milo is unforgiving. Once every day and sometimes twice, he tries to crawl up onto my lap -- even when I'm standing, in the way that toddlers do -- and says, "A to Z A'venture? We find it, mama? We find it?"

And I answer with my best Sympathetic Mommy voice, "I know, honey, it's missing. That's too bad. When I get some free time we'll do a big search, and I'm sure it will turn up. How about Animal World?"

On this Monday morning, reentering the weekday routine, I set out to find his precious book. I brought my full attention to the task, imagining that I might have to move every single toy he owns, only to find that A to Z Adventure was in a basket with his other books, pretty much right where we usually put it. I had forgotten that "lost" means something different to grown ups than it does to toddlers. Milo's book wasn't lost at all. It was behind something.

All this inspired me to do some math. The search took about two minutes: one minute for getting myself focussed, and another minute for flipping through his book baskets. Avoiding the search every single day of the last week? That was more than two minutes.

I've been meaning for a while to collect some scattered thoughts on time and technology, since I've been living my bare bones social life now for four weeks without a cellphone. I'm thinking today about the preciousness of a Five Minutes, and to whom that Five Minutes belongs, and how best we should try to protect it.

I met D.W. Jacobs a few weeks ago at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, which is the oldest garden cemetery in New England. The poetry of a garden cemetery under fall colors is too obvious for me to do it justice here. You'd have to go yourself, to feel that it is almost impossible to exist in that place without imagining -- at least in a fleeting way -- that life is meaningful after all. At least, there is a deep interconnectedness between the life cycle of the human creature and the corresponding cyclical grandeur of something larger than ourselves.

D.W. travels a lot, and it has happened before, while breezing through the town in which I live, that he has suggested that we make an appointment for coffee. On previous occasions, we relied on our cell phones.

"I'll call you when I'm in the neighborhood."

"Okay, I should be around."

D.W. and I have in common that we are both thoughtful people, which sometimes manifests itself as daydreaming, and (in the recent past) both freelance theatre artists, which demands a certain kind of slavery to our work. And I'm no better at keeping personal appointments than I am at keeping personal friends. It has happened more than once that D.W. and I have missed a connection.

But this time, we had set an inflexible time for our meeting; without a cell phone, there is no other way to do it. And I was late. D.W. would have liked to hear that I was late because I had been lost in meditative contemplation under a poplar tree. In fact, I had forgotten to replace Milo's car seat after having made room in my car for a guest the night before. But either way, just after 11:00 am on Friday at the grave of R. Buckminster Fuller, we did not miss each other.

I can't help but wonder if the impression of awe that I carried away with me that day, which has caused me to feel unqualified even to post pictures of the cemetery with this writing, could have stood firm against the usual flurry of digital communication. "Don't wait for me; Be there in five; What grave are you at? Oh, there you are. I think I see you."

It's a beautiful idea, to live without being plugged in. I think most people would agree. But it only works for casual social engagements in garden cemeteries. For anything more pressing, we need our cell phones. In the business world, in particular, time is money, and cell phones keep us from having to waste time waiting for each other. By saying "call me when you get there," you are saving precious time. At least...your time.

When discussing letter writing a week or so ago, I almost linked Lewis Carroll's Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing. I didn't, ultimately, because the misogyny is a little distracting. You find yourself wanting to say to him, "Are you aware that institutional higher education for women came to exist in the West in the 19th century, contemporary with your clever little jabs? Do you think that, perhaps, the comprehensive failure of the female sex to adhere to your arbitrary set of rules has something to do with not having shared the handbook?"

But Carroll's five-part essay on letter writing is engaging and on point. He writes:
Here is a golden Rule to begin with. Write legibly. The average temper of the human race would be perceptibly sweetened, if everybody obeyed this Rule! A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly. Of course you reply, “I do it to save time.” A very good object, no doubt: but what right have you to do it at your friend’s expense? Isn’t his time as valuable as yours?
I save my time at the expense of yours. Zero Sum Game, Part One Hundred and Eighty Nine: Selfish Communication = Failed Communication. If I cheat, you lose.

As I compare our present-day misbehaviors to those of Carroll's contemporaries, I begin to see the cell phone scheduling dance as a game of poker. The cards are the amount of value we each place on our face-to-face interaction, and the currency is one another's time. "I don't want to show my hand," is my unspoken subtext, as I announce that I'll call again when I am a couple of blocks away. "Something more important (better?) might appear while I make the drive."

I'm not at all draconian about my time, and have always thought that I kept my appointments flexible for purely considerate reasons. I want to protect my companion's time from things I can't control, like traffic and parking. But when the cell phone option is off the table, you also think a little differently about those supposedly uncontrollable factors. Knowing that there may be traffic on I-93, if I want to be on time, I have to leave sooner. I have to give up a little bit more of my time, in order to protect yours.

If time is money, consideration for others could become very expensive.

All this negotiation takes on a crueler face in the mechanism of electronic dating, which I have personally, very thankfully, escaped. I have listened, open mouthed, as single friends and relatives have recounted to me the labyrinthian procedures of "getting to know one another" via text and cell. Every decision is to be guarded, including when you call, when you don't call, how many times you call, and how much information you reveal.

The resulting power position -- created by veiling your romantic desires so skillfully that you might eventually have trouble revealing them even to yourself -- may press your opponent to lay down his measly two pair, telling you that he will wait, in which success you will have dominated the game. Your prize? Well, mostly the domination. A date? Maybe, but probably not. You have to stay strong in your advantage.

"Do you actually want a relationship?" I ask, in exasperation. Spending your precious time negotiating over which party will be the first to say, "I want to!" doesn't sound like very good preparation for sharing one's life.

Again, I don't imagine any of these impulses to be created by technology. That has been a recurring thread in this blog. I don't imagine that targeted advertising created corporations, or that reality-based internet entertainment created our appetite for watching train wrecks, and I certainly don't imagine that text messaging has introduced cruelty and superficiality to the mating game.

But technology is intended to give us what we want, and in that, I'm afraid, it is fairly successful. In this case, it offers us a way to avoid the challenging path of forthrightness, that one terrifying, self-obliterating moment when a person of any age has to say, "Hey, I think you're cute." My concern is that, if you've never had to look someone in the eye and say, "Hey, I think you're cute," how can you ever look them in the eye and say, "I do?"

If I set a firm appointment and leave five minutes early out of respect for my companion, and my companion doesn't do the same for me -- or maybe she does do the same for me, but any one of a million different things about life intervenes and she is late anyway -- are those minutes now lost to me forever? Isn't that a terrible waste of time?

Except, I suppose, there is always the world there for me to look at. Some days it is prettier than others, but it is always there. And aren't we always bemoaning the lack of stillness in our crazy, busy lives? If only I could get a moment to stop and think! So when that moment comes, why don't I take it? Why am I always so unprepared?

I begin to feel that my lack of preparation is a matter of being otherwise engaged. The more I plan my time, the less I use the unexpected pockets of time when they appear. Maybe the best way for me to have the time is to keep from guarding it at all.

"Tackle uncertainty," says a billboard on the I-93, just before I reach my exit on the way home from Mt. Auburn Cemetery. The advertisement is for life insurance. And I find myself thinking that, philosophically, that isn't terribly good advice. I've yet to met the man who tackled the specter of death and came out standing, regardless of the magnificence of his insurance plan.

But then again, maybe that isn't what the advertisers meant. For this day only -- I have no promises about tomorrow -- the message going up on my cork board is "Expect uncertainty." I don't know that it will ease every one of my anxieties, but it might help me to recover my Five Minutes.


Anonymous said...


I spend a lot of time thinking about time. The crazy part of me says that I waste a lot of time thinking about time. Now that I have two children and no childcare and a language to learn time has become air and there is not enough of it. I have become jealous of other people's time in a way that fifteen years ago I was jealous of their beauty. If I'm to be honest (and there is something about your writing which invites honesty, nay compels it) the first thing I thought after reading your post was, "No fair! Where did she find the time? It would have taken me a week to write such a coherent piece." And of course, there is my answer. It's not time that I'm short on so much as coherency. When you live your life for other people, you think your thoughts piecemeal. In exchange, you are saved from self-obsession. The baby is crying. I love you. Sara

Esther said...

Sara! I'm so happy to see you in cyberspace.

It did take me a week to write this piece. A little more than that, actually, since the visit to Mt. Auburn was two Fridays ago, and I started writing it that day. And I started putting the file together at 5 am yesterday, and of course I was interrupted a bunch of times, and then I got a headache because I hadn't been wearing my glasses, because I really didn't mean to be on the computer for very long, and by the time I had medicated my headache away it was evening and nothing gets done in the evening, and then Nick was home, and I finally posted it after he went to bed, still not quite as clean as I would have liked.

Sometimes I think the internet gives the illusion that writing happens as easily as the browser loads the page. Maybe it really is that easy for some of the other people whose blogs I read. But it isn't for me.

I love this "saved from self-obsession." My baby is asleep right now, but the toddler wants me to play, and that's similar. I guess I'd better stop talking about myself.

I love you!