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If the ‘Elastic Mind’ Snaps: A Lenten Lullaby


Image - IStockphoto: nastco [1]
Image – IStockphoto: nastco


This will be my last post until Monday, April 13,2015.

No, not me.  (You wish.)

Kathy Pooler [2]
Kathy Pooler

No, that’s a colleague, the memoirist Kathy Pooler. She’s a good, cold-weather Catholic, mind you, so Lent means a lot more to her than it does to troppo Protestants like me.

Following a retreat with some author-colleagues, Pooler has decided to cut her exposure to social media [3] way back for Lent. She writes:

Being away with these treasured friends got me in touch with my own need to step back—rest, refresh, renew. After five-plus years of nonstop weekly blogging and intense social media involvement, I have decided to…go on my own Lenten sabbatical.

She’ll have a few guest posts going up, and she’ll check email. But, she writes, “I will limit my time on Facebook and Twitter to automated sharing of guest posts. This will mean turning off my social media notifications on my iPhone.”

So now we can talk about her all we want. Just kidding. Pooler goes on:

I know that limiting my social media presence will be a supreme challenge as I so love connecting with others. But I also know I need to take care of myself; to step back and reflect before I can come back and be all I need and want to be. And it fits in with my mantra to “simplify.” Until we meet again, I wish you all peace and quiet moments of reflection during this Lenten season. I look forward to returning in April refreshed and renewed. I plan to share the lessons learned when I return.

Therese Walsh [4]
Therese Walsh

Aside from the fact that Pooler turns out to be really good at benedictions (who knew?), this has reminded me of the February 3 post here from Therese Walsh [5], author and Writer Unboxed’s co-founder. She wrote about a search for “mono-tasking,” meaning, in essence, the ability to hunker down on one sustained project or task without feeling pulled apart by competing thoughts and stimuli.  So many of us know what she’s talking about, all too well.

Walsh and I have been in touch a bit since that post ran, comparing notes. I’ve offered a few technical responses that I find helpful to the relentless blitz — RescueTime (which I find invaluable — you’re welcome to explore it free with my link [6]); “frequency following” sound recordings, which I find helpful while focusing on work; meditation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what she wrote, her distress at feeling her concentration is challenged — I can relate; that bad feeling (this is my characterization, not hers) of having our livers pecked out by data transmissions.

And I’ve been thinking about what Pooler’s doing, heading off the social grid to get a grip.

In keeping with the Lenten theme, it has to do with temptation, somehow. I think this is part of what we’re talking about.

Sins of Transmission

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh [7]
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

You’re good on Lent, right? In case you need a refresher, for 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus of Nazareth is said in Christian mythology to have fasted in the desert, sometimes with Satan tempting him to use his godly powers as a workaround to the rigors of his ordeal.

This is where an obnoxious minister’s son (who might be me) always points out that Noah’s flood also lasted “40 days and 40 nights.” What is it with this fondness for “40 days and 40 nights” in both the Old and New Testaments?  It’s like biblical Expedia bookings, see 40 stations of the cross and enjoy one free drink on the Riviera.

As a preacher’s kid, I always thought that the Second Temptation was especially lame, anyway. The Prince of Darkness proposed that lamb of God throw himself off a mountain because if he really was the Messiah, then the angels would swoop in and rescue him. It’s the sin of pride, of course. Brag-tweeting in high places. Jesus told Satan to shove off.  And this was the right call. What if the angels were off doing something and not paying attention, right?

[pullquote]For me the worst temptation is the walkaway. To duck out into the desert now would be, somehow, to give up a certain amount of flexibility that I think I’ve managed to put together by “keeping my soul in the room.” Working the time zones. Juggling the Samsungian dings![/pullquote]

Today, there are many traditions, with lots of variants, on how one’s “40 days and 40 nights” might be observed, but almost all formal treatments of Lent involve some degree of self-denial, one or more abstentions. One of my favorite author-friends in London gives up drinking for Lent in some years, enduring the agony of sobriety for the full term — a level of sacrifice that passeth all understanding.

But at the Vatican this year, Pope Francis — who keeps getting more interesting, doesn’t he? — has made an Ash Wednesday appeal this week, calling on the faithful to reject what he terms the “globalization of indifference.” TIME’s Christopher J. Hale quotes the papal Lenten message [8] as saying:

Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.

Don’t worry, we can break away here from the papal reforms troubling the consciences of the Roman Curia these days (Lent 2015 is no party at St. Peter’s). But there’s something in what Francis is saying that bears on what many of us are experiencing in the digital diaspora of our tech-leveraged lives — the nerve that Walsh hit in her post here on the third of the month.

How Elastic Is Your Mind?

Paola Antonelli [9]
Paola Antonelli

Paola Antonelli [10] is an author and the gifted Senior Curator in Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art [11] in New York, and also MoMA’s Director of R&D. Antonelli is the person who decides when something like the original iPod [12] is to be entered into the permanent collection of the museum. She’s also the person who hung a Ferrari [13] on the wall of the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building lobby.

I was moving to Rome in 2008 when she told me about her exhibition, Design and the Elastic Mind [14].

Here’s an excerpt of how the show’s intro [15] finally captured what she was telling me in our conversation:

Over the past twenty-five years, people have weathered dramatic changes in their experience of time, space, matter, and identity. Individuals cope daily with a multitude of changes in scale and pace—working across several time zones, traveling with relative ease between satellite maps and nanoscale images, and being inundated with information. Adaptability is an ancestral distinction of intelligence, but today’s instant variations in rhythm call for something stronger: elasticity, the product of adaptability plus acceleration.

Plainly put, Antonelli was thinking about how much and how fast we can take on new infusions of information; how well we can withstand new blasts of data; how successfully we can keep performing new stunts of mental athleticism.

Is our adaptability, that “ancestral distinction of intelligence,” up to it?

Or when Walsh comes to the Writer Unboxed community with her research into multitasking and mono-tasking, understandably alarmed about a frazzled attention span for long-text reading — and we all chime in, “Me, too!” — has a line been crossed? Are the ancestors rolling in their grave mounds?

[pullquote]I want to join with Walsh in trying to sort out what we can do in the creative community to come to terms with these unprecedented tools of communication, which are our hope of sales and comradeship, of course, as much as they also seem the dire wolves of a cyber-threat we don’t yet understand.[/pullquote]

In my tweets today, you’ll see me announcing our #FutureChat on women in publishing [16]  — and you’re most welcome to join us — at 4 p.m. GMT (London), 5 p.m. CET (Paris), 11 a.m. ET (New York), 8 a.m. PT (Los Angeles). I translate time zones all the time this way, as I work on events with The Bookseller and The FutureBook [17], based in London, and with colleagues in other parts of Europe on a daily basis.

As mentioned before, I also produce a weekly series of columns (you might enjoy these) called Music for Writers [18] at ThoughtCatalog.com, and in those articles, we embed Q2 Music’s Album of the Week SoundCloud [19] so you can listen to the music of a composer as you read his or her comments.

When electric lighting became a widespread reality, you know, people for the first time could work at night. So what happened? ‘Round-the-clock shifts happened. Once we could work all night, we did work all night.

And the effects of our tech on us is a lot like that. A tablet makes it possible to (try to) read a book while sending and receiving email, watching a video, tweeting, pinning, and texting in a kind of itchy nest of connectivity. So we do all those things.  Or we think we do. We try to. We end up with splintered focus, unfinished tasks, to-do lists that stretch from here to Seattle, and Kindles groaning with books we’ll never have time to read.

I’ve written before here about how research like that reported by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney  in their book Willpower [21] shows us that rest, physical rest, seems to be the engine of what we think of as the cerebral or emotional strength called “willpower.” The more tired we are, the less willpower we have.

[pullquote]My team will need to keep advancing, trying to spread our arms wider, take on more and more, not duck it, to find out about that elasticity. Where do we break? How will it feel when we do? How will we know if we don’t go there? (Watch our backs, will you?)[/pullquote]

And nobody, surely, would say that the contemporary collisions of our digitally engaged life don’t tire us. I feel it, you feel it — we all feel it when it comes time to write and the energy has been leeched right out, one tweet and text and email and Instagram shot at a time.

But you know what else is tiring? Resistance.

Availability becomes inevitability. These “modern conveniences” — “labor-saving devices” was another marvelous euphemism, wasn’t it? — aren’t going away. And at the risk of sounding crazy to your yoga neighbors, maybe the sabbatical for Lent is right for Pooler (she has my vote), but not for me. Or for you?

I’m finding that while rest, yes, is crucially important in the up-rush of digital demands, evading those challenges is not helpful.

I’m perfectly willing to speak only for myself here, don’t try any of this at home (except the Campari).

But for me the worst temptation is the walkaway. To duck out into the desert now would be, somehow, to give up a certain amount of flexibility that I think I’ve managed to put together by “keeing my soul in the room.” Working the time zones. Juggling the Samsungian dings! that tell me an email, a text, a tweet is incoming — while on a conference call with an offshore office and trying to get the image into this story…a few minutes late. Yeah, I’m not fully on top of this yet, I get that. But I think trying is right. For some of us. Not all of us, it’s okay, stay with me.

The “troublesome cries of the prophets” are not wrong. Nor are we to ignore the nags at our consciences that might tell us we’ve dashed past something important for a digital dab of nonsense we could have let slide.

But I want to join with Walsh in trying to sort out what we can do in the creative community to come to terms with these unprecedented tools of communication, which are our hope of sales and comradeship, of course, as much as they also seem the dire wolves of a cyber-threat we don’t yet understand…we’re too distracted…so distracted…oh, my God (and yours, too), the distractions.

[pullquote]I’m perfectly willing to speak only for myself here, don’t try any of this at home (except the Campari).[/pullquote]

And I think we may need two forward teams here.

What’s your sense of this? Is it better to try to step back from the beeping, flashing fray of digital? Or are you up for trying to take it all onboard and keep writing? No judgments here. You’re right, whichever way you go. I’m waving to Pooler. She’s doing the best thing for herself. And I’m pressing on. You have another tweet for me? While I’m trying to write? Bring it.



About Porter Anderson [22]

@Porter_Anderson [23] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [24], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [17] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [25]