Friday, November 27, 2015

Reclaimed

The semester is coming to an end at a rather alarming pace, but I decided to conveniently ignore that fact and do a little "fun" reading instead. 

I put the word "fun" in quotation marks because I'm well aware that what I consider "fun" is not necessarily what others consider "fun."

Moving on.  As regular readers of my blog know, I'm a big fan of the work of Sherry Turkle, so I was particularly excited to get my hot little hands on her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in A Digital Age (2015).

I came to this book after reading a blog post by a friend.  In effect, my friend wrote an open letter to Apple asking if she could please have her family back: smartphones had lured them away, both from each other and, apparently, from themselves.

Turkle's latest book addresses precisely the problems that my friend describes in her blog post-- namely, families (and individuals) who spend more time staring at screens than they do interacting with friends and fellow family members. 

With the advent of laptops, tablets, and smartphones, we seem to have lost the ability--or the willingness--to engage in face-to-face conversations, a problem that is becoming particularly acute for children and teens.  As Turkle points out,
Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grew up using their phones to text and message, these studies may be describing losses they don't feel.  They didn't grow up with a lot of face-to-face talk. (12)
In the place of conversation, Turkle argues, we have provided myriad opportunities for mere connection.  We connect with people via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, email, texting or other social media platforms, but we don't thereby converse with them.

Electronic communications like texts or emails typically focus on communicating information.  Conversations, however, perform a different kind of emotional "work." It is a work that can be both time-consuming and disjointed or messy, but it is, in the end, highly necessary to our very existence as human beings. 

As Turkle points out, many--if not most--people prefer to communicate via email or text not only because it renders the exchange more efficient, but also because it allows for a greater sense of control.  You can "edit" yourself ahead of time and craft the "self" you wish to present to your e-locutor--this is one of the much-touted advantages of electronic communication.

The problem is, as scientists have recently discovered, "the parts of the brain that allow us to process another person's feelings and intentions are activated by eye contact" (170). 

So, if you're still wondering why that email or text exchange with that person you really do love and care about went so terribly, terribly wrong, and how it's possible that the two of you could so misunderstand each others' good intentions, wonder no more. 

Because you were typing and texting instead of looking each other in the eye, there's a good chance that your brain missed all kinds of cues that would have enabled you to perceive the other person's feelings and intentions before things became so horribly derailed.

And if you think, "Well, but I use emojis and emoticons and I'm real good with the whole punctuation thing," think again.  Scientists have studied the use of emojis and emoticons and punctuation in the communication of feelings and intentions.

And no, their effect is not the same--or as effective--as eye contact and face-to-face communication.

What I have always liked about Turkle's work is the fact that, despite her warnings about its (often negative) psychological effects, she isn't anti-technology. 

Instead, Turkle advocates a greater awareness of the psychological effects of technology and the nature of our relationship with it, in order to make us more cognizant of the choices we could--and should--consider making when we turn to our devices.

Take, for example, the often-heard claim that we are "addicted" to our phones.  Turkle argues that it is unhelpful to frame our relationship with our devices in these terms because our devices aren't drugs (no, really, they aren't). 

Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other forms of technology serve a purpose; unlike heroin or crack, we aren't simply turning to them for the "high" that they offer.  They're quite useful, when used thoughtfully and deliberately.

At the same time, however, Turkle also acknowledges that technology offers a certain allure that is very hard to resist.  In fact, she argues, "we are all vulnerable to the emotional gratifications that our phones offer--and we are neurochemically rewarded when we attend to their constant stimulation" (125-126).

Let's say it again: we're vulnerable.  Devices like smartphones make many things easy--and that's not  a bad thing. 

On the other hand, however, given that we are "wired to crave what neuroscientists call 'the seeking drive'," a drive that is fulfilled by scrolling through apps or a Facebook newsfeed or a Twitter feed, we are at risk when we overindulge in our use of technology or when we use it without recognizing the neurochemical responses it provokes in our brains--the needs it feeds without ever satisfying.

As Turkle points out, many people testify to precisely the misgivings that she is articulating.  Some people have even begun to take action.  They now buy "retro" phones which allow them to talk and text, but which don't allow for the installation of numerous apps.  They set aside "device-free" or "wireless-free" times and locations: instead of being "always on," they deliberately choose to be "occasionally off."

Ultimately, Turkle's advice is simple: remember that your phone isn't an accessory.  It's a "psychologically potent device" that provokes neurochemical stimuli and seems to reward them (albeit temporarily).  So use it with care and with caution, and be aware of what you need it for, and why. 

To the extent that, as Turkle argues, your smartphone "changes not just what you do but who you are" (319), you need to be cognizant of what you want it to do and why, so that you can remain in control of "who you are" and who you want to be.

You probably don't want to be some wrinkled old geezer who sits all alone, staring at a phone.  So stop staring at it all the time: look around and look at other people.  Turn it off, from time to time, and ride out the uneasy feelings that you'll initially experience when you do. 

They'll eventually subside and in their place will come a new set of feelings and connections: ones born of eye contact and conversation and commitment.  

In the end, Turkle's most powerful advice is quite simple: "We don't have to give up our phones, but we have to use them more deliberately.  And sometimes, just as deliberately, we need to take a break" (316).

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Wild"

This week, I finished reading Cheryl Strayed's memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012).  My best friend recommended it to me about a year ago, actually, so it's been on my list.  I tend to like books about adventure and travel and, as an introvert, I'm always interested in the phenomenon of solitude, so this book was, in many ways, right up my alley.

In 1995, the then-26-year-old Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon--a total of about 1100 miles.  The journey was, in many ways, an effort to reclaim her life and her sense of self.  After the death of her mother, Strayed... well, strayed, actually, into infidelity and drug use, a path that cost her her marriage to a man she loved deeply.

So Strayed's memoir is both a hike-narrative and a reflection on her past.  As the title suggests, it's an attempt to explain how she went from "lost" to "found."

I actually enjoyed the book as I was reading it.  But now that I've finished it and had a couple of days to think about it, I confess, I have a few misgivings.

On the one hand, having completed the book, I've grown increasingly aware that Strayed didn't really spend all that much time describing the Pacific Crest Trail itself.

Yes, there were descriptions of her hikes and her camp sites, and yes, in a few brief instances she offered insight into the historical background of the Trail and a few scenic points along the way.  But if you're looking for a hike-narrative that showcases a narrator who really reflects on the natural world around her and thinks about what she sees and her place in the larger scheme of things, this probably isn't the book for you--it's a bit light on those particular points.

Which leads me to my second misgiving.  Strayed goes from "lost" to "found," perhaps, but the entire trajectory encompasses her ongoing reflections about ... herself.  From beginning to end.  There's no real effort to think about what her words or behavior might look like from the point of view of anyone else (her mother, her siblings, her stepfather, her husband) and as a result, I felt like a lot of the self-reflection pretty quickly degenerated into self-justification.

"Why did I sleep around and ruin my marriage?  I don't know, but I slept around.  I just did."

"Why did I do heroin?  Was I trying to self-destruct?  Maybe.  I'm sure I wasn't an addict, though."

As far as epiphanies and self-awareness go, I've read better.

One reviewer said that if you don't mind listening to a friend complain constantly about his/her own stupidity, you won't mind Strayed's memoir.  While that's a bit harsh, I would agree that the reviewer has a point.

Because I too grew a bit tired of hearing about how, yes, she knew it was "wrong" (maybe?) to use heroin, but she wasn't addicted... really... and yes, she knew it was "wrong" (maybe?) to cheat on her husband (repeatedly), and she felt absolutely terrible when she confessed all of this too him and it was obvious he loved her and all, BUT...

You see what I mean.  I kept telling myself, "She's young, she's young," but at one point, I got annoyed and answered myself: "YEAH, but she's not THAT young, and this behavior is really kinda self-involved and stupid."

And for me, that was what was missing from the book: a direct acknowledgment of just how self-involved and stupid some of her choices were.  I didn't get the sense that she really came to that level of self-realization by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail--instead, it seemed that the trail served a more cathartic purpose, helping her cope with her mother's death at age 45 from cancer.

As far as the hike itself, a couple of things bothered me.  The first was the repeated references to losing her toenails because her hiking boots were too small. 

Now granted, I get skeeved out when people's toenails fall out, and yes, I know it happens.  But I don't want to hear about it.  I just don't.  I was willing to let it go the first time, but when she kept mentioning it, it seemed a bit juvenile, actually.

To me, it was like the elementary school kid who does the gross thing that makes everyone go "Ewwwww...".  At some point, they're just doing it to make people go "ewww"--to me, that was the only point to the repeated toenail-descriptions.

In all honesty, I don't really know how Strayed managed to hike as far as she did, given the condition of her feet.  It seemed to me that, at some point, continuing on was really kind of senseless, actually.  Because with the exception of one other equally inexperienced hiker, it didn't seem like others on the trail had the extensive foot-issues that she faced.  Probably because they made sure their hiking boots fit before they, you know, went hiking.  For a thousand miles.

Which leads me to the second thing that bothered me about the hike.  Strayed really didn't know what she was doing and she really didn't have any hiking experience.  To spontaneously decide to undertake an 1100-mile hike without really doing any research or learning anything about how to survive beyond what the salespeople at REI tell you, isn't a noble undertaking, in my book.

It's just silly and risky and rather self-centered.

Add to all of this the fact that Strayed comes across as a bit... boy-crazy.  I'm using the teenage language here, because that was really how it came across after a while: she's boy-crazy.

Because every time we rounded a bend on the trail, we seemed to come upon a "stunningly" or "startlingly" handsome man.

At first, I kind of laughed and chalked it up to coincidence, but after about the fifth time it happened, I came to the conclusion that Strayed was probably setting the bar rather low.

Because she contemplated sleeping with several of these guys, within (what seemed like) mere minutes of meeting them.  And at other times, she found herself compelled to fend off a couple of creepy dudes that no woman in her right mind would have chatted with or shared a drink with or whatever.

Suffice to say, I was not amused by her "Gee, it turns out, I'm the prettiest girl on the whole Pacific Crest Trail" routine.  Give it up, sister, and hike.  Just... hike.

So all this to say, by the end, I was getting a little jaded and tired of her... persona. 

In fact, my reaction was, "You know, if I hiked 1100 miles, I'm pretty damn sure I wouldn't encounter this many sexually attractive guys who just happen to all be sexually attracted to me as well.  And I'm quite certain that if my toenails fell off and I couldn't really lift my backpack because it was so heavy and I ran out of water in the desert, I'd be giving myself a serious talking to about getting myself better informed about what I was doing before I went out and tried to do it."

In the end, I was reminded of a comment that Jon Krakauer included in his book Into The Wild, about 22-year-old Christopher McCandless who hiked into the Alaskan wild and ultimately died there.

One of Krakauer's readers commented on an early version of the story: he said that hiking into the wilderness with no awareness of the possible risks and no knowledge of the skills needed to survive  is both selfish and disrespectful.  The reader had no patience with the romanticized idea that one could simply "find" oneself out in the wild:  he speculated that it was nothing short of miraculous when individuals who did such things actually lived to tell the tale.

Strayed was, as she herself admits, one of the lucky ones who did.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Obasan

I've been rereading and teaching Joy Kogawa's Obasan (1981) this week, and I've been enjoying the chance to return to this novel after many years.  Quite frankly, I'd forgotten how interesting the language, imagery and narrative style are: when I assigned the novel, it was primarily for the historical content.

Kogawa's novel focuses on the relocation and dispersal of Japanese Canadians at the start of World War II.  Similar to the Japanese-American Internment in the United States, in Canada, Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry were required to leave their homes on the West Coast and reside in the (more remote) interior of Canada.

Kogawa tells the story of Naomi, a Japanese Canadian who is forced to relocate with her brother, Stephen, her uncle, Isamu, and her aunt--in Japanese, the word for "aunt" is "obasan"--from the city of Vancouver, first to the town of Slocan (540 miles away) and later to Lethbridge, in the province of Alberta (approximately 730 miles from Vancouver).

Naomi is only five years old at the outbreak of World War II; her confusion at the forced relocation is complicated by the fact that, shortly before the outbreak of the war, her mother returns to Japan for what is supposed to be a brief visit to pay her respects to her dying grandmother.  Naomi's mother never returns.

The novel is thus about Naomi's attempt to make sense of what happens--politically, socially, and personally--in the wake of her experiences as a Japanese Canadian in the 1940s.  In particular, Kogawa organizes the novel around the motif of silence: thus, the opening sentences assert,
"There is a silence that cannot speak.
      There is a silence that will not speak."
This distinction between "cannot speak" versus "will not speak" is integral to Kogawa's representation of the Japanese Canadian interment, relocation and dispersal.  Given what happened to Canadian citizens in what was supposed to be a democracy, what should be remembered and retold to future generations?  Is it best to leave the past in silence?  What effect does it have on future generations if the stories of "what happened" remain unspoken?

Kogawa complicates what we might think are easy answers to these questions ("children deserve to know the truth" and "people should be told") by examining the nature of the stories themselves: what happens if the stories that "must" or "should" be told are so horrific or traumatic that the tellers themselves are reduced to silence?  What if they will not speak, simply because they cannot?

Kogawa uses the natural imagery of tides and stone as a way of reflecting on the nature of change and the unyielding resistance that is required for survival in the wake of the attitude and events that Japanese Canadians experience at the outbreak of World War II.  Naomi's uncle Isamu thus makes "stone bread"--a substance that Naomi and Stephen refuse and/or find themselves unable to eat.  Reduced to eking out a living from the bare minimum of subsistence, Isamu learns to bake a bread that, although hard as a rock, nevertheless provides the necessary nourishment.

In the end, this is the essence of Kogawa's text: a reflection on what it means to survive, to endure and to hope in the face of virulent racism, political persecution, and the loss of nearly everything that one loves and values.