I love the internet, but I’m pretty sure it’s bad for me.
You see, for every enlightened person who can manipulate the internet to make their life AMAZING, there is a person who gets sucked IN and can’t ever get out and I think that person is me.
It’s not just the TimeSuck factor, though. I’m perfectly fine with using the Internet to fill my recreation time. Even though it’s much easier for me to lose hours of my life surfing the web than it is to watch TV, I think I can limit myself with discipline,if things are getting out of hand.
No, what I worry about is this:
Let’s say I have a whim. Any whim. I would like to know which YA books are popular, for example, and I wonder how many of those books I have read.
So if I had no internet access, I would have to think about who I knew who might have this information. I could contact a librarian, or poll my friends, or maybe pick up a list of award winners from the library or a bookstore. If it was that important to me, I might do one of those things, but I probably couldn’t do it immediately. I would be forced to negotiate whether or not this was REALLY important to me, and where it might fit in my schedule. If I decide to take one of these actions, I would also strengthen my relationships with the people I asked, or had some kind of visceral experience looking at books in a library, or actually pick up one of those books, or whatever.
If I do have internet access, I stop what I’m doing and run to Google. I lose track of whatever work I was doing, I find any number of lists that are published by people I do not know and will never talk to. I print them off, and then I get out my highlighter and go through the list, indulging my anal retentive side, taking pleasure in marking off things on my mental checklist. “Check off which popular YA books I’ve read. Done. (Until I come across ANOTHER list of popular YA books, in which case, good thing I have 7 different colors of highlighter!)”
At this point, I’ve lost sight of whatever I was doing, of course, but that’s also not the point. I still believe that my brain is smarter than my Internet habits. I could, with focus and discipline, curb the distractions long enough to get something done.
What really bothers me is this: in that moment when I decide that indulging in whatever Whim it is that is Whimsying me, my basic, reptilian desire for the pleasures of instant gratification is satisfied, and my ego is satisfied, too. “Oh, look, I found what I was looking for! That’s great, I’m great, and so is the Internet!
And whatever self-centered, ego-massaging, personal maintenance task that struck my fancy? That process is glorified as well. I print off list after list of books and highlight line after line, thinking this is somehow better than the Life Without Internet option, or perhaps… oh… reading one of those popular books and judging for myself?
Technology is great. Maybe too great for me.
It’s too easy, Internet. You just don’t give me a chance to think.
This is my little sister Dorothy. She is a runner!
I am not a runner, I have never BEEN a runner, and I actually hate the physical act. It hurts. I can’t breathe. I can’t run for any significant distance, despite other indicators of my physical fitness. I would much rather chug away for an hour on an elliptical machine than run a mile.
This hatred was born a long time ago. I was in elementary school when I was first instructed to run around the white circle on the blacktop. I remember the first half of a lap was great – I was fast! I was in first place! Once I finished the second half of the lap, things started to suck, and I came in just ahead of the asthmatics.
Things got worse in middle school. Every year, students were enrolled in three quarters of gym and one quarter of health. Gym class activities varied depending on what quarter it was – first and last semester always included twice weekly timed outdoor runs around Tuccamirgan Park. The gym teachers claimed we weren’t graded on our times, but I was averaging a 16 to 14 minute mile, and during those quarters, I was averaging a B in gym.
On a side note, my GPA fixation started early. I was also a B student in math, and whenever I had spring or fall gym, I studied extra hard for my pre-algebra tests because I knew I was going to get a B in gym because I just couldn’t run.
Anyway, despite all that, I am running. I am running because my school’s gym is inconveniently located, because gym memberships in Boston are prohibitively expensive, and because even if I could find one cheap enough, Lance and I can’t figure out where there would be a gym conveniently located for both of our schedules.
So I’m trying this new trick. It’s called MAN, I LOVE RUNNING! I CAN’T WAIT TO RUN!! GAH WHAT A RUNNER’S HIGH! MY LEGS ARE GETTING SO STRONG AND I AM GETTING FASTER AND THIS IS GETTING EASIER! WOW! WOW! WOW! I AM GOING TO RUN RIGHT NOW EVEN THOUGH I DON’T WANT TO BECAUSE WHAT IF I DON’T GET A CHANCE TO LATER?? THAT WOULD BE TRAGIC!!
I’m holding down my mental shift key, basically.
And it’s kind of working.
Of course, I choose to start pursue this habit about 5 minutes before the temperatures dip below freezing and the running paths ice over… but I’m going with it.
These things help, too:
1) I walk
I’ve chanced upon a disproportionate number of blogs written by casual marathoners (as in, people who run marathons but not to the point where they are too busy running to blog and entertain me). Most of them mention that they walk during not just actual marathons, but even long training runs. This floored me – I’ve always held this opinion that runners are so in shape they don’t have to walk. That if you have to stop and walk (like I do, often), you might as well give up.
Of course, I TRY not to walk, but if I have to walk, I remember all those marathon runners, walking when they get exhausted, just like me, and then I make sure I run again.
2) I engage in mental aerobics.
Without resorting to caps-lock affirmations, I definitely trick myself into keeping at it.
If I start to talk myself out of running because it’s too cold/too hot/I’m too tired/I just ate/I’m too hungry, I slap myself in the face and say “Well, who cares? Just go out and have a cold/hot/full/hungry run. When you get back, you’ll be cold/hungry/full/hungry, but you won’t be dead. And if you feel like dying, you can walk home, you idiot!”
(I never said my mental aerobics were particularly kind)
While I’m running, I often want to stop and walk (aka die). Now, I force my mind to reason with my body before I stop: I have to think of a compelling reason to stop running, and I have to keep going until I think of it. And of course, while my mind takes inventory of my reasons to stop, my caps-lock brain kicks in.
I think, “I should stop because my legs really hurt.”
and my perky caps-lock brain says,
“WELL! You are getting stronger! Your legs need to grow more muscles, so of course it will hurt, but once they are done growing, it will be easier! Also, you are going up a hill! Once you start descending, it won’t be so bad!”
Repeat for: lack of oxygen, throat pain, slightly painful ankles or knees, or boredom.
And I find that when I do need to stop to walk, my brain and body are pretty much in agreement.
3) I distract myself
This is not as easy as it seems. When I started running outdoors, the only thing that would keep my mind off the pain was movies/TV on my iPod, even if the screen was in my pocket. Not-so-unfortunately, I only had one movie on my iPod: Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Side note: Mental Aerobics during this period often included “Come on, Jessica! Keep going! Keep running until this awesome song is over!
Over time, I figured out how to focus on an audiobook, which is handy because I’m almost always listening to one, or even a This American Life podcast.
And now, my brain is finally trained enough to occasionally 1) Think of my own independent thoughts while I’m running or 2) Listen to music.
4) I listen to exclusively awesome music
This may involve making a new playlist for EVERY RUN, but whatever.
Lately, I require these offensive little ditties of questionable musical quality:
5) I finally bought workout clothes that fit (sort of).
My shoes no longer make my ankles hurt or make my toes go numb. My sports bra doesn’t cut off my breathing apparatus. I am still wearing a pair of XL Adidas shorts that lost their drawstring, but it’s nothing a little creative hiking-up can’t help.
6) I run so slowly that leaves falling from trees pass me.
I have trouble pacing myself (see: Elementary School Blacktop), so I started running as slow as I possibly can. At times, I have slowed down to the point that I wonder if I could walk faster.
So I stop running for a second and walk, and yes, I can and do routinely walk faster than I run.
I ignore judgments from fellow runners as they pass me. Even Lance leaves me behind when we run together.
I get over it. I AM THE SLOWEST RUNNER ALIVE AND I AM AWESOME!!!!!
Anyway, I’m not any sort of running expert (obviously), and I’m mostly writing this so I can look at it in the spring when I want to start running again but fall back into my previously non-running ways. But in the past few weeks, without any concerted effort to run faster, I’ve cut almost a minute off my Seriously Slow mile time, I’ve run 2 miles with stops and 1.75 miles without, which is a Lifetime First, and far exceeds my 6th grade dreams of running a mile in under 16 minutes.
I don’t know if my time would get me that coveted A minus yet, we’re moving in some sort of forward direction.
I’m starting to miss Regular Life. Life without schoolwork. Life without homework. Life without reading lists and syllabi and part-time jobs. I’m sure this is no surprise to anyone who’s met me in the past year, but this whole Moving Across the Country Away From My Friends And Family, Living With A Boyfriend For The First Time, Managing My Own Finances, and Starting A Quite Rigorous Graduate Program? Yeah, it’s really hard. My days are generally spoken for, and even when they aren’t, my mind is occupied with what’s coming up, what’s next.
I think a lot of people – especially academics – thrive in this state, when everything melts away except for your work. I think I could go places in academia if I could live that way. But I can’t. I am acutely aware of what I’m giving up, living like this, and it makes me miserable, even if the work is objectively enjoyable, the subject matter amazing. I can’t focus. I can’t surrender.
Oh, there are moments of joy, that’s for sure, and moments of giddy exhilaration about what I’m doing here, the life I’m preparing for, the opportunities I have. It’s all very thrilling, but it’s also very stressful and exhausting.
If I were better suited to this kind of work, I think, I would look at this unhappiness and think about how to change my work, how to challenge myself. Instead, I find myself trying to inject my School Life with Real Life whenever I can.
Yes, I will drive 16 hours to spend 3 days with my family over the holidays.
Yes, I will wake up an hour early everyday so I can just SIT and BE for awhile.
And on Saturday, we went to the Jamaica Plain Lantern Parade.
I’m not really sure why I wanted to go.
All you do is walk around a pond, holding a soda bottle lantern with a candle in it.
I had homework to do.
And the boys I dragged with me were under-impressed.
But it was within walking distance of my apartment. An it’s going to be winter soon so I should enjoy the outside. And there were a number of adorable little kid costumes to be seen. And yes, we bought a cool Pac-Man lantern.
And it seemed like Real Life.
Like something I’d do before I moved to Boston and entered School Life.
6:45 a.m. Up early enough to cook up a bowl of steel-cut oats.
This takes about 6 times as long as breakfast preparation should, but informal experiments indicate that steel cut oats ACTUALLY fill me up, as opposed to the following other supposedly filling breakfast foods:
– fried eggs
– egg + cheese sandwiches
– egg + cheese + veggie omelets (although these come close)
– high protein, high fiber cereal
– low fiber, low protein cereal
– toast with peanut butter
– regular oatmeal with nuts
So I cook my ridiculous oatmeal and read a little Ragged Dick while I wait.
8:10 a.m. Leave the apartment dressed and with enough supplies & food to get me through the day.
Opt to take the train, since having enough supplies & food to get me through the day means I am, yet again, carrying two overstuffed bags, and there’s really no room on a morning-rush bus for me and all of my crap.
Run for the train, burdened like the beast I am with aforementioned crap.
8:30 a.m. Get to Job #1 early. Absolutely no advantage to being at work early.
– sending email after email after email
– telling people after people after people that no, I know nothing about Study Abroad, I am sorry that somebody who I have never met has yet to hire a Director, I get paid 13 dollars an hour do you think I have ANY influence over the administration here? But you have my sympathy, I promise, and I will dutifully listen to your questions.
– printing things
– sending more emails
– fretting over research assignment. Is this qualitative? Quantitative? Exploratory? Descriptive? I hate my life? Questions of Theory? Phenomenological? Good gravy, just kill me now?
– registering for LIS classes. 10 minutes before registration period opens, realize that some major academic planning has not yet occurred. Frantically map out rest of graduate school career. Feel impressed when this takes 6 minutes. Sign up for two courses, plan to drop 1.
3:00 p.m. Leave Job #1. Head to library. Spend my single precious hour of free-time finding articles and books potentially pertinent to my research project.
4:00 p.m. Assume position at Job #2.
– Answer questions from First Year Students who do not know how to use the library.
– Answer questions from disgruntled PhD students who just need their articleokaythanksWHYISINFORMATIONNOTFREETOTHOSEWHOSEEKIT? I don’t know, man, I just don’t know.
– Answer questions from my classmates. Feel awkward.
– Update a wiki. Feel technologically advanced.
– Fret over Research Assignment.
– Read a Public Safety email reminding me to never walk around alone in the dark, otherwise I’ll get attacked like the girl that got attacked the other day.
This semester is quietly sucking out my insides… just like every other semester of my life. It may be time to face a bitter, bitter truth: I love school, but school does not love me. I certainly get off on Going to Class, Taking Notes, Learning, Academic Conversing, Gathering of Questionably Great Ideas, and Canoodling With Literary Celebs, but school also sends me into a perfectionist tizzy. I read Penelope Trunk’s article last night and was fairly horrified.
Try having an opinion that is wrong. Tell a story that is stupid. Wear clothes that don’t match. Turn in a project that you can’t fully explain. People will not think you’re stupid. People will think you spent your time and energy doing something else — something that meant more to you.
Anyway, I started to think about my pair of classes this semester. I have two most excellent professors who are both teaching highly inaccessible topics. Going to class is not difficult, but doing my homework is.
For one class, I get to digest stacks of articles on how to properly formulate and conduct research experiments that measure library use. Eight weeks in, I still have no idea what it means to “operationalize my terms.” I rewrote the problem statement for my semester-long mock-research project for a better grade, put some legitimate thought into it, made some changes, and got an extra .5 points. A pity .5 points.
For the other, I get to read once popular, now obscure, (always 600 pages…) children’s literature titles from the 19th century. Common plotlines so far include “I love my mother more than God! Waahh!”, “My father is punishing me for loving God more than him! Waahh!” and “Why can’t I read novels on the Sabbath? Waaaaaaahhh!!!” Finding anything to say in my papers other than “Wow, that book was bizarre” is surprisingly difficult.
But I’m still getting, largely, A-minuses. No, this former valedictorian is not an A student, she is an A-minus student. Thank you, sub-par public secondary education! However, despite my 18-years-and-counting proclivity for the A-minus, I always have this feeling that if only I could [fill in the blank with some random self-improvement], then I could get A’s.
I always enter each semester with the inarticulate goal to “Stay On Top of My Schoolwork,” but I have really no idea what that means on a practical level. Theoretically, “Staying on Top,” means “Maintaining Some Semblance of Control Over My Life,” but every semester, no matter how I play my cards, I end up partaking in the following behaviors that drive me out of my skin, send my muscles into recurrent migraine territory, send my energy levels to the ground:
– Starting papers the day before they are due.
– Coming home after work or school and collapsing onto the couch until I fall asleep.
– The Incredible Disappearing Weekend
– Coming to class without having completed the required reading and feeling like an idiot.
All of which have been regular behaviors this semester, no matter how much they induce the mania. Urgh.
But what bothers me most of all is that somewhere behind the mess of working and classes and vegging out on the couch, I don’t actually have time to do ANYTHING AT ALL. Nothing. Not my reading, not the kind of work that will get me that coveted A, and not anything at all that I typically find useful or entertaining or enlightening.
So I’m going out of my way to carve out chunks of time out of my day to just… be. I’m hoping this will a) improve personal morale b) increase productivity c) contribute to a sense of control over not just my day to day life, but my larger destiny.
In June, when I had 20 hours of work, 16 hours of internship, and 6 hours of class every week, I started waking up with Lance and having him drop me off at Starbucks in Brookline, or at the T so I could hop on the train and go to the Starbucks in Somerville. It was an act of desperation: the papers had to get written, and I discovered that I was more likely to work on them with two shots of espresso in hand, even if I had to hold them at 6:30 a.m. The habit followed me to this fall semester – before every large paper, it seems I’ve procrastinated enough to send me into desperation, and into Starbucks before the sun comes up.
But I’ve decided to reclaim the Early Morning at the Coffeeshop Habit for the forces of personal good. Instead of staying up until midnight with a paper only to revisit it six hours later, I’m launching a pre-emptive strike. On Wednesdays, when I only work 10:30 to 4:00, I can haul ass out of bed early enough to hitch a ride and then I can have a morning to myself to
a) Tackle that homework before it tackles back
b) Do something I don’t typically have time for, like spend an entire hour writing a really long, self-involved blog post!
So at least for a few hours a week, life is good.
And although I do miss my summer Somerville Starbucks, the Brookline Village location sure has more than its share of colorful clientele.
Today, I grasp at the edges of my manic life with help from a guardian angel.
I have had friends, in my life. But I mostly can’t handle it.
This picture was taken on my 21st birthday. I assumed I would go to a bar with Lance, maybe a roommate, and have a drink. Somewhere between Sunday afternoon and Sunday night, I had my boyfriend, my roommates, and a good portion of my a cappella group, all singing and dancing and buying me drinks all over the Oldies-Night dance floor.
I still can’t believe it, looking at this picture. How did that happen? I don’t have friends! Where did they all come from?
But that was college. College ended and my friends mostly stayed and I left and I mostly disappeared. I was happy to remove myself from a number of friend-based situations, I wouldn’t miss sitting at home thinking about whether I should invite myself to a party I knew some of my friends were going to but hadn’t invited me. I wouldn’t miss the stigma behind Sitting At Home and Doing Nothing. I was so happy to return to people (aka my family) who would join me in my Sitting and Nothing.
So I stopped wishing my college friends happy birthday on Facebook, lost my cell phone numbers and didn’t go out of my way to replace them, and after six years of daily AIMing, officially gave up on Instant Messager because it totally stressed me out. I spend most of my time with my favorite friends: my family.
I still have my friends from high school,
but without exception, they are all engaged or married, and they all have children.
Which is fine, which is great, I still love them and I wish I could see more of them and their adorable kids, but we’re just in different stages of our lives, you know?
I was excited to move to Boston, to meet more people who were in my stage of life. And I did! Grad school friends!
But there’s still a distance there, and it’s totally my own doing. We see each other once or twice a week, in class, before class, after class, and that seems fine to me. That seems like plenty of time to see your friend. And there is always work to be done – homework, housework, work-work – that precludes close friendship.
There’s not enough time in the day to make friends, basically. There is almost always an excuse not to hang out, not to go to this bar, not to go to this event.
I’m okay with this about 90% of the time.
But then I start looking at other people’s friendships and get jealous.
And I think about my future…
– When I get married, will I have ANYONE to invite to my wedding? Will anyone even WANT to come? (see 21st birthday anxiety)
– When I have kids, will I want my kids to grow up isolated from relationships with other adults just because *I’m* a social recluse?
– Wouldn’t it be nice to feel like you are part of a community, Jessica, of people your own age who help each other and support each other?
So I’m not actively seeking close friendship with peers… but am I also consciously rejecting it? I shut off my instant messager. I RSVP “no.” I smile and nod when you mention something fun you are doing instead of inviting myself along. I am always too sick to go out, always too broke, always too busy.
I posted these two articles to my Facebook wall this morning, before 8 a.m. I don’t like being all over Facebook like that, especially before most people I am friends with are awake, but I did it anyway. I’m weird. Get over it.
First, a video:
This is a little talk from David Foster Wallace, about the differences between commercial and literary fiction. Ignoring any inherent debates between the value of High Culture Lit vs. Low Culture Lit, I thought the most interesting part of Wallace’s argument was this:
Literary fiction requires time, it requires quiet, it requires focus and concentration, and it’s getting harder and harder to ask readers to do that.
I don’t know what the solution is to this problem: we can try to train kids to see the value and enjoyment of reading a book that’s “hard” or “dense,” but I think a lot of English classes ARE trying to do that and failing. I have always been A Reader and I made it all the way through an English B.S. without that appreciation.
So do we ask the writers of commercial fiction to Beef It Up? To trick lazy American readers into loving literary fiction?
Or do we give up the crusade?
And then there was this article from the New York Times:
I’m sure there is a lot about this article that screams “ALARMIST!” “QUOTES OUT OF CONTEXT!” or “WAH! WAH! OUR BUSINESS SUCKS!” but after spending a semester literally knee-deep in picturebooks, I think there’s some truth to the changing perception of the picturebook and what it’s for.
When I was giving storytimes, I plucked picturebooks from the shelf at random, looking for something large enough to be visible around the room, something with short enough text to keep the attention span of my infant-4-yr-old audience, and maybe some repetition or humor for a little interaction.
It’s very easy to see picturebooks like this. I didn’t even LIKE picturebooks all that much at that point in my life, even though I was reading 2-6 every week.
And that’s because I was BUSY. I had a program to present, I usually had about an hour to make sure music and props and chairs and everything was ready. I wasn’t really thinking about the picturebooks at all, except as a means to the end-of-this-flipping-storytime-oh-my-gosh-this-is-exhausting.
A year later, I adore picturebooks because they are works of art, and not just any art, but this crazy, special art that somehow combines images and words to create an almost tangible story or an experience. And I don’t think most people get that. Maybe more people considered picturebooks to be a “Literary Experience,” during some “Golden Age of the Picturebook” in the 70s or whatever, but something changed.
The NYT article focuses on economic and educational causes, but isn’t that just another way of saying:
“We’re too busy balancing our budget and getting our kids how to pass arbitrary standardized tests to slow down and focus on something literary, or to encourage our children to do the same?”
This has been stirring around in my mind all morning.
In other news: I wish David Foster Wallace would have written a picturebook.