Friday, October 22, 2010

On distraction

In a recent post on his blog, Alain de Botton wrote about the incessant distractions of contemporary life. I was thinking about it last weekend when I was in Rhinebeck, New York, for the NYS Sheep & Wool Festival. I was there as an observer, author, collector of wooly things, and reporter for Knitter's Review.

Having written up the event several years already, I was at a loss for how to bring a fresh eye to a familiar event. Video, I decided, would be the medium this year. I got a Flip video camera and started playing with it. I wasn't entirely sure I could pull it together, so I also brought my regular digital camera for backup. And because I wanted to share updates throughout the weekend, I also brought my cell phone. Mac users, don't get started—yes, I realize an iPhone would've served all those purposes, but I needed far better resolution.

Anyway, that is how I found myself at the festival last weekend, navigating tens of thousands of people, juggling from camera to video camera, back to camera, then to phone, then to video camera, then back to camera, for nearly two solid days. I'm proud of the results, but the process was so deeply fractured and distracting that I kept gravitating back to the sheep. They, it seemed, had the answer. They knew no better than to live in the present. Whereas even during dinner with four friends one night, I noticed that all but one had their cell phone at the table.

Which brings me back to Alain de Botton. He writes, "The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties—-something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows. We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture—-and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds."

I do sometimes wonder just how much simultaneous experience our minds can hold before we start to shut down. And I also see how, in our insatiable quest to feed on more and more, we are not giving each experience its own deep and meaningful consideration. Like jam, the less we have the thinner we spread it.

I have no grand declarations to make, no promise to live my life differently from this day forward, but this is where my thoughts are today. I'm watching the natural world around me go dormant for the winter and thinking I'd be well advised to follow Alain de Botton's suggestion: "Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting."

Saturday, October 9, 2010

On Optimism

The radiator by the front door was warm this morning. The leaves are turning quickly now, accompanied by cruel winds that are doing their best to knock all the leaves down.

There's no lingering this year, winter is nipping at our heels. The Old Farmer's Almanac says it's going to be a brutal one, and most Mainers agree. People around here have an interesting relationship with weather. When someone dares complain about the rain or the cold or whatever might be bothersome at the time, the complaint is almost always met with "at least it's not X." Don't like the rain? "At least it's not snow." Don't like the snow? "At least it's not ice." Don't like the ice? "At least it's not snow and ice like we had in '76."

Don't like the snow and ice? Tough, because you probably can't get out of your house to complain to anybody.

Conversely, the nicer it is, the more nervous people become. They believe in their heart of hearts that we shall be punished for it later - and after 12 winters here, this attitude has definitely rubbed off on me. We had an extraordinary summer, so you can only imagine the doomsday preparations that are being made now for winter.

For my part, the wood is stacked, the onions are cured, the chiles roasted, the furnace cleaned, screens put away, and slowly the garden is being put to bed. Except in one bed, where a few dozen cloves of garlic are going to be planted as soon as I finish writing this. Garlic, like most bulbs, is an exercise in the ultimate optimism. You tuck them deep in the soil and then you let go, hoping that you'll still be around when it comes time to harvest your beautiful and flavorful little time capsules.

It reminds me of a beautiful E.B. White essay about watching his wife look through the bulb catalogs when her age and health issues gave her a 50/50 chance of never seeing them bloom. And yet she plowed on with hope and optimism, which seems to be at the core of what life is about. Or what it should be about. Letting go, plowing ahead, hoping for the best, and leaving a little beauty behind for the next person.