Friday, February 15, 2019

The Importance of This Moment

As some of you know, my birthday was on Valentine's Day. My husband took me out to a well-known French restaurant, where we had a wonderful meal. And in the midst of enjoying a dinner that was fit for a gourmet, I couldn't help but notice something:  people were busy talking to each other.  I saw nobody on their phone, nobody texting, and nobody live-tweeting about their food.

I have to admit it made me smile, because it's something I don't see very often.  Whether it's a rock concert, or a nice dinner, or a movie, it seems some people can't leave their devices alone. They can't just enjoy what they're doing, and be happy with the moment they're in.  There's selfies to take and instant messages to send and emails to answer... and it absolutely has to be done NOW. And don't get me started about folks who feel they must respond to every text, even if they're driving. Never a good idea.

I understand wanting to share an experience with friends. If I see a great concert, of course I want to let people know. But I want them to know later-- after I get home. I mean, why spend your time texting instead of relaxing and immersing yourself in the event? I've been to see some amazing bands, and instead of enjoying the show, some folks seemed like they were preoccupied with posting comments on social media. I know because I saw their comments later on. (But I must admit, given the price of tickets these days, not watching a show you've paid for really makes no sense to me.)

Before I became a professor, I was in broadcasting and journalism.  I often had high-stress jobs, plus I always liked to get a lot done.  But even back then, I realized there were times when it was good to take a break.  As a radio consultant, I visited many different states; and my clients often wanted to show me the sights their city was famous for. I learned there was a time for business meetings, but there was also a time to enjoy a national park or a local museum or a popular place to eat. And while it might have been nice to take a photo with my smartphone, I'm glad I wasn't texting my way through each experience. Sometimes, rather than preserving an event, the device can distract from it.

And that brings me back to my birthday dinner. I rarely eat out at fancy places-- I'm more of a casual kind of person, and my tastes are pretty simple. But every now and then, it's nice to do something different, something special. However, for me, the experience itself was enough, and I had no desire to interrupt the mood by texting or tweeting about it. Agreed, I'm not a famous person, so perhaps few people care where I ate or who I saw. But my point is sometimes, the best thing to do is to enjoy the moment; allow yourself to experience it, and be grateful you're there.  That's what I did on my birthday, and I was glad to see I wasn't the only one.      

Thursday, January 31, 2019

So Much to Do, and So Little Time

I was lying in bed reading last night, and an article in the Washington Post caught my eye-- it was about how most Americans these days are sleep-deprived.  There are many reasons the article gave, and I thought of a few others.  For adults, we are often expected to take work home with us: there are projects we need to finish, or preparations we need to make before a morning meeting or a class.  There are emails and messages we feel we have to answer; social media posts to catch up on; and for many of us, commutes are getting longer and we have to get up earlier to make sure we're at work on time.  For students, there is homework to do or reports to write (the assignments they've often left till the last minute); and let's be honest-- even if parents try to prevent it, many kids stay up too late chatting online with friends or playing video games. And a word should also be said about those of us with health issues-- sometimes, we're in a lot of pain, and that too can keep us from falling asleep.

And one other factor the Washington Post article didn't mention: many people are having trouble sleeping due to worry or insecurity.  During the recent government shutdown, many politicians (especially those who are wealthy) seemed surprised that large numbers of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. No, most of them aren't wasting money on stuff they don't need.  The problem is how expensive daily life has become in many cities:  rents have sky-rocketed and affordable housing is in short supply; medicines are outrageously priced (with little competition to bring prices down); and unskilled or semi-skilled workers are barely able to keep up with how much groceries cost.  In addition, even people who make a good salary can be driven into debt by an unexpected crisis (like a car accident, hospitalization, or... 35 days without a paycheck). 

But whatever the reason for the lack of sleep, it's a national dilemma.  Kids are coming into early morning classes so sleepy that they're dozing off in class (which never makes their teachers very happy).  Adults are feeling more stressed and more exhausted (and making more mistakes as a result).  As many reputable medical sites point out, lack of sleep can lead to accidents (drowsy drivers get into car crashes more frequently than those who are not half-asleep); it can lead to being less effective at work (if you're feeling drowsy, you are probably not mentally sharp); it can even lead to medical conditions like high blood pressure.  And the less sleep a person gets, the more likely they are to feel anxious, impatient, or short-tempered.

In 1942, the average person got about 7 and 1/2 hours of sleep a night.  These days, surveys show that large numbers of folks are living on 5 to 6 hours; some even get less than that.  There are relaxation techniques that sleep experts suggest, which work for some people-- though not for everyone. The experts also say you shouldn't keep your devices in your bedroom, where you'll be tempted to stay awake and use them.  I've also read about various changes in diet that are supposed to help, like limiting alcohol or caffeine or sugar.  But frankly, I think this is a cultural issue-- until we as a society make getting enough rest a priority, I doubt much will change. As long as too many of us feel constantly pressured, as long as we feel we have to cram so much activity into so few hours, folks will continue walking around exhausted. I'm one of them, and I'd be interested in what others are doing to deal with this very real problem.   


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Nobody's Right if Everybody's Wrong

I've always loved classic rock (of course, it wasn't classic when I played it as a deejay; it was new back then).  Sometimes, a song from the 60s and 70s will just pop into my mind, and over the past few days, I've been thinking about "For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey What's That Sound)" by Buffalo Springfield. When it came out, many of us thought it was about the Vietnam War, but it wasn't; it was about clashes between young people and the police in mid-1966 in Hollywood, California. Still, the lines about polarization, and how each side was convinced that their side was good and the other side was bad, really resonated with me.  They still do, more than five decades later. Back then, those of us who were opposed to the war were having heated and often-angry debates with those who supported it. Sometimes, the rhetoric got really intense, and just like the song said, it seemed like a no-win situation, since neither side would back down. ("There's battle lines being drawn/nobody's right if everybody's wrong...")

Fast-forward to today. As I write this, the government has been partially shut down for more than three weeks, causing over 800,000+ people to not receive a paycheck, and causing countless services people rely on to either shut down or operate with a skeleton (and unpaid) staff. Each side is convinced that their side is right, and the other side is wrong:  President Trump, who said on TV that he'd be "proud" to shut down the government over funding for a border wall, refuses to negotiate unless congress agrees to give him more than five billion dollars. The newly empowered Democrats in the House are willing to give him funding for border security (more immigration judges, more border agents, reinforcing the fencing and barriers in various places) but they're unwilling to give him five billion for a wall.  And while both sides are dug in, 800,000 government workers have no idea when is the next time they'll get paid.

I see this "I'm right/you're wrong" attitude in many areas of life, but especially in politics. There's an unwillingness to engage in discussion unless the other side agrees to give in (the "my way or the highway" approach); in fact, as some political scientists and commentators have noted, "compromise" has become a dirty word, which now carries a connotation of "weakness." In the border wall debate, each side's supporters are urging them to "stand strong" and "not surrender," rather than encouraging a much-needed effort to find some common ground and get those 800,000 people back to work.

Refusing to compromise wasn't always the default position. Historians note that many times in our country, voters demanded that politicians stop bickering and find some middle ground. Agreed, there were times this was not the case-- the Civil War, for example, and the Vietnam War era. But many other times, compromise was seen as necessary for getting things done.  Unfortunately, we don't hear much of that from our political leaders today.  Thanks to social media and 24/7 cable channels, the people with the most intransigent and extreme views are the ones who get noticed (and listened to). And as for everyone else--including those of us who DO want compromise-- we're left to feel like nobody cares what we have to say.

What worries me, as an educator, is the message this is sending to young people. When kids sulk and throw tantrums, we correct them or punish them; and we tell they're being immature. But when our politicians (and even our president) behave that way, they get rewarded with lots of TV and online attention, voters often praise them, and in all too many cases, they get re-elected.  We're living in a time when stubbornness is seen as a virtue, when refusing to give an inch is seen as a good thing. But it's not. It's telling kids that acting like an angry five year is how to deal with a problem. Meanwhile, 800,000 government workers are sidelined, their fate resting on whether congress and the president will finally decide to be adults and solve this, rather than only doing what's right for each side's political needs.