Book chat


Robot kid

I recently started reading David M. Levy’s Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives. The book was published last year, but I checked it out from my public library last week, when I upgraded my smartphone and am hyper-aware of how reliant upon technology I am in my daily life.

Mindful Tech is filled with exercises encouraging readers to observe how they interact with technology, and it’s encouraging me to revisit and reflect upon my own use of email, social media, and other apps. Although I was one of the last of my friends and colleagues to get a smartphone several years ago, I quickly became dependent upon it for a wide range of uses.

Robot

On a typical day, I use my phone to check email, access my calendar, manage to-do lists, and follow news stories. I take photos on my phone, and I use my phone to post those photos to Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook. I manage blog comments on my phone, I read Kindle books and New Yorker articles on my phone, and I use smartphone apps to pay for parking, manage my library holds, and time my meditation and writing sessions. Although I do occasionally use my phone to make phone calls and send texts, I mostly use it throughout the day, every day, to manage my time and daily tasks.

Given all the things I do on my phone, it’s easy to become an obsessive checker, even when such checking isn’t helpful, useful, or efficient. In the summer and on weekends during the school year, for example, I’ve gotten in the habit of checking school email on my tablet in the morning, before I begin my morning journal pages. I don’t check email then because I have time to answer any important emails I’ve received overnight but because I want to make sure there aren’t any important emails awaiting. What I’m looking for when I check email in the morning, in other words, is permission to start my day…and when I phrase it that way, it doesn’t sound like a good or healthy thing.

Molten

When I check school email in the morning on my tablet, what I find in my inbox sets the tone for what’s to follow. If there aren’t any urgent emails in my inbox, I am relieved I can start the day with a clean slate. But if there are urgent emails awaiting me, one of two things happens: I either get sidetracked into answering those emails right away, which always takes longer than I’d planned, or I put off answering those emails for later, which means the thought of Unanswered Messages hangs over my head like a boom that’s just waiting to drop.

On a purely rational level, checking email just to check doesn’t make much sense. Unless I have time to answer any urgent emails immediately, there’s no reason not to put off checking until after I’ve written my journal pages: any student who has waited overnight for an answer can surely wait another half hour or so. Levy’s book is encouraging me to look more closely at habits such as these, not with a prescriptive aim of telling me how I should interact with technology but by encouraging me to ask honest questions of myself. Why do I check email or interact with social media the way I do, and how well are those choices working for me?

Robot Kid

I’ve just started reading Levy’s book, so I don’t know what conclusions I’ll ultimately draw from it. But already, it’s been helpful to think about my work habits as a series of choices that are largely under my control. Although I can’t control all the parameters of my work life, there are some basic habits I can enforce, such as making a conscious effort to bring my awareness back to my body as I am working: how am I breathing? How is my posture? Where in my body do I feel stiffness or tension?

This simple act of bringing attention back to one’s body is a meditative act that can be done anywhere, including at one’s desk while doing work, so it makes sense that Levy encourages it. The mind can wander, but the body can only be here. The moment you bring your attention back to your body, your focus instantly and automatically returns to the Present Moment: a low-tech attention exercise that can be done anywhere at anytime, with or without a smartphone in hand.

Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries have been popping up everywhere in Newton these days. We’ve had a Little Free Library in our neighborhood in Waban for a couple years now; there have been two at “The Street” in Chestnut Hill for nearly as long; and in the past few weeks, others have appeared in front of the Waban Library Center, a house on Beacon Street, and a house in Newton Centre.

Take a book, leave a book

Anyone can put up a box filled with books with a sign telling passersby to take a book and leave a book, and it seems our neighbors are fond of reading and encouraging others to read. Although I mostly read books borrowed from the public library these days, having so many Little Free Libraries around is encouraging me to re-visit my shelves, looking for books I’ve read and don’t plan to revisit.

No book-lover likes to weed out books; ideally, we’d keep every book we’ve read or wanted to read. But giving books away is different. Leaving a book in a Little Free Library feels like the bookish equivalent of catch-and-release fishing. Having held a book in your hands for a little while, you set it free for some other reader to enjoy.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

Yesterday was a cool, gray day with a fine, misty drizzle: a day the Irish call “soft” but Americans call “gloom in June.” Personally, I don’t mind drizzle. Cool days make for comfortable sleeping, and misty days aren’t bad for walking: just wear a ball-cap and waterproof jacket, and you have no need for an umbrella.

Raindrops

Yesterday morning I sat at my desk writing with windows closed and the sounds of the street trickling in: a patter of raindrops, bursts of wind rattling the windowpane, a distant siren, and the intermittent chirps of birds. The dog lay resting behind me, her body right up against my chair; it was so quiet, I could hear her breathing. These are the simple moments I cherish–quiet, contemplative moments after I’ve meditated when the scratch of the pen on the page seems completely of-a-piece with my practice–meditation with and without pen.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

I’ve started to read Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, by Mary Mann. So far, it isn’t what I’d expected: I thought it would be more about the science of why we yawn and the state of “zone out” we sometimes label boredom, although it often goes by other names. But instead, the book is an uneven collection of semi-autobiographical essays loosely related to the topic of boredom, written by a woman who seems terrified to think she might ever be bored or boring.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

The result is a frustrating and disjointed book, with a lot of subtopics that are worthy of further exploration, like the intersection between boredom and spirituality (think acedia and the Desert Fathers), boredom and sex (think sex toys and sexual fantasies), and boredom and violence (think soldiers consuming porn during wartime and the psychology of thrill kills). As soon as Mann touches upon an interesting way boredom says something deeper about our society and ourselves, however, she skitters off in another direction, as if fully exploring any one idea for a sustained period is (alas) too boring.

The result is a book about boredom for the ADHD generation, with fascinating half-thoughts interspersed with rambling autobiographical associations. (I feel a bit embarrassed, for example, by the amount of information I know about Mann’s relationship with her boyfriend, Grant, but that’s probably because I grew up before the Oversharing Age.)

Raindrops

Although I’m infinitely interested in boredom, I’m not the ideal audience for Mann’s book: I’m probably the exact opposite. Mann (like, perhaps, others her age) fears and thus wants to avoid boredom; I, on the other hand, want to embrace it. Boredom is valuable because it is the entrance to something deeper, the greatest treasures hiding behind nondescript doors. Boredom is the blank patch of soil where the seeds of insight sprout…but if you continually dig up that soil to check the progress of those seedlings, the plant you’re tending will quickly die.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

As a Buddhist, I make it my practice to cultivate boredom: that is, after all, what modern meditators and the Desert Fathers share. Sitting and watching one’s breath is the most boring thing a person can intentionally do, and that is exactly what monks and meditators do to maintain and strengthen their mental focus. Flitting after butterflies, chasing rainbows, and compulsively checking email and social media are all fine and good; we’ve all done (and do) these things to fritter away nervous energy. But if all you have is flitting and chasing–if your mind isn’t also practiced at stopping and staying–you’ll struggle to attain depth.

Throughout the essays in Yawn, Mann wades ankle-deep into interesting insights only to retreat suddenly to shore rather than wading deeper. Yawn, in other words, reads like a mind-map for a larger, more interesting project, assuming Mann could pick a focus and stick with it. Ultimately, my advice to her is the same as I give to my writing students: feeling bored with a topic is a sign you need to slow down and go deeper.

Almost

This morning, I finished reading Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. I agree with the book’s central premise about nature’s restorative power, but I believed that before I picked up the book. If you already think that time spent in nature is good for your mental and physical well-being, Williams’ book offers circumstantial evidence to support that belief, and it describes some interesting nature-focused therapies from places such as Japan, Korea, Finland, and Scotland. But I’m not sure the book would change the mind of a skeptic, and I found mildly annoying Williams’ occasional attempts to be funny, lighthearted, and cute.

Mossy Buddha

I appreciate researchers’ attempts to find quantifiable, scientific proof that spending time in nature is good for the soul, but I found myself thinking I’d be better served actually spending time in nature than reading a book about spending time in nature. (Yes, I could have read the book outside in the presence of trees and flowers, but this week’s weather has been cool and damp, not ideal for sitting outside with a book.)

In my experience, the curative power of nature is a holistic thing, which makes it difficult to quantify and measure. Spending time outside in nature usually means you’re taking time to step away from mundane obligations, and it often involves exercise and the unplugging of devices. Is any one of these actions “the” secret to a happier, healthier life, or is it the synergistic effect of all of them combined?

Spiderwort on drizzly day.

The proverbial act of “stopping to smell the flowers” might be restorative because the scent of roses is medicinal, or maybe stopping to smell anything is curative because of the magical effects of stopping and simply breathing. Perhaps instead of reading about scientific studies, each one of us should conduct our own individual experiment, taking time to seek out green spaces and then paying attention to how those places make us feel.

The little reader, reading @newtonfreelibrary

One of the things that always makes me eager to finish my end-term grading piles are the piles of books I’ve stockpiled for summer. You might think grading piles of exams and essays would make me grow sour on reading, but actually the opposite is true. The more student writing I read, the more I want to immerse myself in writing done by professionals.

To me, reading is like watering a plant. It’s true that my brain won’t die if I don’t read books, essays, and articles on a wide range of topics, but I sincerely believe it will start to shrivel. Throughout the semester, I try to read at least a little bit every day, and I intentionally try to be as eclectic as possible in my choices. The point of reading isn’t to underscore the things you already know; it’s to stretch your thinking in new directions.

Elliptical staircase

I make a habit of keeping my phone nearby when I listen to public radio so I can quickly lookup and add to my Goodreads “to-read” list (and then request from the library) any titles mentioned that pique my curiosity, and I do the same whenever I watch or read the news. The people I most admire are the ones who never stop learning, and the way I feed my inner lifelong learner is through a long queue of library books.

I encounter a surprising number of would-be writers who claim they hate to read, arguing that reading others’ work will only drown out their own voice. To me, this is a ludicrous claim. Writers improve not through isolation but immersion. Just as would-be musicians can easily name their favorite bands, would-be writers should be well-versed in the words and ideas of others. Writing isn’t about speaking into a vacuum; it’s about jumping into a conversation, so it helps to be well-read (and thus well-conversant) on a variety of topics.

Origami cranes from above

So, what’s currently on my reading pile? At the moment I’m hurrying to finish Elizabeth Warren’s latest book before it’s due back at the library, and I’m looking forward to the other checkouts in my bag: Perfect Strangers, Roseann Sdoia’s memoir of the Boston Marathon bombing; Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir from his South African childhood; and The Nature Fix, Florence Williams’ exploration of the science behind nature’s curative powers. After that, I’ll read whichever of the books I’ve requested from the library shows up first: a series of summer surprises to keep my brain fed until fall.

Notebook-finishing day

Today while writing my almost-daily journal pages, I filled one Moleskine notebook and moved onto the next. Notebook Finishing Day always feels like a special occasion: just by keeping at it, the pages fill.

Snow on the ground, new leaves on the shrubs. #signsofspring

I’m reminded of the story I re-read in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street this morning: “Four Skinny Trees,” about the four city-planted saplings on Esperanza Cordero’s street. They teach her “how to keep” by sending down “ferocious roots.” These trees, she says, “grown down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with their violent teeth and never quit their anger.” It’s an image that could have been written only by a girl who had watched trees twist and toss their leafy heads in summer storms: a girl like me, or Esperanza, or Cisneros.

Almost spring

The four skinny trees give Esperanza hope when she is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks.” The four skinny trees grow “despite concrete,” and so does Esperanza. Like the trees, she “reach[es] and do[es] not forget to reach.” This is how we all keep and keep keeping.

Emergent

I write my journal pages on paper, a product made from trees. This is, I think, part of why I like to write by hand. The touch of the page reminds me of all the trees I’ve known, like the big, branching maple tree in the courtyard of my childhood home, in whose leaves I’d play every fall: one of my closest childhood friends. Every child should have at least one tree–a big branching one, or several smaller skinny ones–to teach her how to stand, how to hold the sky, and how to keep. That last one is the most important: a lesson to last into adulthood.

Spring green

Tree at my window, window tree–why are there so many songs about rainbows, and so many poems about trees? Trees just keep keeping their quintessential tree-ness; there is no running away when you have roots. Day by day, page by page, I keep writing, most days not knowing what I want to say until the words appear under my pen: thoughts about the weather, worries about work, complaints and quibbles. All these are uttered page by page, leaf by leaf: baby leaves becoming big leaves becoming insect-eaten leaves becoming fallen leaves becoming compost. Leaves gathered in bushels and pages contained in books: this is how we keep keeping, “our only reason,” as Cisneros says, “is to be and be.”

Wall at Central Square

I recently started reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. The main premise of the book is that many of the things people do to study or memorize things actually aren’t effective, and what does work is counter-intuitive.

Wall at Central Square

One of the things the book insists, for example, is that pure repetition doesn’t implant long-term memories. You might memorize something for a test by repeating it over and over, but you’ll quickly forget that information: a nugget of wisdom that matches pretty much every student’s experience with cramming.

According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, repeatedly re-reading a textbook or class notes won’t help you master the material because repetition lulls you into thinking you understand underlying concepts when actually you’re simply memorizing someone else’s explanation. Instead of memorizing material through blind repetition, you need to apply the material, either by re-stating concepts in your own words or using those concepts to solve a problem.

Wall at Central Square

The example Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel use at the beginning of the book involves aviation. You can memorize the parts and functions of a plane engine, but that knowledge won’t become real–it won’t be yours, something you’ve truly mastered–until you face a situation where you have to use that knowledge, either in a flight simulator or actual plane. If you can connect abstract concepts to your own life–something you’ve lived and care about–those concepts will “stick” longer than facts you’ve simply drilled into your head through repetition.

Wall at Central Square

The other insight I’ve gotten from the book so far is the importance of “interleaving”: the cognitive multitasking that happens when you study multiple subjects side-by-side rather than focusing your entire attention on one subject. I haven’t read far enough into the book to understand exactly why interleaving is so powerful, but I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of interval training. In my own experience, studying more than one subject allows you to take breaks by switching back and forth between topics, and it also allows you to draw novel connections among subjects. (As a professor, for example, I’m always happy to hear students connect something they’ve learned in another class to something we’re discussing in mine.)

Wall at Central Square

The concept of interleaving reminds me of the intricate clockwork desk naturalist John Muir built when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir loaded the desk with his various textbooks, and it would automatically open each of his books at pre-arranged intervals so he couldn’t spend too much time on any one subject. Although it might be a bit obsessive to design a desk that forces you to cycle through a set number of subjects, I often read more than one book at a time: when I grow tired of one book, I move to the next, and the connections and I make between the two keep me engaged longer than focusing on merely one.

Wall at Central Square

So, while I’m reading Make It Stick, I’m also reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is about a whole other kind of “sticking.” Sometimes you want to etch information indelibly into your brain, and other times, you want to disentangle yourself from habits that stick too tenaciously.

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