The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Smartphones.

You know those people who seem to always have a finger on the pulse of the times? I am not one of those people.

I’m always a little behind when it comes to what’s going on in the world, be it geopolitical events, entertainment news, or new technology. This is probably due to a combination of living in rural Vermont, not having a television, and parenting four small children.

So it might not be factually accurate to say that this is The Year of Social Media Backlash; I’ll stick with saying that this is the year I noticed a lot of social media backlash.

A sampling of some things that made me take notice: Last May, the commencement speaker at the college where my husband teaches was the brilliant author Jonathan Safran Foer. He devoted his commencement address — later excerpted on the New York Times Op-Ed page — to a critique of modern communication technologies. Then there was comedian Louis C.K.’s viral rant against smartphones on Conan O’Brien’s television show.  Even the popular Momastery blog got in on the action, with a post lambasting the comparisons engendered by social media.

All of these critiques were intelligent, articulate, thought provoking, and — I believe — disturbingly true. And each boiled down to essentially the same point: that social media (things like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even — gulp! — blogs) and the technology that enables it (especially smartphones) actually prevent us from interacting with real people in genuine ways. Instead, we use our smartphones and Facebook pages as shields to keep us from having to look people in the face, while at the same time they keep us continually “busy” enough to stave off our existential dread.

I was thinking about all of this one afternoon as my daughters napped. Usually, their naptime is my writing time, but not that week. Instead, that week I’d been using naptime to whip up a variety of increasingly elaborate meals for my family. I’d baked my way through multiple sweet treats, and on this particular afternoon I had a homemade mac and cheese in the oven while I pureed the carrot ginger soup I’d made from scratch.

As the immersion blender pelted me with steaming bits of carrot, I thought, What am I DOING? Anybody who knows me, or has read me, will recognize that elaborate meal preparation is NOT me.

It hit me like a ton of How to Cook Everything‘s: I was cooking in order to stave off my existential dread.

That’s a little dramatic, but it had been a rough week. The baby had a cold, which meant that I was up more than just the normal twice-nightly feedings; I was exhausted. When I’d sit at the computer to write, I felt like I had nothing to say. I’d stare at the blank screen, then give up and see if there were any new updates over on Facebook.

Rather than face my exhausted, uninspired emptiness, I cooked.

Granted, cooking for your family is probably one of the more functional ways to avoid facing life. But it got me thinking about ALL of the methods that we use to numb ourselves to our own pain and loneliness — methods that were around long before the invention of smartphones. Want to dodge relationships and uncomfortable feelings? Well, there are always the addictions: drugs, alcohol, food, sex. Then there are the things that look more socially acceptable, like overworking, shopping, television, and perfectionism. It’s interesting that Louis C.K. mentions texting while driving to avoid feeling alone in the car; Maria, the heroine of Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays, spends most of her time alone in the car, driving L.A.’s freeways to numb her feelings. So I guess one person’s shield is another person’s dread.

I’m even willing to bet that prehistoric man spent some extra hours hunting and gathering whenever life got a little too real.

Which begs the question: Could it be that the problem isn’t social media after all? Could it be that the problem is — and always has been — US?

I realize that social media is highly addictive and brings with it a host of uniquely problematic possibilities. But my sense is that if we weren’t using social media to disconnect, we’d be using something. It’s convenient to blame smartphones for our relational ills, because they’re the new new thing. I wonder whether, centuries ago, the printing press came up against similar criticism; suddenly, everyone had their noses stuck in books.

What is it about people that makes us jump at any excuse to avoid ourselves and others? I think it’s fear — the same fear that hit Adam and Eve way back when they first realized that they were naked, and covered themselves with leaves. We’re terrified to take an honest look at our naked selves, let alone reveal ourselves to others: all those stretch marks, moles, and scars. Smartphones are just modern day fig leaves when we use them to avoid eye contact.

Whenever my daughters (or I) are really afraid, I ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” In almost any situation, the bottom-line answer is: death. Whether it’s swimming without floaties, crossing the monkey bars, or starting a new relationship, our base fear — irrational as it may be — is that we’ll die. If I really FEEL my feelings, if I really SEE other people, then I may just DIE.

It’s so hard, being human. Because the truth is: We’re all going to die anyway. This shouldn’t make us afraid; it should make us brave. Brave enough to set aside the whiskey and the remote and the immersion blender and the smartphone and the fig leaves, and let ourselves be spiritually and emotionally naked once in a while.

Posted in Culture & Media, Self Esteem, Theology & Philosophy, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Fifty Shades of Values

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When we are young and idealistic, life seems straightforward and decipherable. We don’t know what’s wrong with people out there; they are morons! We tend to see things as good or evil, black or white, right or wrong. As we mature and experience more of life, we start seeing many situations that present themselves as more of a judgment call, a matter of priorities, choosing the greater rather than the lesser. It becomes a question of value. Our values affect everything. They shape our worldview, and they absolutely drive our parenting.

My husband and I are both big advocates of personal responsibility. We believe in earning your keep and cleaning up your own mess. We regularly say things like, “Your behavior is always about you.” We live in a No Blameshifting zone. You get the point.

So, because we so dearly held this value, we focused on it in most of our daily parenting scenarios. What we didn’t realize at the time was that because of that choice of focus, we had let go of some other character attributes that are also important. If one of the girls left her toys out, we did not help her put them away. She was responsible for her cleaning up her own mess. If one of the girls left her scooter out, we did not bring it in for her. If that meant it stayed out overnight and was possibly stolen, it would provide a lesson about responsibility. These are perfectly reasonable and healthy ways of addressing these situations, especially for the parents who are focused on raising independent, responsible kids. However . . .

We began to notice how unhelpful and unsympathetic our girls could be. Sometimes, one would ask the other for help carrying something, she would refuse and say, “No, that’s not my stuff!” Or one would ask the other for help looking for something that was MIA, and she would reply, “How am I supposed to know where YOU put it? You should not have left it out!” Uhhhh.

After observing these patterns of prize-winning behavior, we realized that in our effort to instill personal responsibility, we overlooked opportunities to model compassion, empathy, and service to others. We overvalued independence, and undervalued mercy and helpfulness. We were not that crazy about the results at that point. We had daughters who would not blame others for their behavior, but also would not help each other through a tough spot.

Time to tweak our strategy.

We prayed and considered our options for a bit, and decided that while we would continue to require responsibility from our girls, we would begin to look for more opportunities to show grace and mercy to them  in practical ways. This time, if a daughter asked for help, we would happily pick up one or two toys and contribute them to the bucket. If a daughter could not find her textbook, instead of just being empathetic, would would pitch in and join the search party.

grayAnd this is the dance of parenting. Realizing that we have overvalued something here, and undervalued something else over there. Occasionally it will be the black and white issue, like stealing a pack of gum, or sneaking cookies from the kitchen while mom vacuums upstairs. But most of life is lived in the gray. Finding balance in focus, re-evaluating priorities from time to time, and being flexible.  

We still want responsible kids, but we also want kids who are quick to lend a hand to others. We needed to bring our value system back into balance. Justice AND mercy. Most people naturally lean toward one or the other, but the truth is that we need both. Jesus IS both. We are not Jesus. Thank God for grace, which, as parents stumbling along, we need far more than justice.

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The Commonalities of Donkeys and Elephants

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There have been far too many rather monumental happenings in politics as of late – both domestically and internationally – to successfully ignore it. I happen to be a closet aspiring congresswoman (not really, but sort of), so I rather enjoy keeping up on it all, but what I don’t enjoy is the division it causes – not only among strangers across the country, but among friends. It’s times like these, when our government stands at such odds within itself that it literally has to shut down (well, partially), that political conversations are sort of hard to avoid.

I was visiting Boston the day the government “shut down”. I knew it was coming, as much as I didn’t want it to, but I was on vacation and blissfully tried to ignore it and enjoy my trip. And then the national parks shut down and some of my most anticipated adventures got cancelled. Thankfully there are endless state-run sites in Boston that were still open, so there wasn’t a minute wasted, but the shut down stirred the pot, once again, among people who I love and respect, pitting them against each other. Putting me in a category marked “Enemy” by some of them.

It has always bothered me how kindness and respect and tolerance and love so quickly fly out the proverbial window when it comes to political discord. Things all of a sudden become so conspiratorial, sensationalized and sinister. We get lumped into the generalized categories that stereotype our political leanings and we get accused of things we never said, did, or meant.

All this to say, wouldn’t it be nice if we could have an actual conversation with someone we disagreed with and come out feeling like we didn’t have each other by the throat? Or better yet, feeling like we were better friends than when we started? It’s possible. Believe me.

Here are my two (or seven) cents on ways to have a successful political conversation with someone you disagree with:

  1. Establish common ground first. For most of our readers, this will most likely be Christ. If you are conversing with another fellow Christian, then everything else, in the end, is trivial. Even if this is not discussed, it’s important to keep in mind. If the person opposite you is not a Christian, keep in mind that they ought not be held to Christian principles. Find something else you have in common: You both like dogs. You both raise support for breast cancer. You have a mutual affection for people who use their turning signals while driving. SOMETHING.
  2. Keep a sense of humor. So what if you disagree? Laugh about the stereotypes and the actual crazies that are espoused with whatever side you most identify with. Because, really, they are funny. And unless you find yourself in the same margin with the crazies, you should think they’re funny (in the utterly ridiculous sense), too.
  3. Assume the best. This really can’t hurt in most cases, right? Start out with the assumption that they don’t actually hate rich people, that they aren’t actually racist, that they do care about rights for women and don’t abuse government assistance. Because chances are, they aren’t evil like these stereotypes suggest. And there are far more noble reasons for their stances than we allow ourselves to believe.
  4. Ask questions. Listen to their answers. The point of this will not be to grill them into talking points, but to hear their heart and discover what they actually BELIEVE. Often I find that we believe very similar things, we just want to accomplish them in different ways.
  5. Understand where they are coming from. Even if you disagree, it’s unlikely that their perspective is entirely unfounded, especially if half the country tends to feel similarly. Verbalize and validate how they feel. That’s just basic practice in how to have a healthy argument.
  6. Be open to the idea that you might be wrong. (Who, YOU? Wrong? NEVER!) This doesn’t mean you should second guess everything you believe and be swayed by every person who thinks differently than you do. Absolutely not. But sometimes we don’t have it all figured out. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that. In fact, that’s a trait of maturity.
  7. Your objective is not to win the fight (in this particular conversation; this is not to say some issues are not worth fighting for). This is not a boxing ring. We don’t want the person sitting across from us, created by God, ending in a bloody heap in the corner when we’re done with them. If your aim is to be the one who was most persuasive, you are probably less interested in the person and more interested in your pride.

These are just a few pointers. I’m sure you have more! Please share them. Let’s learn how to engage in healthy political debate among friends.

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Posted in Adversity, Current Events, Politics, Relationships, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Where Is Your Apple Hill?

AppleHill1I think most Northern Californian’s will agree upon the amazing nostalgia that is Apple Hill. Rolling hills of apple orchards (which you are free to park your vehicle in), fresh squeezed apple cider to sample at your pleasure, while you wander through unique vendors who are selling their specialty knick knacks (none of which you actually buy of course, except maybe your grandmother), and then nabbing a slice of the most deliciously warm Dutch crust apple pie you’ve ever tasted while heading down to the little lake to watch people as they try to catch some (overpriced) fish. AppleHill11The smell of all things apple, combined with the beautiful fall colors all around make for quite a memorable experience. Year after year, I can count on all of these things, as this place has not changed in the twenty years that I have been visiting it.

However, I have come to realize that those who did not grow up visiting Apple Hill every year are not quite as mesmerized with this little treasure. I’ve had friends from out of town come tag along for our annual Apple Hill trip and they just don’t quite get it. There really isn’t a whole lot to actually do. It can get pretty overcrowded, and certain elements are undoubtedly overpriced. Some days it can be as hot as summer and the following weekend it is freezing cold . . . both falling in the range of what California autumns can be like. I’ve seen newbies come experience this magnificent place, and after fifteen minutes they say, “Okay, now what?” And as an adult now, I get it.

But as a child visiting every year, it was the highlight of fall. AppleHill4The hay rides, the pony rides, and running up and down the “huge” lake hill with my siblings and classmates was unforgettable. It seemed like hours had passed as I sat on a bench trying to ravish every last bit of my caramel apple (let’s face it . . . those things are hard to eat gracefully). The search for the perfect pumpkin, and the lotion and soap smelling time at the end of the craft tunnel all made up this memorable experience.

But as an adult . . . well . . . it’s like Christmas is now. It’s different. I am no longer experiencing the same memories of awe and wonder and excitement. FamilyAppleHillIt’s a whole new experience: the experience of watching my children experience it. It is still creating wonderful memories but memories from a different angle now. And while very different, I still love it.

No, Apple Hill is definitely not the most amazing site in the world as there are dozens of other places that surpass it. But there is something about this place. It is nostalgic for so many. And I’d like to imagine that every region has some sort of little spot that the local people treasure in their hearts.

Where is your Apple Hill? If you don’t have one, maybe it’s time to find one. A simple constant in the midst of ever-changing and evolving life. It may not be jaw dropping or Frommer’s worthy, but it’s a place you return to year after year, perhaps out of tradition, perhaps out of habit, but always with the sense of knowing that without it, your year would not be complete.

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Teenage Wasteland

“Happy Sweet 16! Here are your wheels!”

Our fourth daughter was born this summer. We now have four girls, aged five, four, two, and three months.

Which means that in thirteen years, we will have four teenage girls.

I didn’t consider that scenario when we were planning our family, for the very simple reason that we didn’t plan our family. It all just happened, fast and furious, and when the dust settled this past July we suddenly had four daughters staring at us.

But I’m reminded of our teenage future almost daily now, because whenever I venture into public with my daughters, someone will inevitably look at us and say, “Four daughters?!? Wow, that’s going to be interesting when they’re all teenagers!” And instead of “interesting,” they sometimes use words like “challenging”, “crazy” or “horrible”.

The people saying this are usually other women a decade or two older than me; women who look like they’ve had firsthand experience with teenage daughters. Which makes me a little nervous.

I’m assuming that when people comment about the teenage years, they’re mostly talking about hormones. I’ve been reading a library book to my daughters this week that defines hormones as “things that buzz around in your body, causing pimples and making you find your family embarrassing.” The girls have asked what pimples are about forty-three times, but they seem satisfied with the overall definition of hormones. So I haven’t been forced to tell them, “Hormones make you CRAZY. They amplify your emotions beyond your control and turn you into the worst version of yourself.”

My poor husband, like most men, has no understanding of female hormones. We were discussing them the other night, because we have a few pregnant friends at the moment who are feeling anxious and emotional. My opinion was: “They’re entitled to feel as anxious and emotional as they want. Do you have any IDEA what their hormones are doing right now? They’re crazy!”

To which my husband replied, “But you’re three months postpartum right now, and you’re still crazy.”

“That’s right,” I said, “And I’ll remain crazy for approximately a year.”

“And then you’ll just be crazy for half of every month?” he asked.

“Yup!”

“So female hormones basically give you license to be crazy all the time?!?”

YUP.

He may be starting to get it. But I refrained from pointing out to him that before too long, there will be five sets of crazy-making ovaries under his roof. (Thankfully the dog — also female — is spayed). And hormones are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the teenage years, as anybody knows who’s ever been a teenager. There are the friends they’ll have, the boyfriends they’ll want and the boyfriends they may get, the parties they may or may not tell us about, the driving. (We recently learned that you don’t even need a driver’s license to operate farm equipment. Here in Vermont, it’s pretty common to share the road with large, lumbering tractors. So we’re considering sending our daughters to high school in a combine; you can’t drive them too fast, and they seem pretty safe).

To be honest, I try to avoid thinking about the hormone-laden teenage years that await. It’s hard enough just to make it through today, isn’t it?!? It’s not as if my daughters are sweet and docile now; my five-year-old is showing a disturbing predilection for pairing shorts with cowgirl boots, my four-year-old wants to know when she can dye her hair purple, and my two-year-old recently protested my announcement that we were leaving a birthday party by saying, “But I want to stay and get this party started!”

Oy.

So whenever someone makes a crack about what life will be like with four teenaged daughters, part of me wants to say, “Listen sister, I’ll be lucky to survive that long!”

But the better part of me (probably the non-hormonal part) smiles politely and is quietly grateful for my faith. One of the things I love most about faith is how it’s helped me — over a long, tortuous history — to understand that there are certain things that are just not in my control. My daughters, both now and in their future hormonal incarnations, fall into that “not in my control” category. They are, and always have been, sweetly baffling gifts entrusted into our hands for a limited time. I can give them the best of my imperfect love, teach them the behaviors and values our family embraces, and raise them in a community where they’ll find support and amazing female role models during the years when they won’t be speaking to me.

And then I have to let the craziness play out. My models for this kind of peace are three Babylonian administrators from 600 B.C. named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who told King Nebuchadnezzar: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”*

Only God can guide our family unscathed through the blazing furnace of teenage hormones; but even if he does not — even if we emerge sizzling like bacon — I still want God to be there on the other side.

[NOTE: It’s not my intention to imply here — as some have — that crazy hormones make females unable to cope with life or to hold leadership positions. Females are amazingly able to cope with life and should absolutely hold leadership positions. Men are crazy, too, just in different ways and on a less predictable schedule.]

*Daniel 3:17-18

 

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