Sunday, April 22, 2012

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How to Be Alone

I've got a plan, and it's been making my friends uneasy. In a bid to restore my attention span, I'm going to drop off the grid for the first few weeks of summer. I promise my friends I won't completely disappear, that I'm mainly hoping to avoid Facebook and leave my phone off more than it's on, and that either way, I won't extend my little hermetic experiment much beyond early June, when I begin work. The aim is not to vanish but to re-center, to rebuild some resistance to the constant connection our culture so passionately insists upon.
I admit that my reasons for this exercise are mostly selfish: I haven't been able to lose myself in reading for some time, in large part because of the endless tug of one electronic device or another. And I'm hoping to work seriously on a novel next year, which is going to require some focus.

But I also conceive an aspect of philanthropy in my mini-withdrawal, and this is the part that's been hardest to explain to others. I was relieved, then, to see this article in today's New York Times. Entitled "The Flight From Conversation," it's M.I.T. psychologist Sherry Turkle's argument that our electronic devices have created little envelopes of isolation around each of us that impoverish our interactions. We text while we walk and listen to music while we work. We're more connected than ever, but these connections tend to exist at a paradoxical remove, with people who are on their own devices, elsewhere. But the stranger at the table next to us, the colleague in the next office over: these interactions suffer, Turkle says, and that's a problem.

Our assumption, she writes, is that the fragmented communications that we send and receive all day in the form of texts and e-mails add up to complete conversations. But there's no substitute for face-to-face interactions, says Turkle, with their emphasis on nuance, attention, and empathy. Technology encourages us to overlook these things. It "provide[s] the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship."

What does this have to do with turning off my phone and trying to restore my attention span? It goes something like this: I crave solitude. It offers me time for reflection, for consideration of my own life. This, in turn, clarifies my own values and ideals and allows me to see where I live up to them and where I've fallen short. And this makes me a better friend and a more empathetic human being. Being alone, oddly enough, allows me to remind myself that I'm not the center of the universe.

But lately, I haven't handled solitude so well, in large part because my time alone is increasingly colonized by the alluring tug of one device or another. There's always someone to text or e-mail, always some fascinating new pictures of myself to view on Facebook. I feel my brain being wired differently. I'm usually very good at being alone; lately, it just feels lonely, because I can't help but think of all the people I could be texting. Turkle addresses this very phenomenon: "We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely." This largely squares with my recent experience. Sitting alone with some of Byron's poetry for class, I get fidgety after a stanza or two and send a text. It's not a meaningful interaction, and I'd be better served by focusing on the task at hand and seeking company later. But lately, I can't seem to muster up enough self-discipline for this, and the result is a version of myself that is often cranky, frequently lonely, and always overstimulated.

I exaggerate a bit. My situation is exacerbated by the fact that it's my last few weeks of college, and I want to be able to run off to the bars at a moment's notice. So I'm surrendering to these last few weeks of total connectivity, against my more curmudgeonly, Luddite instincts. But come summer, when I'm physically separated from most of my friends, I'm going to shut off my iPhone and pick up Anna Karenina. After all, as Jonathan Franzen writes, "The first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone." These days, I'm in need of a refresher.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

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Take Heart! All is Well!

Many of Traction's few readers have asked me about the scarcity of new posts. Yes, it's been pretty quiet around here lately, folks, but this is because my writing powers have been focused elsewhere, and excitingly so: I've been turning my brain into a pretzel considering Franzo's new essay collection for the wonderful Los Angeles Review of Books, the writing of which has been something akin to a religious experience, and the publication of which will prove (I hope) to be a nice feather in my cap. Also in the works is an essay about National Geographic in the Sixties and Seventies for The Point, a wonderful magazine back at UChicago, my old school.

If all that weren't enough, I'm almost done with a short story that I like (the first one in a while); The Rumpus killed a book review I'd completed (for good reason, no hard feelings); I'm slated to have a very brief review in the May issue of The Believer (baby steps); and I have only a month left of college, a state of affairs that is producing very complicated feelings.

Once these beautiful storms have passed, Traction will find new footing. I appreciate your patience.

And you have to admit, that last post was a doozy.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

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Remembrances of Clothes Past

My second venture into sartorial writing (the first is here), once again for Penn's fine fashion magazine, The Walk, is a discussion of how memory and clothes can get intertwined, leaving you with more than the shirt on your back. It also got me a nifty mention in the alumni magazine . You can find the essay here (click on the link, proceed to page 36).