Thursday, March 31, 2011

Just Between Us, We Each Need to be Alone -- PART 2

Riddle me this: Have you ever made an important decision, or solved a difficult personal or professional problem, when you were not alone? Certain decisions, of course, are made collegially – on the eve of my tenth anniversary with The Memsahib, I’m thinking of marital decisions – but the decision to get married?

In Part 1, I regretted (more curmudgeonly than I had hoped to appear) the oversocialization of society – wow, there’s an oxymoron. Let’s make it “the oversocialization of members of society.” I regret it most keenly among the generation addicted to email, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other technologies that they cannot leave alone, and which, in turn, cannot leave them alone.

It turns out that some recent studies have identified several material advantages to people of all ages – but particularly young people – to spending time alone. They’re summarized in this article ("The Power of Lonely") from the Boston Globe.   Here’s an excerpt:

"But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone."

Some of the specific results:

"One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone. Another indicates that a certain amount of solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others. And while no one would dispute that too much isolation early in life can be unhealthy, a certain amount of solitude has been shown to help teenagers improve their moods and earn good grades in school."

My own experience is that I don’t have any notable insights, and solve very few problems, when I’m not alone. Solitude is the time for synthesizing the massive data inputs we all experience, the time for puzzling things out. Some years ago, I stumbled on a problem-solving technique which I later discovered was very close to Zen, and which a former boss of mine called my “zero-based thinking.” Whenever I had a difficult problem that seemed to have no solution, whether personal or professional, I’d examine every assumption, including the assumption that the problem was a problem to begin with. This is solitary work. Maybe not sitting on a rural bluff and staring into space, but paying attention only to one’s own thoughts – not considering the impression one is making on another, not processing one’s impressions of another, not formulating expected responses to what one is hearing or reading or seeing. Just plain old thinking. Here’s the thing – it’s fun. And you can’t do it while you’re social networking.

There’s a skill to being alone. It must be cultivated. Witness the young man or woman who discovers to her horror that she has some time on her hands. What does she do? Chances are slim that she’ll pick up a serious book or take a walk or even doze and dream. (Blogging only half-counts – it involves organized thinking (good) but it’s not private and anarchic (bad, at least for realizing the benefits of solitude).) More likely, she’ll pull out her iPhone and make a call, check Facebook, tweet a chirpy tweet. She equates aloneness with loneliness and fears it, and so obsessively socializes. (Example could have as easily have been male.) No easy fix; just do it. For young ‘uns, parents can enforce social-networking-free times and zones. Assign some reading. Require the lad or lass to keep a (non-online) diary, with assurances of privacy – you can call it an analog blog, if that will help.

An anablog, if you will.

I understand that not everyone can find time to be alone. Families exist for a reason. Children need their mothers and fathers, and vice versa; husbands and wives need one another. Employers demand that everyone work in teams. So it’s a struggle for many to find that special time to communicate solely with what’s in one’s head.

Do it anyway.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Just Between Us, We Each Need to Be Alone -- PART 1

In the days – make that “decades” – before the Memsahib entered my life, I was alone a lot. I don’t know if I was alone more than most men of my generation, occupation, and location, but I believe that I was. Oh, I had some good friends and a girlfriend now and then, and if I had invested all of the money I spent in bars and nice restaurants during those years, I wouldn’t have to worry so much about the Obama administration. But while I was no Trappist, I’ll bet that I fell on the more-alone end of the scale.

The reason is pretty simple – I liked being alone. Within the borders of my commitment to the Mem – which will have its glorious tenth anniversary next week – I still do.

The reason isn't too important to the point I want to make somewhere in the next post, but I think it may have been because I was an early reader. Children these days can read by the time they get to first grade, but when I showed up in Mrs. Duvall’s classroom at Belleaire Elementary able to read at speed anything they put in front of me, I was unique (except for one other kid, Bryan Jack, a certifiably brilliant kid who grew up to be a certifiably brilliant adult, and who was tragically killed on 9/11 – another story). Not to say that I understood everything that I was capable of reading out at speed and with expression, but for a little kid I put on a pretty good show.

So, I read. I read everything – classics, kid’s books (Hardy Boys, Tom Swift Jr.), science, history, biography, modern literature, popular fiction, current events, the newspaper, magazines. Reading and the thinking it requires is done alone. It was pleasurable; I liked it, and finally grew to need it. Among my life’s highlights are, and will be, the solitary driving vacations I would take to the American West, almost always making sure that Death Valley was somewhere on the route – the best place in the world to be alone. I kept a microcassette recorder on the seat beside me, and when I had a Great Thought, or saw something interesting, I’d compose into the recorder and transcribe it later.

Not me reading; I was, however, black-and-white in those days

Was I ever lonely growing up and growing older? Oh, yeah. But I didn’t feel it very often, or very keenly, or for very long.

Of course, it is true and quite well known that excessive solitude is not good for us social human creatures. Kids need to be “socialized” through play, interaction with their parents, and group studies at school. Being alone too much can make us lonely, depressed, make us feel unattractive and unwanted. Make us be unattractive and unwanted.

In fact, the point of view that values social interaction above solitude has carried the day. We accept that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” (Don’t think about that lyric too hard – it doesn’t make much sense – but you know what it intends.)

I accept this, but also regret that so few of the last generation or so, and fewer still of the present generation (which is what? the generation that makes the biggest nuisance of itself at any given time?), spend much time alone. And by “alone” I mean “not actively communicating with or being in the presence of another person known to one.” Cell phones; email; Facebook; Twitter; Skype; there will be more to come. I feel sorry for the young men and women, mostly young, who spend enormous amounts of time and mental energy communicating the most banal trivialities with no corresponding enhancement of their social skills, useful knowledge, intelligence, or any other noticeable human characteristic. 

Of course, humans derive independent pleasure from the act of communicating and receiving communications – communicating is better than not communicating.  Got nothing against any of these technologies; we're demonstrably better off for each of them.   It’s the amount of time spent on communicating for its own sake, the communication of crap, that makes me wonder whether these folks ever have the opportunity to think, to learn things of value, to form intelligent convictions.  (Yes, I understand that this assumes that some communications are crap-heavy and some aren't, and that some learning is more valuable than other learning.  This assumption is correct.  I'll get to it some other time.) 

In short, I'm concerned that the pleasure of easy communications is robbing us of time that we need to be alone.

In my next post I’ll review some recent work on the benefits of solitude, and my own experience. Up in a few.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Minor But, I Think, Original Theory About Elmore Leonard -- Actually More of an Observation

Elmore Leonard
I have read almost everything Elmore Leonard has published in book form.  All of his novels, including the westerns still in print.  All of the short-story collections.  I'm sure there are some early uncollected pulp-magazine short stories that have escaped me, but if it's generally available I've read it.

It would be fair to say that I am an admirer of Elmore Leonard.

Leonard writes crime novels (his westerns are much earlier works).  They are distinguished from "mysteries" in that the reader knows who the good guys and bad guys are from the start.

Actually, that's a little misleading.  Leonard is known for good guys who are not entirely good, and bad guys who are not entirely bad.  Consider an example that may be familiar to those of you who have not dipped into the novels -- Chili Palmer, memorably played by John Travolta in "Get Shorty" and "Be Cool."  Pam Grier playing "Jackie Brown."  (His novels are frequently made into movies, with uneven results.  Compare "3:10 to Yuma," both versions, with "The Big Bounce.")   Chili is clearly the protagonist, and clearly the guy you root for.  He is also a criminal and a killer.  Lots of guys like that in Leonard novels.  Even the cops are a little loose.  And the guys who have the conflict with the ambiguous good guy are themselves ambiguous bad guys -- attractive, frequently amusing characters even as they go about their theiving and killing, usually incompetently.   The women scheme as much, and with about the same results, as the men.

Leonard is rightly lionized for his clean, seamless prose style.  He has written a short essay called his "10 Rules of Writing" that every beginning fiction writer should read, if not memorize.  (My favorite:  "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue.")

The books are not above criticism.  There is a sameness to his protagonists.  They tend to be laconic, somewhat affectless, detached from the scenes in which they appear.  They seem to be observing the action from above, knowing more than the other characters know, and certainly more than the reader knows, and dropping in when it's their turn to talk.  Revealing rather little.   I'm not criticizing the artistic choice -- I'm criticizing the sameness in the characters across many of the novels.  Recall, however, that I"ve read everything.  So query whether this is really much of a critcism, since this method of portraying his characters is endlessly attractive to Leonard's fans.  It's more of an observation.

As is what I am about to lay on you Cool Hot Centrists.

I could go up to my library and count the Leonard books I've read -- several dozen, certainly.   And I am nowhere near the Leonard fanatic that some people are, people who can give you plot summaries of every single one of them.  But a dozen or so novels ago I noticed something.  This was a thing I thought that devoted Leonard readers would have noticed and remarked on somewhere along the line.  But I have done the Google research on this, and I find no notice of this thing anywhere.

And this thing is:

There is one phrase of dialogue that seems to appear in every Leonard novel.  In the last several novels I've read, there has been an aha! moment in each one when I come to it.  I have not gone back to reread the first dozen or so I read, and although I've seen it in some of the westerns, I can't vouch for its appearance in every single one of them.  But I think I'm safe in saying that it's in most of the novels, if not the short stories. 

At one point or other, a character says this:

"How's that sound?"

Here are some examples:

Get Shorty, character named Fay:  "How's that sound as a deal?"

Tishomingo Blues, character named Darwin:  "I'll give you two hundred a day for two weeks guaranteed and we'll see how it goes.  I"ll pay your rigger and the cost of setting up.  How's that sound?"

Stick"Only way I see it," Stick said, "is cash up front.  Two bills gets you the name of the stock.  Monday the price goes up to three, and if I see the stock take off right away the price might go up even higher.  How's that sound to you fellas?"

Out of Sight:   Buddy said, "It's pretty here, isn't it?  If you like looking at views.  I don't think you should go out anymore.  I mean for a couple of weeks anyway.  You got the need to do a bank out of your system.  Fell of your horse and got right back on.  I was thinking we could hire a boat to take us for the Bahamas for a while.  Get one right at the Haulover docks, a fishing boat.  Pay the skipper the going rate.  How's that sound to you?"

Maximum Bob:   He said to Dale Senior, “You know where Ocean Ridge is at? You go on over to Palm Beach and turn south.” Elvin would catch himself talking loud, as if the man couldn’t hear as good with his jaw wired, and have to lower his voice. “I’m moving into a house over there, big one, right on the ocean. How’s that sound to you?”

Up in Honey's Room:  “It’s mine,” Honey said. “Carl dropped me off but hasn’t any idea what I’m doing. Actually what I thought of when I walked in and saw you. Carl would love to sit down and talk to you, and if you want, you can do it. I swear he’s been told to leave you alone. You can walk up and give him a shove, he might growl but he won’t handcuff you. He’s been ordered not to” -- she was starting to overdo it -- “and I know he would love to see you again. How’s that sound? Sit down with Carl and have a drink.”

Road Dogs:  Mike Nesi said, "You mean they's rules?  Like I can't hang on to your shirt or stomp on your tennis shoes I get the chance?  As I understand the way the game is played, you want to put the ball through the hoop and I want to stop you from scoring, right?  That's the game of basketball.  But if they's no ref, we don't have to worry about rules, do we?  We put up a hunnert each and play to twenty-one.  How's that sound?  First one to score that many points takes the pot."

Road Dogs (bonus reference (different character)!):  "All right," Lou said, "let's bet on it.  I read about a bank job has your MO all over it, how this sweetheart of a guy made off with five gees, I swear I won't tell the cops or the Bureau or come after you myself.  What I"ll do is give you the chrome-plated .45 I was awarded by my colleagues for shooting down three Haitian guys that kidnapped a five-year-old kid.  They want three hundred large or they chop the kid up and send him home in a bag.  I shot to kill, the only guys I felt good about donig it.  I'll give you the piece and say, 'You win, partner,' and never bother you again.  How's that sound?"

*   *   *

There are lots more.

Well, there's my theory.  Yeah, I know it's more of an observation.  I wish it were a theory.  I wish it meant something.  I wish I could argue that Leonard plants this phrase in all of his books (if he does) as a pointer toward the importance of sound in literature, a subliminal reminder to his serial readers that prose must have the cadence and vocabulary of ordinary speech to engage the reader.

But it's probably only inadvertent.  Either that or it's the way Leonard himself talks and he's putting his own verbal habits in their mouths.  Either that or it's an inside gag.

And, quite possibly, a gag that many Elmore Leonard lovers already know about but haven't communicated in Google-searchable text.  

Which, in my judgment, means that it might as well not ever have been thought up at all.

So I'm sticking with my own theory, which is that you read it here first.

*     *     *

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Reason No. 37 that I Am Not as Nice a Person as I Would Prefer to Think of Myself As Being

I apologize to you all.

Japan and the world are facing a terrible crisis.

Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands are dead.

Many tens of thousands more are homeless, have lost everything.

Rebuilding will take decades, and much can never be restored.

Japan, no stranger to the evils of radiation, is facing yet another nuclear horror.

That horror could drift our way.

The world economy will be adversely affected.

Governments may fall, and our own is exhibiting its now-familiar dithering, feckless uncomprehending reaction.

I think on these things a lot, and follow the technical news with some care, and hope with absolute sincerity that the incredibly brave Japanese workers and their resourceful technical colleagues can cool those cores in time, and intensely and truly regret the pain of those beautiful people in that beautiful country I loved both times I have visited.

And yet  .  .  .

And yet, as hard as I try  .  .  .

And yet, as hard as I try, as much as I attempt to scrub my consciousness, as much as I would like to think of myself as a noble and pure-thinking adult, a man worthy of imparting wisdom and displaying an ethical example to his grandsons, as much as I try to push it out, out, out,  I simply cannot prevent this one additional thought from creeping into what passes for my thinking:

I hope this doesn't wake up that damned Godzilla again.