What’s So Wrong About Automatic?

Miranda Lambert has a new song out called "Automatic."

She reminisces about pay phones, drying laundry on the line, cassette tapes, hand-crank car windows, and mailing letters, among other things, and then she reaches the chorus, in which she laments:

Hey, whatever happened to waitin' your turn
Doing it all by hand,
'Cause when everything is handed to you
It's only worth as much as the time put in
It all just seemed so good the way we had it
Back before everything became automatic

Now, look. I'm a notorious late adopter. I'll poo-poo a new trend for weeks, months, or even years, until all of a sudden I one day HAVE TO HAVE IT. And I've been known to express wariness over changes to things I've always liked. And yet, I have such a strong reaction to this song.

Why do we idealize the times when we had to do everything by hand? What's so wrong with automatic? At its best, technology makes our lives easier and frees up time for us to focus on the things that are important to us. It makes communication a breeze, it makes doing research faster, and it makes the whole world our oyster. Sure, people abuse it. We've all been guilty of staring at our phones when we're eating dinner with our friends or even our family. But let's have a conversation about using technology well, rather than one about the happy golden days of yore.

Yore is gone. Technology is here to stay, and is going to keep evolving. And I'm not sure automatic is such a bad thing.

these little wonders

4 years ago today...

My favorite wedding picture.
My favorite wedding picture.

When you're 21, you don't know you're 21. I've always been mature for my age, and I scoffed at the thought that we were "getting married so young." I thought I knew what I was getting into. And in many ways, I did. But what a lifetime together means gets brought into stark relief when it's four years later and you've both grown up a lot. I've given up on the cookie cutter I expected my life to be cut with. And it's richer. It's so much richer.

"Let me eat cake?"
"Let me eat cake?"

It's dessert. I don't need dessert, but it makes a meal more enjoyable. I like having someone to come home to. I like being the one who someone else comes home to.

Our first dance was to the Rob Thomas song "Little Wonders." I hadn't heard it in years until I listened to it while I wrote this post. Yet I can still understand exactly why I picked it. It still gives me the chills I got on our wedding day, swaying awkwardly in the middle of the big dance floor, these little wonders of the weighty words we had just exchanged.

Let it go,
Let it roll right off your shoulder
Don't you know
The hardest part is over
Let it in,
Let your clarity define you
In the end
We will only just remember how it feels

Our lives are made
In these small hours
These little wonders,
These twists & turns of fate
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These small hours still remain.

Marriage means making that promise over and over again, every time you change jobs, every time you move, every time you fight, every night you sleep together, every time you stress out over health insurance, every time you pack his lunch, every time you clean the bathroom.

Let it slide,
Let your troubles fall behind you
Let it shine
Until you feel it all around you
And i don't mind
If it's me you need to turn to
We'll get by,
It's the heart that really matters in the end

Our lives are made
In these small hours
These little wonders,
These twists & turns of fate
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These small hours still remain.

Every time. We remain.

on balance and getting shit done

I took a personality quiz recently (don't you love those things?) called the Action and Influence Survey, and my profile came out as a "Supportive Specialist."

Supportive Specialists are a great help when it comes to getting a task accomplished. They influence others through kindness and cooperation. These people enjoy being involved in a task that is a challenge but do not like the feeling of having too many issues floating around at the same time. Supportive Specialists will be good at getting the details of a task accomplished and helping people work together while the task is being accomplished. They desire some realistic expectations from others regarding what needs to be done. Sometimes they will not operate effectively if the task is too ambiguous. Although not always true, Supportive Specialists will generally be the most effective at taking another person's ideas and making sure they are implemented. They think more in concrete terms and will be more effective if ideas are explained in such a way that makes practical sense. They are indispensable to a group when it comes to getting a job done efficiently.

Let's put it bluntly: I get shit done. And I take pride in that! Not to say that I don't have flaws, but I'm pretty good at following through with what I say I'm going to do.

Some of the negatives in my profile that jumped out at me, though, are the points that I don't like the feeling of having too many issues floating around and that I may not operate well if the task is too ambiguous. Those are definitely true for me. I've written before about how I struggle to dream big enough to set goals and I think this second point pinpoints why.

But as for the first, being in the workforce, especially in my current role, has pushed me to create coping mechanisms, and I think I've done so well enough that I almost thrive on having a lot of moving pieces in my day!

On any given day at my current job, I wear a lot of hats. I sit at the reception desk, meaning I am open to near-constant interruption, from volunteers and donors coming in, visitors asking questions, and my co-workers bringing me tasks to do. On top of that, though, I am expected to do bigger picture creative and detailed work; namely, writing checks, managing the database of donations, and crafting acknowledgment letters that tell our story.

Some days I feel like my brain is going to ooze out of my ears if someone brings me one more piece of paper that needs my attention.

That's the feeling of having too many issues floating around: brain melt.

So what do I do?

I make lists. And then I can crystallize the numerous issues floating around into individual issues that don't seem so overwhelming anymore. And I take the issues one at a time and I get. Shit. Done. That's what I bring to the table in my relationships, in my home, in my jobs, and in my "extracurriculars." I freak out a little bit, and then I get to crossing things off the list.

And sometimes, true to my introvert nature, I just simply withdraw. I do tend to enjoy having a lot going on, but there are things that require more focused concentration, like writing. It's easy to do all the things that need my immediate attention and never settle in to give those bigger picture things my attention, because I do find crossing things off the list so satisfying. This past Friday I got rare permission to go work from a coffee shop because I haven't had a chance all year to update the content of the general acknowledgment letter we send when someone makes a donation. I've been pulled all over the place by a chaotic food pantry order, the installation of new network printers, etc etc etc. So I got an iced coffee (the Special Blend from San Francisco Coffee is delicious!), stuck my headphones on and wrote for an hour and a half.

I don't have the need or ability to laser-focus like some introverts, but I do obsess over projects when I first start them. I tend to lack the ability to stop something in the middle. This is a problem sometimes because it means that if I don't have time to write an entire blog post, say, I won't start writing one at all, because the thought of having to leave it unfinished for a time is so odious to me. I'm not that good at taking advantage of small bits of time to chip away at things. I'm a little bit all or nothing. But it also means that by the time I dive into something I've usually agonized over it and put so much thought into all its details that I'm able to carry it out pretty quickly.

So for all my hemming and hawing all year, I wrote two acknowledgment letter templates at the coffee shop.

And on Monday I was ready to dive back into the grind of the freezer repairman coming, the donations being processed, the volunteers needing assistance, and the phone ringing, ringing, ringing.

It's all about balance.

life truths & the divergent series

Potential spoiler alert: If you haven't read all of the Divergent series and think you might like to, proceed with caution. I don't give away much plot, but I do quote the ending.

I read Twilight in college and felt disgusted with myself. I swore I wouldn't waste any more of my time or brainpower on the rest of the darn books, but I just had to know how it ended. I committed an act of biblio-heresy: I skipped the middle two books in favor of reading the last one, to know the conclusion.

Sure, I was a little confused, but my friends (befuddled by my choice) graciously filled in some holes for me.

And yet, when senior-year boredom hit, I succumbed to the inevitable and went back to read New Moon and Eclipse.

A few years later a friend recommended The Host to me, Stephanie Meyer's non-Twilight book. Having caved to the Twilight craze, I read it and was astonished to find that maybe Meyer wasn't such a horrible writer after all. While it didn't change my opinion of the actual writing in Twilight (which is rather low, in case you couldn't tell), it helped to change my opinion of the author.

Given the wave of dystopian young adult fiction that has taken over the psyches of people aged 12-112, I think it's worth examining, rather than scorning out of hand.

Maybe I am biased and I only say that because I rather enjoy it.

But I went to a play the other night, and one of the characters, a professor of comparative literature, promoted reading Twilight with his book club. Sure, he was doing it because his fiancee had jilted him at the altar because he wasn't Edward Cullen, but his larger point was this: we literary snobs may not acknowledge its worth, but if millions of people the world over have devoured it, in tens of languages no less, then there's something to it. And we owe it to ourselves as cultural participants in the literary landscape to give it a shot and see what it's all about.

I, who unironically love Nicholas Sparks, can hardly protest.

I am late to most trends, and young adult fiction was no different. I avoided Harry Potter until the second book was already out because I thought I didn't like fantasy. But I was gifted the first (in paperback!) for Christmas one year, devoured it, and immediately cajoled my grandmother into taking me to buy the second because I NEEDED it. After that I pre-ordered every single one. When the last book came out I was in Boston with my parents and knew that my hardcover copy was waiting for me at the bookstore at home but I just. Couldn't. Wait. My mom told me if I could find a local bookstore in Boston that would make for a fun outing to visit, we could buy it there instead. I found one, that also had a cafe, and we had a lovely breakfast there. I lugged that darn book around Boston with me ALL DAY and stayed up late in the bathroom of our shared hotel room devouring it.

I guess I might like fantasy after all.

I love immersing myself in this world that is entirely "other" from mine. I love the page-turning plots, the character twists, the utter escapism. And I have to say, I think there is a lot we can learn from this fiction.

I recently took the plunge into the Divergent series expecting to enjoy it with Twilight level angst and slight self-loathing. And while the writing and characters were firmly "of a type," I was pleasantly surprised by the series' portrayal of love and loss.

I was firmly Team Jacob in the Twilight world. I hated Edward and Bella. I think they made each other less, and the book where Edward was gone and the pages were blank for months and months of Bella's life made me sick. Letting yourself be subsumed like that is not love. Needing someone so much that you can't exist without them is extremely unhealthy. Jacob made Bella come alive. They had fun together. They had real conversations. So I could never give myself over to the whole Edward thing.

Tobias and Tris in Divergent offered a refreshingly real example of a relationship (if you can look past the fact that they're 16). They were okay giving each other space. They had angry conversations to work through their disappointments in one another. And man, did they handle loss.

This is love:

I fell in love with him. But I don't just stay with him by default as if there's no one else available to me. I stay with him because I choose to, every day that I wake up, every day that we fight or lie to each other or disappoint each other. I choose him over and over again, and he chooses me.

Hello! This is Marriage 101. Focus on the Family stuff. And here it is in black and white on the pages of a novel for young adults. (Okay, sure, she's 16 when she says this, which I find hard to believe. So we'll put that aside in favor of the truth of it.)

She tells him, "I think you're still the only person sharp enough to sharpen someone like me." Exactly the sentiment I missed from Bella toward Edward.

And at the end of the book, Tobias concludes,

Since I was young, I have always known this: Life damages us, every one. We can't escape that damage. But now, I am also learning this: We can be mended. We mend each other.

Damn! When I read that line I felt like a weight had settled onto my chest. The weight of a deep truth. And if we avoided dystopian young adult fiction because it's, well, dystopian young adult fiction, we might miss that truth, and the simple way it's written so that teenagers can understand.

I'm all for parents playing an active role in what their kids read. If you're nervous about something, by all means, read it first, and shield them from it if you choose. But when a pop fiction book allows for this much analysis, if it encourages self-proclaimed non-readers to stay up late with a flashlight (or, who am I kidding, a backlit tablet) reading under the covers, if it encourages us to talk about life and love and truth and beauty...then shoot, I am all for it.

on flow and fulfillment

Yesterday was not a great day for the Year of Fun annals.

You'd think it would've been. I'm on day three of being home from work due to Winter Storm Pax, so my time has been entirely my own. Tuesday went well enough (though the real weather hadn't hit yet and I was able to be out and about some.) And yesterday got off to an auspicious start, with me enjoying a nice breakfast and cup of coffee in my comfy chair while I wrote a blog post. Then I headed to the gym, a luxury in the middle of the day instead of at 6:00 a.m.! And finally I settled in with my computer to work on those things that I always feel like I wish I had time for, because for once I had nothing but time.

I started out looking at the Ruby exercises on Codecademy.com, but I could immediately tell they were too easy for me. I'm in a weird place with my programming: I'm definitely not a true beginner, but I don't have the confidence or all of the tools yet to just set out on my own and build something. I keep looking for the perfect framework, the perfect structure that will egg on my learning, and I've yet to find it. But I thought, "What the heck? I'll just build a small app." I've been getting ideas from this person who built 180 apps in 180 days. They're all pretty approachable, or so one would think.

I picked the app from Day 70 and proceeded to stare at my screen. And stare. And stare.

I felt paralyzed. I couldn't even think where to start. Everything about programming that I thought I knew flew out the window and I lost all confidence. And I proceeded to go down a "shame spiral" a la Brene Brown's *Daring Greatly*. You know, where it starts with, "I'm not [fill-in-the-blank] enough," and then you fill in the blank with more and more adjectives until you end up feeling not enough of anything at all.

All this from trying to write a program.

There were tears.

I felt ridiculous while it was happening but I couldn't break out of the cycle.

Andy was very kind and helpful and told me I was not stupid and I didn't suck, and he helped me build the app. (It works but it's not pretty or deployable yet, so I'll hopefully get back to it when I feel strong enough. Hah.) But I came away from it feeling like I hadn't done any of the work. That's the plateau I feel like I'm on with programming: I still can't quite manage to get over the hump on my own, so I ask for help, but then I feel like I haven't accomplished anything. Given my emotional response yesterday, I bet a lot of that "can't quite manage" is in my head. I'm probably perfectly intellectually capable of doing it, I just psych myself out.

All that to say, my afternoon felt wasted, and it was so frustrating. For the rest of the day I just sort of piddled at various things. And by 10:00 last night I felt exhausted.

I didn't feel like I deserved my exhaustion. I hadn't done anything, after all! I hadn't accomplished anything on my ever-present list. I hadn't learned anything. I hadn't hit flow.

I'm reading this book Quiet by Susan Cain and coincidentally just hit a section about flow this morning. I first encountered the concept of flow in a college class I took. It was a pretty horrid class, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory keeps cropping up and I'm glad to have been exposed to it. Cain's book is about introverts, and the more I read the more things about myself I recognize. She summarizes Csikszentmihalyi on flow:

Flow often occurs, he writes, in conditions in which people 'become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself.'

She writes of "the fulfillment that comes from absorption in an activity outside yourself."

And I never felt that yesterday. Not only did I not experience flow, but I really didn't even enjoy any of the things I did after about noon yesterday.

If I'm honest, I don't know why exactly I'm learning to program. It seems like a thing I should be doing. It's useful, and I want to be a part of the culture in which it's done, so I know I need to know some about it myself. But as yet I don't enjoy it. It doesn't bring it's own reward to me, nor do I even really know what the external rewards might be. So it's doubly hard for me to delve into a sticky project.

But if I'm even more honest, I don't know that I ever experience flow as it's described here. The most absorbed I tend to get in an activity is when I'm reading a good book, but that's a passive activity. I'm consuming rather than creating, and I'm not sure that counts as flow.

I'm great at checking things off a list, and I tend to feel fulfilled when I can outline what I've done in a day. But I think there's a deeper level of experiencing life than that and, as an introvert, it's possible I'm uniquely situated to enjoy that. And I think my exhaustion last night stemmed from a lack of fulfillment, and that lack of fulfillment stemmed from not having become absorbed in anything.

I want to be more than I am.
I want to be able to fill in the blanks that I am [everything] enough to myself.
I want the confidence and ease that come from being grounded in a passion.
So I want to find my flow.