and I’m finding it profoundly isolating
INKLINGS OF BRAIN DEATH
I really started to notice it with my last roommate. He was tightly wound, and spent his entire time staying with me barricaded in his bedroom. But not alone.
He had his smartphone to keep him company.
Once in a while I’d try to cajole him into coming out. After all, he had the run of the apartment, including a pleasant living room, music on demand, a decent library of books, and, this being spring and summer of last year, outdoor living on a spacious, eccentrically curved balcony, bursting with the begonias, roses, zinnias, palm trees and Dollarama wildflowers I’d nurtured from seed, a practice dating back in my life to my earliest childhood. How best to lure my morose hermit from his solitary confinement?
Dinner, obviously. Nothing fancy, especially nothing that would intimidate with too much fanciness or suggest any sleazy romantic subtext. Puh-lease! I vowed many years ago to never be that old guy. No, something home boy. I’d make my special Kraft Dinner, enhanced, as I am cursed with the inability to leave anything alone, with healthy veg to offset the electric orange cheese powder and the margarine and skim milk expressly called for in the instructions.
I partly succeeded. He left his bedroom, which was like major, but then took his bowlful of Kraft Dinner and returned to his bedroom.
Time to deploy bigger guns. Movie night! We’d watch a movie, and because I’m 66 and stuck way in the past where culture was more substantial and there were accepted ways of doing things, I chose my favorite movie of all time, “Women in Love” by the British director Ken Russell. Prone to crazy excess, Russell had, in this interpretation of the D H Lawrence novel, found a way to rein in his self-indulgence and to my mind produced a masterpiece that could stand alongside the original novel as its equal.
I was already aware of the resistance many young people feel to anything not entirely of the present moment, and their usual gobsmacked bewilderment at the suggestion that one would want to see a movie dating back further than last week. Never mind. Its visual riches, Glenda Jackson’s hypnotic, chalumeau register voice, nude wrestling with Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, and the examination and implied contest of male-female and male-male love, with their utterly different demands and significance, surely all of this would prove a revelation.
It took five minutes for me to understand that Brandon was unable to remove his eyes from his smartphone. I mean, at all. Not even for one second. Brandon, like many people nowadays, was busy. He had things to do.
If there’s one thing I know at this time of my life, it’s when to give up.
“Let’s leave this for another time,” I said, trying to sound as casual as possible, with no trace of disappointment. “When you’re more in the frame of mind.”
“What do you mean?” he replied, sounding more annoyed than offended. “I’m watching it!”
“Hmmm, not sure how you’re watching it when you’re texting someone.”
“I can do more than one thing at a time.”
Could I let it go? Does the Pope wear spandex?
“Well…. no, you can’t. No one can. It’s OK, it’s not your cup of tea, I get it.”
Cue the eyeroll, the retreat to the bedroom.
You have to back me up on this. Seriously, when you’re watching a movie, an art form that conveys its information visually, how can you be appreciating it when you’re not actually looking at it?
Oh, well. We got over it. How could I blame him? I decided I was hopelessly outdated, too peremptory in my demands, and just in every sense completely the wrong person to choose movies for a 28-year-old, however intelligent he might be, however artistic my taste.
I gave up that project for the remainder of his stay, before the end of which we found far more suitable rapids to capsize on.
DINNER IS NOT SERVED
It’s Easter, 2019. Easter to me means lamb, an expensive luxury that not many people like any more, or even remember as an option. Mostly because I like dinner parties, and slightly to justify buying expensive lamb, I’ve invited five friends, carefully vetted with my usual “random people shipwrecked on an island” degree of care, for I decorate my dinner parties the same way I decorate my apartment: I reason that, if I love that glass table from Structube and also those Louis XV chairs with the embroidery, then the shared condition that they’re both loved by me will create my own magical eclectic taste.
This is a serious dinner, complete with gold-rimmed plates, non-domestic wine in bottles smaller than a liter, with corks, flowers in vases, and, kitchen-side, every saucepan and electric element humming like a factory.
I excuse myself and starting shredding something relevant backstage, and as I begin to plate the first course, I notice something.
There’s no sound coming from the living room. The music has stopped, also, no one is talking.
I become concerned. “Is everything OK out there?” And when I peek through the louvered doors I see—five people completely absorbed in their smartphones. All five of them. No one is making conversation. No one is even faking interest in whoever’s next to them. Two of my guests actually have their ear buds in, in case we might miss the concept that they don’t wish to be disturbed until there’s asparagus. It’s like five people waiting in the Greyhound Coach Terminal for their connection to Sudbury.
Were we always like this? What happened to, “we should make a little effort to be convivial guests,” and even more, what happened to “this person’s new, let’s make them feel at ease”?
I think back to the last couple of times I’ve invited a younger person—as I’m 66, this is basically everybody—to dinner, only to have them respond, “I don’t know, what are you making?”
Dinner’s about food, and bravo, little soldier, for figuring that out, but actually it’s about spending time together. Paying attention to each other.
I didn’t realize that, as I became older, then just old, spending time with me would become an unappealing proposition requiring a sales pitch and some perqs to close the deal.
Maybe next time I should just forget the lamb and the sparkling rosé and the asparagus and give them twenty bucks each. Just pay them for their time. At least it would be an honest transaction. We’d all know why we were here.
I TRY AGAIN
Movie night again! I’m a little wary with smartphone panic, but that was twenty-something, this one’s pushing fifty. It’s William, my movie-buff, erstwhile film director friend. We’d met in passing, as they say, ships that bumped on the usual icebergs, and settled down over the course of a year into a light-hearted friendship that was much more viable without the confusions and competitions of any sexual project or plumbing of depths.
We spend hours talking film, directors, genres, and one of my little games is to try and find a flic that Will hasn’t seen that I have. But no success yet, Will is one of the few people to whom I can say, “Did you ever see…?” and, so far, have him answer “yes” every time, and with an air of being the tiniest bit insulted that I could ever suspect not.
Now, here was someone I could watch “All About Eve” with, without being camp-shamed, and even indulge myself with the occasional, “that’s Marilyn in her first major speaking role!” though we’re not yet intimate enough that I’m ready to pull my cardigan down over my shoulders, in the manner of Edith Head fixing Bette Davis’s party dress. (Edith Head gives good costume, as they say.)
So we settled in, me, and Will—and Will’s smartphone, as he checked email, surfed, texted, possibly checked his blood pressure, and generally didn’t watch the movie, because, I still insist, in my querulous, old-guy, tedious way, that to watch a movie you have to pay attention to the movie by the time-honored method of directing your eyeballs at the movie.
“This is the famous party scene!”
“Could you do me a favour?”
“If I pass out from stress, could you just shoot me in the head before I regain consciousness?”
Sit still! Stop fidgeting! Be quiet! Pay attention! Listen!
It’s crazy and cruel the way we take kids, full of rambunctious energy, shove them into school rooms and force them to quell their high spirits.
Or is it? In theory I’m all behind that statement, but actually, I like what I became, pre-Internet, because of those commands, a little bit more than what people, post-Internet, became.
Not nearly what I intended to become, but still. I became someone who could give himself up to whatever he wanted to pay attention to, for long enough to play the piano at a high level of accomplishment, be an actor; and, as a consumer of culture, see a movie, attend the opera, watch a live play, enjoy a ballet, read literature, plan a trip to an art gallery where I looked mostly at one piece.
A diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) indicates, if I interpret correctly, a chronic, outlying point on a spectrum of attention/no attention; in other words, an extreme version of how we’re all wired. To be distractible.
That’s how we survived. If you’re not distracted by the breaking twig or the sudden cry of a bird taking flight, you’re dinner.
Civilization is earned the hard way, because paying attention, sitting still and listening and not fidgeting can be torture, initially—but they are also skills that we desperately need to learn.
Concentration is acquired through years of training, and when you can concentrate enough to conduct a Mahler symphony from memory or play two hours of improv on the piano, get lost in the drawing you’re creating, immerse yourself in a movie from first frame to last, then you’ve achieved something unique.
Without the concentration, and its precursors, paying attention and sitting still and not fidgeting, of visionary women and men, you wouldn’t be sitting where you are, in a building walled with glass, warm and safe, well-fed, reading pixels on a screen.
Neither civilization nor concentration has ever had anything whatsoever to do with speed, multitasking or efficiency. Those are all bogus requirements. Lies.
When you finally realize you’re being lied to, ask yourself, who stands to gain from this?
The pandemic was predicted months before it actually went full bore. We had pandemic readiness plans that we had developed but trashed because we’d never need them, and we had hourly advice from science organizations that we decided to ignore then take then ignore then take—months after it even mattered any more because we’d just opened too soon, because the economy.
We weren’t paying attention to people, the people already sick and dying or the ones who were going to get sick and die.
I mean, grandmothers are a dime a dozen, but the GDP? You only ever get one of those.
There were the threats to democracy that anyone could have seen way before Trump was even the presidential candidate, in tandem with the whole thing about, yes, I’m going to say it again, Sanders and socialism that, despite everyone knowing the system wouldn’t get him elected, wasted valuable time.
And then there was Trump stating, as soon as the pandemic made mail-in votes a thing, that the 2020 election would be a massive fraud.
The autocrat-in-training signaled his clear intentions. So you’d think you’d make extra sure that everyone could see the elections weren’t rigged, start a counter-narrative about their integrity. But no one was paying attention.
And we just sat around on voting reform, because we just kind of got used to being ruled by the party that didn’t have anything like a majority, used to the frustration and apathy and disenfranchisement which inevitably resulted from that. We just… let it slide.
We gave up on our commitments to affordable housing until we were stuck in a pandemic that kept getting worse and tent cities sprouted up in the parks, summer, then winter, then always there.
On and on we went… until the polar ice caps were melting and North America caught fire and the hurricanes got stronger and the seas got higher. A mind-blowing shock of major proportions because we’d only known about it since the 1950’s in theory and without doubt since 1988 when James Hansen warned that man-made climate change was already occurring. And we’re still standing on high ground like a bunch of mouth breathers watching the tsunamis come ashore.
We stopped paying attention and instead we consumed. Winter in all its beauty became bad weather, something you battle against with a steering wheel, nothing more.
We stopped paying attention to each other.
We don’t even know what our neighbours look like these days, and if you can’t recognize your neighbour, how will you stand up for them when they need you?
If you can’t sit still, by yourself, and pay attention to your breathing for ten minutes, what is preventing that?
If you can’t read a work of fiction because your attention is so attenuated how will you understand what your partner is feeling? If you can’t read a work of philosophy, how will you argue your case?
What will you discuss with people—what you bought today, the awful drive home in the snow?
If a piece of music on YouTube, a work of art, is suddenly interrupted by a commercial for getting rich online, which are basically the only commercials on YouTube, what does that say about how crass and destructive and disrespectful we’ve become? I’m a musician, and interrupting a performance I’m listening to is excruciating, rude, hurtful, harmful, and it shows how little the brains behind YouTube care about art or their customers.
And yes, I know I could pay and listen uninterrupted, and I say to you: why would I pay ransom for a work of art held hostage? Why would I reward a company for making my life miserable until I pay and calling that a marketing strategy?
If you can’t hear music with your full attention, sounds plucked out of thin air and ordered in time, someone’s life’s work that’s starting in this moment and that will soon dissolve again into thin air—if you can’t realize what’s at stake with that piece of music, why would you care about—anything?
If we hurry towards the finish, then finish—? Were we really this dim, this gullible, this apathetic?
What were you staring at on your smartphone when they knocked it out of your hands then twisted your arms behind your back?