Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Saturday, January 27, 2007


It seems all of America -- okay, the world -- is a bit conflicted about television. Here are some links related to the ongoing battle:


Death of a Television

We've had the same Magnavox television for nearly 18 years, and it went on strike the other night. Jagged horizontal lines quivered on the screen, and Gavin began to bawl. He wanted to watch Power Puff Girls, his latest superhero fixation, and all seemed lost to him.

This level of despair, although it quickly dissipated with distraction, got me thinking. I've always been conflicted about the role of television in our lives. I am grateful that we have only the most basic of cable plans -- when we stay in one of those hotels with a mind-boggling array of channels, I see quickly how the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon can lull you into letting them baby sit on a frequent basis. Weekday mornings at our house, only PBS has kids' shows. I comfort myself, perhaps falsely: at least Gavin is getting some education. Tom and I rush around packing lunches, ironing pants, loading the dishwasher, while he learns about animals we have never heard of, courtesy of ZoBooMaFoo.

Today was a good morning for moderation. Gavin was up around 5:30, and our first couple of hours were filled primarily with breakfast and Play-Doh. Finally, at 7:30, it was me who piped up with "let's see what's on kid TV!". He is happy with the novelty of a Saturday morning network show (Daffy Duck), and I appreciate the time to write uninterrupted.

Are computers any better? For Gavin, nearly 5, they seem to be. The games we have are educational, and I am hoping all that mouse action fosters hand-eye coordination (like his mother, fine motor skills are not a natural strength). The computer poses questions that make him think, and I've even had Al Gore or Elijah Wood read him a story on occasion, courtesy of BookPALS online from the Screen Actors Guild. I am vigilant for the slippery slope that leads to mindless gaming, though. I know plenty of teens get into games with shooting and what seems an all-around depraved world view. For now, though, it's Clifford (aka the Big Red Dog) phonics, ZoBooMaFoo karaoke, and celebrities reading stories.

Maybe I'm not quite ready to euthanize our TV, and I guess for now I view TV as I view my diet. It's not food itself that is inherently bad, it is my bad habits that have to go. I have to be more mindful of mindless consumption. In small doses, it can be relaxing and relatively benign. More than that and it starts to feel like lousy nutrition. One parenting policy I'd like to work on: never suggest TV (often Gavin thinks of better ideas, when given the opportunity).

I have dreamed, on occasion, of a life with no TV, and how much more I would get done, how many more classics I would read. When our Magnavox took a long nap, I was actually excited. Here was an opportunity to get back to basics. Gavin and I read and played games, and I found that my energy level rose with the interaction.

The Magnavox is dying in stepwise fashion, for now just having mini-strokes and slowly losing its grasp on color and volume. I don't have the heart to kill it, so I guess I am rooting for a natural death. I dream of at least a limited social experiment: a week or more with no TV (while we eschew our credit cards and try to come up with the cash for a new one). Until then, it's Saturday morning blogs to the soundtrack of Looney Tunes.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

This Little Light of Mine

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
—Leonard Cohen


Pre-electricity, people rose and rested in tune with the cycle of light. Since then, things have gotten both easier and more complicated. Light and heat at the flick of a switch can mean both warmth and waste, both comfort and amnesia about how it feels to be uncomfortable. Some thoughts on the light in our lives:

  • -In an effort to save energy, Daylight Savings Time will be extended this year. The mid-March start and extension into November is anticipated to save about 300,000 barrels
    of oil.
  • -Here’s an easy step to light and energy conservation at home. Each compact fluorescent bulb that replaces a standard bulb should save you about $45, not too mention doing your part to cut down on atmospheric carbon dioxide. See Eartheasy for more details.
  • -If you’re like me (see Prose below), you are counting every extra minute of daylight as a hopeful sign. The Navy has a great online tool for generating a sunrise/sunset chart specific to your area, and watching those days (very gradually) lengthen.
  • -Andrew Weil suggests use of natural light (or mimicking natural light cycles when needed) as one way to promote restful sleep. Here’s his article on natural approaches to better sleep.

Waiting for the Light

Tom installed compact fluorescent light bulbs to save energy (and, of course, lower our electric bill). With the new lights there is a split second of waiting for full illumination. For the first few weeks I found myself flicking the switch on and off and on again until I remembered I simply had to wait, the light would come a bit more gradually.

We had our first real snow of the season yesterday, and I have to brace myself for months of the stuff here in Connecticut. But each day when I leave work, it’s just a little lighter. Each morning that light starts just a minute earlier. I take the almost imperceptible lengthening of days and run with it. Yesterday I recalled long summer days with enough light for walks at sunrise and sunset, like bookends. If I wait, those days will come again.

Maybe someone who was truly living in the moment would embrace the winter, instead of trying to hurry it along. But as I sat chilled, despite the blasting portable heater, in my uninsulated basement office yesterday, I could not feel that noble or enlightened. My son Gavin brought me back, as he often does, to the joy of the day at hand. There wasn’t much snow on the lawn, and he was wholly disappointed that a snowman would have to wait. But we took the time to tilt our heads, extend our tongues for snowflakes and caught several, delicacies of singularity, small doses of cold that made me feel warm and reminiscent. I still crave longer, warmer days, but in the meantime I know this season will bring more of those frost-tinged joys. It doesn’t come naturally to me, this venturing into the cold with a willing heart. I’ll still spend my idle moments calculating how long until longer light and warmer days. But in the meantime I am glad to have Gavin as my pretend-Eskimo guide.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Digging Out
The phrases letting go and living in the moment have become cliches, and while I like the concepts they represent, I crave a brisk new substitute. I like digging out: it conjures emerging from a windblown drift, a dense mound of accumulated expectations.
Here are some links in the spirit of digging out, from both small and enormous drifts:
  • -Dan Ho's Rescue from Domestic Perfection contains a refreshing approach that pulls back from the prevalent "more is more" philosophy that drives the home and garden industry. Ho offers common-sense suggestions like using a spare quilt as a bed skirt, or building a dinner party on ethnic takeout (eliminating the need to chop, sweat, or accumulate sushi mats and other rarely used exotic accoutrements).
  • -Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance Gratitude Journal is an online tool for a pause that can refresh your perspective. This simple blank cyber-slate that prompts you to list 5 daily gratitudes is an efficient yet meaningful way to get back to true priorities.
  • -Here's an excuse to simultaneously satisfy your inner multitasker (check off walking/outdoor time and meditation) and let go: online instructions for walking meditation, courtesy of Plum Village. Plum Village is Thich Nhat Hanh’s sangha (community of practice) in France, and a relaxing place to visit online if a trip to France is not in your budget.
  • -Need a serious pilgrimage? The Web site for Santiago de Compostela (also known as El Camino) provides practical information for the committed pilgrim (see Prose below for a link to a great Camino read).
  • -For a Pilgrimage of another sort (sans blisters, but also an opportunity to refocus on the meaningful), visit the magazine. I have been published here, under the former publisher, and always look forward to the read.
  • -(Not a tip, just a credit) To use the wintry photo above, I must credit for the free image. The photo is a nice visual contemplation, and the site simplifies the life of this budget- and graphic- challenged writer!


It's been a week of humility, of readjusting. I started out with determination: a new plan for paying down debt, inroads into my book idea, grand thoughts about how all of my hustling will lead to a time and place of greater peace and contentment. Alongside these ambitions, which have within them some good ideas, were waves of the "I want" bug. When I walk down a particular tree-lined, impossibly handsome street in Essex, I find myself ruminating about things I'll never have, obstacles that seem unfair.

Life has a way of shaking you awake. Gavin developed a fever and stomach pain on Thursday, and within hours we were at the Emergency Room, having him checked for appendicitis. I found myself cured of any "I wants", with a singular desire in their place: a comfortable, healthy boy who smiled again. No appendicitis, but Gavin's temperature is still on a roller coaster, and my carefully designed (lists and more lists) plans for the weekend have been pushed aside.

I got Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino, by Joyce Rupp, for Christmas. I sat next to Gavin as he dozed yesterday and related to Rupp's struggles to let go of expectations, desires: "I expected to push my body into doing what I wanted but it refused to walk too fast or too far without pain. I expected my memory to serve me well but it left me in the lurch...I expected not to get sick if I took good care of myself but I got sick anyhow." Only when Rupp let go of her agenda, when she simply lived in the moment, could she take in the lessons of her Camino journey.

It's a balancing act, this careful planning that must become flexible, this checklist that must be revised or discarded. Knowing when to regroup, when to shift direction is an art. Trusting that any direction has something to offer is an act of faith.