Thursday, October 7, 2010

Here and Now -- Not

The left hand turn arrow has been green for several seconds as we enter the left hand turn lane and approach the intersection. It turns yellow just as we enter, so I am in a hurry to complete the turn and exit the no man’s land between lights. A car is following closely, trimming the yellow light a bit too close. 

Then, there he is, a driver running the red, speeding through the intersection. I see him closely as I apply the brakes hard. He does not see me, but looks straight ahead. He is talking, animatedly, on his phone. I doubt he realizes he is running a red light. 

I am exasperated, lay on the horn, and hear the squeal of tires behind me as the following car almost rear-ends us. 

No one collides, this time. No one is hurt, though I am left wondering why it is that we so aggressively pursue distraction, even when we place our own and other lives in peril. The lament has become cliché: drivers are texting, CD jamming, DVDing, I-Podding, reading, crosswording, and generally running from the here-and-now task of driving. 

And this is not limited to driving. The most dangerous stretch of road in Tucson, to my eyes, is the block in front of the Memorial Union at the University of Arizona. Here, pedestrians, cyclists, long-boarders, skateboarders, roller-bladers, Frisbee throwers all walk, run, glide, stroll while wired, plugged in, tuned out, ear-budded, and generally distracted. The result is a kind of unconscious chaos of movement in which collisions are common. 

No one seems to mind. 

I think it raises a question: Why are we in such a hurry to be distracted, to flee from the reality of the here and now? Why not just focus on what are doing at any given moment and do it well? If driving, then we drive. If cutting across traffic on the mall, then we watch and move mindfully across traffic on the mall.

I am just as guilty of distracting myself as anyone. I just do so with my old-fashioned brain. It can serve up enough fantasy, worry, and fear to keep me distracted for a lifetime. I have decided to work a bit at quieting the “monkey mind,” as Buddhists like to call it, for the sake of focusing, especially writing. I am not talking about the snippets and sound-bites that pass for writing on FaceBook, etc., but the focused, sustained, attention to an idea or a question. This kind of writing seems to me oddly quaint now, if not downright incomprehensible to most readers. 

As a writing teacher, I am particularly concerned about the social lack of focus. Writing, for me, requires that I observe, or at least pay attention in order to sustain a train of thought. I see students having a harder and harder time doing this. The result is weaker problem solving ability, and shorter attention span. 

I admit that this is anecdotal, but I do count sometimes. On campus, I sometimes see 60% or more of students either on the phone, texting, or wearing ear phones as they walk to class. They seem unable to stop and continue to do so – in class

What is the aversion to enjoying the unmediated glory of October in the Sonoran Desert? Or at least watching for pedestrians...