Pushing Pause Mid-Bite

1747288One of the ongoing scenarios that I take pains to describe in the France-set mystery series I write is the one where people make a big deal about sitting down together and breaking bread. Food is important to the French so dining is a BFD in all its forms–at home, in restaurants, on park benches or cafés. When I’m writing about characters who live in France I like to explore as many of those forms as possible because I’m so attracted to the style and ritual and pleasure of slowing down. And I can’t do that here in the States.

Six years ago, an anthropologist named Cheryl Swanson, a partner in a trend-tracking firm, was quoted as saying that  Americans are now processing information at 400 times the rate of our Renaissance ancestors. But we haven’t yet adapted physically or mentally to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise our health.

When you add that 400 times more information we are all attempting to process with the fact that we don’t have 400 extra hours in the day to do it, you see where the problem is. If you’re not mindful of your habits and of what you’re giving up to get those extra hours inevitably the things you lose will be those things that used to enhance your life and heighten your quality of life: sleep, staring at a sunset, walking instead of riding, watching a chrysalis hatch, eating a slow meal with a friend.

Here's what the family table looks like now that we're all off doing other things.

Here’s what the family table looks like now that we’re all off doing other things.

I’m an amateur chef and a baker. I used to fantasize about a place-setting for twelve for Thanksgiving dinner complete with matching turkey saltshakers at every place. I have always been drawn to beautiful tableware in stores and catalogs and imagined wonderful meals chez moi with family and friends about me. And yet, the year before my son went off to college, our family meals consisted of the three of us standing at the kitchen counter to wolf down our meals. (Honestly, half the time John Patrick took his plate to his bedroom with his calculus homework.)

Swanson’s research indicated that in the sixties, dinner was 45 minutes long. By the nineties, it had shrunk to fifteen minutes and today—fewer than five minutes. It takes more time to make the meal and clean up after it than to “enjoy” it. And of course, food manufacturers have been hard at work to help us with that part of the equation by creating cheap mix-and-go food that’s a snap to make and even digest.

It's a fact: you don't have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

It’s a fact: you don’t have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

Naturally, it tastes like donkey vomit and brings no moment of pleasure or satisfaction beyond killing hunger pangs but at least you can skip the wash up and just dump the cartons in the trash and call it done. (What next? An IV drip?) I guess there was some important reason that forced us to live like this. There was obviously some important trade off that made it worthwhile. I quake to think it was just so we could get extra time in front of the computer terminal or worse, the TV set.

Let’s face it. Wasn’t the last time we all slowed down, lit a candle and stared peacefully into space sometime during the last power outage? Or how about that time you got sick and stayed in bed with magazines and a box of tissues and just the sound of your own sniffling and the cat purring? Wasn’t it kind of wonderful at the same time it was miserable?

Let’s all take a breath and slow down.

Time to Reboot and Refresh

Don’t you just love computer language? Since computers are so much a part of our lives, it make sense that we would share vocabulary that pertains to them with reference to our own sense of wellbeing. That fact has to be made all the more ironic because computers are, of course, part of our big problem, too.

It’s true we each of us have control over computers and how much time we spend sitting in front of them. But this so-called control is not unlike, in my mind, how we have control over not smoking or stuffing Twinkies in our mouths. On the face of it, it looks like this is something we control, at least in theory, but do we really?

The US government doesn’t think we do. It actually encourages us to believe that we DON’T have control by affirming to us that the reason we’re all getting fat is not because we can’t stop eating the wrong thing, it’s because there isn’t a law forbidding us to eat the wrong thing.

The point I’m trying to circle around to is the one that says, once again, we are the authors of our own misery—caused invariably by the fact that we refuse to stop for a minute and see what we’re doing and see the damage we’re doing. And that’s true whether it’s cigarettes or iHop pancakes or six hours of staring at a computer screen. Six hours probably won’t kill any of us, but doing it every day—or bumping the six hours to ten like I can EASILY do—just might. And not in a grab-your-heart-and-keel-over-the-keyboard kind of kill you, but in a TS Eliot life-measured-out-in-coffee-spoons kind of death. Bit by byte. (Forgive me; I clearly have no control over easily resistible puns either.)

Six years ago, an anthropologist named Cheryl Swanson, a partner in the trend-tracking firm, Toniq, was quoted as saying that we (she was speaking about Americans but I can comfortable extend the target to my entire blog audience) are now processing information at 400 times the rate of our Renaissance ancestors. But we haven’t yet adapted physically or mentally to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise our health.

Added to the 400 times more information we are all attempting to process is the fact that it does not come with 400 extra hours in the day to do so. Without really agreeing to it or even realizing it was happening, how we get those extra hours is by giving up other stuff that used to enhance our lives and heighten our quality of life: sleep, staring at a sunset, walking instead of riding, watching a chrysalis hatch, eating a slow meal with loved ones. I’m a baker and a Martha Stewart zealot. I used to fantasize about a place setting for twelve for Thanksgiving dinner complete with matching turkey saltshakers at every place. And yet, the last year my son was home before he went off to college, our family meals consisted of the three of us standing at the kitchen counter to wolf down our meals (half the time our son took his meal in his bedroom with his calculus homework.) Swanson’s research indicated that in the sixties, dinner was 45 minutes long. By the nineties, it had shrunk to fifteen minutes and today—well, let’s just say that, sadly (forgive me, Martha!), I’m a poster child for family dinners of today. Standing. In fewer than five minutes. It takes more time to make it and clean up after it than to “enjoy” it. And of course, food manufacturers have been hard at work to help us with that part of the equation by creating cheap mix-and-go food that’s a snap to make and even digest. Of course it tastes like donkey dung and brings no moment of pleasure or satisfaction beyond killing hunger pangs but at least you can skip the wash up and just dump the cartons in the trash and call it done. (What next? An IV drip?) I guess there was some big fat reason that forced us to live like this. There was obviously some important trade off that made it worthwhile. I quake to think it was just so we could get extra time in front of the computer terminal or worse, the TV set.

Bottom line? We’re left with a population of people—of all ages—strung out, sleep-deprived and jittery with hyper-enlarged concerns (from ingestion of too much news) that we’re convinced matter very much and probably don’t at all.

Maybe that’s why I find myself writing and reading apocalyptic fiction so much. I have been fascinated (and fearful) by the concept of technological over stimulation in our culture ever since I watched my nine-year-old son eschew a live-action fireworks display in favor of saving the planet from alien zombies on his GameBoy. My post-apocalyptic book Free Falling was written, largely, because of my helpless concern  and my desire to live in a simpler, less technological time.

Let’s face it. Wasn’t the last time we all slowed down, lit a candle and stared peacefully into space  sometime during the last power outage? Or how about that time you got sick and stayed in bed with magazines and a box of tissues and just the sound of your own sniffling and the cat purring? Wasn’t it kind of wonderful at the same time it was miserable?

What does that tell you?