Author Archives: Lauren

More thoughts on the internet: how social media kills social life

I have spent the day writing in journals and reading Atlantic articles on my porch, crossing items off my to-do list and sitting with my thoughts and reflections, and now that I am a couple drinks in (Troegs Dreamweaver because I love wheat beer) I think I can talk about social media some more and just see where my thoughts take me.

I’ve spent the last week and a half trying to disconnect from the internet and compulsive smartphone use, to tune in to my own voice again. The husband was gone, and I played Decemberists and Bruce Cockburn albums with the guitar out and the volume up, found myself dancing around the living room singing my heart out, probably annoying my neighbors, straining to play the B-major chords I picked out without help from the guitar tab apps, and thinking “this is who I am, this is who I was, this is who I want to continue to be.” I woke up early and walked the dog. I bought incense and wrote all the things that caused me stress and anxiety down on a dry erase board in the kitchen. I didn’t miss the Netflix subscription I cancelled. I took a walk on my own without headphones, and I started running again, my legs craving to strain against uphills. I wrote in my journal until my hand hurt, sewed endless semi-straight seams on my basic sewing machine, punched holes in a plastic creamer canister to water some new hand-me-down plants and stacked rocks to defend them against the landscaping company’s apocalyptic weed whackers, and I thought of ways to make old stories, stories that 12-year-old me and 14-year-old me had once imagined, all melodrama and giant-eyed characters with Japanese names, into something relevant and meaningful in 2018. I jotted down notes for original ideas. I did lots of things that my smartphone has, at some point, tried to take away from me.

Social media is a great way to kill off a social life, but it’s not in a way that I’ve heard acknowledged. I listened to a podcast from Hidden Brain about about FOMO, the fear of missing out, complete with social scientists and studies about how time on Facebook contributes to depression. Maybe this is true for some people. I don’t think it’s true for me. I don’t have FOMO, and my time on Facebook, when I browse the feeds of friends, is generally pleasant. I use social media selfishly, sending off quick quips that I think are funny, without scrolling through my news feed, unless I catch myself doing it unconsciously, like right when I log in.

What I do have, though, is the experience of being separated from a significant other by 2,000 miles and trying to figure out how to maintain a relationship that way, a relationship that is often filled with silences. Social media, the diving line of the screen, forces you to alchemize words, to form a shape around something that, in in-person interactions, usually remains shapeless. My husband and I, my mom and I, relatives and friends, just being in their presence is often enough. You don’t have to constantly verbalize how you feel, don’t have to rely on articulation as your sole source of communication. But you do when your social media platform of choice presents you with a cursor and the question, “How are you feeling?” or “What are you up to?” followed by a blank space. When your friends or relatives are in front of you, you can fill that in with a slight movement of your shoulder, the way you pull your eyebrows or the corner of your mouth. You can’t do that online. Even on the phone, the way you say “I’m doing fine” can mean dozens of things depending on your delivery.

And social media isn’t even designed to communicate how you’re doing. Not lately, anyway. Going by Facebook, I know more way about how Upworthy is doing than about the interior lives of my friends. And those shares, because they come from your friends even if they really have nothing to do with your friends, still demand that you react in a socially appropriate way following the complex rules that govern interactions. I’m supposed to do the little bewildered face here. The like button here, except it’s a close friend so I should probably do the heart. And I’m angry that I’m being forced to respond in a certain way. Facebook manipulates some of the basest behaviors we have – the desire for attention and approval – and reduces me and my friends into desperate attention seekers. Facebook doesn’t care about my thoughts. Facebook only cares about measuring me and reducing me to a sellable product. The same with Twitter and Instagram.

Even WordPress, the platform I’m using right now, works the same way. I find myself look at my starts and relishing days when I get particularly high views. But this is not why I use WordPress. I need to get my words out, and I love writing and want to do it more, and this is great practice. It’s much easier for me to get my thoughts out with a keyboard, rearrange them, refine them, than it is with the paper journal I keep. I also think (like most people, I hope) that my ideas are worth sharing with other people, and that my writing can help them understand something about themselves, or that it can spark a meaningful conversation. I don’t know if I’m succeeding with that. There’s so much noise out there, so much other stuff that flies by in the Facebook feed that we barely have time to process one idea before we need to respond and click on the angry face for the next idea that’s forced unwillingly in front of our faces.

Other things from the world of social media that I don’t feel like writing paragraphs about, and I might have covered it last time anyway:

  • Memes are not thoughts, and nor are they valid responses to arguments. Memes shut down conversations. They’re often esoteric, used to insert oneself into a conversation in which they have no part (count how many times you see “that escalated quickly” suddenly pop up in threads from an unfamiliar account), usually casually offensive, and require no mental or emotional stakes from the person that posts them.
  • We have enough time on our hands to divide people into types – here’s the person that posts a bunch of food photos, here’s the person that uses social media to support their business – and talking about those types or is a way of making people fall in line. You don’t want to be THAT person. So you further keep yourself from sharing what you actually love, even if it’s food or your business.
  • Social media in general had been terrible for individuals to voice who they really are. If you have a dissenting voice, or if you want to be educated about something that gets typed in a way that isn’t woke or socially acceptable, chances are you’ll get a meme thrown at you from somebody you met three years ago at your parents’ barbecue, instead of responses that are patient and thoughtful.
  • I spend so much time sharing photos and reports of things I do outdoors, it cuts into time that I spend outdoors. And then after I hit “post,” I get sucked into somebody’s feed as I’m putting on my running shoes, and an hour passes by and I’ve further lost my outdoor time.

Why My Smartphone, and Facebook, are Slowly Ruining My Life

My husband has lately been saying that if a product you find online is free, then you are the product. It’s obvious more than ever, with Facebook. I joined in 2007 when it was just for kids in college, and my first college – a little community college – didn’t even have the invitation, special permission, or whatever was needed for it. When I enrolled in a four-year college, I spent my time carefully building my profile, plugging in my musical interests in the hopes of finding like-minded people at the university. I still had a MySpace, and I probably had a song embedded in it. Maybe “Cosmonaut” by At the Drive-In, or “Napoleon Solo.” I treated Facebook as an extension of MySpace, Xanga, Blogger. I bought books and DVDs from Amazon. It was probably less than a year when my cousins in high school appeared in my recommended friends. Then my mom. Then my grandmother. Then coworkers. Then products and companies. The news feed that nobody wanted, and that nearly caused us to leave Facebook, but we stayed anyway. We became acclimated to it.  And as it opened to the wider world, I removed little bits of myself: untagging the unflattering photos my college roommates had posted, removing the movies and music, especially when they sprung to life and began posting. Nina Simone was dead, but she still appeared in my news feed, alongside ads for a shirt I had looked at two days ago. Could she see what I ate for breakfast? Did she see how many f-bombs I dropped? Could my high school acquaintance’s mother see that? All of them were invading the home page. And then eventually I found myself making pages for my workplace, moving the strings invisibly the way somebody resurrected a digital version of Nina Simone. The share button followed soon, and that was the end of Facebook as a way to express original thoughts.

I was late to the smartphone game, and I saw Facebook and other websites changing with the technology before I decided to shell out the monthly payment to AT&T in 2014. I can trace a darkness that came into my life, a sense of loss that I’ve never been able to fully explain, that appeared early in 2013. It predated the smartphone, but the smartphone didn’t help. If I had lost a part of myself back then, the smartphone took more of it away with distractions, as I thought it would. The hours I had spent sitting on the couch doing nothing but browsing the internet on my heavy laptop became hours spent sitting on the couch doing nothing but browsing the internet on my smartphone. Playing the same games, over and over. Interrupting my workday to feed butterflies, water farms, collect energy to build an aquarium, check Facebook. I felt guilty that I wasn’t reading any of the classics, going on adventures, doing all these things I actually wanted to do, and my eyes and head felt tired from reading small print on a little screen.

The smartphone, and Facebook, have solved some real problems for me: a GPS to go with a new car in a new state, having my recipes right at the grocery store, my music nicely organized, a nice camera, a health tracker, a mobile writing device, allowing me to keep in touch with relatives and friends in different states. But it caused me real problems, too. The feeling that I have lost some self-control, the ability to delay gratification. I open the fridge door as easily and as compulsively as I scroll through a social media feed, without fully realizing I’m doing either. I find myself wanting to open up my smartphone when I’m in a doctor’s waiting room. Sometimes I’ll go to change the song on my phone when I’m driving, and instead I’ll open up my email as if I can’t control my own hand. I hear of people who can’t stand in an elevator without reaching for their phone. I wonder if I’m not too far off from them. I’ll go for a walk, intentionally to reconnect with silence, and find myself opening up the browser to see how much a home in my neighborhood sold for. Then, when I see somebody else on their phone while walking, I’ll feel judgy.

There are other things too, other ways the smartphone and Facebook have taken parts of me away from me. The ability to reach so easily for distractions makes me feel like I can’t even hear my own voice sometimes. I no longer have to sit in silence with myself, have be slightly bored and let my mind wander and see where it goes. Going to the woods and hiking is one of the few times I get to connect with myself, but I’m still doing something. Just sitting outside and doing nothing is difficult. At the very least, I want to turn on a podcast or audiobook. It’s so seductively easy to drown out the sound of myself.

You can’t make a space for digital things like you can with actual objects. The file box goes here. The socks go there. And you make a mental map of where things are, and you can reach them, feel them. I’ll put things in an Evernote folder, or in Google Drive. Or was it on the little Chromebook storage space I have? The external hard drive? No, the memory card. No, the other memory card. Until I use the search function and realize I gave it an unhelpful name, but usually by then I’ve become distracted by one of the dozen Chrome tabs I have open, sometimes from days before, yet another task on the to-do list that I keep constantly being pulled away from by clickbait. It happens at work, too, all the time. I’ll go to follow up on an email and end up looking at oil diffusers on Amazon, or look up camp songs and find myself on a Wikipedia article about trains. I feel terrible about it, but it’s so pervasive, and my workplace’s use of chatroom-like communication tools means I am constantly derailed and have to isolate myself, shut down every window and put in earbuds to listen to familiar music, in order to get any deep work done involving a computer. And then I have to hope I can find it again in another month when I need it. I used to be so proud of my work ethic, but that was in the days when my main work tools were warehouse totes and non-slip gloves, brooms and pails, paging lists and brown paper and twine – real things, not internet browsers. I still excel at real things in my work, and I would spend more time seeking them out – opportunities to touch cardboard boxes and books and felt and ukuleles and construction paper – if I could stop falling headlong into article loops and open tabs. I don’t want to be scatterbrained and unable to focus, forever staring at a computer screen and wondering what it was I was supposed to actually be doing. I wonder if my coworkers are doing the exact same thing.

I intentionally say “find myself,” and use passive language when talking about how my habits have changed. I feel as if I have been acted upon, as if it’s not fully me pulling the strings. I am being violated, constantly, involuntarily, every time I go online. Facebook, Buzzfeed, even the New York Times website has conditioned me, and everyone else, to click from one things to another, each thing engineered to capture our attention and make it seem as if it’s important or worthwhile. “This thing is happening and it means this.” “The best things to do this.” “Cure your thing with this one weird thing.” “Don’t ever do this if you own this.” We are the product. Our time is the product. And we keep giving it freely. Amazon now has the Interesting Finds section for beautifully presented, almost completely useless objects, and today I noticed that they have ads within search results now. Whenever I log onto Facebook, I am bombarded with ads, with news I don’t want to see and can’t remove. When web designers realized that we were ignoring the sidebar ads about lower our mortgage rates, they figured out a way to force it down our throats, to make it appear as if it’s legitimate, relevant, put it right in our faces. Facebook forces notifications at me that my friends have regurgitated another thing designed to steal their time and my time away from me, or something they posted ten years ago. And when they do make something original on another platform, the mechanism is the same. Etsy shops, Instagram photos, personal blog posts have the same gravity as stories about rescued kittens in Minnesota that they will never see. My friends have lost their voices too, if they ever knew Facebook in an era where you could have one. And barely any of this is actually real. This isn’t really how my friends are doing. This isn’t really their hobby, what they do on weekends. This isn’t authoritative, no matter how many times it claims to be “the best” or “the only” or some other superlative. Listen to it enough, and you realize there are hundreds of opinions, none of which seem to speak your truth, if you can even hear your own truth whispering quietly among all the noise.

I’ve been wanting to write about this for months, really. I sat down today because I re-installed Facebook on my phone, begrudgingly, because I thought it would be the easiest way to list something for sale. Then I saw chatter, before I could even scroll down, about what the Trump administration has done. (Looking at the date of this post you can trace what it is, but this seems to be a daily occurrence both with the administration and with Facebook.) I saw people saying how terrible this terrible thing was. I saw people sharing articles making Nazi parallels. I saw other people replying with mythbusting articles. I saw people I considered levelheaded and worthy of respect suddenly turn nasty and condescending as they tried to prove they belonged to a more compassionate set of humans than the individuals and groups they were currently demeaning. I saw other people dig in their heels. I saw others, much fewer in number, sharing original thoughts, people who had shared other original thoughts on Facebook when other terrible things had been done and then discovered by the world through shared links in news feeds. Buried among the replies to those thoughts were more arguments, slightly more civil, but picking apart the language of several articles. I thought of how I know what the term “virtue signaling” means, and wondered what happened to “slacktivism” in the last couple years. I felt exhausted. How does anyone have time for this, to read every news source’s article on a news topic, just to weaponize it against a stranger on the Internet? How does this not make other people as physically sick as it makes me, as sick as the original terrible thing made me feel? Why do people keep doing this to themselves? How do people keep doing this?

This is why I don’t look at Facebook anymore. Why I don’t read the news. Why I suddenly deleted all the downloaded podcasts in my queue that dealt with racism and politics. Why I fantasize about throwing my smartphone in a lake and living in an off-the-grid cabin in New Hampshire. Why I don’t care if journalists and Action Together emailers and particularly loud voices in my Facebook feed think I’m an irresponsible, terrible person for not subjecting myself to every outrage available to find on the internet, specially designed for me to click on them and keep clicking, until I feel despair and do nothing anyway. For believing that if I really want to see things change, I can do better than repost an article on Facebook to be seen by likeminded folks or criticized by non-likeminded folks. Instead, I can work at my public service job. I can donate time and money to my church. I can do things for my friends and family to show them I love them. Lately I’ve taken to letter writing, sending them sticker-laden envelopes filled with the most beautiful stationery I could find, spending five minutes to an hour putting pen to paper in an attempt to show them, between the lines, that they are important to me, more than somebody who might hit “like” on something I just shared.

I can thank God for the gifts I have, the physical comforts and the talents like sewing and writing and guitar playing, and try my best to share them with others as I’m doing now with writing, and I can pray for the safety and health of those less fortunate, and self-awareness and sympathetic understanding for those who are fortunate and have good intentions but fall into the trap of Facebook and the nastiness it so easily manifests. I can thank my senator and be glad that my governmental representation aligns closely with my beliefs. I can extend kindnesses to strangers, remembering the engraving on the back of a pendant I have that begins “let me be an instrument of peace.” I can choose to do something about the one or two issues that I really, really care about, and I can do something about it all the time, out in the world, where things actually happen. Online I can choose to look at We Rate Dogs, post photos of flowers to Instagram, and deal with Facebook Messenger only a days a week as necessary, and let that be my social media intake. I can choose to go out and live my life and hear my own voice again, and let it be heard.

And then I decided it was time to see a therapist

It’s just like in the Disney movies, when the hero has a moment of doubt. She turns away from those who love her, runs away into the vast unknown, compass whirling around in circles, unmoored. Usually, a dragon or a talking tree or another sidekick or magical wise being comes and sings her a song and shows her who her true self is. Then, reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose and confidence, she goes back to face her doubts and fears. Inevitably, she triumphs, saving the village and showing the entire world exactly who she is, and they love her for it.

Except, it’s not like that in real life. You don’t get raised on shoulders when you save the village. When you have a moment of doubt and you turn away, nobody comes and sings you a song about yourself. Nobody comes to you dressed in cheerleader skirts and says “You see? You had it in you all along!” No. When you let doubt overtake you and you run, you just keep running. You keep wandering from place to place, searching for the pieces to make you whole again.

Even if you have a sidekick who comes and says those words to you, they sound hollow. Maybe they’re saying it just because they feel like they have to. Because that’s what friends do. But you can’t feel that platitude in yourself, so you say “I guess” and let it plop dully into that hollow spot in you where that ineffable thing was supposed to reside. Your sidekick doesn’t know. They don’t inhabit your body, can’t feel it deep in their bones like you can. They’re not a magical wise being who’s clued in to the universe. They’re just as disordered and disconfident as you are, running away from their own moments of doubt.

They, like you, have to figure out for themselves why they didn’t get that promotion, why they went for that promotion in the first place, why they compulsively check their inboxes, why they drink too much or eat too much, live with the consequences of their decisions and what it means for the identity they had painstakingly constructed for themselves over the course of years and decades, and which appears to have slowly eroded over time, or perhaps catastrophically destructed in an instant like a dynamited building.

February 22nd

Today I was poked, prodded, stripped, scraped, and made to pay for the privilege. And it feels pretty great.

Yes. I finally decided to woman up and make some doctor’s appointments. Not having health insurance for years trained me to not have regular appointments on my radar. But I’ve been insured for about three years, so it was time to start taking advantage of it, regardless of the high deductible. So now I have clean teeth, clean blood, a couple referrals to specialists, and a new pair of glasses will soon be on the way. I’m surprised at some things (especially at how satisfying that plaque scraper feels), not surprised at other things, and overall feeling relieved and accomplished. Mission Make an Effort to Take Care of Myself is a success.

I have been trying to attack the existential crisis I’ve been having – I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, if not here then on my hiking blog – on multiple fronts. I usually have a low hum of anxieties that sometimes rear up terribly, and I think they are contributing to it. Anxieties about overdue doctors appointments, when and what to eat, check engine lights that have been on for months, when I’m finally going to read those books in my Goodreads list or those months-old issues of the Atlantic, that study that I read online that contradicts that other study online, my Netflix queue, when I’m finally going to sit down and have fun and play a video game or write in my journal. Leisure activities have transformed into tasks.

One of my coping mechanisms, when I’m feeling off (and even when I’m feeling on), is purging myself of belongings. It feels immediately therapeutic to clean my apartment of clothing I no longer wear, unused makeup samples, knicknacks, that one bottle of lotion that I don’t like too much but I’ve been trying to use up for years, dog toys, that stupid thing I bought off Amazon that doesn’t even work well. I feel like I can hear myself think when I’m done, partly because the constant monologue that I have when I interact with things has gone from “I really don’t like this thing but feel obligated to keep it” and “I wish I could finally use up this bottle so I can get rid of it” and “I really need to fix that” and “I need to sort through this and organize it,” to “I can see the carpet now” and “oh hey, I forgot I had this shirt” and, best of all, silence.

But even purging is tinged with anxiety: not because of the money I’d spent on those things, which is long gone and will be replaced with other money, but because I am hyper-aware of my environmental impact. I haven’t used those green bags in the produce section for years, and I have trained myself to bring my own bags to everywhere from the grocery store to the outlet mall. I hold onto things in the hopes that I can repurpose them, and I feel guilty when I throw out semi-recyclable items that I don’t feel like cleaning or putting aside for a special trip to their recycling facility. Batteries. Plastic bags. Fruit and veggie scraps that I can’t save for the dog, don’t have the freezer space to save for soup, and definitely will not be driving up to my CSA’s compost bin. I once took a thumbnail-sized stone from a coworker who was going to throw it in the trash and planned to take it outside, then felt like I was committing a sin when I put it in the trash myself weeks later when cleaning out my bag. Objectively my impact is probably in the lower half of those living in developed countries, but I mostly see where I am failing.

So I’m trying to strike a healthy balance between the two. Concern for the environment is a good thing, but as a living creature I am still going to be negatively impacting the environment. This weekend, I dumped lotion and an almost-full bottle of soap down the drain and let myself feel joy about these burdens being removed from my mind.

The Drive Back, Part 1

Hours after the snowstorm ended on Thursday night, I shoveled myself out and packed the dog and a few days’ worth of clothing in the car for a drive down a slush-covered I-95. I had appointments in Pennsylvania over the weekend, to help out my family. I wouldn’t be making social calls, wouldn’t be navigating the web of backroads that connected one house to another to another. Or so I thought. I found myself on those roads anyway, remembering the landmarks in the bends ahead. Here was the creepy tuxedo statue, nestled under a tree in somebody’s roadside yard, which I’d pass every day when I was a warehouse picker for a summer. My boyfriend in the passenger seat, my brother in the backseat when he too was hired at the warehouse, we would all point and shout “creepy statue!” and pretend to scream in fright at the white granite face and black painted buttons. Past that, there was the picnic grove where my cousins and I, taking a break from the hot dogs and grab bags at the family reunion, would try to fling each other off the metal playground carousel tucked at the edge of the woods. But after nearly a decade away from these roads, I need my GPS to get around. I can recall exactly how they feel, the shape of them, what happened as I once traveled them, but I don’t remember how they connect, how I got from one place to the other. I’m trained now for different paths.

I used to drive a bright blue Ford Contour along these roads, years ago. During the ten-minute drive to my aunt’s house off Mountain Road, my mom, sitting in the passenger seat as required by law, would admonish me to slow down, telling how a motorist had just died in the yellow- and black-arrowed bend around which we were presently traveling. Her speed warnings would repeat in my head for years after the words “learner’s permit” were removed from my laminated card and I could drive alone with just the sound of my music. I learned to add 5 to 10 to the number posted on the white signs, and 10 or 15 to the yellow signs, as long as I could do so without shifting in my seat. Every once in a while, there would be a name in the newspaper, or spilling from the mouth of my mom or brother or friends, that I could match to a photo in my high school yearbook.

When I lived in Philadelphia and returned home on weekends or during school breaks, I drove up the interstate, noting the crooked, uneven black lines of tar standing out against the faded blue-grey, illuminated only by headlight on the stretch between Quakertown and Allentown. The series of ramps near Lansdale were wider, and newer, smooth beige concrete lit by overhead casts of orange light. It was a different county. Off my exit and back on the rural roads, I would pump the Contour’s brakes when tackling the sharp turn off Best Station Road, the one where my boyfriend’s brother rolled his car and somehow managed to walk away from the wreck. The wreath of plastic flowers on the telephone pole wasn’t for him, nor was it for my brother’s friend whose Celica was totaled there a couple years later. Elsewhere, wreaths were hung on telephone poles on Mountain Road for recent high school graduates I didn’t know. Teddy bears were piled at the foot of trees along Rextown Road and Spring Valley Road, laminated photos of familiar faces tacked onto the bark.

By the time I drove a series of rental cars from Chicago – the Dodge Caliber and the ugly HHR that took us overnight across the Midwest – a close friend had pointed out how many young people die in the area, comparing it to Stephen King’s Derry. I thought it was the same in the neighboring school districts, in Palmerton and Northwestern and probably even in affluent Parkland. But in the twice-yearly visits back, I started noticing the roadside memorials, and the Facebook posts on the walls of those whose profile photos would never be changed, because they would never look any different. Posts that didn’t mention the gunshots or needles or ropes or violent illnesses that we spoke in low voices in living rooms. After the rental cars had been returned to their lot by the airport, and I was back in my south side apartment, I conceived ideas for short stories featuring a small town hiding ancient, malevolent forces sleeping in the quarries. Maybe there was something to it.

Around the time that the black Camry was driven down from Connecticut, fingers bare on the trip down but shiny new rings clacking against the steering wheel by the time we headed back east across the Delaware Water Gap, I found myself peering outside into the darkness behind my mom’s garage, marveling at the pitch-black and holding back the dog on her leash. Nearly 20 years of living near this darkness, and the handful of recent years spent among the sodium lights of the city had completely erased my ease. Once, I could walk by night to the riverside. Now I couldn’t venture beyond the anemic half-circle of blue by the old garage. This place didn’t belong to me any more, but Connecticut didn’t belong to me, either, and when my grandmother asked when I was coming home, the four walls of my latest apartment were conjured rather than the houses on drives, roads, routes, places that had once been rural roads cutting through farmland. I wrote about being an outsider among New England affluence. When I wrote about rural Pennsylvania, I consulted Wikipedia for names, dates, street names, quarry numbers, hoping to convey the area with facts that I had never learned in school. Facts of a place that I had always intended to leave, even before “nod out” and “Xanax” and “track marks” entered my vocabulary, and before I had returned to gather little folded pieces of paper with poems and dates under pixelated photos and the names of funeral homes on the back. When I drove there, I noticed the ancient cars piled alongside garages or laying next to bruised mailboxes, the rusted garbage piled next to back doors, the faded yellow-white “POSTED” signs stapled to trees, the eagle bumper stickers, the perpetually barking dogs, the shuttered wooden storefronts, the cracked paint, the dilapidated rabbit hutches and chicken coops in backyards, the ochre stalks of dead corn and wild grasses in cold, wet fields.

The enveloping dark of our homelands were more pronounced with Frankencar, the grizzled, short-lived, oil-thirsty Corolla. It worked fine on the semi-lit southern portion of Route 15 – called the Merritt by Connecticut natives who learned of the road from their parents, instead of from their new smartphone’s GPS as I did – and it managed its way up the landscaped driveway to our apartment when we moved to the suburbs. But in PA, its yellowed headlights could never illuminate the woods encircling the backroads where we tested its squishy brakes. I noticed that the yellow lines were dimmer here than in Connecticut, and the roads sun-bleached, and the combination would cause the lines to bleed at night, especially when there was rain or snow. My friend’s hypothesis about the increased death rate here could be explained, in part, by the utterly shitty roads. Once, these had been just roads to me: no modifiers, no adjectives. They were simply roads. Living in Chicago and then Connecticut, with overhead lights at regular intervals and regular maintenance and a website to report potholes, had changed my definition of normal roads. It had changed my definition of normal everything.

Trading in Frankencar for the much safer, slightly newer Prius barely improved our ability to drive the backroads. There are rural roads in Connecticut, sure, but they feel wider, safer. Normal. They match the color of the smoothly paved canal trail where I sometimes run. There are more houses along them, and vineyards and CSAs and private schools. In Pennsylvania, though, I mutter curses at those narrow roads between swaths of woods and tracts of farmland, wondering how anything could possibly fit between the chute afforded me by the paint. My tires cross the double yellow lines around the bends, and I swerve into slush to accommodate the F-350s rumbling toward me. After sunset, I can barely make out the faded lines. And I notice that other drivers notice my front plate, a blue and white state-issued number where in Pennsylvania there is only a bumper, or sometimes an airbrushed beach scene. The shape of my red hybrid stands out when I get gas at Turkey Hill.

Relatives will tell me that a place is on Schoenersville Road or Airport Road, or Tilghman where it crosses with Route 22, or is on 15th Street near the market, and I will stare blankly as they rattle off names and intersections. I’ve been to these places, once, or twice, or ten times, but my connections to them are severed. They are no longer mine, and I am no longer of this place anymore, if I ever was. My hair is different, my glasses and clothes are different. My car is different. My religion is different, my opinion of the city is different, my voter registration is different. My thoughts on home ownership and meat consumption and cable are different. Even my sweatpants are different. Sometimes I like to pull up to the gas pump with Tupac or Jeezy blaring as I step out of the Prius, just to prove a point.

This past weekend, I offered to drive my mom and aunt to a new brewing company / restaurant in Tannersville that they liked, nearly an hour away. As a kid I only went there a handful of times, never enough to memorize the roads, so I did what I always do and used my smartphone’s GPS. My mom kept mentioning a back road, and when she pointed ahead from the backseat and said “you’re going to take a left here” I quietly followed the straight blue lines on Google Maps. At the restaurant, drinking coffee to wake me up from the nachos and the single beer that I had consumed, I mentioned my friend’s idea about death in the area. My mom and aunt began counting them off: the car accidents, the motorcycle accidents, the overdoses and the suicides. Relatives and family friends, people I knew and people I didn’t. The day before, a man had been struck and killed on the two-mile stretch between the town and my mom’s house. I thought about how, if you didn’t live in the town, you had to drive to – and then drive from – every bar, restaurant, and state store. You had to drive to work, to play, to the grocery store, to church, to your grandmothers and aunts and in-laws on those crumbling backroads. I thought of how many people I’d seen, my parents’ age, waving off entreaties to stay in the pop-up camper, and driving home after a night of drinking. About the close, erratic lines on Kunkletown Road, Route 248, and those endless tributaries running through New Tripoli.

The beer had worn off by the time we were back in the Prius, but I gripped the steering wheel in nervousness as I followed some of my mom’s directions, wishing I had forced the GPS to take me to 209 instead of trying to navigate these bumpy, narrow, completely alien stretches of asphalt that were piled with slush and barely discernible even with my brights on. It was a struggle to make the numbers on my dashboard match the numbers on the white and black signs on the side of the road. When I hit a familiar stretch I was only partially relieved, knowing I was close to home but still unnerved by the curves and stop signs and headlights coming towards me as the last light of day disappeared and left us in darkness. The next day I would follow the GPS to the Wilmington suburb where I would pick up my husband, then I’d follow it to the highways that would take us back to Connecticut. I didn’t need the GPS to get through New York and to the Merritt. It’s a groove worn into my memory, as those backroads once were.

Thoughts I have had

This shirt shouldn’t be so tight.

I can’t wear this if my belly shows.

I shouldn’t have shapewear lines showing.

I don’t want to wear the size on this label.

This physical flaw will go away if I lose 15 lbs.

I will be happy with myself at 150 lbs.

I’m seeing black spots – time to eat.

Maybe I should cut those Kashi bars in half so my snack is 70 calories instead of 140.

I can’t eat that.

I should substitute this healthier ingredient for that.

I will be happy with myself at 140 lbs.

Awesome, I weigh less than I did in high school.

Am I really that small now?

Eating out this one time, getting this one item, will make me fat.

This is a lot of work. I don’t know if I can maintain these habits for years and years.

I can’t run until I have a BMI under 25, or until I get rid of anything that might jiggle.

I haven’t eaten in X hours and therefore I am strong.

Are you laughing at my jiggle? Fuck you. I’m out here.

I should eat now so I don’t get hungry later.

I should wait until after I weigh myself to drink this water.

I gained weight, and therefore I am weak.

I should log all of my food. Every little part of the food I make from scratch.

My log says I’m under my daily calories. Good.

How about I don’t put that snack in the log?

Let me log those 1000 calories… not. I’ll pretend it didn’t happen.

I should try to throw up because I just lost control.

I am weak, because I can’t make myself throw up.

I’m glad that raw egg made me throw up.

I can’t control myself around all this food.

The food at this party is going to make me gain weight.

Ugh, I weight almost as much as I did in college.

Logging this makes me feel like a terrible person.

I’m stressed, let’s get fried chicken.

I’m sad, let’s get ice cream.

I’m lonely, let’s drink and get fried chicken and ice cream.

Everything is fucked anyway, it doesn’t matter if I weigh this much.

I’m not updating my Facebook photo until I lose weight.

I’m ashamed to show my face there – I’ve gained weight since the last time.

Eating out this much won’t make me fat.

I haven’t been able to wear these shirts in three years, but what if I get down to that weight again?

Am I really this size again?

This shirt adequately covers up my fat.

I will be happy with myself at 163 lbs.

I should cut this in half.

I should eat the whole thing.

I should put this in the freezer where I can’t see it.

Let me get it over with and eat it all at once.

I should never keep that in the house.

I’ll go to the gym tomorrow.

This is so selfish and wasteful of me. Maybe I’m a terrible person.

Context, and flaws in education.

Lately, I’ve been catching up on all the back-issues of The Atlantic that have been sitting around my apartment. I made some good progress this past week during jury service, when I waited in the courthouse for several hours before being told I could go home (I can promise that my non-selection had nothing to do with my other reading material, the copy of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that was in my handbag), and now I have finally gotten to the June issue. I just finished reading the article on Richard Spencer, a.k.a. that white supremacist who got punched in the face in January, and I had some thoughts as I read about how he attached himself to his extremist worldviews.

His path to white supremacy might have started in some juvenile urge to rebel, to agitate against mainstream values: i.e., tolerance, unity, diversity, equity, and the other social ideals that we see encoded in children’s movies, school policy handbooks, political rhetoric, TED talks, and ‘Coexist’ bumper stickers. The way kids rebel in a mostly liberal environment? They become conservative. They read Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and other philosophers and theorists that provide an alternative to the mainstream liberal-leaning values.

The problem doesn’t lie in studying these ideas, or even entertaining them as viable. It lies in taking them at their face value without turning a critical eye to them, and without understanding their historical and cultural context. Was political theorist X, who writes about an essential national spirit, are they writing from a time and place where people are just learning to see themselves as a member of a newly formed state instead of just a farmer from a certain valley? Is writer Y, whose worlds are a place where people are inherently evil, writing in the wake of a major war or a national tragedy? Is religious leader Z’s strongly-worded speech decrying literalist interpretations of law arising because literalist interpretations are causing injustice and suffering around them? Does this guy over here seriously think the Irish should eat their babies? You can delve into a text as deeply as you want, know its arguments back and forth, and it makes you sound very erudite and impressive, but you’re completely missing the picture if you don’t understand why the argument is being made in the first place. I think this is how something like Richard Spencer happens – not him specifically, his body language lets you know that he knows exactly what he’s doing* – but how incredible, insane theories can appear sane and credible. (It can work in reverse too, making legitimate theories appear the opposite.) And I think it results from our educational systems not doing more to encourage critical thinking, and more specifically, encouraging exploration of context.

I’ll explain this in a roundabout way through my own experiences. As a college student taking English courses, I learned that there are all sorts of different approaches you can take to evaluate a piece of literature (by “evaluate” I don’t mean how much you liked it, but studying how it works and appraising its merit and meaning). You can approach it as a source of biographical information, as a historical document, as a moral teaching tool, as something that causes a reaction in the reader, as something that is inherently contradictory and should be picked apart. For fun, let’s use, How the Grinch Stole Christmas as an example. Depending which approach you fancy, you could examine why Theodore Geisel/Dr. Seuss might have written it at that period of his life and use the book to learn more about him as a person, or ask yourself what elements make it a heartwarming story without caring about the author’s intentions at all, or you can problematize whether Cindy Lou Who perpetuates stereotypes of women as innocent and childlike as opposed to the male Grinch’s aggression, or read it as a story of religious epiphany and conversion, or as a criticism of capitalism, or as a response to aggressive marketing of Christmas at the time of its publication, or compare the message to that of other books that came out in 1957, or compare it to later iterations of the Grinch, or… can you tell I have fun with this? There are almost endless paths to take when you look critically at a work of literature, and the hallmark of a great work is that it lends itself to so many rich and varied approaches.**

I was particularly enamored of the type of criticism that evaluates the text’s inherent value; the only tool you require is the text itself. You appreciate its internal logic, its language and prosody, its symbols and imagery, and how well it works as a self-contained work of art, instead of needing to have a background in subject areas like history and philosophy and psychology to appreciate it. It’s the approach that I most easily grasped, and this was how I was primarily taught in school to approach literature through close readings. From a teacher’s perspective, it’s also probably the easiest method to teach. In Honors English we acknowledged that some intellectual movements influenced each other, but by and large we examined fiction and poetry based on its own merits. We didn’t spend much time examining the connections across literature and into other disciplines like history and economics, about who might have reacted against whom and why. My history classes didn’t examine those connections, either. We read textbooks dryly listing one event after another, dates and names continuing in an endless march. Even though I took notes as best as I could, I didn’t realize the cause and effect, the interconnectedness of history, until it presented itself on the photocopied multiple choice test, almost as an accusation. “Why did Britain send such-and-such a ship over to this place?” Why didn’t we cover this in the review session?

My single history course in college wasn’t much better either: no research paper, but a collection of terms whose definitions were to be memorized, dates that were to be paired to events by graphite lines, proper nouns in long-dead languages that were to be assigned to amorphous shapes on a map. Again, time flowed forward like a river, names and places surfacing briefly before being pulled back under by the current as other names and places arose from the depths to replace them. I didn’t learn how to see the strings connecting them, how one name tugged another upwards, and another, even as it faded out of sight. How there was a different-colored string connecting this name over here. How one single string could connect so many ideas, even though it changed color so many times and was barely visible to begin with. So I ignored the strings, and more than one literature instructor noticed this weakness of mine. If I had dedicated more time squinting to finally see those strings, if I had given myself a better foundation in history, perhaps I would have had a chance at being a literature scholar. At the very least, I would be able to better understand what Tolstoy is saying about late 19th century Russian identity in the 900-some pages of Anna Karenina, instead of waiting for Levin to stop whining so we can get back to plot and character development.

To be sure, my personal inability to identify historical context isn’t at all due to my college instructors. I don’t necessarily think it’s due to my high school teachers either. I had good teachers, and I had bad teachers, as everyone does, regardless of their school district’s test scores or tax base. Some teachers were fairly fresh from pedagogical training, others had first learned a teaching philosophy that had long since passed out of vogue. Some methods that didn’t work for me worked well for other students. I think the aims of the curriculum might have been a bigger issue.

I’m not an expert on the history and development of education, but it comes up when you’re in college long enough and take courses in book history (okay, so I lied, I did take a couple more history courses) and learn that hundreds of years ago, we were studying Greek classics as a method of developing moral character. We avoided teaching subjects that we thought would lead to moral decay, and outlawed books that might pervert our sensibilities. At some point we decided to offer education to everyone, and when Sputnik was launched, we brought a renewed focus on science and mathematics to our curriculum. Now STEM is the big thing, and I host science programs at work for elementary school students and wonder how to integrate coding and computer technology into my offerings. It seems that our curricula are now more focused on preparing young adults for the workforce and to be good citizens than it is to breed thinkers. We measure student outcomes with multiple choice tests based in retention of “facts,” such as the glossy, clean rendition of American history that I received that made me think we had gotten rid of institutionalized racism with the Civil Rights movement, and that the founding fathers were basically infallible, and that our current system of government is the best. There are heroes and there are villains in this constructed narrative, and constructed it is. History in any form is not truly a fact-based field, but is our attempt to get as close to the truth as possible. Even science and mathematics are only fact-based to the best of our human ability, and our facts sometimes change. Of course, we need some sort of framework if we want to grow our knowledge, so we decide on some basic facts. Gravity pulls us downwards, so now let’s come up with equations for mass and acceleration. Two plus two equals four, so let’s make a multiplication table. Democracy is the highest form of government, so let’s view non-democratic countries as “developing” and help them achieve this form of government by stepping in when they experience political destabilization, or view them as enemies when they reject democracy. We also separate our disciplines, further obfuscating those strings I was talking about. You take History class, or English, or Economics, or Biology, or CAD. And then you learn the associated facts and develop the skills. As if history and English don’t inform one another, or science and literature and economics and design somehow aren’t affecting one other’s trajectories.

The joint effect of the focus on measurable and marketable knowledge and skills, and the way we rend apart our disciplines, discourages us from developing intangible skills that are just as important, if not moreso. Like seeing context. Like having the ability to question one’s sources. “That’s what college is for,” some might say. But I disagree. I think everyone, regardless if they’re going to be a bioengineer or an auto mechanic or a CEO for a financial advising company or a picker at an Amazon warehouse should have some critical skills. They don’t have to be mastered – not everyone has to geek out and apply feminist criticism to children’s books – but critical thinking skills make for better citizens, better workers, and most importantly, better and more empowered human beings.

On a hiking trip in rural New York this past summer, I had a conversation with an older gentlemen who was out hiking for the day. He showed me his map and guidebook that he had borrowed from his public library, and we talked about how awesome libraries are. But when I told him what my husband does for a living, he waved his hand and said, “like we need another historian.” This came after he said he expressed admiration for “that black guy” – no, not Obama. Ben Carson.

But we do need historians. Especially right now, in 2017. Does the general population need the specifics of high-level historical research? I would say no, we won’t all benefit from reading my husband’s dissertation. I probably won’t read it and I live with the guy. But we do need people like him who are skilled in understanding structures, who can see the strings better than anyone, and who can explain how they work. Historians, philosophers, and others with high levels of liberal arts education can identify characteristics of political and cultural movements, can analyze policies and how and why authorities use language the way they do, and hypothesize outcomes. They are well-equipped to explain how our country is moving towards authoritarianism, and what we can do to reverse it. We desperately need people with the intangible skills that are developed through study of history, and literature, and the other humanities.

And we need the general public to trust them. As the gentlemen in New York demonstrated to me, we have a problem with active distrust of education. This is convenient to authority figures who are adept at manipulation. If we focus your educational system on workforce preparation, as our current policymakers do, our bioengineers and warehouse packers lose access to those intangible critical skills that help us realize when we are being played. Political rhetoric in this last election has constructed a wall between the highly educated, who tend to be left-leaning, and the right-leaning blue collar workers. Educational attainment has become a partisan issue. But that makes every single one of us more vulnerable. When we distrust those who can look critically, and we haven’t been taught how to do it ourselves, we are vulnerable to those that know how to subtly, strategically cause emotional reactions in us and make us feel victimized. We become more vulnerable to social injustices like Spencer’s white supremacy, which can sound reasonable when you disregard the knowledge of those who have studied how white supremacy has played out through history, and you have somebody telling you that this is the way to make you no longer feel like a victim. And when you disregard that knowledge of how white supremacy works, you also disregard the knowledge of what white supremacy has ultimately led to.


* I am trying to choose my words carefully so as not to inject too much of my own emotion into the way I’m writing about Spencer. His tactic relies on people like me to react strongly and emotionally to his statements, which makes me appear unhinged and, as a result, makes me look like the irrational party and thus adds credibility to his worldview among those who don’t agree with me. Read another blog post, and you can probably guess how I really feel about somebody who was fired from conservative publications for his extremist views.

** Literature is one of many humanities disciplines that can be approached in multiple ways. In history, you can look at a primary document such as a list of people who didn’t pay their taxes, and from that you can infer not just who didn’t pay their taxes, but with some outside research, you can infer if a country was funding highly unpopular wars that people didn’t want to pay for, or if it was trying to make things difficult for women or religious minorities or immigrants or certain social classes, or if it was bankrupt and putting the burden on its citizens, if its infrastructures were too big or too disorganized, if other countries had similar tax policies, if an individual tax collector was manipulating the system for his or her own gain, etc.