America really needs to put back all the missing trains. I’ve played Ticket to Ride! I know this entire country used to be nothing but trains, trains and more trains! The entire Gilded Age is based on train-made fortunes. And where were all those trains this week when I needed to get from Chicago to Pittsburgh during a storm and thought my flight was going to be canceled? They were NOT AVAILABLE. In fact, there was one train available and it was sold out from Chicago to Pittsburgh, even though I would absolutely have taken it as an overnight sleeper if I’d had to.
However, this is not actually a blog post about how America is, in general, devoid of trains. It is rather a post about how I had to go to Chicago this week, and then to Pittsburgh, and I had to take two planes, one train and a lot of automobiles to do so. Still, I am actually beginning to prefer trains: they are more sustainable in terms of carbon output, and also make me far less nervous. My anxiety over the impact of late-stage capitalism on the safety of a plane to fly gets worse every year, as I worry that a plane will be improperly maintained due to airline cutbacks on service costs. I also worry that the pilots will be over-exhausted and overworked as their pay is cut and they have to fly more hours to maintain a decent wage. And in the last couple years of this New Gilded Age, as inequality becomes more extreme, I am more anxious as a plane takes off and lands than I have ever been in the past.
And yet, it’s a necessary evil. There is no other real way to travel for business, and we’ve set up our society so that planes have made distance less relevant. The expectation is, once again, that we meet in person when possible, with clients or with colleagues. And so, I am back on the road, and back on planes, worrying quietly in my seat that I won’t be on one of the planes that collides while taking off from an overscheduled airport, or is hit by lightning flying in unsafe conditions. I am more comfortable on the ground, in a train, where it may derail but I’m less likely to actually die if it does.
Still, I survived all the transportation this week, and now I’m back home, able to sleep again. It was actually a worthwhile trip, and I had such a nice time seeing all my colleagues in Chicago and in Pittsburgh. I so rarely get to actually be in an office with people I work with anymore that it feels so special when I’m in a room, not a Zoom, for even one day – and I had three days this week in real space, plus a dinner with my team on Monday. I suppose I can get used to travel again for this reason, in that I just like working in person with people, and these are my chances to do it.
My brother in law said last night, we’re at the point now where all the years look weird and science fiction-y. 2023 is no exception. The years now seem like they should be in science fiction, probably because we grew up on the mid-20th century sci-fi where this century was science fiction. It isn’t that 2023 is that far from 1993 or even 1983, it’s that 2023 was so far from 1953, when so much of the sci-fi that would define the genre was created. It’s given us the perspective that 2023 should be the future, and yet it feels like we’re still stuck in the past in more ways than I like to think about.
Take, for example, where I am now, the Main Line of Philadelphia. I’m starting 2023 in a new home, in a suburb not that unlike where I grew up. Yet this area is mired in the past in completely non-functional ways. Instead of moving into the future of non-vehicular transportation, it lacks sidewalks, bike lanes or direct routes to shopping and stores. The trains only run once per hour into Philadelphia from here, even though the SEPTA line is perfectly serviceable. Coming from New York City, it feels like I’ve moved into the post white-flight suburbs of 1973, a place designed to give every little traditional family unit their own Pennsylvania stone house, surrounded by exactly 0.27 acres of yard, with a shared driveway in which to park their individually owned vehicles. It’s a very twentieth century vision. It doesn’t feel 2023 here.
Living here has, however, given me an entirely new hobby. In many women moving to the suburbs, this would be baking or gardening or crafting, hobbies that take advantage of the space differential between an apartment and a full sized house. My new hobby is instead just complaining about the suburbs. It’s not necessarily a productive hobby, but it does seem to be getting me through the first few months of this very different existence. I’ve spent the last twenty years since leaving UBC campus living in cities that acknowledged the existence of the future, even if they didn’t fully embrace the change that will be needed to meet it. Cities are places of ideas, after all – they exist to provide a physical space for abstract concepts like trade or art. I do not feel like the suburbs – especially these well established and well heeled suburbs I live in now – acknowledge a future. Instead, these townships would very much prefer to keep everything as much the same as possible, on behalf of the same people who have benefited from that sameness for the past century, and I will complain endlessly about feeling like I’m locked in the past.
The move to the Main Line has made my life easier though. There’s a dozen little ways every day that I find myself marveling at the sheer ease of existence. This house feels huge to start with, big enough that we were able to host my sister and her family and it was still comfortable for seven people to be here. We can park in our own driveway so we can use the car consistently to grocery shop. We don’t have to hear noise from outside our own home, with the exception of a rare truck or low flying plane (no more cars with jacked up sound systems! no more cars with ringing phones hooked up to those sound systems blasting the T-Mobile ring jingle at 3am!). The house has all these storage spaces so I never open a closet to have five things fall down on me. The house is only 72 years young, not over a century old, so the pipes allow for a “garburator”. I have my own washer dryer in the basement along with a second fridge. The list goes on and on.
I therefore have this fantastic opportunity to shift all this extra energy into actual hobbies and self development, instead of just using it to complain and mope. So I shall consider what I actually want to get out of 2023, and how I want my first full year in this new existence to go. I know I want my life here to be more authentic, to start with. I want to build off the sense of self I’ve been working on for the past decade, and go into this change with that intact. I was so insecure when I moved to NYC and kept feeling like I needed to change myself to fit in with other “grownups”, and now I’m realizing that being myself is what makes people want to engage with me (whole other post, I know). So how do I extend that concept of “being myself” into this whole new existence and lifestyle?
And how do I apply all the time and energy that is no longer going into just living in NYC? Before COVID, I looked outside my home for my day to day existence. Now, I actually live in a place which is designed for me to look inward. Combined with my permanent work from home status, I’m in a completely different mental and physical place and will need to adjust for that.
This is what I am kind of working through, these first couple days of 2023 and last couple days before I resume work full time again. Does a re-assessment of how I engage with my existence include writing and resuming this blog, for example? I haven’t been terribly regular here since 2007, back when I had this whole thing on the Livejournal platform. It’s been a while. But hey, I live in the future now. Maybe using this platform to sort out my thoughts is a step in looking forward.
So I was writing this for a slack internal discussion and then realized it was a blog post…
I empathize so deeply with this topic and with the concept of “home”. My story is the reverse in that I am a :flag-ca: living in :usa: and have been since I left BC almost two decades ago. For the first seven years, I was in L.A., but even after I met some of my best friends, found my husband and had our kiddo there, neither my husband nor I considered L.A. “home” because we had no intention of staying there long term. By contrast, when we lived in Brooklyn for ten years, I was considering that “home” because I had built so much of my adult life up in NYC. I invested real emotional energy in building a local social network and building my career and I spent hours reading up on NYC history and the mechanics of the city so I could understand it. Calling NYC “home” was a deliberate choice because I expected to live the rest of my life there and I wanted an emotional connection to the place equivalent to the connection I had with Vancouver. (Also, I’m the fourth generation of my family to live in NYC so it was easy to construct a narrative with an established connection)
And then my husband got a job outside Philly and we had to up and move to the suburbs here and I am honestly too old and exhausted to re-invest the kind of energy into calling it “home” like I did with Brooklyn. I’m unlikely intertwine my sense of place and identity here the way I did with Vancouver or with Brooklyn and life is unlikely to take me back to NYC (especially now that it is literally the world’s most expensive city).
But I’m aware that even as much as I LOVED NYC, I do not say I’m going “home” when I go up there to visit. The only place I have consistently said I’m going “home” to is the greater Salish Sea area (which is the Straits between Vancouver Island and the US and Canadian mainland), and I still feel a sense of relief just flood through me every time I get back to Sea-Tac or YVR and see all the pointy trees and mountains and images of salmon in the airport art. Then I’m “home”. My sister, her family and my mom moved back last year to BC from Toronto, so my family are there. My son is talking about going to my alma mater, UBC Vancouver. My husband and I are discussing retiring in Washington State near the Canadian border, which a year ago, I wouldn’t have even considered as a path because I had planned to be one of those eccentric New York retired women who wear feather boas to the grocery store.
I suppose the point of all this is that some of us may have a sense of place or a sense of “home” already, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. I believe it’s possible to invest the emotional and intellectual energy in a new place to craft a sense of home and a sense of belonging that creates that inner peace. It just can be risky because it’s one more place to be homesick for.
Since the 2020s in general have been so utterly terrible, I like to focus on the smaller disappointments, like the fact that I do not have a robot assistant. At this point in the future, should I not have AI that can assist me in handling my day to day? I want a virtual assistant that will not only tell me my agenda for the day, but will also tell me what I need to prepare for each meeting. There are many current trajectories that tell me I’m living in the wrong timeline entirely, that history has gone off its rails since the hopeful decade of the 1990s. Today, however, I’m choosing to focus on the lack of actual helpful AI assistance as the proof that this is a wrong tomorrow.
I find myself instead imitating what I think my own robot assistant would sound like sometimes, a weird idiosyncrasy that helps me externalize my priorities and my thinking. What would an AI assistant tell me my priorities were? If I am overwhelmed by everything happening around me, how would an external rational program help me identify what I really need to know for a day?
This is why I sometimes talk to myself in the shower while on business trips, especially at times like these when I have been through five states in three weeks (Colorado, California, Pennsylvania, New York and today, Florida) and need to remember which corporate hotel I am staying in, and why. I’ll start reciting to myself, in a virtual assistant voice sometimes, as if I am trying to add very concrete rationality to what could otherwise spin into a series of existential questions:
Good morning JILLIAN. Today is AUGUST 10TH, 2022. You are in JACKSONVILLE FLORIDA. The weather today is VERY HOT AND MUGGY. You have meetings with [CLIENT NAME REDACTED] AT 10:30AM. Your top prioriy tomorrow is to GET YOUR SLIDES DONE BEFORE THE 8AM MEETING WITH THE GROUP IN THE LOBBY. Your next flight is to CHICAGO AT 4:52PM AND YOU NEED TO BE AT THE AIRPORT BY 3PM AS IT DOES NOT HAVE CLEAR. Your top priority today is to REVIEW THE MATERIAL FOR THE NEXT PITCH. Your next priority is to PREPARE FOR MEETINGS IN CHICAGO.
There’s a very structured rationality to how I imagine an AI assistant would give me information, which I lack in my day to day. If I was giving myself information, I’d immediately get sidetracked by a zillion details. Did I book the dog’s daycare? Did I reply to a Scout email? Have I texted my friends to make vacation plans? Do I have time to get my nails done? I’d go down rabbit holes of tasks that aren’t time sensitive or aren’t important. Whereas when I imagine an AI assistant giving me information in the morning, I assume that program is set up to only give me information that is in the upper left quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix.
Also, sometimes, I just think it would be cool to have a robot me that could help me prioritize and sort through my thoughts. It’s very Black Mirror, the idea that I could have an artificial intelligence so close to my own, that it could know and understand all of the thoughts and resulting to-do items that flit through my brain. In the interim, pretending to be my own robot alter ego sometimes serves as a useful thought exercise. Maybe that’s a self-help book idea to be published. Maybe it’s just me being tired at the end of a long day, in JACKSONVILLE FLORIDA.
Well, that’s it: the CDC must have had one too many White Claws this weekend, because the masks can come off for the fully vaxxed.
Unless you are on public transportation.
Or you don’t want your neighbors to think you’re a science-hating conservative.
Or you just don’t want to look like an asshole who doesn’t care about public safety. So I guess the masks cannot come off and I will be matching my masks to my outfits for a little while longer. (Everything I wore in Summer 2020 was black and white polka dotted for a reason.)
I still feel like we’re in the Beginning of the After Times. When we visualized this moment, back in the spring of 2020, when the first wave was subsiding, we thought we knew what the After Times would look like. We thought one day, the schools and theaters would open, the streets would fill with tourists, and NYC would throw the biggest party since VE Day.
Now, we’re not so sure what the After Times look like. The day to day life of Brooklynites seems to be coming back tentatively, as the city creeps up towards the halfway point of vaccinations. Some night, like tonight, I walk through Prospect Heights, and there’s a quiet sense of jubilation in the streets, like everyone considers it a small victory just to be out on a nice night in May.
I hope we don’t lose that sense of gratitude as we slowly inch back towards the normal pace of life in the city. The theaters and the schools are the last two major areas that remain either closed or reduced. But those will be both open by September: there are opening dates for Broadway now and the schools are holding parent forums on how to safely reopen at full capacity. (TAKE MY CHILD NOW NYC) The restaurants and bars have been spilling into the streets for weeks. The subway is going back to 24/7 and actually has people on it again. Everywhere I look, I see the city slowly regaining the sense of self that really only comes from its citizens.
Still, we’re not quite in the After Times. I’m not sure what will even define the After Times: will it be when we end the restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of COVID? Or will it be when we feel like time passes normally again? Right now, I still don’t feel like time passes the same way it did in the Before Times. It seems to pass too quickly or not at all. My perception of time stops and starts in a way I haven’t experienced since I was home on maternity leave. I still have a sense of being disconnected from the world that causes me to either look up and realize it’s May 14th already, or wonder why last May seems like it was three years ago. Time is hard to measure right now because we don’t have all the little differences from day to day that we used to have two years ago.
I also won’t feel like we’re in the After Times until I’m able to go out in a group of people again without completely freaking out. I just spent the past twenty five years re-wiring my brain to not short circuit in large groups of people. But now, the sensation of being in a large group of people I don’t know is overwhelming. I feel simultaneously invisible and vulnerable, and it’s challenging to remain calm and present in a large group. Maybe this will change over time, or maybe it will vary with my comfort level with the environment. Would I be okay in a goth club because that is my habitat? Is this a wiring left over from a childhood fear of rejection by groups? Do I now have to put the time and effort into actually figuring this out and trying to calm my brain like it’s a spooked horse?
So, I walked home tonight, past clusters of people out carousing on Flatbush. I took my mask off when I got to Grand Army Plaza, so I could smell the greenery in the park, and so I could actually feel air on my face. And for the first time in a year, it felt like the After Times were actually approaching, and in fact, might already be here for some people. I expected that the After Times would be like the Day the Rain Stops in Vancouver, when we all agreed, usually in early April, that the rain had stopped. It would rain again, but the winter rain, the Long Rain, was over. Now, I’m realizing that we will not have a consensus like that when we come back from COVID. This is a once in a century experience, not an annual change in seasons that every Pacific Northwesterner is attuned to. There are still people grieving those lost to COVID, for whom the impact is forever. The symbolism and the milestones may also be different for everyone, as we look to regain the parts of our lives that are most important to us. But we’re at the beginning of the After Times now, and it’s a time of cautious optimism trending to all out joy I’m grateful to be here for.
I’ve had a lot of metaphors for how I’ve felt since the COVID-19 crisis started. The most frequent I use for myself is an image where my mind is clogged with short pieces of thread, a drifting mass of incomplete thoughts that I am constantly trying, and failing, to braid together into coherent strings. This is often at its worst when I have not taken the time or headspace for myself, which I need in order to focus on smoothing all those little pieces of thread out. Once I parse through my thoughts, I can often transform all those incomplete fragments into substance that can be subsequently spun into extended threads of consciousness. It’s a new condition for me, because while I am used to writing to make sense of my thoughts, I am not used to having my thoughts this fragmented.
This isn’t a new condition, but seems to be worsened by two separate factors, both circumstantial from the pandemic. The first is from my professional sphere, combination of task switching and call overload that is killing my discipline to focus. My job often requires a lot of task switching, but the virtual nature of my team has resulted in a substantial uptick in how many times I am task switching per day. With a dispersed team, we are all IMing each other instead of engaging in person at the office. This results in more interruptions and task switches, as we can no longer rely on the visual clues of a person at work to better time our messages with their breaks from flow. We also IM much more because of the lack of hallway conversations, an inability to chat with each other in natural conversations that would be far more efficient than the all-day random Teams chats we use as a substitute. The result is a constant switch between Microsoft applications. I feel my ability to focus on just writing a PowerPoint is deteriorating as a result.
The second factor is from my domestic sphere. It is the nature of being the person at home, working, with a child in the house. Let me preface again here, I have a child that requires far less effort than he would have two years ago. He’s able to log himself into Google Classroom and Hangouts and get through his own day. He sets up his own playdates in the afternoon and bikes (or scoots) to play dates and sportball practices all by himself. He logs himself in to his online activities: D&D, comedy, guitar. But even with all this, I am still constantly identity shifting throughout the day between Boss Lady and Mama. I’ll come out to refill my water bottle and find Ben sitting on the couch, camera off, reading instead of participating in class. I’ll find him procrastinating assignments or playing Words with Friends during school hours. I’ll realize that it’s 2pm and while I have been eating protein bars and leftovers at my own desk, he has not eaten lunch yet because he was too distracted reading to eat. And while he tries not to bother me,if I am not in a call, he will come in to ask for permission to watch TV or shift his Fortnite time from the weekend to a weekday.
All of this is exhausting and is training my brain to expect to go from one task to another instead of remaining in flow. Flow is that state of being on which I wrote a solid blog post a couple years ago, the week before I started my “new” job at OMD. Here is the TED talk that also summarizes this state:
I need the efficiency from a flow state to get through my day as a knowledge worker. Being in flow is also where I really create the work that shows the talent and intellect that powers my career. Like much of my childhood, my career is partially built on a reputation for being “smart”. The pieces of work that showcase my intelligence are built in a state of flow. Without being able to go into that state, where my ideas come together into a narrative and where I’m able to put something together that ties together all the tech and details that go into the back-end of my job with the concepts that make up the front-end of it, that is where I excel.
Where I am struggling now is that all of this disconnect, all of these short attention activities, do not deliver the value to my work that just being present and paying attention does. It’s multitasking on calls, it’s spending more time flipping through emails, it’s being unable to work consistently without getting distracted doing stuff that is kind of worthwhile but not worthwhile in the context of interrupting my workday. Part of this is just having too many things to do (did Anthem process the claim for Ben’s doctor visit? is OptumRX sending my prescription?) but part of it is that the quick tasks feel easier than the longer tasks, and surfing for weekend getaways or quarantine AirBNBs feels easier at any time than working. Now that my brain is in this horrible place of constant disconnect and short-term procrastination, it’s exceptionally hard to be present in ways that reinforce my value at work, much less get anything worthwhile done…and those are the losses and misses that are ratcheting my anxiety up…and anxiety is exhausting.
I could now go into all the ways I am going to fix this, but I think instead of that, I am going to process this for the weekend and re-set the habits and behaviors. Maybe it’s just putting a “BE PRESENT” post-it on the wall behind my computer. Maybe it’s resuming meditation. Maybe it’s focusing on goals, not tasks. I am pretty sure it is all these things and more, but something has to change to combat the clutter that I feel my head is just constantly stuffed with every day.
I have lobbied for years to be included as Generation X. I associate most with the generation that came of age just in time for the post-post punk that became termed as “grunge”. My husband, born in the mid-70s, is squarely in the GenX timeframe. My late 70s birthday was, for years, debatable as GenX vs. millenial, with the original GenX cutoff being 1977. My argument was that, because I graduated high school in 1994, with kids born in 1977, I should be counted as culturally Generation X. Finally, in 2014, Good Magazine coined the term “xennial“, and now GenX has been re-defined as being through 1980. I am therefore Generation X, and can lay claim to that culture in its entirety. This has never been more relevant than it is right now:
It’s still a little weird being among the youngest GenXers though, because so many of the cultural touchstones of the generation are really five or ten years before my time. I got to thinking about this lately because I subscribed to Luminary so I could listen to the Roxane Gay/Tressie MacMillan Cottom podcast, and ended up also listening to “Break Stuff: The Story of Woodstock ’99“. For most of my life, on the very rare occasions I thought of either festival, I would think of my generation’s event as being Woodstock ’94. I always thought of Woodstock ’99 as being for people who are younger than I am, like the elder Millenials. Then, this week, I realized that most of that festival’s attendees were between the ages of 18 and 25 at the time of the event. Meaning these people, who went to this exceptionally awful festival all about nu-metal, are literally exactly my age. Why did I always think of this festival as being for people who were not born early enough to be part of what I think of as “my” generation?
Part of my mental distance from the pop culture of 1999 was my status as a full fledged ADULT (TM) at the time, just like all the other GenXers who started their careers in the 1990s. I was living in Texas in 1999, a college dropout with a car and an apartment, trying to climb some mythical corporate ladder that I didn’t quite understand, because I just wanted each rung to take me further away from high school. My mid-teen years had been an absolute disaster, and even a couple late-teen years of Reasonable Bohemian Normalcy weren’t enough to redeem the concept of youth. I wanted to be an adult fast. I wanted to get away from all the youth culture so I could get away from my own expectations to fit in as a Young, Cool Person. It was with the smugness of an adult that I read the MSN.com reports of Woodstock ’99 at the time, thinking “oh, those crazy kids!” as I saw the video of the fires and looting and broken stuff. (I went back to being a young person a couple years later when I returned to UBC in 2001, but that’s a different story.)
The bigger reason that I’ve always had a mental distance, as well as a sense of smug superiority, to separate me from attendees of Woodstock ’99, is that I am highly judgmental of the two awful genres that came after “grunge”. I remember in the years after high school as the music industry desperately scrambled for a replacement for first Nirvana, and then, by 1997, Pearl Jam, when the latter left the spotlight in protest of the industry. The music industry promptly filled in the gap with nu-metal and pop-punk, lifting up genuinely terrible (and often misogynistic) music to fill the liminal space between post-punk and classic hard rock that the Seattle pantheon of bands had filled. And most of the “alternative” music of the late 1990s is terrible.
Look, I know there’s someone reading who probably thinks the late 1990s was a great time for music. And I even recognize that a lot of these bands are made up of talented and hard working individuals. that these late-90s bands all worked hard to pay their dues before being headline acts. However, I will never accept that the nu-metal bands, exemplified by Korn and Limp Bizkit, have the artistic or aesthetic appeal of an Alice in Chains or a Soundgarden. I will also never accept that the pop-punk bands of the late 1990s (with the exception of Green Day) have the same appeal as the post-punk bands of even five years before. And I will never accept the existence of Kid Rock. As far as I am concerned, most of the genre lumped under “alternative” music could jump from 1994 to 2003 and with the exception of Fiona Apple and Garbage, I doubt I would miss anything.
It is these kind of cranky old person rants that put me squarely in the camp of GenXer.
The other aspect of my GenX status is my early adoption of technology. I have had an email address since 1994. I have had a cell phone since 1997. When we think of a tech early adopter now, we think of someone who gets on the latest social media platforms. I was such a tech early adopter, I got on the internet before it was a thing, without even using AOL to do it. I remember a text only internet as it transitioned to Netscape. I remember when the Internet was for engaging in actual discussion and not oversimplified arguments!
This is one of the other keystones of Generation X: we are also referred to as the “Oregon Trail Generation”, a generation who grew up with personal computers and then transitioned seamlessly onto the Internet. I’ve been working in digital for a career since 2003, which is not even a decade after the first banner ad appeared, and I remember placing media buys on Excite.com. Some of these huge sites from Web 1.0 that don’t exist anymore or are so radically altered as to be irrelevant, I am old enough to have put ads on them. That career starting point, along with my encyclopedic knowledge of 90s Simpsons episodes and Seattle grunge bands, should be my GenX resume.
The final reason I disconnect so much from the late 1990s and insist on a retroactive cultural association with the pop culture earlier part of the decade (even though I was a hopeless nerd completely disconnected from the zeitgeist at the actual time) is my pervasive sense that, by the year 2000, we were trending back away from any promise of inclusivity, cultural or gender, promised in the earlier 1990s. Perhaps this is the jaded view of someone who doesn’t want to do a ton of research right now, but in the early 1990s it felt like we were seeing more perspectives, more representation in pop culture from non-white groups. By the late 1990s, it felt like any responsibility for inclusion had fallen by the wayside, as the North American culture tried to convince itself that we had reached a point of equality and therefore didn’t need to do actual work for equality. By the year 2000, colorblindness would prevail over any active anti-racism, and third-wave feminism would be transformed into a weak “girl power” glitter sticker.
So this is why I cling so much to my status as a GenXer, and despite my love for tech, kind of wish it was still 1994 some days. Maybe the trajectory of the 1990s is where history went wrong. Maybe the existence of the super-white, super-male, super-violent festival that ended the decade should have been a warning sign that we needed to fight harder and make the 2000s about representing other voices, other perspectives, other visions, instead of assuming a neutral stance and throwing our collective hands up in the air. Maybe we should have realized that the Internet should have some sort of learning based barrier to entry so the lazy and gullible would have less access to it and we wouldn’t have elected the worst president ever. Maybe being a GenXer is a way to keep my nostalgia point fixed at a time in history when we thought things were going to get better, not worse. I’m not sure. I will, however, continue to happily place as much blame as possible on Boomers until such time as we get the first GenX president and might actually have to take some accountability for everything that’s happened since we got old enough to not care.
Note: I am being somewhat “facetious” or “tongue in cheek” about my birthday being ruined. I just like pointing out where capitalism has had negative impacts on what our society considers a special day.
I turned 42 on Wednesday. Whereas my birthday have been becoming lower and lower key over the past few years, this year had low-key-ness imposed upon it by the Canadian government. Ben and I are waiting out our mandatory 14 day waiting period in an AirBNB suite in Toronto, about a kilometer away from where my sister, brother in law, nieces and my mom live in Baby Point. It should be noted that the Canadian government are not messing around with this, as unlike the shelter in place in NYC, going to local parks for exercise or local shops for necessities are not permissible activities. Between the actual law, and the justified concerns of my extended family, we are therefore on lockdown with limited exposure to the human population of Toronto.
These were all anticipated mitigating factors on my birthday. And at the time we planned the trip, knowing I would be in lockdown on the day itself, I accepted these circumstances. After all, it would relieve a lot of the pressure on the social side of the birthday, meaning that I wouldn’t have to agonize over scheduling an event in the time of corona. I thought would be able to quietly celebrate with my son, under the radar, and save the big celebration for next week with my family. My mother is the 23rd of August; my brother in law is the 28th, the same day as our release from lockdown, therefore prompting a family celebration. I would therefore just ignore the date, and choose to enjoy my birthday at the appropriate time.
Then we had the Great Uber Eats Debacle and my entire perspective on my birthday changed. Ben and I had ordered sushi for lunch from a local restaurant, using Uber Eats as the laziest option. The order arrived slightly early, prompting me to send Ben upstairs for the contactless, outdoor pickup, as I was still on a work phone call with one of my client’s bigger, more valuable media vendors. Ben triumphantly returned…with only one of the ordered lunch combos. I immediately called the driver, to let him know we had not received the entire order. The driver insisted that we had to call the restaurant to sort the situation out. When we called the restaurant, the business owner was then upset because she had absolutely given the driven the correct order. I continued to text and call the driver, to no avail. Stymied, hungry, and with limited lunch time, I decided instead to burst into tears, collapse into a puddle of cortisol, and give Ben the only delivered combo so at least he would get to eat before returning to comedy.
I continued to Tweet and email Uber to remedy the situation, and the driver eventually texted back and informed me that he had been given the orders and directions from the restaurant and it was clearly the restaurant’s fault for not giving him the correct order. When I asked if the driver could possibly bring the extra meals back, he informed me that he had delivered them to the subsequent customer and that I would need to sort this out with Uber and the restaurant.
This did not resolve the bigger issue, which was that it was my birthday lunch that had been given to another customer, and I had had limited time to eat said lunch before resuming my workday. And while Uber was willing to promptly refund me the cost of the items not delivered, they refused to refund delivery or platform fees. So as I understand it, I ended up missing my lunch, the restaurant ended up losing the cost of the items mis-delivered, and the driver lost his tip. The only entity that made money on this entire transaction was the megacorporation that set its own rules and standards.
It took me some time, as well as an afternoon snack, before I was able to fully think through why I was so very angry about this situation. Part of it was that the driver could very well have checked the receipt that was stapled to the bag we received when he handed off the food. Part of it was that he could also have called the restaurant or done a double-check when I first alerted him to the issue. My bigger issue was why he didn’t take either of those steps at the time, and chose instead to continue on his path to incorrectly deliver my birthday sashimi combo to the next customer on his route. This is where capitalism, and the gig economy, conspire to overshadow the entire incident. My hypothesis is that Uber’s failure to take accountability for the people whose labour they exploit contributed to this debacle in two key ways:
The gig economy pays by the job, not the hour. Uber pays based on an algorithm of time and distance. Any additional investment of time by this driver would put his next delivery and his daily earnings at risk
Uber offers zero training for their Eats drivers. The entity making the profit here should have been responsible for communicating the delivery roster to the contractor they parceled out the work to. The driver should have been taught to check a receipt or check off the items in an app rather than rely on the restaurant staff and the potential language barrier inherent there
Thinking through this entire issue made me take a step back and re-evaluate who pays for the convenience of these apps, and how that might change or impact the behavior of the contractors who provide these services. Is the Uber Eats system partially responsible for the loss incurred across the board by the restaurant, the driver and me? Or is the driver just a jerk? Perhaps it is both, as I am not willing to discount the impact of the gig economy on this situation.
Taking a step back, I also have to question where else the capitalist system is responsible for my inability to celebrate my birthday appropriately. There’s no question that capitalism and fiscal gain have driven the US response to the coronavirus, as the federal administration have prioritized a return to a “normal” economic state over further lockdowns. Trump has also empowered states to determine whether or not those decisions should be made on a state by state basis, resulting in decisions motivated more by fiscal policy votemongering. The resulting patchwork of inconsistent policy has resulted in continued resurgence of the disease, with almost three times the infection rate of Canada (even Canada’s right wing newspaper confirms America has horribly botched the response!). Hence: the border closure, and the forced self-isolation for all returning Canadian citizens.
I’m not sure if capitalism entirely ruined my birthday. I received dozens of kind texts and Facebook posts from my friends. My mom attempted to make the day special within the restrictions of the law. My family will still celebrate me after lockdown, and my friends will still want to connect with me for a very belated party. However, between my beloved socialist democratic homeland having to put me on lockdown because of my sojourn in Capitalist America, and the gig economy exposing itself as a failed system incapable of delivering my sashimi, capitalism definitely put a major dent in my birthday.
Finally, I would like to note that we re-placed our sushi order through SkipTheDishes.com today, and received the correct order. Both mine and Ben’s lunches were still intact and beautifully presented, and our delivery person took the time to properly wear a mask and set down the food for contactless delivery. We were very pleased and recommend Tokyo Sushi for their lunch specials going forward.
Last week, while on vacation, I realized how much time I was spending on Facebook. I was putting at least an hour a day into the platform, scrolling through posts, engaging in groups, liking and commenting friends posts. I would tell myself that it was social, that it was beneficial for maintaining connections, to assuage the guilt that I felt every time I put down my phone and realized that twenty or thirty or forty-five minutes had just gone into the app. I would look up from the screen, and feel sick, almost dizzy, with the realization of the loss of time.
I thought about this a lot while on break. And in my “morning pages” journal exercises, I realized why my own perceived waste of time of social media was causing such an extreme self-judgement. There is the loss of time, of course, but there is also the loss of words. Every word that I put into a Facebook post is a word I am not putting into my own writing, my own craft. It is a double loss, of both my time and my creativity, when each blog post idea becomes just a Facebook update. I am not working on my own craft when I post or comment in social media, but rather, abbreviating my thoughts and putting the mangled remnants of concepts into the massive pile of content that fuels the Facebook platform.
This is not a new concept, even for a digital native like myself. I’m an Xennial, the very last micro-generation to remember a time before Internet, but I’ve also been online since my senior year of high school. As an adult, I still use the Internet much the same way I did as a teenager, to chat and post on bulletin boards. And, like a teenager, I will lose all impulse control when allocating time and energy to those activities, no matter what platform is in vogue at the time. (A side note: people my age went ten years before social networking sites arrived on the scene with Friendster in 2003, and Facebook’s most addicting feature, the News Feed, has only existed for the past thirteen years, which is half my online existence.)
Unlike my teenage self, however, I am now a grown woman who makes a living by putting ads on the Internet. I have seen the business plans of Facebook and Twitter as they pitch for my clients’ ad dollars. Alt-dot bulletin boards had no business model: Facebook does. I sit in presentations where I hear that each grown adult scrolls through an Empire State Building’s worth of content annually. I hear the monetization proposals, of how people my age are spending at least 30 minutes a day on the platform. That push for Groups this year was obviously to restore the slipping time spent on platform…until COVID-19 drove us all back to Facebook as we clung to ways to stay connected.
In the abstract I also know that the time and writing that I invest in Facebook is for the platform’s benefit. I know, conceptually, by posting, I am the product. I love engaging on the platform though, and it is hard to reconcile that cold, fiscal reality, with the imaginary warmth of connecting with friends. When I step back and look at the idea though, it’s disturbing. I am putting my time, my energy, my ideas, into a platform for Facebook’s stockholders’ benefit, not my own. And I am selling myself exceptionally cheap: the equivalent of $0.26 for each day’s use:
Being on vacation last week, having unallocated time, truly made me question how I was choosing to spend that free time. That was when I posted that I was taking a break from Facebook. I needed to rebuild the habits to prioritize activities that are of higher value to me. I have spoken of this idea before in the context of parenting: how I need to help Ben train his brain so the dopamine reward he receives from video games does not diminish the joy he takes from his creative activities. Clearly, I needed to build the same mental structure for myself.
So even though this was a great Adulting Decision, it didn’t quite work. Without Facebook, I promptly moved over to Twitter where I also have a bad habit of losing time. Only on Twitter, instead of fondly scrolling through friends’ posts, I get into debates with people with differing views than mine. I reply politely and I try to use more compassion than many people deserve when doing so, as one cannot change another person’s mind with aggression and cruelty. Still, those replies and engagements rapidly became a new time black hole, and an addiction of looking at notifications so I would be able to fire back responses because I am also addicted to arguing with people online.
I finally just deleted both apps, and downloaded one of the multitude of focus apps available (I chose Stay Focused) and set timers for the root domains: twenty minutes a day each for Facebook and Twitter. I can log on, check for actual news on Twitter, and check my most important groups on Facebook. I can prioritize those sites for the actions they are most valuable for, and know that, should I be tempted to exchange my valuable time for less valuable engagement on either, I will be kicked off the platform for the rest of the day. If there’s a trending news event, as there was Saturday was the flop of a rally in Tulsa, or a lively debate on a BPSA Scout leadership group on Facebook, and I have already spent my time for the day, then I will not be able to use those platforms to catch up. The #FOMO!
So far, it’s helped. I sat down and wrote this post today, for example, instead of spending the time online. The last hour disappeared the same way an hour on social media would, only I have a thousand words to show for it. I have my ideas, my story, my writing, a practiced craft. Writing is not only how I make sense of my thoughts, but also the equivalent of instrument practice for me, time to work on forming sentences and paragraphs that are in order, capable of transmitting my ideas into someone else’s brain. I will now, with absolutely zero irony, go post the link to this on Facebook and Twitter to share it.
I was going to write an entire post on how the flattening of time is impacting us all right now, but instead, I think I’ll write about screentime. I just wrote an entire rant as a comment on the Forever35 parenting group because I cannot handle seeing people beat themselves up about their kids’ screentime right now. Everyone is allowing their kids about 3000% more screentime right now because our children have nothing else to do, but us parents have plenty to do, especially those of us who have been blessed and lucky enough to still have our full time jobs in the wake of all this nightmare of an economic disaster. We’re struggling to manage domestic and professional spheres of existence at once and it is metaphorically juggling every action all day long. If we can turn on Dolphin Tale 2 and buy an hour of quiet when we can put one of those balls down, then we should take it. It may be the only way we can keep ourselves from burning out, and we should never shame ourselves for doing so.
In recent years though, I have begun to truly resent the screentime issue. Screentime has always been part of the Great Shaming of the Mommy Wars, but in more recent years, has become an issue firmly tied to economic class (which is often also tied to race). Shaming parents for screentime, or making them afraid that screentime is going to break their kids’ brains, is yet one more facet of the American Merit Myth. We have now added “screen free childhood” as a contributing factor to future success, and we have added it into our class hierarchy accordingly. At best, we see the absence of screentime as one more element in the idealized environment we’re supposed to build for our children so they can go on to live great lives with full potential. In reality, screen access is one more place where privileged parents can point at other parents and say that their children’s economic circumstances are their own fault because the parents of the “failing” children didn’t institute screen limits. It’s the child rearing equivalent of broken windows theory
These kind of discussions are also nauseatingly terrifying because our society has been taken over completely by screens – and the people who invent them will not allow their own children to use the devices. The wealthiest Americans are paying for the privilege of having humans interact with their children instead of screens. Like all parts of the American merit myth, a low-screen environment has become one of the components of an educational system that is used to perpetuate the success of the same group of privileged families generation after generation. It isn’t realistic for less funded schools to have the staff required to manage a classroom of 32 kids without using screens. It is also unrealistic for people who do not have a dedicated stay at home parent (or a dedicated caregiver) to avoid the use of screens as a way to keep their children wholly occupied so they require less supervision. Even before the pandemic, with more people working more hours for lower pay, with radical economic inequality driving those hours, parents rely on screens so they can manage the household with the minimal time and energy they have left. Having a screen free kid is a status symbol because we all live basically in a Black Mirror uber-capitalist tech dystopia at this point, and that is why it angers me so very much to hear parents beat themselves up over screentime when it isn’t realistic to cling to an ideal that is more achievable by the wealthy.
As much as I resent the issue and debate and shaming associated with screen time though, I have a definitive stance on the appropriate use of screens for children. I limit screentime for my own child because there is an unnatural aspect to the way that screens are all consuming, which is why we have yet to truly understand the impact of screens on our squishy human brains. “Unnatural” becomes “frightening” when it comes to how compelled our children are to watch those screens. Screen based entertainment, be it TV or video games, educational or not, is always going to have a higher engagement quotient than other activities. It’s a constant flood of entertainment and avoidance of boredom, with very little input or down time.
I also see screen based entertainment as the equivalent of the enchanted Turkish Delight in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s a point where Edmund chooses not to eat his fish and potatoes at the Beavers’ house, because the memory of bad enchanted food drives out his appetite for real, nutritious food. I’ve seen my own child sit in front of a TV waiting for his allocated screentime because the ease of screen based entertainment makes “real” life unappetizing. Screen time is enchanted Turkish Delight: it makes all other activities seem unappetizing by comparison, even when those activities offer more mental nourishment than the screens.
Years of being a more avid reader than a TV or movie watcher has given me a theory: I see screen based entertainment as lazy storyconsumption. Screens are capable of pumping an entire story, complete with imagery and sound, into your brain. It’s kind of magical in that it requires your brain to do very little work, but rather, hands you the entire story complete with a visual context. Your brain gets all the reward and engagement of a narrative without having to do the heavy lifting of visualizing and imagining the story. It satisfies our love of stories and our love of experiences and occupies our brains completely with the sensory overload of sound and light in the process of doing so. No child should develop a sense that storied do not require imagination.
The other factor we all contend with are smartphones, those dopamine slot machines, evolved over time for the highest usage possible, and that is just the devices. That’s not even considering the games. I see toddlers playing basic smartphone games, poking at the screen with their pudgy little fingers while sitting in their strollers and it makes me a little afraid, because every single phone based game seems to be a derivative of that game in Star Trek TNG that everyone got super addicted to after Riker picked it up like an STD he got on leave:
And that’s not even going into the more “sophisticated” smartphone games, that are are now creatively designed to be more addictive than gambling:
(I am not even getting into social media here because that’s not a factor for kids under 12. Okay, maybe Instagram but I promise he’s using it as a creative outlet)
I’ve struggled with this as a parent for a decade and finally, I realized the only realistic answer for our family was for me to accept the screens where they were useful, and help my child be able to identify why screens are detrimental. I have to teach him to see the mental, emotional and spiritual nourishment in activities that are not screen based. I have to remind him that he will feel better overall from working on his own comedy than he will from watching SNL on YouTube. I have to remind him that he does take just as much happiness from playing board games online with a friend as he does playing Fortnite. Ben has to learn to take true happiness and joy from activities with sustenance, and has to teach himself that screen based entertainment is the mental equivalent of an enchanted sugar gel cube. Otherwise, once Ben gets past the point where I can control his every move, then he will promptly gorge on Fortnite and video games at every opportunity and will risk wasting hours, weeks, years of his life when he could be working on his art, or his sports, or spending time with friends and family.
Maybe if I had raised Ben without any of these screens, then he would only know how to get joy from non-screen activities. Raising him without screens, however, wasn’t realistic for a two-parent working household with an elementary school aged child. Now, it’s not realistic for a middle school student to not be able to engage with his friends through screens…or for him to be not be able to watch Netflix while his mother works during the long hours of this pandemic. I have to juggle the real with my own ideals, and decide not only what I want as a balance for my son, but what I want him to learn for himself as he grows up into an adult who will unfortunately be able to make all kinds of stupid decisions without his mother nagging him to work on his monologue.
So here’s what I actually posted to the thread in question:
For everyone on this thread, PLEASE do not shame yourselves. Please stop thinking you are bad parents for leaning on screens as a way for your children to engage with the world right now. You have the rest of your offspring’s childhood to teach them how to take joy in things that are NOT screen based, and you can do that when you are no longer trying to work full time from home while raising your children with no care support or relief. When we all get through this, teach your children where they can find happiness and flow and joy in their existences without screens. Teach them there are other things to love in this world WHEN YOU CAN, like board games and puzzles, musical instruments, books and writing, time with friends. Take them to parks, or to the forest. Teach them to love and engage with animals. Sign them up for a gender-equal Scouting organization or other wilderness group if they love the outdoors and you want them to do a screen free activity (I hear the Baden-Powell Service Association is great!) Whatever their jam is outside of screens, teach them to explore that just so they know what it feels like to have that that kind of real space happiness. But FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T PUT THAT PRESSURE ON YOURSELF EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY. It is FINE to allow your child to watch as much TV as they – and you – need to so that you ALL can live your lives as a FAMILY without throwing a kid out a window.
Also, to the OP, I firmly believe that a few months of extra PBS shows is NOT going to brain damage your child. I gave myself guilt over this for YEARS because I let my son watch Sesame Street when he was less than a year old, and I would like to save you all the agony by telling you that so long as you teach balance and how to live life outside of screens as well as how to use them responsibly, your kiddos will be FINE. Also they will likely learn the alphabet early and probably pick up some lessons about diversity because Sesame Street remains a bastion of literacy AND kindness. I salute you for your good taste in children’s programming 🙂
(PS. I let my son watch Sesame Street from 6 months on, plus his beloved Mr Wodgers, plus Dinosaur Train and Thomas and the whole PBS gang and aside from constantly trying to play Fortnite more than his allotted hour a day, he’s fine. Then again, those video games are designed to be as addictive as a Vegas casino, so I don’t think skipping PBS shows in 2009 would have helped us with our Fortnite addiction issues in 2020. Separate post.)
I did not add, “screen time is an economic issue” or “screen time is part of the rapidly escalating class war”, because that’s a separate topic and what I wanted to say was for parents to give themselves some fucking compassion at this time. Still, all these things are tied up together: the screen time, our kids brains, their emotions, their addictions, and the way capitalism will take advantage of all those factors now and in the years to come. The cynical dystopia is already here, and is the reason we are even having to engage in this conversation in parent groups. A tech dystopia has no space for compassion. But that is also a post for an entirely separate day.