Friday, December 18, 2015

Is there a strength training class for your imagination?

ECENTLY Captain Midnight and I went to a Korean barbecue restaurant for dinner. (We'd only been out for Korean barbecue once, so we didn't really know what we were doing with the grill at our table... but that's never stopped us before! Besides, a willingness to experiment with it and ask questions of our server yielded a whole lot of delicious goodness. We've gotta go back there again.) While we were waiting for our array of barbecue fodder to arrive at the table, I started people-watching. Some tables were full of people talking, laughing, grilling, but it was striking to me how many other people -- from full-grown adults to tiny children -- had their faces bathed in a pale blue glow, using some kind of electronic device for diversionary purposes while they waited to be served.

Now, before you start rolling your eyes and muttering that I've succumbed to curmudgeonitis, I'm not saying that smartphones, tablets and other personal electronics have no place in society. In fact, at least in my neck of the woods, society is rapidly approaching a point where you need some kind of smart device if you want to be fully socially engaged. (A decade ago, my choice not to carry a cell phone was only slightly odd, but lately I've been getting shocked stares when I admit I still don't own one.) There is, however, a marked difference between using technology to interact, and using technology to avoid interaction -- the difference between a college student Skyping her parents, and a shy introvert retreating into a game or a video on his phone so he doesn't have to talk to or even look directly at his date. I can see us becoming, and creating, a generation that uses ubiquitous entertainment as a kind of social anaesthetic, a plug-in drug that lets us disengage from any situation we might find awkward, frightening, stressful or boring.

In fact, I think we're rapidly reaching a point where electronic disengagement is starting to stunt our social growth. Not only do we not know how to make good conversation or wrestle with difficult life questions, but we can't handle being bored for more than a few moments. And that's a huge problem. Few people recognize it as such, but boredom is a gift -- and we're throwing it away.

Let me give you an example from my 1970s childhood. We lived close to my mom's extended family, but my parents thought it was important for us kids to know our relatives on both sides, so every other year or so we'd make the drive from our home in California to our paternal grandparents' place in Indiana. Because the national speed limit at that time was 55 miles per hour, this trip took a good 5 days -- and because my family didn't have much money, we made our own food and camped out every night. How did my parents keep six kids from killing each other under these conditions? The closest thing we had to an electronic device was a portable cassette recorder. We did bring some things to do in the car -- coloring books and crayons, simple travel games, Disney Read-Along books -- but after Day 2 or so, these began to lose their luster. And we would all groan in unison when either adult suggested, "Let's play the Alphabet Game!"

Well, when we were stuck in the car for ages and ages, we were all forced to wrestle with boredom. Everyone handled it in different ways. Some of us stared out the window, composing little mental stories about the things we saw. (Yes, and by "us" I mean "me"; well spotted.) Others sang little spur-of-the-moment songs, making up lyrics on the fly, or came up with parodies of popular songs. My brothers broke out the blank cassette tapes and started recording some radio-drama-style stories, complete with recurring characters and goofy in-jokes. (Obnoxio the Clown featured so constantly in these stories that my mother finally lost her cool and thundered that the boys had better never say the word "Obnoxio" within earshot ever again -- on pain of death or something; I can't remember -- but rather than give up the joke, the boys began to whisper into the tape recorder, spelling out "O-B-N-O-X-I-O...")

I don't think my sibs and I were any more creative than other kids our age. The only thing we had going for us in this situation was, funnily enough, the very thing that was driving us crazy -- boredom. But when you can't shut your boredom up with a quick fix, when you must somehow confront it and deal with it, the imaginative parts of your brain are forced to work, to flex and grow stronger. As you cast around for anything that will alleviate the tedium, your brain starts making connections that you might never have considered if you'd had access to the boredom-blunting drug of slick pre-packaged entertainment.

We're already seeing problems with eroding creativity in our society. It's most obvious in the media. Think about the way Hollywood has been cranking out remakes, reboots, movies based on board games and video games, and sequel after sequel after sequel. Some of this has to do with Hollywood being risk-averse -- these properties are tried and true, and therefore very likely to make them money -- but I think it's also what happens when one rarely exercises one's creativity muscles. Too often, Hollywood's idea of "something new" is to heat up leftovers and serve them with more ketchup. It doesn't have to be like that. So many movies could be brimming with vibrancy and creativity if more people were willing to take a few risks, look to sources few others have tapped, confront their sense of boredom, and stretch.

It's hard to exercise. (Trust me; I'm not good at it.) But it's also essential for optimal health. Our bodies were made to move, and when they don't, a whole host of physical problems will crop up over time. We're right to care for our physical bodies, to keep ourselves in good shape with regular exercise. But are people anywhere near as concerned about their flabby imaginations? What more could we be doing to exercise, to stretch, our creativity? And what happens when we don't bother?

Unlike yours truly the techno-Luddite, Captain Midnight has a cell phone. When we're sitting across from each other at a restaurant, though, he puts it away so we can talk -- without artificial distractions, without the anaesthetic of instant entertainment, just the two of us. The conversation isn't always perfectly smooth or sparkling, but it's consistently interesting. Because we do talk to each other regularly, we've gotten better at it with practice. And because I get to talk to my husband on a regular basis, I know he's still the intelligent, funny, charming, compassionate, idealistic man I married 22 years ago. I love him, and I know that he loves me.

Isn't it worth enduring a few moments' discomfort to experience that feeling?

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