Monday, December 13, 2010

Reading and Rushing


CM: In The Laws of Simplicity you added a story about an insightful conversation you had with a former professor that seemed unrelated to the rest of the book. Why did you add it? 
JM: The whole point of that one page is that I believe that every moment you are alive you can learn something very deep. Whether you’re in a cab, or in a locker room, or you’re getting your tea, there's something that's always there that can move you. But you will never know it unless you're listening. So the point of that page was to say that I was listening that day.

…How exciting. You can’t rush listening.
The interviewer, CM, is Color Magazine on the Internet; (with writer Michael Chin) the person interviewed is Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda.


I was inspired to go to Amazon where they have the cover of Maeda’s book and a gizmo for “click to see inside.” So I did. Apparently the locker room story I hoped for wasn’t there: only a few pages were shown, and then the entire index. Call me a computer nerd, for I proceeded to read the index. Call me an old nerd, for I can remember sitting in the cinema for the ending credits of Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Beuler appears in a bathrobe, gets milk from the fridge, and then turns to the audience and says, “Are you still here?” Well, Beuler's line appears after Maeda's index… and then comes the story! I’m glad I didn’t rush.

It was well before the Christmas rush, back in mid-November, that I flew back to my home town and got to see to a part of the terminal that, since the rise of cross-border (global reach) terrorism, I don’t ever get to see: the arrivals area. You may have seen on TV how ritzy US airports have a futuristic moving sidewalk. Our little cow town airport has one as well—sweet—with a silver railing on each side. It’s amusing how the railings start in the middle of nowhere and end in the middle of nowhere. The broad hall stretches onwards, regardless. Of course most people didn’t bother using the conveyer belt. At last the arriving pedestrians would walk into the public part of the terminal where they can wait at the carousel for the baggage to start arriving. It’s a long wait.

Although I’m a healthy middle-aged man the sci-fi nerd in me couldn’t resist the treat of a moving sidewalk. Besides, I deserved the pampering of a temporary rest for my legs. What amused me, and even irked me, was watching a few younger healthy people on the belt walk past me. Why? We had already passed the washrooms. By saving a few seconds they might lay eyes on, or telephone, their Aunt Zelda a few seconds earlier, but then they would also have to wait a few seconds longer with the rest of us at the carousel. What were they thinking? Perhaps they had never stopped to think…of how there is a difference between being smartly efficient and foolishly rushing.

I know efficiency. As a college student I could, when I wished, sit furthest from the classroom door yet be the first packed up and out of the room. It was a choice. As soldiers, in the land of the quick and the dead, we all had to be so very, very efficient. Not now. 

I learned another way of life when I was with NATO and took some leave, along with Corporal Burton, to stay with a retired British couple in Switzerland. The wife used to run guns to the Blacks in South Africa; the husband used to do high-level talks around Lake Geneva. Obviously they had once required a high level of efficiency. Now they were retired, but… Burton pointed out to me that although they would savor their last bite of crumpet they would also be going out the door at the precise second they said they would. They had chosen to have efficiency, yes, but without any panic or rushing. I can’t imagine them on a moving sidewalk saying,” Excuse me… excuse me… “ and brushing past innocent strangers.

While on holiday one or two people brushed past me on the long-g-g escalators for the Sky Train. It has robot-controlled cars, being built for the World Exposition of 1986 where the theme was “Transportation.” Cool. These poor folks—not how I imagined the future to be—rushed past me at mid-day, during leisure time, not rush hour. All I could do was stand to one side and reflect how some people had never thought through the engineering principle that a moving stairway, costing thousands of dollars, can save energy or time—but not both. If they hadn’t “thought” then maybe they were mere creatures of instinct, not self aware, merely cogs in a transportation machine.


It feels queer to reflect that over two thousand years ago a father wearing a toga took his son to the forum and advised the boy, “Gentlemen don’t run in public.” I think we have somehow, down the years, lost a touch of grace.

As for the exciting question that opened this essay, it was the very last question of the interview. It’s queer to think that a lot of readers would have missed any question answered that far down the web page. Such a pity. What Maeda said about “listening” surely applies to being present as you are reading.  “…But you will never know it unless you’re listening. So the whole point of that page is that I was listening that day.”

…Upon reflection, I just can’t call myself a computer nerd anymore. That’s because, reminiscent of my (November 2010) Fluffy Social Media essay, I can’t identify with those people. Not anymore. Based on their own reports, through their various web comments, they don’t “listen” when they read. So many believe in “skimming” everything they read on the web. Why? Don’t they realize that for the good stuff if you “scan” then you only get the words, not the music?

Or have they never learned the Greek value of “seeking out the good?” Too many computer guys who think they are surfing are only rushing. Such a sad way of life. Not like the true surfers, balanced on the pacific rollers, who have to "be here now." 

One guy thought he would brighten Roger Ebert’s journal by commenting that Ebert’s essays were the only things on the net he doesn’t skim. As it happens, Ebert is an avid reader, of both books and the web. He even puts international guest essays and reviews on his web site. And so I doubt he was totally pleased at a compliment that seemingly endorsed skimming.

If I seem more irked than amused it is because I know people could raise their consciousness and "change their life." But of course it’s their life and I "accept them as they are…" yet, as it happens, I’m still going through the “five stages of loss” because I have only just this month realized how so many computer nerds won’t “listen.” For now: anger. My acceptance stage is still to come. In the meantime I can chuckle at how the Greeks, in a bare forum, sans electronics, managed to think better than some of us so-called nerds.

For now, all I can do is lead by example. It was by using thought... that I changed my sartorial way of life. One day I resolved to buy only half as much but pay twice as much. Maybe the same thought could be applied to my life when reading on the computer, but this I haven’t quite worked out yet. (Or if I have, I’m too shy to share)

All I can say, for now, is I can’t imagine Ebert rushing when he reads, and so neither will I. Nope. I want my life to include a little grace.


Here's the interview with John Maeda. May you read it, not skim it; may you read it slowly enough to feel awe at the world that Maeda offers.

Sean Crawford
December 2010

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