Brain Shrinkage

According to this report, all our multitasking, especially on social media, is shrinking our brains. This lends new meaning to the phrase, “dumbing down.”

Given that we live in a 21st century world that demands that we attend to multiple things at once—how do we at least keep some of this at an arm’s length, or at least fortify ourselves and temper some of this “shrinkage”?

While it might be grand (or overly dramatic) to demand that you “kill your TV,” I’m guessing that solution isn’t one that most people are going to opt for. However, you might cut your television viewing—I’ve been working at it for the last month and it’s really not that bad. After 29 days of no television, Miss Mary and I watched a classic movie starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert Sunday night. I think we might limit our viewing to TCM on Sunday nights.

Social media is all around us and an argument can be made that there’s some value in at least being aware of it, and using it judiciously. Like television, the key is limiting the potential for it becoming a time suck and a distraction. There’s 24 hours in the day for all of us. Successful people leverage their time wisely. Writers especially, have to be mindful of how the Internet disrupts contemplative periods and invades the space necessary to write longer works than a 500-word blog post.

The method I discovered nearly 20 years ago—the one that allows me to march to my own drummer and guard against falling prey to the All-American mind fuck taking place—is reading. And I read avidly and have done so since. Btw, when I mention “reading,” I mean books.

Books are an autodidact's best friend.

Books are an autodidact’s best friend.

Most Americans don’t read. I’m not sure where they obtain their information, but it’s pretty easy to see when doing casual research (like on Facebook) that there is some pretty heavy binary regression taking place.

The summer of 1997 was when I invested time, after years of neglecting reading, to work my way through some weighty tomes. I read John Calvin, Neil Postman, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and I plowed through some Dostoyevski that summer, while between jobs. That’s when I discovered and enrolled at the University of Autodidactica, where reading is primary. I’ve continued on that path for the past 17 years.

Here’s my 2014 reading list with three months to go. I’m at 47 books and counting. After dabbling in fiction back-to-back, it’s back to nonfiction again for book # 48, this time, taking on the “prison industrial complex.” Reading is why I’m not taken in by the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” rhetoric that’s overrun the country for the last 30 years that’s led to a dramatic rise in people incarcerated, with bipartisan support coming from both Democrats and Republicans.

While I’m pleased with my robust reading efforts this year, someone I know has a running list that’s even more ambitious. Color me impressed!

Summer’s Last Hurrah

I’m not sure you can truly appreciate a late September weekend like the one we just had, unless you’ve lived through a couple of interminable winters similar to last year’s. Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Erica's Seafood--the best lobster roll in Maine? Quite possibly.

Erica’s Seafood–the best lobster roll in Maine? Quite possibly.

A hasty, last minute decision to conclude our 2014 lobster roll campaign resulted in a 25-mile Sunday drive down the South Harpswell side of the peninsula, and a final tasting of succulent lobster meat, stuffed into a buttered roll at Erica’s Seafood. Continue reading

I Like Words

I gave a talk on Wednesday night about small towns and the economic changes affecting them. I was in the small town where one of my seven recent essays was based. I had a small crowd of mostly friends show up.

I mentioned a recent dust up that occurred on Facebook on “You Know You’re From Lisbon If….”

That’s the problem with most of the communication on social media sites. It’s always, “I like __________ and you should too. Oh, you don’t? Well, you suck.” I exaggerate slightly, but the frame of Facebook is fairly narrow and all too often, binary. Continue reading

The Ole’ Hometown

Memories are faulty at best. Often, the things that we remember happening, either never did, or they happened much differently than our recollections offer. Of course, as writers, many of us use memories, experiences, and even hometowns as touchstones to craft stories and narrative, swimming around in the pool of what we think we remember.

My final essay in The Perfect Number: Essays & Stories Vol. 1, “Goin’ Back,” is a narrative about my hometown of Lisbon Falls. I often describe the town where I grew up as “a bit rough around the edges” to characterize the changes that have happened to a place that was never high-end to begin with—however, it was never as shabby as it looks right now, in 2014.

Thomas Wolfe was another writer who mined personal experiences and his hometown and included them in his fiction—me, I’m an essayist, not a fiction writer. As far as I know, I’m the only writer who hails from Lisbon Falls who has managed to weave together Thomas Wolfe, Libya Hill (the fictional town of his best-known book, You Can’t Go Home Again), and Lisbon Falls. I bind them together to try to articulate what’s happened to the town over not just the past 5-10 years, but I decided to go back much further than that to the 1970s, when the current unwinding began.

The Facebook page that pushed me to write the final essay in this new book of essays, “You know you’re from Lisbon ME if…”, was all lit up over the weekend about smoke, stink, and what many were calling a “controlled burn” down at the former U.S. Gypsum mill that’s no more—it’s just a big pile of rubble these days that sometimes smokes and stinks (like on Sunday afternoon). Rather shabby-looking, really.

No smoke in this photo--just rubble.

No smoke in this photo–just rubble.

Continue reading

Kill It!

Not really missing my television.

Not really missing my television.

“But it is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.”
-Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”

For 19 days, I’ve been on a television fast. For the first 11 of those days, I watched no television whatsoever. On the 12th day, I couldn’t help myself and had to watch five minutes of the morning weather forecast (I could have gotten it somewhere else, like my smartphone or computer).

Since then—a week ago, Thursday—I haven’t turned either one of our two televisions on. Neither has my wife.

Each evening, after dinner—a time when our television would always be on for two or three hours until we decided to go to bed, Mary and I have been reading. We are both avid readers, but without the television, even more reading is taking place. So are conversations that don’t have to compete with the 32 inch flat screen. Continue reading

Maine is Open for Boondoggles

The Maine Open for Business Chevrolet. (Associated Press photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The governor has decreed that Maine should hang its economic fortunes on the Maine Is Open for Business Chevrolet and Austin Theriault’s skill as a driver. This seems to be a foolhardy plan at best, hearkening back to economic development principles known as “smokestack chasing,” which arguably worked in the 1960s and 1970s, but are about 50 years out of date. Here’s what Peter Boothroyd and H. Craig Davis had to say about the practice in their 1993 report titled, “Community Economic Development: Three Approaches,” from the Journal of Planning Education and Research—I have a hunch that the governor doesn’t have a subscription to it.

Traditionally, growth has been espoused and promoted by chambers of commerce, unions, and politicians who have grasped at any opportunity to attract investment in order to increase the size of the local economy. This traditional, often haphazard approach to growth promotion has been labeled “smokestack chasing” by its detractors.

Yet, the governor and I’m guessing his economic development gurus, John Butera and George Gervais, apparently cooked this up and think this is a viable strategy. Butera’s economic development claim to fame is FirstPark in Oakland, another example of “putting all your eggs in one basket,” hoping for a home run by attracting a large employer to ride in on a white horse and bestow hundreds of jobs on a community or region. Continue reading

Explore! Norway—Bonus Material

Every month, I head out to a town in Maine and try to capture the essence of its people and the place. Since May, when I began these Explore! features for the Lewiston Sun-Journal, I’ve visited Wilton, New Gloucester, Turner, and a few weeks ago, it was Norway.

I continue to hold a fascination about the changes that are taking places in smaller communities across the state of Maine and elsewhere. If America is anything, it’s a country of small towns and communities. Maine is no different in that regard.

The economic shift that’s occurred over the past 40 years hasn’t been kind to small towns like Norway. Many communities in western Maine have been hit hard by globalization, and the loss of traditional resource-based jobs that have disappeared. Continue reading

Keep Doing What You’re Doing

I have a tendency towards impatience. If some new idea or project doesn’t take off immediately, I’m ready to rate it as a failure and run off in a new direction. At least that’s what I used to do a lot more often. I’ve learned from past mistakes.

Novelty and hoping that if you throw enough mud (or some other substance) up against the wall, some of it might stick isn’t always the best formula for success. Being entrepreneurial does require being somewhat risk averse, however.

When you release a new book, propose an investigative story to an editor at a publication, or pitch new projects hoping to keep enough work in your freelance pipeline to stay afloat, it’s easy to think nothing’s happening. Sometimes the phone doesn’t ring today, or email seems like it’s broken. Tomorrow’s sunrise always offers new possibilities. Continue reading

The Value of Instruction

When do we reach the age when we stop learning—or perhaps better—stop accepting instruction? Is it 50? 60? I think some people cease being open to advice and constructive feedback much earlier than that.

When I was in my 20s, I didn’t really know much about mentoring. Actually, the fundamentalist theology that informed my life during that period didn’t really value mentoring at all. Edicts came down from on high and there was little give and take.

Being a late-bloomer, I’ve learned to value instruction and picking up things on the fly. Whoever coined the adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has perpetuated a myth that education and instruction is the exclusive right of the young, and off-limits to anyone past the age of say, 25. It also furthers a societal lie that we can’t continue to learn and grow until the end of our lives. Continue reading

Summer Tourists

The past few days were spent making like a tourist. Mary and I finally managed to coordinate our calendars, and by leveraging the holiday on Monday, and adding a couple of days following America’s paean to workers, we pieced together four days/three nights of what was our summer vacation, 2014.

American workers take fewer vacation days than anyone else with an advanced economy in the world because we’re the only place where workers aren’t guaranteed paid vacation time. Nearly ¼ of all U.S. workers get no paid holidays or vacations at all—I would fall into that category, residing in free agent nation. Another survey indicates that Americans who accrue paid time off only take half of it on average. Continue reading