Re-Discovering My Attention Span

Much has been written about smart phone and social media’s effect on modern attention spans. We don’t read in the same way, becoming used to getting everything in small, bite size chunks of information. Often reading only the title and first couple of sentences of an article before forming an opinion, probably posting that opinion, and then moving on to the next thing. I have noticed on a number of occasions at home and elsewhere, when we have a movie on, or are out at dinner, or just hanging out with friends, at least one person is always on their phone, if only to take pictures (which inevitably also leads to filtering that picture and posting it, as well). I don’t say this judgmentally at all, either, because I am almost always one of those people that are on the phone during those times, as well, checking a sports score, box office number, or just bored with the conversation or movie at the time and felt like seeing what was going on. As I’m writing this, even, I’m stopping to look at other things for a minute or two, because focusing is honestly really difficult.

I have always been a voracious, though cyclical, reader. I will go a month where I read nothing, and then read 10 books in a month. I have always sought after and loved very long novels as well. A week or so ago, I realized I hadn’t read a book in nearly three or four months. I was a little shocked, but then I thought deeper and realized the past few years have by far been the most sparsely read of my life. I have a busy life, married, children, full time job, but there was no excuse for not reading. I listened to a ton of podcasts, watched television and movies, but really spent a ton of time just endlessly scrolling through the three main social media apps.

I resolved to pick up a book again and start reading. I was a little surprised by just how hard it was. I read an article years ago that talked about just how much our brains hard wiring have been changed by the way that we spend our mental energy now. We went from reading novels, to going to see movies, to listening to the radio, to watching sitcoms, to you tube videos and now 200 odd character tweets. Reading required stretching a muscle that was very out of shape.

It felt damn good to finish that book, and I have finished many after since, and I have tried to put the phone down as much as possible, although that’s harder than I thought as well. It’s a lifeline to the world, to people, and to experiences, just like the books I was reading. Both are worthwhile, but I do believe that our neglect for reading and truly learning, is a real detriment to civilization and is one of many factors that have led to a breakdown in discourse and overall civility, a word I actually really hate.

When you read well-researched and argued books, the truth is not fuzzy. The truth sits there, like a stapler on your desk, not changing into a tape dispenser or water bottle, because it is a stapler. No matter how many times someone tells me that the stapler is something other than a stapler, the facts and the function tell me that it is indeed a stapler.

My point is that we have lost our ability to recognize something is a stapler, essentially. We won’t walk over to it, examine it, and staple something for ourselves. We are playing a giant game of telephone, instead, where a stapler goes down the line until the person that heard from the person that heard from the person that heard from the person that used the thing tells you it’s a Super Soaker, and instead of going back and checking on it, we just accept it and move on.

What if we made a point to check everything that we’re told instead of just passing it on? What if we read more than we listened and listened more than we talked?

I would love to find out.

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Gossip and Bikes

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When I was seven or eight years old, I got my first real bike. It was a blue Mongoose and it soon became an extension of me. Wherever I went, I was on that bike, no matter how short the distance.

One time, I remember someone actually came onto the estate and stole it. I saw them riding the bike down the driveway and yelled to my Dad. He ran outside and drove down the street, where a few guys were loading it into a van. Later he told me that he said to the guy, “That’s my son’s bicycle” and the lead guy just smiled and said “I’m sorry, sir, that’s my mistake” and gave it back to him. I’m sure he didn’t want the police called on him, especially in Georgetown where they would come very fast, but I was always amazed that my Dad was that brave to do that. Honestly it was the one time I felt like he stood up for me, and I don’t know what I would have done if the bike was gone at that period of my life, because my parents really didn’t have the money to just buy me another one.

When you walked out of the door of our house, there was a large driveway that led down to the main area of gardens. It was just steep enough to provide a thrill to a 7-9 year old while not being unnecessarily dangerous. The hill did have a wall that dropped precipitously down to the cemetery that bordered our property, the view of which could be quite dizzying while flying down on my bike, which only added to the fun of going down and then walking up, and going down again. I did this all the time, most days after school and the weekends whenever possible. It was muscle memory going down the hill, skidding to a stop at the bottom where a couple of cars would be parked, and the asphalt turned into stone and a large greenhouse sat where my father did a lot of his work.

One day, I was headed down the hill and started to apply my brake when suddenly, I froze for some strange reason. My feet couldn’t figure out how to engage the brake, even though I had done it hundreds of times before. I was headed straight for the greenhouse and I didn’t know what to do. For some reason, my idea to stop myself was simply to put my knees down and stop myself by skidding my knees on the asphalt. It worked, but I was immediately in horrible, horrible pain. I somehow walked back up the hill to my house and walked inside, crying.

My parents were in the kitchen, which was just inside the doorway, talking quietly but I could tell intensely. “What did you do?” My dad asked, looking me up and down.

“I hurt myself” I said and sat down on the small step between the dining room and kitchen. My mother sighed loudly and rolled up my ripped jeans to reveal extremely bloody and raw knees, bits of gravel and dirt stuck to the wound. “Jesus,” my mother said, which I knew meant she was very angry because she never said that unless she was really mad. She went into the kitchen and grabbed alcohol and paper towels. “I have to clean it, Adam,” She said in a way that made me realize this was going to hurt even worse, and I was going to get no mercy from her.

I somehow kept the screams down, biting the back of my hand as she cleaned the wound. As she worked, she kept talking to my Dad, “They said it’s cancer, but I know it’s not. It’s AIDS, you know it is, you can just look at him. He’s got all the signs. I knew from the first time I shook his hand, that marriage is a sham, he shook my hand like Tony.”

I knew Uncle Tony was her brother that lived in Seattle, across the country. He owned a hobby shop which I thought was awesome, and he lived with another man and that was why he moved so far away from the rest of the family in Tennessee.

“You don’t know that,” my father said, not very convincingly. “And it doesn’t matter, anyway.”
“Oh it matters, because they’re lying about it. Why are they lying? They don’t want anyone to know.”
“Well, they wouldn’t want anyone to know, that makes sense. If people thought it was that, that would embarrass all of them you know that.”

“I don’t think it’s right.”
“Now don’t go telling anybody.”
“I won’t, but it’s not right. You know it’s not right.”

“You’re not going to tell anyone are you?”
“I said I wouldn’t.”

I could tell my father wasn’t convinced. He just looked at her.

“I said I wouldn’t.” It was his turn to sigh. My mother turned back to my knee. I felt forgotten, did they realize this was the worst pain I had ever felt in my whole life. My mother picked out a large piece of rock and pressed the alcohol in. I couldn’t hold back that scream. “Oh hush, I’m almost finished.”

“Who has AIDS” I asked.

“None of your business,” My mother snapped. Even then I thought, then why are you talking about it around me, but I was smart enough to shut my mouth. I knew soon enough anyway when the person passed away. It’s interesting to be on the ancillary of wealth and power, and to be privy in some small way to the inner workings of that realm. Whenever someone talked about that person after that, I felt a small pain in my knee, sympathy pains to the agony that they must have gone through, no matter what the true cause of death may have been.

That was about the time that I realized what gossip was, how gross it was, and how I never wanted to be a part of it. Unfortunately, that is something I have not been as successful at that as I would have liked or thought I would have been earlier in life, but I still feel queasy when someone starts to do it, and I try my best to not be a part of those conversations, or to shut them down before they can start. To see that my mother was willing to do it about a dying man, just struck me as wrong even in third or fourth grade, and to neglect a hurting child to do it, even more so.

I gingerly walked up the stairs to my room after my mother but a plethora of Band-Aids on both knees. Not two days later, I was back on that bike zooming down that hill, just to show myself that I could do it again.

 

Black Panther-Short Review

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I plan on writing in more length about this movie this weekend, but I wanted to write my intial thoughts after seeing this movie last night while it is still fresh in my mind. First off, as a superhero movie, an action movie, a mass entertainment, it works like gangbusters. It is fun, never feels boring, is consistently surprising and inventive in its action sequences and introduces a lot of really cool stuff throughout the movie. But the reason that this movie is going to be so important, why it has become a cultural milestone before it ever was released is where this movie really shines. Ryan Coogler could have felt the weight of making the first major black superhero movie and been buried underneath those expectations, but instead he made a movie that embraces them and he has delivered an absolute triumph that celebrates the fact that it is an African movie, set 95% in Africa, with 99% African characters. It embraces the traditions, the culture, it does not apologize for its blackness anymore than The Avengers or Thor or The Avengers apologized for its whiteness, or their maleness. Which is where this movie is also a triumph. Women in this movie are equals to the male characters in combat or even often superior, superior in intelligence, funny, independent and just alive in a way that most movies, but especially superhero movies, rarely allow them to be. And the villain, wow, Killmonger is a true villain, but he is one of the greats because his motivations are understandable, his motivations even make sense, but his solution to a real problem is where he is wrong. The final scene between Black Panther and Killmonger is brilliant, truly. This is clearly just the beginning for this character, as all of Wakanda looks to play a major part in Infinity War and I for one can barely wait the three months to see it, but in the meantime I plan to return to Wakanda at least once more.

Rating **** out of ****

The Post – Review

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Obviously timed to be released during a time period in our country where the freedom of and integrity of the press is under attack in ways it hasn’t been since, well, the Sedition Acts perhaps, Steven Spielberg’s new film is a small scale, contained masterpiece, almost more of a play than a film in many ways but nonetheless riveting and honorable in a way we could use more of in public office nowadays. Tom Hanks is compulsively watchable as editor Ben Bradlee, struggling to keep up with rival The New York Times and with the new reality of how the press and government are at odds with one another sweeping over the town he has reported on for decades. Meryl Streep is even better as Kay Graham, and her character truly has a great arc, going from feeling the shame of constantly being told she shouldn’t be running this great paper to the confidence in doing what is right no matter what the personal cost.

There are many notable scenes of great acting in this film, it is one that will probably be shown in classes for decades to come, but the phone scene towards the end of the movie, as well as the conversation between Graham and Bradlee where Bradlee discusses the events of the day JFK was assasinated that truly made the most of the abilities of two of our great actors. Ones made even more great because they are no longer Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, but Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, truly, this transformation into a character and not just a projected persona of themself is something that many of our other great actors have had trouble with as their careers progress, and something both actors could easily coast on for many years, as likable and talented as they are. It is a testament to them both, Spielberg, and the material that they do not here.

Spielberg is interestingly restrained here as well, from the non descript opening credits to not using the cliches of landmarks either in Washington or New York, instead letting the papers themselves be the star of the look of the film. The sequences showing the typesetting and printing of the paper itself are truly beautiful, and made me for one want to run out and buy a print newspaper for the first time in a long, long time, and that is proof positive of the power of this film.

Obviously, the target of this film in a not so subtle way is the current administration, and it makes those points in a classy and not over the top way (although fans of that administation may feel differently) so that this film will not just be a product of its time, but can truly resonate as long as the press needs to report on the misdeeds of the government. Something of a modern day “Crucible” in that sense. Overall, this isn’t a movie that will make you stand up and cheer, per se, but it will make you admire it, and I certainly did exactly that.

Rating ***1/2 out of ****

The Last Jedi – Review

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So I finally got to chek out “The Last Jedi” last night and maybe because I had heard some of the more divided reaction to the film, or I still had some prequel hangover, I went in with a little more muted expecations than I normally do for a Star Wars film. I came out thinking that I was not very surprised that people had negative feelings towards the film, but that I personally thought it was great.

The last hour or so of this movie is probably the best hour of any Star Wars film that I can think of, personally. The first hour or so felt a little too episodic, but overall this one felt a little more organic, like it was confident in the story it was telling and it knew where it was leading. There were real ideas behind it, and because of that there was a purpose to the events far more than was ever achieved in the prequels (which face it, were based on one single event, Anakin becoming Darth Vader, and we took three films and about seven hours to get to a climax we all knew was going to happen).

There were many big time moments in the movie, my favorites all involved Luke, the shoulder brush, the green milk, tossing the lightsaber are all new classics, whose character has become incredibly interesting and complex. I also disagreed with Mark Hamill, who thought that his character acted in very un-Luke ways, I think that this keeps in line with the Luke that we saw him changing into during those three films, especially when confronted with events that mirrored his own father’s turn to the dark side. There is an inevitability to the fight against the dark side, that as soon as it is defeated new enemies will spring up, that could easily turn someone that is so in tune with the Force to become disheartened.

Overall, I’m excited to see where the final episode takes us, and I honestly don’t know where that will be, which is incredibly fun.

Rating ***1/2 out of ****.

Millenium

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So the millennium was a weird time in general in this country, and I imagine especially weird in Washington, DC (because everything is always weirder there), but I happened to be a junior in high school on top of all that, so the weirdness was tripled for me just for that fact. New Year ’s Eve had always been a fairly laid back affair in our house, the only thing I remember is that we ate black eyed peas on New Year’s Day, and they were disgusting. That year, for some reason and somehow, my brother had talked my parents into allowing him to have friends over at the main house in the main ball room. I have no idea how in the name of God he managed to do this, because we were never allowed over there, let alone having a party there. Not that it really was much of a party, only three or four of his friends. But there was parent facilitated drinking involved as well, and he was not even 19 yet, it was a confusing time. 

My brother had a Filipino friend named Romeo, who was the only person who I really liked at this party, he showed me how to play “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” on the guitar and sounded exactly like Elvis when he sang it, which was surprising because his speaking voice was fairly high, but he could hit very low notes beautifully which created a cognitive dissonance that only added to the enjoyment of his playing. My brother had another musician friend there named Bobby, he was legally blind but could play the piano very well, especially jazz. He played some of the Peanuts Christmas music and it was awesome, especially because the ballroom had a Steinway in it, which sent him into convulsions of delight.

Anyway, shortly before midnight we all stepped outside, because it was promised that there was going to be a special firework show for New Year’s that was going to be even more spectacular than the 4th of July. They were working on the Washington Monument at that time, so there was scaffolding all around the entire structure, which was always lit up at night. I walked out to the then familiar view of the Monument all lit up. We counted down to midnight and welcomed in the year 2000.

Then, all the lights went out on the Monument. For about twenty five seconds, I thought all of the rumors and concerns had come true, that all technology had self-destructed at midnight and we had been plunged into the dark ages again. Then, just as suddenly as it had gone out the lights came back on, accompanied by a burst of fireworks. Needless to say, I was quite relieved.

After fifteen, twenty minutes, my parents and little sister went back over to our house, my Dad issuing a warning to act right and to lock all the doors. My brother said, “Ok, Ok,” and went back to playing terrible electronic music on his turntable/cd set up (he was going to be a DJ at this point). They started drinking more, and suddenly guys were taking their shirts off and trying to wrestle each other.

I was just going to say goodbye and roll out back home, too, but I thought I would have some fun with it instead, because, well, I was the a-hole little brother anyway, right?

I broke off from everybody else and wandered around the house, a little, which was fun, especially in the dark. The house was freaking spooky, lots of old painted portraits of people that can’t seem to help but look ominous. After about ten minutes I slowly walked back into the ballroom, trying to make my face look like I was traumatized. I walked up to my brother, “hey, I’m going home.” He actually looked concerned. “Are you OK?” He asked. I nodded. “Just stay in this room, ok, stay in the lights,” I said and grabbed his wrist. He looked even more concerned. “Why?” He asked. “Just promise me,” I said. “OK, but why?” He asked.

“I saw something,” I said and started walking towards the back door. “You don’t want to see it, too.” And with that I walked out of the house and back to mine, sleeping pretty soundly.

The next day my brother told me that they were all talking about what I had seen, and they heard all kinds of noises the rest of the night. It wasn’t hard to get him or them to believe I had seen a ghost, the house was asking for it, and there were lots of genuine stories of strange goings on at the house we had heard through the years to make it especially believable. “It just freaks me out to think about what it was doing somewhere in the house while we were sitting in there,” he said, shaking his head.

I nodded, solemnly. What a great way to bring in the new year.

 

My First Beer

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I used to go for walks a lot alone through Georgetown, at all times of night, especially as I got older, in high school and college. Sometimes as late as one or two in the morning I would just walk through the cobblestone streets, thinking. I was antsy, feeling like life was somehow right in front of me but slipping away at the same time, if only I had known the future I wouldn’t have been in quite the hurry, or maybe I would have been even more desperate.

Anyway, close to Christmas of 1999, I was walking down 28th Street, towards M Street. It wasn’t that late, somewhere around 7:30 or 8:00, but pitch black of course because of the time of year. As usual for me, I had absurdly large headphones on, blasting, most likely Dr. Dre’s “2001” at that point in time.

I passed one of the row homes between Q and P, noticing that the door was open and light was spilling out on to the sidewalk. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I pulled away quickly out of reflex and ripped my headphones off. “Hey!” I yelled. A youngish white guy with blonde hair, somewhere between 25-35 stood in the doorway, his hands up in the “Whoa, no problem here” fashion.

“Sorry!” He said, “Do you think you could help me with this couch?” He pointed to the doorway, where a couch was sitting at the bottom of a flight of stairs. I thought about it for a minute, shrugged, and said, “sure.” I hadn’t hear of someone killing a person after they helped move their couch, so I figured I was pretty safe. He went up the stairs to the top of the couch and we lugged that heavy SOB up to the living room. Those row houses were quite then but extremely deep, and the ones on that street probably went for a couple of million even back then, so they were very nice homes.

We put the couch down and I awkwardly turned to leave. “Hey, wait, can I give you some money or something?” The guy asked.

I shook my head.

“Well at least take a beer,” the main said and handed me a 16 oz. can of Miller Lite. I stared at it for a second. Did I look 21? I had just turned 16 in October. I was a little proud of the fact that he thought I was 21, but then I thought maybe he knew I wasn’t 21 and he was a weirdo that gave alcohol to underage kids. It was too awkward to give it back to him now, so I put it in the pocket of my coat, said thank you and walked out of the house.

As I walked down the street in semi-disbelief, it literally felt like I had heroin in my pocket. One other time in high school, I had become friends with a crack dealer, and he forced me to hold a bag of crack for him during gym class while he took his shots for basketball. I felt pretty similarly to that with that beer in my pocket, especially because it was an absurdly large can of beer as well. What would happen if a police officer found it on me? I would go to jail!

I walked for another block, looked around for about thirty seconds to make sure no one was watching and then put the beer down on the ground at the corner and ran about three blocks before stopping to see if anyone was following me. Coast was clear. I slowly walked home, trying to look natural.

So that was how I got my very first beer. I just happened to not actually drink it.