Are You Listening?

A near-ending game board, tiles and racks of t...

Scrabble (International, Mattel, Inc.,photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, someone asked my father for a favor. Daddy, being the dependable guy he is, immediately complied. He then sent a rather long follow-up e-mail to the person in question, detailing what he did and what needed to happen next. But the person didn’t read the whole e-mail, didn’t act on my father’s instructions, and when Daddy finally took matters into his own hands, the person wondered why my dad was exasperated—he didn’t even remember making the original request to begin with. The problem, Daddy concluded, is that all people do anymore is listen (or read) in sound bites.

I hate to say that, fight it as I do, I too easily fall into the same pattern. Here I write what I would consider lengthy posts if I had to read them, yet I watch the scroll bar and groan if a blog that I normally read takes me more than a couple minutes.

With this in mind, in Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, one of the first things he talks about is the use of the period and the stylistic differences between writing short and long sentences. Granted, I do ramble, but I try not to write run-on sentences that lose the original thread from beginning to end. In reading many of Lukeman’s examples, I realized why I write the way I do. Considering some of the books I had to read in college and absolutely hated (or classics I forced myself to read because I knew they would be worth it if only I made it to the end), I realized that one of my problems was this whole long, circuitous sentence thing. And you know what Lukeman points out? Long sentences can be risky because of the less-than-adequate attention span of the modern reader. Writers beware! Too-long sentences could very well cause readers to put your books down for good.

Blaming society’s shortened attentions spans on modern media is a nice distraction—and a lot easier than examining myself and asking how I’ve let it happen to me, too. Ugh. Does this mean that I’m going to embrace the half-a-page sentence and start rambling worse than ever in self defense? Never fear; it’s not my style. Besides, I don’t think forcing people to read longer streams of drivel solves the problem. What I must do, however, is pay attention, focus on this fault of mine and try my hardest to remedy it.

There must be a happy medium between jumping from topic to topic as soon as interest fades and becoming focused to the exclusion of everything else in the world. If you’ve ever watched cooking competitions, the people who can’t multi-task in the kitchen are usually the first to go, so it’s got its advantages. But I don’t want to be so busy that I ignore a long e-mail that has some very important information. I don’t want to be in too much of a hurry to communicate properly (and politely).

I know that I’m not the only person plagued by this impatience. It just gets worse with every succeeding generation, I’m afraid. When my kids are old enough to text (or whatever the craze is, at that time), will they even know what OMG means? Will they translate it to “oh my gosh” every time they see it or just think that OMG is some normal (albeit meaningless) exclamation?

And since we’re on the topic, do you remember the “reality” show “Survivor”? I’m proud to say that I’ve only ever seen one partial episode. I thought it was pretty stupid because the show in no way puts the contestants in situations in which they would actually have to adapt to survive. But if you consider a true survival situation, would the people of today be able to do it? Survive without cell phones, GPS, Kindles, computers, processed food? I know moms who get fed up with their kids being absorbed in the TV, so they go cold turkey, and the kids have the hardest time figuring out how to be kids—and in homes full of toys, no less.

The first autumn that Thomas and I were married, we went through more than a week, combined, with no electricity because of the number of hurricanes and tropical storms that hit Florida. We spent many a night playing Scrabble (yes, an actual board game) by candlelight, eating the “comfort” (junk) food that we’d stockpiled for just that kind of situation. And you know what? Except for the stifling heat, I remember those stormy stretches of no electricity with fondness.

I suggest, to cultivate this elusive patience, to help new generations of techno-children, who learn immediate gratification but have little concept of the delayed kind, going out of your way to do things the so-called dinosaur way. Show someone you care enough to snail mail a “thinking of you” card once in a while. What does it cost you—a few minutes of your time and a stamp? Turn off the TV and play board games with your kids. Try to sit with a lengthy article or a book for more than five minutes at a time. Cook a meal from scratch. If you’re really brave and aren’t afraid of failure, start a garden.

I’m just as guilty of loving technology as the next person, but I don’t want to depend on it to the exclusion of my intellect. And, although I know it sounds extreme, that’s a lot of what’s at stake here. If we count on technology and short cuts to do everything for us, forget losing deep thinkers, we’re losing thinkers, period. Instead of spoon-feeding people bites of information—the least amount they need to get by—why not try provoking some actual thought processes? Are we so lazy that we can’t do a little mental work anymore? (And don’t even get me started on the physical kind.) If I want people to read long blogs like this one, I need to be able to do so myself. So I’m going to start with me and branch out to my kids. And my audience, all three of you.