“Walden” in the Era of the Smart Phone

Ah the “olden times” when people lived on acres of untarnished land with the sun sparkling on clear waters.  The song of birds could be heard for miles, and trees grew mighty and plentiful.  All the men had impressive facial hair, and the ladies wore more petticoats and layers than Helena Bonham Carter on a red carpet.  It was a simpler time (maybe not so much the ladies’ clothing) than anything we know today.

Walden Pond: the site that launched a thousand hipster rants

Walden Pond: the site that launched a thousand hipster dreams

But in those days, a man named Henry David Thoreau disagreed.  He felt the world had become corrupt with greed and progress, slovenly and materialistic.  Naturally, he did what any intellectual of the time would do: go off to live in the woods for two years without possessions and live very simply and quietly.  Today, we know this practice as what Daniel Day-Lewis does to prepare for a film role, but in Thoreau’s time, Method Actors didn’t exist yet.

Daniel Day-Lewis: willing to learn to use 19th century tools, live in isolation, or grow accurate facial hair for ANY role.  Or maybe he just enjoys it?

Daniel Day-Lewis: willing to learn to use 19th century tools, live in isolation, or grow accurate facial hair for ANY role. Or maybe he just enjoys it?

Thoreau kept careful records of his experiment in Walden, and when he returned, he published them.  The resulting tome, Walden (I mean, seriously, Thoreau? Couldn’t you be a teeny bit more creative with that title?), is chock full of lots of great advice about life, wealth, nature, etc.  It is a classic piece of literature (which I’m sure Daniel Day-Lewis has read several times over).

Now, I haven’t read Walden all the way through, and admittedly, some of its advice I culled from multiple viewings of Dead Poets Society, in which it is often quoted.  However, what I HAVE read of Walden is spectacular, thought-provoking stuff.  And it got me wondering:

In an era dominated by an incessant need for technology, to be, essentially, “plugged in” at all times, could any of us do what Thoreau did?  Could we fully detach ourselves from the world for a year or two and live without our smart phones, tablets, laptops, and iPods?  What would Thoreau think of all this connectivity?

I’m not so sure any of us (save for the Amish who already live in isolation and the aforementioned Mr. Day-Lewis) could actually do, in this smart phone era, what Thoreau did in his time.  First of all, you’d have to search fairly thoroughly to find a remote enough piece of land.  Perhaps in Greenland or Tibet (for seven years with Brad Pitt? Down!) or some place like that, a new “Walden”-like scenario would be possible, but getting to those places is not the easiest thing to do.  Also, should you go alone, the chances of a 127 Hours-cutting-your-arm-off-with-a-plastic-knife situation increases.

Now, Thoreau wrote to colleagues during his time in the woods, so it wasn’t as though he was completely cut off from the world.  He also had at least 25-30 visitors to his cabin including a French Canadian woodchopper and a runaway slave. But he cast off the idea of needing wealth to be happy, needing industry and competition.  He went back to the core of human struggles: man versus nature.  But really, Thoreau was seeking a way to reunite man WITH nature; to bring us back from our man-made world to the natural one with which we began our journey on this earth.

Henry David Thoreau: living deliberately...with AWESOME facial hair.

Henry David Thoreau: living deliberately…with AWESOME facial hair.

Our world is so interconnected that in a matter of seconds, one can text Russia or send an email to Patagonia with little difficulty whatsoever.  It’s both amazing and overwhelming at the same time.  We have an almost Pavlovian response to our cellphones; the minute we hear a ding indicating a new text or voice message, we instantly pick up our phones.  We are so afraid of missing out on some piece of information (however insipid or important), we cannot go for three seconds without gazing at its glowing screen.  We have to have reminders every time we go to the theatre or the movies to turn our phones off; to detach ourselves from the outside world.  We are incapable of doing it ourselves without someone else telling us.  Those afraid of the zombie apocalypse should note that we already live in a world full of zombies; one need only look at all the people walking down the street staring at their phones instead of where they’re going.  And let’s not even talk about how most people are so uncomfortable with being alone in a public place, they immediately pick up their phones to avoid making eye contact with someone or god forbid actually strike up a conversation with a stranger.  Solitude once was greatly valued, but now, it scares us, and our phones are the proof.

I’m as guilty as anyone of being too dependent on my phone and other pieces of technology.  I am uncomfortable, at times, with being alone in certain places.  Actually, it’s more that I think everyone is judging me for being alone, which is not only presumptuous but also narcissistic: to think everyone is focusing on me when they actually couldn’t care less.  I often get caught up too in assessing my wealth (or lack of it, more like), obsessing over it ad nauseum until I wear myself out.  And sometimes, I catch myself in the midst of all this stressing and obsessing and think about how pointless it all is; none of it matters or SHOULD matter.  It doesn’t make me happy, so why worry about it?

Living in New York City, the hive of human activity and industry, makes Walden’s naturalistic ideals ever more appealing.  Whenever I start to feel like I’m working myself into a snit or getting caught up in the stupidity of text messages and Facebook wallposts, I dream of getting out and disappearing.  My more bohemian, nomadic tendencies begin to manifest themselves inside my head.  Escape, they say.  Go backpacking through Europe or on a mountain trek.  See the redwood forests.  Leave all this behind; you don’t need it.  There is no escaping Thoreau’s logic:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”

Thoreau sought to illustrate the necessity of LIFE, and the place it is most evident is in nature; a never-ending cycle of birth and death, changing seasons, etc.  In living in nature, Thoreau learned HOW to live, what made him happy, what kind of person he wanted to be.  He was connected to the world in a different way, one free of selfish desires and thoughts, and that made connecting with others more fulfilling.  We should all aspire to such things ourselves; I know I do.

Speaking of Patagonia...is this not more beautiful than any text message you could receive? (even if it were from Michael Fassbender)

Speaking of Patagonia…is this not more beautiful than any text message you could receive? (even if it were from Michael Fassbender)

As technology advances, it will become harder and harder to detach ourselves from the world around us, but ironically, we already have.  Actual human connection has been replaced with coaxial cables and wi-fi routers.  We live in a world of instant messages and tweets.  No face-to-face communication required.  The only way to live Thoreau’s way is to learn how to actually BE alone and to be okay with it.  To look up from our cold, hard, plastic phones and really SEE the world around us.  To listen to sounds other than the ones on our iPods.  Being alive means being PRESENT; living in the moment.  I, for one, don’t just want to look at pictures of places on Google images, I want to see them for myself.  I want to learn how to live deliberately and then actually LIVE deliberately; connecting with the world on MY terms…not just the way the smart phone companies tell us to.

These days, we have to work a little harder to embody all the things Thoreau wrote about in Walden, but I think it would be worth it in the end.  You won’t remember every text someone sent you, but you WILL remember how you felt the first time you saw the Canadian Rockies or the Yangtze River in China.  Experience and love and memories are things no amount of money can buy you and no web search can show you; they have to be felt and gained through the way you live your life.  Thoreau understood that, and so do I these days.

After all, Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t win two Oscars by playing Words With Friends all day long.

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The Day My Facebook (& My Life) Went From Bacchanals to Bridal Showers: A Modern Tale of Growing Up

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a male friend about the weird transitional time we both are finding ourselves in: the time in life when everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is getting engaged, married, and procreating. At 27, he seemed astonished that I, at 24, already had so many friends entering into the everlasting bonds of holy matrimony. “I mean, I understand it at my age since I’ve been out of school longer and a little closer to thirty,” he said, “but this is already happening to you?” I gave a solemn nod. He replied with what I can only describe as a mixture of sympathy and horror.

Bluto's fb page would have been legendary

Bluto’s fb page would have been legendary

There was a time when my Facebook newsfeed was a hive of raucous, questionable behavior; everywhere I looked, friends were hoisting high their red solo cups of glory, chugging their lives away as if there was no tomorrow. Outrageous costumes and blurry photos dominated my networks. It was like ancient Rome or something.

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but one day, my newsfeed turned from bacchanals to bridal showers. Singles nights to sonograms. My world has gone completely topsy-turvy, and I’m not sure I like it.  I suppose it’s the natural order of things, but what, anymore, really IS “natural”? Am I missing something? At 24, I’m being left in the dust of everyone’s mad dash to the altar. In New York, this is not such a big deal, but back where I come from, my being single is a point of conversation and sometimes condescension (mostly amongst the older generations; people my age couldn’t care less).

I never cared much about dating in high school (though my journals and correspondence with some of my BFFs might contest that), and the few boyfriend/relationship-y situations I got myself into during those mixed up teen years were…well, teenaged.  I certainly didn’t date anyone in college due to a slim selection of heterosexual boys in my department (and on campus period).  I was the straight-A student, the overachiever, always working hard and dreaming of being a successful actress.  I’ve never planned my “dream wedding,” choosing colors or thinking about where I’d have it.  I always planned out my dream career: choosing roles to play and directors/actors I’d want to work with. I never thought that wasn’t normal…until now.

I'm an outsider just like Ponyboy.  We're both just trying to stay gold.

I’m an outsider just like Ponyboy. We’re both blonde, pensive people who enjoy staring off into the distance while quoting poetry.

I’ve probably been an outsider (just call me Ponyboy!) my whole life in that way and didn’t realize it until I started seeing large, sparkly diamonds on all the left hands of my female classmates and friends.

Now, I’m not begrudging any of these people their happiness; I’m truly excited for them. They’re starting a whole new journey in their lives, and that’s something awesome for sure. I welcome any chance to celebrate more love being brought to the world.  And I definitely have a blast at weddings!  I’ve yet to find myself feeling miserable and sullen during one just because I’m single; on the contrary, I see weddings as a chance to have fun, drink free liquor (if you have a cash bar at your wedding, I’m not coming; shell out the extra dough for an open bar please), eat cake, dance, and hang out with my friends.  I just have never thought about MY life the way some of my friends think about theirs.  To each their own, you know?  I suppose my priorities are different, and I also haven’t met someone with whom I desire to share all my precious time.  I can’t imagine being married right now; I still feel like a kid a lot of the time, and my finances are all over the place, and I’m not even sure I’m the person I’m supposed to be yet.  How could I possibly devote my life to someone when I don’t even know what I’m doing with it yet?  And don’t even bring up the idea of me having a child before I’m in my thirties.

(I have nightmares of being the kind of parent who’s forever immortalized in all my kid’s Spielberg-ian films as the inspiration for their characters’ “mommy-issues.” In reality, I don’t think I’d actually be like that, but indulge me, please.)

Somewhere, I read the quote, “comparison is the thief of joy,” and it is.  I’m the worst.  I have a competitive streak and self-worth issues, and if I think for a second I’m behind the rest of the world somehow or not doing enough to be seen as “worthy” or “valuable,” I try to do everything I can to catch up and change how I think people perceive me.  It’s not healthy, and I know it, but it’s always going to be something with which I struggle.  And while I use self-deprecating humor as a cover for a lot of my darker, more maligned feelings, I can’t always convince myself that there isn’t something wrong with me somehow because the rest of the world is pairing off, and I’m here on my own (cue Les Mis moment).

I'm not crying because I'm single; I'm crying because Russell Crowe's voice is le miserable.

I’m not crying because I’m single; I’m crying because Russell Crowe’s voice is le miserable.

This is, of course, just my raging Woody Allen-esque neuroses coming out.  In Hannah and Her Sisters, he’s a hypochondriac who thinks he’s dying of various things.  I, on the other hand, am a hypochondriac about love. “Am I gonna catch it?  What do I do if I catch it?  Why haven’t I caught it?  What’s wrong with me? WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?!  I should have had it by now, right?  What does it feel like?  How do I know when I’ve got it?” I guess I think that if I fret about it enough, I’ll catch love like you do a cold; in my head, it has become a psychosomatic syndrome.

And I do hope you don’t think I’m complaining because in all actuality, I’m not.  Not to mention it’s horribly unoriginal to be a twenty-something female living in New York complaining about her lack of significant other.  I suppose what all this nonsense boils down to is I’m just not used to the idea of aging yet.  As I see so many friends starting to plant roots and seeds for new phases of their lives, I’m realizing I will never be this young again; life changes you.  You think you know that, but until you start experiencing those changes, you don’t…not really.  Someday, I’m going to put down my own roots, and it’s going to be scary and exciting and will make some of my younger friends feel the way I do right now about my older friends.  And there is nothing wrong with you if you’re in your twenties and still single.  Conversely, there is nothing wrong with you if you are in your twenties and married/engaged/with child.  Live your life, because the fact is, it’s YOUR life.  Judge not lest ye be judged, people.  You’re the one who has to live your life, so don’t let anyone make you think for a second that however you choose to live it is not valuable or worthwhile just because it’s not how THEY chose to live theirs.

So my Facebook newsfeed no longer looks like a hive of alcohol-soaked debauchery.  So what?  The Roman Empire didn’t last forever.  I can’t promise MY posts will be any tamer for a while, but that’s where I am in my life, and I won’t apologize for it.  The beauty of life is that it can change in a second; it’s dealing with the change that’s the hardest (but most rewarding) part.

New Year, New Adventures, New York

Happy New Year, kids!

It’s the most optimistic month of the year again!  Everybody is trying their darndest to stick to the big plans they’ve made for the next twelve months.  As Rose said in the mega-blockbuster/tearjerker drama/Leonardo DiCaprio-worshipping/most excellent movie of all time, Titanic, “January was called the ship of dreams, and it was, it really was.”

"Yeah...I'm totally gonna sleep with Jack and then not let him on my floating piece of wood in the ocean."

“Yeah…I’m totally gonna sleep with Jack and then not let him on my floating piece of wood in the ocean.”

(I’m aware she wasn’t REALLY talking about January, but just go with it, okay?)

Now, in theory, I like the idea of the world collectively promising to do better and be better each year (and sometimes, we do and are…a little) but the fact remains most people fall off their game by March.  The resolutions they’ve made have already been broken, and they’ve returned to their old habits.  We all promise to lose weight, read more, volunteer, etc.  By March, we’re sitting on our couches, wolfing down Cheetos and watching marathons of Dance Moms and old episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation (or maybe that’s just me?).

What happens in between?  Somewhere along the way, we get lazy and start procrastinating.  Change is an active choice that requires us to give it our attention.  We must be aware of our actions at all times, so we can catch ourselves when we’re making bad or old choices, and in that moment, actively make the choice to do what we set out to do.  It’s a tired cliche to say, “old habits die hard” (Yippee kiyay, M#$%erf*#$%er!), but it’s true.  Old habits are comfortable and safe, easily slipped into like a favorite pair of shoes (and they better NOT be Crocs, y’all).

A little embarrassed to admit I find Alan Rickman kinda attractive in this film

A little embarrassed to admit I find Alan Rickman kinda attractive in this film

And like John McClane aka Bruce Willis, we just have to grab ourselves a machine gun (ho ho ho) and get rid of the German Terrorists in our Nakatomi Tower of a mind once and for all.

I apologize for that probably completely overwrought Die Hard metaphor.

What I’m saying is, to truly be resolute in your resolutions, you have to make being resolute an active choice.  And who says you always have to wait until January 1st to change your life?  You can do it any time you want, people!  All you have to do is make the choice and commit to it.

For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button film

Benjamin and Daisy: always choosing life.

Benjamin and Daisy: always choosing life. (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)

 

I started making active changes before the New Year even hit, laying down plans and working to make sure I was happier and healthier before the start of 2013.  This time last year, I was not in a good place; moroseness had settled over me that I could not shake.  In all seriousness, it is difficult for me to admit when things are wrong and when I am unhappy, and I can say with all certainty that I was battling something deep within myself I didn’t realize was even there or perhaps simply chose not to acknowledge.  One of my best friends called me one day last February and basically gave me a kick in the ass, “You’re going to get up, get out of bed, and come over and watch movies with me.  And you’re going to have a good day, because I cannot handle you like this anymore.  You’re going to choose to have a good day.”  And he was right.  He knew I was wallowing and miserable but I didn’t want to acknowledge it to anyone else.  Once I acknowledged it to myself and to someone else, I could move on and start choosing to actively fight against it.  Not everything since then has been all roses, but now I choose to try to see beyond the problems and keep them in perspective.  So far, it is working.  I am still learning to have faith and patience, and that too is an act of bravery and choice.  That day, that phone call helped me realize I am not powerless to change my life; I always have a choice (it reminds me of the scene from Minority Report where Agatha the precog tells John that he can choose not to kill Leo Crow).

I DO have big plans for myself – some of them a bit more long-term – and I am confident that with hard work, luck, perseverance, and some good ole gumption (which is a wonderfully underused adjective), I will be able to accomplish them.  You can choose to truly start LIVING your life any day of the year, not just January 1st, and I hope you have the courage to do so.

I’m excited for some things that are already on the horizion this year and the other new adventures that await me in 2013.  Happy New Year.  Truly…I wish you a HAPPY, new year.