Ok, I admit it. I have a habit of creating titles that create a disconnect. And are a little click-baity. But to be honest it only happens because I often like to write about misconceptions, and so by definition the title will appear counter-intuitive. Today I am going to write about something that over the course of my teaching career has met with perhaps the most resistance from students and parents, but which has also met with the most success when embraced.
If you want good grades, stop trying to get good grades.
Scandalous, I know. And trust me, I have heard all the rejoinders. So as you can imagine, I will explain.
See, in the current system of education, grades stopped being a measure of progress some time ago. What they have become instead is currency. A commodity that is pursued, traded and leveraged with as much vigor and ferocity as the dollar, euro, or yen. And I am not using hyperbole here. Schools these days have come to be viewed by many students, parents and even teachers as a marketplace. Teachers have the grades, students want them. And in this marketplace the end goal is to get as high a grade as possible. To very many – but to be completely fair, not to all – how that happens is not nearly as important as that it happens. To this category of student, the goal of school is not to learn, but to get grades. And this paradigm shift causes a fundamental change in how the entire process is viewed. I will list just a few examples:
Bargaining It has become standard operation procedure now that when teachers return graded work, the immediate next phase is the negotiation. Students dissatisfied with the magnitude of their grade will question, cajole and even harass the teacher about the grade, with the common theme that since the student believes the grade should be higher, the teacher has assigned a wrong grade. There are even times when the guise of reason is dropped completely, and the student will actually say things like “I need a 97% to get into <insert elite university program here> so can you raise my mark?”
Academic Dishonesty Academic dishonesty (aka cheating) is not a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the pervasiveness of it, and the total lack of ethical struggle involved in making the decision to use it as a tool for getting high grades. After all, if the only purpose of school is to get a high grade, and if cheating accomplishes that, then where is the ethical problem? And so we see rampant use of things like plagiarism, paying others to do work that students then submit as their own, or gaming the system so that assessments like tests are skipped, then done at a later date after getting information from other students who were present at the time about what was asked.
Grade Mills Countless “schools” have popped up over the last decade or so who’s sole purpose is to guarantee official credits and high grades. The thinly disguised mission of these schools is to create a means by which, for a price, students can get a credit on their high school transcripts and also get an absurdly high grade. What separates a grade mill from a more legitimate private school is how accurately the student’s grade reflects their knowledge on completion of a course. I have taught many students who received a grade mill credit in a prerequisite course for the one I am teaching, with a grade of 100%, who do not possess the most basic skills meant to be learned in that prerequisite course.
Cramming This is definitely not a new concept in academics, but it has spread to more and more students, who in fact no longer recognize that it is not actually a means of learning. In courses where there are scheduled tests/exams, students to little to no work during times where there is no assessment looming. They attend class, possibly take notes, and otherwise devote minimal attention to the lessons, because “this won’t matter until the test.” They do not see this as an ineffective strategy at all. The belief that drives this is that the only time the subject knowledge will matter is when they are tested on it (and thus in a position to get grades), and so the plan is to study as much as possible the day – or even the night – before a test. Cramming all the information into their short-term memories just long enough to unleash it onto their test papers, to be promptly forgotten as they leave the room after writing the test.
These are not the only examples of what I am talking about, but they are the most common. And it is clear that none of these appear to give actual learning more than the slightest courtesy of a head nod. They are completely and totally about getting grades.
Sometimes, they even work. But that’s a trap. Because even when they work, they are only short-term solutions to a lifelong endeavour, and they all create stress and anxiety in the process.
Bargaining for grades, when it works, teaches that it is not about what you earn, but about what you can badger people into giving you. It shifts the perspective about where the effort should be placed. Rather than placing effort on producing good work, the effort is placed on convincing the teacher to assign a high grade. This creates an internal tension that results in generalized anxiety, because the student ends up in a position of having to convince the teacher of something that is not actually true, and for which there is no evidence.
Cheating works for its intended purpose (when you don’t get caught), but like grade mills, perpetuates the “appearance over substance” philosophy, and also imbues dangerous long-term values that erode at the ethical fabric of society. The stress this creates is clear – fear of getting caught, and the consequences. Additionally there is the gradual accumulation of anxiety brought on by creating an academic avatar that is more and more fraudulent and removed from the person who wears it.
Grade mills teach that appearance matters much more than substance – if you can appear to be someone who earned a perfect grade in calculus, it does not matter if you actually are someone with a deep understanding of calculus. It is hard to even wrap ones head around how many ways this is wrong. First, the injustice of potentially securing a spot in a college or university over someone who earned a lower grade, but actually knows much more calculus. Then, the fact that with the label of “100% in calculus” anyone who checks that label will assume that you are a calculus genius and expect that you are, creating significant stress on the person masquerading as the calculus prodigy. Finally, the pressure that the very existence of grade mills places on legitimate schools, who have little choice but to begin awarding higher grades so that their students can remain competitive when it comes to post-secondary offers of education, which is a non-trivial contributor to grade-inflation. The stress created here is very similar to that created by cheating, and has the added anxiety-producing bonus that at some point there won’t be a grade mill offering credits and grades for money, and that the student will actually have to perform as the person their grades have indicated that they are.
Cramming is arguable the lowest offense on this list, because in its purest form the student is not misrepresenting themselves at all. However it is fraught with disadvantages, from the fact that many students struggle to absorb and then reproduce the knowledge in a meaningful way, to the fact that when needed later – in the same course or in a subsequent one, the knowledge is no longer accessible. It also creates a great deal of stress and is a common cause of test-anxiety, which is a very real issue for many students who find they “totally knew this last night” but can not recall it when test time comes.
Perhaps most tragically, this issue causes stress and anxiety not just for the students engaged in them but for the many students who are not, because it creates an unlevel playing field that places incredible burden on the ones who are doing things the right way. Grade inflation is a real and dangerous phenomenon, where just like monetary inflation, a loaf of bread is still a loaf of bread whether the price tag says $0.75 or $2.99. The difference is that because we use percentages as grades, there is a ceiling, and so we are staring to distinguish by decimals. And that means that for any student mistakes cost much more than they ever did in the past.
Ok. So I’ve devoted the article to this point (approximately 5 minutes of reading time, if the algorithm that tells me how much I have written so far is to be trusted) outlining the issue. And maybe I’ve made it seem like hope is lost, because we do in fact live in a system where grades matter for universities, colleges, academic awards, and sometimes for that first job, and all of these vehicles by which students are getting the grades are either unethical or riddled with stress and anxiety. But hope exists! Because there is very good news.
To get good grades, all you have to do is actually learn the material!
Revolutionary, I know. It almost seems like I am joking. I assure you I am not. This simple fact is lost on more students and parents than I wish was the case. Clearly it would work though, right? Of course it would. Students, you can take all the effort you are devoting to “getting grades” and shift it to “learning material”. Immerse yourself in class. Ask questions of the teacher. Engage in discussion. Pay attention. Do work in increments (that is, homework), instead of cramming the night before a test or exam. Decide that you will be a master of the topic and use your teacher as the resource they are. Develop a love of learning – trust me, this is not as hard as you think – and as you grow into this person who legitimately strives to learn, the grades will automatically follow, as an afterthought!
Now I know from experience that this message lands differently on everyone. Some people roll their eyes, either inwardly or outwardly, and decide that the game as it is being played works just fine for them. Others hear me and know it makes sense, but feel that it’s too hard, and getting grades some other way will be the way to go. But, there is a significant portion of students I have talked to who have taken the idea to heart. And without fail they are the most academically successful, as reflected both in their grades, and in their facility with the material they have learned. These students inevitably report back to me that once they stopped their pursuit of high grades, and shifted their energy to the learning, they began earning higher grades than they ever had before. And their confidence grew as their anxiety atrophied. Because so much of the mentality of getting grades involves somehow gaming the system into awarding false credit, that when they shift into the person who actually has earned the credit they are receiving, they feel bulletproof.
Depending on the perspective of the different people in my life I am many things: a son, a father, a brother; A student, a teacher, a mentor; A friend, a colleague, a training partner. And yet, in all these capacities I have learned one lesson well, and seen it play out repeatedly. Failure is critical for growth, and letting loved ones fail is one of the hardest manifestations of loving them that there is.
This is never more acute than when it comes to your child. It is one of the most painful struggles in normal parenting. Seeing a that a child is making poor choices and is therefore on a path to failure, letting it happen, and watching the fallout is heart-rending. And yet, the alternative is worse: Letting them believe that there is always a safety net.
As parents, it is our job and our duty to give our children all the tools and guidance they need to succeed as they grow. But it is not our job to give them success. It is not our job to undo their failures, or to mask them as something else. In fact, any “success” that is not earned is not a success at all, and any part we play in delivering these false successes is, in fact, failing in our duties as parents.
Repeatedly and consistently rescuing a child from failure teaches them that failure is not on the table. It teaches them that life will be fine regardless of poor choices, lack of knowledge, or lack of skill. It’s like giving someone voice lessons and using autotune to correct their pitch before playing back their singing to them and to the world, letting them believe they are the next Freddy Mercury or Whitney Houston, and then letting the world watch their train-wreck audition for American Idol. It not only sets them up for confusion later in life, it inhibits self-awareness to the point that life in the “real world” will for them will seem like walking through a minefield, where the reactions from others are so completely out of line with their internal measures (calibrated in their youth) that they can, at times, feel like they never really know what is wrong with them or why they get the responses they do. Consider those American Idol auditions where the singer is so clearly awful, and yet they think so highly of themselves that they tell the judges it’s the judges who are terrible.
The thing is though, that in the moment failure is happening, we parents want nothing more than to take the pain away. Every parent knows what I mean. Your child’s pain, whether physical or emotional, is about a million times worse than your own. My wife always talks about that moment when a toddler is running to you in the park to show you some amazing treasure they found, with that big toddler smile and enthusiasm, when they trip and fall and start crying miserably. We all want that enthusiasm and joy to be the only thing they ever feel. We never, ever, want them to fall.
But it’s unrealistic. Everyone falls. Learning what caused it, analyzing how to have avoided it, and recovering from it are the real lessons. The lessons that lead to a person who truly can be successful. And so we have to let our children fail. And then we have to be there for them to love and support them as they recover from it. We have to show them that failure isn’t the end of anything, and that even in their failure we believe in them and love them as much as we always have. That is how they will learn to grow from failure, without spending a ton of counter-productive energy and emotion on self-recrimination and shame.
In my years of teaching, I have had countless conversations with parents concerned about their children’s academic success – or lack thereof. And on more occasions than I care to count, a parent has outright asked me if there is anything I can do to raise their child’s grade. These parents are always taken aback when I tell them that there is nothing I can do, and nothing they can do either. However there is everything the child can do. We can give them the tools, we can be there to support their learning. We can be the best parents and teachers there are. But we can not “raise the child’s mark”. That is on the student. And sometimes, the student fails. When I tell the parents that I am willing to let that happen, they often think it means I am a bad teacher. There have been a few occasion where they said so. But my response is always the same:
“I am being the best teacher I can be. I will always be there to support your child. I will give them every tool I have, and the guidance to use it, in order for them to succeed. When they need me, I will be there. I will be there even when they don’t realize they need me. But I will never do the work for them, and I will never assign a grade they did not earn. And if they should fail, I will be there to support them and help them see what went wrong, and how to address that in the future. Given all that, my only hope is that your child will look back on their time as my student and realize the gift I gave them: The gift of letting them fail.”
We want the next generation to be resilient, strong, caring and educated. Failure is the path to all of these. As hard as it is, we need to let our children fail.
And then celebrate the heck out of their successes!
The global COVID-19 pandemic has been a reality long enough now that the emails and texts that start off “in these extraordinary circumstances” or “considering the difficult times”, or “unfortunately, due to the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in” now feel like the opening sentiment is redundant. It has strangely become awkward to know what to say when sending out an email with yet another update on how someone or some institution has been impacted. We get it. And yet … we don’t get it. Because we didn’t sign up for this.
I have always admired and respected people in law enforcement, the armed forces, and perhaps especially firefighters and EMT’s. I remember 9/11, which drove home the point that hardly needed making that when everyone’s instincts are screaming at them to run away, these are people run toward. And my respect for them stems from the fact that they signed up to do it. Something inside compelled them when they were younger to sign up for a career of running toward the danger. Of being in place when the shit is going down. Of being the person who was standing between the monster and the town, or being the first person the rest of us might see after getting mauled by the monster – doing their best to get us out of the danger and back into the loving arms of uneventfulness. My respect for them is unchanged.
But now we are finding out that some monsters don’t make a frontal assault. Some of them don’t take the path through the Hot Gates, so that Leonidas and his Spartans can know where to stand to get between the armies of Xerxes and the Greek civilians. Sometimes there is no bridge for Gandalf to block, because sometimes the Balrog descends like a toxic snowfall, on everyone at once.
And we didn’t sign up for that.
Grocery store clerks and cashiers, essential workers in office buildings, gas station attendants … they didn’t sign up to have to go out each day and do the exact opposite of what the rest of us have been told to do. Nurses and doctors signed up to treat sick and injured people – but they didn’t sign up to fight for 15+ hours a day, 7 days a week, against an unseen and not fully understood enemy, under-equipped and underfunded. They didn’t sign up to put themselves at risk caring for ICU patients with a highly contagious virus. They didn’t sign up to hold the phone as patients who might never go home FaceTime their families who just cry as they watch their loved one in an induced coma, breathing only thanks to a ventilator.
It is sadly ironic that some of the lowest-paid occupations in our society are now clearly the backbone of it. I find myself more and more troubled by this glaring imbalance. They didn’t sign up to be brave. The didn’t sign up to run toward the trouble. They didn’t sign up to be at the front. And yet.
What we are slowly discovering is that there are no rules for this. There are no precedents. Values and priorities we thought we understood only a month ago have undergone a seismic shift. And still, many people are operating on assumptions out of a lifetime of habit. As a high school teacher I am seeing this acutely through the lens of my colleagues and my students. Some colleagues are very concerned we will not be able to cover all the curriculum. Some students are very concerned about how this will impact their grades. But it seems to me that what this concern is missing is that the entire world is in the same boat. Every grade 12 student in the province of Ontario is not in school. Every graduating student that will attend university next year is going to have major gaps in their knowledge base as compared to previous years. Every single one of them. As for grades, the only time grades ever matter is when they are being compared to the grades of others. Entrance to university or college. Acceptance to a Masters program. Awards and scholarships. I can promise you that when committees are sitting looking at grade transcripts from this time, they will 100% not be wondering what the hell happened in 2020. Nobody knows yet how they will compensate for the complete inscrutability of the transcripts that we generate, but it is certain that there won’t be individual students who managed to live an alternate reality stream where they did not experience the pandemic and the effects it had on curriculum delivery and grading.
I also find it ironic as an educator that for years now we have been saying that we need to prepare our students for a future that we don’t understand, and yet now we find ourselves living a present that we have no frame of reference for. All the rules have changed. Societal norms are in flux. Responsible governments are scrambling to make the best decisions for the present and for the future. We’ve seen politicians completely shed their veneer, humbled into humanity by the pandemic. We’ve seen others double-down on the default political position of obfuscation, redirection, and selling the fantasy. They don’t have a rule book for this, so some are writing a new one, while others are desperately trying to make the old one work. Time will show either way that governments around the world are making many mistakes. But time will also show the wisdom of many of their decisions. It is too soon to be able to tell in each instance which is which. But as I wrote a few years ago, mistakes are just as valuable in the long term as getting things right, because time doesn’t stand still and we are only ever as good as the lessons we learn. Mistakes make excellent teachers for those willing to learn instead of criticize.
Because we didn’t sign up for this, we don’t have a playbook. There is nothing that is time-tested and proven effective. There is nothing you are “supposed” to be doing with your time. There is only what makes sense in the moment. And the biggest thing to understand is that everyone is in the exact same boat. Or to use another metaphor – we are all on the same ride, and the ride has stopped. So when things return to whatever normal will look like, we will all emerge into the same sunlit sky, rubbing our eyes and stretching our arms and legs. Standards and expectations that applied before the pandemic in many cases not be relevant.
There is a saying that goes “May you live in interesting times” and depending on who you ask it is meant either as a blessing or as a curse. I have always considered it a blessing. After all, who wants to be bored? It is also “interesting” that although the saying has often been attributed to Chinese culture, there appears to be no solid evidence of this.
The application to today’s situation – and the parallels of attribution – are worth noting for a moment, though not dwelling on. That COVID-19 originated in China seems to be effectively certain. That it has anything to do with Chinese culture is not (in a country with almost 1.4 billion people how can we designate any one practice as national culture?) That it has thrust us into interesting times is clear. How we behave is going to be something we learn from and talk about for the rest of our lives. I like breaking down my own experience into two categories: Fear and Opportunity. I’ll talk about both.
The fear. Well this is an obvious one, right? I am afraid the virus will overload our health care system. I am afraid of getting the virus. I am afraid that my loved ones will get the virus. I am afraid that myself or someone I love will need hospital care for some other reason and not be able to get it. This is first and foremost. Like almost everyone reading this, I have loved ones who are vulnerable. I cherish them. I want to protect them. But even for my loved ones who are not vulnerable, I don’t want them to get sick. The threat of COVID-19 is something we can’t see, and it travels on our network – the very network we turn to for much of what we consider a happy existence. Humans are a social species. We rely on our pack to survive and thrive. And the virus uses that exact connection to spread. So, we are in a time where we must go against our culture and our very human instincts and disrupt the network. This naturally creates more fear. We are programmed to find safety and security in our social connections, and these are the very connections we must sever in order to break up the network. There is no human alive who has lived through a time like quite this, though there are certainly those who have lived through arguably worse. In modern memory though, this kind of reaction to pandemic exists only in history books and in movies. So, it’s scary for sure. But the fear also creates the opportunity.
If forced to select a time in my life where this was going to happen, well this is the time I would select. There is no human alive who has lived through a time like this – a time where connectivity is so easily established without physical presence, where we have successfully created a new network on which a biological virus can not travel. A time where respect and understanding has been pushing itself more and more to the forefront of our considerations in how to deal with each other. A time where mental health issues like anxiety and depression have become something we are no longer expected to conceal and endure in isolation, but rather to share and explore so that we can help each other grow and be better. And while much has been discussed about the dangers of this non-physical connectivity, we are now faced with the opportunity to show how we can overcome those dangers and use it for immeasurable good.
We are feeling isolated – we can connect. We are feeling anxious – we can share. We have been feeling exploited and tainted by social media – we can exploit it right back and use it in ways we always wanted to but instead allowed it to deteriorate into a morass of rage and AI marketing.
Most importantly, we can connect with those who we are still face-to-face with. Our families.
As a teacher, my plan is to use what I know and what I am learning about connectivity to continue this year’s delivery of curriculum. It won’t feel exactly like being in class. I have done some experimenting already and I can tell you this – while inferior in ways, it is also superior in other ways, and we will allow ourselves to see it, to embrace it, and to grow. Patience is key, but so is enthusiasm. And I am happy to tell you that swirling around with the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety that I’m having about this pandemic and the measures we are taking, is a maelstrom of enthusiasm that is unyielding. We’ll make it work.
As a human, my plan is to continue to exercise proper caution, in the hopes that months from now there will be a whole slew of people who will be able to criticize what we have been doing as overreaction, using evidence of a less severe outcome to back their claims. I will wait as we all settle into this temporary new normal, and as our politicians perhaps speed up the recognition and acknowledgment of what experts have been saying since the outbreak started. We will have food. We will have our prescriptions. And with care and some healthy paranoia, we will have access to health care when and if we need it. None of us signed up for this, but we can handle it. Humans have weathered worse, under much less optimal conditions!
 From Wikipedia, citing Garson O-Toole: “Despite being so common in English as to be known as the “Chinese curse”, the saying is apocryphal, and no actual Chinese source has ever been produced. The most likely connection to Chinese culture may be deduced from analysis of the late-19th-century speeches of Joseph Chamberlain, probably erroneously transmitted and revised through his son Austen Chamberlain.”
On December 19th, 2018 my wife Marla and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. I think that’s a big deal, so I decided to write something. The last time I wrote something for our anniversary was for our 19th, and is still one of my favourite things I’ve written. If you want, you can read that one here: My Champagne Anniversary
The Champagne Anniversary blog still says a lot about how I feel about our relationship, and relationships in general, so there’s no need to repeat that message here. Instead, in honour of this milestone anniversary, I’ve decided to tell the story of how we met. I’m a high-school teacher and the story is replete with high school drama, so it’s a favourite of my students and thus I have told it countless times over the years. Like any story that gets oft-retold, many of the facts morph with each retelling, and the memories of of telling the story get fused with the memories of the actual event, creating some sort of amalgamation of facts and feelings that nonetheless stands as true, to the extent that it represents one’s own perception of history.
Whatever the hell that means.
Just Your Average Nerdy Kid …
Marla and I met in 1986, when I was 17 and she was 16. But to properly tell the story, I need to paint a picture of who I was before we met, and to do that, I need to go back in time a bit further than that.
Growing up I clearly remember wondering how it would feel to know someone loved you. With the exception of my parents, and I guess my siblings, I couldn’t imagine it. Of course I knew my parents loved me – especially my mother – but what would it be like to be sure that someone else did? Romantically, I mean?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a crush on someone. Some girl in my class, or from the neighbourhood where we lived, or from the summer camps I went to. I was a pretty shy kid, and would never dream of doing anything about these crushes. They were just silent admiration and fantasies of going out on dates, holding hands, and being “boyfriend and girlfriend”. These memories go back to before I was 8 years old for sure, though the exact ages are blurred now. I would watch television and movies and see couples in love and legitimately marvel at how the guy could possibly be certain about the girl’s feelings. I admit I didn’t think about this equation much from the female perspective. To me, females had their shit together in a way that males could never comprehend. They certainly never experienced the kind of doubt I was struggling with. They were models of self-confident perfection, while guys were basically just schmucks hoping to be lucky enough to have someone fall in love with them, while never being sure if that was even possible. Well, maybe not all guys. But certainly this guy.
Entering adolescence certain things became clear to me. First, I was not an athlete. I was a skinny asthmatic kid with what I sometimes used to think of as hyperactive empathy disorder (I have since come to realize it’s not a disorder at all – it’s a gift – if not a heavy one to bear sometimes). As such, I tended to steer away from intense competition, and didn’t have the natural grace or physical intelligence that some people seem to be born with. My strengths seemed to be in all things nerdy. I was good at school, good at video games, and good at watching Star Trek. I had friends with similar interests. We did not talk to girls – we had no idea how to. We had fun though! My friends and I spent almost the entire year of grade 7 coming to school each day dressed as, and in character of our favourite Star Trek crew members. I was Spock, complete with homemade communicator and scientific tricorder. I worked on pretending to be emotionless and logical. I lamented not being able to raise one eyebrow. I did not take myself too seriously. None of us did. It was just our way of having fun.
When I was 13, my parents divorced. When I was 15, my mother decided to move from Calgary to Toronto. Starting a new school in grade 10 for someone like me was an adolescent nightmare. Fortunately my best friend Rob and his family also moved that summer, largely due to the fact that our mothers were friends as well. Rob and I spent essentially all of grade 10 together, still wondering if there would ever come a day when we could actually talk to girls. We certainly talked about them! Those weird, wonderful, remarkably composed humans who always seemed to know what they were doing were so far from our world, there literally seemed to be no way to make first contact (see what I did there? Star Trek reference). Think Raj from Big Bang Theory, but in real life. Also, Raj found he could talk to women if he had some alcohol – we didn’t drink, and in any case, it wouldn’t have worked.
The Tale of Raj and Saavik (or something like that)
Here’s a little anecdote I love to tell to illustrate just how nerdy and naive I was. In grade 11 I took a history course, with a teacher who liked to set up the desks in the classroom in a big U. My seat was at the tip of the U farthest from the door to the classroom. There was a girl in the class whose name I forget, but for the purpose of the story let’s say it was Saavik. I had a gigantic crush on Saavik. I thought she was the smartest, prettiest, funniest and coolest girl at the school (or at least in the history class). The high school I went to was public, but was in a Jewish neighbourhood, so a lot of the kids there were Jewish, as am I. Saavik was Jewish. I figured that was good, because in some altered reality where she and I got married and lived happily ever after, it would be good that we were both Jewish.
Anyway, Saavik sat across the U from me, with her friends. I used to try to divide my time roughly evenly between paying attention to the teacher and the classwork and admiring Saavik without seeming to. The old “stretch-and-scan-across-the-room-but-linger-3-nanoseconds-longer-as-your-eyes-pass-your-crush” gambit was a favourite. Sometimes I would think about what I might say if I ever found a way to talk to her.
Then I’d laugh at myself. Because, like, whatever buddy.
One day before class started I was sitting at my spot when Saavik got to class. Of course I knew she was in the room – I always knew. But I kept my cool (haha – me, cool). As she made her way to her seat something weird happened, which to this day I don’t have an explanation for. Maybe her friends weren’t there. Maybe she wanted to see the world from a different angle. Maybe she was temporarily taken over by aliens from another dimension wanting to run sociological experiments on human adolescents. In any case what she did was she started to make her way around the U toward my location.
I had no idea what to do.
My heart rate rose to approximately 473 bpm. I started to sweat a little. I started talking/yelling at myself in my head:
Why is she coming this way?!? Keep your eyes on your book! Oh god she’s coming closer! What is she doing? What am I going to do! For the love of Vulcan do not look up. What?! Is she sitting down?!?! NEXT TO ME?!?!?!!!
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look up. But at the same time I knew this was my chance, if ever there was to be one. Then the most bizarre thing happened. My left hand was resting on the table, and I felt someone touch my ring.
Saavik was touching my ring!!!
Then, as if it couldn’t get any more intense she spoke.
“Nice ring” she said.
She’s touching my ring!! She talked to me!!! What do I do?!?! What would Fonzy do?!? I have to talk to her. I have to say something! What do I say? Has to be good. Have to make sure she knows I’m Jewish so that marriage is possible. What do I say?!?!
“Thanks” I said, in a voice almost exactly like those two fanboy monsters from Monsters Inc. who idolize Sully, Smitty and Needleman, “I got it for my Bar Mitzvah.”
Then I pulled my hand away. And never looked up. It was the first and last conversation we ever had. I can’t tell this story without laughing at myself. But it is 100% true.
I wonder what ever happened to Saavik.
Rich, Rob and Geordi
Ok. So hopefully you get the idea. Shy kid, lots of nerdy friends, can’t talk to women, wishes he could. Now we’ll fast-forward to the summer between grade 11 and grade 12. It is maybe worth noting that this was back when the Ontario education system had a grade 13 in high school, for kids who wanted to go to university after graduating. Rob and I had become very good friends with a guy I will call Geordi. We had been friends with Geordi for most of grade 11. He is a great guy. He was nerdy like us, but also had a bit of a sophistication that we did not. That certain, you know, savoir-faire. That summer Geordi decided that enough was enough. In grade 12, he was going to start talking to girls. He was going to get a girlfriend.
Cue Smitty and Needleman:
“Hahahaha! Ok Geordi, whatever you say man. As if you can talk to girls!”
But Geordi was determined. And to his credit, when grade 12 started, he managed to grow into someone who could, in fact, talk to girls. And he did. Regularly. Of course not when Rob or I were around – but that’s because it’s hard to seem sophisticated and together with Smitty and Needleman hanging around making you lose your focus.
Geordi started to report back to us on this new world of girls he was living in.
“Sophia and I walked to the convenience store at lunch today. I really like her.”
“I sit next to Jodi in English. She’s really funny.”
“There is this girl Nyota whose locker is just down the hall from mine. She’s super-nice.”
All were candidates for Geordi’s first girlfriend. All sounded super-exotic and awesome. I was seriously in awe of Geordi. As the year progressed it became clear that Geordi had indeed learned how to talk to girls, and things were looking as though he would in fact achieve that mystical state of having a girlfriend, heretofore only achieved by athletes and dudes with cool skateboards. Rob and I were happy for him, and not a little jealous.
One day I met Geordi at his locker at the beginning of lunch. Geordi had a car, so it was especially good to be his friend around lunchtime. Anyway, Nyota happened to be there. Geordi introduced us:
“Nyota, this is my friend Rich. Rich, Nyota.” he said.
“Nice to meet you Rich,” said Nyota, quite reasonably. Little did she know I had just suffered two minor heart attacks during the introduction and was fighting off an embolism. I believe my response was something along the lines of
“Hbbj Nrag, bluwq,” delivered most charmingly, I imagine. Maybe there was an umlaut on the u in bluwq. I can’t be sure.
Of course I assumed the natural and usual outcome of the exchange, which is to say I would get the look of bewilderment tinged with horror that I had come to expect from girls I attempted verbal communication with. But that didn’t happen.
Nyota kept talking to me.
I honestly have no idea what she said. I was just fascinated by the fact that she didn’t do the virtual cut-and-run. I remember she was smiling. I remember that she was talking to me as though I were normal. I remember finding that extremely confusing.
It took me about 47 seconds to fall in love.
That was a special day. It marked the first time I considered myself to have been in an actual conversation with a girl. And it was the beginning of me being able to talk to girls, like a normal human being. It opened up a whole new high school experience, centred on Nyota, of course. I made sure to spend as much time as possible in her orbit. She was always so nice. She introduced me to all her friends, and I was able to talk to all of them, though admittedly only long enough so that it wasn’t totally rude when I returned my focus to Nyota. One of the friends she introduced me to was Marla. Marla seemed nice enough. But whatever. Nyota was the one!
Eventually I knew it was time to have a discussion with Geordi. If Nyota and I were to be married, he would probably have to find out sooner or later. So one day when I was over at his place I let him know that I had fallen hard for Nyota. I figured he’d be cool with it, given how many other girls were on his radar. Turns out he wasn’t totally cool with it. I remember him saying that although there were plenty of girls he had been talking to, Nyota was the one he was having romantic feelings for. Damn. Just my luck. So we did what any two idiotic adolescent boys would do – we made a pact. We would both pursue Nyota to the best of our abilities, and once one us was successful, the other would back down, and we would remain friends. It’s funny I know – the arrogance to assume that one of us would be successful, as if Nyota didn’t have other options, or was even interested in a relationship. But in any case, that was the pact.
For myself, there was never any doubt that she would choose me. She had to. We were meant to be together. I could feel it in my soul, with a depth only adolescent hormones can attain. My newfound confidence was exhilarating, and I was going to ride it out for all it was worth.
I was a lifeguard back then, and I regularly worked at an apartment building occupied mostly be senior citizens who never used the pool. I would often sit and stare at an empty pool, or do crosswords (after I finished my homework, that is – I managed very high grades in high school thanks to that empty pool). Sometimes a friend would come and visit with some McDonald’s which was right across the road. One day Nyota came to visit. She brought me a Big Mac. Love, right?
So as we were sitting there eating our grease, she suddenly got really serious. She says she has to tell me something.
“Geordi told me about your pact,” she says.
“He told me how the two of you are both interested in me.”
“He did. That’s … interesting.”
“I just want you to know, I love you both. I haven’t made my choice yet. But I will soon.”
Ouch. I questioned Geordi’s choice, that’s for sure. But she did say she loved me (don’t get excited – Nyota used to say I love you to pretty much anyone she was friends with). And at least now everyone knew the situation. I still had no doubts about who she would choose. That is, until Halloween that year – this would be 1986.
The Halloween That Crushed Me
Geordi had a Halloween party at his place. We weren’t old enough to drink legally, but for some reason I always looked old enough and could buy alcohol without getting carded. I bought some for everyone, which is funny because I myself never drank. Didn’t like the taste. Still don’t, actually. Anyway, we were all there at Geordi’s having a good time. At one point in the evening I realized I couldn’t find Nyota, so I went looking for her. She wasn’t anywhere downstairs where most of the people were hanging out (neither was Geordi, although I didn’t notice that), so I went upstairs. The door to Geordi’s room was closed, so naturally I went in (I swear this is not how it sounds – I was so naive that I just thought it was another place to look, and I had been in Geordi’s room hundreds of times since that’s where we hung out when we were at his place).
I found Nyota. And Geordi, as it turned out.
Now before you get all freaked out I have to tell you that it’s not what it would have been if this were a television drama. They were just sitting on the bed. But they were sitting really close. And they both looked at me with expressions that told me that Nyota had made her choice. I apologized for interrupting, closed the door, and went straight for the beer. I grabbed a bottle of Molson Canadian and must have chugged like at least one seventh of it, then decided I was drunk. I slid down the wall I was leaning on and started crying. Oh the teenage angst. Oh the pain! Rob found me like that and figured out what happened, and we left.
The next day at school Nyota found me and apologized that I had to find out that way (funny right? She apologized to me because I barged into a room where the door was closed). Apparently she had made her choice some time before, but neither of them knew how to tell me. She said she still wanted to be my friend, because she valued our friendship very much and in fact considered me to be her best friend. I agreed. We would be friends forever.
Not My Finest Moment
About a month later, Geordi and his family went to Montreal to visit some family. Being friends and all, Nyota and I spent much of that time together. We went to see Lady and the Tramp, which was playing in a theatre near where I lived, and went to dinner after. We talked a lot about what had gone down. I told her I still loved her and couldn’t turn it off. She told me that Geordi didn’t understand her the way I did, although he loved her and she loved him. We decided that she had made the wrong choice. She decided she would break up with Geordi when he got back, then we would wait an appropriate amount of time and then she and I would get together officially. I had officially broken my pact with Geordi, but I thought he would understand. Nyota was my soul mate, after all. It was much more than just teenage romance.
That year I had a New Year’s party at my place. Like Halloween, everyone was there. Nyota told me that she would break up with Geordi at that party. I was eager for that to happen so we could begin our life together. I was hyper-aware of Nyota and Geordi all evening, and eventually I noticed that they were not around. Nyota came back later but Geordi did not. She was not happy. I am sure he was not either. But it was done. We spoke briefly but she was very upset and left. I was upset for Geordi, but elated for myself. All those years of wondering what it would be like to be in a romantic relationship and here I was, in one.
A few days later Nyota told me that she was headed over to Geordi’s place to talk. He has asked if she would come over and she felt she owed him that. I was concerned, but hey – people do what they need to, right? I told her to call me when she left, no matter what time it was. I stayed by the phone all night. I unplugged the other phones in the apartment when it got too late so the call wouldn’t wake my mother or siblings. I put the phone under my pillow so it would wake me but be muffled. The call never came.
Let the Teenage Angst Begin
The next day I called her house. These were the days before call display – if you wanted to know who was on the phone you had to actually answer it. Nyota’s mother answered. I asked for Nyota and she asked who was calling. When I said it was Rich, she said Nyota wasn’t home and would call me back.
Rob had come over that morning, and when I hung up he said he would try. He called, and again Nyota’s mother answered. She asked who was calling and he said Rob. She said one second, and put Nyota on the phone. Rob gave me the receiver, and I said hi.
“Oh, it’s you” she said, “I was going to call you later.”
“Well I’m here now. How did it go? What happened?”
“We had a long talk, and Geordi helped me realize what I should have already known. That I love him more than anything in this world.”
I felt like Thanos had used all the power in the infinity gauntlet to reach into my chest and squeeze my heart.
“Well kid, you had me fooled.” I said, and I hung up the phone.
I was pretty inconsolable for weeks after that. Geordi and I talked and decided we were cool, but we really weren’t. It was hard for him to forgive me and I didn’t blame him. And I was just unable to internalize what had happened. We were supposed to be soul mates. She was the only girl who ever talked to me. And she chose someone else.
I still hung out with our friend group when we would go out. One of our common activities was to go bowling and then hang out at a Tim Horton’s near the bowling alley. Any teenager will tell you, there is no pain like teenage heartbreak though, and I would stay alone in the corner and wallow. During that time, Marla would always come over to see how I was doing. I can only imagine how pathetic I looked. She and Nyota were very close, and she knew what had happened. We talked and talked. I lamented my loss. She commiserated. This went on for a long time.
The Beginning of Love Was True Friendship
Eventually I began to realize that we weren’t spending our time talking about Nyota anymore. We were just talking about stuff that people talk about. I also realized that whenever the group went out, I always wanted to be near Marla because I just really enjoyed her company. I wasn’t sure if she felt the same way, but she seemed to not mind the fact that we always ended up sitting together. I know I didn’t mind. And when we hugged as friends, did she hold it a little longer? I wasn’t sure. I know I was holding it just a smidgen long, but always hyper-aware of whether she was pulling away as one does at the end of the friend hug.
One day Geordi came to me, and asked me if I was having feelings for Marla. I said I thought maybe I was.
His response was “Oh, no. We were worried about that. Nyota and I don’t want to see you get hurt again. Nyota talked to Marla and is sure that Marla does not feel that way about you.”
Not Buying It
I should have been devastated, right? But it didn’t sound true. I was getting a different vibe from Marla than would be consistent with that. So I just kept doing what I was doing, which is to say spending time with her, getting to know her, and just really enjoying each other’s company. Oh, and the hugs were getting longer, I was sure of it. I got a bit more confident as time went on – Rob had a birthday party for Marla at his place, and we were all lying on the floor in his family room listening to music and talking. Marla and I were lying on our stomachs next to each other, and she was close to a glass coffee table. I put my arm over her back – like right over, in an arch, no touching – and said I was just protecting her side from the corner of the table. She smiled in the cutest way (which she still does) and said ok. I stayed like that for hours, I think. Couldn’t feel my arm. But I could sure as hell feel my heart.
Our First Date
There was another couple in our friend group that I haven’t talked about. I’ll call them Han and Leia. They were good people, and a real power couple at the time. Han and I discussed going to see a movie with Leia and Marla. We asked them and it was set. The movie was Brighton Beach Memoirs. The date was January 27, 1987.
During the movie I decided to “make the move”. The Danny Zuko move. I literally yawned and stretched to put my arm around her shoulders. But before I put it all the way down I lost my Zuko, and asked her if it was ok if I put my arm around her. She said yes.
SHE SAID YES!
I said “Good. Because I love you.”
That’s right folks. First date, right out of the gate. I went there. And her reply was three words I will never forget.
“Are you sure?”
See – she knew I was not quite sane. But I was sure.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Because I love you too.”
And with those words … she saved me. (Man, that sentence was fromage right there! True though.)
33 Years Later, She Continues to Save Me
And ladies and gentlemen that was it. That’s the story of how Marla saved me, and helped me become I am today. When we started dating I was 17 years old, and she was 16. We have said “I love you” to each other every single day since then, with the exception perhaps of the days before internet and cell phones, when we were in different cities for university, and long distance charges made it so we couldn’t talk every day.
I’ll be 50 this coming April. 33 years of my life have been spent in love with Marla, and knowing she loves me too. Little me was right – it is a bizarre and wonderful thing. Marla is so much more than my wife. She is more of me than I am myself. Every bit of me that does good in this world is influenced by her. She is the kindest, gentlest, most caring soul. Her greatest pleasure is just being with the kids and I. If the first part of this blog was about how we met, I think it’s an injustice to not spend the end of it talking about how my life is so much better because of her. Here are some images that I have from our 33 years together. They aren’t in any particular order, and the list is infinitely far from comprehensive:
Watching her breastfeed both kids. She would sit with them on the special breastfeeding pillow, and methodically kiss all of their parts as they fed, spending particular time on their little toes. So peaceful, and so special. My heart still melts when I think about it.
One time on her father’s sailboat, I was on deck and she was below. I looked down through a hatch at the same time her father did at Marla looking up at us with those big brown eyes. I was struck by how sweet she looked. Apparently so was her dad – he commented on her “big cow eyes”. He meant that in a nice way. She has this way of looking at me sometimes with those eyes that is like pure love.
On our honeymoon in Ixtapa, Mexico, there were some guys on the beach selling parasailing experiences. I think they were charging $50, but I can’t remember. In any case I do remember it was all the cash we had with us at that moment. I was too scared to try but she was not. I remember seeing her suspended up there, and I was so in love with her at that moment, and so scared that she might get hurt. She looked so small, and yet she was (still is) everything.
Watching a movie or television with her and the kids. We always know when something will make her cry (it doesn’t take much, admittedly). We always look at her when we know she will be crying. It’s like she emotes for all of us. We all love her so much, and in those moments I think it gets amplified.
After my heart attack I had a fairly ugly-looking bruised, tender area where the catheter for the angioplasty was inserted in my right wrist. I was feeling pretty fragile overall, and was taking extreme care not to stress that area. I remember lying in bed mostly asleep, and I turned over and realized that my arm was about to get squished under my head, so I extended it out. It was then that I realized Marla was fully awake and watching me, as she gently took a small pillow that lives on our bed and placed it under my wrist. She is always doing that – small things to take care of the people she loves. That pillow is still in the same spot 4 years later. I still put my wrist on it. My wrist is fully healed – can’t even see a scar.
I said recently to someone that there isn’t a part of me that isn’t infused with Marla. Double-negatives aside, I don’t know a better way to describe her impact and influence. She is my best friend, my closest confidant, and the source of all my strength and confidence. I literally spend time just treasuring my fortune at knowing her, and being her husband. There may or not be such thing as angels, but there sure are angelic people, and Marla is the most angelic of them all. I love her.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about my heroes. In order to help clarify my thoughts, I thought a blog post might be useful. I’ll start with some clarification about the way I am applying the word “hero”, because I think it can have many meanings.
For me, a person who rushes into a burning building to save a baby is heroic, and I stand in awe of that kind of bravery, but I am not talking about that kind of hero. Then there are the people we see repeatedly doing amazing things in some specific context. For example Michael Jordan often did heroic things on the basketball court, most notably for me was game 5 of the 1997 finals when Jordan, sick with either flu or food-poisoning, still managed to lead the Bulls to victory. But I’m not talking about that kind of heroism.
What I am talking about is when I encounter someone who has amplified some trait or combination of traits I sense in myself, and that I would like to amplify as well. I could probably use the term “role model” here more aptly, but I also find that this term is not as charged with the energy I am trying to convey. The word hero works better.
When I was younger I didn’t realize this – I thought my heroes were demonstrating something I didn’t have, and that drew me to them. As I got older I started to discover that in reality what was happening was they were showing the trees that my seeds could grow into. They were showing that it works, and that it can stand you well. They were showing me that I was right to want to nurture those aspects of my character. So who are my heroes? It’s an interesting list. In many cases there is overlap, but not all. And sometimes the heroism is derived from a very narrow slice of what is undoubtedly a complicated synthesis of things I either don’t know about, or else don’t value in this sense. So I guess my list is kind of like a Frankensteinian conglomeration of pieces, each amplified, that make up the parts of me I like the best, and want to amplify.
Maybe one day I will write out the list, and do my best to identify how each person comes to be there. But today I want to talk about one hero specifically. Because she left us today, and I am feeling the loss intensely. And she is a most unlikely hero.
I’m talking about my dog, Tryxi.
We said goodbye to her this morning. It was hell. The whole family was there, along with our wonderful vet, who loved Tryxi almost as much as we did. There’s no surprise here for any dog owner. Dog owners all understand how much we love them. And any dog owner who has lost a pet knows there are no words for the pain of that day and that moment. But she was suffering terribly, poor girl. Cancer was eating away at her from the inside out and she had lost her muscle mass, her appetite, and much of her enthusiasm. Although she was happy about people right until the last moment. She loved her people.
So let me tell you why Tryxi was my hero.
Tryxi spent most of her days in my wife’s home office, guarding my wife and the house from her doggy bed. When the four of us (my wife, myself and our two kids) would gather in the kitchen or family room for family time Tryxi always made sure she was there too, the proximity being important to her and to us. Whenever my daughter was sad, she would hug Tryxi and it would be better. Ever since my heart attack about 3.5 years ago I have had bouts of anxiety that cruelly give me chest pain. Hugging Tryxi took the pain away.
Tryxi never tried to make anyone feel better, or better about themselves. It just happened because she accepted everything as true. If she sensed sadness she never tried to tell the person to make the sad go away. She just absorbed it. When she sensed happiness she ran with it. Tryxi never lied – to herself or to anyone. If she found something to be irritating she said so (as experienced often by our other, younger dog, Moose the pug). When she was in pain Tryxi never thought about whether it was fair or not. She never felt sorry for herself. She also never congratulated herself for anything.
Tryxi was naturally strong. She destroyed many a Kong in her time – even the “Extreme Kong”, designed for the toughest chewers, was no match for her and lasted less than 20 minutes. Her thighs rippled with muscle even when she wasn’t moving. And yet Tryxi never, ever, used her strength to hurt anyone or anything. She would use it readily to establish her presence, or to solve a problem, but never in aggression. Tryxi knew exactly who she was without anyone having to tell her, and certainly without having to have conversations with herself about it. If she liked something she loved it. If she didn’t like something she ignored it. Her default position was love and calm. Anything that happened that took her away from that place was always viewed as a temporary distraction, and she would deal with it then patiently wait the return to baseline. Without judgement or remorse. Even as she was deteriorating, her attitude stayed like that. She was waiting for her peace.
This morning she found it. She knew it was coming and she wasn’t afraid. It was what she was waiting for.
Tryxi has been my hero for years. I am changed because of her – because she showed me that I could amplify those traits that I saw in myself. I do my best to calmly accept the moment. To live now. To enjoy the love that is always there. To bring peace to others. To not judge. To not waste energy fretting over what is “fair” and instead to use my energy to live fully.
Ok. I know that’s been borrowed from AA protocol countless times. Often in jest when not in the context of an actual meeting. But I’m not joking – I am an addict. I have had a few addictions in my life, thankfully not any of the big nasty ones like alcohol or drugs, but some of the ones I’ve had have had negative impact, for certain. The two most prominent are food and smartphones.
I am going to talk a little about the food addiction later in this article. But I mainly want to talk about the subtle and not-so-subtle evils that my phone addiction has wrought. The first is an obvious one, and it has been discussed to death. Still, it needs addressing:
Phone Addiction Steals You From The World
There are way too many times I have belatedly realized that my son, daughter, wife or close friend made an attempt to communicate with me while I was using my phone. And after they realize it’s like talking to a projection, they give up. The worst part is they seem to just accept it – that they are not going to win my attention over whatever clever post I am reading or writing, or whatever video about people hurting themselves doing stupid things I am watching, or whatever likes I am counting. What’s worse is that so many of those times they were the ones who had my attention first, but during a brief lull in our interaction I pulled out my phone to investigate a notification and was subsequently checked out. Most heart-wrenching is that it is out of respect for me that they give up and don’t try to interrupt my phone time. Clearly I don’t need to go further on the evil of this aspect. The next few are a little more subtle, but insidious.
Smartphone Addiction Erodes Your Ability to Focus
Humility aside, my concentration and focus used to be legendary. I could get lost in a process, with intense focus for hours on end. So much so that I would forget to eat or even go to the washroom, until the need for one or both of those became impossible to ignore and I would look at the clock and be shocked at the time. And the things I could do during that time were amazing. It’s how I got through my Masters degree with a GPA of 97%, for example (that and major support from my awesome wife and kids). Lately, my concentration sucks. I find myself looking for distraction only minutes after beginning something. At first, when I noticed this, I blamed my age. It’s no secret that aging can have an impact on brain function. But the truth is I am 48, and there are plenty of people older – even much older – than me who can concentrate on a task for a long period of time with no trouble. On a smartphone, nothing needs concentration, and everything is provided in quick bites. You flit from item to item like a politician moving through a political rally, shaking hands with everyone and meeting nobody. And you can tell yourself that this is behaviour limited to your phone time, but what you miss is that your brain is a learning machine, and it’s learning a behaviour. Your brain wires itself to adapt to your environment, even if that environment is the manufactured barrage of inanity you kill time with on your phone.
Possibly worse, is that we tell ourselves that the phone is a harmless distraction, and we use it at the weirdest times. I’ve used it while watching TV, thinking that surely the TV doesn’t care so no harm done. But while the TV doesn’t care, my brain does. Watching a television show requires focus. Not the same level as calculus mind you – but focus nonetheless. There’s a story unfolding and if you miss something the subsequent bits make less sense. So you are missing an opportunity to focus. To practice what I tell my students is the single most lacking skill in the computer generation: uni-tasking. I have heard many a person brag about their ability to multi-task, which is great, I guess. But smartphones have stolen our ability to focus on one thing for a long time. We can no longer effectively uni-task.
Smartphone Addiction Encourages Mistakes
Yeah, this one took me a while to clue into. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that I am making more mistakes at things that I should be able to do automatically. Frighteningly, I don’t even notice them when I make them – only once they are pointed out, or long after, do I notice. And when I do notice I have no memory of making the mistake.
Now I hear you say Wait! That’s just a symptom of aging!
Well, yes. It could be. But the thing is, there is a thought groove I find myself in when these things happen – like a road I know I’ve been on because the landmarks are familiar but I can’t quite place it. Then it hit me. Autocorrect. Autocorrect and predictive text. Both of these so-called innovations have made it so that we don’t even have to concentrate on the simple act of typing a text, email, or post. Just type close to what you want and autocorrect will fix it for you. Not always correctly, mind you, but often. So much so that when it gets it wrong we don’t even notice until later, making for some humorous/embarrassing messages getting sent. I actually hated this feature, and turned off autocorrect some time ago, but I kept the predictive text on. And it works so well that I often only have to type the first 1-3 letters of what I want and an entire phrase is suggested to me – correctly. So I select it and don’t check it. And sometimes, my iPhone does the old bait-and-switch on me so that the thing I think I’m selecting changes to something else just before I select it, and I don’t even notice and the wrong thing gets sent.
Like I said before, the brain is a learning machine. And my smartphone addiction has taught my brain that you only have to start a thought to have it completed automatically. And that is what has manifested into these increasingly frequent mistakes. It is NOT age. I can feel it when it happens. It is the same thought groove as typing on my phone.
At Least I Remember When It Wasn’t So
The scariest thought to me is that these things I describe are changes. As in, it wasn’t always so for me. I am actually frightened about the generations that don’t have a comparison to make to a different time. A generation that believes that being able to concentrate on one thing for a long time is an unusual, maybe even useless skill. Or that being able catch every joke in a sitcom is a freakish ability. Or that being able to spell a word correctly on purpose is a worthwhile ability. With respect to the issues I have outlined, I want to go back to the way I was. But for many younger people, this is the way they have always been. There is nothing to go back to.
Quitting May Not Be the Answer
So the fix would seem obvious, wouldn’t it? Just stop. But that’s not realistic, or even really desirable. Many good things come from my smartphone. I have made friends – good friends – who live in different countries from me, and I stay in touch with them using my phone. There are legitimately useful apps, like the medication reminder, the shared grocery list. Or the math puzzle game Euclidea that actually reverses some of the deleterious concentration effects I described above. I use GPS apps all the time and get lost much less often (though sadly, I still manage to get lost sometimes). I listen to so much more music variety than I did in the days when you had to buy records, tapes or CD’s, and it is so much more easy to discover new music now than then. I take a lot of photos with my phone, and some of those are real treasures that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I read some great articles, and have learned a ton of cool things. Chances are super-high you are reading this on a smartphone. I believe these are good things. So I don’t want to quit. And I don’t think anyone has to. We live in a pretty plugged in world, and more and more there are things that are designed to be done on our devices that are actually difficult if not impossible to do otherwise. So modified usage is the key.
Modification Requires Discipline
Or does it? I mean, yeah, it does. Almost always. If you want to modify a behaviour it means breaking a habit, and that is not trivial. You need to be disciplined. And you need to believe that you can do it. Which I think, for many people, is the main obstacle to success. That belief that you can do it. Which leads me to my food addiction:
How I Modified My Eating Behaviour
The first addiction in my life I had to acknowledge was food. Maybe I was genetically doomed to that, or maybe it was my upbringing, but my addiction to food is real either way. It resulted in a max weight of 250 lbs, and an adulthood of gaining-losing-gaining, until my heart attack 3 years ago. The heart attack was actually not caused by my eating, or so the cardiologist says, but rather genetics. My arteries are shaped in a more clog-worthy way than you’d set out to do if you were designing a human from scratch. However there’s no argument that my food addiction wasn’t helping. The heart attack added a new tool to my psyche though – something that’s simultaneously heard and easy to describe: a hard stop. Before the heart attack meals were a negotiation in my head. And I often didn’t come out the winner in the bargain. Now there is no negotiation. I eat clean, all the time. I don’t overeat. I actually can have just one french fry. Truly! French fries are a food I will not allow myself to order or prepare anymore, but on occasion I have had just one from someone else’s meal – even though they were finished and offered me the rest. Just one, for the taste, and I have no desire to eat another. Cardio is now a non-negotiable habit as well. I don’t negotiate whether or not I will do it. I just do.
I am as fit as I’ve ever been and certainly as healthy as I’ve ever been. People often ask me how I did it and I sadly tell them that I wish I could give them the secret, but the secret is I had a heart attack and I don’t want another one.
The picture on the left features my beautiful niece at her first birthday. You may be distracted by her cuteness – I understand. Take your time. But when you are ready, the place to look is my belly protruding under my forearm. The picture on the right is a fun shot I took after a workout a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and by the way – both those photos were taken with my phone.
So. I have managed to find a way to live a healthy life despite a food addiction, even if the way I found was not something I’d wish on anyone. But after all, isn’t it all in my head? This new tool I called the hard stop?
Of course it is. And because it is I believe I can apply that rationale to my phone addiction. I have started to, and will continue to do so.
What I Am Doing to Fix it
I turned off all the features of my phone that try to think for me. Any typos or wrong words I send now are all mine. And there are so much fewer of them now! It takes me longer to compose a message. But it’s worth it.
I will not look at my phone while watching TV. Not even during commercials. Because you can’t force yourself to stop the moment the commercial is over.
If I am in the middle of a legitimate text conversation with someone, I make sure the people in the room with me know it, so they know why I am checked out. And when it is done, I tell them explicitly that I am done and I put my phone away so that they can have my distraction-free attention.
When I sit down to do focus-heavy tasks, like work or drawing, I put my brain in do-not-disturb mode, meaning I don’t check notifications at all, and my phone becomes a music player exclusively. When I do this, I let anyone know who would normally feel like they have 24/7 access to me that I have gone dark. This way if they need to communicate with me they know they need to either do it in person or call. Because as we all know, nobody ever uses their smartphone as a telephone, so when there is an actual call I know I should check to see who it is and probably answer.
It Can Be Done
As they say, no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. You don’t have to quit if you can properly modify. And you can. I believe you don’t need a critical moment to be the catalyst. Just the knowledge that you can do it. And I really, really believe we need to.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on smartphone addiction, and how it can be addressed. Feel free to share in the comments section.