I’ve been thinking lately of E.B. White, he of children’s fiction fame for Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, who many today may not know was also a fine essayist. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, I once heard in an interview with his stepson that White worked on his essays tirelessly, drafting and rewriting over and over, never quite happy with this section or that sentence. But then the postman would arrive and, if he was to meet his deadline, White would have to turn over his essay. He had to stop.
The past few days, as is so often the case after I’ve posted one of my own essays on Whoopsie Piggle, I find my brain still writing that which I’ve already posted. I was up at three in the morning after “Screen, Paper, Sound” posted to add a photo of us playing Euchre at the kitchen table. I’d meant to add it before posting, but somehow had forgotten. Easily fixed, that oversight.
The next day, I asked Claude if, when he was a kid, he ever played the video games “Halo” or “Grand Theft Auto” at friends’ houses. He told me he had and I asked where and he told me. At the time, the mother of that friend had sworn to me that the only games they had were auto racing games and the sports games on the Wii. Claude also played a lot of GTA this past year in his dorm at Michigan and sheepishly confessed that he enjoyed it. “That’s different,” I told him, “you’re an adult now and can choose what you do with yourself. Besides, your brain has developed, but it’s different for kids.”
Claude’s habits are set. He reads the paper with the rest of us and probably finishes more copies of The New Yorker than anyone else in the house. He’s started writing essays of his own and, in the weeks that he’s been home from college, has purposely scheduled time to do so. This isn’t for an assignment, this is on his own for his own satisfaction. He’s been working odd jobs, powering through a significant amount of tough yard work (Max has made Claude the second in command on his English ivy eradication program) and happily spends hours at a time taking care of Leif and Lyra so that I myself can write. If he plays video games with his roommates at college, meh, he’s a balanced guy, video games are not at risk of becoming more real to him than life.
And that’s it, isn’t it? The habits we choose, whether conciously or by some immediately unobservable pattern, that shape who we are and how we interact with others. And so, in this morning’s New York Times, Jonathan Safran Foer has an op-ed piece that speaks to our changing habits as technology changes and the concern for what we risk losing, if we aren’t mindful, of our humanness:
Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.
In otherwords, be present and be kind. Don’t allow your technology to cocoon you from the humanity to which we are all belong. And that’s why my children did not grow up with video games in the house and minimal “screen time” in general. But I, too, have to monitor my own time spent on that little phone with those seductive apps. Including the one for WordPress.com that lets me monitor the stats for Whoopsie Piggle. It’s remarkably addictive.
This technological format I write in, a blog, allows me to make changes ad infinitum to the original copy and also to follow up, like I am now, whenever I want. Does this improve or detract from the writing? E.B. White had to stop, he had to pass it over to the mail carrier. But I wonder, as the mail carrier drove away with the essay down the writer’s driveway in Maine, did White call his editor at The New Yorker and give him changes over the phone?