If your life is anything like mine, you can sympathize when I lament, “I’m not crazy… but my life is crazy.” In modern life – especially for those of us who spend far too much time online or mostly engaged in other digital activities (like writing blog posts) – one of the things which is most crazy-making is the inability to control our activities. “Plan your work, then work your plan.” What’s so complicated about that? Yet, when I make up a plan for the day, things always seem to intervene to keep me from following my plan. Always.
The following short story is an example of the writing technique called “stream of consciousness”. In this style of writing, each act or thought spontaneously generates a new thought that is related to the previous one – but usually not directly connected to any others.
One evening, many years ago, when I was still a teacher on a university campus, I was waiting for a student friend to arrive so we could walk to the nearby dining hall together. (This was before the advent of the cell phone made instant communications possible, regardless of time, place, weather, or if someone actually wanted to receive a call.) I was waiting in front of my building and, since it was raining, I stood in a sheltered spot as I waited for my friend.
While waiting, I noticed the odd way people were walking in the rain. Individual reactions varied. Some were walking in long, meandering curves around puddles, attempting to stay on dry pavement. Optimists. Some were disregarding the wet conditions and walking the same as always, accepting that they were going to get wet. Pessimists. Some were walking on their heels and some on their toes through the puddles – presumably to keep their feet sorta dry. Moderates. Unwilling to commit to either philosophy, they were attempting to delay the inevitable.
That rainy evening, watching people walk in the rain as I waited for my friend, I was suddenly reminded of a short story about another rainy evening in another time and place. That story began with the sentences, “Tonight is the end of summer. A needle-fine rain is pelting the shingles. Autos swish by on wet concrete.”*
That memory reminded me of other stories by the same author. After I discovered a writer whose work I enjoyed, I searched for more of his stories to read.
That reminded me of the house I lived in at that time when I made this discovery. It was an old, comfortable house with a fireplace when I could sit in my den and enjoy this wonderful new author. The following stories, while thoroughly enjoyable, were never as great as the first story.
That reminded me of the principle that the best experiences in life cannot be reprised. You can never repeat the sensations of the first time you experienced something. Even when you try to duplicate it exactly, it fails to contain the surprise and joy of the first experience.
That reminded me of the first time I was given some fine Swiss chocolate, after growing up in a small town where only American candy bars were available. Many years later, when I lived in a place where that same brand of Swiss chocolate was readily available, I was able to indulge in it whenever I wished. Sadly, it was never the same sensation or the same satisfaction as the first experience.
That reminded me of the girl who gave me that Swiss chocolate. Another first-time experience whose sensations would never be duplicated.
That reminded me of another place that girl had taken me, a restaurant that served huge, wonderful roast beef sandwiches, covered with a creamy horseradish sauce. Magnificent!
That memory of those delicious sandwiches reminded me that I was hungry and that my friend had not appeared. So, I went to dinner without him.
That, dear readers, is an example of stream of consciousness writing. But what does it look like when your actions in real life follow the same pattern of every action spontaneously generating the next? Let me offer an example from my own life:
“When will we leave to go to (someplace)?” It seemed a reasonable question as I asked my boss, the lady to whom I am married. This was referring to some task or errand which we had agreed to do early on a Saturday morning.
“After breakfast,” was her immediate reply, although, like most bosses, she didn’t particularly care for subordinates and junior partners interrupting her more important activities with impertinent questions.
Immediately after breakfast, however, something intervened to change the departure. We had to wait for the laundry to finish so the clothes could be hung on the balcony to dry. Or maybe she had to go shopping for food for the day. (My wife goes shopping almost daily to ensure fresh food, but also to satisfy a gender-based genetic need for shopping, a vestige of the female role from our species’ hunter/gatherer days). Or maybe our son had to finish his homework before we left home. Or maybe it was some other essential house cleaning task. (That way, if a criminal broke into our home while we were out, he would presumably be impressed by how clean and orderly everything was.) I don’t remember the details. All I remember is that, a couple of hours later, we were still at home and I was still impatiently waiting to go on the original errand.
As noon approached and we were no closer to being out the door, I pressed again for an Estimated Time of Departure, just like an airplane schedule. After all, if a major airport can juggle hundreds of incoming and outgoing flights every day and keep things sorta/kinda on the planned schedule for takeoffs and landings, how difficult is it to get a family of three to a local shop for some simple service or product? Quite difficult, it seems, because lunch came and went with me still becalmed but hopeful that the next few minutes would see us on our way.
This also turned out to be a silly idea. After lunch, other interruptions, impulses, and tangential activities followed. It was like the “stream of consciousness” writing technique personified. (For those who are curious about the end of this tale… We finally did arrive at the shop late in the afternoon. But we were met with a locked door. Apparently, the shop was owned by someone whose business schedule was as uncontrollable as my family life.)
Future book title: THE PERSON MAKING ME CRAZY… IS ME. (WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND DIGITAL DEVICES.)
In the coming weeks, I will propose several action steps that anyone can take to reduce the amount of digital dependence and daily chaos in their life. Notice that I did not say you could eliminate the craziness and sense of being overwhelmed, only that you could reduce it. But, for many people, that would be a huge relief. My next blog will begin describing the proposed solutions.
But, first, we have to survive the seasonal madness of the Chinese New Year. Each winter, China experiences what has been called the largest annual migration in human history. To elaborate, I will include an excerpt from my book China Bound about the looming Spring Festival.
I reflected on my ideas about vacations. I was learning that the Chinese concept was similar to ours – but, again, just a little different from America. Most Chinese businesses did not follow the usual American practice of offering one or two weeks of paid personal vacation time for their employees each year. Time off could certainly be negotiated but the practice of pre-arranged personal vacation time was not common. Instead of choosing their vacation times, people in Henan province were accustomed to certain traditional holiday periods each year. Chinese employees were expected to work every week except for these holidays. Then, during these holidays, virtually everyone was off work simultaneously. Many businesses were completely closed during these periods.
One of these, Chinese New Year (called Spring Festival in China), was the most important and longest such holiday. And, just as Americans wish to go home for Christmas, the Chinese used their time off from work during Spring Festival to travel to their hometown. Indeed, for those people who lived and worked far from their hometown, Spring Festival might be the only time of the year when they had sufficient time off from their work for a long journey.
But the problem of returning to their hometown for Spring Festival has become somewhat exacerbated in recent years. As part of China’s rapid development, more and more Chinese had moved from their hometowns to the biggest cities in search of better jobs. Thus, for millions of factory workers in the big cities, Spring Festival was the only holiday when they had enough time off from work for going home. Getting home for the holidays was important to millions of migrant workers as well. Additionally, there was yet another large group which was affected. In recent years, the greatly increased number of college graduates meant that many of them had been forced to seek suitable employment in the largest cities instead of returning to their hometowns following graduation.
As a consequence of all these large-scale relocations to find employment, vast numbers of people in China all looked forward to traveling home for the Spring Festival holiday each year. Added to this immense number, still more millions of college students attending schools far from their hometowns looked forward to getting home again during the break between semesters. The end result was that, like Christmas travel for Americans, Spring Festival holiday travel in China was a time of cheerful anticipation of being home for the holidays… combined with heightened levels of stress and complications due to the incredible number of fellow travelers.
For the next couple of weeks, an estimated 100 million people – most of them cheerful – will be straining China’s transportation system to go home for the holiday. Therefore, I will not publish a new article for the next two weeks as we enjoy and survive the Spring Festival holiday which commences with Chinese New Year’s Day. Happy New Year! See you on the other side.
* The writer was Gordon MacQuarrie. This was the beginning of his short story, “Ducks? You Bat You!”i