When Attending To Something Is a Puzzlement


Attention can be a puzzlement. (‘Just saw a revival of “The King and I” and couldn’t resist.)

M-J, a close friend, recently confided that within the past year she—not a fan of whodunits—saw a cheap copy of a John Grisham mystery at a recycled book shop and got an inexplicable urge to buy it. She only dimly recognized his name. But the book was only a couple bucks, so she indulged the impulse. In a day or two she’d finished it, and found herself returning to the shop for another. Then another. In almost no time she’d bought and read all the pre-owned Grishams at that place, and was determined to find everything else he’d written at other spots around town.

At this stage in her strange quest M-J began to wonder if she ought to feel guilty. She had more serious books to read, and what about her devotion to Bible study?

Funny thing, M-J noted: even when she’d more or less invited guilt to rise up within, none did. What arose instead was a hunch that her obsessive consumption of bestselling thrillers was for a purpose yet to be identified.

So in one year M-J plowed through all twenty-seven of Grisham’s oeuvre! Twenty-six novels and one non-fiction whodunit, “An Innocent Man.” She also learned that the initial print run of Grisham’s first book, “A Time To Kill,” was only 5,000 copies. The author—a practicing lawyer at the time—had been rejected by many publishers before one took a modest chance on him. But those 5,000 were not selling well, so Grisham spent his weekends drumming up readers at garden parties and county fairs, hawking copies from the trunk of his car. People took a chance, liked what they read, and word got around.

Finally I had to ask M-J, “Why do you think you were drawn to this guy’s books?” She was sitting at my kitchen table at the time. As she answered I noticed goosebumps on her arms.

“Eventually I realized that what I was learning was what it takes to write a page-turner…and that I’d need to know this if I was going to be any real help to you.”

Now it was my turn to get goosebumps!

In truth, a year before M-J’s marathon of crime thrillers, she’d read a previous draft of my memoir, and noticed that she was simply checking for typos and marking the occasional unclear reference. Anyone could do that, she thought. If she wanted to provide more useful feedback—something to increase my chances at getting an agent and a publisher, she told herself—she had to get a feel for pace, flow, and punch.

I’d seen Grisham interviewed by Charlie Rose, and recalled him saying that he relies on his wife—who reads everything he writes—for just this kind of advice.

When M-J read the manuscript I planned to submit to an agent, she scrutinized it like a seasoned editor. The shorter chapters flowed better than the longer ones, she said—pointing to lines she thought packed enough punch to end right there, not pages later.   She circled telling phrases in the text that could serve as chapter titles, drew arrows to connect paragraphs that belonged together or elsewhere. In short, she functioned as a pro, with no previous background in the field—except for Grisham’s 27 thrillers.

You can bet I’m taking M-J’s advice, because I know how smart and good a friend she is. Which is to say: I value the quality of her attention.

Which brings us back to puzzlement. Here is someone who followed a weird (for her) but not harmful inclination, though clueless where it might lead. All she really knew was (1) she had no desire to waste her time, and (2) somehow her time would not be wasted.

Do you have an urge to attend to something that is a puzzlement? Do you wonder if you ought to feel guilty for indulging this impulse, but no guilt seems to arise?

Well, if you’re not harming anyone or anything, why not go with that odd inclination?

High quality attention does not always indicate why it’s happening. The fact that you want to pay keen attention to anything is promising and mysterious in itself.

The reason you’re being drawn to it may be a puzzlement, but if you don’t allow your powers of attention to focus where they wish, how will you ever find out what purposes lie waiting to be identified?



Attention Lurking in the News, #4, Part Two: On Food Addiction and a Lost Friend


Content that has depth and complexity is like a person.  We have to study it, and delay passing judgment until we’ve done our best to understand the subject.  Sometimes, like a cheating lover, the devil is found in the details.

Take the recent investigative ‘content’ concerning our nation-wide obesity problem. The Times and NPR reporters have produced in-depth reports on how the fast-food industry has devoted decades of scientific research to getting us addicted to processed foods with just the perfect “bliss point” of fat, salt, and sugar.  Like the cigarette companies before them, they buried smoking-gun memos that exposed their intention to create widespread addictions.  One snack food, they crowed triumphantly, successfully canceled out consumers’ ability to feel they’d eaten anything of caloric value!  We could eat this sugar-salt-fat delivery system forever, our bodies tricked into not signaling when to stop.

On a personal level, we know the kind of effort it takes to understand opposing views, say, among two friends or close relatives.  How much listening, weighing of another person’s life history, struggles, family influences, successes and failures, loves, losses and (most stubbornly concealed) sources of shame.  Try as we might, we can miss the real reasons behind seemingly irreconcilable differences.  But because we care about these individuals, we keep trying–observing, storing information, pondering.  One could call this reflective attention.  Some mysteries do seem to open up in time.

Because of the recent revelations about how food industry giants have done their utmost to get us to eat more often and in larger more fattening proportions, I recently gained insight on a long-ago disconnect with a former friend. The last time I’d socialized with her was years ago in the late afternoon, at her place, when her daughter came home from middle school saying she was hungry.  My friend offered the already overweight girl a large box of cookies, and returned to our conversation.  Her daughter stayed with us, and I must have shown concern–never mentioning it, of course–that the child was eating her way through the entire box–at least 20 cookies–and her mother was not even reminding her that they’d be having supper soon.

After that my friend became distant.  She and her husband were both seriously obese, and might not have been able to teach their daughter to restrain from overeating when they couldn’t control their own food addiction.  From studying alcoholism, which runs in my family, I learned that addiction changes our brain chemistry.  When addicted, our brains still know the right thing to do, but the chemical switch that enables us to take action, or to stop ourselves, gets turned off. And because our mind knows it’s right and can’t make us do it (without a lot of help and moral support, such as 12-step programs), guilt and shame result.

It wasn’t that my friend stopped liking me, it was that she didn’t want to feel guilty when I noticed her not dealing with her family’s obesity problem.

The obesity epidemic, thanks to the scrutiny (a first-rate version of attention) of content providers, now has a fighting chance of moving toward a cure.  So – three cheers for real content and the journalists that provide it, and three more for the attention we hope it gets!

Attention Lurking in the News #3: On Courtship and Friendship


“The End of Courtship,” an almost tragic piece in the New York Times (Sunday, 1/13/2013, by Alex Williams) sat on my desk for days, taunting me to take it on, even as it reduced me to mute pessimism.  Who could not sympathize with young people immersed in the alternate reality of smartphones, texting and sexting more comfortably than ‘face time’ – an ugly term for something essentially miraculous.  No one seems to have coined “ear time” yet, but telephone conversation is sliding gradually down into the same ‘social delete’ file.

The growing absence of real-time attention seems to underlie the crisis among 20-somethings who, after the hook-up culture of college, haven’t a clue how to enter a more grownup m.o. where actual courtship can occur.

On behalf of the 20-somethings mentioned by Williams, I felt bereft.  A callow college grad whose idea of a date was to text a girl at 10 p.m., with the grand idea that she join him and a bunch of his friends at a bar! (Probably a sports bar, splattered with wide screens blaring football.)  Ah, the hook-up scene, devoid of romance, an insult to public intelligence.

On the other hand, I’ve taught college kids in their 20s and a bit older, and most manage to muddle through.  They learn the intricacies of coded text and communicate at breathtaking speed, compared to how folks of my generation used to slog along with dial phones, awkward smiles across the cafeteria, and excruciating blind (or blinded by lust and fear of missing out) ‘real dates’ for movies and cheap meals.

Many of my peers never dated in high school.  Nevertheless, or perhaps for that reason, when they got to college my generation clumsily ushered in what used to be called the New Morality.  (Millennials would recognize it as a prehistoric version of hook-up culture.)  That was when ‘good girls’ stopped saving themselves for marriage, and not a few found themselves frantically searching for abortionists.

Nowadays college grads don’t seem to know how to tell dates apart from non-dates or networking dates, let alone courtship.  A few decades ago things may not have been as impersonal as hooking up, but today’s 20-somethings have my sympathy.  Maybe so many prefer to socialize in groups because it takes pressure off those struggling to earn a decent income in a long recession, who can’t afford dinner and a show.

No doubt there’s some kind of safety in numbers.  When that clueless guy surrounded himself with friends before inviting his first-time ‘date’ to a bar, his pals were his posse and his vetting panel.  He probably hoped they’d help draw this new girl out, and he’d see if she liked the same people he liked.  Rational so far. But waiting till 10:00 the night of the date to text her? That’s what made him a twerp.  No respect.  Would he do that to a friend, or someone he wanted to become a friend?

Here’s where friendship and courtship cross paths.  Both require respect, and both run on the quality of attention.  It’s what makes dates and courtship real rather than virtual.

Let’s take a broader turn here, into friendship.  We need a wider spread of sympathy, beyond the 20-somethings to everyone whose friendships and love lives have suffered from the impersonality and brevity of smart-phone communication.  The public budget of face and phone time have been subjected to painful cuts across the board, and many of us are bereft.

My own courtship and marriage happened before e-mail, and though my husband and I have smart phones, we almost never text each other.  Thank heavens.  But our friendships have often been short-circuited by digital devices.  And—not to say anything new—as one grows older, friendships take on amazing importance.  Perhaps right up there with marriage and romance.  Let me illustrate with one sad example.

My husband and I used to take ballroom dance lessons from a gifted teacher, a former world champion in that style.  We grew to love her and became friends as well as students.  Then she moved to the Southwest, and—never often enough for us—traveled back East occasionally for a few days coaching the dancers left behind.  At first she would phone us a few weeks before each trip, telling us of the dates and letting us choose our times with her.  These calls gave us a chance to catch up on each other’s lives beyond the necessarily brief exchange of small talk during lessons.  Each time she called it was a joy to hear her voice again, a pleasure to be thought of.

After a year the phone calls gave way to a more efficient system: group e-mails. ‘Hello – I’ll be in your area 3 days next month….  Let me know the lesson times you’d like and I’ll get back to you.’  We missed her perky voice, but at least we could send her a chatty e-mail reply and get a warm response.

Then her e-mails morphed into text messages.  We did not check our cellphones as regularly as our computers for e-mails, and sometimes discovered a notice from her when few or no lesson times were still available.  Texting left no room to chat. We still had her e-mail address, but using it seemed so yesteryear.  We began to wonder whether a friendly e-mail might be an imposition.  No one called anymore except fundraisers, robo-venders and the odd dinosaur friend.

Our lovely dance coach got married, had a baby, and hasn’t done much traveling since.  Phone conversations with her belong to the distant past.  I imagine it’s like that for many people who no longer call when a text will do.  Surely they miss the sound of others’ voices, the chats, and feel deprived of priceless, genuine human contact.  Not that they’d say anything about it.  They might be branded untechno-savvy.

It’s not just the voice that matters, of course.  ‘Face time’ (ugh!) is even more precious, for the giving and receiving of a steady gaze–that is, if those doing it aren’t trying to sneak in a few texts at the same time–plus those almost forgotten subtleties of facial expression, body language, and shared silence.  Delivering attention in person is the gold standard.   As mentioned before [See Introduction & Welcome], full attention is empowering.  But when ‘face time’ isn’t possible, the phone call comes in a close second.

On the street I overheard a young woman excusing herself on her smartphone: “I called you because I’m too lazy to text.”  ‘Gee thanks,’ I thought snidely.  Then I thought of our dear former dance teacher, and how thrilling it would be to get a similar call from her.  ‘Oh, I’m so glad you chose to be lazy,’ I would say. ‘It’s wonderful to hear your voice.’  Then we’d chat, and reconnect, and I’d close by telling her to be lazy and call me anytime.  It should happen to all of us.  We all need that kind of attention.  It makes friendship and courtship real.