For most of us, nine-tenths (or so) of the time our minds are occupied with the affairs of the moment. It may be about the current project or issue at work, the current piece of work we are currently doing, whether it is personal or occupational, or maybe even the distracted sort of thinking that happens when we are trying to do the above while dealing simultaneously with an intensely important personal issue. You know—working through a personal issue while trying to keep everything else more-or-less together. The mind is in pursuit of some goal and everything else, for the moment, becomes just secondary.
But then there are the other moments. Perhaps they are the increasingly rare quiet times when we are able to shut out the surrounding unwanted noise and just be in the moment, observing what is before us and more importantly not letting our experiential lenses be clouded by those other urgent issues fighting for our attention. Perhaps they are the ones when something so momentous happens that we have no choice but to shut out everything else and just focus on the one thing before us.
Perhaps, though, they are none of the above. Fog like, sometimes those times just creep in on Sandberg’s aptly described “little cats’ feet.” Like that waiting animal, they just sit there, for a time, caring little if they are noticed, but ready to respond if you are willing to make the effort required to move them from the periphery to the conscious. The prize for the revelation is not necessarily large—just a tiny portion of insight, or maybe a question that bears further consideration. Still, it’s something that one can consider to be of real value in a world so filled with generally meaningless noise.
This was the trigger for today.
Youngest child is in the middle of dance recital week and, last evening at rehearsal, she’d experienced something of a wardrobe malfunction—a broken heel on one of the boots used in a hip-hop number. Rather than get them repaired, since they were worn out anyway, my wife and I had decided to meet lunch time and get her another pair.
We found them easily enough. Other half has something of a knack for that. What’s more she managed to get them at 30% off. It’s her superpower. As we were pressed for time we decided to grab something quick at a nearby fast food joint. Hey—food police—I had a salad. Well, um, not exactly but the item I had DID have lettuce. That counts, right? While there, it was impossible not to notice the group of schoolchildren at a nearby table. Grade nine or ten, I’d guess. Clad in designer clothes, waving expensive mobile phones about and talking in that halting low-pitched twang that so many young people consider cool, they were poster children for what is often seen as typical ‘popular’ school kids. Loud chatter, the kind intended to draw attention from those nearby, was punctuated by frequent flits to and from nearby tables and to the soda fountain. I just tuned it out and concentrated on spending a few minutes with my wife.
Silence. It’s generally relative, of course. In our technology-obsessed world there are so few quiet places left. Even in my sparsely populated corner of the planet there are hardly any places that are left truly untouched by the sounds of technology. That’s partly due to the fact that the airspace above my home is a mustering area for eastbound trans-Atlantic flights. I digress as usual. Fortunately, though, our hearing works on a logarithmic, not linear, scale so we can respond to huge variances in sound level with ease. When it drops significantly we relax just as if a huge load has been lifted. That’s what it was like. One minute: chaos; minutes later: not so bad at all. I looked up and then around. Of course, ‘they’ were gone, and with their exit a relative peace had settled over the place. The four other school-aged people seated at the next table to me were conversing in low tones, as was everyone else. No mobiles out either. The four were clearly enjoying one another’s company; no need for theatrics or distractions.
Then I spied it—the place where the loud four had been seated. Disgraceful. On the way out I discretely snapped a picture with the mobile. Back at the car I had to take another look. Still disgraceful.
I told a friend. “Perhaps they didn’t know better?” she offered. But they were not that young—probably 15 or 16, certainly old enough to have been exposed to some examples of basic social norms associated with eating at joints like this one.
Through the afternoon the thoughts of this minor careless act played on my mind. I returned to my office at the university. At one point I want down the hall to confer with a colleague. It was just a short visit as she was busily grading final papers from her two grad classes. When I arrived at her office she was just in the process of sending an email. I quietly waited for her to finish and when she did, she turned around and sat at the table, shaking her head. “That was the third reply to a student from one of my two undergrad classes who is still insisting that I reread her paper because she feels that she deserved more than a B. What do you think?” I read the paper—it was only a 5 pager. My colleague was, in my estimation, generous. Shallow, hastily written and almost completely lacking in references it was clearly something done ‘off the cuff.’ Barely worth a passing grade, it was by no means deserving of anything like an A. “She figures she can brow-beat me into giving her her own way.” All I could do was shake my head too.
Perhaps, by then I was in something of a hyper-vigilant mode. Thinking back I must report that the vast majority of the many people I interacted with that day, thus far, had been decent; reasonable. Now, though, I’d experienced two occasions where that was not the case. Yes, perhaps it was confirmation bias—the unskilled thought process that leads one to only recognize events and examples that support the particular thought or conclusion they are currently having. Who knows?
Suppertime. Just a brief rest-stop. Piles of housework left to do and, besides, youngest daughter did have the first of three dance recitals ahead. No time for anything fancy and, with the temperature at a balmy—for my home this time of the year anyway—nine degrees it made sense to light up the barby and burn up a few burgers and veggies.
With the burners set to low off I went to the corner store for them. Aside from the school-aged clerk who was busily engrossed in texting (or whatever) on her mobile the place was empty. I passed the clerk, got the buns and placed them on the counter. On a whim I turned around went back to the fridge and got a bottle of that carbonated, artificially-flavoured sugar water that probably takes years off your life. Go big or go home. If you’re going to eat something bad you might as well be good at it. I plunked it on the counter too.
The clerk continued texting.
“How’s it going?” I said gently, as a polite way of really saying, “Will you please put down that mobile and do your job so I can get home! I only have about 45 minutes to prepare supper and get on the go again so, no, I can’t really wait until you are good and ready. You are being paid to do this, after all.”
“&%$!&$#!” said the clerk as she jumped back to awareness. I’d certainly startled her.
She was clearly annoyed with me and curtly mumbled something about sneaking up on her.
I decided to stop time. It’s my superpower.
So, with time frozen, I proceeded to tell her that we, the remaining 7,112,257,922 people currently existing on this planet were not put there for her convenience. I want on to point out that I had not been sneaking around but had dropped two packs of buns and one bottle of junk on the counter, right under her nose, after letting the ‘fridge door slam. I then pointed out that she was in the employ of the store and, as such was expected to keep a close eye on the comings and goings of all visitors. Some might be inclined not to pay for items and some, heaven helps us all, might need help. I was just getting to pointing out that “&%$!&$#!” was an inappropriate was to greet customers when I noticed that she, too, must be able to stop time. A cartoon thought bubble was appearing above her head and a word, currently faint, was slowly materializing as I continued. With my vocals set to automatic I watched as the word “Arsehole” became clearer and clearer.
The jig was up; she was on to me. I restarted time.
“Debit.” I said and inserted the card into the machine. There followed the most painful 2.5 seconds as I waited for the transaction to complete. “No bag,” I said and left the store. No odds, she was already buried in her mobile anyway.
So now, with the supper dishes cleaned and put away, the place tidied up somewhat and youngest daughter at dance recital, once again, quiet has returned and, with it, a few moments to reflect on the questions of the day. How is it that so many can be that badly wrapped up in their own noisy little bubbles that they become oblivious to those around them? How is it that we, the so-called elders in our society, have seemingly cultivated so many that are incapable of seeing any viewpoint but their own?
And the biggest question of all; the one that matters most to me right now: Those other four young people who, unlike their counterparts, were obviously present for one another. Did they clean up their table before leaving?
You know how it is with questions: sometimes it’s the asking that counts; it’s not always important to get the answer. This time, though, I do hope, so very much, that the answer to the last one is ‘yes.’