Turning it off
And getting my attention back
My mind can be a lot like a butterfly. It really enjoys floating around from thing to thing, alighting on whatever interests it at this or that particular moment.
That, of course, has its charms. There’s so much out there to learn about, to talk about, to hear about! But it also has a downside, because there is so much out there to learn about, talk about and hear about — and indulging that temptation, always yielding to the stimuli coming in, can leave you feeling like life is a constant, cacophonous three-ring circus that never shuts down.
Lately, I’ve been having a ball reading and listening to podcasts with Susan Orlean, a longtime writer for The New Yorker magazine and the author of books like The Orchid Thief and The Library Book, which came out just a few years ago.
When you look at the broad sweep of her work over the years — she has written for The New Yorker since the late 1980s, publishing nine books along the way — you realize how attuned her antennae are to everything in her world. Her curiosity is so far-ranging — about things like rabbit pandemics, real estate brokers, folding sweaters at a New York City clothing store, Dick Cheney and shooting, to name a few — that it blows your mind how one person could find all of these disparate topics so intensely interesting.
And yet she does. So what’s her secret? As Orlean told one interviewer, her sense of curiosity was nurtured very young, when she and her family would take road trips every year:
“My dad especially was a great explorer. He would get in the car and we would just go. If a road looked interesting, we would take that road. He really taught me to keep my eyes open and to be curious. If there’s anything that I feel lucky to have been imbued with, it’s that persistent curiosity about the world, about other people, and just what’s around the next corner.”
In the same interview, Orlean says she counts that curiosity as her most important quality today to her life as a writer:
“When I look at it now, I realize that I do exactly the same thing that I’ve done since I was that five-year-old in the back seat. And that was, see a funny sign or a road that looks interesting, and my dad would say, ‘let’s check it out.’ That spirit is really a lot of what inspired me, and is really the way I do my work. I usually have a destination in mind… but how I get there is a series of seeing roads that look interesting and going down those roads.”
What strikes me as I listen to Orlean is that she’s able to see things in the world that escape most of us (myself included!). Or things that are there, just below the surface of our daily lives, waiting to be discovered if only we take a moment to notice them.
That’s a hard thing to do when you are paying attention to the news, which seems to come at us from just about every direction today. I have to confess I’m a bit of a news junkie, and have been for a long time, since my days as a reporter for a newspaper in small-town Georgia, near where I grew up.
That habit has followed me throughout my life. Which means, of course, that the explosion of technologies we’ve all witnessed over the past decade has sent that habit into overdrive — especially these past few years — to the point where it feels like there are precious few moments throughout the day when some kind of news story isn’t grabbing my attention.
I didn’t fully realize this until very recently. Even though we’ve had cable news for a couple of generations now, the reverse chronological feeds on our social media apps still feel somewhat new — and much more intimate and personal, as we all carry these devices around in our pockets 24/7.
There’s a much larger difference than I realized (until recently) between even the early internet — which was basically just a bunch of websites and blogs sitting out there on servers, waiting to be found via Google, Yahoo or AskJeeves — and today’s social media-driven internet.
Nothing came across your screen unless you went and found it, which meant you had to have a question or an intent in mind before the idea even occurred to you to look at a particular website. You had to be the one with the question in mind, and sites got built to answer your queries. Today, on the other hand, the content we scroll past in our feed shouts for our attention like a carnival barker at a county fair.
I realize none of this is exactly news. But it’s made me think anew about how the content in our feeds is so different from the content we used to search for on our own, on the older version of the internet.
In a feed, we see stories and items from all kinds of different contexts — they might be about food, inflation, elections, cute baby pictures from friends, class reunions, etc. They’re all competing for our attention in the same place. So how do they get it? By plucking the strings of our emotions, because that’s what gets us to click.
Being immersed in that feed all the time, or for many hours a day, I’d lost sight of how much my own emotions are being triggered on a daily basis. It just became part of my normal daily rhythm (especially after a year of being home thanks to the pandemic).
Having your emotions triggered so often in this way — I’m belatedly coming to understand — is a zero-sum game. When your mind is engaged in your social media feeds, it isn’t free to see the kinds of things Orlean talks about in the interview above, because it isn’t experiencing any stillness.
Our minds need quiet to reflect, to sift through all the things that come across our collective radar. And I haven’t been giving my own the stillness it needs to see that.
When I was in my early and mid-twenties, I used to smoke socially. (I know, I know, please don’t judge me!) After a while, I simply got tired of smoking and decided to quit — and haven’t since.
What happened a few weeks after I quit, though, was really interesting. My sense of taste suddenly burst back to life. All of a sudden, everything I ate tasted amazing — soups, chicken, vegetables, fruits, they all exploded with flavor. Had my senses been dulled by cigarettes all the time I smoked? It certainly seems so. And I wasn’t aware of it, until I quit.
I’m thinking the same thing will happen in a different way if I can pry myself away from my social media feeds — that the world, and not my phone, will come bursting back into view. That my sense of curiosity won’t be about the latest news story or outrage, but will be about what’s happening just down the street, or in a neighborhood near where I live.
Anyone up for joining me? Let’s do it together.
Races you might love running
Newcastle, Northern Ireland, U.K. | Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021
You’ll run entirely within the confines of Tollymore Forest Park (shown in the photo above), a 1,600-acre green space that lies near the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, within a short drive of the legendary Royal County Down Golf Club in Newcastle. The half marathon follows a single loop along the trails that criss-cross through the forest (the full marathon runs two loops and the ultramarathon three), where a barn designed to look like a church and other buildings stand that date back to the 1700s. Long stretches of the race also take you along the banks of the Shimna River, which runs through the heart of the park.
£35 and up | Sign up here
Lithia, Fla. | Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021
With more than 6,200 acres of hardwood forests, pine flatwood trees and dozens of trials for back-country mountain biking as well as walking, running, hiking and horseback riding, central Florida’s Alafia River State Park provides the perfect environment for this post-Thanksgiving race. Organizers say the experience of running here is akin to running the hills of the Kentucky bluegrass country, with ample views of the park’s sweeping grass plains as well as plenty of hills along its more than 20 miles of trails.
$53 and up | Sign up here
San Diego, Calif. | Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021
A gorgeous — and mostly downhill — run among the palm trees of San Diego, all the way to the finish line at Torrey Pines State Beach. For most of this point-to-point race, which starts about a half-hour’s drive from downtown in Carmel Mountain Ranch, you’ll be running on the Highway 56 Bike Path, a paved trail that runs alongside California Highway 56 and keeps you away from the cars. The only real hill of any size on the course comes about half-way between miles 1 and 2; after that, you’ll run downhill from just over 700 feet to about 4 feet above sea level, with the final few miles a very flat run into the beach at Torrey Pines.
$109 and up | Sign up here
Maupin, Ore. | Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022
Known for its rugged, wild beauty that stretches more than 170 miles along the base of the Cascade Mountains in central Oregon, the river that gives this race its name will be your companion for your entire 13.1 miles on New Year’s Day. You’ll start the race at Imperial River Company, a whitewater rafting and boating guide company that sits on a quarter-mile of the river’s banks in Maupin. From there, the out-and-back course follows paved trails that wind alongside the river all the way out and all the way back, as you take in the beauty of the mountains and the river flowing by. This race is run on the first of January, so it’ll be cold — the average high for this date in Maupin is 40 degrees.
$65 and up | Sign up here
Oakland, Calif. | Sunday, May 1, 2022
The only half marathon to take runners on a round trip across the San Francisco-to-Oakland Bay Bridge, this race features views of the stunning San Francisco Bay for nearly the entire route. From the starting line in West Oakland, the race runs along Maritime Street for the first three miles and then heads onto the bridge, where you’ll get to take in panoramic views of the city skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz out in the bay. The race runs all the way across the bridge to Yerba Buena Island, whose tunnel connects the western and eastern spans of the bridge, and then back to Oakland for the finish.
$159 and up | Sign up here
La Pointe, Wis. | Saturday, May 21, 2022
Run the roads of this windswept island just off the Wisconsin shoreline in Lake Superior at this late spring race. Both the full and the half marathon unfold around the southern end of this 14-mile-long island, which centuries ago was a spiritual center for the Lake Superior Chippewa — past runners say its views are “breathtaking.” The island is accessible only by ferry, so runners are encouraged to spend the night before the race in one of the cabins or campsites located in its two state parks. (It’s also a smaller race, open to just 150 entrants for the full marathon and 300 entrants for the half.)
$80 and up | Sign up here
Words to run by
“The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”