Saturday, February 11, 2012

High Anxiety and Button-Up Pants

Like everyone in San Francisco, I can tell you where I was when the earthquake of ’89 struck. On the couch, to be exact, reading a magazine and then out the back door as fast as I could. My kids were outside and were starting to run upstairs toward the house when I shooed them back into the yard. My youngest (5 at the time) was crying and I was trying to soothe her and then realized she was upset because I had knocked her rice cake out of her hand. We slept in the more solid back of the house that night, woken up several times by the after-shocks.

Though mild compared to other natural disasters—we had little physical damage and none of us were hurt— I felt a profound psychological shift. The idiomatic expression “it really shook me up ” was an apt description. The solid ground I had walked on so dependably for years suddenly was undependable and unpredictable, a precariously balanced tectonic plate that could open up under my feet without a moment’s notice. I had begun studying the Bulgarian bagpipe at the time, a powerful instrument with a repertoire of quirky, uneven rhythms that shakes me out of complacency when things get too dull or comfortable. But after the earthquake, I couldn’t play it for some six months. I needed calm, quiet, soothing music in a square 4/4 time that would lead me back to trust and predictability, more harps and glockenspiels than bagpipes and screaming jazz horns.

Cultural shifts sometimes have that quality of earthquakes, with changes happening faster than we can assimilate them. “You know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?” sang Bob Dylan decades ago and it was part of his role as an artist to be the antennae of the culture and announce not only that “The Times They Are A-Changing,” but give some hints as to precisely how they were changing and needed to change. That’s often the role of the artists in the culture, to open up the conversations needed in this particular time and this particular place and invite Mr. Jones into the conversation.

What is the conversation we need here and now, not only in the U.S., but worldwide as well? That could be quite a list, with climate change, population and the end to ethnic rivalry near the top. But I would suggest that in addition to noting how the times they are a-changing, we need to pay attention to the rate of change itself. For if one thing sets us apart from all other times in human history, it is the ever-increasing rate of change spurred by technologic shifts. Human history is like a ball bouncing that decreases its height with each successive bounce, getting smaller and smaller and faster and faster.

Anthropology talks about Neanderthals as developing over a couple of million years. Homo sapiens came in around 200,000 years ago and not much changed for at least 165,000 years. Then some 35,000 years ago comes the first evidence of cave paintings, that major leap in evolution when the artists appeared in the culture. Now change is measured in blocks of 10,000 years at a time until writing begins to appear and now the accelerating rate of change is measures in thousand year chunks. During the Dark Ages, ain’t much happening of note for a few hundred years at a time and then comes the explosion of culture in the Middle Ages, led by—guess who?—the artists and writers and composers and cultural shifts is measured in centuries. By the time of the next big technological explosion, the printing press in the 15th century, it’s reduced to some 50-year blocks. And so it continues until the next series of explosions—photographs, recordings, radio,  films, TV and now the 20th century (in the U.S.) is parceled out in decades—the Roarin’ 20’s the Depression 30’s, the War Years, the conservative 50’s, the turbulent 60’s and so on.

Can you feel that ball bounce getting smaller? By 2000, the personal computer, cell phone, I-Pod, I-Tunes, Facebook, YouTube and beyond accelerated the rate of change yet again. A computer two-years old is virtually obsolete—or at least needs some serious upgrading.

And then the coup-de-grace. Some three months ago, I bought a pair of new jeans at the Gap. After losing weight (see The Doug Diet), I needed a new pair with a smaller waist. Back I went and was so thrilled to see the exact same pair one size smaller. But with one change—instead of a zipper, it had buttons for the fly. What?!!! Buttons?!!! So I went to one of the 20-something saleswomen and pleaded with her to find a pair with zippers. She looked it up and of course, they only came now with buttons. She suggested I wait a couple of months until the zippers came back.

Now according to Wikipedia, zippers trounced buttons on pants starting in the 1930’s. To quote: In the 1930s, a sales campaign began for children's clothing featuring zippers. The campaign praised zippers for promoting self-reliance in young children by making it possible for them to dress in self-help clothing. The zipper beat the button in 1937 in the "Battle of the Fly", and designers raved over zippers in men's trousers. declaring the zipper the "Newest Tailoring Idea for Men." Among the zippered fly's many virtues was that it would exclude "The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray."
So why this nostalgic return to the 30’s? And whatever happened to choice? And is the rate of dependable predictability now down to months?

And so the challenge of our times. With the rate of change faster than it has ever been, we need to pay attention to its impact on the psyche. High predictability, the state of most cultures over a few hundred thousand years, means low stress and anxiety. Kids growing up in a fishing villages or farm lands pretty much know they’re going to fish and farm. The parents are relaxed about their upbringing and add arranged marriages to the mix and everybody is more or less secure in the feeling that all will be well. But low predictability because of rapid changes creates high stress and anxiety. Parents are wondering, “Will my kid find a job? Find a life partner? Will I myself keep my job or be outsourced to Asia or replaced by a robot?”

I first heard of this formula from Rob Evans, the author of “Family Matters,” explaining why parents were more anxious about their children than ever before and how that creates a new dynamic in schools. Parents who feel powerless in the rapidly shifting ground under their feet, the constant tremors and minor earthquakes that characterize the rate of change we’re all experiencing, will try to find some corner of control and power and teachers are feeling that today. It helps to understand why and re-direct the conversation. This formula—High Predicability, Low Anxiety. Low Predictability, High Anxiety— also helps to understand the epidemic return to Fundamentalism, the nostalgia for former times, the fantasies of the Tea Party and more. It times of great change and low predictably, we naturally want to cling to something that appears solid, no matter how false that perception is.

And here’s the good news. If we can meet the challenge of the unknown, we will have stumbled into the Buddhist truth of impermanence and have the possibility of re-arranging our lives to meet it. Alan Watts wrote a while back about “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” advising us from a Zen perspective to go with the flow of the unknown by being more wholly in the present and training ourselves to respond intelligently and compassionately with each new situation. “Low predictability” is actually the state of mind of the artist at the mercy of the Muse—all creative acts carry a quality of unpredictability. But ironically, the best way to meet that is a habitual practice routine that is dependable and ritual-like in its predictable practice.

As always, an interesting conversation that’s just beginning with no time to finish. I have to go pee and it’s going to take me a while to deal with these buttons.

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