Sunday, September 26, 2010

Something Big

I’ve been jonesing for some travel lately. Even if it’s just an overnight trip to Helsinki or a couple nights in Rakvere, a change of scenery is nice – and necessary – especially as the dark and rainy season comes on.

But I haven’t traveled anywhere for almost a year. Compounding my frustration is Liina, whose sister just went to Toscana with a bunch of her girlfriends. “Why don’t we go to Toscana?” Liina asked. I haven’t answered, because I suspect it’s one of those rhetorical questions wives often pose, questions to which they don’t want answers but rather expect you to dream along with them. “What a great idea!” I’m meant to reply. “Why don’t we rent a cottage and spend the winter there!”

The real answer to The Toscana Question of course is that we can’t possibly afford it, that the mortgage won’t be paid off until I’m damned near 80 years old, and that any spare money we do have won’t be spent on trips to Italy, but rather to Canada so our son Robert won’t grow up thinking it’s a foreign country.

But when a man tries to answer such questions, it inevitably leads to ugliness, as he will not only disappoint the wife, he will conclude that his own income is unsatisfactory and, seeing limited future prospects, will suggest the wife get a second job. And none of that is what the wife had in mind when all she wanted was to dream out loud about a week spent in a warm climate.

So I’ve tried to learn to play along. To dream along without firm commitment. “Yes, dear,” I’ll say, “a week in Toscana would be grand. Think of the food, of life’s slow pace.” For a moment, I’ll even drift away myself, imagining a cigarillo with strong coffee and old men playing bocce ball in a sunny courtyard.

“You know,” she’ll say, edging the conversation toward reality, “the airline ticket to Toscana is only 3,000 kroons.” True enough, I’ll think. And then I’ll do my best to refrain from mentioning that two plane tickets would be 6,000 kroons, plus the airline- and fuel taxes they don’t include in the advertised price. And then there’s the rental car, the food, the hotel, and the shopping we’d do for things not available in Estonia. (And when you’re traveling, almost everything is not available in Estonia.) What my little voice is telling me is that we won’t get out of Italy for under 20,000 kroons. I’ll shut up and try not to remind Liina that our last “cheap” trip to India resulted in us returning with a carpet which cost more than both our plane tickets combined. And the carpet couldn’t even fly.

Sadly, when Liina dreams aloud, most of the time I spoil things for her by introducing harsh reality. Whether it’s a male trait or not, I don’t know, but I almost never learn. Liina each time will point this out, and then tell me to shut up and think more positively.

I’ve been working on that.

I recently read a New Yorker article about a group of men who live together in an eighteenth-century row house on C-Street in Washington D.C. What they all have in common is a love for Jesus. That, and they’re all American Congressmen. When one cheats on his wife, the others confront him with the teachings of Jesus, and everybody lives happily ever after. The residents of the house are a support group, and they’re connected both spiritually and financially to the weekly prayer breakfasts held in Washington. Some Estonian parliamentarians have attended these breakfasts, I know, and they’ve brought back positive reports.

One of the founders of the organization behind the C-Street house has encouraged those who have not yet found Jesus to “pray for something bigger than yourself,” so that when it happens you can’t take personal credit. He suggests praying for a continent, like Africa.

But having the rock star Bono on its side already, does Africa really needs Jesus? Assuming Africa can manage in the short-term, I’ve decided to pray for myself. And I am praying for “something big.”

I don’t yet know what this something big is, but I know that it will involve some travel (and not a budget trip to Toscana). I know that it will involve fulfillment, both spiritually and financially. And it will involve Liina, too. It might be that an American publisher discovers my book Pikk jutt, sitt jutt and it becomes a bestseller. As much a part of the book as anyone, Liina will also be flown first class to Chicago to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. We’ll then have enough money to import Polish workers to finish our house construction. Robert can have a part-time nanny which will give Liina more time for herself. We’ll get a second car, a little Toyota perhaps.

As I described this dream to Liina she made no effort to hide her disappointment. “That’s not big,” she fumed. “You get an audience with the Son of God and all you ask for is a Toyota Corolla?” She went on to remind me that if what we wanted was a middle-class existence, it would be as easy as picking up and moving back to Canada.

“Fine, I’ll ask Jesus to throw in a trip to Toscana,” I cracked. “Or two trips to Toscana.”

But of course Liina had a point. The boys on C-Street would not be impressed. Which is why I’ve decided not to pray only for my unambitious, boring self. Instead, I’m praying for Estonia.

I see a lot of potential Big Somethings for Estonia. And from what I’ve read about prayer, the more people who do it the better. So why don’t we all pray together, right here and now as you read this column? Given your probable lack of experience with prayer (if you're Estonian), I’ve taken the trouble to write a prayer you can simply read out loud:

Dear Jesus, this is [insert your name], and I’m contacting you from Vello’s prayer group in Estonia. I pray for my nation. I pray for a robust national economy based on original products and original ideas. I pray for a solution to the integration issue, for more ethnic Russians to knock the chip off their shoulders and start taking active part in making Estonian better; and for Estonians to show a bit more respect and to stop referring to them as “venka” and “tibla.” I pray for my politicians. I pray for Mr. Ansip to get over his public constipation, to lighten up, and be open to discussing new ideas. I pray for Mr. Savisaar to realize that everyone who’s not for him is not necessarily against him. I pray for Ms. J√§nes to have the wisdom not to fix what isn’t broken. I pray for Mr. Lukas to understand that homosexuals are not freaks but people just like him only with better-fitting suits. I pray for my home. I pray for my family. I pray for my neighbors. I pray for something big. Something really big. In your name, Jesus, I pray. Amen.

You may be a bit skeptical. Perhaps you tried a motivational seminar, or maybe you read The Secret, and cash and happiness did not rain from the sky. But as the C-Street boys would ask, Have you tried Jesus? There’s absolutely nothing to lose. So if you didn’t read the prayer out loud, go back and do so. Go on. It doesn’t cost anything.

The weekend this column is published, let’s all pray together. On Saturday and Sunday, no matter what you’re doing, just pause now and again to think positive thoughts and dream about what you’d like to happen. Pray for something big. Pray for Estonia. And pray for yourself while you’re at it.

I’ll be praying for Estonia. Liina will be praying for Toscana. You’ll be praying for whatever, and together there’ll be a huge vibe of positive energy emanating from Estonia. According to The Secret, a positive thought is multiple times more powerful than a negative one, so even with Latvia next door, Jesus will hear our prayers. And think of the fun we’ll have this weekend, giving a sly smile to our neighbor knowing that we’re both praying. Praying for something big.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Multitask Me

Headline from The Onion: “Are you checking your email often enough?”

My friend Katrin recently showed me her Twitter. “I’m very careful, though,” she said, “whose tweets I receive.” I asked her how many friends she has whose messages she receives. “Sixty,” she replied, but explained how a tweet can come from far, far away. “Most of the time they’re citing someone else’s tweet.”

Katrin got me counting. She runs a fairly large organization, and in addition to following sixty tweeters, I guestimated that on an hourly basis she also gets several text messages and at least several phone calls. She has a Facebook account, uses both Skype and MSN Messenger. Add to that three or four daily newspapers plus whatever news she follows online. Then there’s television and radio—she’s almost always listening to public radio. Whatever it all sums to, the amount of information she is receiving and sending on a daily basis is rather frightening. She’s a real multitasker, the type of person the modern world rewards. “Can you even walk and chew gum at the same time?” my mother used to chide me. Well, Katrin certainly can.

Now consider the novelist Jonathan Franzen. Franzen is so unimpressed with multitasking I doubt he’d even deign to use the word. In a recent interview with Time magazine, he remarked:

"We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we've created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful. The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world."

So that Franzen can engage productively in this scary and unmanageable world, he has created an environment which is the antithesis of Katrin’s. He not only has no internet, but he has removed temptation, as well. "What you have to do," Franzen told Time, "is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it."

At about the same time Katrin was trying to convince me of how cool Twitter is, my friend Mingus sent me an article somewhat vindicating Mr. Franzen’s world view. Scientists have discovered that the faster we shift between pieces of information, the less sense we can make of any of it.

They say there’s a region of the brain called the posterior lateral prefrontal cortex (pLPFC) which is a routing hub for inputs. If information comes in too quickly the pLPFC bottlenecks—queuing some of the info and ignoring the rest—and the routing hub slows down. This means multitasking is a case of diminishing marginal returns. The more information you pile on in short bursts, the less you get to keep.

I suppose Katrin would argue that’s why she only receives the tweets of 60 friends—you gotta draw the line somewhere. And the shape of Katrin’s head seems normal: I see no swelling of her pLPFC.

When Katrin mentioned sixty friends, my first thought was not their tweets, but the number sixty. I don’t know if I even have sixty friends. If I expand it to acquaintances, then perhaps. But one thing I’m damned sure of: I don’t have sixty friends or acquaintances all of whom have something intelligent to say on a daily basis. Even the world’s better columnists can only manage a few hundred good words per week. Out of curiosity, I did the math and determined that if I tweeted my column in a tweet’s outer bound of 140-character installments, then it would take me two weeks to get it done. So maybe Katrin’s tweeting friends aren’t so vacant after all. Perhaps they’re simply fond of the serial?

Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste, but too much information makes me want to stock up on Early Times bourbon and push the furniture against the wall. Even without Twitter, I have enough trouble receiving information. The biggest transmitter of information around me is my four-month-old son, Robert. All day long, even when sleeping, he sends and receives tweets. At first I suspected him of being an alien, making constant transmissions to the mother ship. Lately, I’m favoring the theory that he’s mimicking the sound the coffee pot makes.

What Robert has helped me realize is that I’m capable of receiving only a finite amount of information. The addition of Robert means the subtraction of other inputs in order to stave off the Early Times purchase. I still welcome print editions of Postimees, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books into my home, and I get a regular shipment of books from Amazon. All that is plenty. I’ve shut down the invasive Skype and Facebook, and I try to answer the phone only at reasonable hours, selecting a certain part of each day to devote to returning calls. We’ve killed our TV, too. Or, rather, we chose not to follow when the country went digital. Now it just sits there, taking on a kind of significance like the decaying Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes.

My wife Liina is also anti-Twitter (“Reading about everyone else’s lives I don’t understand when you have time for your own”), but ironically she still wants a digibox. If she wants to pay for it and install it, then I’ll be pleased to watch a few of the TV programs I like.

But in the meantime I’m enjoying the silence. I’ve got a stack of books I’m working my way through, though Robert tends to interrupt often, forcing me to digest them in 140-character bursts. All this has made me realize that Jonathan Franzen is right. In the 21st century, taking someone to that “place of stillness,” or getting and holding a human being’s undivided attention will have the significance of America’s 1969 moonshot.

So if you’ve opened the newspaper, begun reading, and reached this point in my column, then, you’ve spent about seven minutes in a twitter-free place of stillness. I’m flattered, of course. But, more importantly, how do you feel?

Help Liina buy a digibox.