Avoiding distraction

We wake up, and we check our phones where once we might have paused to take in a morning birdsong. We trundle down the hall to the bathroom or kitchen, where likely a radio or TV is turned on to the news or weather. We climb behind the wheel to work, and our cars beep and honk at us—beep!—fasten your seatbelt!—beep beep!—you’re too close to the trash cans as you’re backing out! Then we turn on the radio.

We pass the time each day necessarily attenuated in meetings, mail, and meeting workday demands. Yet the moments of respite in the days of our fathers or grandfathers—the 20 seconds in the elevator, twice per day, the trip to the restaurant to grab lunch, the stop at the bakery to pick up a pastry, even the time spent fueling our cars—all these moments once meant bits of fragmented quiet.

These demands take our halfhearted attention while refueling. The bakery likely has either a television on someplace, or worse, a store-wide sound system playing the latest from Lady Gaga. The elevator music lulls us in with its mundane melodies, and the lunchtime restaurant amplifies this sin against music, likely with a sort of amped-up, elevator-music-on-steroids jazziness.

Not all businesses or social areas are best served by piping noise for the sake of everyplace having its own soundtrack. This is a subtlely maddening aspect of the present, a sort of audio-sensory schizophrenia seemingly designed to never allow for a situation where we are left alone to tie together our own thoughts in public places.

Warren Buffett felt something of the need to recapture mental clarity after living in New York. It’s one of the reasons he decided to return to his hometown of Omaha. It’s explained that:

Much of Buffett’s success in managing Berkshire Hathaway’s investment portfolio can be attributed to his inactivity. Most investors cannot resist the temptation to constantly buy or sell stocks. While Buffett worked in New York, he remembers “people coming up to [him] all the time, whispering into [his] ear about some wonderful business…”

Alain de Botton explained the same idea: “Because of the internet, I now do far more work when not at work. My real thinking happens in bed and while shopping.” PBS addressed these themes a few years ago in Distracted By Everything.

What’s the key to a better life? Intentionally constructing your daily life and built environment to be as free as possible from outside distractions, and as regulated as possible from interior distractions.

Why are you silent?

Why are people silent? The two clearest reasons: you either are trying to listen rather than speak, or you’ve got nothing to say.

I grimace when hearing the most common broadsides leveled against social media and communications. “What could I say in 140 characters?” “Who wants to know what I had for lunch?” Et cetera.

Can you imagine if people had had such lack of imagination 150 years ago? We would have let the telegraph rot. We have the means today to draw ourselves closer and share more intimately than ever before in history, and suddenly many of us seem to be struck mute.

Witness. Speak. Share. If you refuse to speak using the media of our time, it’ll be assumed in the future that it was because you didn’t have anything to say. That you didn’t have much to witness to. That maybe there just wasn’t much going on there—much soulfulness, much vitality, much life. (That won’t be a fair perspective, but the future often marginalizes the past and so it’s worth thinking about how to defeat its stereotypes while we still have time.)

I think about everything that my grandparents left behind in heirlooms and artifacts and especially in writing, and how my heart aches for the same sort of things but from every generation of my family over the past 200+ years in this country. How I wish I could read even the slimmest diary entries from my frontier ancestors and what their lives were like. I know some things from newspaper records, church records, etc. These aren’t particularly intimate things, but they’re something.

We have the means to speak and to be heard more simply than ever before.

Figure out what’s worth saying, and say it.


Complaining about your strengths

“Hey, great to see you. Nice hat.”

“Oh, it’s not new. Pretty old actually. I really need to get a new one.”

A better response?

“Thank you.”

I had this exchange almost verbatim recently. A simple compliment, given earnestly. But not well received, and instead turned into mild self pity.

How often we do this to ourselves. Turning our strengths into a weakness, and in effect complaining about a strength.

We don’t always conceive of the thing as a strength, though. Others often do, because they’re not in our doubt-filled heads. They just see the nice hat, and want to give a compliment.

Even when a strength is only perceived (rather than real), better to just go with it:

“Hey, thanks.”

Novelty, time, and experiments

David Eagleman, in short: seek novelty if you want to savor time.

I think of seeking novelty often in the form of running small experiments. An experiment from a few years ago while staying in a State College came from asking myself, “What happens if I leave my door unlocked for my stay?”

I stayed eight days without locking my door. Nothing happened.

Statistically (and especially in State College) perhaps this isn’t too surprising. But the liberty of not carrying keys with me for a week was worth the experiment alone.

A friend to whom I mentioned this experiment, incredulous, asked: What happens if you’re robbed? “Then I wouldn’t have my things any longer,” I replied. Life is simple if we let it be, and if we let go.

This experiment (or novelty) slowed down time for me initially because I was left wondering (more out of curiosity than worry) whether or not my things would in fact be there when I returned. So that week in State College sticks with me.

Seek novelty. Run experiments. Let go.

Goldberg Variations

It was in one of William F. Buckley’s sailing books, I think, that I was first tantalized by his description (really, his praise) for Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations:

The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, is a work for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of an aria and a set of 30 variations. First published in 1741, the work is considered to be one of the most important examples of variation form. The Variations are named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the first performer.

I was in Miami in January 2013 when I had the chance to attend a solo performance of the complete variations by Simone Dinnerstein. In effrontery to the Bill Buckley, Dinnerstein’s rendition was not on harpsichord but, instead, piano. Luckily for me as an amateur appreciator with little ear for the technical soundness of a performance, it was a delightful hour and a half experience.

Sharing impressions jotted down at the time: the Goldberg Variations can be tough listening even on piano at a slower tempo than almost anything a millennial would typically hear. Tonight’s rendition had strength and force enough to keep me attentive even as I shut my eyes to wander mental landscapes. It was a pleasant but not particularly transformative experience. I’d like to hear it again with someone able to dissect the performance’s quality and judge it sufficiently rather than sentimentally.

Worth hearing? Absolutely.

Perspective ≠ nostalgia

Alan Jacobs writes something so pitch perfect that I’m going to except the entire thing just in case his website ever disappears. On nostalgia:

Whenever you suggest that history is a matter of losses as well as gains, whenever you call attention to what we’ve lost along the way, whether it’s something we deliberately set aside or something we just forgot to pack, a great chorus starts shouting “Nostalgia!” You may not even want to have packed it; you may think that we chose as well as we could have in the circumstances; you need only hint that something of value, even of some tiny tiny value, that we once held we hold no longer, and it starts: “always the loud angry crowd, / Very angry and very loud,”, crying: “Nostalgia!”

It’s a bullying cry, but they’re not bullying you, at least not primarily. They’re bullying that little voice within them that wonders whether there might be more to the future than “everyone young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly”. Nothing could be more essential than to silence that quiet, that ever-so-gently skeptical voice.

Recalling better aspects of the past that seem to be missing from the present isn’t automatically a romanticization of the past, nor is it automatically a drippy sort of nostalgia. I think it’s more or less the definition of “perspective.” These two things don’t always go together, though often you can be nostalgic because of your perspective.

Perspective can be dangerous though, thus it’s often maligned.


Napa Institute

I’m taking part in the Napa Institute, which I learned about in May when I met John Meyer, its executive director, at the Becket Fund’s Canterbury Medal Gala. I’ll have more of substance to share next week, and in the meantime will be soaking the experience in as much as possible without writing more about it. In the meantime, I’ll share the Napa Institute’s background:

In the article, “Catholics and the Next America,” Archbishop Chaput delivers a prescient warning to American Catholics regarding a growing trend toward secularization in American culture, with Catholics facing dwindling relevance, threatening their ability to be heard.

In response, the Napa Institute was formed to help Catholic leaders face the challenges posed in the “next America” — to continue the work of the Apostles and their successors, the Bishops, heeding Christ’s call for ongoing evangelization.

By leading participants to a deeper understanding of the truth behind the faith, the Napa Institute emboldens Catholics to live and defend their faith with a peaceful confidence that is borne out of solid formation, fellowship and spiritual enrichment.


1)  To deepen Catholic leaders in the teachings of the Church, so they can evangelize others and defend their faith in secular society.

2)  To encourage religious freedom throughout our hemisphere.

3)  To inspire Catholic leaders to better stewardship of their time, treasure, and talents, especially in aiding Catholic organizations in their mission.

4)  To better form Catholics in a life shaped by liturgy, prayer, fasting, sacred art and music, and habits of holiness.

5)  To provide fellowship and recreation to relax the mind, body, and soul.