I texted Jim and Mark with a picture of two substantial packages I’d just put on the dining room table. Both were marked, ‘DELL,’ and both were eagerly awaited: an early Christmas gift for Jim, whose old MacBook has been wheezing and moaning. Jim was between work and class, and the boyos were out to dinner. But they converted to take out and came quickly home.
“Sweet,” said Jim, and he and Mark pulled the laptop from its package, then explored the special backpack that came with the deal.
“Nice,” Mark agreed.
They moved the computer to a safe pace and spread out their dinners. Jim said he couldn’t wait to get out of class so he could play with his new laptop.
But it didn’t go well. One of Jim’s definite needs in a computer is to be able to watch DVD’s. He plays a movie whenever he uses the computer; he’ll be typing with West Wing on half the screen; he’ll check his email to the accompaniment of How I Met Your Mother.
It’s one of those quirks of the autistic mind that fascinates me. Jim is so susceptible to distraction: chugging appliances, neighbors having a raucous exchange, someone playing Top 40’s playlists…all of these things can completely derail a project. So in order to concentrate, he supplies himself with a different kind of distraction.
If I tell him something while he’s typing and watching TV, he’ll remember it with perfect clarity hours and even days later. But if I told him the same thing while the dishwasher was chugging and irritating him, the data would have swept out some mental drain, never to be recovered.
So a DVD player was a must, and this laptop promised to provide that capability.
But that night, Jim eagerly opened the new laptop and brought it to the comfy chair. He put West Wing on the big TV (“Want to watch with me, Mom?”) and began the process of introducing himself to his new technology.
He set up passwords and logged into email.
He downloaded special scriptwriting software.
He got on line and accessed his subscriptions for streaming sites.
All of this took a little time, and he was getting a little testy. And then he popped a DVD into the drive.
And it didn’t work.
Repeated efforts did not help.There was a blank gray screen where the film should be playing. Jim’s breathing got heavier, and his mood less rosy, and he start snapping answers to well-intended questions. And then he got up, put the laptop down, and said, “I will have to send it back. They said it would work, and it doesn’t.”
“We’ll look at it,” Mark called from the other room, “tomorrow.”
“No,” said Jim. “It doesn’t work, and I’ll send it back tomorrow.”
He threw himself down on the couch, and watched the end of the episode, sighing. Then he heaved himself up, said morosely, “I might as well go to BED,” and stomped upstairs.
Great, I thought to myself. This is going to become our holiday drama. Just great.
The semester creaks slowly to a close, and that, of course, brings papers. Two of my classes had nine pagers due last week, and I have been slogging through the grading. Every morning, I open the program, pull up a paper, and copy a rubric onto the screen. Then I read through the paper for content and tone and just the feel of the thing before I run it through the rubric.
I believe that every writer has strengths, and I consciously try to school myself to see them. It’s easy for us picky English teacher types to lose the thread of an excellent argument in a sea of comma splices, for instance. I try to give clear feedback, noting strengths and pointing out opportunities for improvement.
I am not a fast grader. I once tried tutoring on line, and I could not meet the required twenty minutes per paper that the company, a textbook publisher, demanded. My feedback time was more in the 45 minute range.
So yesterday, I dragged myself to the computer and sat myself down, and pulled up the college’s website and started opening all the docs I need to grade papers. “I will never get finished with this,” I said to myself, and the gradebook opened up before me.
And looky there, I thought sheepishly. I only have one more to do.
I’ve been living in the land of negative self-talk. Time to up planks and move.
And right in the middle of all this, I had to put together a kind of sample paper for my Comp I students to react to…something that would allow them to add transitional phrases where they thought they were needed, and then practice the art of writing a satisfying conclusion. For some reason, as I strolled through some on-line info, looking for a topic, I landed on coloring.
“I’ll write a short paper on the benefits of coloring for adults,” I decided, and I did a little search. I found two good websites, created a Works Cited page, then wrote the first four paragraphs of a classic five paragraph essay.
The sources supported that coloring relieves stress and enhances creativity, and then—how about that?—one also said that coloring was a way to shut down negative self-talk. Here’s what Erika Befumo wrote on colorit.com: “When we color, it brings out our inner child. We are reminded of the days when life was simple and our biggest worry was watching our favorite cartoon show.”
That night after dinner, I cleared off the table, and brought out three sheets of copy paper, and I drew designs for this nifty Christmas surprise I can’t tell you about. (But it is, I hope, cute and clever, and I’ll tell you later how well it goes over.) It involves a pun of sorts, and I envision tags that contain pictures that illustrate the pun, and a little poem that explains it.
I got my crayon tin out and I sharpened a pencil and I sat down to draw and color.
I think I got my design down. And I stepped out of the scary world for a little while, lost myself in sketching and erasing, considering and adapting, outlining and coloring in. I moved from practical time into drawing time, and I got lost in the creative process.
When, finally, I was done, I looked at the clock and was shocked that only 32 minutes had passed.
I remembered using Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a book by Betty Edwards, in a grad class about the teaching of thinking. The class itself was a paradox. The professor taught it in a kind of formal style: we read; he lectured; we took tests. But the tests were on material that told us lecturing and testing weren’t always the best ways to teach…weren’t, in fact, often the best ways. And our reading opened us up to all kinds of wonderfully unexpected theories about how students learn to think. My best takeaway was that writing and thinking skills are inextricable.
But I really liked the Betty Edwards section, too.
In her book, Edwards predicted what I’d just experienced: immersing in a creative process actually changes the way we experience time. I’d forgotten about that.
And I realized that Erika Befumo also was right: fresh from a drawing binge, I was hopeful and positive. I even liked the designs I’d created, and I got excited about putting packages together.
Later, after a long computer screen interval, I realized I was feeding that negative talk again,–that below the surface of my thoughts, a little banner was running, like the ones we see on news programs. While the newscaster is talking, the ribbon scrolls below, saying things like, “School cancellations for tomorrow: Ada Central Schools,two hour delay; Bluffton Local schools, closed; Cambridge elementary, closed….”
And much as I want to pay attention to the news on the big screen, my eyes are drawn to that scrolling ribbon.
So my thoughts were telling me the work was done and this was great and there was time to read. But scrolling below that, there was this kind of chatter: Do I think I really taught those students anything? I don’t know why I bother; no one reads my emails anyway. Am I going to have enough time to finish this? Can I afford this holiday?
You can guess which one I was listening to.
So here’s my unproven premise. Excess screen time opens us wide to the daunting effects of negative self-talk. Rich creative time blocks the negativity and puts us firmly in touch with the good stuff going on.
I’m going to see what the experts say; I’m going to explore this whole idea more deeply. And I’m going to look for ways to get myself, and my family, away from the screens once in a while.
The Comp II papers are graded. The Comp I final papers are in, though, but I’m actually kind of looking forward to reading those. And the end of the semester is crawling around my feet and purring, rubbing against my legs and leaving college-y cat hair all over my slacks. Vacation is coming, it reminds me, bringing holiday celebration right along with it.
Today, James and I took a ride to the bulk food store and bought interesting things—non-gluten flours, white chocolate for dipping, chocolate chips, mixed nuts, and tapioca. We stopped at the A and W so Jim could get himself a bag lunch, and, while there, he also got his dad a little apple pie blizzard-type thing. (Mark loves himself a piece of apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and this seemed to Jim like a wonderful combination.)
When we came home, Jim ate his lunch, then opened the new laptop. I was working on some grading and not paying attention when Jim shouted.
“Can you HEAR that?” he asked, and I stopped to listen. It was the theme music from West Wing.
“That’s on my new LAPTOP,” Jim said. “They downloaded software overnight, and the DVD drive WORKS.”
He ran over to give me a fist bump.
“I think I LIKE this new computer after all,” Jim said.
So the holiday is not shadowed by the Ghost of Technology Disappointing, and the grading load is completely manageable, and…I can’t even remember what else I was expecting to be dire and dreadful.
What was I thinking?
I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what. I’m off to go draw and color.