Living Outside The Frame: How Context Poisons Everything

Alexandra Schwartz wrote an interesting article for The New Yorker. It's called "Improving Ourselves to Death," and it's all about the problems in the modern self-help movement. It is thought-provoking, well worth reading, and it identifies many of the worst problems with the self-help movement as it exists today: its inherent narcissism, its cock-eyed optimism, its obsession with better and more. The article doesn't stop there, it also criticizes the reaction against the self-help movement for its own shortcomings: Just because you're good enough as-is doesn't mean you can stop giving a flying so-and-so about your relationship to other people.

As any such article should, Schwartz's article ends without resolving the conflicts. It's a think piece, as in, doesn't-it-make-you. We're invited to assess for ourselves to what extent self improvement is a rat race and to what extent self acceptance is lazy and narcissistic in its own way. Both criticisms hit home, but if we're going to peer into that particular void it would be nice if something peered back into us in return. Schwartz's article doesn't give us that. Instead, it gives us a frame, a new way of seeing the self-help movement.

It's an interesting frame, sturdy and ornate. But we should see what's on the other side.

*        *        *

The main problem with Schwartz's article is something she herself can't escape. Of course she can't escape it, it's the main offer she's making us, it's the whole value proposition of her article. The frame. And that's precisely why her article, as good as it is, can't offer solutions. Maybe we can find those solutions, then, if we shine a light on the primary issue.

Consider the following excerpt, which might be considered the article's shark-jumping point (emphases mine):
After a while, Storr says, this rational response to economic pressures became instinctive habit: “Neoliberalism beams at us from many corners of our culture and we absorb it back into ourselves like radiation.” Like reality television before it, social media frames human relationships as a constant competition for popularity and approval. Donald Trump, with his greed-is-good hucksterism and his obsessive talk of “winners” and “losers,” is in the White House. (“Selfie” was published in England last year; Storr is adding a chapter about the President for the American edition.) Meanwhile, parents continue to feed their children the loving, well-intentioned lie that there are “no limits” and they can “be anything,” which leaves the kids blaming themselves, rather than the market’s brutality, when they inevitably come up short.
The phrases I've highlighted in bold above are loaded. They say so much more than what they say because they're absolutely loaded with context. They're mini-models. They're memes, shared beliefs held widely by many people that are designed to cast life in a certain light. Is anyone out there truly neutral to the word "neoliberalism" in this day and age? No, it conjures up not just one thought, but a whole set of thoughts, a whole pattern of thinking. It's a frame, if you will.

Use of the word "neoliberalism" is not so much a stand-alone point as it is an attempt to inject a particular kind of political context into a topic that wouldn't otherwise be overtly political. Asking you to think about the shortcomings of the self-help movement is one thing. Asking you to think about how the self-help movement plays into the scourge of neoliberalism is something else entirely.

In fact, all of the phrases I highlighted in bold -- and many others used throughout the article -- inject context. When Schwartz writes these things or quotes others who say these things, she's not elaborating or elucidating, she's pointing us to a correct framing of the whole issue. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions, so long as they arrive at those conclusions through the context of a discussion about "neoliberalism," or "social media," or "reality television," or etc., etc.

Like The Last Psychiatrist used to say: The media doesn't tell you what to want, it tells you how to want.

The way out of this trap is to eradicate the context. Let's give it a try:
  • It's possible to reject the major tenets of the self-help movement without thinking anything at all about "neoliberalism" or the current state of the political economy.
  • It's possible to embrace principles of self-improvement without embracing anything provided to you by the self-help movement.
  • It's possible to pursue career success for your own reasons, without viewing it as an act of "constant competition."
  • It's possible to believe that the sky is the limit without setting yourself -- or your children -- up for failure.
  • It's possible to avoid rampant consumerism while still favoring a free market economy.
Really, I mean it. All of these things are possible. If you can't imagine how you might accomplish one of these things, it's only because you're hung up on the context I am asking you to purge.

*        *        *

I know someone who doesn't like to watch exercise videos because she thinks the motivational bromides shouted at the viewer by the trainer are accusations of inadequacy. When they say, "Push harder," she hears, "You're not pushing hard enough!" When they say, "Doing it this way will burn more calories," she hears, "You're fat and need to burn more calories!"

Someone else I know told me that when people say, "You should find a romantic partner to share your life with," she thought it was an accusation that her life without a romantic partner wasn't good enough.

From the standpoint of internal motivation, I don't know why people do this sort of thing. They can take any positive, encouraging, or well-meaning suggestion and turn it upside-down, twisting it into a horrible black hole of criticism. I do, however, think I know why people do this from more of a mechanical point of view. They do this by injecting context into statements that are being made without context. They have a frame, and they intend to use it.

I use exercise videos, and I've never had a weight problem. I use them because they're fun. For me, there is no context of inadequacy through which to filter the encouraging bromides of the trainer. When he says, "Push through this set," or "I want you to give me a few more reps," I don't think he's telling me that I'm not good enough as-is. I don't inject that context into my exercise videos. When people suggest that I live my life differently, I don't always take their advice to heart, but I never think they're maligning my choices. I think they're promoting their own choices, and I am okay with that.

Motivationally, the added context serves no purpose for me. It doesn't help me achieve my goals and it doesn't give me greater insight into the statements I hear from other people. Thus, the added context is useless. I like to enter into situations neutrally and then consider the many possibilities that might come out of what's happening. I'll get a lot more out of an exercise video if I think it might genuinely help me than I will if I think it's just a bunch of spandex-clad salesmen who are calling me fat so that they can make money off me.

Maybe I'm wrong about the exercise video people, but even if so, how would the alternative viewpoint help me in my life? I reject the process of adding extraneous context to the exercise because I don't want to taint a potentially valuable tool with a mental model that presupposes criticism.

Note to all the charlatans out there: Even if you're only making fun of me, if I can benefit by being made fun of, I will endeavor to do so. That's how pragmatic people live their lives. I highly recommend it.

*        *        *

The basic self-help grift works like this: First they frame your life in a novel way, and then they use that frame to solve problems you didn't even know you had.

I could write a self-help book based on the premise that human behavior is not all together different from chimpanzee behavior. I could offer many research studies of chimpanzee behavior and use loose comparisons to human studies, drawing parallels, coming up with a just-so story about how the missing piece in your life is this thing that chimpanzees are really good at, but which civilization has managed to discourage in homo sapiens. I could then sell you on a path forward: be more chimp-like. It sounds ridiculous, but it would sell. Going Bonzo: How to Unleash Your Inner Chimp and Start Taking Life by the Banana.

Or I could write what would essentially be the same book, but instead of comparing us to chimps, I could compare us to a lost tribe in the Pacific islands. Or I could compare us to a successful corporation somewhere. Or I could compare us to Holocaust survivors. Or Nobel laureates. Or some five percent of the population who hold some trait that I could seek to promote. All of these comparisons have been made in self-help books before, and will be made again, not because the ideas have merit but because that's how the grift works. First I frame your life in a novel way, and then I use that frame to solve problems you didn't even know you had.

(See? There's another trick: I used repetition to reinforce my point.)

The trick isn't selling you on my solution, the trick is selling you on my frame. The trick is providing you with the desired context through which to see your life. After that, your ultimate conclusion will be consistent with me (and my book sales), regardless of what that conclusion is. You don't actually have to adopt a "growth mindset" in order to believe you need one.

*        *        *

Now back to Schwartz. I think part of her understands what I'm saying, but unfortunately the only part of her that understands it is the part that is skeptical of self-help books. The part of her that is skeptical of various political and economic beliefs, or beliefs about the modern human condition as told through the language of "neoliberalism" or "hucksterism" or "consumerism," or "the market's brutality," or etc., etc., has not yet learned to live outside the frame.

This isn't necessarily her fault, and it's not my intention here to criticize her or change her mind. My goal here is to use her article to highlight how inevitable this trap is. We really have to fight to escape the sucking sound of an all-consuming context.

Don't believe me? Them just try to celebrate Christmas without a Christmas tree. "But putting up a Christmas tree is just what you do during Christmas!" Doesn't have to be. Try ordering a burger with no fries, just the burger. "But it's just not as satisfying without the fries!" It could be, if you wanted it to be. Try voting for a third party candidate. "But that just helps the party I hate win!" Uh, no, sorry.

Or, here's one: Try playing with your child without inserting the context of the parent-child dynamic. Just give it a try. Go to the playground and take your child's lead. See what happens. I dare you.

Try making love to your spouse like it's the first time. Forget the context provided by years of being together and live one night together without it. Wouldn't it be great to feel those butterflies again? You could, if you wanted to.

You could live outside the frame. I urge you to try.


Words Count

Although it’s easy to carry this sentiment too far, I believe that the way we use words has a big impact on how we think about what we’re saying.

A simple example of this, inspired by a cold winter day such as this one, would be what you say when you go outside. You might say, “It’s cold outside.” You might say instead, “It’s freezing outside.” Another thing you might say is, “It sure does feel like winter out here.” Now, I’m not going to try to predict what difference each one of these things makes when you say them. I only claim that each sentence, although similar in their essential meaning, will cause you to think differently about the weather. You think different things when you choose to use the word “freezing” instead of “cold.” You think something else when you say neither word and simply acknowledge that it feels like winter.

For me, “freezing” is more painful than “cold,” and if I simply said that it felt like winter, I’d be downplaying the cold I’m feeling and emphasizing that the physical sensation of cold is entirely to be expected because it’s winter. But that’s just me.

If we accept the above, then it stands to reason that the words you say to others will also inspire different thoughts in them. So, for example, I never use the phrase “make you feel better” with my daughter. I don’t want to make her feel anything. In fact, I can’t make her feel anything. Her feelings are all her own. Instead, I say “help you feel better.” That’s something I can do. I can help. I usually start helping by asking what she wants and letting her guide me through the process of recovery.

This was a deliberate parenting choice on my part, but when I started doing that, I soon realized that it didn’t make sense to say “make you feel better” to anyone. I stopped saying it to my wife, my friends, my family members. I started saying “help” instead. I have no idea whether they noticed, but what I noticed in myself is that I started to empathize a little better. Instead of offering people gestures that I assumed were kind, I started offering them anything they might need, letting them choose what might help them, and giving them that. I felt better about that, and I hope they did, too.

I was given some important advice a few months back: Stop saying, “I feel like...” You know, “I feel like people don’t pay attention when they drive.” Or maybe, “I feel like you don’t really like the hamburger you’re eating.” Or perhaps, “I feel like we’ve always done it this way.”

No, no, no. These are not feelings. These are thoughts. Feelings, I was advised, consist of just one word. I feel happy, or sad, or confused, or slighted, or angry, or jealous, or lonely, or misunderstood, or elated, or accomplished, or etc. See? Those are feelings. Just one word. If you need more than one word to say what you’re saying, then you’re probably not talking about a feeling anymore. You’re talking about a thought.

To be sure, thoughts are important. But they are distinct from feelings. We have circumstances that trigger thoughts, which trigger feelings, and then come actions inspired by all three. But circumstances, thoughts, feelings, and actions (or behaviors) are all separate things.

And finally, the words we choose to denote our feelings, the words we use to describe our thoughts, can all have a big impact on our actions/behaviors. We can’t always change our circumstances, but we can often change our thoughts and our feelings simply by describing them differently.

This technique - altering your thinking by changing the words you use - can be honed with practice and used to improve your life. But it takes time and it takes consistent practice. It’s worth it, though.


Magic Amulet

You went out looking for love.

You tried all the usual things. You met people through mutual friends and colleagues, at parties. You joined up with a bunch of clubs associated with your common interests. You went out to night clubs to meet new people. You tried internet dating, dating through you faith-based community, singles nights at various establishments, and so on. Nothing seemed to work.

It's not that you were an unattractive person. You often met people with whom you had a spark. You'd go out on a few dates, things would heat up a little, then ultimately fizzle out.

To your great frustration, some of the most attractive people you met were already attached to someone else. Every time you thought you'd met a really great potential match, they'd introduce you to their spouse or partner a few minutes later. It was very frustrating.

One day, you met a beggar on the street. Everyone was passing by the beggar without so much as a sideward glance, but when you looked at the old man, you noticed that he was limping badly and his leg was wrapped in a very dirty, old bandage. You greeted him, pressed a few bills into the palm of his hand, and asked him if he was alright.

He winked. Then he told you, "Indeed, I am, my boy. In fact, I am a sorcerer, and in exchange for showing me kindness, I will give you this powerful amulet. With it, you will be able to seduce anyone!" Then he disappeared into a cloud of smoke.

You turned the amulet over in your hands a few times and breathed a deep sigh. You knew that this was a very powerful gift, indeed, but that it was not really what you needed or wanted in your life. After all, you were not merely looking to seduce people. You were looking for love. You were looking for someone whose attraction to you and to your personality was enough to sustain a life-long partnership until the two of you grew old together and died.

Granted, with the power conferred by this amulet, you could choose any person in the whole world, invoke the power of the amulet, and keep them in love with you for the rest of both your lives. But that relationship would not be based on anything other than the power of the amulet. Without mutual interests and a shared admiration for each other, there would be nothing fulfilling about the relationship itself.

The love itself would be superficial. It would be something like teenagers feel for each other: They like how the other person looks, they can engage in a sort of nervous and likeable rapport with each other, they can share some high school social experiences. When push comes to shove, though, teenagers ultimately discover that the object of their affection doesn't ultimately have a lot in common with them. They grow bored, uninterested, and ultimately go their separate ways.

You thought about this for several weeks. You even tried it out a few times, sharing some exciting and passionate nights with a few beautiful strangers. The amulet did work. But, again, you were in search of love, not merely sex. If only you had met the sorcerer in your younger, less serious days!

Then, one day, you met your perfect match. She was beautiful, intelligent, witty, charming, and glamorous. She shared all your same interests. You happened to meet her through a mutual acquaintance. You both took to each other so quickly that you forgot all about the amulet and simply asked her out on a date.

The date went very well. You laughed together, you enjoyed each other's company. It was thrilling!

Halfway through the evening, she briefly excused herself for a moment. You took a sip of your wine and shifted in your chair. You felt something in your pocket that you had completely forgotten about: the amulet.

This young woman is wonderful, you thought to yourself, and she seems genuinely interested in me. I shouldn't have to use the amulet.

Just then she came back to the table. She apologized, but explained that something had just come up and that she had to attend to it. She said, "I know this sounds bad, but I really do have to go. I'm sorry. I'll call you."

With that, she stood up, left you money for her half of the restaurant bill, and hurried out.

You thought about it. You were both having a great time. Her apologies sounded genuine. She didn't seem to want to go. Still, she ditched you halfway through a good date. What were you to think about that?

Your thoughts returned to the amulet. That would be an easy solution, wouldn't it? You wouldn't have to spend time wondering whether she liked you. You'd know it for certain. You had such a spark with her that surely -- surely -- the power of the amulet would merely focus her attention on you until you both had a chance to build the foundation of a proper relationship, without magic.

You swallowed hard. You took a deep breath. You used the amulet.

Your relationship with the woman continued for several months. It was wonderful. It was the nicest relationship you had ever had with anyone. You spent many lazy afternoons wrapped in each other's arms, laughing and chatting. You played games together, cooked together, introduced each other to your friends and families. You talked about a future together. Indeed, you planned on it.

One day, while opening your drawer to get your watch, you noticed the amulet. It was still glowing. Its power was still working to maintain your relationship.

You remembered all the time you had spent with the woman who was likely to spend the rest of her life with you. You realized that you really had built the foundation for a wonderful, lifelong relationship. You thought, perhaps it was time to deactivate the amulet and live out the rest of your life with your paramour.

As you reached for it, though, you realized that there was a chance that everything you had experienced thus far was nothing more than the power of the amulet. Left to her own volition, perhaps she never would have invested so much time in you. Perhaps she would have grown weary of your ways, or annoyed by your quirks. Perhaps she didn't really find you all that physically attractive to begin with.

Perhaps she really was blowing you off that one night, months ago, on your first date.

You could easily find out the truth by deactivating the amulet and finding out what happens. The problem now is that you don't want to know the truth. You want to live the life that you had begun to live with this woman, the love of your life. You can't bear losing her. You can't live without her.

You turn the amulet over again and again in your hand, wondering what to do. This is what you always wanted, and yet it might all be disingenuous.

So you think, and you wonder, and you don't know what to do.


Don't Call Your Child Names

Anyone who has ever had the experience of watching 2-year-olds play together knows that it is not all fun and games. At age 2, children have figured out that might-makes-right, but they have not figured out concepts like private property, or the benefits of sharing, or the benefits of playing together as equals. As a result, there is about as much crying as there is laughter.

For many parents, this can be jarring. The desire to step in and equally distribute toys and treats, to police the process of taking turns, and to generally manage every step of the playing process on behalf of the children, is almost overwhelming. To do this, however, is a big mistake. Children must learn how to resolve their own conflicts. It's an ugly process with a lot of tears, but if we don't leave them to it, then the only thing they ever learn is that whenever somebody cries, a parent or authority figure is there to step in and give them direction. Ultimately, this stunts their emotional development. Thus, we have to leave them to their messy play.

Some parents, however, respond differently. Rather than being surprised or alarmed, they laugh. They see children running around, stealing each other's toys, cooking up schemes to gain an extra turn on the playground slide or an extra five minutes with a favorite stuffed animal, and they (the parents) think it's funny on some level.

Although it's a mistake to step in and try to manage the situation for the children, I believe it's also a mistake to sit back and laugh. They don't need mom and dad to just do it for them, but they certainly shouldn't be taught that their inability to cooperate is a laughing matter. If the micro-managing approach to parenting teaches the children to rely too much on parents and authority figures, the laughter approach teaches them that it's funny to scheme and to get what you want at the expense of other people.

What children need in these scenarios is guidance. Over time, and with lots of repetition through practice and consistent parental messaging, children must learn that the reason it's nice to share is that, in the long run, everyone has more fun together that way. It might feel instantly gratifying to hoard the prettiest blue ball, but in five minutes, when your best friend has ripped it out of your hands and you don't get to bounce it for the rest of the night, you'll realize the value of finding a way to provide more harmonious access to toys. In a perfect world, we teach our children to do that.

By chance, I happened to meet a parent in the "laughter" category. This parent told me about how difficult one the family's children had been. The child often misbehaved, often threw tantrums, often rebelled. The child seldom obeyed the parents and seldom followed the rules. This caused such a major headache for the parents that it negatively influenced their desire for more children.

Ultimately, they did have a second child, though, and the second child was much more peaceful and cooperative than the first. Already only a year into the second child's life, an insidious narrative had begun to take hold. The second child was the "easy" one, and the "good" one. The first child was, and I quote, "a little shit."

Today, the two children are still quite young. They have a lot of life ahead of them. That life is going to be very difficult and complicated for them - especially for the older child - if the younger one accepts the "easy/good" narrative and the older one comes to believe that s/he really is "a little shit." My heart goes out to them both.

More importantly, my heart goes out to my own child, who I could never even imagine thinking such things about. She doesn't always do everything right, but I couldn't in a thousand years drum up the willingness to call her a name like that. My chest hurts just thinking about it.

Is there any connection between the fact that the so-called "little shit" received parental laughter and joy when acting out as a youngster, and the fact that the misbehavior became more prevalent and problematic later on? There probably is, isn't there.

Will there be any connection between the child's future bad behavior and the names his/her parents call him/her at home and in conversations with other parents? Certainly.


For Those Who Drink Egg Nog

Nina loved egg nog, but her stomach worked in a peculiar way. She could only drink four ounces of egg not, and four ounces exactly. If she drank even a drop more than four ounces, she would get a stomach ache. If she drank even a drop less than four ounces, she would get a stomach ache. The only amount she was capable of drinking is four ounces exactly.

One day, she reached into her refrigerator and pulls out an already-open carton of egg nog. In fact, the carton was almost empty, and Nina guessed that it had only four ounces of egg nog left in it. Egg nog comes in one-quart cartons, and Nina reasoned that if she had been measuring correctly all along, she should have never ended up with less than four ounces in the carton, unless the carton was empty. “Uh oh,” she thought, “the stores are closed today, so I had better remember to pick up more egg nog from the market tomorrow.”

So, Nina dumped the entire contents of the carton into her glass. To her dismay, however, there was slightly more than four ounces in the glass. Nina reached for her special egg nog measuring cup: it was precisely four ounces in volume. She poured the egg nog into her measuring cup, but some of it spilled on the counter top, leaving her with something less than four ounces of egg nog.

In a last-ditch effort to salvage her cup of egg nog, Nina sopped up some of the spilled egg nog with a paper towel, and squeezed it into the measuring cup. The good news was that she managed to get her four ounces of egg nog. The bad news was that the egg nog was now dirty with crumbs and grease from the counter top.

She didn’t get a stomach ache, but her egg nog was ruined.

*        *        *

Tina and Simon both love egg nog. One day, Simon brought a carton of egg nog home with him after work, as a surprise for Tina. Over the next few days, Tina had a few cups of egg nog and reveled in its creamy and delicious taste. When Simon came home one day and tried to pour himself a cup of egg nog, he found that the carton was empty.

“You didn’t save me any egg nog?” he asked Tina.

Tina shot smirked at him and said, “I thought you bought it as a gift for me…”

She was right, Simon thought, but it would have been nice if Tina had left him some egg nog. “I did,” he said, “but I was hoping you would save me some.”

“You should have told me you wanted some when you brought it home,” Tina said, her eyes wide. “I would have saved you some, had I only known you wanted it.”

“You already know that I love egg nog,” said Simon.

“But you said you bought it for me. Here, would you like me to drive to the store and buy you some egg nog?”

“No, that’s okay,” Simon said, “I’ll just have tea instead. I’ll pick up some more egg nog tomorrow.”

The next day, he did indeed come home with more egg nog. Tina was quick to pour a cup for Simon. She gave it to him with a smile and a kiss.

A few minutes later, the phone rang. Tina answered, and Simon heard her laugh and talk excitedly with the person on the other end of the line. When she got off the phone, Tina announced, “My friend Mary is having an impromptu baby shower at her apartment in 15 minutes. I can’t go empty-handed. I’m going to take the carton of egg nog with me so that everyone has something to drink at the party.”

Simon frowned into his cup. “Well,” he said glumly, “at least I got to have one cup of egg nog this time.”

“Oh, don’t be like that,” said Tina. “I will buy you another carton of egg nog on my way home.” That made Simon feel better.

The next day, Simon came home from work and poured a cup of egg nog. Just then, Tina walked in, saw what Simon was doing, and said excitedly, “Egg nog! Can I have a cup, too?”

“Of course,” said Simon. He handed her the cup he had just poured, got another cup from the cupboard, and started pouring another cup for himself. Unfortunately, there was only half a cup of egg nog left in the carton. Simon was confused. “Didn’t you just buy this carton of egg nog after your party?”

“Not exactly,” said Tina. “We ran out of egg nog at the party, so I had to go to the store and get more. We didn’t finish that second carton, so I brought it home with me to give to you.” She smiled and winked.

“So… you didn’t actually buy me a carton of egg nog,” Simon said slowly.

Tina was surprised. “I brought some egg nog home for you, just like I said I would. Why does it have to be a special carton purchased only for you?”

“Oh, it isn’t that,” said Simon. “It’s just that I never seem to get any of the egg nog.”

Tina shot him a glare. “Would you like to have my cup of egg nog? Here.”

“I just thought you’d think of me, that’s all,” said Simon, realizing that the conversation had soured.

“I brought you home more egg nog,” said Tina, “what more do you want?”

“Well, I only have half a cup here—”

“I offered you my cup!” Tina interjected.

“But you wouldn’t have to do that if you had just bought a carton for me like you said you would,” said Simon.

“I brought home some egg nog!”

“I know, I know,” Simon said uneasily, “but that was egg nog you bought for your party. What you brought home wasn’t even enough for both of us.”

“I offered you my cup!”

“After I had given it to you,” said Simon a little louder. “I was thinking of you. I just wanted you to think of me, too.”

Tina pushed her cup of egg nog across the coffee table and went out to walk the dog. She called out through the closing door, “You only think about yourself!”

Simon didn’t feel like drinking egg nog anymore.

*        *        *

Mina walked through the front door after work and collapsed on the sofa.

Linus could see that she had had a bad day. “You look like you’ve had a rough day,” he said. “Shall I pour you a cup of egg nog?”

“Ugh!” grunted Nina. “I’m so sick of egg nog that I never want to think about it again!”

Simon put the carton back in the refrigerator, saying, “But we love egg nog! It’s our thing.”

Mina held out her hand. “Sorry,” she said. “Too much egg nog at all these office holiday parties, I guess.” Behind her, Linus shrugged as he sipped some egg nog from his own cup.

He didn't offer Mina any egg nog for several weeks, and she didn't seem to miss it. One night, they both had some spare time and Mina asked Linus what he wanted to do. "I think we should pour each other a cup of egg nog, just like old times, and reminisce about that trip we took to the East Coast!" He grinned at her conspiratorially.

She smiled. "That sounds nice."

Linus put on some candles and they got cozy on the couch with their cups. In between sips, he recounted some of the adventures they'd had: Did she remember how hard it was to get hot water to come out of the shower at the hotel? Did she remember that little gazebo they found while taking a shortcut through a little neighborhood park on their way to the pier? Who could forget the old man in the restaurant who tried to challenge Simon to a Scotch-drinking contest! They laughed and laughed.

As Linus finished off his second cup of egg nog, he glanced at Mina's cup. She had hardly touched it in the hours they'd been talking. "You still don't want to think much about egg nog, I see," he said.

Mina smiled and shook her head. "I tried some, but I guess I just don't like it anymore." She waited a beat before reassuring him, "This was nice, though!"

Linus smiled, too. "It was nice, wasn't it."

"I think I'd better get to bed," Mina told him then. "I have to get to work early tomorrow." She kissed him good night, stood up, and caused the candles to flicker as she swooped her scarf around on her way upstairs to bed.

Linus watched the flickering flames settle back down to their resting position: A perfect teardrop shape perched atop a long, white rod. A drop of melted wax rolled down the side of the candle as Linus reached over to finish Mina's cup of egg nog.

"Next time," he thought, "I'll buy scented candles. The smoke from these burns my eyes."


A Blue Valentine To Technology

Many years ago, I spent much of my time vying for the attention of a very lovely young woman. I showered her with gifts. I floated gently behind her on a cloud of euphoria the likes of which I had never experienced before. Willingly and ambitiously, I committed to remolding my weaknesses until I had transformed into a better version of myself in a daring plan to win her heart and build a perfect life together, filled with the promise of limitless possibilities. 

Young love is a language all its own, and we both proved to be multilingual. But it wasn’t just romance. I mean, she and I really were multilingual! I spoke English and Spanish, and dabbled in French. She spoke English and Bangla, and dabbled in many others. Our overlap was English, it was the language we shared, and thus became the language that defined our love affair. This didn’t seem right to me, though. In a truly epic love affair, I thought to myself, I’d speak her native tongue, too. Thus it happened that I started teaching myself Bangla.

The passion of youth is filled with optimism and hope, for despite there being no useful book or class for learning Bangla, I was certain it would be possible to master it. I searched the web deeply and uncovered a few important links. Then, with the help of my sweet paramour, I built my knowledge of Bangla from the ground up, one word at a time.

I leveraged Google’s technology for this. With their transliteration tool and their documents platform, I was able to achieve significant success in my undertaking, building language skills that would prove to be useful for a lifetime, a genuine lifetime. My heart swelled and the love between the young woman and I grew ever deeper. So, too, grew my love for the technology that made this possible.

Inevitably, however, the passion of young love fades. No, don’t worry: the young lady stuck with me. It’s my love affair with technology that soured over the years. Technology is the one that got away. She broke my heart. It’s a terrible tale.

Google swept me off my feet back then. It gave me the tools – free tools – with which to build a blossoming love affair into a lifelong romance; it helped me learn something that no teacher was available to teach me: a rare-to-North-America language that almost no one learns if they are not raised in Bangladesh. In Blogger, it gave me a platform with which to share my knowledge and perhaps acquire more through social networking. My use of Blogger soon opened doors to new opportunities in the form of occasional articles written for other websites. The future was unfolding her wings and flying me into the heart of the sun.

Then one day technology flew me to an entirely new high. My cell phone buzzed while I was driving. I glanced at the screen and saw a notification. I was headed straight for a traffic jam. That’s a useful alert, but Google took this even a step further: it automatically offered an alternative route, even though I wasn’t using the GPS system. That’s the power of technology working for me.

By god, it didn’t stop there! Soon all sorts of interesting and useful predictive technology was being used to improve my life. Google offered me reminders of things I had never expressly asked to be reminded of – and those reminders were just what I needed. I was getting updates on my package shipments. I was getting updates on, not only my own personal air flights, but also those of my friends and family members. This information was being funneled to me through my smart phone. I didn’t have to go searching for it, it was right there on my home screen.

Once I finally warmed up to this, I started taking it as far as it would go. I reveled in the sweet possibilities of what I had been offered. I voice-controlled Google into setting reminders for myself, which would translate into alarms on my phone. I created shopping lists, shared them with friends. I created a fillable online form that could track and predict my blood glucose levels. Everything was moving in the same wonderful direction. With a simple digital assistant, an artificial intelligence tucked into my smart phone, provided to me as a free feature on top of all the other things a smart phone “really” does, I was expanding my ability to live the good life. Technology and I really could build a future together.

It was beautiful.

And then it was gone.

As is so often the case for these relationships, I’m not exactly sure when it happened. The love faded gradually as all of that wonderful functionality disappeared, replaced with news stories and monetization. And boredom.

The truth is, I hadn’t really even noticed what I’d been missing until today, when I read an article about it at Computer World. “Google Now” fluttered away lethargically, like a lover who simply loses interest and grows cold. The passion of our earlier relationship had disappeared. Eventually I forgot that Google Now was even around. It took a wake-up call in the form of that Computer World article to remind me what I had lost, and what I had lost was truly wonderful.

Shuffling past the Amazon devices that now control my light bulbs, I felt a pang. Years ago, what Google and other technology firms were building was something that could have made for a genuinely epic marriage of human needs and algorithmic supplementation. Our mere acquainting ourselves with one another was enough to inspire a relationship between us that soon became something new unto itself. My relationship to technology wasn’t just that of a man and a computer in his pocket. I learned languages, improved my health, shortened my daily commute, made new friends. Every marriage should be what this was.

And now? Sure enough, I can voice-control my lightbulbs. I can set reminders and access my calendar. I can read a curated list of recent headlines. I do all this through sundry apps, none of which are powerful to offer me the future I had imagined, all of which are trying to monetize my interaction with it.

But what really hurts is the lost sense of limitless possibilities that I once had. If I had met my wife last year, I doubt I would ever have thought to leverage Google’s applications to teach myself a new language. I certainly wouldn’t have created my own blood glucose predictive analysis. Granted, I can hack together a lot of what I want to do with a combination of clunky apps. If I keep one eye occasionally dialed into my GPS system, I can watch for bad traffic; but I don’t get automatic notifications about it anymore, for example. And while I enjoy what Alexa can do for me, her user interface is slow and complicated compared to the old “Google Cards” interface.

In short, the romance is gone. I now look at the so-called Internet of Things and think to myself, why on earth do I need my refrigerator to me “smart?” A few years ago, I would have guessed that I’d one day live in a world in which a smart refrigerator could assemble my favorite ingredients before I even wake up. That really would be something. But algorithmic temperature control is definitely not worth dinner and movie, much less the hundreds of dollars extra I’d have to spend to buy the algorithm. My smart watch, a beautiful thing, has all the sensors required to predict my VO2 max. It doesn’t do it, though. Garmin reserves that particular algorithm for customers who buy one of their more expensive watches, despite the fact that this is a simple software operation. They’re withholding smart services from me that they could offer me, but don’t.

So this is the crushing weight of the end of a love affair. This is the moment, years after that sweet initial romance period, where I have discovered that my beloved was tantalizing me with gifts I would have to beg for – or pay for – later on; that every new desire in my affair with technology has become quid-pro-quo. I see in others pale and partial glimpses of the fire that engulfed me during the early years, whether it’s Alexa’s shopping lists or Android Auto’s voice-texting service; but these are only bits and pieces of what I thought I was getting. All these years later, we’re both tired of trying so damn hard. The future isn’t possibilities, it’s a few fond tools that can be called upon when we’re both willing to think about it at the same time. The eagerness to please, the dream we both once shared, is like a miasma that hangs in the periphery behind me.

Gradually and silently, I’ve admitted that, when it comes to technology, I hoped for more than I ended up with, and I dream that someone out there might come along with, if not the same functionality technology used to promise us all, at least that same sense of hope.