Friday, March 27, 2009

The Wrong Kind of Attention

As a teacher there are times when I am forced to work at home in the evening or on the weekend. When I can arrange it, I make those times when my daughter Isabel is not around. Sadly, I can’t always arrange it that way. In fact, far more frequently than I would like I find myself sitting at the dining room table with my computer open, working on report card comments or letters of reference or long-term assignments for my students.
Often these tasks require sharp focus and complete concentration. And almost as often Isabel resents the fact that my focus and attention are not directed, laser-like, on her. In these cases she will try to tempt me away from my work. But if she can’t get my attention with offers of art projects or stories or a movie, she will try Plan B. The specifics of Plan B vary from day to day, but the specifics are not really that important.
Whether it comes out as a persistent tap on the shoulder, a repeated request to watch a movie, a loud and insistent snippet of GarageBand electronica, or, (as actually happened once), a series of grapes hurled at my forehead, the underlying strategy is one of “Annoy and Conquer.” It becomes clear in these instances that any attention from me, even attention earned through annoyance, is better than no attention.

I see the same strategy employed by my students sometimes. Grabbing someone’s pencil, kicking another student’s chair, repeating a phrase that is a known irritant, and telling on each other for minor infractions are all commonly used tactics designed to get attention. I guess it is like the old Hollywood axiom—there is no such thing as bad publicity.

What brings this line of thought to mind for me is a puzzling and, (to my way of thinking), not at-all-positive trend I have seen in the readership of my blog. If you look to the left you will see a counter designed to keep track of the number of visitors to cdawson. Below the actual number there is an active link that says “VIEW SITE STATS”. I click on this link sometimes because it gives me interesting information. For example, I can look at a map of where in the world the ten most recent visitors are from. I can also see the page from which visitors came most recently on their way to my blog.
It is this particular datum that has me thinking about the idea of “bad attention.” Some people come to my site via their e-mail accounts because I have mailed them a link. But far more frequently people stumble across my site by searching Google for particular terms and then having a link to my blog pop up as one of their results. They then click on the link and read whichever of my blog postings their search has singled out as somehow relevant.

Sometimes people will type in “may I mambo dogface in the banana patch” and my blog posting about families’ private languages will come up. Other times they search “indulgences reinstituted” and they are offered a link to my musings on the Catholic Church and their recent decision to offer indulgences again. One time some poor unknown soul somewhere in the world went to Google and typed in “fear of buying underwear” and up popped a link to one of my posts.

Who in the world Googles “fear of buying underwear”?

Saddest of all for me is the fact—by now undeniable—that the number one route people around the world take to get to my blog is via a Google search involving the words “armpit” “hair” and “fungus”. I have begun to compile a list of Google searches that have led people to my site and here is a mere sampling:

• fungus in the armpit

• armpits of my shirt orange why

• fungus under armpit

• armpit hair fungus

• orange armpit fungus

• orange armpit hair fungus

• I have fungus on my armpits

• What is armpit fungus

Go ahead—try it yourself. You’ll see that my blog shows up on the first page of results.

So, aside from the obvious question, (Exactly why are so many people from all around the world using valuable bandwidth searching for information about orange fungus growing in their armpits?), I am left with the knowledge that my pride in having several thousand hits must now be tempered with a large dose of sheepishness. I feel a lot like my daughter must feel when one grape too many has hit me in the head and I turn my angry focus to her and say “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” She has my attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What I Learned From a Sidewalk

A Blogger I know has been running a series of themes on his blog lately. This month's theme is "What I Learned From a Sidewalk". The post below is from last summer, but it fits his theme so I have put it here, (as per the instructions on his blog), with a link connecting my post to his theme page. There are often some interesting and well-written posts on his site, so go and check it out.

For Proust, it was a mouthful of pastry mixed with tea that opened the floodgates and brought his childhood back with so much detail that it took volumes to describe it fully in his magnum opus Remembrance of Things Past. For me it was nothing so literary, nor so tasty. For me it was a sweaty run on suburban sidewalks on a humid summer Saturday.
I was in Delaware to visit my mom in the wake of her recent hip-replacement surgery. My wife and daughter were in Montana, so it seemed like the perfect chance to head out on a road trip with just me and Ginger, (the Vomitty Wonder GoldenDoodle) in our 1999 Volvo sedan. I mention the car here not because it affects the story in any way, but simply because Ginger and I spent eleven of our 36 hours this weekend in the car and it struck me as rude to leave the car out of the narrative entirely. Now that the car has had its cameo, I shall not mention it again.
Anyway, I got to Delaware early Saturday afternoon and sat with my parents as Barack Obama introduced his Vice- Presidential selection, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, to the world. My parents and I do not see eye to eye on politics. We don’t even see eye to bellybutton. So as we watched Senators Obama and Biden give their short speeches, we nearly came to blows. At one point I remember towering over my mom as she commented on the foreign-ness of Barack HUSSEIN Obama’s name. I may have even said something like, “Oh Yeah?!? Why don’t you grab your cane and STAND UP and say that? Old Lady!” The atmosphere in their living room grew a little testy.
So at some point in the back-and-forth about flag lapel pins and abandoned first wives, I decided I should go for a run. For some reason I was having a hard time making myself run that week. The weekend before, I did a great 12-mile training run up East Rock and back, twice. But ever since, my enthusiasm for running had disappeared. So I took the impetus provided by a good political mud fight and turned it into the spark that got me out the door and onto the sidewalk for a run around my parents’ suburban neighborhood.
After just a few blocks I found my feet had an agenda. They took me out of Foulk Woods, into Chalfonte, through Surrey Park and over to McDaniel Crest, and then into Fairfax. (In northern Delaware each subdivision has a name and, to those in the know, those names carry much information about the socio-economic status of the people who live there.) I went by Bonsall Park, Fairfax North Park, and Fairfax South Park. I ran by 228 Waverly Road and 113 Woodrow Avenue--the first two houses I lived in as a child. Between the two houses, I passed by St. Mary Magdalene Elementary School, where I was educated from kindergarten through sixth grade.
As it turned out, I was on a tour of my childhood without having planned any such thing.
I ran by our old houses and the houses of my old friends, and the McDonalds where they used to sell ten cherry pies for a dollar on Washington’s Birthday, and the Wawa convenience store where I used to buy baseball cards, and the park where I used to play Little League Baseball, and the other park where we used to build rock-and-clay dams across the creek to create swimming holes, and Chris Campion’s house where his dad had Playboy magazines hidden in his sock drawer, and Mrs. Quinn’s house where we used to earn a dime for every Japanese beetle we could pick off her rose bushes and place in a Mason jar with gasoline, and the even-other park where we took archery lessons and got to shoot arrows at helium balloons as they floated up at the ends of long strings. The sidewalk took me by all these places and at the end of my run it was clear to me that I had one heckuva happy childhood.

As an adult I look at suburbia as a sterile place where cars rule and people don’t know their neighbors. But the suburbia I grew up in was different. To me it was far from sterile. In fact, it was fertile ground for imagination, friendship, and just-plain-fun. All the neighbors knew which family I belonged to. By the summer between fifth and sixth grades I could pretty much ride my bike anywhere in a 20-square mile area with our house in the middle. My grandmother and several aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in that same 20-square mile area, as did many of my teachers and all of my friends.
I felt free and trusted and powerful in a way I am afraid to let my daughter feel. She does NOT have the run of the neighborhood. She does not have family every few blocks where she can stop for a drink if she gets thirsty. She might never know the freedom I had as a child to just explore the world without thinking of it as a dangerous place. Growing up in suburban Wilmington, Delaware in the 1970s was a real gift for me. I developed an ease and comfort in the physical world that allowed me to feel alright about going away to college. My security in the world made it okay for me to join the Peace Corps and live in Yemen for two years after college.
The freedom my parents gave me on my bicycle left me with a strong desire to see what is around the next turn or over the next hill, or even in the next country. I never realized it before that run, but my childhood in Delaware set the stage for so much of who I am today. My run over the sidewalks of my childhood could not have come at a better time in my life. It was a good reminder for me of a time when the future was all in front of me and the only limits were those I placed on myself.

By the time I got back to my parents’ house our political differences were long forgotten and I had a good visit.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Snow Day?

What is it about a snow day that is still so exciting? I am 43 years old and I have been out of school for a long time, and yet during the winter I pay obsessive attention to the weather. If, on the extended forecast I see that there is a chance of snow six days from now, my clicks on the National Weather Service website double. As the potential storm gets closer, my clicks increase exponentially.

This is partly explained by my voracious appetite for all things having to do with the weather. In fact, if I had life to do over again, I truly would consider studying meteorology. I am fascinated by the weather. But this fascination alone is inadequate for explaining my enduring and utter excitement about having a snow day.

As an adult, the anticipation of waiting for the six a.m. phone call from the school secretary is the closest I get to re-experiencing the excitement I used to feel on Christmas Eve when I was a kid. Yet I am not sure why this is so.

Maybe the underlying need is one for unpredictability. Life with a child, a dog, a spouse, a traditional 8-to-3 job, and little in the way of unscheduled time leaves small chance for major disruptions in my life. And it is the unforeseen major disruptions that can go a long way to keeping life interesting.

Along with the craving for disruption I also have a real love of weather extremes. I like to be out in the elements when they are doing their best to challenge people. I lived in Hodeidah on the Red Sea coast of Yemen for two years and I experienced a high temperature of 125 degrees one time. I went out for a walk in it. It was the kind of heat that forced people indoors. Those who had to be outside were like cats, hugging the slim slices of shade that clung to north facing sides of buildings in the early afternoon when the heat felt like a hammer on your head.

A few years later I moved to Montana and walked to work early one morning at 29 degrees below zero. In both cases I felt exhilarated by being out in the some REAL weather.

Maybe an official declaration of a Snow Day is evidence that the conditions have approached some level of drama that I crave both in my life and in the weather?

Whatever the reason, I am here hoping my heart out that tomorrow is a snow day.