Facebook vs. Face-to-Face Time

In the past few weeks, one of my good friends lost a parent, another underwent major surgery and my son went through fraternity rush. How did I keep up on these major life events? Electronically.

Gone are the days of phone chains and mimeographed letters dispersing information.  Now, we stay “in the loop” through Facebook, Skype or Face Time, emails, texts and community internet sites such as LotsaHelpingHands.

Much has been written lately about technology’s dark side — about how electronic devices can hinder productivity, increase our stress and workloads and serve as poor substitutes for “friend” time.  I take all of that information to heart. For instance:

–          In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT social science professor Sherry Turkle surmises that the technology that was created to ease communication between people actually ties them more to their devices and less to each other.

–          While Facebook gives young people the illusion of tons of friends (many high school and college students count close to 1,000 on their pages), a good portion of those “friends” wouldn’t even merit a “Hello” in the school hallway.

–          Facebook friendships tend to be superficial, and texts and emails rarely allow for truly intimate exchanges.

–          Because many people now spend more time on “screens” than interacting in public, we have, on average, fewer close friends than we did 20 years ago (one or two close ones now, as opposed to three in the ‘90s), according to  a study by the American Sociological Review.

–          In that same study, fully 25 percent of people surveyed said they don’t have a single confidante – a deficit shown to cause health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and crippling depression.

–          In fact, although the Internet has the potential for bringing people together in novel and powerful ways, at least one study has shown a direct correlation between Internet use, social isolation and depression.

–          Facebook time is not a suitable substitute for face-to-face time. As the Redland, Calif.-based psychologist Tracy Covington points out, “The internet allows us the illusion of connections.” She points out that communicating through cyberspace is a “very different texture and experience” from real human contact. She draws this analogy: “It’s really fun to look at a little baby, but it’s a very different experience to hold one.”

 At the same time, it’s hard to overlook the benefits of electronic communication:

–          Quite simply, electronic devices such as computers, smart phones and iPads allow us to connect with friends in a wide variety of ways, with an ease and efficiency never possible in the past. For instance, we no longer need to continuously dial someone’s phone in hopes of catching them at home, wait for responses to questions via snail mail or thumb through city phone books in search of long-lost friends.

–          A 2007 Michigan State University study of 800 undergraduates found that Facebook aficionados enjoyed more “social capital” than those without accounts, and that the regular users exhibited higher levels of “psychological well-being.”

–          Another study found that frequent blogging not only results in higher perceived levels of social support, but also may serve as “the core of building intimate relationships.”

–          Several researchers point out the electronic means can deepen friendships when used in companion with—not instead of—face-to-face interactions.  

Because I have moved several times as an adult, I rely on email, texts and Facebook posts to communicate with old friends I wouldn’t otherwise take the time to write or call. For instance, more than a dozen of my college sorority sisters are connected via email, and we enjoy the ease and immediacy of sharing joys and sorrows, as well as of planning biennial reunions.

When I dropped my son off at college last month, I saw three old friends that I had recently reconnected with via Facebook.  It was wonderful to spend time with a friend from high school, one from my study abroad program and another from my New York years, and to know they could serve as safety nets should my son need help, transportation or just a home-cooked meal.

Although my oldest son and I don’t often speak “live,” now that he’s at college, we do text almost every day. Yes, these exchanges are often shallow (usually requests for “reimbursement”), but they do serve as reminders that we are interested in each other’s lives. Every text my son sends ends in “xoxo” and makes me smile.

Yesterday, while my cousins were visiting from Atlanta, we Skyped with my Chicago-based brother, as well as his wife and one of his daughters. We all hadn’t been together for more than a year, and ended up feeling buoyed and energized by our brief visual connection.

Earlier this month, when my friend’s mother was ill, we communicated via brief texts – just enough for me to keep informed of the status, and for her to know that I was concerned about the situation. I was glad to avoid intrusive phone calls, and to receive the updates she could write when it was convenient.

This past week, a dear friend underwent major surgery, and I know I was not alone in waiting nervously for email updates. Her husband would never have been able to convey the information to as many people via phone lines. As my friend recovers, her network of friends will use the internet site LotsaHelpingHands to schedule meals, visits and dog walks.

So, while electronic communication should not take the place of real, face-to-face time with other humans, it does have its place. And many times this month alone (including my birthday, when I was deluged with Facebook birthday greetings), I have felt grateful for the technology.

–          Linda Williams Rorem, 26 Sept. 2011

Mommy Make-Over

Glamour September 2011 with Rihanna

Glamour September 2011 with Rihanna

Standing in line at the grocery store this weekend, I couldn’t help but be entertained by the headlines on women’s magazine covers that held promises of a better life, or at least a better fall:

 “Update Your Fall Look”

“Kitchen Clutter-Free”

Then there were the general parenting magazine covers that purported to ease family stress:

 “Keep Your Family Safe”

“Make Ahead Meals for Busy Moms”

Finally, if I followed the advice on re-doing my wardrobe and keeping my family safe and fed, I could reward myself with the adult topics offered up women’s fashion magazines:

“The Smile That Gets You What You Want”

“Naughty Thoughts He Has at Work”

“Go Naked”

Whew! All that in five minutes in the checkout line. Although I had not flipped through a single issue and was facing forward in line, I felt a strange tinge of embarrassment looking at the covers. Like driving by a car wreck, you don’t want to look but you can’t look away, either. We all have an attraction to the promise of a “do-over” or fresh start especially when the seasons change. I did, however, find myself wishing for headlines that helped real women:

“Strategies to Reduce Your Workload”

“How to Get Rid of the 1,000 Emails in Your Inbox”

“De-clutter the Weekends: Finish Laundry, Pay Bills and Still Have Free Time”

Recently, when a crisis developed in my own family, I had to drop everything cold turkey. I was stunned when I came back and saw for the first time how ridiculously overloaded I was. Yes, my family has over the past year pleaded with me to “drop something,” but I thought they were being unreasonable and perhaps even selfish in wanting me to do more for them.  I even wrote out a list of all my obligations to prove them wrong. But, it took a week away to get some perspective and finally admit that my “to-dos” were indeed too long.

I pondered how to extricate from this pickle without letting anyone down. Even though a diplomatic exit plan was not in hand I started shouting “Uncle.” My, how freeing it was to say, “I just can’t do it.”  I discovered that people just smiled and said, ‘I understand.” They may not have liked it, but no one worked me over, either. I had taken the first step to becoming a less frazzled mom and a more pleasant person to live with.

I also reconciled that a decent chunk of the task list was in my control. Or, as a friend said yesterday, “Don’t let people ‘should’ on you.” Yes, I was a reliable, stand-up person, but that did not mean I had to have my finger in every pot.

I had initiated my own helpful headline: “Mommy Make-over Now.”

Carol Lewis Gullstad September 19, 2011 


Color Blindness?

My family moved to a “mixed” community north of Chicago just before I started kindergarten. At about the same time, in a concerted effort at desegregation, the school district started bussing African-American children to our local elementary school. “There will be colored kids in your class, and I want you to treat them like everyone else,” my mom said. “What are colored people?” I asked.

I soon found out. The cruel kids in my all-white neighborhood had invented an extremely offensive game called “Gravy Train,” which involved climbing onto the playground equipment when the bus of dark-skinned classmates pulled up, lest “white” feet touched the ground as the bussed children debarked.

My mom failed to see the humor, and two years later, when she heard of an opportunity to bus white children to an experimental school in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, she jumped at the chance. I have been grateful for that amazing educational experience ever since.

Before my first day at “Laboratory School” my mom reminded me, “Be sure to make friends with some ‘colored’ kids. Just go up and talk to them.” So, as a compliant child, I did.  

I reported that afternoon that I had befriended a girl named Tanya and her younger sister Barbara. A few months later, I was among three or four girls who attended Tanya’s birthday party, held at the pancake restaurant where her dad worked as a cook.

I soon added Tammy, who “ironed” her gorgeous dark hair, to my roster of new friends. She slept at my house several times, as I recall. At recess, I often played hopscotch or jump rope with Patricia; I was impressed that her mom occasionally delivered McDonald’s food for lunch (and I’ll never forget the day she threw up her strawberry milkshake on the playground). A dark-skinned boy in my homeroom, Rodney, shared my last name, so we joked to classmates that we were cousins. (The photo is a detail from my class picture.)

The integration experiment seemed to be working.

However, by the time I reached fifth grade, I no longer counted any African-Americans among my friends. I’m not sure what happened. I have always wondered if kids naturally become less color-blind as they age, or if external factors contributed to the unofficial re-segregation of my school.

I spoke with my mother about this recently, and she suggested that the shift was probably due to cultural issues. Not long after James Earl Ray committed his heinous murder and Stokely Carmichael announced, “White America will live to cry that she killed Dr. King last night,” our school was renamed “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King District 65 Laboratory School” (“King Lab” for short).

Race riots ensued in Chicago and elsewhere, Malcolm X gained notoreity, the Black Panthers made headlines and filmmakers conceived the “Blacksploitation” genre, with hits such as Shaft.  The “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful” movements picked up steam, and the sweet images of black and white schoolchildren coloring together no longer touched hearts.

At that time, I had to cycle back into my neighborhood for middle school, and I didn’t know any of my classmates. On the first day, when my teacher told everyone to choose a locker partner, I was at a loss. Those who were friends from elementary school quickly paired up. I looked around and found one option remaining; a very dark young lady wearing a six-inch tall “afro” (or “natural,” as she called it) wig. Because of my King Lab experience, I felt comfortable asking Hattie to be my partner, and we smiled at each other tentatively.

However, Hattie and my friendship did not extend much beyond our shared space. We didn’t attend the same sleepovers parties, and didn’t sit at the same lunch table. With very few exceptions, the school seemed as segregated as my kindergarten classroom had been.

At our local high school, which then counted 4,500 students – approximately a third of which were African-American – black-white friendships remained rare. I passed Hattie and friends from King Lab in the hallway from time to time, but we barely acknowledged each other. My honors and AP classes counted only a smattering of black students. Aside from the track team – where whites like me were the minority – I rarely interacted with African-Americans.

My church youth group was lily-white. The YMCA swim team?  Only whites. At my first job (scooping ice cream), I had only white colleagues.  My supposedly integrated life in a progressive university town didn’t involve many African-Americans.

I often think about the life I now model for my kids, in a Seattle suburb with very few African-Americans residents. I wonder if I am providing the exposure and coping mechanisms to deal with different kinds of people in the “real” world?

However, I realize that I do have close friends of many colors, including Korean, Persian, Japanese, Pakistani and Bolivian. I have acquaintances from Israel, Vietnam, Yemen, India and Brazil. Our community – approximately 25 percent Asian – offers its own kind of blending.

So, while we don’t enjoy the idealized integration of the 1960s, and – at least in my town – black-white unity seems a long way off, we do live in a time where we can model friendships and exchange ideas with people representing diverse cultures. It isn’t ideal, but it’s a start.

Linda Williams Rorem, 12 Sept. 2011

Sandwich Generation


Image via Wikipedia

We have labels for generations to identify a particular group of people united by common experiences: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and Sandwich Generation.  But, who knew there were actual celebrations for these generations?
Apparently, in July I missed the national observation of Sandwich Generation Month.  It is a “month of awareness to commemorate and celebrate the dedication, patience and caring of adults who are caring for their children as well as their own aging parents,” according to the National Special Events Registry.
I may have missed the month of celebration but I am definitely getting a taste of Sandwich Week. In fact Sunday was a Double-Decker-Day. Within the past five days I dropped off my eldest at college, was tapped to be the bad news phone caller to inform relatives of a great Aunt’s passing, shopped for school supplies and clothes for my younger children and made doctor and care arrangements for my own ailing mother. Talk about a “pickle,” even the clinic my mother goes to is called Mayo.
What really amazes me, though, is while my week may have been unusually compressed, it was not atypical for many of my friends. Most women are the primary caretakers in the family they raise and with increasing life spans they become the custodian of the generation above them too. In effect, we end up mothering our parents. Not surprisingly, the role of simultaneously caring for two generations with completely different needs and wants takes its toll.
As psychologist Tracy Covington points out, “Guardian” personality types such as mine are always spinning too many plates, and as a consequence, our bodies are stuck in a constant ‘Fight or Flight” response.  “A nervous system that is amped up at all times leaves us depleted.  While many parts of our body and brain have evolved since we were cavemen, the nervous system has not.  Our body doesn’t recognize the difference between a very large “to do” list or a tiger that is chasing us through the forest,” she explains. “This state of chronic ‘Fight or Flight’ leads to a greater susceptibility to  inflammatory diseases and compromises all of our relationships and quality of life.”
In her practice she tells her task-oriented clients to give themselves permission to un-hook from the process on a regular basis for the sake of their own health and well-being.
I plan to follow this advice immediately amidst a “to do” list that grew faster than I could say, “take your cleats off when you come in the house.” Planned interruptions of my obligations may be the only way to stay composed and  ready to tackle the significant challenges ahead.
I plan to schedule time with a friend for a walk or a cup of coffee – anything to get a clear head and a few laughs.  It may be the best thing I can do to prepare for those who really need me at my best for a timetable that won’t wait.
Carol Lewis Gullstad September 5, 2011

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