The In-Between Times

Last week I saw a man walk into the side of building. He was so intent on the text he was composing on his smartphone that he failed to notice the four-story brick structure in his path. The collision entered this man’s present sphere for the briefest of moments. He glanced up, a “What the hell?” look of irritation on his face, then skirted the corner of the building, his eyes back on the phone’s screen, thumbs dancing across the miniature keyboard.

It was the first time I’ve witnessed a texter collide with an inanimate object. This being Seattle, where smartphones are as ubiquitous as coffee shops and rain, I’ve done my fair share of dodging texting pedestrians on sidewalks, in grocery stores, in bus aisles, of swerving around texting cyclists on bike paths, and of distancing myself from texting drivers, who frankly scare the shit out of me. (Texting or talking on a handheld phone while driving is a primary offense in Washington state, by the way. So if you do it, I hope like hell you score yourself a big fat ticket and STOP doing it, before you kill someone).

But the hapless fool I saw last week, the one who couldn’t tell a building from a bank of fog, got me thinking. I read recently an article in The New York Times about combatting social media fatigue. The gist of the article- using social media to manage social media- is worthy of a semester-long Social Psychology course. I won’t even try to tackle the irony of Twitfeed or Freedom. Mostly because I plan to download these applications so I can get some work done.

But a quote from the article touched a chord in me, a chord that resonated when I looked up to see Mr. Text stub the toes of his Vans on a Seattle low-rise: “The in-between times are important,” (said Graham Hill, 40, the founder of the Web site TreeHugger and the design contest LifeEdited), referring to life’s idle moments, like standing in line at the bank or taking a taxi, “times when you should be checking in with yourself instead of trying to be somewhere you’re not.”

The In-Between Times. It’s such a beautiful notion. All the spare moments of our lives when we are waiting for the next moment, the brief interludes when we have the opportunity to simply be. Standing at an intersection waiting for the light to change, stopped in line at the grocery store, paused at the counter of Cafe Vita as our grande Americano is being made…moments that we could leave alone, either to drift away on our own thoughts, or to indulge in a soak of the world around us, eavesdropping, observing, noticing. The indulgence of awareness.

Yet, we are becoming compulsive fillers of the in-between times, unable for a moment to lose our connection with the virtual world. I see couples walking down a sidewalk, both engaged, not with each other, but with their phones; parents pushing a stroller around Green Lake, eyes not on the child before them or on the beautiful scenery around them, but straight down, on the screen they hold in one hand as they push the stroller with the other. I scroll past Facebook and Twitter updates of friends’ whereabouts and I wonder if broadcasting where they are is more enjoyable than simply being there.

I struggle with the In-Between Times, too. Not so much the brief moments. I don’t (yet) have a smartphone, so I can walk down a sidewalk, wait for a light to change, dawdle while on hold, brush my teeth, or pet the cat without thumbing a screen.

My challenge is sitting still and not multi-tasking, not filling the present time with multiple In-Between moments. Mealtimes are the worst. Because of our divergent schedules, I eat most of my meals without Brendan. I sit at the table, fork in one hand, newspaper or magazine in the other, NPR on in the background. I ingest food, words, and broadcast in a single mouthful, without taking full pleasure or nourishment from any of them.

I am the worst companion with whom to enjoy a movie rental. I’m usually up and about, watering plants, dusting, folding laundry; or sitting, but reading the paper, doing a crossword puzzle, or uploading and organizing music CDs onto my external hard drive-my new favorite task. How many times have we had to rewind a scene, or start a movie from the beginning because I missed too much to follow the story’s thread? It drives Brendan to distraction. Problem is, if I do sit still to watch something, I fall asleep inside of twenty minutes.

And I will cop to the horrendous habit of listening to public radio while doing my yoga practice.

Early one morning this week I sat on the steps in front of our apartment complex. I was waiting for a colleague to collect me for day’s visit to vineyards in eastern Washington. He gave me a fifteen minute window during which to expect him. Fifteen whole minutes –  I could have read most of the New York Times Business section, listened to a Planet Money podcast (even accomplished both at the same time). I could have made a to-do list for home and office, updated my calender… but instead I just sat there. I thought, I watched what happens on my street at 6:15 a.m. (turns out, not much — a few cats prowling, dog-walkers and joggers eyeing me warily – I mean, who sits and does nothing – it’s unsettling, right?). It wasn’t easy to sit still. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was wasting time. Until about ten minutes into my forced quietude. Then I relaxed. It felt so good to be peaceful, to have an In-Between Time completely to myself.

I’m experimenting with awareness at lunch. I take my brown bag down to the Ship Canal, and set aside the paper, book, or magazine while I eat. There is so much to look at and listen to. Conversations and characters float all around me – rich fodder for writing is my reward for paying attention.  The sun glints off the canal, the wind tosses the leaves of the poplar trees, boats approach the Fremont Bridge, ducks, geese, and seagulls quarrel over crumbs, dogs strain at their leashes as they comb the Burke-Gilman trail for smells and scraps. I taste my food and I feel my insides relax, from my brain to my toes.

I will work harder on honoring my present moments and leaving alone the In-Between Times. I’ll switch off the internet when I am writing (though I may need to download Freedom to keep me honest); I’ll eat my food first, then consume the news; maybe I’ll do something really outrageous, like sit on a bench at Sunset Hill and look out at Shilshole Bay. That’s it. No book, no iPod, no conversation. I’ll just sit still and have an In-Between Moment that will become a Full-On Moment if I let it.

Probably won’t be able to sit still and watch that movie without falling asleep, however.