Will Goldfish be More Clever than our Children?

Because of the nature of my work, I often find myself in the company of children and teenagers. If one intends to write for young adults, or those peeking over the wall into young adulthood to see what the fuss is all about, one finds benefit by listening to them, conversing with them, and generally just taking a softly tipped stick and poking about in territories you might not normally be invited into.

Curiously, that same ‘nature of my work’ is growing more challenging as it does not fit into the current timeframe of many young adults’ attention span—a trajectory of current evolution where now every fleeting second of focus counts and best be saturated with impactfullness.

Where I used to describe the concept of story to young readers as a richly developed plot with engaging dialogue, a diverse set of problems that might tangle complexly at first but unravel beautifully in the end, and a few solid examples of struggle, failure, perseverance, and finally success, now my definition has been forced to change. Currently, I define story as “Once upon a time there was a guy, he had a problem, he figured it out, the end.”

Much more TikTok, much less time-honored tale.

Short-form episodes are now the norm. One can see information streamed about nearly anything and those sessions require a mere 15 seconds of focus. The problem is, is that a recent study determined that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to a whopping eight seconds today.

Goldfish have a better chance of making it to the end of that video as they are believed to have an attention span of at least nine seconds.

Somehow, our youths are being encouraged and pushed to find satisfaction with a story that lasts less time than we expect them to be standing in front of a running sink, washing their hands. I grapple with this especially hard when I realize that oftentimes just one of the myriad sentences I shove into a paragraph far exceeds the newly allotted timeframe many kids will devote to scanning words across a page. And how does one cram a beginning, a middle, and an end into a curt and clipped few moments?

One of the most difficult tasks authors—or anyone with something to sell—must do, is create a pitch. Something that answers Why should I devote my attention (or hard-earned pennies) to you? It often involves boiling your story or your product down to its bare bones—the skeletal structure that shows all strength and no fluff.

The process for authors often happens like this:

  • take a 325-page book and reduce it to one page (hard)
  • take that one page and tighten it to one paragraph (ugh)
  • take that one paragraph and shrink it to one sentence (facepalm)

If you’re writing a film script, the next bit is to slash it to fit the form Blank meets Blank. Godzilla meets The Godfather, Dirty Harry meets Harry Potter, Jaws meets The Little Mermaid—or something like that. Somehow the mash-up is supposed to bring immediate clarity to anyone hearing the phrase as to the plot, struggles, and triumphs within the storyline.

But does it really?

Can one short phrase really tell us the necessary amount needed to exclaim, “I get it”? Can a fifteen second video really reveal the depth of dance, comedy, or education? Is it even possible to jampack a “How to Fold a Fitted Sheet” into 30 seconds or “The History of World War II” into a three-minute YouTube video? Will our next generation of surgeons learn how to remove our gall bladders via Instagram stories?

Personally, it takes me donkey’s years to learn anything. And it’s not because I’m slow. It’s because I’m slow and stubborn. New information that crosses my path is met with skepticism until I can research its source, decipher which end of the political spectrum it may live on, and see Anthony Fauci demonstrate it at a White House Press Conference. It took me literally decades to watch the series MASH because I believed, like the execs telling the show’s writers, that the series run would be limited because the Army isn’t really a pool for humor.

I need convincing. I need repetition. I need my children to walk through the door at holidays and declare amazement at the fact that they’ve actually time traveled into history and perhaps I should let someone in the science department know that it’s possible.

“When are you going to get a new microwave, Mother?”

“As soon as I’ve researched all the newfangled ones on the market. There’s a lot to learn and compare.”

“Have you yet learned that this antiquated piece of junk is a fire hazard?”

“DON’T TOUCH MY RADARANGE!”

But it’s more than just diving deeply into any subject to learn its function, purpose, and capability, it’s also about staying with something long enough to feel the comfort of its complexities. Typically, you cannot learn to play the piano by just watching someone else on video, and it’s downright impossible to sum up our planet’s horrific battles by declaring into a camera lens, “Humans fight. War bad”. There is nothing wrong with embracing the depth and breadth of any subject, but I feel it’s wrong to lead kids into believing any topic can be shortened into a framework of explanation that would have the writers of Cliff Notes blush at its brevity.

Our world is huge in scope and requires effortful thought to make sense of even its least complicated aspects. It’s a daunting task, and we’ll never finish it, but we certainly shouldn’t allow our children to shy away from it. History takes time to be explained. Skills take time to be acquired. Stories take time to be told.

Perhaps we can quote American author and keynote speaker Michael Altshuler more often to our children: The Bad news is time flies. The Good news is that you’re the pilot.

~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Batteries, Boyfriends, and VW Bugs

This last month I learned a few new things about cars:

  • Jump starting a car battery is dark and semi-dangerous magic nearly anyone can do.
  • Wrestling out and replacing certain car batteries is a little bit like squishing a bloated elephant into a shoebox.
  • YouTube can teach you how to do both and come out mostly alive on the other end of it.

It all started around the time finals were happening for most college students in my neck of the woods with my own college student up to her earballs in textbooks, tests, and giant tubs of Ben & Jerry’s. Nothing alleviates an overheated thermogenic thought process like two pints of Hazed and Confused on a daily basis.

I received a text from said college student’s boyfriend:

When’s the last time you started Chloe’s car?

I scratched my head. Six weeks ago? Eight? It didn’t really matter because that thing was dead. Like unrevivably dead. It would be like digging up Beethoven or Mahler or Schubert and fist pounding on their chests screaming, “NONE OF YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR SYMPHONY NO. 10!”

Yeah, that kinda dead.

I texted back an emoji shrug.

I could hear Ben’s eyes roll to the back of his head, and I don’t blame them for doing so.

He finished off: I’m coming over with a new battery. It would be nice for her to have a working car when she gets home from school.

I agreed. I also thought that it didn’t really matter if all the car parts were functioning if one did not have money enough to fill it with “go juice.” It kind of puts you in a position where you’re All Hat No Cattle.

But they’re college kids. They’ll figure it out.

I was working at my desk when Ben popped in. “I’m here. I’ve got the battery. I’ll be in the garage.”

“Need help?” I asked.

“Nah. Easy peasy.”

Super. I could keep writing. And I did.

For about sixty seconds.

“Do you have any gloves?”

Got Ben gloves. Went back to writing.

For about sixty seconds.

“Flashlight?”

You betcha.

Work … sixty seconds.

“How bout a magnet?”

Search for magnet: Old toy boxes. Drawers. Next to credit cards, computer hard drives, people resting in my living room with pacemakers.

“Nope. Sorry.”

Ben shrugged. “Never mind. I’m sure that piece will fall out of the engine block eventually.”

I looked at Ben with eyebrows that reached to my hairline.

Back to work. I counted to sixty twice.

“How small are your hands?”

Oh dear lord. I pushed back from my desk. “Let me find some shoes.”

I entered the garage and saw Chloe’s little VW bug with its hood popped. A miniature PAC-MAN of motorcars. Ben, whose height most telephone poles will nod with deference to, was almost in a downward facing dog yoga pose, hovering over the engine block.

There was a lot of grunting going on, but it might have been coming from the bug, as whatever Ben was trying to tug out of it seemed super important for that little roadster to cling to.

Apparently, it sensed the ongoing, effortful labor of disassembly and finally decided to put up a fight. It’s a little bit like going to the dentist for one defunct tooth to be removed and when you finally have a moment of anesthetic clarity, hear, “Oh, good lordy there’s another one. Well, she really doesn’t need that guy for chewing anyway.”

Yes, I think in a blind panic, but what about for maintaining social norms like speaking without sounding like I’m an eight-year-old whose face just met a tree trunk after a bike crash?

“What can I do?” I asked.

Ben explained to me that we just needed to slide the battery into place and then voilà, back to work I go and he’s outta here. Easy peasy.

Except he was finding it just a teensy bit tricky to slide this particular battery into place.

“How come?”

He gestured at the ground which held oddly shaped bits of plastic, metal, screws, caps, and hoses. It looked like the car had thrown up onto the garage floor. “A lot of stuff had to come out in order to remove the battery.”

“I assume all that stuff is essential?”

Ben shrugged. “Yeah, it all has to go back.”

I looked at the disassembled engine parts. I really really hoped he remembered where all the bits and pieces originally lived because none of them were color-coated, or Post-it note labeled, and there were no IKEA directions to be found anywhere.

If it were me, I would have labeled everything with Garanimal tags—like the clothing line my mother used to buy for us when we were little kids. Each piece of clothing had some anthropomorphic animal code attached to it so you could find something that matched to make a set. Make sure the alligator shirt is not paired with giraffe shorts and then feel confident sending that child on off to school.

Yeah, there were a lot of things on the ground that looked like they needed to be remarried to their original partners.

“You’ve done this before, right?”

Ben flashed me a smile and held up his smartphone. “YouTube.”

Oh, good heavens.

For the next three hours we battled with that little bug, trying to slide, shove, inch, hitch, and bang that new damn battery into place. It was like trying to get a cat to swallow a pill. That battery refused to go down.

We, as instructed by the warning words of the World Wide Web, did not tip the battery. Which would have made things so much easier. At one point I suggested to Ben that if we couldn’t tip the battery, maybe we should tip the bug. Seriously. It would have been so much easier.

He did not agree.

At long last, we did manage to get that SOB back into place. In fact, we managed to do it twice, because after the first time—once we’d reconnected all hoses, screws, and pulleys—we discovered a small piece we’d left out on the garage floor. Something akin to an OR nurse tapping an open-heart surgeon on the shoulder just as he’s tying off the last stitch of flesh together and pointing to the pan that still held an essential organ.

But we did it.

Easy peasy.

~Shelley

This thing ready to go??

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.