Every so often I descend into a blackout period.
And no, I’m not talking about drinking excessively, although I’m not one to rule that out.
I’m talking about my personal rule when it comes to new experiences. For example, let’s say I’m going to see a concert. And let’s randomly say it’s Springsteen. If I wanted to, I could go online and pull up the setlists from every show on the current tour. I could find out about all the surprises so far, all the old chestnuts he’s been grabbing from his back pocket. And if I were to dig a bit further, I could read about the killer solos, Bruce’s hilarious stories, and what bandana colors Little Steven wore.
But I don’t want to know these things in advance, because then there is no element of surprise, and thus less of a chance for joy.
So I declare an “information blackout.” I do no research, and I allow no one to tell me about anything remotely related to the experience.
That’s because I want that mind-blowing, sudden rush of adrenaline made possible only by the unexpected.
I fully acknowledge the benefits the Internet has brought. Health and medical information at our fingertips, for example. I can now dash online and find out what fatal illness I’ve contracted when the tiniest inkling of a symptom shows up. And I can find a support group.
Nevertheless, I think the ability to know everything has robbed us of the joy of discovery. Of surprise. Of astonishment.
In 1980 I set off with a girlfriend in a ’67 VW bus that she had converted to an RV. (Well, an RV with zero amenities.) Neither of us had driven to other states before, and our goal was to cover the entire country by car, mostly by camping out. We had neither cell phones nor navigation systems. All we had were paper maps. We had no idea what we would find, and little idea what the rest of the country even looked like. Every day was a discovery. We befriended strangers, tried new foods, stumbled onto beautiful parks, heard new accents, completely immersed ourselves in different ways of living, and followed uncharted roads – all with no planning.
Is that possible today? It is, in theory, but no one would do it. Instead we sit for hours at our phones or computers, planning out each move, checking Yelp or TripAdvisor to ensure that our experiences will be “five-star.”
Of course, the problem with uber-planned experiences is that they don’t bring joy. Either they’re a disappointment or they merely live up to our expectations. Very little exceeds our expectations.
In the old days, discovering music and artists was possible in one of two ways. Typically, we would hear new stuff on the radio (limited to a handful of Top 40 AM stations and, later, a few savvy DJs on FM stations). It was out of our control, of course; we were at the mercy of what the DJs played and, if we had a favorite song, we had to be lucky enough to be tuned into the right station at the right time to hear it. I remember loving “The Sound of Silence” and feeling ecstatic when I happened to catch it on the radio. Those first few notes and – whoosh – a shot of adrenaline.
Or, if we hankered for something new, we could buy a record and take our chances. Because I had limited funds in those days, I shopped mainly at used record stores. My favorite record haunt in San Jose would slap a colored sticker on each record to denote the condition of the album. I would gently remove the LP from the sleeve, hold it up to the light, squint, and look carefully for scratches or pits. Most of the time my method worked. I’d bring the record home, set the needle down into the grooves, and listen to a dozen new songs with tremendous anticipation. Usually at least one would bring me great joy, but if I was lucky, it would be an entire album.
Getting tickets to a concert used to be a feat of endurance, patience, and ingenuity. Pre-Internet, there were essentially two choices: you could use your phone to repeatedly dial TicketMaster (or BASS or whoever your local ticket broker was) and hope that you’d be lucky enough to get through. It worked a couple of times for me but ultimately it became nearly impossible.
The other option was the most reliable: you’d line up. Hours in advance. Perhaps a day in advance. I’d join a line of die-hards in the frigid San Francisco dawn and hope that the tickets wouldn’t run out before I made it to the counter. It was a crapshoot. My legs would ache. My closest nail-biter was the time I waited in line at the Record Factory for Springsteen tickets in September 1980. In those days, BASS (Bay Area Seating Service) sold concert tickets in person at record stores. Three of us got in line in the morning, behind only about 20 people, but the machines were so slow that my two companions left me sometime during the day and I was still there at 5:15 p.m. Beyond my aching legs, the greater problem was that the BASS computers in those days shut down at 5:25 p.m. on the dot. Everyone knew that tickets were running out any minute, and the line could be cut off right in our faces. The people behind me were really vocal and getting obnoxious, trying to physically insinuate themselves ahead of me. But I was not about to let that happen and held my ground with some well-placed elbows. And as karma would have it, I was the very last person to get tickets. Behind the stage. At 5:23.
(I don’t exaggerate. It’s in my diary.)
I was ecstatic. Getting tickets was a crapshoot, and I’d won.
“This is bullshit!” one of the scorned women behind me screamed. “We should have gotten those tickets! We’re FROM NEW JERSEY!”
I kind of got her point.
That old process may have been brutal, but it separated the true fans from the rest of the plebes. Now a guy with a keyboard or a screen can casually sit at home eating a hoagie while buying tickets for a show he may or may not decide to attend. After all, he can always scalp them. And it’s just easier to sit on the couch. After all, the show will stream online somewhere, right?
People don’t call each other on the phone much nowadays, and when they do, they often text each other first and make a “date” for the call. There is just zero spontaneity anymore. Imagine growing up the way I did, when the phone rang and we had no idea who was on the other end of the line. Yes, it could be a huge disappointment to lift up that receiver, but much of the time it was a lovely surprise.
In the late seventies, long before there were personal cell phones, I was visiting my grandparents in southern California and absolutely obsessing about a girl I’d just met in San Francisco. Someone who would turn out to be my first love, although I didn’t know that at the time. I was dying to talk to her, but of course I couldn’t place a call from my grandparents’ phone, which was on a desk in their kitchen. So, with a pocketful of as many quarters as I could scrounge, I peeled off in my ’71 Corolla with an excuse I can’t remember. It was winter, and the rain was pounding. I drove around the dark wet L.A. streets until I found a phone booth, pulled over, and ran through the rain giddily to the booth. I had no idea whether she would be home, but my heart was screaming with hope. I was cold and soaked and that only made it sweeter. And decidedly more romantic.
Thrill. Avalanche of adrenaline.
Before all of us had Internet access, places like restaurants got their reputations primarily through word of mouth. There were exquisite little neighborhood spots that were known mainly to people in the ’hood because people all over the country weren’t Googling “artisanal tapas places” and taking over local joints to the detriment of the actual locals.
The same was true with attractions like national parks. You couldn’t make reservations in advance (there was no such thing) and had to make the effort to travel to different places and scope them out on your own. Effort and risk. Maybe a particular trail was a bust, or just maybe it led to the most gorgeous, solitary view you’d ever seen in your life.
But times have changed. A woman named Andrea Howe tweeted recently: “At Disneyland with the family and probably 50% of toddlers are strapped in their strollers on iPads or phones. At Disneyland. We are so screwed.”
I walk my dog Buster every day and pass scores of other dog walkers in the neighborhood. To my dismay, I’ve noted that about 90 percent of the people are staring down at their phones. Nevermind that they’re completely ignoring their pets, who could be meandering through foxtails, stepping in gopher holes, or ingesting something unimaginable. These people are also missing out on the world around them. On one of my walks a few years ago I found myself peering through an iron gate and exclaiming to Buster (yes, I do that!) about the beautiful gardens that lay behind the gate. It looked like Eden in there. Just then, one of the residents came up behind me and trustingly let us in. On the grounds was a Christian Science retirement home, and I ended up befriending the resident, Joanne, with whom I had lunch on more than one occasion. (By the way, those Christian Scientists go all out in their retirement facilities and their meals are incredible!) She was a sculptor from New York, full of gritty metropolitan stories, and I’ll never forget that serendipitous moment we met.
On another dog-walk last year, I met a man who’d written a book about Abraham Lincoln. We had a long chat and he insisted that I wait while he zipped inside to retrieve a copy before sending me off with it! Julie couldn’t understand how I walked out the door with a dog and came back hefting a book about Lincoln.
When I’m not meeting local characters, I’m happy to check out old houses, say good morning to my neighbors, smell the food and coffee up on West Portal, and take in the ocean view.
Cell phone not required.
The Chronicle recently ran a story about how Major League Baseball was taking a look at “augmented reality.” Fans at the ballpark could hold their phones in front of their faces – while the game was going on! – and their screens would overlay the action with stats and diagrams showing trajectories, launch angles, velocities, fielders’ ability to cover ground in a certain amount of time, and other bits of information completely unnecessary to the appreciation of baseball. The league execs didn’t think that youngsters could appreciate the beautiful and delicate balance of the game without augmentation.
I hope it’s a long time before this abomination comes to fruition. Never mind that micro stats don’t enhance real fans’ appreciation of baseball one iota. More importantly, what about the senses? The crack of the bat, the umpire’s call, the smell of a hotdog, the first refreshing sip of a cold beer?
And how about the swift thrill of a great diving catch?
Again, I admit that knowledge at our fingertips can be helpful. For example, not long ago I drank a huge slug of Gatorade before I realized that a big slimy blob of something had slid down my throat. I was pretty sure it was mold, because the opened bottle had been on the counter for weeks. In a panic I rushed to the Internet, which reassured me that stomach acid would take care of it. Since I have enough stomach acid to dissolve heavy metals, I figured it would be okay.
That was a relief. Now, what would have happened in 1974? Well, perhaps the end result would have been the same. I would have panicked, Mom would have told me I’d be fine, and I would have just gone about my business, because there was no Internet to potentially convince me I was doomed!
I don’t think this is too far off topic, but I’ve read lately that young people aren’t having much sex anymore. And that was the case before the pandemic kept them physically apart. It’s just more engaging to be connected to their screens. Less effort. Less risk.
(I don’t understand it. Honestly, I always say that at the end of my life my one regret will be that I didn’t have more sex!)
Today’s kids also, apparently, care less about driving than my generation did. When I was young, we couldn’t wait to drive. It was all about freedom, yes. But it was also about the full engagement of the senses. The radio blaring, the windows down, the wheel in our hands, the smell of grass in the summertime.
And we never knew what was around the next bend.
Sitting on our butts in front of a screen doesn’t yield joy at all. The brain gets wrapped up in repetition and reward, and that fulfills us in some way.
Pulling ourselves away from our screens takes effort, doesn’t it? And it allows for chance, which means there is risk involved.
Risk and effort, I think, build character. Do we always need to get exactly what we want? And do we always need to know exactly what is coming our way?
Sometimes we actually have to work for the unexpected.
Because if we’re constantly connected, and constantly in front of a screen, then that, my friends, marks the end of happenstance.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
May 28, 1974 [age 18]:
“Today was rather a day of torture, for I believe I studied more than I have ever done in my life. We are having a final midterm in Drama tomorrow (I am a borderline B-/C+), and I have to read over seven plays, five essays, and my notes. The task was almost impossible. I studied from the moment I got home from school till the moment I went to work, than at work from 7:00 to 9:00, then for an hour on the phone with a friend, then until 11:30, when I plunged into sleep, and then I dragged myself out of bed at 5:00 this morning and studied until I had to get ready at 7:00. It was absolute murder. I kept getting all of Chekhov’s characters in the 3 plays we read all mixed up – all those Russian names, and everyone seems to be alike, representing work or degeneration or age or a love of the past or whatever. So then this morning what does he give us but a final unlike anything he had described, with no terms and no quotations but only a few relatively easy essays! I almost flipped! But I would rather have studied in vain than to have studied insufficiently. Then I whizzed over to my Speech class, looked at my current grade, decided I was too strongly an “A” to take the last quiz, and drove home happy.”
May 30, 1974 [age 18]:
“The times are strange. I’m in some sort of limbo now, intense schoolwork behind but fragments of studying still necessary now and then for my remaining finals. And when I am free of all this, what then? What will summer hold for me but more working at Rexall? Ha! We look for dreams, we in our eager youth. We await our long, romantic summers and the lovers who will come to us one day and carry off our hearts. We look for trains and blurring landscapes and new faces. And yet – I have so much to learn, so much naivete to conquer, so much more SAN JOSE to cope with.”
June 7, 1974 [age 18]:
“Carolyn called tonight, saying that she and her sister were going out to a movie, and would [my sister] Janine and I like to go? I drove – we had decided on ‘The Sting’ – and the movie was good but certainly didn’t deserve Best Picture. (I still vote for ‘American Graffiti.’) The funny thing is that while we were driving to the theater, Carolyn was showing me a ‘shortcut’ and only when I was about to turn onto an on-ramp did I realize that I was going onto the terribly crowded [Highway] 17, so I screamed ‘No! I can’t merge!’ and I stopped the car right on the on-ramp and got out and made Carolyn run into the driver’s seat so she could take over and do the merge.”
June 16, 1974 [age 18]:
“I managed to get enough courage today to ask the boss for a raise. After a long runaround he gave in and raised me 10 cents, so I am now making a mighty $2.00 per hour!”
Two days later:
“I had told Mr. Jordahl [my boss] some time ago that I’d love to fly ’cross-country this summer but my finances were holding me back. So today he turns to me and says, ‘Well, I figured out on my pocket calculator that if I give you $2.10 an hour this summer, that’ll be 92 extra dollars to fly back East with.’ So I stared, openmouthed, thanked him more than once, and came out with a 20-cent raise in two days!”
June 25, 1974 [age 18]: [Ed.’s note: And to think my career goal was to become a detective]
“I don’t know why I don’t notice things sometimes. There was a strange incident tonight as I sat at my desk. I noticed a most peculiar and obnoxious smell. But, true to form, I remained innocently oblivious, until Mom came in because she could smell the powerful odor. It turned out that something had gone wrong with my desk lamp, and two inches away from my face it had become so immensely hot inside that the base of the lamp had melted, sinking in on top, and burning my desk underneath. The whole family cannot believe how I could NOT have noticed it, TWO INCHES AWAY, and now I am paying for the consequences with a headache and nausea from the plastic fumes.”
June 27, 1974 [age 18]:
“I’ve realized that the terrible idea which has succeeded in filling me with so much anguish is the expectation of spending almost my life savings on a plane ticket in August. So, now I’ve decided to forget the possibility of such a trip, at least for the present (perhaps a golden opportunity will show up). So today I instead bought a most wonderful bodyshirt, completely to my expectations, white, long-sleeved, soft, with strawberries, and hopefully, as soon as I can find a pair, I’m going to get some long white pants and wear my new clean whiteness to see Cat Stevens.”
July 4, 1974 [age 18]:
“I made a hasty, wild decision to drive up to San Francisco alone today to ‘write.’ For the most part, I had a grand time, enraptured by the city I love so well for its magic. I should hopefully be able to express these feelings soon in my journal. The facts are these: Most of the day was spent ‘in search of’ something, because I don’t know my way around San Francisco yet, and I have a TRAGIC sense of direction. After finding a bathroom, I settled down to eat four pieces of Fish ’n’ Chips (I had wandered around the wharf for a long while, gazing at the fish and smelling their delicious, salty smells, but alas – they were too expensive) and read the newspaper to find out about any exciting events. I read that the composer of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ would be performing in the Cannery, so I struck out for there because I HAD to see him. Afterwards I wandered some more, played pinball machines, went to Ghirardelli Square, and saw a cinematic show called ‘The San Francisco Experience,’ which didn’t inspire me at all except for the idea that the city was ‘indifferent to fate.’ I then decided to eat in Chinatown, but, after a nightmare of driving, unable to park, I left in frustration. Finally, I settled down for a few minutes in the park where Jeanne and Carl and I had sat years before, wrote a bit, and gazed out to sea.”
July 6, 1974 [age 18]:
“Whew, this weekend has been rather crazy. I went to the library this morning, the big one, in search of information about San Francisco for my notebook, then to the Pruneyard to see ‘Our Time,’ a depressing story about a girl who gets pregnant and then dies. Then home to eat fish ‘n’ chips, and to Church. Though I settled down for what I thought would be a quiet evening, Ted and Joe and Bruce appeared, and soon, after a futile search for a movie to see, we somehow decided to go to Santa Cruz. So at 9:00 at night we drove over the hill to the Boardwalk in our shirtsleeves. We spent all of our coins in the Arcade and I loved it. There was a warm breeze and I had a great talk with Ted and I felt like the whole beautiful world was mine. Unfortunately we had to be home by midnight for Bruce Otherwise, I would have liked to have done innumerable crazy things.”
July 11, 1974 [age 18]:
“I finished another piece of writing for my journal tonight (or this morning, rather) which put me into a happy state and kept me there for the rest of the day. A writer’s work is every bit as hard as Thomas Wolfe portrayed it to be. You sweat blood.”
July 27, 1974 [age 18]:
“I was [a bridesmaid] in Colleen’s wedding today. I had three thoughts before I went: I was 1) curious about how to wear a long dress, 2) dreading the dancing, and 3) totally eager to eat at the reception. But when the moment came I shook like a leaf, and heard later that my nervousness was quite apparent all during my walk down the aisle. Tom Gallo, practically an Adonis among men, in my opinion, was my escort.”
July 31, 1974 [age 18]:
“The law enforcement classes which I so desperately need are closed, and it will do me no good to maintain a partial schedule, since I will still be forced to go to school an extra semester. Therefore I have decided not to go to school next semester (or most likely for a year) but seek alternatives. I need to leave myself some time to catch up to the world, else I will be graduating at 20 without ever having lived at all. My dream is to go up to San Francisco, the place so dear to my heart, to live for a while. Mom was dubious about it, repeating that I was “making a mistake,” but Dad even offered suggestions on where I could work in San Jose. I would like to work for the phone company and be one of those collectors who drive around and get coins out of phone booths.”
16 thoughts on “The joy of discovery”
Absolutely love this entry – although that app identifying the constellations and planets is pretty cool. I also love that you went out to walk the dog and came back lugging a Lincoln bio. Your anecdotes are always priceless!
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Paula, I love your diary entries. You were so adventurous and much more eager to plunge into things than I was at 18! Carolyn McG
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Amen. Amen! Keeping one’s eyes and heart open to experience “real life” (happenstance!) is so much more fulfilling for the sake of all the feels than following a filter of someone’s else’s life online or documenting one’s own. The other has its place, but the balance seems to be way off for many.
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You’re so right about the balance!
I. e. i might be disagreeing with the teenaged you
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Terrific column, Paula (tth Sting is, if memory serves, really tops i shd probably see it again to say for sure)
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Thank you! I had that post sitting on my computer for weeks, thinking it was so lame that I would trash it and never do another post again. But yesterday, for some reason, I decided to let it fly.
You should write for the chronicle! Loved this one. It’s one of my favorites!!
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Thank you, Carmen!
LOVELOVELOVE this story! I’m convinced (at the risk of sounding like an old lady) that the reason kids today need immediate gratification is that they have no other real, spur of the moment excitement. Like you mentioned in your story, just the sound of a certain person’s voice, answering the phone, can make one absolutely giddy! I don’t think they have those experiences, since its all about text and DM now. Thank you for reminding me of these things!!! Hope all is well with you!
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You put this much better than I did! I didn’t make the connection that kids need instant gratification because there are o surprises anymore. I agree that very few people experience “spur-of-the-moment excitement” any more, or the giddiness you talk about. It makes me wonder whether our adrenaline will slowly evolve away. I’m happy to have grown up when so much joy was possible. I bet you can say the same!
You and I are on a LOT of the same wavelengths. There’s so much info available to people, they/we often overthink and over-plan. I’m happy to take vacations where I do zero research, for example. My wife and I have visited my brother and his wife twice in New Mexico in recent years. I was glad to let everything unfold spontaneously, and to let them show us around. I did zero research in advance, and had great times anyway.
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Neil, I agree with you that we tend to overthink and over-plan. I believe that it saps the life out of life! May you have many more New Mexico-style experiences ahead.
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Alec and I once drove into the parking lot at Arden Wood (maybe at your suggestion?) to simply take pictures of their amazing foxgloves. That place is gor-gee-ous!!
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You are so right on! About everything.
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