Fall used to be my favorite season.
I loved the change in the air, the colors, and most of all the smells: smoke, cinnamon, warming dough, pumpkin, cider, dried vegetation. The crisp wind also signaled new prospects. The school year always brought another chance to be better, to stand out in some previously unimaginable way, even though the reality was that every move I made at school was oriented toward not standing out.
Several things have slowly chipped away at my welcoming attitude toward fall as an adult. During a particularly bad season, I learned from Kay Redfield Jamison's Night Falls Fast (you know, just some LIGHT READING) that the likelihood of suicide peaks in the fall.
I never forgot that tidbit as I walked through the ensuing banks of dying leaves and cheerless Halloween displays, hardening myself against the deepening chill and becoming fearful of how the darkness encroaching on daytime would eventually obscure whatever brightness survived inside me.
The last fall that I remember enjoying involved a corn maze and small towns and colorful drives. After that came a series of autumnless years in San Francisco, then a fall spent preparing for and recuperating from a surgery, then a fall spent driving to and from a job I utterly loathed. I did find love during an October, but it was disconnected from the colors and smells of the season.
By the time this past August rolled around, I was trying to ignore the rising sense of dread at summer ending. Hurricane Irene buzzsawed through my attempt to bid summer a proper farewell by the sea. The first day after Labor Day dawned cold and cloudy.
Now it's October, and I walk through the streets looking at my phone half the time, maybe turning my face to the sun a couple of times before going to soak up the rays in front of some glowing rectangle at the office or at home.
Ironically, I started thinking about maybe going on some kind of tech fast directly after reading a few obituaries about Steve Jobs (on my iPhone, natch). Taking a break from the screen on the train, I switched to magazines and read "Personal Best," an article in The New Yorker about coaching written by the surgeon Atul Gawande.
"Surgery is, at least, a relatively late-peaking career," Gawande writes. "It's not like mathematics or baseball or pop music, where your best work is often behind you by the time you're thirty. Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master: the average age at which the S&P 500 chief executive officers are hired is fifty-two, and the age of maximum productivity for geologists, one study estimated, is around fifty-four."
I felt a surge of hope reading Gawande's career analysis, thinking of all the late-blooming authors in the world and the idea that there was still time to become one of them. After all, writing (and, contrary to Gawande's analysis, pop music) does involve the complexities of people and nature. But then I thought of all the early-peaking authors and wondered if writing belonged with pop music in some ineffable space where you get a glimpse of human feeling and a brief chance to capture it, and then you're washed up.
Either way, what have I been doing to master writing -- or anything? To be honest, precious little. I've been screwing around and trying to avoid failure. Here I was reading about two people -- Jobs and Gawande -- who have arrived at significant contributions to society by being willing to fail and by engaging with the world (the one not on the screen). I have derived major personal benefits from these contributions to technology and medicine.
Of course, on the technological front, there are downsides. Here are a few things I do less since the iWeb became a daily fixture in my life:
- any writing
- listening to albums
- watching people
- reading books
- doing crosswords
- calling my mom
- looking long and hard at anything
- staring out the window
Technology is not to blame for this -- it's just an accessory. It does reduce the ability to pay attention to the real world, to the things that matter. The tool that makes life easier becomes a substitute for your actual life. The network that connects you to people also erodes the need for their presence. Distractions become distractions from distractions.
And now it's fall. The swirling leaves are as incontrovertible as the gathering lines around my eyes. It's a do-or-die kind of season. And it's not too late to master something, even if it is only turning my face to the sun. It's not too late to love fall again.
Music: "Autumn Leaves"