If You Don’t Stop That, You’ll Go Blind


The email from her Blackberry said it all.

“At a funeral. Back in the office soon.”

It is a telling reflection of the world in which we live when a person feels a compunction to return an email in the middle of a funeral. This is beyond the pale. I am not throwing stones however, as I live in a glass house, which you’ll understand in a minute. The person who felt an overwhelming obligation to respond to one of 9,000 emails she probably gets in a day,  I’m sure, just wanted to let me know she was on it. She’d get back to me as soon as she could. I’m sure she was thinking, “…I’ll just grieve here, with the rest of the mourners for a hot second, while I tend to my Crackberry on the sly, as I’m letting folks know, ‘I’m at a funeral, back in the office soon,’ and then I will indeed get back to the office very soon…” at which time she would be in a much better position to attend to the remaining 8,999 emails waiting for her reply, chock full of responses such as, “sounds good” or  simply “k.” Of course, she could make maximum use of her time, if she’d answer a few of those on the drive back.

That’s what I was doing last week when I nearly got t-boned by a stern looking woman in a grey Honda Civic, who, out of generosity, merely wagged her finger instead of shooting me the bird when I shot out into the middle of a four-way stop because I was answering a critical text message, “hey, where’s the broom?”  I’m ashamed to admit it, but this was not even a mission critical message, merely a domestic detail. I’m sure “k” was my reply somewhere, like, ” look for it yourself, k ?” In my own defense it was really more of a rolling stop. It just happened to occur smack dab in the middle of the intersection, where I threw on the brakes because I realized there was a woman in a car heading my way who could legitimately claim not only the right-of-way but my home, my dogs and 50% of my offspring who go along with the house, at least for now, should we have collided.

This is the moment I knew my life was out of control. I had become practiced at the ritual of placing not only one, but two PDAs on the console of my car every time I started the engine;  my Blackberry for work and the iPhone for my life. They were like dueling pistols with the barrel pointed right at my over-saturated head. Between two  different handheld devices, both with phones, email and text,  there were six different ways to reach me. Or should I say distract me? We know this is ridiculous, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts, if people are being honest, millions of people would confess that they text or email in the car–at the stoplights, of course. It just sucks then the light changes and you haven’t finished tapping, “k.”

This unending exchange of incessant data, this urge to be “live” all the time,  which siphons off our ability to fully focus for more than a nano-second, rendering us only superficially present to what we are actually engaged in, has a full-blown diagnostic destination referred to as Continuous Partial  Attention.

On the very day I nearly ate my lunch due to texting and driving, I had heard a fascinating report on NPR. I was eating breakfast in my car, actually focused on the story about the ever-increasing threat to our health and sanity known as “continuous partial attention,” the bi-product of the abundance of information and/or stimuli which is available for human consumption (I’d prefer to call it malabsorption) twenty-four hours a day through the use of these devils we hold in our hands which keep the pulse of the world at our fingertips. A woman, Linda Stone  is credited for coining the phrase when she brought this to people’s attention, if they weren’t texting or emailing at the time, back in 1998. Yep, 1998 – fifteen years ago, dude. She goes around the country giving lectures now on how to block the barrage.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a consumer. I have a wide array of barrage devices in my household, indeed, in my car and I am as addicted as they come. I’m probably not as bad as the folks in the NPR story though.  The appropriately demure public radio reporter told about a surgeon in Boston who is known as the “iDoctor.” Has nothing to do with ophthalmology, it has everything to do with his proclivity to make rounds with his iPad slung under his arm. Ol’ iDoc defends using the iPad versus the old-fashioned medical chart because it keeps him in touch with “stuff” from the office, avails him constant access to the Internet, (just in case he needs to Google, “how to remove a tumor”) and he even uses the video camera in the O.R. so he can do an instant replay with his surgical patients as soon as they wake up in the recovery room. Cool. It’s kinda like the mechanic who shows you the rusted part he takes out of your car. Gee, how I wish there’d been someone in the operating room with an ipad when they took out my gall bladder, I’d like to know for certain it was truly worn out.

So, if the iDoctor is a good example of the benefits of having your world communications center in your pocket while administering health care, the rest of the report about the surgical nurse who forgot to order the blood clotting medicine for a post-op patient because she was texting instead of attending, certainly must be the bad example. The patient nearly bled to death due to the nurse’s distraction because she was texting about her plans for the evening, which no doubt included “sounds good,” or “k.” The hospital, of course is being sued, I bet that email got somebody’s undivided attention and the nurse has probably lost her job, one would assume this certainly got hers. How many million other examples are out there of this insidious encroachment, if not eclipsing, of our ability to focus on the matters at hand?

It reminds me of that familiar reproach, “if you don’t stop that you’ll go blind,” which of course, refers to a preoccupation with a handheld device of a whole different sort. The degree of obsession, I suspect is largely (or smallishly) the same. But I might suggest a new turn on this phrase: “if you don’t stop that, you’ll be blind.”  If we don’t take our eyes off our hand-held device and look up, we’ll miss stuff. Like the world. Like the people around us. Like the woman in the silver Honda Accord who’s about to slam into the passenger door of my car.

Last summer, when I was road-trippin’ with my dog in said car, I could have missed a lot if I’d been glued to the virtual world in my hand instead of the real world on the horizon. Now, it would be a bald-faced lie if I told you that I drove 8,600 miles over the course of eight weeks through 21 states (some of them altered) 43 major cities and 924 small towns without texting from the highway on occasion. I did. I freely admit it. Especially, as a writer, who was blogging along the way, and feeling a compunction (do you sense a trend here ?) to get back to the commenters on my blog site. That’s the tyranny and  gratification of instant publishing. You push something out to the web and much like a dinner party in which you’ve slaved over a hot stove for your friends,  once the forks clack on the plate, you’re eager to find out, “so, how do you like it?” 

When I was on the road with Libby last summer, sometimes I’d click “publish” and by the time I got the backpack and the dog out of the motel room, loaded into the car, I would hear the validating ping of a comment on my iPhone. It was Pavlovian. If I heard nothing but crickets, meaning the world-wide web was mysteriously quiet, I would hit “get mail” several times as I’d drive on to the next town. This research psychologist, Dr. Larry Rosen, who’s a prof at CA State calls this the iDisorder and truthfully, I had it. I had it bad, dude. Talk about not being off the leash! What a fool!

But long about Louisiana, I shook it off. I discovered that I could truly go off the grid for awhile and the world would keep on spinning without me. What’s more, I was free. I was free to see, free to feel, free to simply be. Thank God.

Just think what I would have missed if I’d been texting in Weatherford and happened not to notice Nancy Parker, the corporate sales gal who bagged the nine-to-five job in Florida to come home to Texas to set up a resale shop in an old gas station by the side of the road. How much less fulfilling would this journey have been, if, when the freeway traffic backed up on Interstate 10, as far as the mile could see, I’d kept my gaze on my iPhone, catching up on emails or Googling, “traffic snarls on Interstate 10?”  If I hadn’t stopped that, I would have been blind. I wouldn’t have noticed, what seemed like a mirage, back-lit by the afternoon sun, a dude in dreads, with an acoustic guitar, then, what’s that?

You and Me Thing - California

The You and Me Thing, I-10, CA, August 15, 2011

A guy in flax-colored linen pants, sets down a stand-up bass in the gravely median of the highway. They’re playing music. The You and Me Thing had seized the opportunity of a ten-mile traffic jam to jam by the side of the highway. Was it providence that the lyrics I recorded on my hand-held device put to a higher purpose included, “hold on, sail on, your dreams will become a reality?”

Nate Damm

Nate Walks America and Meets Libby
Highway 50, Utah, August 26, 2011

My trip, my life view would have been different, if I had been returning an email, or checking my GPS and failed to notice Nate Damm, the guy who walked across America last summer, while I was driving it, who, wonder of all wonders, just happened to be on the very same stretch of U.S. 50 which cuts through the desolate Utah dessert on an August day in 100-degree-plus heat at the some moment I was. Would I have missed him if I’d been Tweeting at the moment I spotted him pushing his baby jogger alongside the highway?

What if I’d been on the phone, when I took Libby for a walk on a rural road in Lake Tahoe? I might not have noticed a single playing card, face up, the three of spades, floating in the narrow stream running alongside the black top. The three of spades, which, once fetched from the water, I was compelled to Google, (once I got back home) only to learn that the three of spades was instructing me to attend to a sadness in my heart, which I was forced to admit was unattended grief for my brother Don.

My mourning had been shortchanged because I was too busy, too preoccupied, overloaded with work. “At a funeral. Back in the office soon.” I told myself, when I had time, I’d breakdown. I’d get to it later, get to a place where I could allow myself to recognize the pain in my heart every time I realized that I would never hear his voice again. Too busy, I was too busy, with too many voice mails, emails, LinkedIn  requests and Facebook birthdays, Tweets and texts from well-intentioned family and friends asking, “where r u?”

California Desert

Continuous full attention on this unending sky. California desert.
August 15, 2011

I was off the grid, man. I was disconnected. It took my continuous full attention to become the everlasting beneficiary of the people, the sights and the glorious solitude I experienced on my journey last summer. Off the grid, out of touch, all in. Partial doesn’t cut it. Partial doesn’t get the job done.

So that’s why I quit yet another job this week.

It was a worthy job, but one which had relegated my writing time to the corners of my life. Call me a flake, but it was deja vu all over again. Only this time it was worse. While I was recounting the experiences from last summer, a result of having had the balls (or the foolishness) to leap from my safety net, I was in fact, all balled up in it again. I was writing out of both sides of my mouth;  professing the wisdom of listening to your gut while stuffing a sock down the throat of my own inner voice. I had staked myself out; tethered to one of those curly cue metal spikes you screw into the ground to tie up your dog. I was running around inside a dizzying, delusional circle of juggling the day-job, freelance gigs and finishing the book, and I was meeting myself coming back every single fucking day. The near-miss car wreck was indicative of my continuous partial attention to everything. I was at a familiar, albeit ridiculously familiar intersection called now or never, once again.

The moment is now to pull my ankles out of this bear trap of fear about how I’ll make it. I’ll either make it or I won’t, but I have to finish what I started before I forget, before it loses its luster or nobody gives a damn anymore. That’s my job. That’s my duty to myself, the people I met along the way, my backers, my kids and my dog.

As if I needed any more incentive, I was reminded this morning of something which tipped the scales for me last April, when I was pacing the floors, agonizing over whether or not I should embark on this crazy road trip. I had written something in my journal, the deep down stuff that comes from a place so tender, so raw, and so fragile, to touch it is like stroking the fluttering breast of a baby bird who has fallen from the nest. It was my own heart racing truth. And then, I highlighted it to keep me strong.  That it was one year ago, today.

Tell Your Story

If I tell my stories, the people I have lost will live on. April 29, 2011

They deserve more than just my continuous partial attention.

They deserve my all.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. So glad you have found your writing voice again Jeanne. Missed you.

  2. Well girlfriend, we have to talk! I wish you the very best, whichever path you choose to travel.

  3. It is so, so great to read you again and what a brilliant post! As for quitting your job, you never cease to inspire me. I feel like you’re doing the right thing, and know I should be following in your footsteps. For now, thanks for giving me hope, and I wish you all the best, as always!

    • Alysa,

      Happy to be an enabler for folks to do the crazy. Let me know when you cross over to the nutty side, with me.
      Meantime, I will trot this comment out from time to time, like today, when I’m hyperventilating, once again, thinking…what have I done? I am so very glad to hear from you, still in France? Would love to meet you some time….maybe a book signing, in Paris? XOXO, Jean

  4. Tricia Fry says:

    Great story… I love the honesty and way you word things. I have started my book. it is in the baby steps stages but one day it will be ready to be shared. Thank you for your encouragement and example. May God bless you and keep you.
    I am not sure if you remember me but I certainly do remember you. Thank you!

    • Of course I remember your bravery when you commented on the blog a few months ago. I with you the best with telling your incredible story. Be brave, girl, be brave, as you already have been.

  5. Beverly Whatley says:

    Oh, Jean – I am so proud of you. It takes some “huevos” as they say in New Mexico to do what you have done. Keeping the love of my life’s spirit alive in words is so beautiful.