Change

Dick Cavett Nick Step photo
Dick Cavett
Nick Step photo

Dick Cavett, the former [brilliant] talk show host, tells the story of working as a writer on the Jack Paar Show when he learned that Peter Ustinov was to be a guest on the show, and that his segment would last all of nine minutes. Ustinov was legendary as a talk show guest, “the best ever” in Cavett’s words, and Cavett proceeded to throw something of a hissy fit with the show’s producers, arguing that Ustinov should be given the entire show, that the other three utterly forgettable guests should be punted. “Oh no,” replied the producers, “People like change.”

What’s interesting about this episode, from the perspective of our advanced ADD age, is that the Jack Paar Show ended its run in March of 1962 (Johnny Carson would take over). In other words, the media emphasis on fast paced change has been with us for quite some time.

Despite the “idiocy” Cavett describes in his story, it’s undeniably true that many people do in fact enjoy change. My wife likes to periodically rearrange the furniture in our home. It gives her a sense of renewal, a small but unquestionably positive energy bump. Me, I’m more prone to leaving things where they seem to work best. Sure, move the furniture around a few times when the configuration is new, but once the optimum arrangement is discovered, that’s how it should stay.

My wife is the daughter of a Dutch diplomat. Growing up, she lived a life of continual change, as the family moved every few years to a new foreign locale, often exotic and stimulating, places like Kobe, Japan or Capetown, South Africa. I, on the other hand, grew up in one home, one town for the entirety of my young life. In wondering why my wife prefers change, and I don’t, my initial theory was that, having grown up with this usually enjoyable and invigorating level of change, she preferred to maintain it wherever she could, if only on a micro level. I, having grown up in an unchanging environment, not so much.

But then one day I was talking with my brother, and he described the regular incidents where, returning home from a long day at work, he would encounter his teenage daughter excitedly hopping about on the front step, keenly eager to have him help rearrange the furniture in her bedroom. My niece too has grown up in an entirely stable situation, one house, one town. To this day she lives just a few blocks from her parents.

So much for that theory.

The mystery persists. Is it then a gender thing? Certainly it is quite a fundamental rift, this gulf between those who embrace and those who avoid change. All I can suggest at this point is that, like the inclination to be on time or late, the desire for change is both learned and somehow genetic. Lasting too. In any given individual, the need for change, or not, is not likely to change.

Which is not to say that Dick Cavett was wrong, and his producers right. Far from it. We live in a time of unprecedented change, within a veritable vortex of technological transformation, and so, for us, change is anything but a scarce commodity. It’s the long-form article, or uninterrupted period of quiet which has become today’s uncommon resource, and therefore the thing of value.

But more than that, what we’re losing, as we feel the obligation to welcome change, and so throw our arms of awareness wide, is the simple distinction of quality. Which is of course what Cavett was pointing out to his producers. Peter Ustinov was indeed dazzling at what he did as talk show guest, funny, trenchant, witty and articulate. (Watch him here in a compilation of interview clips with Michael Parkinson of the BBC.) He was the best at what he did, and Cavett’s producers couldn’t have cared.

Today the best is often lost among all the electronic noise. Our attention is fleeting, the audience fractured. The news cycle completes its turn in just one day. It may have been going on since 1962 and before, but the embrace of change will always come at a cost, and so today’s accelerating change comes at an accelerating cost. No one should lament the loss of exclusive access to the media, or decry the democratic power of the internet. What we should do is remember to celebrate excellence, and to give it our sustained attention.

Quiet

Certain owners/managers of noisy restaurants—the type where you must shout to be heard by your tablemate—tell us that their clientele like it that way. Said customers enjoy the buzz, the dynamic feel, the sense that they are at that moment in a ‘happening’ place. That may well be; I don’t doubt that you could find individuals within the cacophony who would agree, but I’m a little skeptical as to the real reason why these restaurant bosses prefer the noisy ambience. I suspect it has more to do with the turnover rate that such noise induces. More turnover and the resultant more money.

The opportunity for quiet, for interlude, whether it be for easy conversation, or just contemplation, is to be sought out. As a young man, I once found myself in the company of my slightly older friend John, ankling it across Bear Creek Park in Grande Prairie, when an intense summer rain shower overtook us. We quickly found shelter under the wide eaves of the nearby swimming pool building, where I sat down against the wall to wait out the worst of the rain, and began to muse about what was going on in general in our situation, and where it was likely to lead.

John didn’t want any part of that. I’d hardly gotten two sentences into my musings before he marched off into the downpour. There was no place for such contemplation in John’s comfort zone.

A few years later John drowned in a couple of inches of salty water on a beach in Mexico, after riding a wave for too long while body surfing, breaking his neck when he hit the sand. We may well have been on our way to the bar that day; John was probably drunk when he hit the beach—he’d become an alcoholic while still in his twenties—but it was absolutely consistent with his joyful approach to life that he would ride that wave to its very limit, and then beyond. During that summer afternoon under the swimming pool eaves he was my best friend, and so too he was for several other of my friends. Such were his social skills, and his big heart.

 

"Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching."       - Satchel Paige
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”
- Satchel Paige

But a moment of tranquil contemplation was more than he could face. Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you,” but for John it wasn’t a matter of looking back. He couldn’t look sideways, at his present circumstances, without seeing demons staring back at him. I was surprised when he marched off into the rain, and I’m not sure even today that I can say I understand what those demons were, but I saw immediately that they were there, and that he was terrified of them, and so he kept moving.

He preferred a noisy atmosphere, to get drunk rather than to stay sober, and yet, in his own odd way, he was absolutely in the moment. It’s just that he didn’t wish to contemplate that moment. He preferred distraction.

The quiet on Galiano can sometimes be nearly absolute, with little more than the periodic echoing chortle of a crow, or the shrill beeping of a tree frog to interrupt. It’s something I’ve come to value now more than ever, and it’s something I consider akin to a regular physical check-up, something I should oblige myself to do. I want to see if there are any demons standing next to me. I might want to do something about them, before they run me to ground.

One recommended approach is Buddhist; I attempt to calmly stare right back at those demons present, to just ‘sit with them’ for a while, no challenge, no confrontation. Eventually they’re not quite so scary; they’re just demons. I may be responsible for them, but they’re not the final word on who I am, or where I can go

These days, incidentally, without much effort, you can find information on the noise level in restaurants in your area, and act accordingly. One Vancouverite carries with him small cards that he leaves behind after eating in any restaurant; they say either that he enjoyed the relaxed environment, or that he won’t be back, because of the din.

Quiet shouldn’t scare anyone. Connecting to another human being should be the goal. We should all stop moving once in a while, seek out stillness, not distraction. Once you’ve pulled up, take a look around. Any demons? Don’t kid yourself; if you look back there will always be regrets as to how you got here, but hopefully you are still okay with here. If not, if there’s a fiend lurking nearby, while you’re still breathing, there is always something you can do.