I Unfollowed Over 700 People on Twitter

I unfollowed everyone I know personally on Twitter. Friends, relatives, coworkers, colleagues whose work and opinions I respect, celebrities, and people I met once at a conference. If we would know each other on the street, I’m not following you on Twitter anymore. That’s fine. Twitter was the least useful means we had of staying connected anyway.

It’s an experiment not in distancing myself from people but in news consumption. You see the only people left in my Twitter feed are journalists. I culled my following list down from over 1100 to 353, and every single one of those follows writes or edits for either a newspaper or a magazine or a website, or they report for a television station.

They’re kind of all over the place actually: the New York Times, NPR (and NPR Stations–WBUR, KCUR, WBEZ), The Weekly Standard, The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Block Club, NBC News, The National Review, CNN, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Slate, Texas Monthly, Reuters, and a bunch of others.

I’ve gone through phases when I add every byline read to Twitter.

I’m 10 days into this experiment, and here is what I’ve noticed so far. My Twitter feed is mostly filled with links to a small number of news stories shared over and over again. Like the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Journalist. That story must have been tweeted by 50 different reporters, and many of them congratulated the reporters on the work. As I type, the story about Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test results is oozing out all over my timeline: Jake Tapper, Manu Raju, and Jonathan LeMire, among several others, are posting it.

I’ve also read some fascinating threads tweeted by reporters to explain complicated subjects, like Jared Kushner’s taxes. I’ve watched Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine and David French of the National Review have a heated but fact-based argument about French’s piece equating Democratic protesters with the President’s calls for violence at his rallies.

I may not keep this up; Twitter is still Twitter, even when hotwired for purposes of explicit news consumption. But it has most definitely moved my experience of the platform away from the takes of people like me and toward the work of practicing journalists.

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Phone

She thought about her new phone all day at school, the time she would get to spend on it when she got home, before she went to cheer practice. That the case and the pop socket she’d ordered for it arrived earlier in the day only made the anticipated afternoon reunion sweeter.

Only homework needed done first.

That the afternoon went off the rails so quickly should not have surprised me. What fifth grader possesses the force of will to complete homework and to study for a test while the most enticing consumer technology the world has ever seen waits in the next room? Certainly not mine. Shouts. Tears. Slammed doors. Promises to take the phone away for days.

After dropping her off at cheer practice, alone in the car, it occurred to me that this is what an iPhone is designed to do, to embed itself in a person’s consciousness as an ever-beckoning portal to all manner of happiness. It’s too much for a 10 year-old to handle without assertive parental regulation. And even then . . .

 

Itsy Bitsy

Note: after publishing this post I read this news article about this year’s above average spider population in Chicago, experienced prominently at train stations.

This is the season for spider webs and spiders at train stations in the city. Strung up on lamp posts and in the corners of overhangs, the webs and their many occupants are beautiful and menacing. I’m drawn to look at them, though not up close and not for long; people on train platforms don’t look long at anything without a screen–it makes you look uncomfortable (taking a picture would be even worse).

I was terrified of spiders well into adulthood. The mere sight of one would have made my muscles shudder and my skin twitch. That’s not uncommon, I know. Maybe every arachnophobe has an origin story, and maybe some are plain born. Maybe innocuous experiences in childhood harden into rigid fear on their own. I must have been seven or eight when I went to see my aunt, who was in high school, in a production of “Once Upon A Clothesline,” a children’s play. I remember nothing of the performance. I have a vivid memory, though, of seeing the girl who played the spider character in her full-size costume backstage after the performance and shuddering with fear.

My dad really turned that childhood shudder into a scream. He used to lure me into the garage with the promise of observing a spider in some dark corner. I’d follow, and peering intently at the thing, would receive a sudden jolt and “Agh!” exclamation to startle the bejeesus out of me. Any childish curiosity about the eight legged things gave way shortly to jumpy terror at even their mention. Especially in that garage. Well into high school I would avoid even going in there. Whenever I absolutely had to I kept carefully close to the middle, away from those dark corners.

I’m 42 now, and I still don’t want spiders near me. But watching them overhead at L is becoming one of my favorite seasonal pasttimes.

The Gym

I sat in the parents’ lounge of the gym and listened to the coach count off choreography over the blaring of my daughter’s cheer team routine music. The lounge is just a narrow room with old office chairs and an empty vending machine, but there’s free wifi, so I was watching the Yankees/Red Sox playoff game.

I got curious, though. I wanted to see what all this counting and shouting was for, so I packed up my laptop, exited the lounge and perched myself behind the barrier at the end of the gym to watch the last 10 minutes of practice.

Everybody is about half a second behind the counting, which is not exactly keeping time with the soundtrack. Their movements are not sharp. The two stunts they’re working on aren’t working, and most of the team clearly don’t remember the choreography. Their faces are red and they’re all breathing really hard. I’ve never seen my kid work like this.

Practice ends and the coach sits them all down in the middle of the floor for a dressing down over their not knowing the choreography and their poor tumbling. The prescription is for more individual practice, not at home but at the gym. “You guys need to be in the gym more!” he says. They’re all looking at the floor.

I’m in coach mode myself as a spectator. This is the first I’ve seen of the actual routine my daughter has been working on, and it’s a little alarming. I want it to be good, and that is clearly going to requires a lot of practice.

But she’s already here nearly five hours each week. She’s 10.

I’m watching two things here: does she actually want to spend more time in the gym? She has loved this since she started and there’s no sign yet of dissatisfaction with it, but she’s also never been challenged so directly to work harder and put in more time. That may take a mental and emotional toll.

The other thing I’m watching is school work. Extra gym time will come at the expense of homework, for sure. Even if she loves the gym and wants to put in extra time, the priority has to be school, right? If that starts to slip, the gym has to be curtailed.

I’m playing this all out in my head during the coach’s lecture when I’m suddenly caught by a vision of how good she’s going to be at this after a few years.

Today Is Cohort Day

A Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohort starts today at my church. I’m not in it, and I’m not leading it. I just organized it. My church is hosting it.

I’m a big believer in these cohorts. I did one seven years ago, and then I organized one in California three years later that was heavily supported by the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. The one beginning today is just as heavily supported by the Synod of Lincoln Trails.

I like this organizer role. I like pitching youth ministry coaching cohorts to synods as an important leadership development investment. I liked partnering with the Presbyterian minister at Fuller Seminary to host one, and I like serving at a church with the space to do it now. I like talking with presbytery leaders, pastors, and youth ministers about participating. I love seeing the group actually come together.

This cohort has people in it from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana. It has five women and five men, people serving large and small congregations, pastors and youth directors, leaders of youth, children, and families. There’s someone in it whose work is hosting mission trips. There’s someone else who leads neighborhood youth on behalf of three different churches. The real kicker: there’s someone in it who was a student in the youth group of a guy in my cohort in 2011.

These cohorts have been as prominent a tool in my youth ministry as anything, and I am grateful for them. Grateful and eager to see what happens next.

 

Yesterday’s Sermon Got To Me

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. (Winston in George Orwell’s “1984”)

I heard a terrific sermon yesterday that rattled me a bit near the end. The claim that did it was that silence in the face of un-truth is wrong. The preacher spelled it out in terms of our fears of being “political” in conversations around the water cooler, fears that prevent us from speaking up. My mind extended that application to the Thanksgiving table and to Facebook: I have decided over and over again that countering false claims is not worth the drama that inevitably follows. I have made a grumbling peace with this new normal of everyone having their own sources and sets of facts and the seeming impossibility of reconciling them.

What yesterday’s sermon made me wonder is if saving myself some drama comes at a cost for others. Is it not a kind of cruel indifference to leave one another to our own truths? What must you think of me to allow me to persist in a falsehood because you don’t think convincing me worth the effort? Is not abandonment of our neighbors a very real by-product of a polarized era, not just that we are divided but that we grow resigned to our divisions, even comfortable with them?

Shouting at one another won’t fix this. We know that. Parroting party talking points and snide late night talk show clips won’t either. That, by now, is obvious. But we don’t have to fix the whole problem in every interaction. Small suggestions of veracity add up. Bread crumbs of evidence become a trail that can lead us to a truer destination than where we are now.

Some of us around the watercooler don’t want to hear it, but some of us do. For the ones who care, it’s worth it.

Ensemble

I’m a pastor who works with youth, so I have a small community of teenagers who see me for about an hour once a week. Some of them spend extended periods with me, like for a weekend retreat or a mission trip. But in most of their experience I’m a person they interact with for less than 60 minutes on Sunday morning.

My daughter is 10, and last summer she took up competitive cheer. She spends four hours per week (more during competition season) with her teammates and her coach, a sweet person who, with her jet black hair and cut arms covered in tattoos, makes a parent think twice about asking too many questions. Last night the coach called the team “her babies” to me, a designation I don’t love and that I would never make about the youth in my charge. But it says something about the care she has for the kids she works with.

Many of us in youth ministry are bit players in an ensemble of adults who care about the teenagers we know. That feels like good news.

 

Ask

There are a lot of smart people around waiting to be asked: to read that thing you wrote, to listen to an idea, to join a cohort, to chaperone a youth retreat, to meet up for coffee.

The worst people can (and will) say is “no.” But even that’s not a total loss; even then the ask has added something to the relationship.

Maybe asking is an underrated tool of leadership.

Mistaken?

My friends and I were attacked by some older boys while playing baseball in the park in the 9th grade. I knew the lead figure because we’d been on the same baseball team a few years earlier, when I was 11 and he was 12. He seemed much older than 12 at the time.

In the middle of our game a red sedan screeched to a halt along the curb, barely a backstop’s distance from our home plate, and he sprang from the passenger side. He demanded the aluminum bat in my hand. His tone and his posture portended unfriendly intentions, and yet I handed the bat over, whereupon he made as if to club me with it. I fell in a convulsive flinch.

I scrambled to my feet and clumsily walked–no, ran–backwards away from him, too scared to turn my back. My retreat led him straight to my friend, who was dumbly watching from the outfield. He’s a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel today and as tough a person as I know, but on that afternoon he cowered in fear and took a punch to the side of his head.

Other details are fuzzy. Who were the other assailants? How did it end? These I don’t clearly remember, but the identity–the name and the face–of the guy who stole my bat and clocked my friend is as clear in my mind today as it was the moment he lurched from his car that afternoon 27 years ago.

I don’t think I’ve seen him since. I looked him up on Facebook just to test if, as people say can happen, the identity of a figure from an intense emotional encounter has gotten mixed up in my memory.

It hasn’t.

Phone Company

I had a phone company problem for seven months that I only just this week resolved. It wasn’t a complicated problem. Every person I spoke with at the company knew the fix, and they all assured me it was just about to be fixed. But month-after-month the issue persisted. I called the store so frequently that I was on a first name basis with every staff person there. I went through two store managers during this time. They both said all the right things on the phone. I started keeping notes of our conversations:

“I’m going to get that fixed for you.”

“Yeah, just give me a couple of days to resolve the issue.”

“I’m sorry this has taken so long. I’m going to take care of it.”

What finally solved the problem? I went to the store in person. I walked in on a Friday afternoon and introduced myself politely. Of course, the manager knew who I was right away. I didn’t even need to explain why I was there. He disappeared into the back to “check some emails” about the matter and returned two minutes later to report that it was fixed.

This is a company whose business is the most advanced communications technology the world has ever seen, and yet getting things done with them requires face-to-face, in person interaction.

That technology will always be useful.