CHECKING THE MIRROR

Selfie! How do I look?

Selfie! How do I look?

Here’s something that bugs me.

I have the MLB At Bat app on my phone. I use it to listen to Cardinals games on KMOX, check the standings, watch video highlights, and check up on the news around Major League Baseball. For less than $20 per year, I have access to the radio feed of every game every day of the season, plus condensed games, highlights, and game wrap-ups. It’s really a great product at a bargain price.

That’s not what bugs me, of course. What bugs me is something very specific that points to a broader problem. It’s the use of the term “no-no.”

In the app’s settings, I have elected to receive alerts about happenings in various games throughout the majors. If someone gets injured (e.g., Jung Ho Kang’s broken leg), reaches a milestone (e.g., Albert Pujols passed Manny Ramirez for fourteenth on the all-time home run list with his 556th last night), or has an unusually good game (e.g., a player hits three home runs or steals home or strikes out eighteen batters), my phone makes a little sound and I get notified. Again, this is a nice feature, and I don’t have any complaints most of the time. But then there are the no-hitters.

If a pitcher reaches the seventh inning without having given up a hit, the app sends out an alert, often with an invitation to watch a “live look-in” of the game in question. I keep getting alerts each inning until the no-hitter is completed or someone breaks it up. But here’s the thing: they never call it a no-hitter. Not even at the first mention. They call it a “no-no.”

I don’t know who first came up with the term “no-no”—one of those oh-so-clever SportsCenter guys, probably, or one of the washed-up former players MLB network hires to play SportsCenter wannabes on their shows—but I imagine he thought it was pretty cute. It probably was, too, the first time he said it, but the cute wears off in a hurry. Baseball is full of cutesy or folksy synonyms for actual baseball terms. People will call a home run a “dinger” or “round-tripper” or the new sensation that is quickly becoming grating, “big fly.” When the bases are loaded, the “sacks are jammed” or there are “ducks on the pond.” Mike Shannon, the veteran play-by-play man for the Cardinals, likes to call a double play a “twin killing” or “the pitcher’s best friend.” All of this is acceptable ... within limits.

But when you start with the cute jargon, and repeat it incessantly, and never even mention the accepted term, it becomes irritating tout de suite. For a practiced curmudgeon like me, it becomes maddening. I can’t help but try to imagine what the people responsible for these alerts are thinking (and it’s not just the alerts, by the way; all over MLB.com, it’s almost impossible to find a no-hitter referred to simply as a no-hitter and not a no-no). I’m sure most of it happens in the person’s unconscious mind, but here is how I think it goes: “Ooh, so-and-so has a no-hitter through six. I’d better send out an alert. But “no-hitter” is so mundane and boring. What can I say that would spice it up a little for the young folks? I’ve got it! I’ll call it a no-no! That will give everybody a kick.” What has me completely flummoxed is that this exact same unconscious monologue apparently takes place approximately 700 times in a row without the writer realizing “no-no” is no longer original or clever, and hasn’t been since about 693 times ago.

This all sounds pretty trivial, I realize, but as I said earlier, I think it’s symptomatic of a larger problem. I call it the mirror-checking phenomenon.

Social media have exacerbated the problem, but mirror-checking was going on a long time before people started posting selfie after selfie and inexplicable photos of their meals online. The proliferation of personal video cameras twenty-some years ago had a lot to do with it, and now that practically everyone has a camera, instant Internet access, and a host of web sites urging her to “share” every detail of her life with a thousand “friends,” perhaps two-thirds of whom she has met in person only twice in her life, there seems to be no way to stop the avalanche of mirror-checking in our society.

Mirror-checking, if you haven’t already inferred what I mean by that term, is the way so many people lead bifurcated lives: with one half of oneself, one experiences life, while with the other half one observes oneself experiencing life, and immediately posts pictures of it on Instagram. Those who are afflicted by this condition (and I catch the bug myself from time to time) are like actors who are so used to being on camera that they begin to live their lives as though they were always on camera. Did that smile look natural, or forced? I’d better check my smile in the mirror, and practice so that it doesn’t look too fake.

Many of us live our lives with one eye always on the lookout for a reflective surface so we can be sure we’re coming across the way we want to. We have become a nation of spin doctors. Personal image consultants. Mirror-checkers.

When I was in high school, one of the biggest “cultural” events of the year in our area was the Halloween bacchanal in Carbondale, the home of Southern Illinois University. This party, which had started back in the late sixties when bar owners would give you a free beer on Halloween if you wore a costume, had evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) into a drunken free-for-all and an embarrassment to university and city alike. But it had become too big. More than 10,000 (some estimated as many as 20,000) people would descend on “the Strip”—a six-to-eight block section of bars and restaurants near campus—and form a mass of humanity (or a facsimile of humanity, anyway) in the middle of the street. Every year, the police made scores of arrests for public drunkenness, fighting, and so on. Every year, women would get sexually assaulted. Every year, people would get seriously injured because some bozo decided it would be fun to chuck a full can of beer into the crowd, and all the other bozos even less original than the first bozo would find that such a brilliant idea that they would throw theirs too.

My friends and I went to Carbondale for Halloween when we were seniors in high school. We thought it was the pinnacle of coolness, and I wore my souvenir t-shirt to school maybe fifty times that year, just to show off that I had been there ... for HALLOWEEN! I can admit it now: I was a mirror-checker. All the time I was in the middle of the crowd on the Strip, I kept thinking, “Look at me! I’m at the Halloween party!” I was awash in a sea of other mirror-checkers who were undoubtedly telling themselves the same thing. Halloween was the Thing To Do, so you did it. Never mind that it was hardly enjoyable and could be quite dangerous; Playboy had listed us as one of the top “party schools” in the nation, and we had a reputation to uphold.

Years later, when I was the campus minister and later a graduate student at West Virginia University, I saw the same dynamic at work. WVU was also known as a party school, and there were some dubious traditions that went along with that designation, among which was the practice of burning couches after a big win for the football or basketball team. I witnessed one of these events up close in 2002, after the Mountaineers beat Virginia Tech with a dramatic four-down goal-line stand. It was an away game, so everyone in Morgantown was watching the game on TV, and the spontaneous rush of pure joy was so exhilarating that my friend and I had to go outside on his porch and howl at the moon. A lot of other people had done the same thing, and it was a moment of shared triumph that has always been one of the best things about sports.

But that period of our actually living in the moment didn’t last. A few blocks away, a few bozos (that’s right, more bozos—they’re everywhere) who had heard all the stories and legends about couch-burning in the old days decided, “Hey, we’re WVU students, and our football team just won a big game. And here’s the old couch we dragged out onto the porch yesterday for just such an eventuality.” So they started a bonfire in the middle of the street, and each of them said to himself, “Look at us! We’re burning stuff!” Mirror-checking.

The danger of mirror-checking is that we will become so used to playing a prescribed role (or what we imagine our role should be), and constantly monitoring ourselves to make sure we’re doing it right, that we will forget how to be ourselves. Instead of saying what comes naturally, we will do our best to impress our imagined audience with something more cute or hip, and end up sounding hackneyed and derivative (the “no-no” phenomenon again). We will forget how to live in the moment we are in without feeling the need to take a picture and “share” it with every Tom, Dick, and Harry we have ever met. We will look back on our children’s lives and realize that we watched every big moment—first words, first steps, grade school recitals and plays, graduations, sporting events, even weddings—through the view finder of a camera.

This should give us pause, especially if we are persons of faith. God calls us into intimate communion with God, which is always an organic experience that cannot and should not be digitized or reduced to a 140-character snippet. We need to cultivate silence and stillness in order that we may encounter God in the depths of our souls, becoming more authentic persons in the process. God wants us to experience each moment as a gift of grace, but to do so we first have to experience it, not record it and then upload it to YouTube.

Smash the mirror. Put down the phone. Live.