Friction, Character and Home-Cooked Meals

            Some years ago, I heard of one family’s coming-of-age ritual for children on their 12th birthday: prepare and serve a multi-course dinner for the family. Not by micro-waving or Grub-hubbing but by doing it all from scratch.  Deciding on a menu. Making a list of ingredients and buying them.  Setting the table.  Prepping and cooking each dish. Planning it all so everything would be ready at the right time.  Announcing, “Dinner is ready” and calling everyone to the table.  Then doing the clean-up after everyone is done.

            This was expected of each child, regardless of gender.

            I doubt if I would have wanted to do that when I was a kid.  It would involve giving up highly productive activities I preferred – like watching cartoons and sitcoms.  It would require listening, observing, experimenting, and being patient.  I might very well experience what we can call “friction”– the discomfort we experience when we are doing something difficult.

            My use of the word “friction” comes from a philosopher of technology, Albert Borgmann.  I encountered him and his work twenty years ago when I did a sabbatical project exploring how digital technology was changing personal life and spiritual practices.  Borgmann observed how digital devices often reduce friction in our life.  Instead of getting up and having to do something that may take effort and skill, a device invites us to avoid the effort – the friction — and instead, we tap a button or give a voice command.   Borgmann’s point is that the more and more we expect a friction-free life as the way things are supposed to be, our capacity to deal with friction when we encounter it diminishes.  He also believes the way in which we handle friction in daily tasks carries over to the formation of our character and capacity for nurturing interpersonal relationships.

            I remember a time when our family was practicing having a “digital sabbath day” – one day a week when we would not turn the computer on.  (This was long long ago in a galaxy far far away — before smartphones and tablets competed with oxygen and water as essential for moment-by-moment survival.)  My six-year-old daughter was bored. She begged me to let her turn on the computer and play a game. I told her we were taking a day off from using the computer.  Why not, instead, play with a favorite neighborhood friend of hers?

“We had a fight on Friday”, she said.

“Well, you could call her and try to get over it,” I said.  She fumed.  But after minutes and minutes of misery, she decided to call.  They got together, cautiously at first. But soon they became lost in play which continued for two hours. They faced the friction of interpersonal issues and got through them.  It would have been easier to be digitally distracted — and alone.  But working through the friction led to a renewed relationship.

Whether it’s marriage, family, or the workplace, dealing with other people often involves some discomfort – some friction – and it takes patience and determination to see if things can be worked out. The more digital technology leads us to expect a friction-free life, the less and less able we will be to deal with other people — those pesky humans just don’t seem to respond to our desires as quickly and easily as our beloved devices.

            My wife spent many years teaching first graders, who can become frustrated learning a new skill. She would tell them to say to themselves: “I can do difficult things.”  In a sense, it’s saying, “I can bear the friction I experience as I learn to master something new or challenging.”  And developing our will and stamina to do that strengthens our character.

            Huston Smith said that one of the shortcomings of our contemporary culture’s understanding of “spirituality” is that we often make it too easy and self-serving.  Spirituality becomes something like a buffet table – we walk by displays of various ideas and practices and put on our plates what appeals to us at the moment.  In doing so, we may avoid anything that is difficult.  But the great global traditions include practices (Ramadan, High Holy Days, Lent, vision quests, etc.)  that ask us to take on difficult things, like fasting, repentance, and acts of service.  Our ego may resist, but our soul welcomes the challenges as the means to a more personal strength and maturity. The traditions, Smith said, “have traction.”   

            I’ve often thought of that family’s dinner preparation ritual. Imagine turning 12 and, for the rest of your life, having the confidence and skill to feed yourself and others. How strong and free you would feel.

Image: “Mickey Mouse and Goofy: Thanksgiving Dinner,” #776, Children’s Book Illustration, Whitman, c. 1970s (apparently the guest on the right is a turkey who’s been invited to share in a vegetarian banquet instead of being the main dish.)

What?? No WI-FI??

                      In my first college class, “Introduction to Psychology,” I was introduced to a popular concept of that era, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”:

                      The idea is simple. For human beings to become “self-actualized,” we first need to satisfy our basic needs. Each level going “up” assumes you’ve fulfilled the need that precedes it.  This can help explain why, for instance, it’s difficult to manage life if we’re experiencing hunger, trauma, or deprivation. It has a certain logic to it: what factors need to be in place for you to become your “best self”?[i]

                      Several years ago, I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker that suggested Maslow’s hierarchy needs to be updated. I couldn’t find the actual cartoon this week, but found a graphic that displays the cartoonist’s point[ii]:

                      What’s it like these days if your power is out?  Or your internet is down? Or your cellphone dies?

                      A few years ago, we were staying at a modest, funky hotel on Highway 1 south of Big Sur.  It was in a remote area where cell service was either spotty or nonexistent.  If you were a registered guest, you were given the WIFI password. But they had a policy of not giving the password to anyone who was just passing by because their small parking lot would become full of people stopping only to use their limited system.  I remember an anxious European couple coming into the tiny reception office and being told they would not be given the password since they were not registered guests.  They were aghast.  How does one travel without WIFI or cell service?

                      About the same time, I made a trip to New York to see some baseball games, music concerts and art exhibits. I was walking down a busy street in Manhattan when, out of habit, I checked to be sure my wallet was secure.  It was. But then it hit me — what would I do if I lost my iPhone? That was how I was communicating with my Airbnb hosts, hailing Uber rides, showing my tickets at events, finding my way through the city, checking on my flight details, and keeping in touch with my wife.  

                      Twenty years ago, I had a sabbatical to study how digital technology was beginning to reshape our lives.  My research included interviewing people in Silicon Valley and India and surveying a broad range of experts. I became acutely aware of how our lives and expectations were rapidly changing, often imperceptibly.[iii]

                      The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

When the first films were first made and shown, people could not believe images of real people could move across a flat surface.  Then came radio – voices traveling invisibly through the air for many miles – which seemed like another miracle. Black and white TV followed – now people speaking in real time could be seen in the privacy of our homes. Something better was always around the corner.  Color TV and The Wonderful World of Disney! Then VCRs — you can record The Wizard of Oz and watch it anytime you want! Then DVDs — you don’t have to rewind the movie when you’re done! Then unlimited channels with streaming content on the internet — including YouTube with 2 billion users, where you can watch some guy in his kitchen in Tennessee showing you how to unclog a drain in four minutes!  Each new stage truly seems like “magic.”

Then a few years later the miraculous device — the TV, the monitor, the laptop, the smartphone, the modem, or the router — is lying on a card table at a garage sale with a $5 price tag; when it doesn’t sell, it’s dropped off at an “E-waste” site.

                      In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari offers an overview of human history from the beginning of time to the present. He points that each time there is an “advance,” there is also some kind of loss. For instance, when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers they were highly attuned to their environment and lived entirely off what nature provided.  When they settled down to become farmers, they were able to create greater quantities of food but soon lost the subtle and detailed environmental knowledge that had taken their ancestors many generations to acquire.  When people moved from farms to cities, they lost the connection to the earth even more and, for many, the practical know-how of how to grow food, as well as create and fix things on their own.  We’ve now moved into the digital age and gained a whole new range of capabilities — but at what cost?  Are we more “self-actualized” or any wiser?

                      Cell phones, digital devices, the internet and WIFI have, in some ways, become as essential to modern life as food, water, warmth and rest. I appreciate all their beneficial uses.  But I’m concerned about how dependent we’ve become.

Featured image: Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, 1427

[i] There have been critiques of this concept, noting it’s very Western, male, and individualistic in its assumptions and completely ignores any spiritual dimensions.  But we’ll save that discussion for another day.


[iii] I published articles based on my research, including “Soul-Keeping in a Digital Age: The Role of Spiritual Practices and Traditions in a High-Tech World,’ which I presented at the “UNESCO Conference on Religious Pluralism” in Seattle in January 2005.  The paper is available at

Mom, Apple Pie, Technology and the Holidays

My mother had her share of hardships in life. Her first husband died only a few years after they married, leaving her with a young son and pregnant with my older sister. Not long after, her mother died suddenly.  She met and married my father; I was born a few years later, my younger sister five years after that.  Raising a noisy, blended family of four children while carrying within her the emotional burdens of trauma and grief made it hard for her to be “present” with us individually.

         Except when she made apple pie.

         I remember watching her from an early age. In time, I became old enough to participate.  I learned how to peel, core, and slice the green Pippin apples with a paring knife.  The peels were kept in a separate bowl and I would snack on them while we worked.  She added sugar and cinnamon to the sliced apples and gave them time to absorb the flavors. She’d make the crust with Crisco, flour, and a few drops of water.  She’d roll the dough and create the pie crusts she needed, pressing them into the pie plates. She’d add the apples, dot them with butter and a few drops of lemon juice, then seal them with the top crust. She taught me how to flute the edges of the crust with my fingers before the pie was put into the oven and to use a fork to poke venting holes on the top.  The leftover dough was rolled out on the cutting board.  She’d add sugar, cinnamon, and butter to it, then cut the dough into strips.  She’d roll the strips into “pinwheels,” which would bake along with the pie. Pinwheels only took 10-12 minutes to bake. We’d take them out and let them cool, then enjoy them as the pie continued to bake.  The kitchen filled with the smell of a baking apple pie.

         My mom wasn’t a great cook, but she was a master at making pies. They were always a highlight of birthday and holiday dinners.

         But as I got older, and especially after she died in 1993, I realized what I valued most was not the pies themselves, but the quality of time we shared during the process. Focusing on the manual labor allowed us to become calm and reflective.  We listened to each other, laughed together, and simply enjoyed being together.  I didn’t realize until I was older how rare and wonderful those times were. What a gift for a child to have such time with a parent!

         Eventually, I found a word to describe such activities: “focal practices.”  This is a term coined by Albert Borgman, a philosopher who has spent much of his career exploring the role of technology in our lives. The root of the word “focal” is focuser, a Latin word meaning hearth. In Roman families, everything was centered on the hearth. It was location of the family shrine, as it was where symbols of ancestors were carefully arranged and displayed.  It’s where food was cooked, and where the family ate together.  As Borgmann says, the hearth was where the family gathered to be present with each other and share what they most deeply valued.  In our own times, focal practices can include preparing and sharing meals, going on walks and hikes, camping, playing games, crafts, fishing, building things, gardening, and sharing skills of all kinds. Engaging in such activities, we experience life at a deeper level. As Borgman says, focal practices both gather and radiate meaning.

         Technological devices are a threat to such practices, he believes.  Devices are objects that promise to give us what we want in a more effective way and with less effort.  They always promise to save us time and labor. But something is lost when they displace focal practices.

         Let’s imagine a device that makes perfect apple pies, like bread-makers make bread. You simply add the ingredients and push a button, and – voilà – a pie as good as mom’s appears.  So effortless and convenient. But if we had that when I was a kid, I would have never learned the art of what she did, the satisfaction that came from doing it, or experienced the quality time we spent together.  Pie-making was a focal practice.  It did “take time”.  But time is not an adversary to be conquered. Time is a gift to be received with gratitude.

         As we approach the holidays, we can be grateful for memories of “focal practices” we’ve experienced in our past and seek opportunities to share such activities with family and friends this season. 

         As for me — I’m looking forward to the aroma of homemade pies baking in the oven.

         “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”


Borgman, Albert, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, University of Chicago Press, 1984; Crossing the Postmodern Divide, University of Chicago Press, 19