Two Ideas

“Have more than one idea on the go at any given time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I can choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.”
Geoff Dyer

I read Geoff Dyer’s book “Paris, Trance” over the weekend, and came away with a great deal of respect for his writing. Some books you pick up and read a few pages of and think they aren’t going to be great, then 24 hours later you turn the last page and realize you haven’t put the thing down since you started and it’s over. The effect is all the more pronounced when you took a chance on a low Amazon rating (I really can’t comprehend why it only has 2.5 stars on Amazon – the Goodreads aggregate of 3.65 is much more reasonable.)

The suggestion to carry two ideas all the time is interesting and I can relate to it. I can also relate to having too many damn ideas to do anything about any of them. This blog is an example.

Most people with any sense come up with a theme for their blog, market it to an appropriate audience, and make some money. Or, if they’re photographers, they focus on their photography and don’t spend time writing book reviews or literary weather reports.

I’ve historically been torn between visual art or writing as a creative outlet, but the last few days I’ve been trying to paint with one hand and to take photographs with the other. Thankfully, painting and photography are two things I can deal with more ambidextrously than painting and writing, or photography and writing. The answer is just to paint from photographs.

Here’s a photograph I took in Paris, in 2011:

Here’s a painting I made of that photograph, in 2017:

There’s a party scene in “Paris, Trance” where a character is introduced as a “writer and a painter,” and another character retorts that nobody can be any good at both. “What about Van Gogh, haven’t you read his letters?” the writer/painter asks in his own defense…

“Sure, they’re great, but have you seen his paintings?”

What’s that got to do with the price of ads in Russia?

I’ve been reading comments on articles about the Russian intelligence effort to influence the US election by social media subterfuge. I know this is a dumb idea. It directly goes against Matt Groening’s advice: “No matter how good the video on YouTube is, don’t read the comments, just don’t, because it will make you hate all humans.”

But, against my better judgment, I’ve come across an argument a few times that I want to discuss. It goes something like this:

“Clinton and Trump spent $81M dollars on Facebook ads, but we’re supposed to believe that Russia spending just $46K made an impact? Yeah right, libtards, har har
har.”

Fair enough. The candidates spent a butt-load more money than the Russians did, as they should have. The basis of the argument is real: Facebook’s lawyers came right out and testified those exact numbers to Congress. It would be naive to argue equality of effort.

But if we permit ourselves some historical context, I think it’s worthwhile to come up with an analogy for Russia’s long game.

Let’s take a brief look at the history of small change vs. big money:

In 1997, Amazon was a baby with a market capitalization of less than $1B.

The year before that, KMart and Sears were two different companies that had a combined market cap sixty times larger than Amazon’s, each around $30B.

Where are we now, 20 years down the road?

KMart went bankrupt, restructured, and ended up merging with Sears in 2004. The consolidated Sears Holding Company hasn’t done much better, now posting a market cap of about a half-billion. Yawn.

And Amazon, the little company that wasn’t even in the Fortune 500 twenty years ago, while Sears and KMart were the 800lb gorillas… what happened to that scrappy bookseller?

Amazon’s market cap in 2017 is FIVE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FIVE BILLION DOLLARS.

That’s 535x more than what was once the ‘real thing.’

What does a story of retail market capitalization have to do with the price of Facebook ads in Russia?

Nothing, if you aren’t willing to think about it. But if you are, it’s just one example of many that prove looking at investments over the long haul is how you measure success – not analyzing them a few months later.

I’m willing to bet that Russia didn’t spend $46K with the expectation that in six months their effort would be complete. Isn’t it more likely they were spending $46K to find out what would be possible in six YEARS, or longer?

So, you can make the argument that a hostile foreign government spending a few thousand dollars on divisive Facebook ads in 2016 isn’t a big deal, because hey, the actual candidates spent way more than that.

Or you can remember those people who in 1997 said “Oh, Amazon isn’t very big, nothing to worry about. Sears and KMart are where we should invest!”

I could be stretching the comparison beyond its merit, but honestly, this story makes me nervous.

What kind of money does Russia have to spend for people to take them seriously? What if in the next election they spend $500K? $1M? $5M? At that point, could it be too late to undo the damage?

If Facebook and others don’t address this problem now, where are we going to be in 20 years?

On Running #2

I’m not sure when it happened – but I crossed a line somewhere along the way, and became a morning person. I’d regularly find myself sitting by the window, waiting for the sun to come up, watching the steam rise from my coffee, letting the quiet and the wakefulness and the possibility of the day course through me. And then… I would run.

On one of those mornings this Summer, I was about six weeks into a marathon training plan, and halfway into an eleven mile run along the Potomac River. On some runs, I just listen to my own ideas. I think about what I see, or I think about myself and assess what’s going on in my life. But on this particular morning, I was listening to an audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” – going for the meta-experience, forcing reflection into my morning’s effort.

I put on the brakes when one particular line struck me. Meditating on his own training, Murakami shared a mantra he repeats to himself on hard runs: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

There are moments of clarity on some runs, lingering beneath the surface of the repetition – simple truths that bubble up, instigated by a few words, a melody, or some dormant experience.

I started repeating Murakami’s mantra to myself. I pounded the trail, counting my paces. One step, two, three, four.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

A week later, on a tennis court: the “inevitable” pain came, along with the “optional” suffering: a torn calf. I couldn’t stand or walk. My wife had to leave me on the curb while she found a car to drive me home in.

Three weeks of physical therapy went by before I could even think about stepping on a treadmill, another three weeks before I could comfortably log a few miles. I still had a marathon to run.

Running does something to the brain. It lights up cannabinoid receptors, a part of the nervous system that regulates physiological processes like memory, mood, and pain sensation. If cannabinoids sound like cannabis, you’re on the right track. “Runner’s High” is not just shoe company marketing bullshit – it’s science. Running gets you high. High enough that you don’t listen to your body, that you give it a heavier beating than it can withstand, and that you don’t really care.

When I was a teenager in gym class, and we had to run “the mile” – it was death. An entire mile might as well have been a trek across the Sahara. I was not an athlete. Candy bars, soda. Video games and smoking. Those were my things, my highs. Not running. I never let myself go far enough to feel the runner’s high.

I gave up smoking during college, but I didn’t adopt any healthier habits in its place. Instead, I learned to love traveling. It took me a while to connect the dots, but now, when I lace up my running shoes and start going, the relationship is clear. Travel is the essence of running.

A run is a journey like any other – for joy, for necessity, or for any of the infinite reasons people choose to move their bodies from one place to another. The name of the race isn’t an accident: In 490 B.C., following the battle of Marathon, the Greek soldier Pheidippides ran to Athens – 26 miles – to announce that the Persians had been defeated. To run has always had a purpose.

A few years after graduating, I was working in an office and a group of colleagues invited me to sign up for a 10-mile race with them. I considered it, and running 10 miles somehow didn’t seem any crazier than the other things I was doing that once seemed inconceivable: being an adult, traveling, having a job and an apartment. OK, I said. Let’s run.

I trained for that race with focus and discipline I hadn’t known I was capable of. That I had never run more than a mile before wasn’t important. I inched my way up, night after night, on the treadmill in the gym that overlooked the parking garage. Two miles, then three, then four. Running felt like an easy problem to solve. The equation was simple. Keep adding.

Years later, I’ve grown as a runner and a person. I finished that race and I’ve run lots of others, of various lengths, in a variety of places. Despite the injury, I crossed the finish line of my second Marathon last weekend.

My memories of different runs stretch across the palette of human emotion: from indescribable euphoria, to complete suffering and misery. Anything can happen as my body nears its tipping point; my knees screaming, my feet black and bruised, and under several grimy layers of dirt and sweat, my mouth twisted into a grimace.

Running is a rush of something… a feeling… what is it? I look up into a beautiful cloudless sky, a breeze shushes Spring cherry blossoms, the right song plays. I jog across a car-free bridge, look up at a skyscraper, at a waving flag, or over to the sea. My skin is freezing, or it’s scalding. An old man passes me going uphill, a child in a Superman costume hands out a high-five.

Everything else stops, except for me. I am in motion, I am motion, and my heart pounds. My feet ache, my mind smiles.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

the Anthem sings a tribute to 9:30

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I was a little sad when I first heard I.M.P. was opening another club in DC. I love the 9:30 club so much. I’ve been going there for longer than I haven’t been. Why change it up? Why mess with perfection?

Then last night I walked into The Anthem for the first time… and it all made sense.

There’s a big, classy lobby when you first enter. A glass elevator rises up to the terrace area from near the entrance, with access to balcony levels above. Cymbals hang like tiny spaceships in the three story atrium, leading to a crab’s eye view of a rooftop swimming pool (unfortunately, part of nearby condos, not the club.)

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Moving out of the lobby and into the concert hall… the space is enormous. The floor is probably twice the size of 9:30, the balcony 3 or 4x bigger. The stage is huge, too – I can picture it supporting an orchestra-sized act with no problem. If they weren’t going to call this place The Anthem (which is a great name) #930OperaHouse would have worked, too.

There’s an outdoor balcony right above the club entrance and marquee, looking out onto the channel, with a view of the Lincoln Memorial dome poking up above the treeline. Add Anthem to the short list of places in DC where you can have a great time with a view of the waterfront.

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9:30’s rewards program, “Friends with Benefits” has been giving me loyalty “points” since who knows when. Apparently these points accumulated to a point where they tapped me to come for this secret show, pre-official-opening. The performer wasn’t announced until showtime, but internet rumors came true: Andrew WK took the stage. And believe this: if you have a nightclub, and you need a stress-test for it, Andrew WK is your guy. He parties hard. It’s what he does.

Deciding where to watch the show from was, and will probably always be, the hardest part of showing up at Anthem – there’s great sight lines all over, and the space felt large enough that even with a sellout crowd, there would always be an open spot with a stage view.

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Giant light panels programmed to look like curtains flanked each side of the stage. I can’t wait to come back and see the visuals artists will come up with for those. (So when is the first Radiohead show going to be??) Everything about the look and feel of the place embodies 9:30.

Anthem Stage

 

The floor area is an ocean of smooth concrete. Maybe not as perfect for dancing as 9:30’s parquet, but immediately I started picturing Boyz II Men performing with Naughty by Nature on “Roller-Skate Night @ The Anthem.” Seriously, the floor is perfect for it. Lace up those skates!

After stumbling around, jaw-agape at the awesomeness, I was thirsty. Lucky me, there are three bars on each level…. But, I do feel obligated to throw a tiny dart here – and it should be an easy fix – one of the classiest things about 9:30 is how there’s always pitchers of water sitting on the bar. Not so at Anthem (yet.) Hydrate your customers! (Maybe work on the food-ordering system, too… but people should really be eating before they show up for a concert.)

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There are going to be a few minor growing pains, little quirks from 9:30 that got lost in translation – but nothing serious enough to tarnish what will now be the best concert experience in DC (and maybe in the entire USA.)

Continue reading

#ShowYourWork

I read Austin Kleon’s book “Show Your Work!” last week.

It presents an idea that seems pretty basic on the surface, but is actually pretty challenging: “You can’t find your voice without using it.”

According to Kleon, creative people have to show what they’re doing for it to be meaningful. Showing the work is as important as doing it.

I used to have a good habit of doing that with this blog. Until a few years ago, I was posting regularly, and it seemed like people other than my Mom were actually reading it. (Thanks for reading, Mom!) Things I wrote about here turned into the things I talked about with people out in the world.

Then life caught up. I started grad school. I got engaged. We got a dog, moved, got married, bought a house, and moved again.

Amidst all that, I also changed jobs – and in doing so, had to significantly refocus my energy on learning a new organization and becoming a useful part of it.

Some people use their work experiences as material to write about, but I’ve never thought of this blog as connected to my professional life. In my mind, blogging is separate, a kind of mental ‘safe space’ where the drudgery of work can’t encroach, where I can let my creative brain run free without any requirements or deadlines or connection to the stuff that pays the bills.

Reading Kleon’s book had me thinking about that differently.

A few months ago, my wife and I had an awesome night out – we went to see Bonobo in concert. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that I interviewed Jack Baker, Bonobo’s drummer, almost three years ago. (That interview continues to be, by far, the most read thing I’ve ever posted here.) After their amazing show, we hung out with Jack and the group for a little while. I was embarrassed when Jack and some of his bandmates asked about what I’ve been writing lately – and I had nothing to say.

To me, Bonobo et al. are artists who are right up there where Michael Jordan was when I was a kid – legendary and truly inspirational. They make the world a better place by doing something beautiful that they love (#LifeGoals.) When they seemed to be genuinely curious about what I’ve been writing, it hit me like a brick – I have not been writing or doing anything else creative lately, and that’s a huge missed opportunity when people I admire are asking me about it.

Me, Jack, & Wifey

I quickly resolved to get back into a creative routine after that night. Freshly motivated, I’ve been rekindling my interest in art… drawing, trying to learn how to paint, challenging myself to write at least 500 words everyday… and relishing anytime I can spend away from a glowing computer or phone or TV screen. It isn’t easy. Life is busy, and there’s always something to do. But I’ve found when I make the time for it, the rewards of creating something… anything… are abundant.

Getting back to Kleon’s book – I haven’t been showing anything that I’ve been up to. There’s always a voice in the back of my head, whispering… “This isn’t real work. No one needs to see this. This isn’t what you get paid for.”

After reading “Show Your Work,” I’m starting to think that voice might be right… as long as I don’t show what I’m doing, it won’t be real work. No one will want to see it if I don’t have a story to tell about it. If I don’t show it, it will never be something I get paid for.

So… ahem. Fuck that voice.

Here’s a watercolor I’ve been working on. It’s a work in progress. I had fun doing it – it’s the first time I’ve tried anything like this. I started with a photo I took of Circular Quay, in Sydney. I put the image on a lightbox, traced it into a grid, then reproduced the grid on watercolor paper with pencil. I mixed up some paints (without knowing nearly enough about color) and did some work with my poor student quality brushes. Viola! Now I have a painting of Circular Quay to show the world:

Circular Quay. Watercolor in progress.

Circular Quay. Watercolor in progress.

So, that’s that. I’m showing my work, and I hope anyone who finds this enjoys it.

I’ll close with some wisdom from one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, who is quoted in “Show Your Work.”

“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

About today in Charlottesville…

When I was a “younger lad”… 14 or 15, maybe? The cops picked me up one night when they found me spray-painting anti-Nazi graffiti on the back of a building. I don’t remember much about the political climate of those days because I don’t even remember specifically when those days were, just that I was a younger, less risk-averse version of my current self – but I do remember that there weren’t any Nazis marching through the streets of Virginia at the time.

And now, there are.

As an adult who used to be a kid who used to tag anti-Nazi graffiti on the back of buildings (when I didn’t even have Nazis around to show it to) what’s the law abiding, responsibility-having version of myself supposed to do about the current state of affairs?

The most saddening and immediate thing that I feel obliged to do… since some of my newer friends didn’t know that teenager that I was, and maybe all they know about me is that I’m a white, 30-something male who lives in Virginia… is to state publicly: unlike those other white, 30-something males, who marched through Virginia today spewing Nazi hatred & violence – I think racism, xenophobia, white supremacy and Nazism are disgusting and have no lawful place in our society.

Now that I’ve gotten out in front of the ambiguity surrounding who these dipshits are, and hopefully distanced myself adequately, the next step, I think, is to acknowledge what’s going on – no easy feat. How is this happening? What world am I living in, where in 2017 Nazis are marching through the streets of Charlottesville? Where I feel the need to digitally wave an “I’m Not a Nazi” flag? I don’t know, I can’t explain. But it’s happening, and letting that sink in is the first step.

So with acknowledgment and denunciation accomplished… how can I help stop these ideas from spreading? My first instinct (resting dormant since I was that 14 or 15-year-old kid) is to grab a baseball bat, hop in the car, drive to Charlottesville, and swing until it lands on the face of the first pig-fucking racist I see… but over the years I’ve developed a passable capacity for restraint, along with a few critical thinking skills that lead me to believe turning that feeling into action isn’t an appropriate long-term solution.

I’m not sure what the collective response to today should be. But I know that part of it should be to speak out, to let everyone that I’m capable of communicating with know what I think:

Nazis are bad. The fact that I have to remind anyone of that, something definitively established half a century ago, is embarrassing and sad. That they are marching through local communities is also bad, embarrassing, and sad. The hateful and racist ideology promoted by these people does not represent real American values. They hide behind a warped sense of patriotism.

I guess, for now, fellow Virginians… be aware that this is, unfortunately, a thing that is happening, and it needs your attention.

Please be resolute in denouncing it at any and all opportunities to do so.

A few words about all the movies I watched in 2016

I’ve been keeping a list of every movie I watched this year… those I’ve seen before and those I saw for the first time.

For each of them, I wrote a very brief reaction. Some are thoughtful, some are irreverent. All are honest.

Here’s the list, in sequential order of my viewing:

Babel – makes Tokyo and Afghanistan and Mexico seem like another planet
Revenant – more movies should be filmed 100% with natural light
Winter on Fire – meanwhile in America the Kardashians what??
Big Eyes – the guy in this movie is a huge asshat
Moonraker – are they serious? They can’t be serious. I love it
The Big Short – Steve Carrell should always play this character
Dallas Buyers Club – drugs should be mostly legal
The Princess Bride – I have no good excuse for seeing this for the first time in 2016
The Perfect Storm – but I can’t stop wondering if Marky Mark is from Boston or not
Unbroken – the book was probably much better
The Men Who Stare At Goats – I don’t know how this got made but I love it
Deadpool – if only they had given Green Lantern this treatment
Finding Vivian Maier – why are the most creative people usually so troubled?
Beasts of No Nation – this should be seen by more people than it probably was
Turner & Hooch – I want a sequel with cats
Ex Machina – the future is going to suck (and kill?)
The Agony & The Ecstacy – it really is a nice ceiling
Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice – Batfleck, you did alright
Spotlight – shame that newspaper stories have to be made into movies for most people to notice them
All Together Now (Beatles/Cirque “Love” Doc) – Vegas is so rich
Captain America: Civil War – I wanted to take a nap through most of this
Return to the 36 Chambers – I’ll never hear Wu-Tang the same way
“21″ – MIT is so smart
You Only Live Twice – I already forgot literally everything about this
Good, Bad and the Ugly – I have no good excuse for seeing this for the first time in 2016
Ghostbusters (original) – somehow it still gets better every time I watch it
Jurassic World – I wouldn’t complain if this were on at the gym or something
Rock the Kasbah – everything about this was tremendous
The Woman in Gold – cool story but Ryan Reynolds does better with dick jokes
Frances Ha – I love when people who like photography decide to make movies
Fight Club – still good but doesn’t change how I feel about IKEA <3
The Dark Knight Rises – still good but still not as good as Banecat
The Peanuts Movie – beautifully drawn Nyquil
Bo Burnham: Make Happy – the funniest musical since ‘what.’
Beatles: Help! – for someone who grew up with MTV already established this is a revalation
The Man With the Golden Gun – I already forgot literally everything about this
A View To Kill – I already forgot literally everything about this
Chef – the best movie that anyone has ever tweeted in
Bo Burnham: what. – the funniest musical since South Park: Bigger Longer Uncut
Suicide Squad – Margot Robbie
The Bourne Supremacy – still good but so hard to hear all the whisper-yelling
Best of Enemies: Buckley vs Vidal – this is where all the people yelling at each other on TV started I guess
Steve Jobs (Boyle) – Boyle deserves thanks for un-Kutchering this story
Father of the Bride – still good but now anything with early 1990’s fashion is funny
The Hangover – still good but why couldn’t they just leave it without the sequels
Hail, Ceasar! – this basically closes the book on Hollywood
Elvis / Nixon – oh shit this 10 minute meeting seems like a microcosm of the next four years
Prefontaine – why does Jared Leto always have to die
The Lady in the Van – British movies are so much more thoughtful
Allied – what is this like the tenth Brad Pitt movie about WW2
Arrival – omg how can she afford that house on an adjunct’s salary

Magic and Loss

Magic and Loss: The Internet as ArtMagic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to read this after hearing the author on the Recode Media podcast and reading some of her shorter pieces in the Times over the years. There’s a lot to think about in Magic & Loss – I enjoyed the lucid language and often insightful commentary. The homage to the death of the telephone was wonderful, and the quick take on ‘science’ writing in the mainstream media was funny – but there were also a share of flimsy moments (did she really just try to summarize a billion photographs on Flickr by talking about the style of two users?) I found myself occasionally waiting for more substantive technical discussion (maybe I’m conditioned to expect it in any writing about the internet) but I guess the ‘internet as art’ premise doesn’t leave room for grubby engineering stuff. Unfortunately, the end of the book veered into esoteric academia. It’s impressive to see someone versed as equally in obscure Youtube clips as they are in Wittgenstein, but wrapping the book’s closing chapters in personal academic history (something about Tweeting to a physics professor?) left me feeling disconnected. I may eventually give this book another try, but next time I’ll go for the text (instead of the audiobook) so I can pause and follow up on the many arcane references.

Weather review ★★★ Tysons, VA

The moon, a bleached white cork, hangs low on the short horizon, plugging the night inside a bottle filled with lightning bolts. In a flash, the heat shatters it – carbureted clouds steamroll in; all the garage doors on the street stand like bare teeth, grit against the interrupted silence, braced by yellow curbs, yellow corners, and dutiful yellow hydrants.

★★★ Three of Five Stars

Weather review ★★★★ Vienna, VA

★★★★ Four of Five stars

The birds are euphoric this morning, carousing like late-night drunks who found the advancing sunrise as a challenge to keep making noise. Beneath their chorus, the bulldog stops cold in his tracks, the day after his first birthday, dumbfounded that a season has changed. His little wrinkled face had been despondent for weeks, completely unaware that the air would ever warm again; now he snorts in Spring’s miracle through a not-frozen nose, happily. Yesterday, high temperatures set historical records across the region. Today the tips of Summer’s sweaty fingers continue prodding early March, as blustery clouds grumpily settle, then artlessly blow away, mumbling about when they might return.