Tag Archives: writing

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.

Famous Dead Person

You get the opportunity to talk to a famous deceased person. Who do you chat with and what do you talk about? What are some of their answers? Try writing in their voice.

The first person who comes to mind is Kurt Cobain, maybe because I just read an interview with Dave Grohl. But I think Kurt pretty much already said everything he had to say. Or if he didn’t, I can still listen to him singing, so I don’t need to summon up his ghost to hear his thoughts. Also, he was alive relatively recently, so his opinions probably wouldn’t stray far from the rest of his generation that is still around to chat with.

To really take advantage of an opportunity to talk to someone who’s dead, I think it would be most interesting to go back further and get perspective from someone who’s entire generation is gone, whose influence is waning, and who would be completely shocked at the state of things today.

Maybe I would talk to Pierre L’enfant. The guy who designed DC.

Yes.

So, Pierre, what do you think of DC? The way it is in 2015, the way it looks?

Pierre, I imagine, would say something like – what the fuck are these suburbs? What are cars?

I can imagine his bewilderment by people’s communication in urban spaces: silently standing at bus stops, peering into cell phones. Spending minutes, half-hours, or hours in slowly moving steel boxes.

My conversation would be more informed if I had time to prepare. I would want to learn more of his vocabulary, speak to him in the language he knows about avenues, plans, parks and blocks.

Pierre, why would you want to design a city? How did that come to be your goal?

He might wax poetic and say, “I see a man and woman having a picnic in the park, and notice how far from the road they are and how the bird is comfortable enough to sing to them, but how the wild beast stays away because there is not enough nature. I imagine these two falling in love and making a child together, and I think I have contributed to that for them, by making a lovely park.”

That would be the kind of answer I want to hear. Something passionate. But, he might say something else, something along the lines of – “I was too small to be a General. I have no gift for legal discourse, and I stumble when I speak in public. Women do not find me charming. I think better alone, when I have time to imagine complex systems. I think cities are very complex systems and I am able to think about them abstractly because they are not people, and people frighten me. So I make cities. The pay is enough for me to have a house with a study, and eat steak and drink wine. I do not have invitations to the opera every evening nor am I invited to give speeches, but there may be a park named after me someday.”

That is not what I want to hear from him. But he might say it anyway.

Pierre, how does the internet change cities? What does it mean, that people can communicate instantaneously with each other, by pictures and words and sound, from across the entire city?

This changes everything, he would say. That would be all he could say. It would render him speechless in a profound way, not in the metaphoric, hyperbolic way we generally regard one who is speechless. He would be literally speechless.

So the butcher, he would say, can know who will buy his meat? Because they can tell him, without walking across the city? The doctor can hear of his patients illness the moment it occurs? The mistress can avoid the wife, by a surreptitious warning?

But why then, would people live close together? Why would anyone go anywhere?

Maybe he would say that. I have no idea.

Conversations are generally never just one person asking the other person questions. He would almost certainly have questions for me.

Maybe he would inquire about the many ethnicities congregating all over the place. Maybe technologies I have completely forgotten are “technology” would baffle him. Ice in a cup. How does one have ice in the city? If there are magic electric lights, why does this store sell candles? Why do newspapers still exist, on paper?

I guess I like ‘Podcasts’ Now

I had avoided Podcasts for many years after they surfaced because of what they were called. Words derived from commercial products just seem gross to me. They’re lazy.

Maybe I also just didn’t enjoy listening to people yap, instead preferring all the music that became so limitlessly available around 2008.

But, times change. For the past few months, I’ve been listening to several ….Podcasts…. (the term still makes me cringe) and gathering information, insight, and entertainment.

 

Here’s a roundup of what’s been in my queue:

Longform has been great to hear writers talk about their craft. It’s an interview show that spends an hour or more asking good writers great questions. So far, I’ve heard Josh Dean, Malcom Gladwell, and Carol Loomis.

Listening to Josh Dean sent me careening down the David Foster Wallace rabbit hole, since some of his stories were edited by Dean for the New York Times Magazine. After reading DFW’s piece about Wimbledon, I fell into watching Federer videos on YouTube – listening to a writer talk for an hour can lead the mind to all kinds of places. Dean’s story also made me think about how NYC-centric magazine writing is, how being ‘in’ the industry is critical.

What clicked for me while listening to Malcom Gladwell was his perspective of his work being “optimistic,” and how he doesn’t believe in ‘gotcha’ journalism, and how if someone says something you think they wouldn’t say again, you shouldn’t quote them on it. His sense of ethics is curious when thinking about how popular his work is – being nice makes for repeat customers, I guess. He said something about how you can only make so many negative statements before you turn your reader against you.

Carol Loomis had a very interesting story – she’s one of Warren Buffet’s best friends, and had a 60+ year career writing for Fortune Magazine. Her longevity in the industry is monumental, and when she started, being a female writer covering finance was taboo. There’s much to be learned from her approach to owning a subject and sticking to a beat.

http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-131-josh-dean
http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-62-malcolm-gladwell
http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-152-carol-loomis

 

The Candid Frame is similar to Longform, but focuses on photographers. Almost an identical format. I’ve listened to two episodes so far, neither were people I’d previously heard of.

The first was Matt Sweeney, who spoke about photographs he took of Los Angeles in the 70’s and 80’s. His story was as much about his own life as the work he’s done, and how the photographs were an artifact of his lifestyle.

The next I listened to was Jenna Close, a photographer who started with alternative energy and launched a successful industrial photography business. She spoke about the importance of business and domain knowledge, and gave examples of ‘sticktuitiveness.’ In general, I found The Candid Frame seems to go deeper into the history of its subjects than Longform, or maybe encourages more ‘origin’ storytelling.

http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/2015/7/26/the-candid-frame-284-matt-sweeney
http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/2015/4/19/the-candid-frame-274-jenna-close

 

The Tim Ferris Podcast is one that I decided to listen to after hearing Tim Ferris give an interview on Longform. Ferris is a writer I’m familiar with, and I’ve written about his book, the 4 Hour Workweek. The book was OK, but not as good as his Podcasts. He does a great job reaching into different areas of interest for what he calls ‘top performers,’ and he grills them to uncover the habits that lead to their accomplishments. His guests are typically famous in their own right, and so far I’ve listened to Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED magazine), Jon Favreau (director of the Iron Man movies, actor), Tara Brach (PhD, author, and popular meditation teacher), Jane McGonigal (author, speaker, and expert on Games).

Kevin Kelly was somewhat bland, since the episode I listened to was him answering reader questions and not engaging with Ferris. He briefly spoke about how important ‘AI’ will be in the future, without going into detail. Artificial Intelligence is a really broad subject, and he didn’t specify exactly which part of it he was talking about. Kelly did make a suggestion to ‘read 10 books a year’ and how doing so would transform anyone’s life, so I can appreciate that.

Jon Favreau’s interview was wonderful, and spanned everything from how he finds ways to relate to people who don’t work in the movie business, to what his life was like before he started writing scripts. He talked about how trying out an office job revealed how little time people get to pursue their real interests, and how he was moved to get away from that. His comments on why he enjoys cooking were interesting – because it’s such a universal thing, and his world is so different from most people’s, he’s found it’s a great common bond to share with others.

Tara Brach and Jane McGonigal were both great interviews. Brach’s thoughts on mindfulness, especially the two-step process of recognizing a feeling, then ‘inviting it to tea,’ were interesting. She also stressed the importance of unplugging from time to time, something everyone should really try to practice more often. McGonigal’s citation of studies on how gaming is beneficial were good – particularly that visually intense games can decrease cravings for things, because the brain stays ‘distracted’ by them. McGonigal talked about her new book ‘Superbetter’ which has an accompanying iPhone app that’s worth checking out.

http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/04/14/jon-favreau/
http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/07/31/tara-brach/

 

There’s a few more Podcasts I’ve listened to that I recommend exploring:
Lexicon Valley: two guys talking about language. Topics include everything from the origin of the word ‘seer-sucker’, to the pitfalls of translating Russian literature, and the American female’s tendency to adopt a ‘vocal fry’ in speech.
The Moth: live storytelling on a stage. Dramatic recounting of stuff like being interviewed by Martha Stewart, being a member of the ‘Blue Man Group,’ and being a chaplain in the Forest Service. Kind of like TED talks, but without all the politics and pretension of ‘saving the world.’
Planet Money: Probably the most popular Podcast around. Produced by NPR, explores all the ways money interacts with and influences the world. Recent episodes question why people don’t work less than they did a hundred years ago, where the people of Greece are hiding their money, and whether or not robots will ever be able to fold our laundry.
HBR Ideacast: Harvard Business Review’s brief interviews with business leaders. A recent episode with the CEO of Evernote was fascinating, but some guests are dreadfully lacking ‘listenability.’
Talking Code: Software development topics. Presented in an interview format, and with just enough explanation to make it consumable for people who don’t work in the industry.

Freedom, Concrete Island, & Richistan

The three books I’ve finished in the last few days initially seem disparate in theme, but if I dig, I might find a way to associate them and forge a coincidence in completing them around the same time. For some reason each of their unique stories caught my attention, after all. It’s a fun game to pick out three diversely categorized books and try to connect the dots between them, reading each at a completely different pace, thinking about them as various events unfold in my own life, and maybe looking for similarities I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in. This fumbling investigation is the side effect of having no structured agenda when I decide which book to pick up on any afternoon.

On the surface, the novel Freedom is a long and gossipy portrait of modern love and grief in post-9/11 America, and Concrete Island walks the line of science fiction with the tale of a man stranded between two highways after crashing his car. The argument against looking for coherence in the works is sound; they are set in different times at different places, one spanning over twenty years of events and the other just a few days, one deeply probing the psychology of an entire extended family, the other acting as witness to the brute actions of three strangers. The reportage of Richistan further eschews comparison, it is a colorful piece of long-form journalism chronicling the lives of 21st century America’s newly minted (and apparently plentiful) million-and-billionaires.

The only theme that seems to flow through all the works is money. The power and appeal of wealth is explored in Freedom through Walter and Joey Berglund, who both seem to find their titular ‘freedom’ by providing financially for their family. In Freedom money is both gift and curse, leading to Walter’s moonshot political and romantic disasters, but also to the construction of Joey’s sense of moral responsibility. Contrarily in Concrete Island, money is dissolute. The wealthy architect on his way home from an illicit rendezvous ends up a lost soul stranded on a traffic island: as he nears death, he’s seen throwing greasy bank notes into the air like confetti as he tries to persuade an unsympathetic vagrant hobo to help him escape.

Richistan could be seen as expressing both the positive and negative ideas from Freedom and Island’s fictional narratives: in some interviews, the nouveau riche paint a disorderly picture of affluence by describing their lost sense of identity, responsibility, and common connection with society; in other chapters the prosperous subjects are seen as icons of decency who channel their fortunes into charity, or back into the markets from which it came.

One of my peeves with Freedom was the hunch that Joey Berglund was an unbelievable character. Hardly a freshman in college, he was brokering million dollar arms deals with weapons contractors in post-9/11 Iraq, despite otherwise being described as a generally ‘chill’ stoner who spent all his time chasing girls. Yet in Concrete Island, what hooked my attention was that the apparently ridiculous and impossible scenario of the main character Maitland being trapped on a traffic island in the middle of the city of London was actually written to be a completely coherent and believable situation.

So in one case, there’s a character who the author wants to be believable, but isn’t. In the other, there’s a character who the author can’t expect to be taken seriously, but who I actually did. Maybe it’s this inconsistently plausible complexion in fiction that drives me to also read books like Richistan, which takes no liberties of imagination with its subjects, only laying out facts about living, verifiable people.

Welcome Home, Charlie Brown

We’ve had Charlie Brown for two full weeks now.

I started writing the second sentence to say something like “he’s quickly become the center of the family,” and as I was typing, he peed on the floor.

That’s what having a puppy is like so far. Mid-congratulation, he does something he’s not supposed to, and I say “No,” and he is sorry for a moment. The hiccups are mostly a reminder that he isn’t a supreme being – a notion that without occasional reminders to the contrary, his human-mom and I might be spun up into believing. Something about having a face with enough wrinkles to be mistaken for an ethereal 150 year old wise man must be the connection.

Charlie’s French Bulldog mouth is an ugly thing, pocked with hundreds of  little bumps that signal eventual whisker growth. It’s often clamped on an innocent teddy bear, or octopus, which he tosses about with a blind rage that can be instantly followed by lights-out sleep of the dead. His bunny-hop running veers off to the right after a few steps, possibly because one of his legs hasn’t caught up in length to the other. For a creature of only about 11 pounds, his flat-nosed snores rival a grown man’s in volume.

Having been a cat person since I was a kid, what’s surprised me the most in these first few weeks is how human-like Charlie is. My cats have never seemed even slightly similar to people in their instincts or preferences, and that’s what I’ve loved about them. As Neruda wrote, “yo no conozco al gato.” Dogs, however, seem to occupy a hybrid realm of human-like social needs mixed with the inherent poop-eating habits of a beast. (He hasn’t actually eaten any poop, to my knowledge – but not for lack of trying.)

Cats have never listened to me. The first cat I had never once sat on a human lap. The second cat does often, but the notion that he would perform any actions on command is a hilarious fantasy. The dog, however, has learned how to sit, stay and come when his name is called within the first ten weeks of being a dog. He’s not listening with a chip on his shoulder, either. After being told what to do, he still loves us enough to lick our faces right off of our heads.

Before his arrival, I crammed in as much dog book reading as I could, including “The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skete. The monks live on some magical dog-raising farm in New York, where they pass all their time training German Shepards. Some of their practical advice doesn’t fit with a 9-5er’s lifestyle, given that they are monks, but their overall attitude and suggestions have been beneficial in gracefully making Charlie Brown a member of our household. After reading, I think that if I had devoted my life to being a dog-monk, I too could train Charlie to walk by my side without a leash.

Charlie stops every few feet during a walk to smell and taste whatever is in his path. He needs the walks, but dislikes the simple decisions that accompany them – when to turn, when to cross, when to go home. The taste of this grass, that grass, that pole and this rock are of much greater importance to him than maintaining any kind of regular route or schedule. He seems to enjoy company without order, not unlike a human kid. Maybe, like with human kids, this will change. Maybe not.

It’s a strange thing to have an animal capable of listening and understanding – and also blatantly choosing not to listen or understand. When he blankly stares at me while I plead with him to come, or sit, there’s a fleeting moment of recognition that I’ve seen his facial expression used many times before by people during uncomfortable discussions – when I’m saying I need a day off from work, or that I don’t want to donate to their fundraiser. The capacity for being perplexed seems to be what puppies and people most commonly share. Cats, on the other hand, never appear to be confused. They are certain everything they touch is a trifle, and every person they know is a servant.

When the dog isn’t around, I find myself appropriating some of the lessons he’s teaching me into my human relationships. I’m more aware now of when someone is slyly telling me what to do. At work, I pause, realize I’ve been issued a command, and wonder what the dog would do. This awareness of power-relationships was something I never developed while living with a cat. Now that I have a dog, all of my actions are seen through a filter of “what command has prompted this behavior? do I need to listen to this person? …is it OK to pee here?”

Charlie’s excitement is easily contagious, he can get his people riled up with a single ‘yap yap yap.’ But, he’s only ten weeks old, and it’s our responsibility to usher his enthusiasm for life into adulthood. Apparently, that’s a common failure point – after the novelty of puppyhood wears off, many owners lose interest, and dogs end up in shelters.

Whether we decide to ‘keep’ Charlie or not isn’t a realistic question. Instead, we are looking for answers to things like ‘how do we train him to be the ring bearer at the wedding?’ and ‘would he like the mountains or the beach better for vacation?’

Although he and the cat haven’t yet become snuggle buddies, the cat has accepted his existence, and like the humans, he seems to understand that there’s a new person in the house (no matter how much he looks like a dog), and he’s going to be here… farting, snoring and peeing on the floor… for as long as he wants to be.

On Finding Brian Writing

Brian Writing has moved!

You can now find me at http://www.brian.digital/writing

I switched from living on wordpress.com to managing a self-hosted site. Hopefully this doesn’t cause any headaches – I think I crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s, so you should still find me in your WordPress readers or email inboxes, if you are a subscriber. And Bonus! No more ads!

All the old posts are also still available, so maybe use this update as a reminder to go digging through the archives while I come up with something new to write about.

-Brian

 

 

on the Oscars and Being Liked

If you haven’t seen Birdman, Boyhood, or the Imitation Game, maybe don’t read this post yet.

Three of the films nominated for Best Picture this year had climactic scenes in which characters confronted the importance of ‘being liked.’  

Coincidence? Or important cultural phenomenon, captured? I’m leaning towards the latter. The ‘being liked’ discussion did heavy lifting in these narratives, and served as a critical character-defining plot point in each.

In Birdman, Michael Keaton’s character Riggan is overwhelmed by the criticism and potential of failure he faces for trying to re-define his legacy. As a former action-movie star, now forgotten, his quest for recognition has led him to produce a serious drama on Broadway. He tries to explain his motivations to his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) but she calls his sincerity into question. She’s right.

Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is…  God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important.

Stage actors can’t convincingly argue that no one’s opinion matters, or they would find something to do that doesn’t require a live audience. Being liked becomes the foundation of Riggan’s identity – he can’t exist as an artist without an audience, and the audience has to like him if they’re going to stay in their seats.

The theme repeats in the film, as Sam and Edward Furlong’s character Mike Shiner have a less animated, but more to the point discussion about the same thing.

Sam: Why do you act like a dick all the time? Do you just do it to antagonize people?
Mike Shiner: Maybe.
Sam: You really don’t give a shit if people like you or not?
Mike Shiner: Not really.
Sam: That’s cool.
Mike Shiner: Is it? I don’t know.

When Sam dreamily asks whether Mike cares about being liked, his response sets up the antagonizing force that will eventually transform Riggan. Mike’s success seems to have been born from his indifference to recognition, and his attitude is partially what teaches Riggan that letting go of the need for acceptance will set him free and allow him to create ’true’ art.

In The Imitation Game, the ‘different’ and ‘weird’ Alan Turing character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, doesn’t begin with the need to be liked, and then find relief from it, as Riggan of Birdman does. Turing’s story goes in the other direction – starting from a place where ‘likability’ doesn’t matter, but eventually being required to strive for it. Turing’s social environment would ever ‘like’ or accept him as who he is, so he was forced to adapt and perform a ‘likability’ act that would keep him out of trouble. A mantra verbalized by Keira Knightley’s Joan Clark character repeats throughout the film:

Joan Clarke: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Turing embraced the notion that an un-liked, low profile persona would give him the space to explore his scientific interests. But a wonderfully awkward scene in which Turing’s fellow scientists try and fail to invite him to lunch illustrates the problem Turing faces. He must confront the reality that working with other people is necessary to accomplish the mission he is called into, and that as smart as he is, he can’t do everything on his own. In contrast to Birdman, Turing’s not trying to be ‘liked’ for his own emotional satisfaction, but as means to an end.

Joan Clark (Knightley) explains to him that if he’s going to succeed, he’ll have to get the other scientists to like him. ‘They won’t work for you if they don’t like you,’ she says. She suggests that he bring them snacks as a first step toward amiability, and in a scene as comically awkward as the failed lunch invitation, he arrives at the lab with a basket of apples and bluntly relates the logic that drove his actions – I hope you’ll like me, for bringing you apples, he says. The wheels are set in motion, and the film becomes as much about Turing playing the likability game as it is about him developing a electronic computer.

Boyhood comes to the ‘likability’ table in the first scene that exhibits a true independence of the main character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. A road-trip with his girlfriend opens the door for a thoughtful discussion about whether or not it matters to be liked. The ‘likability’ dialogue takes place without Birdman’s gripping intensity of emotion, and without the Imitation Game’s dry humor – of the three, it feels the most genuine.

Mason: I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I’m just not.
Sheena: Why aren’t you?
Mason: I mean, I guess, it’s just being afraid of what people would think. You know, judgement.
Sheena: Yeah. I guess it’s really easy to say, like I don’t care what anyone else thinks. But everyone does, you know. Deep down.
Mason: I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it.
Sheena: Yeah. So, in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What’s different? What changes?
Mason: Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality.

The scene follows Mason’s first monologue, and it occurs nearly two hours into the film. After watching him quite literally grow from a child into a young man, this becomes the first thing we know about how Mason is feeling and what he is thinking as an adult. Because the film is about his journey from Boyhood to manhood, the scene is significant. It’s remarkable that the first vulnerability he exposes, as he transitions away from ‘boyhood,’ is weighing the importance of being liked by others – and it probably won’t be the last time, as evinced by the older characters of Birdman and Imitation Game.

So, does the spirit of each film come to the same conclusion about likability? Birdman’s narrative is fueled by an intense desire to be liked, and the struggle to escape from it. Imitation Game is propelled by likability as a game – a game in which Turing must conform to the standards of social acceptability by suppressing his true persona. To those films, being liked is important to the characters, but in different ways. Boyhood takes the position that likability is only an encumbrance – to quote Mason, “feeling alive” is better than “the appearance of normality.”

The primary reason why I’ve seen all these movies and paid such close attention to them is because the Academy nominated each as Best Picture of the year. Their nominations all prove, to some extent, that being liked matters – if they weren’t liked by the Academy they wouldn’t have been nominated, and I might not have seen them or cared to think deeply about them. But what’s curiously interesting is the result of the competition – the film whose character had the greatest ‘need to be liked’ turned out to be the winner, while the film that stood firmly in its notion that being liked isn’t all that important didn’t get the top Oscar… and perhaps, it didn’t need really need to.

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” – Oscar Wilde

on ‘The End of Absence’

“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”  –  The End of Absence

Many children this winter, especially in Boston, are having days off from school because of the weather. They’re being ‘absent.’ I used to love being ‘absent,’ on snow days. There was a peculiar isolation in it, a kind of detachment that’s almost impossible to reproduce now. This winter, those kids in Boston are having an entirely different ‘absence.’ They’re not absent in the way that I used to be absent.

The End of Absence by Michael Harris is another book about the internet and how modern technology is changing the human experience. I keep reading books like this. Most of them have a pessimistic take on what it all means, and the fact that I spend many evenings reading stuff like this is at least moderately contrary to the fact that I spend all my days getting paid to embrace it. That’s going to have to wait for another blog post.

So, is this particular work saying something of significance, that other books like ‘The Circle,’ ‘The Shallows,’ or ‘You are Not a Gadget‘ hasn’t said already? Maybe, maybe not. They’re all reminders that this isn’t a localized phenomenon – everybody’s feeling it.

The book starts with a summary of ‘kids these days,’ laments how no one reads anymore, and guesses that due to the changing nature of communication and availability, neuroplacticity will turn our brains to puddles. The internet has led us to a permanent state of ‘continuous partial attention’ and we should be adequately concerned. One dramatic statistic claims that if you’re over thirty, you’re probably having just as many electronic interactions as you are physical ones. This is particularly difficult, because if you’re over thirty, you’re also old enough to remember when this wasn’t even possible, and be bewildered at what things have become.

So, what are the products of ‘continuous partial attention?’ We’re confessing a lot of stuff, writes the author: “it often seems natural, now, to reach for a broadcasting tool when anything momentous wells up.” Why does that matter? Because it’s apparently made us all think we’re celebrities. The findings of a study of 3000 parents in Britain was cited:

“the top three job aspirations of children today are sportsman, pop star, and actor. Twenty-five years ago, the top three aspirations were teacher, banker, and doctor.”

The technology enables our banalities to become public performance, so public performers we (or our children) want to be.

In addition to our newly permanent residence in a virtual confessional booth, we’re also all experts now. The expression of public opinion is no longer filtered, edited, and perfected before presentation by trained editors. Some validations are in place to prevent complete falsities to spread in places like Wikipedia and Yelp, but those forums are just too big to moderate efficiently. Bullshit abounds. Bullshit is what happens when someone is forced to talk about something that they don’t know anything about, and it exists everywhere, now that everyone is encouraged to be an ‘expert’ and rewarded for their ‘competence’ by likes, comments, re-tweets, etc.

Bullshit proliferation leads into the next problem created by the ‘end of absence’ – Authenticity. The author makes an interesting point about how ‘young, moneyed people’ have made the ‘re-folking’ of life a priority – think Mumford & Sons. The IFC show Portlandia has been awkwardly successful at satirizing and celebrating this kind of ‘return to roots’ culture, where after decades of fast food, people now want to know what kind of farm their dinner was raised on; or in the midst of the digital technology era, ‘steam-punk’ advocates rebel and hold intensely serious seminars. The fetishization of the ‘authentic’ – record players and ‘old-fashioned’ moustache wax – is ‘the exception that proves the rule,’ according to the author.

Between all our confessing, expertise-sharing, and bullshit spewing, we hardly have the attention for anything else. In the chapter on ‘Attention,’ and its recent universal obliteration, the author documents his attempt to read ‘War & Peace’ with the tone of someone trying to swim to the moon. He eventually finishes reading the novel, but not without claiming that he’s alienated himself from everyone and everything he knows in the process.

A few more chapters about erosion of ability to memorize, and the ‘permanent bathhouse’ state of mind afflicting online romance-seekers, lead up to the book’s final act – the author attempts a temporary return to absence. His phone duct-taped to a table, internet connection severed, kooky old neighbors visited for coffee – he makes a valiant effort to go back in time, to when people could be ‘unavailable.’ No one ends up homeless or murdered, but the experiment reads dangerously close to the irrevocable shattering of domestic tranquility between the author and his partner.

Following the toe-dip experiment in returning to absence, the book’s final lesson is this:

“Just as Thoreau never pretended that cutting out society entirely was an option— and never, as a humane person, wanted to be entirely removed— we shouldn’t pretend that deleting the Internet, undoing the online universe, is an option for us. Why would we, after all, want to delete, undo, something that came from us? It bears repeating: Technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come. Casting judgments on the technologies themselves is like casting judgment on a bowl of tapioca pudding. We can only judge, only really profit from judging, the decisions we each make in our interactions with those technologies.”

– The End of Absence 

Creativity and Daily Rituals

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Mason Currey. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Reading Daily Rituals, an atlas of anecdotes regarding the daily tics of well known intellectuals, has given me pause to think about my own idiosyncrasies. Am I repeating actions habitually without realizing it? Do I have better days when I follow a routine?

Coincidentally many of the famously creative people and their quirks share a common thread. Historically writers, painters, architects and their ilk seem to have had a few oft-employed strategies for balancing their burdens. Walking and solitude were critical in the schedules of the great thinkers, who all seemed to champion their restorative and catalytic powers.

Beethoven took his strolls after a ‘midday dinner,’ while Freud ‘marched at a terrific speed’ after his evening meal. At two o’clock in the afternoon, Dickens promptly left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk, doing what he described as ‘searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.’ Darwin was known to walk three times a day.

Unsurprisingly, many of the subjects couldn’t get anything done without solitude. In middle age, Tchaikovsky moved to a tiny village miles away from Moscow where he said “What a bliss to know that no one will come to interfere with my work, my reading, my walks.” Leo Tolstoy was known for locking the doors to every room adjoining his study in order to keep distractions at bay.

Mark Twain Statue in Fort Worth, Texas

Mark Twain had a small separate study built on his property, where his writing consumed him such that his family ‘would blow a horn if they needed him.’ It wasn’t only men who found solace in isolation – Georgia O’Keefe told an interviewer, ‘My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.’ (She also walked for a half-hour every morning.)

Less agreed upon than long strolls and silence was the level of persistence and doggedness one should have in their habits. Some, such as Alexander Graham Bell, chose endurance: he reportedly worked around the clock, allowing himself only three or four hours sleep a night. A family member remarked of him,

‘When in the throes of a new idea, he pleaded with his wife to let him be free of family obligations; sometimes, in these states, he would work for up to twenty-two hours straight without sleep.’

Similarly, Nikoli Tesla had several odd tendencies, like re-polishing the silverware before he dined in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel every evening – but none of his conventions matched in uniqueness the work schedule he kept, from 10:30 in the morning until 5:00 the following morning.

Some creatives had a less tenacious approach.

Goethe remarked, ‘My advice… is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.’

Sharing Goethe’s sentiment, the notoriously slow writer Joseph Heller once said ‘I don’t have a compulsion to write, and I never have. I have a wish, an ambition to write, but it’s not one that justifies the word ‘drive.’