Journal

March 14, 2020

Since I started this blog in 2012 I’ve avoided a stream-of-consciousness style. I’ve tended to post here only when my thoughts on a topic are fully formed and I can present them concisely. But now, with the coronavirus pandemic shaking the world, and the imperative for “social distancing” keeping me from seeing friends in person, I’m looking for ways to feel, and be, more connected to the people I know, as well as to readers “out there” whom I’ve never met, so I’m going to experiment with a more personally exposed, informal style. Some posts like this one will have a date as their title and they’ll basically be personal journal entries that I’m making public. Here goes.

Thursday the 12th was the day when my mounting anxiety about the pandemic turned into full-scale panic, where I could feel myself physically trembling all the time. The thought of getting sick, or witnessing a loved one get sick. The thought of hospitals being overwhelmed, people dying without care. The bungling, confidence-busting response of the current administration. The unknown: when will this end? The thought of friends losing their livelihoods. Businesses going bankrupt. The thought of losing what I’ve invested over the years. The soul-crushing cancellations: concerts, festivals, plays shut down; museums closed; schools closed; sporting events called off. The confusion about how to respond, how to prepare. The fear of contagion: is it safe to go out? Do I need to wash everything that comes into the house?

I’m not someone who has frequent panic attacks but I’ve experienced them a few times in the past, so I’ve looked into strategies for diffusing them. On Thursday, as I was feeling a surge of adrenaline every few minutes, I tried to draw on the mental model of anxiety that I’ve gathered from a stress management class I took at the Benson Henry Institute at Mass General Hospital and from other material I’ve read about mindfulness and health:

Anxiety is energy. When I’m anxious, my body is giving me energy to respond to a perceived threat. My brain is keeping me fixated on the threat so I don’t get distracted from what I supposedly need to do: fight or flee. These automatic mental and physical processes are kicking in to help me escape a tiger that’s chasing me. These processes are “trying” to be helpful. Except it’s March 2020 and what I need to do is not run from a tiger but rather stay home, practice social distancing, cancel all my plans. The energy for fleeing a tiger doesn’t help with that.

So I had a bright idea. Why not do some exercise whenever that trembling, queasy sensation comes on? I started doing pushups and sit-ups to diffuse the anxious energy. Throughout my life I’ve taken long walks to relieve stress, but I had never done calisthenics for that particular purpose. It felt good. The relief was temporary though, and every hour I’d start to feel that tingling sensation on my skin again and my thoughts would return to catastrophes that might arise in the coming months. Cases doubling every six days. Not enough ventilators. Everything shut down. I’d do more pushups and sit-ups and squats and I’d feel better for a while. My stamina was great. I probably did more repetitions of each kind of exercise than I’d ever done before.

But I didn’t sleep well Thursday night. I was exhausted physically but my mind was still racing with the kind of fears that pandemics are so good at triggering. There were moments when I would stop trembling and could sense sleep coming on. It felt so gentle and good. I thought to myself, this is “sweet sleep” arriving, this is where the phrase comes from. Most nights I’m not aware of sleep’s onset, but Thursday night I could sense its blissful approach. I might liken it to a religious experience or to the very few times I’ve been on an opiate painkiller. A unifying calm would start to sweep over me, mollifying my agitated thoughts and making my muscles feel warm and loose. But then some kind of alarm in my mind would start ringing: you shouldn’t be sleeping now! Emergency! Then the soothing, enveloping blanket of sleep would abruptly withdraw, leaving me fully alert and focused on what might be the end of the world as I know it. So “sweet sleep” approached but never came.

Friday I was totally exhausted and more panicked than before. With no meetings on my calendar for the day and no urgent deadlines, I had trouble focusing on work. I kept turning to the news to try to make sense of the situation and figure out how I should respond. Reading articles online gave me something to do, and that felt better than being left with my own thoughts, but the articles were all horrifying, particularly anything written by or featuring a real epidemiologist, someone who studies pandemics for a living. These folks have done the math and you don’t want to hear the math.

I started feeling a mild burning sensation in my chest or lungs (I wasn’t sure how to locate it specifically) and when my partner mentioned, unprompted, that he was feeling something similar I began to wonder if both of us were experiencing the early symptoms of coronavirus. Checked my temperature. Normal. Felt I should try doing something productive so I started making an emergency checklist. What happens if I or someone close to me needs to go to the hospital in the coming months? How do we get there? What would I bring? What instructions would I leave for family and neighbors? I started making a supply checklist for the next few months. But it wasn’t a great idea to work on emergency preparedness while I was panicked and exhausted as it had a compounding effect on the panic.

The only time I’ve felt the same sense of dread at the possible impending collapse of the world was right after the 2016 election, but then it was about things that might possibly happen in the coming year, and now it’s about things that are happening at this moment: more than a hundred cases in my state of Massachusetts, some of those right here in Boston, and we’re told that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Fauci says the current numbers are like starlight – it’s not light from “now,” it’s light from however long ago it took to reach you. In other words, the cases we’re hearing about today are the ones that were created weeks ago; the number of cases today is larger by a possibly staggering amount.

I got decent sleep on Friday night, and today I’m feeling calmer. I wish I could report that some technique I had used on Thursday or Friday was particularly effective at getting through the panic. Every technique did something but nothing “cured” it.

The mental model of “anxiety as energy” is helpful, I think, as a way of separating the physical sensation from one’s ideas about the sensation. The feeling of anxiety means your body is trying to be helpful. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die. So when you feel the skin tingling, the tremor, the queasiness, don’t let it freak you out. Don’t let the sensation persuade you that something’s wrong with you, or that things are worse than they are. Helpful advice, yes, but it might not be enough to make the sensations stop — they might continue all day no matter how maturely or wisely you interpret them.

Exercise is effective, I think, but Thursday’s lesson was: don’t overdo it. In a state of extreme anxiety you might be tempted to exercise a lot more than you probably should, especially if it keeps bringing relief, but if you don’t get good sleep afterwards you’ll be doubly drained the next day. Moderation.

Deep breathing has been helpful over the past few days but at many times I’ve just been too agitated to stay focused on it. I wonder if I just needed to go through two days of shock and mental upheaval to get adjusted to a new normal. Today I puttered around and didn’t do much of anything. No shaking sensations.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in personal introspection when keeping a journal. I kept a private one from 1998 through 2010 and then it tapered off in the following years. One of the reasons I stopped is that I got tired of talking about myself to myself. Those kind of discussions can easily end up following anxieties down a rat hole. I’ll try to do something a little differently this time around and always mention a few simple things that made my day brighter, even if by just a little bit:

Oatmeal breakfast was comforting as usual.

Good weather, a few hours of sun.

Played a bit on my new instrument – a banjo — learning my first tune on it, “Shady Grove.”

Did some composting.

Took a look our garden beds and thought about spring planting.

Wore more layers than I needed (it wasn’t particularly cold) and enjoyed the feeling of being bundled up.

Time with partner.

Life, Society

Stalling Coronavirus

Coronavirus has thrown lives, governments, and markets into a state of uncertainty, but our moral obligation in this time is certain.

It’s natural that many people are evaluating their personal risk, asking the question “Will I die?” In an attempt to calm the public, authorities keep saying that anyone who’s young and healthy will, for the most part, experience mild symptoms. This reassurance steps over the fact that almost everyone who’s “young and healthy” has a dozen friends and loved ones who are not young and not healthy, and if the “young and healthy” people catch the virus they can transmit it to those who aren’t. To put it bluntly, if you get the virus as a young and healthy person, you might not die, but you might contribute to someone else’s death. Therefore, everyone should see it as their moral obligation to avoid catching the virus for as long as possible, not only to protect their own personal health, but to protect the health of those who might inadvertently catch it from them.

There has been a lot of talk about the death rate. It’s important to understand that the death rate depends on the availability of care. If the virus is allowed to spread quickly, hospitals will run out of beds, health care workers will run out of protective gear, and critically ill patients will die because they could not be treated. But if we manage to slow transmission down and “flatten the curve,” we can buy time for hospitals to ramp up capacity, aiming for a scenario where even as the number of cases grows, everyone is able to receive the care they need.

Once you see the connection between the death rate and the availability of care, it follows that each of us has some agency over the death rate. We can help to reduce the death rate by not catching the virus ourselves, or at least by delaying for as long as possible that unfortunate time when we do catch it, keeping those emergency rooms available for the people who most desperately need them.

In life, there are so many gray areas, so many debatable points, so many requests made of us which we might accept or reject according to our own value scheme. But I feel that what the current situation demands of each person is crystal clear. If each one of us can save lives – maybe one, maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand — by not becoming a carrier of this virus, then the only moral course of action is to do everything we possibly can to avoid becoming a carrier, starting now.

Of course, we can’t see the virus and can’t fully control whether we’re exposed or whether we expose others. But there are things we can do. The easier ones are washing our hands, keeping our hands off our faces, covering our coughs, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding large crowds. Experts say we’ll need to do harder things too — we’ll need to practice extreme social distancing – we’ll need to stay home whenever possible, despite all the hardships it might entail. If we’re employers or event organizers, we’ll need to enable others to stay home. And if we’re the neighbor or friend of someone who doesn’t have the resources to stay home we must look for ways to help them out.

Should we stay home even if our own town hasn’t been placed on lockdown? As I write this on March 11, 2020, the entire nation of Italy is on lockdown but in the US it’s still business as usual in many places. We are starting to see cancellations of major conferences, cultural events, and political rallies; we are starting to see school closures; and the first containment zone has been established in the town of New Rochelle in New York. But elsewhere you might look around and never know that a pandemic is underway. Should those of us who haven’t been told to stay home do so anyway?

I’m not an epidemiologist or an expert in public health. But there are experts who say we should be as proactive as possible, shutting things down and staying home before the first cases are discovered in our area. (See this interview with Nicholas Christakis, for example, or this Atlantic piece titled Cancel Everything.)

In two weeks we will have a better sense of how many transmissions are occurring in the country right now; in two weeks we will probably wish we had done more, two weeks ago, to stop those transmissions. So let’s start doing everything we can now — before our government gives us the order — to protect each other.

Leaving Facebook

Exodus Complete

Yesterday was January 12, 2020, the day my Facebook account became unrecoverable after a thirty-day purgatory, beginning with my deletion request on December 13, 2019. So I did it! Thanks to readers who have followed along with me through this process and thanks especially to Wade Roush who set an example to follow, and who gave me the chance to participate in an episode of his Soonish podcast on leaving Facebook.

So what am I going to spend my time trying to extricate myself from now that I don’t have Facebook to struggle with? Well there’s no shortage of things, but my eyes are on my cell phone. Wouldn’t it be nice if data brokers hadn’t captured my location history over the past decade, didn’t know every place I’ve been and how long I’ve spent there, weren’t profiting from this extreme privacy invasion, weren’t applying the stolen data to opaque purposes, and weren’t still collecting it with impunity? How do I know my location information has been compromised? Well, I don’t really, because there’s no way to find out who might have it, so there’s no way to see what they have, and there’s no way to ask for it back. But my freaking out is not unprompted. I was persuaded to freak out by the One Nation Tracked series in the New York Times where they show how data brokers have amassed enough location pings from “leaky” mobile apps that it’s possible to track the minute-by-minute whereabouts of secret service agents and senior pentagon officials and celebrities, not just folks like me. They talk about how this data, bought and sold by political campaigns, governments, and malicious actors could be used for blackmail, election influence, and other stuff that compromises democratic life. So you might want to read the article. I’ve been keeping my phone in airplane mode more often, and otherwise trying to keep location services off, with no illusions that this will make a dent in the problem — but it makes me feel good!

 

 

Criticism

Free Will

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d take fifteen hundred words to describe my position on free will.

We make countless choices each day, and we feel that these choices are ours, that they originate inside the self, that they depend on personal volition, which is to say that we are free to decide one way or the other — it’s up to us — so the outcome belongs to us. But what does this mean?

If I can make a choice by flipping a coin, or I can make it for cause, where does free will come into play? If my choice is made randomly, it is an act of chance, not one of will. But if my choice is made deliberately, for specific reasons, how is this different from saying that my choice is determined by those reasons? The choice is not up to me, it’s up to the reasons! Some of those reasons, of course, may be internal ones, aspects of my unique self, but the things that are unique about me are not things I asked for. I have judgement, but I never went shopping for judgement, picking a model that I liked off the shelf — it’s the sum total of the experiences I’ve happened to have and the qualities I’ve inherited.

If we are both invited to a party and you go but I stay home, do our differing behaviors show that we exercised free will? Perhaps I declined because I’m an introvert and you accepted because you’re an extrovert, so our choices depended on our individual personalities for sure. But if we didn’t also choose to be introverts or extroverts, where’s the freedom?

True, I can step outside the constraints of my personality and do something uncharacteristic, but when this happens, it’s for a reason too, and that reason itself has a reason which I probably didn’t choose. If I overcome my reluctance and go to the party after all, because I hear that John Doe is also going and I want to see him, then John Doe’s decision to attend can be said to have determined my own decision. My personal affection for John Doe may have been a factor here, but that affection is not something I chose to possess: it’s determined by preferences that I didn’t choose to have, and attributes of John Doe that I didn’t choose for him to have. I may have been on the fence about going, and when I finally decided to go I may have been unsure why I did so, but my own lack of insight into a wavering decision doesn’t mean it was free. Surely there were reasons that swayed me without my knowing.

How can we reconcile the feeling of freedom, the sense that we are making our own choices, directing our own lives, deciding which parties we will attend, so to speak, with the awareness that our choices are determined by things that we did not choose, and that every chain of causality – the reasons behind the reasons behind the reasons why we decide one way or another – followed long enough, must extend outside the self, into the realm of what we cannot choose?

If this is a conundrum that appears unsolvable, that’s because we forget that freedom is relational. I cannot simply be free. I can only be free in relation to something that might possibly constrain me. If the party was on a Saturday, and my boss doesn’t control my weekends, then my decision to go or not go was made freely with respect to my boss. He could neither have forced me to go nor stopped me from going. But it might be true that my friend Gary insisted I go, threatening great upset if I didn’t, so my choice was not free with respect to Gary. In the country where I live, I may possess something like freedom of speech, but that freedom only exists with respect to a government that could possibly constrain my speech; at the same time, I might be tightly constrained in what I say by customs I follow, agreements I’ve made with friends, contracts I’ve signed with employers, the language I speak, and the person I happen to be. Remove all possible constraints, all possible factors that could limit or control my speech, and I would be left howling, not exercising freedom.

And yet when we think about free will we think of it as an independent quality, something that exists on its own, something we either have or don’t have. We desire free will, or claim to have it, without specifying what it is free with respect to. Did I exercise free will in going to the party? To an observer who focuses on my boss’s influence, my choice will have seemed free; to an observer who focuses on my friend Gary’s influence, my choice will have seemed constrained. The appearance of freedom depends on which circumstances the observer knows about and considers important.

Still, we are bothered by the thought of an omniscient observer, an alien possessing superior cognition who could understand all the circumstances affecting our choices and use this knowledge to predict the outcomes. Where our behavior seems free to us because our understanding of its causes is limited, perhaps it would seem deterministic to a being that knew everything about us, a being who could see the causes that are hidden to us, a being whose viewpoint was panoramic where ours is narrow. And if our deepest, most intimate decisions could be predicted by an omniscient being, even just a hypothetical one, then our sense of freedom must be illusory, right? We insist that our actions make sense, that we have good reasons for what we do, that our behavior is coherent, on the one hand; on the other, we wish for assurance that no being could guess our next moves, even in principle. Our identity is bound up in the conflicting convictions that we are both rational and unpredictable.

What is undeniably true is that we have the experience of freedom, whether that freedom is real or not, just as one may have the experience of communion with God whether there is one or not. It feels a certain way to make choices. The feeling ranges from one of open possibility and even mystery, when external constraints are few and we’re not sure which way we’ll go until the moment of decision, to one of greater confinement when we’re pressured by circumstances to act one way or another, and the chance of resisting what’s prescribed seems slim. This feeling of freedom, in all its variations, affects our behavior: we may love and seek the experience, or we may fear and avoid it. An alien who sought to predict our behavior would have to understand our emotions, including those surrounding freedom itself. This leads to something of a paradox, because if the experience of freedom depends on our limited comprehension, our ignorance of predetermining factors, how could a being with unlimited comprehension really know what that’s like?

So my position on free will is this: freedom requires a point of reference. Absolute freedom is incoherent as a concept. To say we don’t have absolute free will doesn’t mean we’re missing out on something available, unless one thinks we’re also missing out on empty cups that are full or sunny days that are cloudy. At any moment, our will is free with respect to some things and constrained with respect to others. The factors that constrain our will are different from choice to choice, moment to moment, and this swirling, ever-changing multiplicity of factors is often so complex as to be, from our mortal perspectives, unknowable. If we’re bothered by the possibility that a being with superior cognition could guess our next moves, we should remember that the experiences we hold dear, including that of freedom itself, depend on our obstructed viewpoints, on our partial ignorance. We might wish for more knowledge, but having too much would deflate the experiences that give us meaning.

Criticism

Art and Weed

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d take fifteen hundred words to state my personal aesthetic philosophy.

Although I never became a regular or even infrequent user of marijuana, my thoughts about art tie back to a few experiences of being stoned that I had in my early twenties.

Getting stoned was the first time I understood that what seems fascinating, profound, or moving to me is as much a function of the thing itself as it is of my current mental state. I remember being stoned and finding soap bubbles in the kitchen sink endlessly intriguing, or saying a word – I don’t know, “luminous” – and thinking its sounds were so fascinating that the word itself was some kind of masterpiece. One could say that my perceptions were distorted by the drug. In this view, drugs disconnect you from reality, and when a drug wears off, you realize that all the things it made you think weren’t really true. But one could also say that mind-altering substances expose truths about the self. Marijuana revealed to me that I have the capacity to find pleasure in places I normally wouldn’t find it. I have the capacity to be endlessly fascinated by soap bubbles. I didn’t know that before. What is it about weed that unleashes this latent capacity for appreciation?

I think it’s all about attention. Soap bubbles seemed so rapturous to me because, for once, I could give them full attention. Where normally I would have said that soap bubbles are pretty but I’ve got to get the dishes done, I was now free to stare at them intensely and endlessly, with no sense of time passing, no voice nagging me to focus on something more important, no inner chatter distracting me from enjoyment. Where normally, I would have said that “luminous” is a nice word, but it’s just a word, I could now repeat it again and again, loving its sounds without caring whether it was a piece of sonic art by a famous creator, or just a word. The critical side of my awareness, the side that gets bored and demands novelty, the side that gets haughty and says “This is not worthy of me!” had been subdued, allowing the appreciative side, the side that looks, listens, and thinks “Isn’t that interesting?” to have free reign of my consciousness.

If soap bubbles or a single word can be “art” to me when I’m stoned, why can they not be art when I’m in my normal state of consciousness? That’s because my normal state of consciousness is dominated by a critic who expects certain requirements to be met before he will step away and allow my attention to flow to the object in question. The inner critic, custodian of worth, helps me function in life by keeping me focused on priorities, stopping me from staring too long at any random thing that happens to catch my eye. While the critic is helpful in that regard, he also disrupts pleasure, treating pleasure as a limited resource which must be conserved. The critic expects that something called “art” should be made by an artist, and the artist should have a pedigree, and the piece at hand should have novel properties that can only be achieved through rare skill; otherwise it should not be allowed to produce enjoyment. When the critic’s requirements aren’t met, he refuses to step away and let the appreciator take the reigns.

And so, when I’m stoned, I can give my attention freely to soap bubbles and experience so much pleasure from staring at them that they seem like magnificent, intentional creations, when I’m not stoned, I require a justification for why I should give them the benefit of my time: are they worthy? Were they hard to make? How much do they sell for? Who made them and what is that person’s status?

So my aesthetic philosophy in a nutshell is this: appreciation is an inner capacity. When our internal critic is silenced, the raw experiences of color, form, light, and sound can captivate us endlessly. What makes a work of art successful for a particular viewer is that it unlocks the viewer’s latent capacity for appreciation, realizing a potential that was within him or her to begin with. It does this by conducting the viewer’s attention. We look to art to guide and control our attention in ways that we cannot will to happen. If the viewer is in an altered state of consciousness, his attention might flow so generously that the art object needn’t struggle to capture it. But if the viewer is in a typical state of conscious, his attention might be constrained by an inner critic that must be appeased. In this case, the work of art must accomplish the appeasement, and it can try for that in myriad ways.

We can divide these ways into those that are intrinsic and extrinsic to the artwork itself. On the intrinsic side, the art object can present a series of surprises, things that startle us because we sense they are rare or difficult to achieve. In a state of surprise, our experiences are heightened. You could read me your journal entry, and I might listen to it, but if it’s in iambic pentameter and all the lines rhyme, I’ll listen harder because you’ve done something difficult that holds me in a state of surprise as I hear each line. By itself, this doesn’t make your journal entry into a great piece of art, but it means I have a better chance of appreciating what’s there because I’m tuned in. If you then go on to add internal rhymes, startling but effective metaphors, and a provocative juxtaposition of topics, I’ll keep tuning in, and so the more I’m likely to notice.

On the extrinsic side, the piece of art might happen to be famous, or ridiculously expensive, or historically significant, or it might have been made by your best friend. All of these thing signal to the inner critic that an exception should be made, more attention should be afforded to this piece than to others. Even if some scribbles on a canvas don’t interest you at first, the knowledge that they are worth twenty million dollars would make you look closer in a desperate attempt to understand how its value and merit could be so utterly uncorrelated. And yet now that you’re looking, you stand a better chance of finding merit in what you see than if you had never looked. In a topsy-turvy way, the outrageous price of the art – or any other outrageous quality that might be attached to it – opens a path to appreciation. It shocks you into noticing, and perhaps looking further.

I don’t mean to imply that art is nothing but artifice aimed at subduing the viewer’s inner critic so that stoned appreciation can then ensue unimpeded. We experience art over time, and a critical voice that had been subdued in one moment might resurface in the next. Aesthetics would be a simple domain if a piece of art needed to pass only one test, once. In reality it must pass many tests over time, and it must pose tests for the viewer himself to pass, thereby fostering an interaction. It demands things from us, and those demands build our investment in appreciating it. It gives us riddles to solve. It confuses us and makes us struggle to understand. It tires us and forces us to build our own endurance. It promises and withholds. It plays hide and seek. It prompts observations and questions which we can discuss with our friends. It generates gossip that we overhear and repeat. So we should name a third set of ways that art can bind our attention: first, through its intrinsic virtues, the difficult and surprising things it achieves; second, through its distinguishing extrinsic attributes, the circumstances around it that attract our notice; and third, through the interaction it fosters, the way it involves us and makes us work.

The interaction of these mechanisms gets very complex, beautifully so, and when I promised to state my aesthetic philosophy I didn’t promise to explain the fine details. I am not addressing how human attention works, nor all the specific ways that art might engage it, nor what communication means, nor how culture and community frame interpretation. What I am offering is the conviction that when art is successful for a particular viewer, that is because it has mastered the viewer’s attention. Somehow, it has subdued the viewer’s inner naysayer and unlocked the same appreciative capacity that one might experience under the influence of a mind-altering substance. In that sense, art is a way of getting stoned.

Life

2020 Resolution: Coin Flips

I’ve got plenty of dreams and goals for 2020 but I’m coming around to the idea that New Year’s resolutions are most effective when you only have one of them, and when it’s something achievably specific that you very much want to do but still wouldn’t do in the absence of a commitment. I succeeded in leaving Facebook in 2019 and that’s due, in large part, to it being my only New Year’s resolution, one that I publicly committed to here on this blog, on Facebook itself, in real-world gatherings of friends, and even in a podcast.

So here’s my resolution for 2020. Every time I’m about to browse the internet with no specific objective, every time I’m about to check email or news or Twitter “just to see what’s going on,” I’m going to flip a coin. If it comes up heads, I’ll continue. If it comes up tails, I’ll log off and spend an equivalent amount of time reading a printed book or magazine. Any session of aimless internet browsing usually lasts longer than five minutes (often way more), so when the coin comes up tails I’ll commit to reading printed material for at least five minutes.

Why am I doing this? Two reasons. One is to get better control of my time. Aimless internet browsing sucks up a lot of time. A lot. At the beginning of 2019 I wrote about my habit of checking news. Through the year I managed to stop checking news on my phone, and I decided to keep my phone out of my bed, meaning that my phone is no longer the first thing I interact with when I wake up or the last when I go to sleep. So that’s great. But I still work in front of a computer and check news a lot.

The second reason is that I’ve got a lot of paper books that I want to read. Maybe I’ll get that reading done if I reallocate half of my “random internet browsing” time to the task? I have a good friend who runs a decluttering business and I hired her to help me with my own decluttering needs in 2019. I gave away hundreds of books that I had been carrying around for twenty years. I was forced to admit that I just wasn’t going to read them. But there were fifty or so that I couldn’t let go of, and now they’re stacked in piles in my hallway. If something doesn’t change in my life, if I something doesn’t direct my attention to these books in waiting, I know they’ll either sit around for another twenty years or I’ll get fed up and “declutter” them as well. So maybe this coin-flipping resolution will be the change that helps.

If you ask me what I’m really looking forward to in 2020, I’d say I want to write a lot of songs, perform them at open mics, compose more canons, sing with friends, keep up my exercise routine, visit family, reconnect with poetry, write more essays, take more photographs and display them, go to more comedy shows and maybe even take an improv class, travel to a few interesting places, get more involved in climate activism…

But getting better control of my browsing habits is something I both want to do and need the help of a resolution to do. So, 2020 will be a year of coin flips.

The resolution starts now, Jan 8 at 4:45pm as I’m about to publish this post. Usually after “getting something done” like a blog post, I’ll reward myself with a break, and that break might likely be… random internet browsing. This time, I’ll flip a coin first… doing it now… and it came up tails!

Songwriting

Writing Songs Backwards

The most daunting obstacles we face in beginning any creative project are often the ones we place in our own way. In working on songwriting in the past few months, I’ve found myself getting tripped up by own my ideas about how a song “should” come into being. Like many people, I have a stereotype of songwriting as a kind of emotional outpouring. Someone’s passionately in love, but they can’t express the feeling in ordinary words, so they sit down and write a love song. Someone’s outraged by an injustice, but they can’t fix the injustice on their own, so they channel their outrage into a protest song. The writing starts with a powerful emotion or a deep-seated conviction, and everything flows from there. Words are written that express the songwriter’s inner thoughts, a melody is formed that captures the songwriter’s mood. I’ll call this a “forward process” because everything moves forward from the songwriter’s initial inspiration, be it a feeling of love, despair, joy, or rebellion.

In a few special moments, I’ve experienced the “forward process” working as described. I knew what I wanted to express. I felt so deeply in touch with my feelings that when I put my pen to paper, the lyrics seemed to flow effortlessly, and when I touched my guitar and started to sing, I could quickly find notes that matched. The problem is that most of the time, this doesn’t happen. I’ll have worked at my day job all day and managed to carve out an hour or two in the evening for songwriting. When that time comes, I’m not feeling a sense of communion with my emotional self. I know I want to write a song, but there’s no upwelling of sentiment that would propel me along. I’m not sure what I’m feeling at all, aside from tired. What I know is that I’ve got a block of time to make some progress on songwriting. I could give up and try again the next day, but the next day might bring the same situation. If songwriting is about expression, how can you work on it when you’re not presently haunted by a feeling that you need to express?

Because I’ve tended to think that songwriting should start with a strong emotion or conviction, I’ve spent a lot of unproductive songwriting time waiting for such an emotion or conviction to spontaneously overtake me. But what I’ve come to realize is that a “backwards” songwriting process can work just as well as a “forwards” process. In the backwards process, you don’t start with emotion, you just start with the technical nuts and bolts. You begin assembling the song without knowing what it’s going be about. If you’re not feeling a surge of inspiration, you allow yourself to proceed mechanically. A song needs some chords, so you pick some chords. A song needs a tune, so you choose a few notes that work over the chords. A song needs some words, so you create some nonsense lyrics – total gibberish is fine – that seem to go with your tune. Now what you’ve got is a little something. It’s more than nothing. You sing it to yourself a few times. You notice a way to make the tune a little more interesting. You notice a way to make the chord progression a little more fluid. As you sing through the temporary lyrics, perhaps you get an idea for a meaningful phrase that could replace some of the gibberish.

You still don’t know what the song is going to be about, but now you’re in motion. The trick is to stay in motion, to keep making these little adjustments until a direction for the song becomes clear. If you persist with this mechanical tinkering, you’ll reach a point where you know what kind of song it’s probably going to be – maybe it’s starting to sound like a love song – but perhaps the details – who’s in love with who – aren’t known yet. There’s still no wave of inspiration to propel you forward, so you force yourself to make an arbitrary choice: you’re going to be singing to your high-school sweetheart. (While I hesitate to suggest forcing anything, sometimes force is indeed necessary to overcome inertia.) Perhaps, at this moment, you’re not feeling a great sense of affection or longing for your high-school sweetheart, but you’ve made the choice to write about him or her, so you go ahead and construct some lyrics about the relationship that the two of you had. A few hours later, perhaps this direction still feels like a struggle, but now you’ve got some material to reflect on. Instead of staring at a blank page, you’re now looking at a page with scribbles. Maybe you realize that the whole thing can be restructured, not as a song about your high-school sweetheart, but as the memory of a home or other place that you left and were never able to return to. So now you begin draft two, completely new lyrics, the high-school sweetheart goes away, a few more modifications to the tune, a different strumming pattern, and you keep going.

What’s remarkable about the backwards process is that if you persist, all this mechanical experimentation can result in something that you begin connecting with, even though that connection was not present at the outset. The first stages of the process may feel soulless, as if you’re just pushing words and notes around without any guiding force, but eventually you land on something that surprises you. The words, melody, and chords start taking effect, like the ingredients of a magic potion. You had been coldly assembling a love song, and you had thought that no good song could come from such a passionless process, but at some point you sing it and notice that it does something. You think, “Wow, that’s a pretty good love song. Where did it come from?” Or, “Wow, that’s a horrible love song but there’s one phrase that really speaks to me.” Your initial challenge had been that you weren’t feeling an emotional thrust to guide you forward, but now, this thing you’ve created starts to arouse your feelings in unexpected ways. The song begins to wake you up as it wakes up. And now that this waking is underway, you can try to tune into the components of the song that speak to you most powerfully, expand upon them, and use them to set the direction for your next revision. With your feelings aroused, you can now follow more of a forward process to bring the song to completion. A process that began mechanically can be carried onward by the heart.

In summary, if inspiration isn’t there to guide you at first, forget about inspiration. Force yourself to make something, anything, not knowing what it’s going to be about. Then notice your reaction to what you’ve made. Perhaps, even though you constructed the thing mechanically, an aspect of it happens to move you. (If nothing about it moves you, keep tinkering with it until something does.) Now tune into this aspect that moves you, and proceed from there.

Leaving Facebook

Exodus Almost Complete

Imagine I told you that I could flat-out solve the problem of staying in touch with the people you care about? I know that you know hundreds of people from different times in your life, and I know that you can’t keep track of their contact information, let alone find time to check in with them periodically. Well I’m going to make it easy for you; I’ll take all the work out of it. I’ll apply my secret powers to serve you as your one and only social information broker. I’ll make information about your friends’ lives flow to you, and I’ll make information about your life flow to them. It’ll be great. You’ll know what they’re up to, all the time, and they’ll know what you’re up to, all the time. But there’s a catch. Without explicitly requiring it, I’m going to encourage you to check in with me a few dozen times a day. Without explicitly demanding it, I’m going to persuade you to dedicate hours and hours of your week to me. And while you’re coming to me for information about your friends, I’m going to show you a few advertisements and notifications. Yes, I’ll let you know how your college classmate’s cancer treatment is going (second round of chemo for Stage IV cancer) but before I tell you that, I’m going to ask you if you want to buy a wristwatch, and after I tell you that I’m going to see if you’re interested in taking a trip to the Bahamas. I’m going to tell you about the death of a beloved former co-worker (tragic heart attack while on vacation) and give you a chance to say something about it, but while you’re grieving, I’m going to flash some notifications in your face (a few people are sending you messages right now, someone else “likes” a joke you made earlier, and I’m still wondering if you want to buy that wristwatch or go to the Bahamas). I’m going to give you a chance to read a friend’s review of a fascinating book about the future of democracy, but while you’re reading that thoughtful and lengthy review, I’m going to give you the opportunity to watch a video of a boxing match, if you prefer; or a video of some models on a catwalk, if you prefer; or a video of cats being silly, if you prefer. I’m going to show you a photo of a beautiful cake that your loving grandmother just baked, but before and after I do that, I’m going to show you some hateful and false things a few of your friends are saying (meanwhile, I hope you’ll consider that wristwatch). And as all this is happening, I’m going to keep careful notes about everything you do and say in my presence. Every time you ask me for more information about something, I’ll make a note of it. Every time you react to something I showed you, I’ll make a note of it. Every time you say something to a friend through me as your broker, I’ll make a note of it. I’m going to take all those notes about you and sell them to some friends of my own who are very curious about you, but don’t worry about them, I assure you they have your best interests at heart. Are you interested in that wristwatch, by any chance?

That’s why I left Facebook. I closed my account on Dec 13, 2019, two days after my Farewell, Facebook post. I was going to keep it open for a few more days but a friend posted a playful comment questioning whether I was really going to leave. I took this as a challenge. Of course, Facebook tries its best to lure users back and doesn’t make an account deletion permanent for thirty days. So I’m still in purgatory as I type this. That’ll end on Jan 12, 2020.

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Addendum: the reason why I chose to use a wristwatch ad as an example in this post is because I recently learned the tongue-twister “I wish to wash my Irish wristwatch” and challenged a friend to say it. Shortly after he said it aloud, he started seeing Facebook mobile ads for wristwatches, for the very first time. This suggests a new tongue-twister:

I wish to wish to wash my Irish wristwatch, risking not my wishing’s watched.

 

Leaving Facebook

Farewell, Facebook

Dear Friends,

If we were connected on Facebook, I will miss our connection there.

Some of you might remember that my New Year’s resolution for 2019 was to permanently end the exploitative relationship that I’ve had with Mark Zuckerberg since 2009 (hint: I’m not the one who’s been doing the exploiting). I gave myself until December 31, 2019 to close my Facebook account, and that date is rapidly approaching.

I will honor the resolution in the coming days. I will do so with great relief, but also with a sense of loss. I’ll be losing a way to stay in touch with many of the people I care about most, and a way to connect with many of those I’d like to know better. Perhaps I will be losing more than I gain, and certainly it would be easier to cop out and keep my account open, but that’s where resolutions come in handy, and I know I made this one for good reasons.

I’ve been preparing for a while. I’ve seen a lot of people get fed up with Facebook and abruptly close their accounts, an action that I fully understand and support. But I wanted to be more deliberate about my own departure. I wanted to take some time to review my decade of Facebook history, clear it out post by post, and try to preserve a bit of it here on this blog. You can find much of my old Facebook material by clicking here (all of it all has the #facebook tag). I’ve also written a bunch of posts about my departure process. These posts can be found in the Leaving Facebook category on this blog.

How to stay in touch? Since you’re reading this blog, you can of course message or follow me here on WordPress. I have a gmail account and my address follows the format first.last@gmail.com — send me a note. I’ve created an account on MeWe. I’m not sure how much I’ll use it, but it’s there. I’m @rudiseitz on twitter. My music is up on my Bandcamp page and there are a few other tracks on my soundcloud. I’ve got some random photos up on my flickr and a few videos on my youtube. I contribute limericks to OEDILF under the username Rudi, and I once founded a wordplay website called Quadrivial Quandary that’s now somewhat dormant and awaiting a revival. That’s my online presence in a nutshell. I live in East Boston, MA, USA overlooking Boston Harbor and listening to planes take off and land at Logan Airport. If you don’t know me: I’m a self-employed software developer and musician.

Facebook has given me a lot. Thinking only of my musical life, there’s so much. It was through Facebook that I met the collaborator who would perform my canons on harpsichord and clavichord. It was through Facebook that I learned about a Dhrupad retreat with Pandit Nirmalya Dey that I attended in India, leading later to the maestro’s performance in Boston. It was through Facebook that I learned about a workshop on composing with Indian percussion that led me to write a concerto for tabla. And it was through Facebook that I heard of the New England Songwriter’s Retreat with Ellis Paul, the event that made me realize I want to be a songwriter.

Facebook is where I’ve connected with friends and classmates from my distant past and in some cases, where I’ve received in disbelief the first announcement that someone I cared about had passed away. Facebook is where I’ve gotten to witness my friends brainstorming, quipping, sharing intimate thoughts, details of their recent meals, travel adventures, reactions to world events, advice on life and where to get a good drink. Facebook is where I’ve come across the best articles, the best music clips, the best local events. Facebook is where I’ve followed some great and inspiring activism like Warren Senders’ Man With A Sign project to raise awareness about climate change.

But I became paralyzed on Facebook. I couldn’t post anymore without thinking about how my data was being collected, packaged, monetized in ways not transparent. I couldn’t click the “like” button without thinking about how my likes were helping Facebook build a better profile of me, not for my own benefit but for that of third parties unknown to me. I couldn’t scroll around without remembering that Facebook tracks my mouse movements. I couldn’t give myself to Facebook without thinking about how the platform has become a conduit for misinformation and hate. I stopped posting, but I kept reading. And yet it didn’t feel right to see my friends pour their hearts out there while I remained silent, too suspicious of the platform to engage with even their most impassioned posts. It was time for me to leave. It is time for me to leave. I’ve written about this here and I spoke about it in an episode of the Soonish podcast with journalist Wade Roush, who left Facebook earlier this year and inspired my own departure.

There’s got to be a better way for humans to experience connection and community in the digital age. A better way than the one Mark Zuckerberg has sold us. Here’s to finding it.

Rudi

 

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I started photographing trail blazes a while back. As I looked for an image to accompany this post, the one above struck me as right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life

Old Beer Labels

I was sorting through old boxes yesterday — part of recent decluttering kick — and I came across a folder of beer labels: Tucher, Paulaner, Chimay, Affligem, Kirin, Pete’s Wicked Ale. They’re from a time in my teens when I was discovering the world of beer, a world that seemed so new and exciting to me that I would soak each empty bottle overnight, peel the label off, dry it on a paper towel, and then transfer it to a scrapbook so that I would have a record of my journey. After a year of doing this, I stopped. The collection never became the comprehensive journal that I imagined it might be, but still I felt attached to it, so I saved it. It stayed with me through many apartments, many jobs, many phases of life, in storage, entering my awareness once every five or ten years during a move, accompanying me all the way into my forties.

Yesterday I managed to throw it out. Finally. Here’s why it took so long:

Over the years, whenever I thought about throwing the labels away, I would remember my former self, the person who decided to start the collection. I’d remember his optimism about the future, his faith that these mementos he was saving would be wanted and appreciated indefinitely, that they would stay useful as triggers for recollection. I’d think of that kid who diligently preserved each label as if to assemble a gift for the person he was going to become. I’d imagine how disappointed he would be to learn that his older self would have no use for the gift. I’d imagine how crushed he would be to know that the romantic image of his older self fondly flipping through the collection and experiencing a surge of delightful memories would never, in fact, materialize.

I’d feel so mortified at the thought of letting my younger self down that I’d play a game of sorts, pretending that I still wanted the labels as he would have wanted me to. I’d reason that it wouldn’t hurt me to humor him, to put the labels back in a storage box, put the box in my attic, keep it a while longer.

Something changed yesterday. I tried an experiment. The experiment was to imagine my future self, the person I’ll be in ten or twenty years. What is my attitude toward that older person? Would I want him to faithfully preserve all of things he inherits from me? Would I want him to live in my mess? Would I want him to slavishly attend to all of my unfinished projects? Would I expect him to value everything I value now? Or would I want him to be free to seek fulfillment in his own present, unencumbered by the stuff I’m passing on to him?

I realized that my message to my future self, if there were some way I could convey it to him, would be this: “Go for it, guy. Do what you gotta do. Enjoy the time you have. I hope you’ll remember me. I hope you’ll feel connected to me. But don’t overdo it. I give you full permission to throw away every single thing I acquired, and to stop any project I started if it’s not helping you be whole.”

I’m not sure my teenage self would have formulated the same thought, but I’m sure if I could talk with him for a little while and explain some of the things I’ve learned over the years, he’d be on board with the message too. And he’d be happy that I finally got rid of those beer labels.