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.

Photography

Jul 2 Fireworks

After years of photographing Boston harbor fireworks from my vantage point in East Boston with short exposures, I finally decided to work on the long exposure technique. Boston’s July 4th fireworks happen over the Charles River but this year there were also July 2nd fireworks over the harbor as the conclusion of Boston HarborFest’s Parade of Lights.

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