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creativity Essays personal

The Opposite of Courage

I have this idea about the relationship between courage and laziness.

Courage, as I define it, is when a person acts out of principle, knowing that the act will cause them suffering. John Lewis knew he faced beatings, imprisonment, and possibly death when he marched. Susan B. Anthony knew she faced scorn, jail, and infamy if she cast a vote. Steve Rogers knew he’d be blown to bits when he leapt on that grenade that turned out to be a dud. (Fictional examples are helpful and illustrative so back off.)

I have lamented on countless occasions my inability to choose a Major Project of some kind and see it through to fruition. (One Major Project I actually did, finally, complete, and I will eagerly share it with you when it comes into full being sometime next year.) I’d like to write a novel. I’d like to start a theatre troupe. I’d like to write nonfiction books on a number of subjects and in a number of styles. I’d like to host a podcast, write and record an album of new songs, play my music live for audiences, get into voice acting, write a newsletter, make a satire news site, and so on.

Rarely do I even begin on these fantasy projects, let alone stick with them long enough for them take flight. Why?

Sometimes, a project just isn’t the right fit. It doesn’t interest me as much as I’d hoped, or it involves commitments I am simply incapable of making. That’s no reason for anyone to beat themselves up. I mean, I will still beat myself up about it, but I shouldn’t.

But more often than not, I think what holds me back is what I’ll call laziness. That might not be an entirely fair word to use, but I want to make a point. When evaluating a Major Project, any number of factors can weigh on my mind and convince me it’s not worth beginning, or not feasible. It could be that I don’t think I have the time, or that I don’t really know how to get started. It could be that I don’t see a market for what I’d offer, or that said market is already flooded. It could be that it would require that I ask for help or collaboration with others, possibly even strangers, and my intense wincing at the thought of being socially entwined with anyone drains my resolve. It could be that I perceive that it would require a financial commitment that I can’t make, or am unwilling to try to fulfill.

All of these are justifications for inaction. Reasons not to start. Reasons not to try. Some of them might be really good reasons! Some of them might be sober and realistic assessments that lead to the reasonable conclusion that something is just not worth taking on.

Some. But not most.

Mostly, they’re about unwillingness. A lack of will, all because of an imaginary cost-benefit calculation that I have made based on a slew of unknowable factors. It’s bad math. And because the result of actually making the effort to see something to its fruition is more likely to be a valuable end in itself, regardless of anything else, it really is, for lack of a better word, laziness.

To take the first step in a new enterprise, and then to take as many additional steps as possible, is an uncomfortable thought. And each step brings with it the possibility of stubbing one’s toe, tripping, or stepping on a rake. One could take a few steps very awkwardly and wind up looking ridiculous for several paces. One could walk for a very, very long time and get very, very tired, or run out of energy entirely and collapse to the ground. One could even reach the ultimate, dreamed-of destination and find that it actually kind of sucks there. All those things could be true, and most of them almost certainly will be true.

Then what is required to do it anyway? Courage. To undertake an action of importance even though we know that a lot of the experience will be negative, even though we might not even finish it, even though what we make in the end might be kind of crappy. To work in spite of those possibilities takes courage. To put aside precious free time and resources that we may never get back takes courage. To allow oneself to be vulnerable and entreat others for help and collaboration is risky and, to me, terrifying, and it takes courage.

I’ve berated myself for being lazy for most of my life. I’ve been ashamed at my lack of courage in other instances as well. I’ve learned a great deal about myself in recent years, and I better understand the roots of my fears and aversions. But only now am I beginning to understand that what I see as my own laziness and my dearth of courage might be the same thing.

Because, in the end, laziness is about being unwilling to endure discomfort. Courage is being willing to heap it on.

I know I can endure discomfort. I believe I can take on even more. And I suspect that it might be worth it.

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creativity Essays personal

What’s it Like on the Other Side of the Paywall?

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creativity Essays

Solving for X

If there is a point to being alive, a reason for existing as a self-aware organism in the Universe, it is probably to solve problems. I don’t actually think there is a reason for us or anyone else to exist, nor do I think that the Universe itself provides or requires any inherent meaning or purpose. But if there is any purpose, or if we can impose meaning post hoc, sans propter hoc, then I think the whole point is the solving of problems.

Let’s get this out of the way, just for total clarity: There was no “intent” on the part of the Universe or any other entity that a particular species (or any number of species) should emerge and go about the business of fixing things the Universe couldn’t fix on its own. That’s fantasy stuff. The Universe has no will, nor does it perceive that it possesses imperfections to be repaired. It doesn’t perceive anything, except inasmuch that the beings in it, and therefore of it, perceive things. But the fact that they do perceive anything is accidental, not purposeful.

By problem-solving, I mean something far more mundane, localized to the individual organism. One has the will to maintain one’s own existence because of the impulse, built into a being by natural selection, to seek out opportunities to overcome deficiencies, fulfill needs, create novelties, experience pleasures, and relieve suffering. Examples can range from achieving world peace to fixing a leaky faucet. From creating a great work of art to cleaning up a spilled drink. From being elected President of the United States to sending routine a work email. From filling one’s head with the knowledge gained from the reading of a book to filling one’s belly with a nice breakfast.

So what? Good question. “So what” indeed.

I first encountered this simple idea from a rather unscholarly source, Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F✻ck. It was quite revelatory in that it stripped away the various layers of made-up meaning we humans apparently need to heap onto everything. Manson’s point was more specifically about happiness, that rather than being a state, happiness is a process that comes from the solving of problems that a person wants to be solving. The anticipation, planning, and execution of solving those problems are what brings about actual satisfaction with one’s existence. Not glee or joy, per se, but contentment. Purpose.

In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright writes that the Buddha already knew this. And while On the Origin of Species was still a good two-and-a-half thousand years after the Buddha’s time, his way of understanding human existence squares pretty well with what natural selection has wrought in us.

“Yes, as [the Buddha] said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied,” says Wright. “And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t ‘want’ us to be happy, after all; it just ‘wants’ us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.”

We have evolved to want to solve for x, to take pleasure in attempting to solve for x, and to take more pleasure in having solved x, but not so much pleasure that we feel like we shouldn’t now move on to y and z.

Despair comes from one’s problems being unsolvable or from having no problems that one deems worth solving. It’s always about pursuit of that which we do not yet have, be it material or informational. I was reminded of this again when reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in a passage from when Genry speaks to the mystic Faxe.

“The unknown,” Faxe tells Genry, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. … But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion… . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable — the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”

Genry responds, “That we shall die.”

“Yes,” says Faxe. “There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer… . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

Purpose, meaning, contentment, all of it comes from the day-to-day, moment-to-moment business of solving for x.

Again: So what? I don’t know. But maybe I can work with that. Maybe you can work with that. At the very least, maybe you can find some purpose in solving for that x.

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creativity culture Essays media personal technology

Video Games and My Ceaseless Guilt

During the pandemic era, here in the Lost Year, we have been given a reprieve from the stigma attached to excessive video game playing. The experts have told us, as conveyed to us through the most elite media outlets, that being forced under the fat thumb of the socially-distant lockdown-quarantine absolves us of any anxieties we might have about wasted time, lost productivity, or rotted brains. For the age of COVID–19, video games are now good for us. Hooray!

So now I can spend hours exploring, battling, spell-casting, smithing, concocting, and acquiring inside the metauniverse of Skyrim, free of any worry that I ought to be doing something more worthy of my time. We’re all stuck at home, after all! These are extreme, extenuating circumstances! There’s a goddamn killer virus out there, for god’s sake!

Oh, but here’s the thing. Just like everyone else on Planet Earth, the pandemic has upended many aspects of my life, but one thing that has remained unchanged is my location in space. As a socially-averse autistic already working from home for the past decade, I was already not going anywhere. Not even the coronavirus could disrupt a life outside the home if it didn’t exist to begin with.

Nonetheless, when the Great Lockdown began in March, it still felt to me like a doctor’s note authorizing me to indulge in video games again.

(An aside for some context: I say “again” because I have had spurts of game obsession at different times in my adult life, starting with games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII near the end of college. Later, as time for games became scarcer, I would go through periods of serious Civilization addiction for installments III, IV, V, and especially VI, which Steam tells me I have played for almost 1400 hours, which doesn’t even count the additional hours spent playing it on my iPad. More recently, I became enamored with The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the WildAnimal Crossing: New Horizons, and, my current alternate-universe-of-choice, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, all on the Nintendo Switch.)

Since the vast majority of my time playing video games is solitary (save for when my semi-interested partner happens to be in the room), I have always perceived playing them as a way of sinking into my own little world. But I think being exposed to so much positive social reinforcement regarding quarantine video games made me feel like I was doing something with a speck of social value. It wasn’t just me being a weird 40-something dude manipulating cartoon characters in fantasy worlds all by my lonesome. Now I was in with the in-crowd. Everyone was doing it. We were being alone together.

But despite this absolution, I knew that I couldn’t claim to be leaning on video games to get me through the pandemic. I wasn’t being kept away from my job or unexpectedly burdened with truckloads of free time I didn’t know what to do with. If anything, my job got busier, my kids were home with me more often, and I actually find I have less free time now than I did in back the Long, Long Ago. I’m not killing excess time by playing video games. I’m frittering away the precious little time I have.

So really, I shouldn’t overstate how much time I actually spend on these damn things. The fortnightly Saturday evenings and Sundays I don’t have my kids at home are really my only opportunities to truly binge on pretending to be a Destruction-magic-specializing Wood Elf. (One who just became Arch-Mage of the College in Winterhold, what-what!) All week, I’ll look forward to long, uninterrupted play sessions that will allow me to fully commit to some major quest within the game, rather than settling for less time-consuming side tasks or level-grinding. But when I finally get to dive in, it isn’t long before the Guilt sets in.

I should be doing something more productive, the Guilt says. I should be doing something more creative. I am wasting my precious waking hours and living days on an experience from which I will derive no benefit beyond the temporary sensations of escapist hedonism. That’s fine for a little break from the workaday world, says the Guilt, but it’s no way to spend an entire day.

And maybe the Guilt is right. I’m a writer, a performer, and a composer, and I have the extraordinary privilege of being safe, employed, fed, sheltered, and loved during a major crisis, and I could be using it to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways. Even though very few people will ever read this piece, for example, and only some fraction of them will have found it valuable, creating this piece of writing at least adds something to the world that wasn’t there before. Hours and hours spent in Skyrim, Hyrule, or Duckbutt Island (my Animal Crossing domain) have no impact on the real world outside my video game console, except in what they prevent from coming into being.

It’s probably futile to attempt to quantify, even vaguely, what is lost or gained by spending time on video games. Because I could just as well speculate that the games might be a way for me to build up the reserves I need to create things to begin with. Perhaps they are addressing something in me psychologically, such that they become a net-benefit. Before writing this, I read a number of pieces asserting just that.

“I suspect that the total intensity of the passion with which gamers throughout society surrender themselves to their pastime is an implicit register of how awful, grim, and forbidding the world outside them has become,” writes Frank Guan in the conclusion to his wonderful 2017 (pre-pandemic) piece on video game obsessives in Vulture. Earlier in the piece, he says, “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.” Well, for me, the world was definitely grim and forbidding before COVID–19 came around, and Placelessness, USA has always been my hometown. So maybe it’s a wonder I haven’t gone whole-hog on video games sooner.

The point is, though, that I don’t know, and I do know that time spent in a game is time not spent on literally anything else. And I’m not smart enough to know whether or not that’s okay.

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creativity Essays personal

Self-Loathing in the Shadow of the Unfinished Work

A couple years ago, I had the chance to be a real writer, and I blew it.

Way back in 2017, I was asked to spend two weeks in October at a writers’ retreat in Northern California. This had nothing to do with any books I had written (for I had written none) or high-profile publications in which I had been published (for I had not). But because this particular retreat offered a very particular fellowship for writers in a very niche subject area, the previous fellowship recipient kindly recommended me to be his successor. I’m guessing there also weren’t many other folks to choose from, or perhaps they were busy.

The point is that I got to spend one whole fortnight in a gorgeous, rustic home, surrounded by natural beauty, doing nothing but working on my craft.

The problem I immediately faced upon accepting this fellowship was that I had nothing to craft. One was expected to come to this retreat to work on a specific project, usually a book or lengthy article in progress. I had no such project, in-progress or otherwise. I had to come up with one.

So I did. The formulation I made was simple. I took the two areas of thought that were of the most interest to me at the time and decided to mush them together, comparing and contrasting, wrestling with their implications, and working out what epiphanies, lessons, or truths I could extract from the whole enterprise.

It would be a big magazine article, intended for publication in the journal published by my employer. In this way, it would help justify my two-week absense from work, which, I must add, my employer happily and generously granted. It would be a big piece. A “longread.” Perhaps it could turn into a book.

At the retreat, I worked dilligently. Not one for sightseeing or communing with nature anyway, I made the most of this precious allotment of uninterrupted time. I dug deeply into the subject matter. I collected research materials, I interviewed experts over email, I took meticulously sourced and cited notes, I jotted stray thoughts, I sketched outlines, I worked in feature-laden applications for Serious Writers working on Major Projects, and I drafted sections and subsections and introductions and transitions and reflections.

I did not expect nor intend to finish the entire project during my residency, but by the time those two weeks were up, I had a piece that had grown to something like 13,000 good words.

But I still blew it. I never finished it. Two and a half years later, it’s still unfinished.

There were some contributing factors.

For one, during my time at the retreat, something went haywire in my ear. My existing tinnitus worsened exponentially, I began to go through spells of vertigo, and I lost some hearing. This was something of a distraction. It never stopped me from applying myself to my work, but obviously there was a good deal of mental energy that was inevitably spent on this emergent crisis on the right side of my head.

For another, a few months after my return, my marriage ended. You can imagine how that might drain one’s will to work on projects that are largely extracurricular.

These are fine excuses for why it became much more difficult to me to finish to project, but really, I never finished it because I never decided to finish it.

There was never going to be a mystical space carved out of my normal life to make room for plowing ahead with this work. My job resumed, my kids needed their dad, and I needed to manage a monumental and traumatic life transition. But even with all that, I failed to make the decision to sit back down at the computer and write.

Months passed. Then more months passed. In my mind, the Major Project became a queasy source of regret and shame. And the further time progressed from that autumn of 2017, the more I perceived that project as an unmanageable and outdated mess. I think I almost felt like it was angry with me.

But of course, it wasn’t. Nor was it unmanageable; I needed simply to decide to manage it. Nor was it outdated; I needed merely to decide to refresh it.

Nor was it a mess. I was.

A few months ago, I decided to return to it. I even announced it so that I could give myself at least the illusion of public accountability. And over the last several weeks, I have indeed been working on it.

It’s not finished. It begs for merciless refinement, and I don’t mean some tweaks for consicion. It needs some real horror-movie chainsaw violence done to it. I need to detatch myself from feeling precious about certain passages or turns of phrase that simply to not contribute to the larger goal of the piece. I need to rethink the way it’s framed in the opening section so that the reader is better ushered into the subject matter. And I need to find a path out of it, a way to merge its various tributary streams into a single current.

I need to figure out what it really is.

And I will. I haven’t yet, but I will.

I don’t know what this product will be when it’s done. It might yet be that magazine piece I promised my employers back in those innocent days of 2017. But perhaps it’ll be better suited to a series of blog posts. Or maybe it’ll cry out for expansion into a book. I can’t yet say.

Part of what makes this project loom so large in my psyche, and why it still provides a steady drip of regret into my heart, is the weight of validation I placed upon it. By being given this fellowship at this beautiful retreat, even if it had been a strange fluke of circumstance, I had the chance to be a real writer.

Let’s not get technical, now. I know that I am, indeed, already a writer. I constantly churn out written work for my job, I have written for several websites, I been published in a couple of journals, and I write for my own blog.

But you know what I mean. I sought the imprimatur of a real writer, someone whose byline is recognized and sought. Someone who is asked to be on panels at conferences. Someone whose name graces the spine of a book. Someone whose writing actually matters.

I’m not that guy. I might never be.

I definitely won’t be if I don’t decide to write.

And even in the best possible circumstance, in which this piece catches lightning and earns me some amount of approval, it still does not have the power to make me what I already am.

In fact, I may never publish it at all. It may turn out that its entire premise was ill-advised, and that it simply can’t be worked into something that is worth putting out into the wider world.

I don’t know yet. But even if another soul never reads a word of it, I promise myself this.

I will finish it.

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creativity Essays media personal

Animal Crossing and the Joy of Bucolic Drudgery

Me, in jester’s hat, superhero mask, and business suit, with the quetzalcoatlus skeleton that looms over my property.

Why did I play Animal Crossing for four hours today?

About a month ago I became one of the bajillions of people of all ages enthralled with Nintendo’s bucolic-drudgery simulator, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I never expected to be. When the game was announced, having no frame of reference for the previous iterations, I was utterly uninterested. Then I saw the deluge of fawning coverage and player testimonials about how this game, this experience, was keeping people sane during the COVID-19 lockdown, and I decided to give it a shot.

Now it’s the center of most family activity and interest at my house. My kids can’t stop talking and thinking about the game, and even my partner, who never plays any video games whatsoever, is utterly devoted to it. (She plays more than any of us!) The four of us are constantly dishing about the other island residents and trading gossip about their quirky behaviors (we all just love Zucker), and we cheer each other on for our successes. (“I finally caught an oarfish!”)

My partner Renée with her big catch. I have a heart attack every time I pull one of these monsters out of the water.

But, you know, why?

I do understand the general appeal of the game’s overall shtick. After all, I spent a great deal of time, circa 2000, enriching the lives of my Sims (or making them suffer unthinkably), and more recently I have easily logged around 1500 hours fashioning empires in Civilization VI. And while I’ve never really gotten the hang of Minecraft, I can at least appreciate how its limitless palette for creativity is so engrossing. I’ve even dabbled, rather tepidly, with Second Life. Animal Crossing boasts many of the elements that made Minecraft, Second Life, and the Sims and Civilization franchises appealing. And it’s way cuter.

But viewed from another angle, playing Animal Crossing can seem a lot like the equivalent of doing manual farm labor for a cult leader. Tom Nook is Joe Exotic and we are all his expendable underlings being paid in fake currency and expired meats.

For example, I can spend an hourlong game session just pulling weeds.

Let me slightly rephrase that. I choose to spend an hourlong game session pulling weeds.

And the crazy part is that I love it. With every clump of vegetation I yank from the ground and stuff into my “pockets,” I have made my little island home (which is called Duckbutt Island) just that much more beautiful, and made a larger canvas for me to do with as I like. The methodical, somewhat rhythmic pulling of the weeds is rather meditative, much like real gardening can be (but without the real dirt or real bugs). Even the sound that comes from each weed-pull, a sort of squirty “yoink,” is weirdly satisfying.

I’m not kidding here. When I go on a jaunt to a “mystery island” or visit my kids’ domain and I see a lot of weeds, I think, and perhaps shout out loud, “Oh boy! Weeds!

Later, I can store all those weed clumps away and wait for Leif to come back to Duckbutt town square and purchase them at a modest markup.

Planting flowers, shaking trees, whacking away at rocks, collecting seashells — all of it is tedious, and yet it’s the tediousness that’s often the most appealing part for me. I do also enjoy the creative customization, designing one’s avatar and dwelling, and I have fun checking the boxes that qualify Animal Crossing as a “game” by hitting certain milestones, fulfilling necessary tasks, and upgrading life on Duckbutt. Those things all help Animal Crossing feel like it has a “point.”

But even without those things, it’s remarkably soothing to simply wander one’s island and gently tend to it.

Me in my red outback hat, dress made of cherries, and recycled boots, livin’ life like it’s golden with the boys — my two giant snapping turtles.

In this way, Animal Crossing is less a game, and more of a place to go — which is especially valuable at this moment in history. Countless other games offer this kind of escape, of course, from Fortnite to World of Warcraft to, well, name your MMORPG of choice. None of them, however, have appealed to me the way Animal Crossinghas…with perhaps the exception of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which, while not a “sim” by any means, provides so rich and wide of an experience that one can simply wander and putter about delightedly for hours. And believe me, I have.

Zelda aside, perhaps it’s those other games’ sprawling complexity that suggests to me that the effort to master them wouldn’t be worth the time and energy.

Animal Crossing has many layers of complexity, but they all feel very optional. One can advance and upgrade at one’s own pace, and in the meantime there is always something to do, harvest, beautify, design, or craft. And, importantly, as you meander and dawdle, no one will be out to get you.

However, one aspect of Animal Crossing that has really solidified it as a breakout phenomenon at this moment is its social component. Players can visit the islands of friends or anyone on the internet who opens their island to visitors. I’ve played online with my kids while they’re at their mom’s house, but otherwise I have interacted very little with anyone else. What am I missing here?

I suspect it has more to do with me than the game. My reticence and anxieties over social encounters in meatspace seems to carry over to Animal Crossingin strikingly similar ways. Just like in the real world, I worry over what to say or how to behave around another player, and feel exhausted in advance by whatever expectations they might have of me. I feel pretty confident of my ability to cultivate lasting friendships with Zucker the octopus and Truffles the pig. And Blathers, well, he is my true soulmate. But actual humans are another story.

At least on a computer generated island, no one expects our avatars to make eye contact.

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creativity Essays

I maybe oughta blog more.

There was a time when I tried to make a point of writing at least one blog post every day. Today that sounds like some trite advice from a self-help article on Medium, but I wasn’t doing it in order to “gain 50,000 followers” or what have you. It was a good habit to keep as a writer, to practice in public like that, and it genuinely felt good to have made something each day. But mostly, I actually felt like I had something to say, all the time.

These days, it’s remarkable if I write something more frequently than once a month (this is outside of work, of course, where I write all damn day, every day). There’s a long list of contributing factors. Personal reasons include mental exhaustion from work, attention demanded by kids and other family matters, the attraction of less intellectually demanding pastimes like video games (I really don’t watch much TV at all), and a bedtime that seems to seep every-earlier into the evening as I age.

There are also, I think, broader cultural reasons I don’t blog like I used to. The novelty of the form itself has worn off since its early-aughts hayday. While blogs were once the primary venue for processing and debating the events and issues of the day, they have been largely replaced; for journalists and activists, by Twitter; for everyone else, by Facebook. In those now-hazy before-times, one might be outraged over something some political figure did, compose a four or five-paragraph screed expressing said outrage, and liberally blockquote from some other source for the purpose of bolstering or rebutting one’s argument. Today, the same person will now retweet someone someone else said about said outrage, and maybe add an original line to a tweet in order to keep it within one’s personal brand. Or they’d share an article (probably unread) on Facebook, perhaps adding their own exclamation-marked sentence about the outrageousness of the outrage.

The author in 2006, with a laptop, possibly blogging. Possibly not.

The point being, blogs just aren’t where the action is. Blogs were once little islands of thought, from which individuals or small bands of like-minded island-dwellers would cast their prose into the wide ocean of the internet (or, as it was more often characterized back then, the capital-I Internet, like it was a place). Often, that prose might be fashioned into a kind of dinghy and aimed directly at another Internet Island, sometimes carrying supplies, sometimes a warhead.

It was fun!

Some of those Internet Islands still exist and thrive, and some have developed into full-blown Outlets, honest-to-goodness nation-states in the online media realm. Some blogs were subsumed into larger entities, or their feudal lords were lured away to more luxurious courts. But I think for most of us who were on the tiniest of those Internet Islands, we saw that no one was reading what we wrote anyway, so we might as well put in as little effort as possible, and be ignored on Twitter instead.

And good lord, did I love Twitter for a while. I felt like I really got it, and my own brand of everything-is-terrible humor-as-despair shtick felt very well suited to the platform. Today, though, Twitter is like punishment. I check in, I scroll, and I am quickly saturated by anxiety, anger, and despondency. And it doesn’t seem to matter what measures I take to curate my feed. In a time as ugly as this, ugliness is all there is to tweet.

As for the material I put out on Twitter, no one is seeing it. Even after thirteen years on the platform (Jesus Christ, has it really been thirteen years???) I have managed to attract a measly 4000-some followers, only a tiny fraction of which ever actually see (or care to notice) what I write. If something I tweet does happen to break out a little — usually because a certain friendly atheist has retweeted it to his own massive following — I become deluged with inane replies that are often inexplicably hostile. None of it seems to make things any better, and there’s no feeling of accomplishment.

And besides, I’m not a “tweeter.” I’m a writer. And while thoughts expressed in 280 characters or less is an absolutely valid and valuable form of writing, it’s not sufficient for me.

This gets me back to the question about why I don’t write more, or more specifically, why I don’t blog.

The despondence engendered by Twitter is part of the answer. The ocean of the internet (it’s lowercase-I these days) is already so polluted with opinions, punditry, takes, essays, outrages, and news, it hardly seems useful to throw in more of one’s own trash. Things are bad! Bad people are doing bad things! You don’t need me to tell you that. And while I could write about something else instead, something that has nothing to do with how terrible everything is, my despair has sapped my drive to share my thoughts about anything.

Another reason for my blog-hesitancy is ego. There seems little point in putting in the effort of writing when I know that no one’s going to read it. And my standards for what constitutes “some folks read it” versus “no one read it” have already been lowered to sub-basement levels. The idea is supposed to be that the good stuff will rise to the top, but I don’t think anyone believes that anymore, and who knows if my stuff would even qualify as “the good stuff” anyway? Sometimes I think it has, but what do I know? I only have 4000 Twitter followers.

I end this post without an answer, other than the obvious, which is: Do it anyway. What I write — and yes, specifically, blog — should exist for its own sake. For my sake. Because each time I do it, I will have made something. I will have improved my own thinking and come to better know myself. It will, as Vonnegut put it, make my soul grow.

And maybe, on the off chance that someone else encounters it, maybe it will do something good for them, too. Maybe that person will stand up from where they’re sitting on their Internet Island, look across the sea in my direction, and wave.

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creativity Essays personal

An Actor, an Introvert, and a Universe of Possibilities

The author in 2006.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

I don’t even have to decode any social signals or read between the lines of what others are saying in order to know when to speak, because it’s all been planned out in advance. I am forbidden from speaking until my own lines are cued. That limitation is indescribably liberating.

I don’t have to know what to wear. I don’t have to know where to stand or how to behave, because all of that will have been worked out in rehearsal. If the play doesn’t call for my presence in a scene, I don’t even have to exist.

But there’s another way to explain the apparent incongruity of my personality that flips all of this on its head, and I didn’t even realize it myself until I had it explained to me in an article by a true master of the theatre from several years ago.

I recently came across an essay published in The Nation in 2011 by the great actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, who most folks will know as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, Grand Nagus Zek on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or the voice of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Toy Story movies. Maybe you know him from the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. Oh, and he was just in Marriage Story, so that might help.

In his essay for The Nation, which is a truly beautiful piece of prose in which he explains how his art leads him to consider himself a socialist, Shawn writes:

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

In one version of my explanation for why such a loud, animated performer like me could be such a severe introvert is that I alone am too small and too vulnerable to be comfortable in my own skin in the midst of other humans. But what Shawn helped me to see is that this disconnect also stems from the fact that my singular, real-life self is also near to bursting with thoughts, ideas, fears, ambitions, impulses, and possibilities.

The potential energy bottled up and pressed down into this small, delicate body is overwhelming. Letting any of its pressure out brings with it the risk of humiliation, regret, misunderstanding, or bewilderment. So a single, inoffensive persona must be adopted, a safe and broadly acceptable packaging must be applied.

The stage does not solve or sort all of these parts, but it does allow them to manifest in meaningful, productive, and satisfying ways. In this way, an actor’s role is sort of like Mjölnir to Thor.

In Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardian Avenger has lost his legendary hammer, Mjölnir, and at the edge of utter defeat, he hears the voice of his late father Odin, who asks him, “Are you the god of hammers?” Odin explains that Mjölnir was not the source of Thor’s power, but merely a means of focusing and controlling it. The real power, the “thunder,” is already inside him, coursing through him.

That’s what a role in a play is for an actor. It harnesses the lightning and thunder inside us and allows us to wield it. Shakespeare himself even wrote of “youths that thunder at a playhouse.”

It is true that for me, and I suspect for many actors, taking on a role is a way of protecting ourselves, providing armor for our fragility. But it is also a means to show our strength, to unleash a power within us that in most other circumstances would be too dangerous or destructive.

As Wallace Shawn says, we have within us a universe of possibilities. The stage allows us to live some of them out.

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creativity Essays personal

A New World Without Loss

Arthur C. Brooks writes about how Ludwig van Beethoven dealt with his gradual hearing loss, which, while crushing to a genius composer, ultimately lead him to new heights of greatness.

It seems a mystery that Beethoven became more original and brilliant as a composer in inverse proportion to his ability to hear his own — and others’ — music. But maybe it isn’t so surprising. As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period. “He opened up a new world in music,” said French romantic master Hector Berlioz. “Beethoven is not human.”

Brooks takes this as a lesson in loss. He says that here Beethoven shows us how losing something precious can open up new possibilities and ideas, and all of that is true. But that’s not the lesson I take.

When Beethoven lost his hearing, he could no longer be aware of what others in his field were doing. Whatever music was being lauded or pilloried at the time, Beethoven had no way to know what it sounded like. He had no way to compare his work to anyone else’s. All he had were his memories of what had come before.

To me, the lesson isn’t how Beethoven turned the tables on fortune and made something beautiful out of loss. (And I do have my own, albeit far less severe, experience of hearing loss to draw from here.) The lesson is that his loss meant that he was no longer burdened with his own perception of what great music is supposed to be. Beyond what he could still hear in his own mind from his musical memory banks, there was nothing for Beethoven to compare himself to. The energy spent and wasted on anxiety and self-doubt brought on by the desire to suit the tastes of the time, his genius was liberated, freeing him to make the best music he was capable of at that moment.

Before I sat down to write this, I caught myself wondering whether the traditional early-2000s-era blog format was still viable, whether anyone would want to read a post by a relative nobody responding to an article by a relative somebody about an indisputably significant somebody. I worried whether the format would make me seem unhip. I worried that whatever I wrote might better suit a magazine essay, which would never be written (nor published if it were), or if it might be best to simply tweet a condensed version of my thoughts, and leave it at that. In other words, I wasted time and energy on anxiety about what my writing is “supposed” to look like.

Imagine that I came to this piece with no preconceived notions of the form my thoughts should take. Imagine I had no respectable essays, eye-catching blog posts, or pithy tweets to compare myself to. Imagine that all I had were my thoughts and my skills as a writer, whatever they happened to be at this moment.

Beethoven’s loss forced him into a position of ignorance. His deafness gave him no choice, but that ignorance freed him. His earlier work sounded like somebody else’s, the work of people he thought were “doing it right.” When he could hear no one else, “doing it right” meant only what was right to him in his own mind.

I, and we, do not have to wait for loss. We do not have to be forced into a kind of ignorance. We can choose to learn from what others have done, build on what we have already accomplished ourselves, and then let everything go. Then we can be free, and we can know it, too. We can open up a new world without loss.

Beethoven is not human, and neither am I. Thank god.