Cynical Boy: Thoughts on Marshall Crenshaw’s 1982 Self-Titled Album

Inspired by The Incomparable podcast’s series of “album draft” episodes, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to write about some of the albums that have been the most meaningful to me. So whether or not I decide to do several of these kinds of posts, here’s my first stab at it.


rs-135352-43d9626a23c1fa22111b40b8cfe7753ea4fd94a4I was very close to never having heard of Marshall Crenshaw. It just so happened that my dad had used a cassette copy of Crenshaw’s eponymous first album to mix down one of his own original songs (Billy Joel’s Nylon Curtain was on the other side, which I’ll probably get into in another post). One day while in my teens, I went searching through my dad’s tape collection to find his song, and gave it a listen. The tape kept playing after dad’s song, and suddenly this simple and engrossing little guitar riff grabbed my attention, and I was pretty much hooked from then on.

That riff was, of course, the opening notes of Crenshaw’s “There She Goes Again,” which remains one of my absolute favorite songs. It pretends to evince optimism and liberation in the face of separation and loss, but it’s all obviously a mask for the sickening weight of regret and the sting of rejection.

His album, Marshall Crenshaw (1982), largely remains in this vein, with nostalgically styled pop-rock tunes that sound like they could have been recorded in a basement, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s certainly polished, but it also has an immediacy and organic feeling, as though Crenshaw and his band are friends of yours who are working on their record right in front of you.

Once I discovered Crenshaw, I immediately related to him. He’s a smaller guy with glasses who likes hats, and he writes extraordinarily satisfying, hook-infused melodies and arrangements, almost all of which serve as wrappers for some sort of pain, self-doubt, or regret. This element is rarely overt, instead it comes out in comic self-deprecation, little jabs at his blunders, and a kind of hapless, “well what can you do?” persona. I really get that.

Anyway, the album. “Someday, Someway” is the album’s hit, which you’ll still hear once in a while on the radio or pop up in TV shows. It’s a very good song, but it’s not even one of the better ones on the record. Apart from the opening track, highlights include “Rockin’ Around in NYC,” which is both bouncy and tense at the same, in which he sings, “I get the feeling that it really was worth coming after we tasted disaster”; and “Mary Anne” with its gorgeous counterpoint backing vocals and its resignation to someone’s else’s despair.

“The Usual Thing” and “Cynical Girl” are rather different in tone, but both are defiant love songs that embrace uniqueness and alienation. On “The Usual Thing,” he worries that giving himself over to someone else will cause him to “lose his energy,” which sounds to me like the lamentation of an introvert. “But,” he tells her, “if I didn’t think you were a little bit out-there too, I just wouldn’t bother with you.”

And on “Cynical Girl,” he longs for a partner who, like him, has “got no use for the real world.” He sings, “I hate TV. There’s gotta be somebody other than me who’s ready to write it off immediately.” Damn right.

I really like a lot of Crenshaw’s other albums, most particularly #447 and Miracle of Science, but Marshall Crenshaw is something truly special, a rare distillation of the delights of classic pop-rock and the pain of being “a little bit out-there.”

Advertisements

Fret No More

Gerrit_Dou_-_Young_violinist_sitting_in_his_study_room

Time flies when you’re having fun, and it flies at Mach 5 when you’re not. When I hear my kids complain, “I’m bored,” I tell them how much I envy them. Oh, to be bored! To have no immediate demands on my time, energy, and attention! Boredom may appear to be an unpleasant state, but it’s also a harbinger and a breeding ground of things worth doing. It’s the preamble for activities of choice, not obligation.

By mere coincidence I read in succession two pieces on how terrible we humans are at perceiving time and its passage, and how we might alter those perceptions in a more meaningful and satisfying way. They are both entirely convincing, and yet they each offer conflicting ideal states of mind. Or they might not.

First, Alan Jacobs in The Guardian. (I have never met this man, but I swear I count him among the most valuable teachers of my life.) Jacobs refers to our culture, as driven by our various media, as “presentist.” He writes, “The social media ecosystem is designed to generate constant, instantaneous responses to the provocations of Now.” There’s no way to think deeply or consider alternate or broader perspectives because the fire hose of stimuli never ceases.

The only solution is to cultivate “temporal bandwidth,” which Jacobs defines as “an awareness of our experience as extending into the past and the future.” Less “now” and more “back then, now, and later.” And the way we do that is to read books. Old books, preferably. “To read old books is to get an education in possibility for next to nothing.”

That education sets the stage for one’s mind to not only absorb the wisdom and the mistakes of the past, but to contemplate how they “reverberate into the future”:

You see that some decisions that seemed trivial when they were made proved immensely important, while others which seemed world-transforming quickly sank into insignificance. The “tenuous” self, sensitive only to the needs of This Instant, always believes — often incorrectly — that the present is infinitely consequential.

But cultivating temporal bandwidth is happening less and less, it seems. And as Jacobs says in a separate post, “Those who once might have been readers are all shouting at one another on Twitter.”

But while Jacobs recommends steering us away from believing the present to be of prime significance, David Cain at Raptitude urges us to grasp the present more tightly, and let concerns about the past and future fade to periphery.

And it is all to address the same basic problem: we feel washed away by the force and flow of time. Comparing an adult’s perceptions of time to a child’s, Cain writes:

As we become adults, we tend to take on more time commitments. We need to work, maintain a household, and fulfill obligations to others. […] Because these commitments are so important to manage, adult life is characterized by thoughts and worries about time. For us, time always feels limited and scarce, whereas for children, who are busy experiencing life, it’s mostly an abstract thing grownups are always fretting about. There’s nothing we grownups think about more than time — how things are going to go, could go, or did go.

Cain doesn’t point to social media or cultural illiteracy as culprits, but rather our disproportionate fixation on the past and the future. It may be that Cain is largely discussing a different scale of time than is Jacobs. Cain seems to be referring to our fixation on what has happened in the relatively recent past (10 minutes ago or 10 years ago, for example) and what the immediate future bodes (say, the next couple of hours or the next couple of months). Jacobs, by emphasizing the reading of “old books” (and by quoting lines from Horace) is certainly thinking of a much deeper past and a more distant future, spans that transcend our own lifetimes.

But as I said, Cain recommends regarding the past and future less, and home in on the present. “The more life is weighted towards attending to present moment experience, the more abundant time seems,” he says. And the way to attend to that present moment, as clichéd as it might sound these days, is through mindfulness, which can mean meditation or any activities “that you can’t do absent-mindedly: arts and crafts, sports, gardening, dancing.” Here’s why:

It’s only when we’re fretting about the future or reminiscing over the past that life seems too short, too fast, too out of control. When your attention is invested in present-moment experience, there is always exactly enough time. Every experience fits perfectly into its moment.

Note that Cain never mentions reading as one of those activities that one can’t do absent-mindedly. I don’t know about you, but if I read absent-mindedly I’m probably not actually reading at all, or at least not in such a way that I’ll retain anything. So whether or not he intended it or agrees with it, I’m throwing “reading books” into that list.

This is the bridge that connects these seemingly-conflicting viewpoints, making them complementary. Much of this rests on the difference in time scale I referred to, which, if taken into account, begins to form a complete picture. Few would argue with the idea that fretting about the immediate past and future is detrimental to one’s experience of time, or that contemplation and consideration of history and the long-term repercussions of our actions is a waste of time.

They key word here might indeed be “fretting.” In this sense, the definition of “fretting” isn’t limited to “worrying,” but describes a broader practice of wasting energy and attention on things within a narrow temporal scope without taking any meaningful action to address whatever concerns might be contained within. We fret about choices we’ve made and what such-and-such a person is thinking about us or how we’ll ever manage to get through the day, week, or year with our sanity intact. We rarely fret about how the Khwarazmian Empire was woefully unprepared for the Mongol army under Genghis Khan in 1219, or how the human inhabitants of TRAPPIST-1d will successfully harvest the planet’s resources to support a growing populace.

And of course, nothing engenders fretting like social media. Already primed for fretting by the demands of work, family, and self-doubt, now we can fret in real time (and repeatedly) over anything relatives, acquaintances, total strangers, politicians, celebrities, and algorithms flash before our awareness. It is possible to exist in a state of permanent fret.

Let me tell you, time really freaking zooms when you’re fretting.

So let’s combine the recommendations of Jacobs and Cain to address our temporal-perception crisis. Let’s get off of Facebook and Twitter, let’s turn off the television, and let’s get to that stack of books (or list of ebooks if you prefer) and read. Let’s allow our brains to expand our awareness, considerations, and moral circle beyond this moment, this year, this era. Let’s not burden ourselves with the exhausting worries about what we’re reading or how long it will take to read it or what else we should be reading but aren’t. Let’s make time to chat with our kids and our parents, and write, tinker, draw, arrange, organize, build, repair, or tend as best suits us. Let’s stop and breathe and think of nothing for a few minutes as we focus on the present instant in time and space, even to the atomic level. And then let’s think big, daring, universe-spanning thoughts beyond all measure.

Let’s be bored, and let that boredom nudge, inspire, or shock us into activity, be it infinitesimal or polycosmic.

It will take practice. It will not be easy. Let’s accept that this, too, is a journey of time and effort and moments.

And let us fret no more.

 


If you feel so inclined, you can support my work through Patreon.

Spocks and Datas

DataSpock

SPOCK: He intrigues me, this Picard.

DATA: In what manner, sir?

SPOCK: Remarkably analytical and dispassionate, for a human. I understand why my father chose to mind-meld with him. There’s almost a Vulcan quality to the man.

DATA: Interesting. I have not considered that. And Captain Picard has been a role model in my quest to be more human.

SPOCK: More human?

DATA: Yes, Ambassador.

SPOCK: Fascinating. You have an efficient intellect, superior physical skills and no emotional impediments. There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you’ve been given by design.

DATA: You are half human.

SPOCK: Yes.

DATA: Yet you have chosen a Vulcan way of life.

SPOCK: I have.

DATA: In effect, you have abandoned what I have sought all my life.

 

– Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Unification Part 2” (1991)

For the socially alienated, such as autistics like myself, the characters of Spock and Data from Star Trek are immediately relatable. Not because of their lack of emotion, but because of their estrangement from their peers. Extraordinarily intelligent, yet unable to understand the motivations or the social and emotional needs of the humans around them. Though full members of their respective crews and fully equal members (eventually, for Data) of their adopted societies, they are nonetheless alone.

But apart from being non-human, the sources of Spock’s and Data’s alienation are quite different. Spock, genetically half-human and half-Vulcan, aspires to overcome the psychological weaknesses he believes his human side burdens him with. Data, the creation of humans, has put himself on a quest to exhibit the qualities of humanity as faithfully as possible. While he may be confused by human weaknesses, he nonetheless wishes to replicate them.

Framed this way, Data may be the more relatable to the socially alienated. Those with Asperger’s like me, for example, are obviously the product of humans, and live and work among other humans, but struggle to make meaningful social and emotional connections with the neurotypical majority. This is painful, and there seems to be no remedy. No matter how hard they try to ape the behavior of neurotypicals, it is just that, an aping. And yet they, we, pine for that connection. For belonging.

spockbrowSpock represents something that I would guess is less common, the socially alienated person who wishes to remain alienated, because to assimilate would be to corrupt oneself, to debase oneself. Surely there are those intellectuals and savants who identify with Spock in this, and surely they too experience the discomfort of alienation. But I suspect that is the Datas among us that are truly suffering from their estrangement.

To the normals and the neurotypicals, I have to assume that these two dispositions, the Spock and the Data, are more or less indistinguishable. Both exhibit as emotionally distant. Both are prone to say things that, to the normals, are considered inappropriate, offensive, or bizarre, despite innocent or benign intentions. Both invite varying degrees of pity or condescension from normals for what they perceive as naivete or “disability.”

For a Data, there is a constant pull toward the group, a tug toward the tribe. The Data will practice the mannerisms and idioms of the normals, and often fail laughably. For a Spock, the social distance is actively maintained. Rather than gravitate toward inclusion, they prefer to observe from a safe and less distracting distance. There is no attempt to do as the Romans do. To the Spock, the Romans are silly.

From my own point of view, to adopt the Spock approach would be a luxury. While I do not believe that a Spock-type never suffers in her alienation, she certainly suffers less. A Spock has already decided that there is little to be gained from full social inclusion, and little to envy from the normals’ mindset. What a relief that would be.

datadanceThe Data, however, is all too aware of the myriad ways she does not match up to her normal peers. She suffers from the humiliation of failed attempts to assimilate, and she suffers from her solitude. And unlike the character of Data the android, Data-types definitely experience emotions, often severely. It is a sisyphean way to live, except that everyone is watching and audibly commenting on how weirdly one is pushing the rock up the hill.

In a previous piece, I chose another Star Trek character as an Aspie-analogue, and reflecting on it now, it seems to fill a kind of middle-ground between the Spock and the Data. I’m talking about Odo. I wrote:

ds9odoThough he takes a humanoid form as best he can, no one thinks Odo, the changeling, really looks like them. He doesn’t understand humanoid behavior, but he does try to map it out in order to follow others’ motivations and how they lead to actions. He is impatient with the things that humanoids seem to find fulfilling and important, which to him seem pointless and wasteful. He comes off as mean when he doesn’t intend to. He craves companionship, but knows he can’t have it. And when it all comes down to it, when he’s tired of pretending to be one of the “solids,” he must — absolutely must — return to his bucket. He must resume his true liquid form, stop pretending, find total solitude, and rest.

If Spock and Data show us two poles of how the socially alienated cope with their weirdness, Odo shows us the consequences of all that work. What does the outcast do after all the failed attempts to commune, or after a day of navigating the incomprehensible absurdities of the normals’ behavior? What toll does it take?

Odo shows us. We must return to our bucket, or we dissolve.


Please consider supporting my work through Patreon.

Noble Fictions and Sacred Texts

Note: This is my contribution to the book What Do We Do about Inequality?, the first such book from an initiative called The Wicked Problems Collaborative. The book just marked one year since publication, and with the blessing of WPC publisher and editor Chris Oestereich I’m posting it here. It has been very lightly edited from the original.

It has been asserted that the relative morality of cultures and practices can be scientifically determined—“scientific” not in the sense of people in white coats doing lab experiments, but in the sense of being empirically perceivable. The idea is that we can compare one cultural practice or norm or moral tenet to others, observe how they affect human happiness, and make an objective judgment. This is a controversial way of thinking, notably advocated by Sam Harris in his concept of “The Moral Landcape,” and I largely agree with it. To be broad, I feel very secure in saying that a culture or morality that, say, makes a virtue of the subjugation, demonization, or abuse of entire classes of people is objectively worse than one that values all members of society and works to see them realize their individual potentials.

In order to say that a practice is morally better because of its impact on human happiness, we have to first decide that human happiness is something worth achieving. For if we choose not to grant that human happiness is an assumed goal of any moral code (in favor of, say, maximized production or complete subjugation of a given class or ethnic group), what we then determine is and isn’t “moral” changes drastically. There is no Cosmic Rulebook that states with utter authority that human happiness is something anyone, humans included, should give a damn about, so we have to choose it as our goal. We have to decide for ourselves that we will base our morality on what best allows for the flourishing of human happiness, and then behave as though it is an irrevocable law of existence. If we behave as though this is a malleable idea, that human happiness is only sort of important, then all choices that flow from this change entirely. Not only do we choose human happiness as our moral bedrock, but we also act as though it could be no other way even if we wanted it to be.

Let’s leave this aside for a moment.

I used to make my living (such as it was) as a Shakespearean actor. In the theatre world, there exists the concept of “the sacred text,” a kind of secular devotion to the words on the page over all else. If, as an actor, you want to make some kind of bold choice with your character, it cannot be out of the blue; there has to be support for it, an explanation of that behavior, in the script. If one is playing Willy Loman, and one feels compelled to perform him with an outlandish Australian accent, one had better see something within the words written by Arthur Miller in the text of Death of a Salesman that provides the basis for this.

The idea of the sacred text is given extra weight when referring to Shakespearean drama, partly because Shakespeare is widely considered to be the English language’s greatest writer (and so we assume that he probably knew what he was doing), but also because his works are, to us, so very old. They are now part of the very foundation of Western civilization. Go ahead and muck around with a Neil Simon comedy, even get crazy with your Bertolt Brecht (he is practically begging you to, anyway), but if you think Hamlet is entering from stage right on a hoverboard, you better find the line where he or someone else on stage says something synonymous to “But soft, what yonder hoverboard is this?”

Even if Shakespeare’s genius is taken as a given, adhering to his text and treating it as sacred is still a choice. But to take this to its extreme, to decide that the Word of William is infallible as far as the production of one of his plays goes, something has to be sacrificed. Usually, this is the audience’s attention. I suppose one could remain entirely faithful to the text of Comedy of Errors and probably wind up with a more-or-less satisfied audience. It is rather short and intellectually light for a Shakespearean play, so it doesn’t demand much of the audience’s brain power, and it also has a lot of dirty jokes that transcend time and space. On the other hand, as someone who has sat through full-text versions of plays like Henry IV and Hamlet, I can tell you that a production’s reverence for the text can go horribly awry, causing some of the most beautiful lines of English ever written to syphon off the audience’s will to live.

This gets us into what it means to treat a text as sacred. Certainly, we keep every written line intact, but must it then also be performed exactly as Shakespeare himself might have? Complete with the accent and pronunciations of sixteenth century England? The same clothes made from the same fabrics, fashioned without any industrial tools? Should the actors not bathe frequently? You see where this can go.

The idea of the sacred text is fine; it serves as an excellent guideline, a starting point for the choices that will have to be made in the mounting of a theatrical production. But if we choose to behave as though the text of a play is inerrant (and I say “behave as though” because we assume the play was written by a fallible human), the production can become shackled, rigid, and, essentially, bad art. If the goal is an entertaining, moving, and enlightening performance, choosing to treat the text as entirely sacred is a bad strategy. Instead, a production can remain faithful to the spirit of the play, cut lines where needed, add elements where they enhance the show, and make the best of it. But if the goal is to rigidly honor the words of a 400-years-dead man at all costs, those costs will likely include the joy of the art itself. By restricting the production to what it “must” be, we miss out on the all the possibilities of what it could be.

Laws are like this. As with plays, strict adherence to the precise wording of a given law (literally, “the letter of the law”) is a best-intentions means of making sure a law is applied equally to all parties, but the spirit of a law, the problem it seeks to solve, can be lost. And if they were not considered at least somewhat malleable, the Supreme Court would not have much to do. The same goes for musical notation, codes of ethics, and, yes, religious texts.

Let us now then look at an example that covers a lot of these aforementioned bases, as both a kind of code of ethics and religious text, at least for a civil religion:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

American society, as well as the broader Western world, gets a lot of mileage out of this couple of sentences. It is not a law, really, nor a code, but an expression of values—a “founding document” in the clearest sense. It is a declaration that a new nation has been established, one basing its very reason for being on its statement of purpose, that “all men are created equal,” with a particular set of rights that cannot be revoked even by said nation.

For this to work, though, for the “mission statement” of the United States to make sense, one has to accept that all men are, in fact, equal. But, of course, the very men who signed this document did not believe this to be the case. The man who wrote it certainly didn’t believe it, or, if he did, he was primed for a very awkward encounter with his slaves (who would be explicitly decreed a fraction of a person each), and an uncomfortable night at home, with the wife that he and his colleagues had forgotten to include in the franchise.

We’re off to a rough start with what is more or less the single most “sacred text” on the continent, excluding of course religious scriptures. It did not have full buy-in from its authors and signatories, and certainly was not applied in any broad sense. If we presume that the word “men” in “all men are created equal” was intended to mean “humans,” it was an utterly unfulfilled idea. And if it was meant in the narrow sense of males, the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote still gives the lie to this assertion.

Not much of a sacred text then.

Interestingly, subsequent generations have broadened the meaning of “all men” to include more or less all human persons, at least in definition if not in practice. Despite enormous resistance, it seems to get broader all the time. And a lot of that progress has to do with the fact that so many of us today treat the opening words of the Declaration of Independence as a sacred text, in a way that its authors and signatories clearly did not.

But let us be coldly rational for a moment. Are all humans created equal? Of course we aren’t. We are unequal physically: not only do we come in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, but some of us are born with catastrophic conditions, and some with mind-boggling natural talents and innate geniuses. Beyond biology, we are born into different geographies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages to flourishing depending on any number of factors from availability of natural resources to whatever form of government manages the people within one’s borders. We are born with different tastes in food, sex, art, and activities. We are born into different stations in life, some into wealth and rank, others (most?) into abject poverty, and desperation. We each, individually, then take our collected circumstances, and make vastly different choices about how we will go about our lives. To assert flatly that we are created equal is so astoundingly and blatantly incorrect that it implies a fundamental problem of word comprehension on the part of the speaker.

Does this throw the entire human experiment in democracy, and well, humanism itself, into the toilet? Of course not: we still have some degree of agency here. And the founders, narrow as they were in their definitions, helped us out with this.

As a humanist myself (and a secular one at that), as much as I revere the broadened meaning ascribed to “all men are created equal,” the most meaningful words in all of America’s founding documents are actually its first:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

It is most decidedly not self-evident that all humans are created equal, for the reasons previously mentioned and an infinite number more. But the Declaration says that we will behave as though it is. It does not say, “Whereas it is self-evident that all men are created equal,” but “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We have decided, on our own, using our fallible human brains, that we will act as though all men are created equal and form our government around this noble fiction.

I derive great inspiration and resolve from this. In the face of staggering inequality among the human population (where, in America alone, there were slaves and royalty, aristocrats and massacred indigenous people), these men said that their new nation would begin its very existence with those words, which amount to an admission that this founding idea of equality was entirely anthropogenic. God did not say we were all equal, and there was nothing embedded in our genes to tell us this by instinct. We just decided to think that way.

That part of the text is particularly sacred to me. It is both humble, in that it admits to being wholly invented, as well as grandiose, in that it means to act on this invention and use it to build an empire of the people.

This is all very well; we have announced our intentions as a people to treat each other equally, but, why? Because it seems nice? To what end? Evidence suggests that treating all human persons as though they were equal, even if they are not inherently, increases overall human happiness. Throughout the democratic world, where societies have rejected the official codification of castes, class distinction, and discrimination and disenfranchisement based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, things have been better. Where everyone gets the same relative shot at an education, at employment opportunities, at business transactions and patronage, at social interaction, the society as a whole flourishes, leading to more opportunities and more happiness.

We are, of course, fallible humans, so we still manage to screw it up, but because this is science, we get to keep trying. It takes a long time to go from experiment to experiment, and the failed experiments can often be devastating, but we do learn. And through all the twists and turns civilization has taken in modern history, and the roller coaster ride on which democracies have taken their citizens because of varying interpretations of equality, it remains pretty obvious that those societies that act on the fiction of equality across the board contribute more to overall human happiness than those that do not. That means that even for self-serving narcissists, it makes more sense to back a system based on equality than inequality, if for no other reason than that because it tilts the odds for happiness in your favor.

Many plays begin with an acknowledgement that what the audience is about to see is fake. The opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V is not only an acknowledgement, but also an apology:

…But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…

This thing you are about to experience is a fiction, we are told, but we need you to buy into it. It won’t work otherwise. Excuse the fact that it’s obviously not true, and go with it, and we will all benefit. You’ll have a wonderful time at the theatre, and we actors will get paid. And when it’s over, we all know that it was just a show.

Knowing that these are our goals, to entertain a crowd and keep a troupe of performers employed, we can take the text given to us by the playwright and make the best of it, without treating it as immovable. We can remain true to the spirit of the play, but cut lines where necessary, make acting and staging choices that enhance the experience of the performance but may not be explicitly called for in the text. We can do all that because we know that our aim is not to robotically recite thousands of lines of verse, but to deliver an experience of art and entertainment. We need not treat the text as “sacred” in the theological sense, though we can revere it.

Ostensibly, the aim of government is to establish the parameters of societal behavior within which human happiness can be maximized. So we make rules and laws, and we establish systems and methods for carrying them out. If we follow each one to the letter, rigidly enforcing their literal meanings through all time and in all scenarios, we miss the chance to experiment and improve. If we follow the spirit of these laws and rules and systems, we offer ourselves more of a chance to make things better for everyone affected. If we were to treat “all men are created equal” as a sacred and inerrant expression of divine will, the majority of the American population would still be left out, and human happiness would be severely stultified, capped at the happiness of males, presuming we are at least not limiting this definition to white, property-holding males.

It is a remarkable thing, to see a theatrical performance in which the play itself acknowledges its own artifice. It is liberating for audience and actor alike to openly agree that we will all now consent to a fiction for the purpose of maximizing the happiness of the evening.

It is astounding that we could do the same when building a society. We can admit to ourselves that while our collective equality may be a fiction, yet we will hold it as a self-evident truth in order to maximize human happiness over the span of generations. The rest of the words in our play—in our constitutions, in our law books, in our manifestos, in our declarations and proclamations—are there to uphold the spirit of that idea, the idea of universal equality as a means to the general well-being. This suspension of disbelief is difficult, for some more than others, but once we all buy in, we can enjoy the hell out of the show.


It would be really nice of you if you’d support my work through Patreon.

Surround Yourself with Books, Save Humanity


Although I certainly have little patience for the fetishization of books as decorative status symbols, I have a deep affection for the physical, dead-tree book as a medium. Unlike an electronic device, to see and hold a single volume is for me to feel the thoughts and ideas it contains seething within its closed pages, like there is a flow of energy that is eager for a conduit through which it can propagate. I love that. And I feel it both before and after having read a meaningful book.

As a consumer of books, however, I also find ebooks almost miraculous in their convenience and utility. In a single device I can have literally thousands of books at the ready, which expands to millions if my device is connected to the Internet. I can infinitely annotate these books, entirely nondestructively. The device even provides its own damn reading light. Books feel great, I adore them, but to dismiss the ebook and particularly ebook readers like the Kindle is absurd.

But in one crucial way, ebooks’ greatest strength also is their greatest weakness. And I mean weakness, not flaw, as I’ll explain.

I’m thinking about this because of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book that is all at once easy, enriching, and gut-wrenching to read. Among Snyder’s 20 lessons for avoiding life under some kind of Trumpian Reich are his recommendations that we a) support print journalism and b) read more books. Now, it’s fairly obvious why good journalism needs to be bolstered in times such as these, for it may very well be the last layer of defense we have from a media entirely made up of propaganda. He writes:

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money.

That’s very clear. But by print journalism, does he merely mean deeply researched, sourced, and fact-checked reporting regardless of medium, or does he also mean that this quality journalism must be, by necessity, literally printed on paper? I’ll return to that in a bit.

Back to books. Right now, my 7-year-old son is enamored with a series of kids’ nature books in which one animal is pitted against another in a “who would win” scenario (like crab vs. lobster or wolverine vs. Tasmanian devil, for example). He’s collected eight or so of these slim little books, and he loves them so much, he’s taken to carrying them – all of them – around with him wherever he can.

“Daddy, I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but these books have just made me, well, love books!”

I’m delighted that he’s so attached to these books, that he has this affection for them. I know that wouldn’t be possible if he only had access to their contents on a tablet. The value of the content is no different, but he can show his enthusiasm in a real, physical way that a digital version wouldn’t allow. The objects, being self-contained with the words and pictures he loves, take on more meaning. And by assigning so much meaning to the objects, he imbues the content itself more meaning too.

What does a kids’ book with a tarantula fighting a scorpion have to do with resistance to tyranny? Let’s see what Snyder has to say about the contrast between books and digital/social media:

The effort [of propagandists] to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

Snyder cites examples from dystopian literature in which the fascist state bans books and, as in 1984, the consumption of pre-approved electronic media is monitored in real time, and in which the public is constantly fed the state’s distortion and reduction of language, all “to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future.“

What we need to do, what we owe it to ourselves to do, is to actively seek information and perspectives from well outside official channels, to fortify our consciousness from being co-opted and anesthetized, and to expand our understanding of the world beyond the daily feed. Snyder says:

When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

But what if the screen is displaying the same concepts as those books? “Staring at a screen” when one is reading an ebook is a very different practice than staring at it for Facebook-feed-induced dopamine squirts. Even more so if the screen with the ebook is on a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, which intentionally withholds many of the distractions immediately available on a phone or tablet. Heck, I read Snyder’s book on my Kindle.

You won’t see me arguing that ebooks are inferior to physical books when we’re talking about the usual day-to-day reading of books, hell no. But in the context of this discussion, think about how we get ebooks onto our devices. They exist digitally, of course, and in the vast majority of cases they come from a given corporation’s servers with the ebook files themselves armed with some kind of digital rights management in order to prevent anyone from accessing those files on a competitor’s device. (Not all ebook sales are done this way, but they are very much the exception.) When we buy an ebook, in most cases, we’re not really “buying” it, we’re licensing it to display on a selection of devices approved by the vendor. And so it is with most music and video purchases.

Those ebooks are then transmitted over wires and/or wireless frequencies that are owned by another corporation, access to which we are once again leasing. So even if you are getting DRM-free, public domain ebooks in an open format like ePub that is readable on a wide variety of devices, you probably can’t acquire it unless you use a means of digital transfer that someone else controls.

You see what I’m getting at. Ebooks come with several points of failure, points at which one’s access to them can be cut off for any number of reasons. Remember a few years back when, because of a copyright dispute over the ebook version of 1984 (of all things), Amazon zapped purchased copies of the book from many of its customers’ Kindles. It didn’t just halt new sales, or even just cut off access to the files it had stored on its cloud servers. It went into its customers’ physical devices and deleted the ebooks – again, ebooks they had paid for. Customers had no say in the matter.

This was more or less a benign screwup on Amazon’s part. Presumably it had no authoritarian motives, but it makes plain how astoundingly easy it is for a company to determine the fate of the digital media we pretend we own.

This is about permanence. A physical book, once produced, cannot be remotely zapped out of existence. While some fascist regime could indeed close all the libraries, shut down all the book stores, and even go house to house rounding up books and setting them ablaze, physical books remain corporeal objects that can be held, passed along, hidden, smuggled, and even copied with pen and paper by candlelight. If the bad guys can’t get their actual hands on it, they can’t destroy it. And it can still be read.

But for ebooks, all it would take would be a little bit of acquiescence from the vendor (or the network service provider, or the device manufacturer) and your choice to read what you want could be revoked in an instant. Obviously, the same goes for video, music and other audio, and of course, journalism. The ones and zeroes that our screens and speakers convert to media can be erased, altered, or replaced and we wouldn’t even know it was happening until it was too late.

Physical books, along with print journalism (literal print), come with real limitations and inconveniences that electronic media obviate. But those same limitations also make them more immutable. It fortifies them and the ideas contained within them. Though constrained by their physical properties, they also offer the surest path to an expanded, enriched, and unrestricted consciousness. One that, say, an authoritarian state can’t touch.

Here’s an example of what I mean, once again from Snyder, with my emphasis added:

A brilliant mind like Victor Klemperer, much admired today, is remembered only because he stubbornly kept a hidden diary under Nazi rule. For him it was sustenance: “My diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a thousand times.” Václav Havel, the most important thinker among the communist dissidents of the 1970s, dedicated his most important essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” to a philosopher who died shortly after interrogation by the Czechoslovak communist secret police. In communist Czechoslovakia, this pamphlet had to be circulated illegally, in a few copies, as what east Europeans at the time, following the Russian dissidents, called “samizdat.”

If those had been the equivalent of online articles, they’d have been deleted before they ever reached anyone else’s screens.

There’s one additional step to this, one more layer of intellectual “fortification.” It’s about the act of reading as something more than a diversion, more than pleasure. Because if we only read the digital content that’s been algorithmically determined to hold our attention, or even if it’s one of our treasured print books that we read for sheer amusement, we’re still missing something.

Today I happened to see Maria Popova of Brain Pickings share a snippet from a letter written by Franz Kafka to a friend, in which he explains what he thinks reading books is for (emphasis mine):

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

We don’t need books to achieve mere happiness. To expand our intellectual and moral horizons; to give our minds the armor they need to withstand the assaults of misinformation and stupification; to be made wiser, more empathetic, and more creative than we are, we need to read those books that affect us, “like a disaster” or otherwise.

To fully ensure that we have those books, that they can be seen and held and smelled and shared and recited and experienced outside the authority of a state or corporation, they need to be present, corporeal objects. They need to exist in the real world.

So, please, do use that Kindle for all it’s worth; use it to read all the books that wake you up, blow your mind, and change your life.

But also, if you can, surround yourself with books. In a very real way, they might just save us all.

Books: Too Sexy for Words

I love physical books. I also love my Kindle Paperwhite and I also love my iPad. All of them are wonderful objects, and oh yes, they allow me to read. The reading, you see, is the important part.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from the testimonials of some who dismiss ebooks and swear only by physical codices. In her essay in The Guardian, Paula Cocozza gives a slight nod to the pleasures of reading on paper versus screens, which I do not disagree with, but much of the column is a celebration of the physical book, not for its contents, but for its physical properties and how they can be creatively embellished upon:

Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it. Summerhayes thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art … Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says.

Do they? And if they do, well, so what? People want sexy-looking everything!

This obviously doesn’t speak to the superiority of books over ebooks as means to reading. It’s a display of fetishism for a product, the reduction of the book from medium to fashion item. If overly expensive smartphones are gaudy status symbols, then what do you call artsy displays of shelved volumes that are never actually opened?

I’ve actually come to appreciate physical books more than ever lately as I have tried very hard to steer my attention away from the constant stress and panic of social media. Kindles are actually great for that all on their own, since they can’t do much of anything other than display, notate, research, or purchase book content. (Oh, and they’re self-illuminating, which is a huge leg up on mere paper.) But there is that one additional step of removal from the online swarm that one can achieve with a physical book that is often deeply refreshing, and I am finding at times necessary. I am re-learning to treasure that.

And as much as I do appreciate a book’s physical properties (yes I am one of those “I love the smell of old books” weirdos), I don’t concern myself with books as art objects or accessories. My positive associations with books as objects, the reason I like the smell of paper, dust, and glue, has almost entirely to do with what’s inside them, how the words affect me, and how the experience of reading saves me from the world.

It’s fine to argue that physical books are better than ebooks. But if all you’re talking about is which makes for a better subject for photographic projects, you’re missing the whole point.

# # #

Because you like me so much, please consider supporting my work financially through Patreon.

Emulating Abed

Abed Nadir from the show Community is, apparently, supposed to have Asperger’s syndrome, though it’s never stated explicitly in the show (I’m only on season 2 so maybe there’s more coming). As a newly-minted Aspie, I can’t help but look to his portrayal as a means to better understand myself. Of course I know that this is a highly fictionalized portrayal of an Aspie, and that the show itself exists in a kind of magical reality in which Abed is not only different but almost superhuman in some ways.

But along with being an oddball with Asperger’s, he’s also beloved. Not just in spite of, but because of his quirks, he’s adored by fans and the characters in his world. I can’t help but envy that.

One of Abed’s marquee quirks is his obsession with movies, and his desire to reenact them. Though fully secure with himself (as he even tells his friends in the first season), he nonetheless sees life through the lens of well, lenses. Movie camera lenses. In his mind, he frequently hops in and out of the personas and scenes of films.

I wonder if this isn’t itself a clue to the Aspie mind. As I grew up, and became increasingly alienated from my peers and the culture at large, I looked to the screen to instruct me on how to be. Since no one ever enrolled me in a course in “how to be a person in the world,” I had to look to the television to fill me in. How did people actually talk to each other? What did they wear? What did they value? What did they feel hostile toward? What kinds of people did they avoid or hate? What did they do with their hair? How did they stand or sit? What was funny to them? What quirky traits could be accepted or loved by others, and which ones would they reject? TV, and popular culture, was all I had to go on. I studied it when I should have been studying my schoolwork.

I think I may have had this tendency to look for role models on TV and in popular culture even before the feelings of alienation set in. This is where the overlap with Abed comes in. Because maybe if I’d never felt so utterly rejected by the normals, I’d have continued to model the behavior of fictional characters, but benignly, as a pastime that could inform creative endeavors.

So let’s look back. Let’s pop into the mind of Paul at different stages in his life to see who he considered modeling himself after and why. Maybe we…well, maybe I can learn something from the exercise.

Charlie Brown

I was not unhappy in my single-digit years, but I knew I was different. I knew I was good-different in more ways than I was bad-different, a state of mind I can barely imagine now. I knew I was smart and funny, but I also thought about things like death and futility and longing and why we bother doing the things we do. I also thought of myself as something of a screw-up, even though I can’t remember why I thought that. I mean, what had I had a chance to screw up when I was 7? I think I lost at a lot of games. And, well, anything involving sports.

Anyway, Charlie’s angst rang very true to me. His despair was like an echo of something I didn’t know I’d already been hearing in my own mind. He couldn’t quite understand why the people around him did what they did, and neither did I. I think at that age I assumed I’d eventually understand other people, and that Charlie would too.

Alex P. Keaton

Around the age of 9 or so, I decided that I would contradict by parents’ politics and declare myself a Republican, all because Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties was. Alex’s values were orthogonal to those of his family, but he was also intellectually superior and had a cutting wit. I admired that deeply, and being as short as Michael J. Fox, I appreciated this example of a loved lead male character who stood out for his brains. And his quirks. So I could be a Republican and a hyperintellectual. Wrong on both counts.

Judge Harry Stone

Harry couldn’t stop performing. He didn’t really belong on the bench, as he explained in the first episode. Technically qualified, he was the bottom of the barrel for judges, and his behavior baffled all those around him. Card tricks, dumb jokes, and a glorification of the past all served to alienate Harry from the already-bizarre world of Night Court, and yet as the show went on, his quirks went from an annoyance to a source of nurturing, his goofiness was an indication that you were safe in this place. In a crazy world, the crazy — and good — man was king.

I was funny. Right? I was smart. Wasn’t I? I was misunderstood, but given time I thought people could come around and find my oddness reassuring. I could don the hat, make the jokes, and maybe even learn to love Mel Torme.

Data

An aspirational ideation. I knew I wasn’t and could never be as intellectually and physically superior as Data the android was, but like me, he found the behavior of those around him impossible to intuit. When he tried to ape their behavior, the results were comical, and would have embarrassed anyone who was capable of feeling embarrassment.

But he wasn’t! He just kept trying! He had no feelings!

In middle and high school, the time this show was in full swing, I would have loved to have had no feelings. I couldn’t emulate Data, but only wish to be him.

Comedians

I realized that my only chance to survive middle school and high school would be through humor when my rip-off of Dana Carvey’s George Bush impression garnered laughs even from bullies and popular kids. I obviously wasn’t an athlete, nor was I sufficiently proficient in academics to ever be considered one of the “smart kids.” I could be the funny one, though.

A great deal of my pop culture study was devoted to comedians, who won approval through the inducement of laughter. I could do all of Carvey’s impressions, which came in handy. In the meantime, I absorbed every ounce of wry standup that I could, from Dennis Miller to George Carlin to David Letterman. Yes, even Seinfeld. They stood outside the world and revealed its absurdities. I stood outside the world, so I could do the same, right?

But to emulate those comedians that I watched at all hours of the night, every night, I’d need to display a level of confidence that, while probably also faked by many of those comics, I could never, ever muster. Yes, I’d develop my comedic skills, but I’d never be able to live them.

Garp, etc.

After college I got into John Irving novels. I don’t relate to wrestling, the German language, or bears, but I do relate to men who seek to be writers and have trouble making sense of their relationships to other people. I tried to imagine myself in those roles, in the life of Garp, John Wheelwright, or, even more strongly, Fred Trumper (lord, does that name not work anymore). While I certainly didn’t want to experience the tragedies that seemed to rain down on some of his characters, I did aspire to the lives of the mind they had achieved, all the while aware that they didn’t quite belong in the worlds they inhabited, due to their own failings, passions, and, yes, quirks. They were outsiders, but managed to thrive on the inside nonetheless.

Sam Seaborn, Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler

As my thoughts moved from theatre to politics in my middle to late 20s, I saw much to envy in the fictional working lives of the characters of The West Wing. In Sam, I emulated his intense earnestness and desire to communicate that earnestness through prose. In Josh, I emulated his ability to find novel solutions to bizarre situations, despite his bafflement and his obliviousness to the effects of his own behavior. In Toby, I emulated his concision, his brusqueness, and the intentional concentration of his wit, experience, and intelligence.

But in Toby I also shared his weariness, his impatience for niceties and for the extraneous. (His advice to Will to eschew pop culture references, because they gave a speech “a shelf life of twelve minutes,” truly struck a chord with me.) And what hit me in the gut the hardest were the words of his ex-wife with whom he longed to reunite. “You’re just too sad for me, Toby.” I was too sad, too.

Blackadder, House, Sherlock

Unapologetic jerks have always held a special attraction for me in the idolization game. Not because they were jerks, per se, but because they were almost entirely uninterested in how their behavior, which included the cold analysis of the normal people around them doing ridiculous normal-person things, impacted their standing with others. If something needed saying, they’d say it. Or even if it didn’t need saying, because, well, fuck it!

Blackadder almost doesn’t count here, because he was a conniver, and an amoral one. But his verbal evisceration of those in his way (despite his failures to overcome them) was liberating to me in its own way, even though I never attempted to mimic him.

House and Sherlock, however, have been hinted to be Aspies themselves, their incredible intellects a kind of superpower that has allowed them to thrive among the normals despite the pain they cause. With all three of these characters, I envied — I envy — their shamelessness, as in, their total lack of shame for who they are. It’s not even conscious. They obviously didn’t “decide” to disavow the approval of others, it just simply isn’t a factor in their view of themselves. Forget being a clever jerk. Heck, forget being clever at all. I’d just like to have that superpower of shamelessness.

Odo

This is less about someone I wish to be like, and more about a character I suddenly understand and feel for in a striking new way.

Though he takes a humanoid form as best he can, no one thinks Odo, the changeling, really looks like them. He doesn’t understand humanoid behavior, but he does try to map it out in order to follow others’ motivations and how they lead to actions. He is impatient with the things that humanoids seem to find fulfilling and important, which to him seem pointless and wasteful. He comes off as mean when he doesn’t intend to. He craves companionship, but knows he can’t have it. And when it all comes down to it, when he’s tired of pretending to be one of the “solids,” he must — absolutely must — return to his bucket. He must resume his true liquid form, stop pretending, find total solitude, and rest.

Odo wasn’t someone I related to when Deep Space Nine first aired. But he is now.

Kirk Gleason, Abed Nadir

This brings us to today. I’ve previously written about Kirk from Gilmore Girls, how I so admire not his weirdness, per se, but his ownership of his weirdness. Do the people of Stars Hollow find Kirk a bother? Do they think he’s terribly strange? Do they find many of his actions troubling, annoying, or even destructive? Hell yes. But he doesn’t care. And he seems to fit in all the more for not caring.

Abed cares, but about the right things. He isn’t normal, and he knows it. His abnormality doesn’t bother him, nor does it bother him that people don’t get him, just as he doesn’t get them. He isn’t bothered until something about him hurts his friends or pushes them away. Then he adjusts. But not from a place of shame, but as an acknowledgement that his quirks aren’t always compatible with all the people he cares about. His adjustments are out of love, not out of shame.

“I’ve got self-esteem falling out of my butt,” says Abed. “That’s why I was willing to change for you guys. When you really know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for other people isn’t such a big deal.”

I’m not as smart as Abed. I’m also not as overtly weird as Abed. And Abed isn’t real. But dammit, Abed, I want to live like that. Maybe one day I can be more like Abed when I grow up.