Frivolity to Grow Your Soul

These are all connected in my mind.

First, Alan Jacobs’ “commonplace Tumblr” quotes Auden (of whose work I am almost entirely ignorant): 

If a poet meets an illiterate peasant, they may not be able to say much to each other, but if they both meet a public official, they share the same feeling of suspicion; neither will trust one further than he can throw a grand piano. If they enter a government building, both share the same feeling of apprehension; perhaps they will never get out again. Whatever the cultural differences between them, they both sniff in any official world the smell of an unreality in which persons are treated as statistics. The peasant may play cards in the evening while the poet writes verses, but there is one political principle to which they both subscribe, namely, that among the half dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.

Still in the afterglow of this, I read this next bit from Patrick Rhone, writing about writing. First, he quotes Vonnegut:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.*

Let’s tie it all up. Now Rhone himself:

I think a lot of people put stuff out there for a few years, just like I did. And, because success does not come after three, four, etc. years or they don’t get the attention they deserve or they don’t meet even the lowest bar they set, they feel like they are wasting their time. As if their art is a cell on a spreadsheet that needs to have some dollar sign attached to it (it does not and should not). I think there is a lesson here that could help them…

Create daily. Don’t have any other measure of success other than making something you are happy and proud of, right now, and put it out there for the world to see. Do this for twenty years. Then, even if the world does not come to see, ask yourself if this made your soul grow. Did your art get better? Is it something you can point at and be proud of? I can guarantee the answer will be yes.

And what was that twenty years for? Frivolity, play. It didn’t have to be monetized or viral or universally lauded or even read by anyone to have had value to you. You were playing. It’s that thing that civilization has blessed so many of us with, and for which, yes, we have to fight: the time to be frivolous.

The lesson: Grow your soul for twenty years, for forty, sixty, etc., by seeding it with play. And give less of a damn about your rewards for your play, and more of a damn that you are able to play at all.

I should note, I have not yet learned this lesson.

* Vonnegut was an atheist, so of course his “soul” is metaphorical.


The One Unwelcome Intrusion on the Near-Perfect “Gravity”

Having just now seen Gravity with my wife this weekend, I have a feeling that I had more faith in the movie’s power than even the filmmakers did. 

I realize I’m a little late to the party, but allow me to first add to the chorus of saying that Gravity is an extraordinary film, unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen, a genuine triumph of the medium. It’s also one of those extremely rare films in which an IMAX 3D showing really does mean something to the complete work, in that it’s a gimmick, and it’s not about “tricking” you into thinking what you’re looking at is actually in three dimensions, but in that it skillfully and tastefully takes advantage of the illusion of depth and change of focus to give an almost overwhelming sense of the immensity of the setting, the sheer vastness of the stage on which the film is set.

I loved it, and that’s why I’d like to see one simple but major change that I suspect (but am not sure) might have done a world of good.

I’d love to see a verion of Gravity, in its full, IMAX 3D glory, without the music, without the underscore.

 (Hereafter be spoilers!)

One of Gravity’s great strengths is how “natural” it feels. Despite any fudging of physics the filmmakers may have perpetrated, the film is harrowing and tense before anything bad has even happened. We are engrossed and tense right along with Dr. Stone from the first moments. When danger strikes, the stakes are obvious, and terrifying all by themselves. Later, when there are triumphs, they feel collossal, all on their own — because of what is happening before our eyes and from the sounds of the events and the environment.

I felt that the music often intruded on this. There’s the vast empiness of space, the simultaneous claustrophobia and vertigo of the spacewalks, the chaos and terror of the debris invasions and impacts, the physical and psychological struggle to reach each new phase of the attempt to escape. None of it, not a whit of it, needed any help from the outside. And the underscoring came from the outside.

It felt unnecessary, for one thing. But it also felt condescending, like someone was standing at the front of the theater with signs and a bullhorn telling the audience how to feel. (“Okay, now you’re really scared! This thing that’s happening now is very bad!!!”)

So what if they had tried a version without the music? The music itself was fine, but it was in the way. I didn’t need it. Give it to us at the closing credits, fine, but not a note until then. Have a little more trust in the film you’ve already made, before adding on an artificial layer of emotional button-pushing. Believe me, it’s already a doozie.

Stretching Awake on the Rooftops of Tarbean

If you have ever slept the whole night without moving, then awoke in the morning, your body stiff with inaction. If you can remember how that first terrific stretch feels, pleasant and painful, then you may understand how my mind felt after all these years, stretching awake on the rooftops of Tarbean.

I spent the rest of that night opening the doors of my mind. Inside I found things long forgotten: my mother fitting words together for a song, diction for the stage, three recipes for tea to calm nerves and promote sleep, finger scales for the lute.

My music. Had it really been years since I held a lute?

Words by Patrick Rothfuss, art by Matt Rhodes

Apple’s “Verse” Ad Claims the Humanities, Delineates the iPad Line

So the first thing that’s notable about the new iPad “Verse” ad is not just that it’s a reinforcement of the Steve Jobs line about Apple being about the intersection of technology and the humanities, but that it outright claims the territory in its entirety. The iPad, this ad tells us, is the Humanities Device. Other tablets and mobile devices will have all manner of specifications and gimmicks – be it native stylus integration, feature parity with a traditional laptop, an emphasis on office and productivity, etc. – but the iPad is for “poetry, beauty, romance, love,” or, at least, the expression of those things through technology. It’s kind of a bold mantle to claim, especially to do it so overtly. The iPad is for creativity and living, all the other devices are just computers.

The second thing that strikes me is that this is not an ad for iPads generally, but specifically for the iPad Air. The iPad mini is not mentioned, and while I couldn’t quite tell from the fast-cut footage of the ad, I presume it wasn’t shown.

So what’s that about? Is the Mini not about poetry and beauty? Apple could have ended the ad with only the word “iPad” in the final text, but it chose specifically “iPad Air.” Now, okay, this could be for any number of banal reasons: the iPad Air is a newer brand than the Mini and so needed the extra marketing push; the Air is more available from a production standpoint than the Mini, so Apple wants to sell more of those sooner; or, who knows, maybe another ad in the same vein is coming for the Mini.

But I think Apple make these weighty statements of the company’s values without broader intention. More generally, I think it builds on the momentum of the “Misunderstood” ad, reinforcing Apple’s brand as one where technology and human emotion are complementary. But for the iPad line specifically, I think it confirms my own feeling about the differences between the two models, that they have different strengths. The iPad mini, though in many ways the technological equal of the Air, is simply not big enough to take full advantage of the platform’s creative powers. By mere dint of having a smaller screen, it’s more difficult to make stuff with it. The Air, however, with its big display, its lightness, and the fact that it’s almost too thin, begs to be a tool for creation.

On the other hand, the Mini excells as a casual consumption device, and I mean that in the best way. In my original review of the Air, I characterized it as a “zen device” which is easily and comfortably available to do the things I want to do on a computing device, as opposed to what I have to do (as I might on a laptop or smartphone). In many ways, because of its diminutive size and weight and Retina display, it’s arguably moreso that kind of zen device than the Air, if what you choose to do with it is lose yourself in a book or browse the Web or the like.

But if you want to then use a sketching app to illustrate your impressions of said book, well, you’re better off with an Air. If you want to experiment with a song inspired by the book, or type out a long form critique, or edit video of the video podcast review of the book, the Mini is not your best choice. To use the metaphor of Apple’s ad, the Mini will let you read a lot of verses very comfortably, and more easily and in more places. The Air, however, is the pen you’ll use write your verse.

If You Have Anything Bad to Say about Phil Collins, I Don’t Want to Hear It

The time has come for us nerds who really like Phil Collins to stand up. My friend and erstwhile musical collaborator Chris Seiler, who currently works as a sea, air, and space museum tour guide, has thrown down the gauntlet with this anecdote, originally posted to Facebook:

This will sound strange, but if you have anything bad to say about Phil Collins, I don’t want to hear it. He and his significant other, Dana Tyler, arranged a trip to our museum with his two kids and I got to walk them around. I asked them how long they wanted to stay and he replied “until we’re not having fun”. They stayed with me for two and a half hours. Very, very nice people. All four of them. I didn’t get to talk music with him, it really wasn’t the time or place for that, but I did get to talk to him a little about his experience with the Concorde jet, which is something I’ll get to pass on to people taking my tour.

If you have a problem with him as a musician, get over it. He was probably more surprised than you were when he became a superstar in the 80’s. He did some great drumming with the early prog-rock Genesis, was Robert Plant’s drummer of choice in the early 80’s and picked up the sticks when his buddy Eric Clapton called about playing the 2010 Prince’s trust concert, even though he had dislocated vertabre that made it almost impossible for him to sit behind a kit. He eventually became an incredibly entertaining, charismatic front man who made it cool to wear tennis shoes to prom. If you’re angry that he wrote the music for Tarzan, I’m sure your kids aren’t. Don’t rag on something that obviously isn’t written with you as the desired demographic. Instead, go find your old Abacab cassette and listen to “No Reply at All” or “Man on the Corner” and understand that he deserved his fame.

I agree with every word. Three points:

  1. Coincidentally, I read this just as I already had “Don’t Lose My Number” stuck in my head (technically I had my own version of it stuck in my head).
  2. Collins’ Tarzan soundtrack is awesome.
  3. Phil Collins is not the only really good songwriter in this post. Chris is an excellent songsmith himself.


Oh You Are Sick of Self-Love, Snarker

In a previous post, I responded to the recent discussion going on in Internet-land about snark vs. smarm by essentially declaring a plague on both their houses, lumping them together into the category of “snide.” Still, I didn’t feel like I’d quite gotten across what my problem was with snark and snideness, and then today I read Gary Olmstead’s take at The American Conservative, and I think he’s nailed it:

The problem with snarkers is not their truth-telling—what would society be without truth-tellers? Rather, the problem with snark is that it doesn’t have the good of society, or the bettering of the critiqued, at the center of its concern. The goal of snark is to make the critic look smart, funny, interesting. The snarky critic loves him or herself more than the critiqued—and thus, the snarky critic can attack, humiliate, and burn all they want, without personal remorse.

That’s it. It’s not just the toxicity of the tone of the snark, but true the intention of the snark-er. I included myself in the list of snark-wielding offenders, and let me tell you, I may feel a passion for mocking, say, the GOP presidential debate clown show — a passion is born of real desire to communicate the dangers they pose — but I do it mostly because I like getting the positive attention for my nugget-size zingers. Any performer or humorist who is being honest would tell you the same.

More Olmstead:

Smarm is bad. But the way in which we gleefully suck up snark’s sneering jabs is equally detrimental to society. Public discourse, in both cases, is more concerned with personal loftiness than truly elevating the needs and concerns of the public.

Snark is elevating to the snarker because it’s so digestable, a fun and somewhat-guilty rhetorical confection for the consumer. And we’re all getting fat and sick on it.


Why Apple’s “Sullen Youth” Ad Works, You Snide, Heartless Jerks

Maybe, like me, you’re not all that great with big family get-togethers during the holidays. Maybe, like me, you find yourself a little overwhelmed by all the reuniting, all the catching-up, all the big expressions of emotion. And maybe you’re even a “sullen teenager,” as I was many years ago, who is still figuring out how to behave around this weird mix of adults and children. Maybe you don’t always feel like you really know them, or know yourself, and maybe, like me, you just don’t thrive in that environment.

And maybe, if you’re like me, you also still love all of them a whole lot, and would like a way to show it.

That’s why Apple’s ad works. Technology and the Internet, represented in this ad by the iPhone, is what can allow us introverts to feel safe, and express ourselves more sincerely than we otherwise would be able. It’s not a crutch, it’s the amplifier, the translator. 

Maybe that sullen youth, who really does love his family, is more comfortable fiddling with his phone than “experiencing” everything so fully and physically, but you know what? That’s just who he is, and his family loves him too.

But you can go ahead and be snide, heartless jerks about it. Me and this fictional sullen youth who exists only in this corporate advertisement for a consumer product are used that.

Gorged on Snark

I was kind of on the same page with Tom Scocca and his anti-smarm essay at Gawker for the first chunk of it. He has some great zingers and I’m a sucker for a skillful thumb-biting at the successful intelligencia, for whom of course my envy is a deep, rich forest-green. But maybe 800 or so words in it dawned on me that, spirited as this essay was, it was getting out of hand. To say Scocca paints with too broad a brush is somewhat understating it. He’s attempting to reproduce a Seurat with a paint roller.

(The camel-injuring straw may have been the tagging of Mike Daisey, a Twitter-buddy of mine and fellow stage actor, with the word “fraud.” Mike screwed up royally with his whole This American Life episode, but classifying him in total as a fraud despite the astoundingly high quality of his body of work and the sincere passion with which he pursues the most difficult moral questions of our time, well, it showed me that Scocca was perhaps not to be taken all that seriously on this topic.)

Let me get to the premise, though. I’m not interested in the specific definitions of “smarm” and “snark” per se. They both roughly describe a flavor of communicating in which a message or statement is delivered in a way that implies the moral and intellectual superiority of the speaker. Sarcasm is usually involved, and the thrust of the message seems intended on taking any perceived failing of a given person, and treating it as definitive evidence of that person’s lack of value as a human being. The Gawker network swims in this attitude, and from my experience it’s the dominant currency on Twitter. Indeed, in the tweetosphere, there are some circles in which a timeline can begin to seem like a contest of who can exude the most cynicism for its own sake, who can appear to hover the farthest above the absurdities these silly “others” seem to be engaged in (political journalists and insiders is one in which I see this all the time, for example).

It is never constructive, but entirely destructive, as in; meant to dismantle or erode any integrity the subject of one’s ire or cynicism might possess.

In the hands of some, this mode can be executed smartly and entertainingly, but it must be in managable doses. But as it becomes a more and more dominant form of communication generally, especially online, it becomes poisonous. The air becomes thick with various groups’ and individuals’ revulsion for each other. Maybe the best word for it isn’t that it’s smarmy or snarky. It’s snide. Scocca’s piece is snide.

This bit from a rebuttal by Malcolm Gladwell caught my attention for this very reason. I, like many within the skeptosphere, have my issues with Gladwell (“turns out…”), but he’s got this one fairly spot on, and he uses a different term altogether that cuts to the bone a bit:

What defines our era, after all, is not really the insistence of those in authority that we all behave properly and politely. It is defined, instead, by the institutionalization of satire. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and “Saturday Night Live” and, yes, Gawker have emerged, all proceeding on the assumption that the sardonic, comic tone permits a kind of honesty in public discourse that would not be possible otherwise. This is the orthodoxy Scocca is so anxious to defend. He needn’t worry. For the moment, we are all quite happy to sink giggling into the sea.

It saddens me to think that an overabundance of satire may be what’s poisoning so much discourse, but in mulling that sentence of Gladwell’s, I find it feels rather true. Satire works best as an alternative, a clever contrast to the presumably stolid, milquetoast, absurd, or offensive status quo (which is perhaps why it was so desperately needed during the Bush years, for example, when so many things were genuinely so bad at so many levels). But when everything is expressed in satirical forms, there is nothing to contrast with. Satire cannot perform its function as a release, an informed refreshment from The Way of Things, if it becomes the very air we breathe.

And if sincerity is the only balm for overexposure to satire, well, we’re kind of awash in that, too, or, at least we are awash in sincerity’s bizarro-dopplegangers, sentimentality and overt righteousness. Which is a whole other thing.

I don’t really watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report anymore. True, I don’t subscribe to cable, but I avoid the avalanche of clips that are splattered around the Web. I don’t avoid them because they’re bad at what they do. Stewart and Colbert are masters of the form, and time was I would not miss an episode. But these days it’s all too much, and to tune in today is to simply expose myself to 22 minutes more of what I am already gorged on. I no longer watch or listen to some of my favorite lefty broadcasters anymore either for similar reasons – it’s one thing to report news from a political viewpoint, but it’s another to spend one’s air time gloating and guffawing at how silly one’s opposition is. And yes, fellow skepto-atheists, it may be why I don’t read your blog too.

I do snide sometimes. I do satire and sarcasm and snark, and probably smarm. All of them as forms and attitudes are useful rhetorical and comic tools. But like any tool, they have their optimal applications. Prince Hal advises us:

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

I’d love to be able to wish for satire and snark again.

www = IRL

No doubt you’ve seen some manifestation of a species of essay wherein the author goes cold turkey on the Internet for some length of time, and proceeds to discover themselves anew or some such. The proliferation of these pieces, and the moral or revelatory high ground they often claim often makes me roll my eyes so far back that I can read my own thoughts. That’s why this piece by Nathan Jurgenson was such a breath of fresh air. (Well, would have been a breath of fresh air, but for some of the dense and mostly-unnecessary in-text scholarly references — isn’t that what footnotes are for?) See here his take on this particular meme:

This concern-and-confess genre frames digital connection as something personally debasing, socially unnatural despite the rapidity with which it has been adopted. It’s depicted as a dangerous desire, an unhealthy pleasure, an addictive toxin to be regulated and medicated. That we’d be concerned with how to best use (or not use) a phone or a social service or any new technological development is of course to be expected, but the way the concern with digital connection has manifested itself in such profoundly heavy-handed ways suggests in the aggregate something more significant is happening, to make so many of us feel as though our integrity as humans has suddenly been placed at risk.

But has it? Certainly one can be on the Internet, or on one’s smartphone or what have you, “too much,” but what exactly that means has more to do with what one is doing while online than the percentage of one’s day is spent doing it. If you’re browsing Facebook for 12 hours a day, you have a problem, but the Internet’s not it.

Anyway, more to the point I want to get to, here’s Jurgenson again, talking now more generally about the position that somehow we’re all overdosing on iPhones, and the “disconnectionist” gurus who blatantly avert their eyes from Retina displays while aloft their high (and very real-life) horses:

The disconnectionists see the Internet as having normalized, perhaps even enforced, an unprecedented repression of the authentic self in favor of calculated avatar performance. If we could only pull ourselves away from screens and stop trading the real for the simulated, we would reconnect with our deeper truth.

This is what always bothers me about these types; the assertion or suggestion that we’re not being truly ourselves online. And as someone who has found the exact opposite to true, indeed, as one who has in many ways been redeemed by the Internet Age, I say, fuck that noise.

As I’ve now documented ad nauseum on this blog (and shall again!), I am a fairly severe introvert. Personal interaction in “the real world” with human beings corporeally in my presence is exhausting and stressful to me, even when said humans are those I love and trust. This has lead to a great deal of energy wasted on hiding myself, be it trying to blend in unnoticed in hostile-seeming situations (like school or when something horrible like sports are taking place), to presenting a falsely extroverted version of myself in evaluative situations like job interviews, or as a person who really enjoys small talk and networking, or any number of awkward, gawky masks — like those worn by actors of Ancient Greece, but so absurdly top-heavy as to make me stumble and topple over mid-choral ode.

With the exception of performing as an actual actor or musician on stage, the real world has been stifling to whoever or whatever the hell it is I “really” am.

Online I’ve found a taste of liberation. Not only do I feel more free to expound upon all manner of subjects, to make dumb jokes, and to promote myself with a sincerity I could never muster in meatspace, but perhaps more importantly, I more often feel at ease in simply explaining things about myself as a person, to talk about my kids and my day to day life, to unpack some of the mundane stuff as well as the heavier things. Behind the screen, at the keyboard, at the flick of the scrolling display, even in the midst of the cacophony of the Internet, I can communicate without so much of the same noise within my own mind, where each synapse second-guesses the next.

It’s not so much that I get to use the Web as some giant confessional with “like” buttons, but that I can just relax a bit more and talk about even boring and trivial things about myself, and even find it easier to be curious about others’ and their own trivialities, which I rarely am in physical space. I can breathe.

I’d be curious to know whether many or most of the folks who espouse disconnection are extroverts, if they are biased by their own inclination toward revitalization through in-person human contact, all within a “real world” already largely constructed around extroverted predilections. If I’m on to something, well, of course they see the online life as valueless, or as phony. It doesn’t serve their own needs. But for me, and I suspect for my kind, it’s the means of expression, the gateway into general society, that we’ve been waiting for. We’re damn lucky it came about it our lifetimes, and you better believe that for us, it’s real life.