I saw a boy tonight, surrounded by friends, as he threw up in an arena stall after an asthma attack. I waited for adults, but his friends took care of him. It made me feel very good about The State of Today’s Youth.
November 5th, 2013
Yesterday, Sierra picked up a book on the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Though the book was in English, the captions were still in French. She read them anyway.
“Less troys rosettes noter dayme dee paris est lun dess grands chefs dee lah churn-ten.”
Sierra is six, yet here she is, fearlessly hacking through incomplete French sentences as if they were just another set of words she hadn’t yet learned in first grade. To her, she’s simply learning to read, and these are new words. She doesn’t know it’s a new language because every word is part of a new language.
In each new incarnation of my professional career, I’ve been dropped into a new language, and I’ve pushed forward with fervor. When I first tasted call center middle management, I was eager and ready to work. When I became a copywriter, I devoured every resource. Now, in the impossible to contain web industry, I still find myself going off on tangents, assuming I’ll need to know everything about everything.
These early days allow us to work without history. They allow us to do what we think is right, without censorship, because we haven’t yet been proven wrong.
This happens with films and books and music. We launch ourselves into genres without regard to what’s considered “legitimate.” We fall in love with bands like Coldplay and Pearl Jam before we hear the negative reviews and backlash. We take it all in, because it’s all new to us.
Each failure tempers our exploration. We cut back on tasks and narrow our vision. We stop taking chances, because we know what we’re supposed to do.
But maybe we should just keep reading on, regardless of the content, regardless of whether or not it’s within our bounds. Of course we should learn from our mistakes, but maybe we should spend less time trying to prevent them in the first place.
Maybe we should pretend we’re French, even if only for a caption or two.
October 9th, 2013
I don’t have a lot of flying traditions. I ask for a Diet Coke. I play one game of Plants vs. Zombies. I look at the in-flight magazine long enough to realize that I already read it on my last flight, which coincidentally was the last time I felt the weight of being away from home, of being vulnerable, of suffering from the muddled emotions that come when pressurized at 10,000 feet over some midwest state.
BMOWP Classic Album
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
At this height, the emotion of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea becomes the equivalent of a hotel lobby bar, dark and distant and lonely. Aeroplane is my newest tradition, to the point that I no longer hear the story of Anne Frank; instead, I hear whatever emotion’s trapped in the airplane cabin. I hear a concept album roughly taped together like an ill-fitting puzzle. Songs that barely fit together meet in the middle as if participating in awkward diplomacy, every word telling a sad story that could be anyone’s sad story – mine, the guy in front of me, the flight attendant racing up the aisles.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the best 90s album I never heard until 2012, and I’m embarrassed to confide it took me so long.
No guitar should bring as much comfort as this guitar does; no lo-fi mic should add as much pain as this lo-fi mic does. No dream has pictured the weird normalcy the way this dream has played out, with pulleys and weights and ill-fated romance, somehow both poetic and stilted, insightful and weird.
Yeah, it’s a tired tradition to shine our sad times onto some tortured record. Of course it is. But listening to Aeroplane, we just can’t help ourselves.
And still, beneath all of that wrenched emotion and torture is a simple and beautiful record. Beneath the gritty acoustic guitar and messy rhythm section and that horn – every time, that fucking horn – lies simplicity at an Elliot Smith level.
(And that’s without bringing in the story we all identify as One Of The Saddest, a World War II angle that provides a story arc as tragic as The Antlers’ Hospice, trading howls and cancer for The Holocaust.)
For the past three weeks I’ve had a combination of hooks from each song stuck in my head. Think about that. An art album with hooks. An art album that gets stuck in your head. An art album about the Holocaust – THE HOLOCAUST! – that toes the balance between must-listen and emotional exhaustion, as if the only thing that can make us happier is remembering how hard everyone else has had it at one point in their lives.
There’s brilliance in creating an album that somehow walks the line between normal and slightly off-kilter. Because it’s not really normal. At times, the lyrics verge into @horse_ebooks territory (Ed: rest in peace, young horse), piecing together random metaphors that, through time, reveal themselves as not random at all. With the warbling inconfidence in Jeff Magnum’s voice and the vaugely Hawaiian guitars and the tortured sadness of the lyrics, Neutral Milk Hotel created something back in 1998 that they must have known they’d never do again. The characters. The endorsement of April Ludgate. THE HORNS. It’s a perfect storm of poetic awkwardness and earworm-ability that must make John Darnielle jealous.
In “Oh Comely,” Magnum writes, “Know all your enemies. We know who our enemies are.” Meanwhile, I write this post sitting miles above the ground, in an airplane over the Midwest. I miss my kids, and I’m in need of some sadness to crush my own. My enemies are exhaustion and insecurity, even among friends, and I accept Magnum’s story as comfort, knowing that everything in life is as awkward and tragic as the history we’ve made, and that by acknowledging that we can keep moving toward home safe knowing there’s no reason to grieve.
I don’t know who the King of Carrot Flowers is, but I know he pulls some of my strings.
August 19th, 2013
A professional photographer might take 1,000 shots over the course of a week, saving only a handful of those for future use. This is the first rule of digital photography: the more pictures you take, the better chance you have that some might turn out.
I’m no photographer. I’m just a guy with a camera, two kids, and a heart for the sentimental. But I still take a lot of pictures, and I hold each of my photos dear — all 25,000 I’ve taken over the life of my camera, and thousands more over the life of my phones. The portraits, the action shots, the mistakes, the over-edited Instagrams, the fading blurs that my children turn into as they scatter from the sound of the shutter. Click. One more. Click. And another.
I save about one of every three pictures I take. I edit a small percentage of those, and I post an even smaller percentage for the public — enough to curate a sort of public account of my family, from our first house to our first kid to our first major accident. In this way, my photos form into a loose hierarchy of archived history. The high points that are captured are strengthened by the white space in between, where no camera was present, but memory continues to cling to some details.
I began organising information not out of boredom or pickiness, but out of necessity. My memory often fails me, so I was driven to construct a sort of scaffolding through the organization fo tasks and terms, lists and calendars, sketches and memoirs. A rough draft of what I should probably remember, if my mind wasn’t so busy wandering through itself.
Because human memory is unreliable, to say the least, we have benefited from the invention of computer memory. Aided by technology’s ability to create a concrete organisation of our thoughts and achievements — files go here, folders go there, organised by date and relevance — we’re able to let our mind wander without fear of losing something important. We can focus on the important details because we have outsourced the process, with each idea safe and sound under several layers of machine technology.
We’ve always done this. We organise our recipes and we alphabetise our books. We go through mental checklists in our head as we invite friends to a summer barbecue, invisibly marking each name as they’re invited. We place similar dishes in the same cupboard to help our minds remember where they’re located. Now, these things are increasingly being handled with us.
Here’s where the great debate rages. Is this auto-classification causing us to lose our ability to remember menial information without the aid of a machine — phone numbers, appointments, even our own thoughts about a restaurant? Are we letting go of this information and allowing it to be filed away because we enjoy the convenience? Or have we stopped regarding personal details like birthdays and addresses as “things worth remembering”?
There was a time when I could tell you the phone number of everyone I knew. Now, I file them way, organised by last name, split into device and used only as reference. Those phone numbers are just details. Individually, they represent a single person’s contact information. Together, however, they represent the story of my social circle. They represent my family. Certain groupings remind me of conferences I’ve attended; other groups bring to mind college life.
My reliance on organisation is constantly battling my attempts to live in the moment. But there’s no way I could do one without the other. My life is organised so I can be free to live it, free from anxiety and disarray. Free to create something worth saving. Worth organising. We often think of organisation — whether through site architecture or classification or simple groupings — as a way of finding things, as a road map toward hidden ideas and actions. But we rarely think of organization as a form of memory, using the connections between items to form a better understanding of the things we’ve already experienced.
I love being a human. I love the emotions, the pain and the unpredictability. But I also love being able to rely on a system. A system that allows me to think lessa bout where my memories have gone, and more on how I can continue creating new ones. Our systems might distract us from living in the moment, but they also help preserve the moment long after we’d have otherwise forgotten it.
Folder by folder. Idea by idea. Memory by memory.
August 1st, 2013
At 8:45 PM, my bike becomes a land speeder, racing against time, dodging blinking lightning bugs and fighting against the wind. My goal is to get home before dark. My wheels creak and my tires give – both too old and neglected to handle many more rides. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember, yet every time feels like I’ve just learned how to stay up on two wheels.
My ass hurts. My legs are sore. Just a few more miles.
My arm tingles: I’ve been on the trail long enough that it’s starting to fall sleep. My bike doesn’t fit my body very well – in fact, it probably never did. It’s an issue I don’t bother with because next week (and it’s always next week) I’m going to buy a new one. I deserve it. After fifteen years, I’d say I’ve earned it. After two colleges, three cities, thousands of rides and hundreds of curse words directed at its unreliable gears and scraping brakes, this simple machine is ready to be put down for good.
My rides are getting longer, these days, though I still don’t play the part. I’m still missing the lycra shirts and the bike shorts, missing the toe clips and the slick helmets. I don’t race, and I don’t mosey. I don’t use my bike as transportation, or for exercise. I just use it as a thing I can ride. My skull looks like a shiny black mushroom, and my years-old Pacers shirt is becoming ragged. I bike in sandals and cargo shorts. I look like someone’s father. Which, I guess, is exactly what I am.
I ride through a pocket of cold river air, goosebumps forming. I wipe a gnat out from the corner of my eye and breathe in the smell of water and fish and mud. I dip away from the river and into a park, my tires like a machine gun over the wood slatted bridge as I exit the bike trail and head away from its endless loop. My ass still hurts.
And as the sun rests, my breath labored from the final hill, I look at my phone. It’s 9:05 PM, now, and I’m home. And all I can think about doing is getting back out for another ride.
June 13th, 2013
This blog post has been deleted three times in the past five days. Each time, it was close – close to being publishable, which is ridiculous, because anything is publishable. I have a blog. I have a submit button. I can make anything live.
But I don’t. Instead, I try again. I stop. I rewrite. I kill my darlings through massacre. We’re having a fire sale. Everything must go.
We read a lot. Every day. It’s paralyzing to see the amount of emotionally charged and culturally relevant writing that gets poured onto the web each day, each author with a unique voice, each piece an original place.
It’s hard not to want to be involved. It’s even harder to be involved. Because now that writing you used to love has shifted from leisure to benchmark. When you care so strongly about writing something amazing, it’s impossible to see other great writing as anything but necessary competition.
I have always been jealous of the writers for sites like The Pastry Box Project, who are asked to bare their souls to an audience eager for enlightenment, where raw emotion is turned into life lesson. I’m jealous for how easy they make it look. But this ain’t easy, people: the line between navel gazing self-flagellation and genuine personal insight is thin. It’s stepped over and brushed aside and it takes a genuine voice to keep things civil and free from pity.
Some of us try and fail. Not because we can’t do it, but because our internal monologue – familiar with this specific brand of personal emotion – says its all tired and go ahead just stop because jeez you’d be happier just eating another grilled cheese sandwich.
I’m one of these people. This is where the self-flagellation starts.
My writer’s block story is typical, boring and expected. Yet, it feels like a revelation to me – a classic case of forests and trees and not being able to see either for the blindfold.
For me, writing was never supposed to be about visibility. It was my way of making sense of things. I wrote because I wanted to. I wrote because it felt like a skill I could take advantage of.
But somewhere along the way, I became visible. I struck gold. Once. The audience expanded, and my work was thrust into the public. I became more careful. I started thinking things through. I saw my audience – you, the public – and I wrote consciously, with purpose. I tried to write things that would hit people emotionally. Then, I stopped writing anything but emotionally. I questioned each new piece as relevant. I didn’t write anything that wasn’t meant to strike a chord. I fact-checked too much. I threw away every idea as superfluous. I stopped having fun.
I stopped having fun.
I had answers for every situation. People don’t want to read some whiny kid talk about feelings, so I won’t do that anymore. People don’t want to read about sports, or music, so I won’t do that anymore. People don’t want to read about boring dad things, so I won’t do that anymore.
As my small scope of influence grew, I found myself less willing to offer any real kind of influence. I went safe, or I didn’t go at all.
The larger the audience, the more I withdrew. The riskier the subject, the more I held back. Which brings us to where I am today: I’ve stopped saying what I want, and I’ve started being afraid of being wrong.
I am afraid of being wrong. I am afraid of being trivial. I am afraid of publishing something that will be seen as unsatisfactory.
So I publish nothing at all.
The New Rules
When I started this blog in 2005, I did so as a hobby. I was going to teach myself to write by writing every day. The daily publishing routine kept me honest and kept me thinking – every topic was worthwhile as long as it interested me. As long as it fueled some kind of passion.
Somewhere along the way, I forgot what I was doing here. I forgot who my audience was.
That audience was always me.
And, as pedantic as it sounds, I am those things I stopped writing about. I am a whiny dude with feelings. I love basketball and music. I love my kids. These are major parts of my life, and I can write about them if I want to.
But I can also write about things that make me angry. I can state my immediate feelings without worrying about which people feel differently. I can write small posts about whatever the hell I want, because damn it why shouldn’t I?
Starting today, I’m becoming the audience again.
I will write for you, yes. I will write for you because I like you. I want you to like me. I won’t make that a secret. We all want to be liked.
But if you don’t, that’s no big deal anymore. That’s not the point.
Sorry in advance. Things might get a little noisier over here.
May 14th, 2013
My greatest flaw is my memory. I’d wager that it’s our greatest flaw as a species. Our inability to remember certain things. The stress and hurt and confusion that comes from those lapses in memory.
It’s because of my memory – and in spite of my memory, probably – that I found such affinity with the web: its organization, its structure, its ability to remember everything. Technology has replaced the sticky parts of our memory with a kind of semi-permanent record – a rolodex, a record collection, a calendar, a life connected by data and stored in a mythical cloud.
That’s good, right? Or are we losing something by depending on artificial knowledge like this?
The fine people at Offscreen Magazine asked me to write about something – anything – and this is what I landed on. It’s about photography. It’s about information architecture. It’s about my faulty memory. It’s about organization, its place in our life, and why it matters.
It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, too, this short essay.
You can’t read it online – not yet. When Issue 6 goes live, I’ll post “Life in Folders” for you. But out of respect for the magazine – and because, seriously, this magazine is fantastic and you should just buy it already because Nicole Jones‘ very short but very awesome thank you letter to the web is everything I’ve wanted to say for a long time – you’ll just have to purchase it or wait a bit.
It’s worth the purchase. I hope it’s worth the wait.