Meandering Thoughts about How to Encounter the World

One of the things about knowing the ultimate question is that you may ask it everywhere. And in asking it everywhere you run the risk of becoming an insolent grade-schooler new in the knowledge that they can ask the question “Why?” of anything. This gives rise to the risk that you use it to endlessly interrogate the world but never engage with it.

The phrase “strong opinions, weakly held” is just common enough that it entered my head when I thought of this situation. But I couldn’t comprehend it without some looking. In my looking, I came to understand the idea to mean that you should hold you’re opinions weakly because it allows you to find their flaws and drop them, but you should make them strong so that they’re interesting and worthy of discussion (and thus flaw-finding).

There’s a part of me that recoils from this idea. It seems like a magazine-cover personality: one week X is evil, next week Y’s the best thing ever, finally Z is found severely lacking but makes us aware that X is most excellent. It strikes me as more than a little schizophrenic.

People value some sense of consistency. Cries of hypocrisy come from a feeling that people who change opinions regularly can’t be trusted. And indeed someone telling me I’m still their friend while no other things they say seem internally consistent is, at best, worthy of doubt.

Those things said, it does seem true to my experience that tightly guarding your opinions — which is pretty much my default operational method — can drive people completely bananas. So if it’s true that strong opinions are necessary to interact with people productively, I can definitely support the idea of holding them weakly.

Nothing is worse than a strong opinion strongly held. Strong opinions strongly held are the reasons so many people are sanely turned off by discussions of politics and religion. When neither side is interested in a frank discussion of facts and opinions, the discourse almost necessarily degrades into an adversarial yelling match.

I’ve had an idea for an essay sitting around for a while: “Dancing with Disagreement”. The idea was exploring the “how” of the classic phrase “disagreeing without being disagreeable”. We know people can have opposing views about politics or religion but still like each other, spend time together, and get along well. But it’s very rarely seen in the culture.

It does seem to me that the secret to disagreeing well is, in some sense, “strong opinions weakly held”. If you view it as fundamentally and unmistakably true, for example, that man-made global warming is real and the most pressing issue facing the planet, you’re unlikely to be able to take seriously the idea that you should sit down and talk about your children with a man who believes that whole opinion is “so much liberal horsesh*t”. But hold that weakly, don’t let it derail a conversation, strive for a finding common interests, and you may just start to understand each other. And that may just be the best way to face the world.


Habits Matter

It has been more than a month since I posted here. And before a short streak of three relatively-consecutive posts, it had been nearly a month before that.

I say this not to apologize–it’s been far too long for that to be anything but hollow–but to demonstrate my point.

Around the start of June of this year, I broke the habit that had kept me filling words into this space on a regular basis. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which was a loss of time, ideas, and the feeling that it was necessary to write five times a week, Monday through Friday.

Breaking that habit–that constant pattern that didn’t let me escape without feeling guilty about how I wasn’t keeping to the plan–meant that I was free to interact with this space as I liked until such a time as I reestablished a habit of writing with a certain pattern of regularity. This certainly was a freeing act, but it’s also one that makes you suddenly look down and wonder what happened to your former prolific self.

I type this in a state of awe that I was ever able to write so much of, if not top quality stuff, at least six to eight paragraphs a day that I wasn’t embarrassed by. It seems like a stranger has replaced that prolific writer. Or perhaps that that prolific person was himself a stranger.

I don’t have a stirring conclusion, and my purpose isn’t to tell you to exercise three times a week so that you’ll have good health for far more years than you otherwise would. Though I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage you from physical fitness, I’m not in the business of telling people how to live their lives. But I’d guess that someone who is in that business is now trying desperately to convince a roomful of people of this fact that I’ve now learned on my own, through a series of months: Habits matter.

That’s not meant to judge habits. Some habits–lying regularly and recklessly, acting violently toward others–are galling. Some are undoubtedly bad, but not nearly so ugly. Your habit of having a cookie with lunch may not be doing your waist much help, but it’s hardly as bad as many other habits. And maybe you’ve got some incredibly beneficial habits, like sleeping eight hours a night, exercising regularly, and eating well.

Nor do I wish to encourage dogmatic adherence to your useful habits. Even those can be unnecessarily limiting if you spend too long fearing the impact that breaking them will have.

I just want to write this down so that I never forget: Habits matter.


Serendipity and Ephemerality

Making twilight more beautiful, since the dawn of time

Because I nearly missed it, and because it wasn’t going to be around long, I seemed far more concerned than anyone else that tonight’s twilight, in this time and place, was full of beautiful and unexpected colors, in beautiful and unexpected places.

I suppose it started with an ordinary decision to walk the dog. The pavement was still drying off after a short but torrential rain half an hour before, but the precipitation seemed to have stopped.

Once we were actually trudging along–with frequent stops to smell the bushes–I noticed that it was still raining. Not much, but a few drops more than “sprinkling.” And as we got toward the point of no return, it seemed to be picking up. “I guess we’ll just make this a loop around the block,” I thought.

But because I sometimes seem a plaything for the gods, even that light rain abated just as I approached the front door. And so, in a stroke of luck, I decided it was necessary to head off again.

And I’m so glad I did. The colors, the shapes, the shadows I saw. It was unquestionably one of the ten best sunsets and twilights I’ve seen in my life. I’m tempted to arbitrarily rank it at number two.

As the sun set over the mountains to the west, the yellow faded into orange and pink. But more interesting was the sight to the east, where a pink wall of clouds served as the backdrop for some curiously formed pieces of gray fluff. Further south, there was a billowy cloud. I’d call it a mushroom cloud but for the apocalyptic connotation.

There was, just past that, the slightest hint of a rainbow. Though gauzy and lacking definition, it seemed to be projected exactly onto another background of cloud. And directly south was a large gray thunderhead of a cloud. But in that large gray thunderhead of a could was some truly unexpected red. As if there was a command center, lit in red for dramatic effect, exactly in the middle of it. “Let’s really wow them tonight,” were the words that echoed out from that room.

As time went on, it changed magnificently. There was, for a time, a perfectly formed map of England, with just the slightest suggestion of Wales off to it’s west. There was also a dramatic looking dogpile, with just one more player running up to jump on top.

And it did, of course, become less brilliant. The pinks and oranges that were for a time vibrant, became duller, then grayish, now completely invisible. The sky was undeniably becoming a uniform dull gray as we hit the home stretch, but perhaps as a solitary reminder that it knew it put on a show, the sky offered, for a minute, a dull teal unlike anything I’d seen before. Red, pink, orange, blue, even yellow, these are color the sky has offered a million times before. A green, even a dull one, is an unquestionable oddity.

I was a little sad when even that hint of teal faded into a dull and darkening gray. The majesty, which it seemed no one else noticed, was gone. I’d seen a show few others did, but neither I nor they could enjoy it now. And even I would have missed it, if not for some inexplicable luck that made me realize that once around the block wasn’t really a long enough walk.

So here it is, my conclusion: beauty is heightened by it’s passing, elevated by all the times that it’s missed. Art that is widely recognized as possessing great beauty, therefore preserved endlessly and unchangingly in humidity and temperature controlled chambers, monuments to man’s effort to overcome ephemerality, are made less beautiful and less interesting for their persistence. The Mona Lisa may be nice, but her unchanging face makes her much less interesting than a sunset.


The Perfect Day

I was struck recently, by a bit of profundity in the oddest of places. Twitter, as you may know, is a “micro-blogging” system that allows you to post thoughts of at most 140 characters. It sounds like thoroughly pointless technology, but it was there that I found this:

so many different ways i could have lived this day. but i lived it just like this. and i suppose in that way – it was perfect.

“The perfect day” is a topic that people get fixated on a lot. They imagine what they would do if they suddenly knew–with a certainty all but impossible in real life–that they had 24 hours to live. Variations on the theme generally involve eating great food, keeping great company, and doing great things.

And simply, I think it’s absurd. This exercise is valuable only to the extent that it educates the listener about what the speaker believes to be the best things on earth. Maybe it’s Japan. Maybe it’s pastrami on rye. Maybe it drawing without getting distracted. Maybe it’s watching the sunset as many times as you can. But though these things are interesting to know, they don’t help us better understand our lives and our living of them.

Because this game involves no compromises; life is about compromise.

Though I used to hope to live a life without regrets or compromises, I now recognize that it’s much better to hope to never regret my compromises.

Very few, if even the hyper-rich, can afford to live without compromises. You can have your dream job, but it’ll probably require you to compromise on the city and social-scene of your dreams. You may be able to spend your life with the love of your life, but you’ll probably have to give up your chance at your dream job.

And this is no less true about the mundanities of life. Though you may abhor the thought, eating McDonald’s is sometimes the best way to satiate your growling stomach and get back to the office in time for a meeting. Some times you’ll have to miss the night out with friends to finally do the project that you’ve put off far too long.

It’s nice to think that we can live each day as if it were our last. To be able to spend all our time doing work we love in a place we love, eating food we love with people we love. But that simply isn’t possible. It was never possible, and quite possibly, it’ll never be possible.

But sometimes the compromises themselves, in their unexpected serendipity, their accidental profundity, or their unlikely beauty, work out better than our dreams. And I’m not sure a day or a life can be more perfect than that.


How Blogs Die

wickenden (ASA)A photo of a row of tombstones, heavy with shade.

There are two general signs that a blog is heading toward extinction. The first is a declining frequency of posting, and the second is a proportional rise in the number of posts about the blog itself. These two don’t always go hand-in-hand; sometimes it’s just one or the other, sometimes you don’t get either warning sign. But when either of the two is spotted it’s reasonable to begin wondering how long that curious internet publication will continue to be updated.

I bring this up not to say that Frozen Toothpaste is on the way out, but because I realized that it has recently offered such an impression. My unannounced absence last week was caused by the distraction of a thoroughly awful stomach flu. I really did intend to post.

Back to the point: there’s something that you begin to notice if you spend much time on the internet. Most blogs–used here as a catchall term for all regularly updated, vaguely artistic, internet endeavors–seem to last somewhere between three and six months. Some make it longer, but five uninterrupted years is unquestionably a rarity.

For most people, the intent of a blog is somewhere between a journal and–the unlikely hope is–a valuable public mouthpiece. Given the scarcity of interested and committed readers available on the internet, the average blog ends up being a mostly private journal. And the failure rate of a new blog is about the same as it is for a private journal.

Everyone’s probably done it once or twice: you get this strong impulse–for me it usually strikes in a bookshop full of beautiful and empty pages bound together–to record your thoughts for posterity. At that moment your ideas seem so clear and forceful and fresh that you simply owe their recording to posterity.

But it never seems to last. My aforementioned and unresearched estimate of three to six months for blogs, is roughly how long journals seem to last me. I’m arrogantly assuming that I’m at or above average.

It always seems to be that journals–and blogs–begun with the urgent intensity of someone confident that the simple act of putting their thoughts on paper will clarify or improve them, you soon find that a personal conversation is hard. And whether it’s because you find yourself a poor conversationalist, a slow writer, or an incoherent blabberer the realization generally comes that the results are a little less than magical. The realization dawns that what you’re writing is not really in need of urgent preservation.

So you walk away. You give up. You’ve expelled whatever it was that caused you to create a blog or buy a journal. You’re done with the superfluous recording of everything.

It’s a rather natural process, this sudden enthusiasm and slow disillusionment. But it doesn’t make it any easier to accept all the dead blogs on the internet.


The One-Off News

Recently I’ve been giving some serious thought to my aversion to cable news, local news programs, and the vast quantities of stories that circulate on the internet. I came to this rough conclusion:

There are essentially two kinds of news: events and trends that change the lives of millions of people, and one-off stories about violence, theft, or kidnappings.

Basically, the vast majority of what I don’t like–stories about celebrities, crime, “human interest pieces,”–are stories that are interesting primarily because of their randomness. They have little to no meaningful and lasting effect on the lives of most people.

Coming to this conclusion, I did pause to think of the callousness–perhaps necessary–of this. Someone getting shot is a tragedy. And it’s an important event that could change their life forever or even end it outright. But I don’t have the time nor energy to hear all of those stories one-by-one. I don’t think anyone–even if they spent their whole day listening to such stories–could know, understand, and empathize with all of them.

But a single one-off story can easily fill a whole hour of time. Shows like NBC’s Dateline, ABC’s Primetime, and CBS’s 48 Hours are essentially dedicated to doing that. Their go-to format is to take one sordid incident–a murder, a kidnapping, a robbery–and tell you all the details they can about it. This can be compelling as a storytelling device, but it generally fails as a way to show what’s really happening in the world.

These shows–and cables news networks which spend much of their airtime telling similar stories–are ostensibly engaged in the act of conveying news. But they often fail to document the broad brushes that truly matter historically and personally. Unless you’re involved in these one-off events it’s unlikely to affect your life. But everyone everywhere is affected by record prices for oil and food.

Having said all that, there’s a difficult-to-define line separating one-off news from the events and trends stories in which I am legitimately interested. One murder in Denver over the previous weekend seems to me a one-off story. But five murders are certainly something I’d want to know about. That quite nearly constitutes a trend and could be a valuable fact to know. Between one and five is a difficult line of delineation that I can’t begin to tackle.

Natural disasters are also one-off stories. Definitionally, they happen only once and are unlikely to have an impact on me unless they were nearby. But when the volume of tragedy and destruction reaches above some arbitrary benchmark–which, again, I don’t really know exactly–I care about them.

Now one could even say that many of the things that I do consider news–the war in the Congo, or the mess in Zimbabwe, the conflict in Darfur–are one-off trivia as well. After all, as an average American the state of democracy in Zimbabwe is unlikely to ever directly impact my life. But it does, I would defend myself, matter in the lives of millions of Zimbabweans and millions more in surrounding countries.

It’s very easy to break the world into categories, but much harder to accurately define the countours of those categories. I have no doubt that almost all news involving movies stars will always be lowly one-off news to me, but that doesn’t provide clean delination for the rest or what crosses a journalist’s desk in a day. I don’t consider this the final answer to the question of “What news is worth knowing?”, but I’m rather certain it’s a step in the right direction.


The Narcissism of Communication

All communication is narcissistic. By writing something that I intend for others to read, I am saying that my idea–the one expressed in this, the prior, and next sentences–is good enough, clever enough, interesting enough, that people should pay attention to it. By making any effort to communicate with anyone, I’m saying that I’m worthy of their time.

Even a passing “Hello” to someone is a subtle insistence that it’ll matter to them that I’ve said it. A wave, too, is a statement that you’ll care that I waved to you. And it’s hard to doubt that public speaking is an overt argument that the people amassed in the room will be interested in what you have to say.

Now, it’s worth clarifying what is meant by “narcissism.” Though it is often understood as excessive self-love, especially admiration for your physical appearance, that is not my intent. Instead, I mean simply to imply a level of admiration for one’s self, ideas, and potential contribution. It’s not always excessive, and in many cases is directly in proportion to the healthy amount of self-admiration that a person needs to go on living.

For though it’s narcissistic for me to wave and say “hello” to my neighbor, they likely expect that my respect for our relationship and regard for them means that I will do so. Because of the history and mutual respect in the relationship, they’d likely and reasonably think there was something wrong if I were to not do so.

And here is another point, refusal to communicate can be as narcissistic as communication itself. If I intentionally neglect to say hello to my neighbors, that can be a silent statement that my self-regard makes me too important to say hello to them. Perhaps this is because of my new job, car, or my understanding that they lied to me about something. Whatever the reason, it’s unquestionably a statement meant to signify–even more than my telling them would–that I don’t want to talk to them.

This is, however, different from not saying “hello” to someone out of shyness. Shyness is–as people tend to forget–an intense humbleness that insists that not only have I nothing to contribute, but I’m of so little importance that you needn’t regard me.

As with shyness, so too is there a form of writing devoid of narcissism. Journaling, when done for the self alone, and with no intent the it should ever be public, is essentially literary shyness. An assertion that though you may be writing, you don’t think it’s good enough to others to pay attention to.

Blogging is, in this way, a form that is not necessarily narcissistic. Some people keep blogs with the honest intent that no one will read them (though they are, I would say, the vast minority). But if one writes, as I am, with the intent that what I write be read, I am thereby insisting that I am worthy of people’s time an attention. (This is the point I made, more narrowly, in “On Being an Egomaniac.”)

To say that communication is an act of narcissism is not to be against it. Communication is vitally important for people to reach a better understanding of those they share an address, workplace, city, state, nation, or planet with. Belief that communication is vital to understand each other can be reason enough to feel that the need to speak up and be heard. But that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of narcissism.


A Drop in the Bucket

raspberreh (ASA)Ripples from a drop falling into a bucket of water.

A few years ago, my understanding of the state of the world and it’s need for change was rather pessimistic. I saw a great flood of things going wrong. That the dam that had been holding catastrophe back for decades was beginning to leak. At best, I thought, I could hope to plug a few of those leaks with my fingers and toes. There was nothing that would stop the dam from breaking. Nothing that would halt the forthcoming flood.

And that the flood was unstoppable meant that it wasn’t worth trying. It was hardly worth trying to change “hearts and minds.” After all, a couple more people putting fingers and toes into holes would do little to stop the oncoming rush of water.

Today, I’m rather certain that was silly. And it’s not that the world has changed dramatically in the interim, it’s simply that I’ve changed. And my attitude toward changing the world is probably the most noticeable difference.

Today I recognize that I’m still working on drops. Though societies move in waves and tides, individual people can only influence drops. And thinking that you’re just a single drop in the ocean can be an incredibly depressing thought. But it need not be.

Anything I do will only be a metaphorical drop in the bucket. But one drop can change other drops. Groups of drops can make ripples. Ripples can coalesce into waves. Large waves can create floods. Surely that’s getting ahead of ourselves. We are, after all, still just drops.

But being “just a drop in the bucket,” isn’t so bad. If you change yourself, that means there’s one more drop like you want all the others to be. One more drop working toward the world that you want. And one drop can change other drops.

It’s not as if changing other drops is easy. Even if you’re one red drop in an ocean of plain old water, you’re not going to change the entire complexion of that water by yourself. You may be shunned and mocked by some of those plain old water drops. But at some point you’ll find another drop that wants to be red like you. And they may know someone else who thinks it’s a good idea. And so on it’ll go. It’s not inevitable that everyone will come to understand, and it’s certainly not inevitable that the whole group will suddenly embrace their redness. But if you’re sure that the world should be red, you shouldn’t worry about the color of anyone else.

That then, is the fundamental difference between the nihilistic pessimism of my past and and the reserved optimism of my present. And if my drop changes only one thing, I would like it to lead others suffering from a bad case of pessimism to see that optimism is almost always a wiser and healther choice.


Vestigial Fear

Sam ULA metal die with the words: \"Without fear\" on the top face.

Fear is rightly synonymous with anxiety. Like anxiety, fear is essentially a feeling of discomfort or unease with a given situation. Dark alleys in dangerous neighborhoods are something of which I am fearful. They make me anxious.

Such a fear is reasonable in the proper amount. And should my fear make me more aware of my surroundings–better on guard–it may even be valuable. But that certainly doesn’t mean that fear itself is rational.

I think all fear nonrational. (I thought of both the terms “arational” and “subrational,” but this seemed best.) That is, it’s a subconscious process that serves unquestionable evolutionary purpose, but is generally maladjusted to the peaceful suburban life that most Americans–and others in the “first world”–lead.

Fear leads to discomfort in unknown situations. Two things can be said conclusively about “stage fright”: it grows out of being in an unfamiliar situation, and it has no constructive purpose. But as thousand of ten-year-olds can tell you, that doesn’t make it any less real. Your pulse quickens, your breathing becomes shallow, you quickly become either too hot or too cold.

Were your life in mortal danger, this fear could be a useful advance warning system that causes you to get the heck out of the there. And because you, as one who properly feels fear, knew when to get away to save your life, you’re the kind of person that gets to live long enough to reproduce. And because you reproduce, your offspring get this same useful thing called fear.

But eventually your offspring became domesticated. They don’t hunt much anymore, they don’t go to war as much as they used to. They rarely, for that matter, get in any meaningful danger for which fear is a proper response. And in a life such as this, fear is more a vestigial organ than a useful appendage. It’s like the tails humans have no use for, but still have visible remnants of.

Now certainly, fear is not vestigial for many people in the world. Those who live in close proximity with wild animals or armed humans can benefit from feeling that fear. It can be a useful warning that they’re in danger and need to flee.

And fear may have some useful purpose when you’re addressing a superior. Even if you live in a place where your boss or arresting officer has no (legal) ability to do you physical harm, it may be useful to be humbled by your fear and act subservient enough to prevent your firing.

But going before a small group of people to speak, read, or converse is no a useful time for anxiety. Your preformance is much more likely to suffer as a result of hyper-awareness than it is to benefit.

Make no mistake, I have nothing against fear. And honestly, in today’s world I’d rather experience it at times when it serves no purpose than not have it when it may do me honest good. But I sure like the thought that some day all forms of fear will be truly and completely vestigial.


Tomorrow, You’ll Be Dead

wickenden (ASA)A photo of a row of tombstones, heavy with shade.

It can seem like there are hundreds of them. Those little phrases that tell you that you should make the most of today. Like, “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Or “We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.” Or “Live everyday as if it were your last.” Or “Tomorrow, you’ll be dead.” OK, admittedly the last one isn’t one you’ve heard before.

I think it’s odd that most of these sayings insist that today is only important if tomorrow you won’t be here and alive. As if, when you find yourself alive tomorrow, everything that was important about today will be unimportant. As if “the fierce urgency of now” is only fierce or urgent in the face of impending death.

Perhaps it’s not actually odd. It’s somewhat sensible: the so-often-ignored remarkableness of being alive is much easier to see if tomorrow we won’t have this so-often-ignored thing anymore. To quote Joni Mitchell, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” Perhaps it’s only when we the see the clear difference between being alive and being dead that we understand the unmistakable value in this thing called life.

And to quote–because this seems to be a topic much discussed in the literature–Marcel Proust wrote:

I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were suddenly threatened to die… Think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, our life hides from us, made invisible by our laziness, which certain of a future, delays them incessantly.

But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

I think Proust, like all those other sayings and songs and phrases, makes a valuable point. And I suppose what I want to say is that I wish that it didn’t take the thought of our impending end to make us realize that every single day you wake up alive is truly an amazing day. Surely there may be some terrible things you’ll go through today, and tomorrow, and the next week, but you’re still alive. “It goes on.”

And so while I intimately understand why writers and poets so often bring up the thought of death, I wish we could learn to take note of life in itself. I’ve not said this as eloquently as I would like, but I’m just glad I got a day in which to say it. And I’ll leave you with Proust’s more eloquent–and somewhat ironic–elucidation of the problem with constantly valuing life only in the face of tomorrow’s death:

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.