on all the things you don’t have to do

Wherever humans go, there we are. We talk a lot about how online has changed us, fractured our attention spans, made us more vicious, more judgmental, (more connected? hmmmm), more more more everything, but it’s that “more more more” that’s the key. I do think we are changing but there’s nothing fundamentally new about how we behave as internet dwellers. It’s just more intense, because we have the tools to make it so.

Specifically, what I have been thinking about lately is the extent to which people can insist that you have a conversation with them, often right now, and that this is largely considered an acceptable way to behave. Until very recently, if you wanted to communicate with someone, you basically had three choices: you could call them, you could go them in person, or you could write them a letter. This created its own sort of healthy distance, in which it took some time and effort to contact another person. People still got harassed–“hate mail” was a thing before email existed and some people used to have to get their phone numbers unlisted–but the scope and scale was different.

Now it seems there’s no end to the many ways you can badger somebody: text email and a million zillion social media platforms. We have all had the experience of the unwanted interlocutor trying to insist we converse with them, either publicly or privately, through some strange sense that everyone who wants a conversation about a thing with someone else is in fact owed that conversation. It can happen between two people who know one another well over personal issues–family dysfunction, relationships shattering–same as it ever was. But today a conversation is seen as especially owed it if it is considered to be a topic with which many people are at any given moment consumed, and it is one in which there are exactly two sides: a good one or a bad one, and it is important to sort you into one bin or the other.

Before we had texting emailing and all the platforms, anyone who used the telephone, or in-person contact, or letters in the same way would have been considered, frankly, crazy. A stalker. Imagine someone ringing your doorbell over and over at all hours of the day and night insisting you engage with them on some random point of politics or morality or philosophy, or turning up at your workplace and demanding an audience. Imagine the repeated phone calls or the deluge of letters, four or seven or ten a day all making the same demands or containing similar insults. It would be madness. It would be very clear that the person or people doing this thing were unhinged, had lost all sense of proportion and of the social contract. (This is without even touching on the weirdness of online communication: the 0-to-60 rush to rage; the sneering and dunking instead of actually exchanging ideas; the deliberate misconstruing and worst-possible-faith interpretations; the posturing for likes and retweets.)

Of course, if that was all there was to it, it would usually end fairly quickly, unpleasant though it might be while it was happening: there is always a new target. The thing is, the online environment creates an absolutely bonkers sense of immediacy and urgency, and those on the receiving end, understandably, often panic. If everyone thinks they must have this conversation and have it right now, then surely they must! Why, what will everyone think if they don’t? Everyone will think the worst. And if everyone thinks the worst, well, we know what happens next.

But you don’t have to. You don’t owe anyone anything: a conversation, an opinion, a reply to a question, information about your private life and thoughts and beliefs and experiences and actions. You are not in an episode of The Good Place or the 1990s Albert Brooks/Meryl Streep comedy Defending Your Life; you are not on trial today or any day to determine where you fall on the scale of Good Personhood and whether you will be chucked into heaven or hell as a result. (And anyway, the whole thing is really more akin to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a question of chance: who’s going to be unlucky enough to draw the slip of paper with the black spot on it today?)

The other problem with this dynamic is that it keeps you mired in other people’s worldviews and preoccupations. Should I keep an eye on Twitter, I asked a wise friend. You know, just to keep up . . . Keep up with what? I have no idea. And my wise friend pointed out that doing that means you risk falling into a trap of thinking only in opposition to things, when maybe you want to think about other things entirely: maybe instead you could spend that time thinking about the most efficient approach to planting an organic garden, or what happened to Rome’s Ninth Legion or how you might refinish an old piece of furniture or the films of Maya Deren or what it might have been like to stroll through the ancient Nigerian city of Kano in the 11th century or how to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine without dying of the heat or getting snowed in or even what the real flesh and blood people in your life–the ones who actually love you, not the ones you’re trying to impress–might need from you, or if you don’t like people very much, the animals or the trees or your beloved river or creek or bay.

I should shutter this blog; I should hide my email address; I should never look at another social media platform again. The greater my craving to engage with the tactile world, the greater my longing to build more and more barriers between this online digital world and me.

That Mary Oliver line from her poem “The Summer Day” is practically a cliche because it’s true: Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life? For myself, though, I think it’s the previous line that has more resonance: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

 

in which I think about Anthony Bourdain and Zadie Smith and reach no satisfying conclusions for your edification

When Anthony Bourdain died, I was devastated. He was someone who really had a huge influence on me. I loved traveling and food before I discovered Bourdain in the early 00s, but he put both in a context for me, showed me a way of being in the world, that influences me to this day. Among the many things I loved about him was that mix of cynicism and black humor alongside a genuine openheartedness–let’s fact it, the only way something “life affirming” is ever going to be palatable to me is when it’s wrapped in a layer of darkness and delivered with a sardonic wink, but the work he did was life-affirming, genuinely so, not in a fake or sentimental way.

Pre-Bourdain, I already had very strong feelings about food and hospitality (in a nutshell: you accept what your hosts serve you and eat it with eagerness, whatever the hell it is); he had a worldview that aligned with mine in so many ways, so I was bound to connect with his work. I still hope I never find myself in a situation where I have to eat uncleaned warthog anus to be polite, but you know, I guess if the day ever comes I’ll just grit my teeth and summon the shade of Tony and do my best to get through it while according it, and my hosts, the dignity and respect they deserve. (You know, as I write that, it occurs to me that if you haven’t seen the episode where that happens, it probably sounds terribly exploitative, some kind of awful modern-day mondo, but it really isn’t. He does approach the entire thing with dignity and respect, understanding the honor he’s been accorded even if he did end up on antibiotics a week later.)

But I’ve done a lot of things because of what I learned from him, not least of which is embracing a much wider palate. I learned to love sea urchin! I have, on more than one occasion, asked myself WWBD? He always made the world seem bigger and brighter to me.

I missed his last show, Parts Unknown, in its entirety, having moved out of the U.S. by the time it was airing. Now I’ve just started watching it, and while the first episode, “Sri Lanka,” was a bit underwhelming (he was ill throughout much of it), the second one, set in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, has so much that I love about Bourdain in it.

One of the biggest things that struck me is that it’s funny–funny strange, not funny haha–to think that it was just two years ago that he died, because it feels like he comes from an entirely different era. (And of course, he does. I feel we have crossed some sort of virtual Rubicon at some point in the two years since, although I am not quite sure what it is or when it happened.) His genuineness, his openness, his fullhearted embrace of every experience, his absolute conviction that we are not that different from one another as we imagine and that we can learn about each other best by sitting down and sharing meals together–it all seems like the opposite of the shouting, polarized, vicious world we all seem to inhabit 24/7 now whether we like it or not. How we relate to one another these days feels a lot more like a WWF cage match than an episode of A Cook’s Tour or No Reservations.

This morning I looked at videos of riots from Portland, my former home, now in their second month. And I thought about writing this piece, a piece that seems very far removed from all of that (but it really isn’t; the framing and the underpinning of the Koreatown episode, though it was filmed in 2013, is the LA riots of 1992), a piece the people who like to do that sort of thing might call tone-deaf, and it occurred to me that as I get older, I recognize in myself a willingness to stop and contemplate in a way that I not only was I was less able to do when I was younger, but that infuriated me when I saw it in others. How dare you. Urgency seemed like the only legitimate response. If you didn’t feel urgency, it meant you didn’t care.

I am being a little bit unfair on my younger self, who was still thoughtful and capable of taking a step back–we are never really all one thing, are we?

The style of discourse which largely involves people shouting past one another and which says if you aren’t shouting you must be indifferent isn’t a new one. The aggressive talk radio style of the 1980s–how many people today who think the world is falling to bits in some unique way have forgotten or never knew that in America in 1984, prominent Jewish liberal radio host Alan Berg was assassinated by neo-Nazis–gave way to the rise of warring talking heads on TV, the louder and more outrageous the better, while the Reagan administration eliminated the Fairness Doctrine–easily, I think, one of the most disastrous decisions of the latter half of the 20th century in terms of leading to the increasing and current political polarization in the US, right up there with the Southern Strategy and the Republican embrace of fundamental evangelical Christianity in the early 1980s.

But that’s neither here nor there. My point is that there is power in pauses, in silence, in thinking, in not rising to respond to every little thing, in sitting back and letting the words of others settle on you, really settle, in genuinely good faith, not like some kind of game in which you pluck a contextless handful of the words for the purpose of gleeful evisceration.

There is value, sometimes, in being quiet. In not forming an opinion right away and insisting that everyone needs to hear it. In stepping away and doing the practical work that still needs to be done, whatever else is happening: washing the dishes, preparing food, and continuing to make the little connections with people that remind us that we’re all human and mostly just doing our best to get by.

Bourdain, snarky and critical as he was of his fellow celebrity chefs and anything else that he saw as a sacred cow, was remarkably non-judgmental when it came to his travels, not just when encountering unfamiliar or alarming attitudes or customs but about food. He was game for anything. When his host, artist David Choe, takes him to a Sizzler in the heart of Koreatown–Anthony Bourdain in a Sizzler–he isn’t ironic or knowing; he embraces it as Choe explains, when we were growing up we didn’t go to restaurants, but if there was a really special occasions, this is where we went. Koreans love Sizzler, says Choe. He then goes on to instruct Bourdain on the specifics of making an Italian-Mexican taco from the salad bar: hard taco shell, three meatballs, guacamole, nacho cheese, etc. Bourdain digs it. He’s there, so very present in the moment. It’s the gusto with which he went after life that made his death seem so inexplicable.

Not really inexplicable, though, of course, and this is the other thing we learn, or we should learn, the longer we live: we are all the same and yet we are infinitely unknowable, even to those who know us best. Unspeakable reservoirs of pain run through all of us, along with an astonishing capacity for humanity. When I say we are all human–yes, of course it sounds like a self-evident and simplistic platitude but part of what I mean is that we are all a great mystery even to ourselves, wrapped in a bag of frail human-shaped meat that still needs to eat and drink and cry and craves the love or at least the attention of others. Even sociopaths need these things! What odd big-brained primates we are, simultaneously not as smart as and much smarter than we think we are. I often think we understand all the wrong things about ourselves in all the wrong ways.

I hope you weren’t reading this in search of conclusions. This is not a polemic or even an organized essay. I am not going to circle back round to Bourdain at the end and wrap this up tidily. I want, I need to be messy here. There are jagged edges. These are just my thoughts, on this day. I might change my mind tomorrow.

Maybe I shouldn’t even blog. Maybe writers should eschew public life entirely, living in those ivory towers or remote castles or whatever we once imagined them inhabiting when we were children or even later, before they all got Twitter accounts and sent us photos of their cats and their breakfasts and got into weird and embarrassing spats with other writers. (NB: Two of my favorite things to look at on social media are photos of your cats and your food.) Maybe they–we–should be less profligate with our words.

***

I don’t know that I trust anyone any longer who claims with certainty to have the right or moral answer. The novelist Zadie Smith has spoken and written about the need to be able to be wrong, often or even nearly always, and about writing books from a position of fundamental uncertainty. This, I think, is very human as well, being wrong and uncertain–and not wanting to show it. Being wrong is showing our soft underbelly. But if we swathe ourselves in armor before we launch ourselves into the world, well, then, we’re not worth much as writers, aren’t we?

things that matter and things that don’t

What matters: seagulls (screaming kiss her, kiss her, kiss her, kiss her as XTC sang) soaring on an updraft of warm air; the cold North Sea curling round your ankles; your first time in a used bookstore post-pandemic-lockdown, the rows and rows of battered pre-loved or never-loved volumes, the wood shelves and creaky floors and quirky little rooms leading labyrinthine-like one into the other, the careful perusal and selection of one or two for purchase (Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus for you, and almost some Graham Greene Penguin paperbacks but with your belongings so scattered across the world you can’t remember which ones you already own, alas, and almost an Orwell biography, and almost a Penguin Animal Farm, both of which you now regret leaving behind); your hands curling round a mug of hot coffee; the sound of whippoorwills in the forest of your childhood home that you strain now to hear when you watch one of the many movies and TV shows filmed in the state where you grew up; the preparing of food, chopping garlic, tearing basil, oil shimmering in the saucepan and turning sharp raw onions into something mellow and sweet and golden; the sound of waves; the sound of wind; the sound of rain; the sound of summer cicadas rising and falling (again, your home–you recorded them the last time you were there); the sound of the goat herder in the hills of Andalusia (you recorded that too); the path beneath your feet that you walk for as long and far as you can until your unsuitable shoes cause you so much pain you have to stop, turn round, go back the way you came and say to yourself, “I have to get some decent shoes.”

What doesn’t matter: algorithms, hot takes, shouty opinions, pixels, likes, unlikes, friends, unfriends, unfollows, follows, mutes, emojis, blocking, stats, blogs like this one. (Steal this book.) You can just close the door on it all, you know.

***

It’s a strange process, disengagement from the rage machine that is much of the internet. You worry, like your friends (and your “friends”) and family will forget you if they don’t see your dumb avatar popping up in their feed every few days making inane (or, hey, profound) remarks, or you’ll forget them; like it will matter one whit that you don’t know what everyone is angry about this week and was angry about last week; like any of it is real, like any of it matters.

You long for normal life to return so you can return to a life that is not normal. This time, you say, it will be different.

This time, you vow, I will stay clear-eyed about what does and doesn’t matter.

You touch: wood, sand, sea; breathe deep of rain and salt; you wait.

out with the old

I am one of those people who likes symbolic fresh starts. Yes, I know that the first day of a new year, a new month, a new week is “just another day,” but they don’t feel like that to me. I want lines of demarcation. (Curiously, my own birthday is a nearly meaningless occasion to me.)

So with that in mind, I’m wondering if I could declare today, the half-year mark, as some kind of fresh start, drawing a line under the madness of the first half not because the madness has eased at all but because I think (I think) I am learning to live with it.

I considered this at midsummer as well. It ought to have been at midsummer; I like the idea of tying it to seasonal cycles more than marks on a calendar, but then my head got subsumed in a whole other cacophony of stress over something or some things–I don’t even remember what–and I lost track. I think I was sleeping very badly, which makes everything worse.

This has not been even remotely the strangest or most difficult or disorienting half-year of my life, but it has certainly been uniquely odd and challenging.

I’m starting to loathe the digital world. I realize the irony of writing those words on a blog, but this, like email, has come to seem practically old-fashioned to me. I effectively shuttered my Twitter account months ago; yesterday, I deactivated my Facebook account, and although that won’t be permanent because I do need it for a few things, it was such a relief.

I find myself almost obsessively drawn to the tactile more and more. I remember my first giddy encounters with Kindle, the ease and excitement of loading books on there that were cheap or even free (out of copyright or as part of a special offer, folks: don’t pirate books) and then the dawning realization that I look at screens all the time for work and I don’t want to look at one for leisure, plus I actually like books as objects, the heft, the look of the font on paper, the act of turning another page. I don’t enjoy reading on a Kindle. I just don’t.

I have been walking a lot and thinking a lot about walking and cycling, of going nearly everywhere under my own steam. Of what it would be like to travel the whole world like that. And about talking to people everywhere I go–actually talking, to people in front of me, not their images, and using our voices instead of words on a screen. To all kinds of different people, not just the ones who think “like me.”

To people who only use their phones as a tool, to text someone or look up a business for something they need, not people who conduct large swathes of their lives and relationships online. The impoverishment of that environment becomes clearer to me the longer we stay away from one another and the digital world reveals itself as only a sometimes-useful supplement and not at all a substitute for actually living.

It feels like social media + worldwide lockdowns are collectively driving everyone mad. Everyone is shouting at everyone else and everyone is furious, even more than usual, like people have overdosed on some kind of rage drug. It’s unbearable.

I feel desperate to be in the world, not this stupid wrong side of the mirror world mediated through Online. I’m sure that I sound like a Luddite, and I’m equally sure that I don’t care.