Indecision is a funny thing. In my case, once it sets in, it doesn’t leave me alone. Tomorrow is @winterbiketoworkday. I really want to participate, but like so many things worth doing, it’s hard. I’ve got hockey tonight so I won’t get home until midnight – in bed until 12:30. Riding to work tomorrow – really doing it right and riding the WHOLE way on the snow – means getting up and out early. Probably 4:30 or 5 or so. It will be dark then. Weather says temps will be around -15C with the windchill to the -20’s. Then there’s the trail conditions. Probably pretty soft right now (as I write this it’s only 0C) but maybe they’ll freeze and firm up overnight – but if they don’t, likely some walking will be involved.
What’s the point? Seems foolish sometimes to ponder doing these things. Subjecting one’s self to the cold and the effort for a 15k bike ride. Then I think about people who are going to ride 1000km across Alaska in far worse – and I’M hesitating to go out for 15k? I could not do it at all. I could do it part way – drive half the distance to where the trail becomes paved – and plowed – and ride from there. That almost seems more chickenshit than not going at all. I tend to be an ‘all or nothing’ kind of guy. To a fault. I have problems with moderation – with doing things ‘halfway’. Maybe I should work on that. Or maybe I shouldn’t.
Maybe I should just do it. Maybe the problem is I feel like there has to be some ‘reason’ to do it. Some justification for the lunacy it represents. I’m looking for the ‘why’. I don’t know if there is a ‘why’. Maybe I have to get out there to find it. Or maybe it doesn’t exist. So for the rest of the day I’ll be tormented by the question – go or no go – and surrounding all that is the constant buzz of do I wear this or wear that? Do I bring X? Will that be warm enough? Too much? Should I put myself into sleep deficit for a bike ride to work simply because someone somewhere declared it the day to do so? Where are my gloves anyway? Not those – the WARM ones? The answers to all of these questions don’t matter at all. I will either go or not go and that will be that.
David Cain: You have employees everywhere, but the United States is probably your most profitable venture so far. What’s been your secret to success in the US?
The Man: I love America. As much as I dislike the phrase “Perfect Storm”, it’s like all the right factors came together in one place. The big one is the hyper-normal level of consumerism and its relationship to self-esteem. I know you did a piece on that. [Here – Ed.] People in the US, more than anywhere else, respond to personal inadequacy by buying stuff or trying to get in a better position to buy stuff later. This is great, because buying stuff eventually creates disappointment, which creates more buying.
I also love its strange breed of future-focused happiness. Almost every young American thinks he’ll be rich at some point. Later is when life will be great. No matter what their salary, very few people think they make quite enough money now. So they’re willing to put up with “just ok” or even “not quite ok” for many years.
There is also, in the working world, this wonderful shaming of any hint of Bohemianism. Can you imagine an American taking a two-hour lunch, with wine, like they do in Europe? Nobody does it, nobody. Work is a virtue, no matter what the work is or what they produce. They are grateful for two weeks of vacation a year. Two weeks out of fifty-two! The culture does most of the work for me. Some people don’t even take those two weeks, because they’re afraid their colleagues will think they aren’t serious about working at all. Stopping to smell flowers is suspicious behavior there, unless you’re retired.
Despite that, there is a permeating sense of entitlement here, as if things should not only be good all the time, it should be easy to keep them good. Do you think the citizens of the world’s richest nation actually want fairness across the board? They think they’re getting the short end of the stick, can you believe that? If they only knew.
The latest episode of Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast is pretty good. The guest, Tiffany Shlain, has written about about unplugging from screens one day a week in a practice that is sort of a modern day throwback to the notion of a weekly ‘sabbath’ or ‘Shabbat’. Some really interesting discussion ensues.
They talk about the notion that people don’t know how to just sit with themselves anymore – or that it’s become thought of as a bad thing to ‘sit idly’. I feel the generations my kids belong to will especially have no concept of this, or construe it mostly as ‘wasting time’ having been exposed/connected to tech their entire lives.
The reality is that in many cases time spent in self reflection, or simply being present in the moment with others without the distractions of tech, is time better spent but we’re not taught that anymore and indeed, most tech companies/platforms are trying to encourage the very opposite.
I couldn’t ride to to work today because, family stuff. I was struck by just how much of a hurry everyone else driving seemed to be in to get to their destination, especially given it was probably a job they complained incessantly about. I felt no such urgency.
Instead I mentally swiped left through these scenes from my commute home yesterday, a day when everything, everywhere just seemed right. The air, the temperature, the radiantly clear sky. The subtle breeze and intensely bright, warm sunlight. I’m sure my nature homies John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey or mix master H.D. Thoreau all have quotes that could aptly accompany these images, but I’m not well-read enough and my memory reservoir not deep enough to call any up.
Instead, I’ll borrow the words of my internet brother-from-another-mother, Slim Wonder and simply say I took the long way yesterday and here’s what I happened upon “getting around to getting home.” Don’t be in too much of a hurry, kids.
I first came across this book by Sven Birkerts via a review and mentioned it a few months back. I finally finished up reading it this past weekend and it’s a winner.
Originally published in 1996, some of the references to tech are obviously a bit dated, but Birkerts makes interesting and compelling observations that are still resoundingly relevant today. I had to remind myself writing that now, over 20 years later, seems startlingly prescient, at the time must have had people calling him reactionary or melodramatic.
Interesting as well were the new forward and afterword added with the 2006 edition. Birkerts is able to reflect on the state of things since his book’s initial publication 10 years before. Of pertinent note to me was the fact that he now has children and is trying to navigate the world of parenting within the context of radical shifts in society and culture – something I too continue to struggle with.
Here’s some sections that I highlighted for their particular resonance with me:
“The primary human relations—to space, time, nature, and to other people—have been subjected to a warping pressure that is something new under the sun.” (Referring to the advent of online technology and the Internet.)
“We have been stripped not only of familiar habits and ways, but of familiar points of moral and psychological reference. Looking out at our society, we see no real leaders, no larger figures of wisdom. Not a brave new world at all, but a fearful one.”
“[The thing that George taught me…] was that knowledge was less a means to an end than a matter of self-cultivation, a way of transforming the experience of the daily. To be curious, to study, to find out – this was the path to the world. Knowledge exposed connections, imparted significance to the incidental.”
“Reading argues for a larger conception of the meaningful, and its implicit injunction (seldom heeded even by readers) is that we change our lives, that we strive to live them in the light of meaning.”
“What reading does, ultimately, is keep alive the dangerous and exhilarating idea that life is not a sequence of lived moments, but a destiny.”
“We do not learn so much from the novel itself, the lessons of its situations, as we do from having strayed free of our customary boundaries. On return, those boundaries seem more articulated, more our own; we understand their degree of permeability, and this is a vital kind of knowing.”
“The books that matter to me—and they are books of all descriptions—are those that galvanize something inside me. I read books to read myself.”
“Every true reader, then, is a writer and every true writer is a reader, and every person engaged in the project of self-awareness is the reader and writer of himself. Writer and reader: They are the recto and verso of language, which is itself the medium of our deeper awareness.”
In the humanities, knowledge is a means, yes, but it is a means less to instrumental application than to something more nebulous: understanding. […] The data—the facts, connections, the texts themselves—matter insofar as they help us to deepen and extend that narrative. In these disciplines, the process of study may be as vital to the understanding as are the materials studied.”
“Prophets and promoters have long promised that technology would set us free, creating vast quantities of leisure time; the fantasy has backfired. Instead we have swelling pockets of empty time; our lifestyles have us in harness, we are unable to move, spiritually gridlocked.”
“When we read with our eyes, we hear the words in the theater of our auditory awareness. The voice we conjure up is our own—it is the sound-print of the self.”
“I fall back on what is finally an unverifiable impression – that for all of our supposed riches, our culture feels impoverished; it lacks the kinds of animation that regular exposure to ideas and works of imagination supplies; and it is without an affirmative circulation of mental and spiritual energies.”
“Isn’t this the crux of it all? That the whole question of intellectual an artistic mattering has far less to do with the quantitative availability of ideas and expressions, and much more with their impact upon the individual and, through him, the society? That what matters is not the sound but the resonance of the sound?”
“Our lives are busy, distracted, multitracked, stressed. We may have altered our cognitive apparatus—speeding up, learning to deal with complex assaults of stimuli—in such a way that we can no longer take in the world as it was meant to be taken in. The price of retooling for the electronic millennium is a sacrifice of the incompatible aptitudes required for reading and meditative introspection. […] That we live all day among buttons and signals instead of tools and materials has not brought us appreciably closer to the interior. It has, if anything, made us less available to the kinds of self-inspection that enlightened living would demand.”
“There will be people who will never in their lives have the experience that was, until our time, the norm—who will never stand in isolated silence among trees and stones, out of shouting distance of any other person, with no communication implement, forced to confront the slow, grainy momentum of time passing.”
If you’ve read this far, kudos. I think I’ve gone well beyond a lot of people’s attention spans and/or patience at this point.
One of the ‘blurbs’ on the book cover of this edition from The New Yorker reads: “Birkerts on reading fiction is like M.F.K. Fisher on eating or Norman Maclean on fly casting. He makes you want to go do it.”
This was certainly the case with me. I have been reading a ton of non-fiction in the past year or two, under the auspices that it was ‘good for me’, often reading books that were an absolute chore to get through. Probably not so much a condemnation of their authors or the subject matter, but more that I was ‘punching above my weight’ trying to stretch my brain. Reading Birkerts on reading was so compelling that half way through his book, I abandoned it and read two works of fiction before returning to finish it just recently. This is not to say I will no longer be reading non-fiction, but Birkerts’ writing has brought me back round to the notion that I should be reading more fiction and literature – including poetry – than I have been.
I was sitting looking across this river yesterday morning from the exact same spot and it was so foggy I could barely see the riverbank nearest to me, yet today clear as a bell. One thought I had is that damn, the early settlers and indigenous folks who used to canoe across the river must have had a hell of a time on days like that when getting out into the middle of the river would mean not being able to see either side.
Whatever challenges I face today, I can take solace that paddling endlessly lost in the middle of a foggy river won’t be one of them. Then I realized everything is falling apart. I was reminded that everything is in a constant state of change. Even things I think of as ‘permanent’ and solid – rocks, steel, my coffee cup – it’s all disintegrating at various rates. Our bodies – even our thoughts and brain chemistry, all constantly changing. I’m collecting cosmic ‘stuff’ from everything around me. If everything is in a constant state of falling apart, where is substance? Where is truth – what is real?
As usual, my favorite punk rock buddhist monk, Brad Warner, saves the day on this one. “Life is just action in the present moment. […] The only real facts are those at the present moment. […] The world where we live is existence in the present moment.” That’s it. The only thing that is ‘real’ is this moment. Reality is THIS moment. And the next one, and so on.
Maybe you’re having a real shitty time right at this moment. Don’t worry, that’s gonna change, give yourself a moment. You don’t have to worry about it, there’s no stopping it, instead realize and accept what is. And while you’re doing that, Brad again points out “You are not just a thing that inhabits this moment. You ARE this moment.” In this moment, “There is one thing, the Universe” and “The truth of the Universe IS the Universe itself.”
You are a part of the whole process – the whole changing Universe – not separate from it. You are exchanging material with the rocks, the trees, the water, animals and even the garbage rotting in that can over there. So, uh, yeah. What do you guys think about when you’re sitting drinking coffee looking at the river?
When I moved here in 2006 I discovered there were two options for a commuting route from my house, both about 15km one-way. One was on the road, the other, almost entirely on converted rail-to-trail. My policy has always been and continues to be to avoid slicing and dicing with grumpy morning folks trapped in confined metal boxes, so whenever possible, the trail it is.
Up until 2010, my commute to work took me across two rivers, The Nashwaak and the St. John. After 2010, I changed jobs and now work on the north side of the St. John, so only cross the Nashwaak each trip. I used to keep track of my rides and mileage and all that but have stopped bothering. So, subtracting weekends, holidays, weather, sleep-in’s and other misses and adding back in various market trips, rides for coffee and group rides, I’d say conservatively on average I’ve commuted or ridden this route 150 times a year (each way, so 300 total) – at some point during every season and kind of weather you can conjure.*
Some dude, wiser than I, many seasons ago, once observed that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Well then it must also apply that a man can’t CROSS the same river twice either.
Doing the fancy math that accounts for both jobs, that means approximately 5,100 different rivers crossed for this cat in 13 years. And I probably have at least half that many pictures clogging up the internet and cloud storage to prove it.
The thing is, they are truly different. Every. Time. Which is why I almost always stop. And while I didn’t always stop, make coffee, eat home made granola with chocolate milk and watch the sun come up on Fredericton across the St. John while tons of ducks do whatever it is ducks do in the morning – I have been quite a bit recently. If I had my druthers (and I don’t know what a ‘druther’ is – or why anyone would want one) I’d just ride my bike around rivers drinking coffee all day, but like so many of you, I have to go to work. I’m pretty sure though, that if one HAS to go to work, I may have stumbled onto the absolute best way to do it. Even without coffee and snacks.
*That’s also roughly 58,500km of commuting for those playing along at home. Also, there’s not enough space here to discuss how I have changed as a man, so don’t ask.
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David Byrne to the rescue again. “Same as it ever was.”
I took a little break from the internet space for awhile. Did some things. A lot of sitting and reading. Quite a bit of just sitting. It occurred to me that The Walrus was right. “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” Read: we are all connected, we are all one.
My friend Amy – she of the mighty movement and art mojo – talks about movement as art. How we conduct ourselves through space is artistic expression. Walking. Lifting heavy objects. Waving hello. She spoke once of a bike ride being a piece of artwork. How you pick something up is art. How you pet your dog. We are all creating as we move through space and time.
I like that idea. That’s very nice, but I have a bit of bad news. The Universe doesn’t give a shit about you (or me) or our art. In the Grand Scheme of Things (not to be confused with the Internet of Things, which doesn’t care about you either, but just wants to know what you’re doing every waking moment for marketing purposes), you don’t matter. As a species en masse, we conduct ourselves daily as if we – individually and collectively – do matter. A considerable problem. If we don’t matter either collectively or individually, what does?
I’m here to say your effort. You are insignificant, but your effort isn’t. If we are all connected, our individual efforts all have impact on the whole. Good effort. Meaningful effort. Sincere effort. Compassionate effort. The Buddha called it Right Effort, but he doesn’t really matter either – his effort does.
What’s this got to do with me being back on the Internets? Well there’s quite a few folks on here who’s efforts I missed connecting with. And I also missed sharing some creations, some experiments, some art with other people, and this was a somewhat tolerable place to do that. I don’t wish to be ‘influenced’, I wish to be inspired. I want to share, but currently that word has been hijacked and sullied. It makes people cringe. People share ‘content’. Let’s say I want to enlighten. My friend Andrew said that I should. That it would be a good thing – that regardless of the outcome it would be an effort worth making. So here we are. Good luck with your efforts.
Great stuff here from Shane Parrish over at Farnham Street on The Knowledge Project podcast. I’ve posted stuff before in relation to Jonathan Haidt and he continues to be full of insight and useful information. I’ll post a few standouts here, but the whole thing is really worth a listen – I can’t transcribe all the worthwhile commentary:
“Some people have sent me quotes from ancient Greece, where they complained about the kids today and how they don’t respect their elders, and things like that. So partly, it is a constant generational thing. But the reason why Greg Lukianoff and I think that this is so different is because, never before have the mental health statistics just gone haywire for generations so quickly. So, whatever we’re doing, kids born after 1995 have really high rates of anxiety, depression, self harm, and suicide.”
As a parent – this should be a required listen. It’s at turns informative and terrifying if you let it be, but ultimately empowering.
I’m realizing that, in some ways, I have missed the boat a bit with my older two kids and I’m almost too late with the younger two, but there’s still value and ideas to be gleaned from this discussion. I wish I’d had this podcast – and Haidt’s insights in general – like, 6-8 years ago – but, if you listen, you’ll realize that in many ways we as a society and as parents had no way of knowing then the way the internet and social media would effect kids and their mental health, it was simply new, uncharted territory.
“Any parents who are listening to this podcast, I urge you to follow a few simple rules. That is, two hours a day of screen time, not counting homework. And no social media until high school, and lots of free play outside. Let your kids out, especially by the age of seven or eight. Let them out to have unsupervised time with other kids, in a place that’s physically safe.”
These seem like, “well, duh” type revelations, but speaking from experience, I know I got very much caught up in the tendency and social pressures to over protect and shelter kids – with the best of intentions – versus how my generation was raised.
If you can imagine growing up, where in your teen years you’re always self censoring, you’re always careful, we think this is what’s happening. This is what many students tell us it’s like. They often just accept it as normal, because that’s all they’ve known. And this means we might have a generation that’s afraid to take risks, afraid to play with ideas. Afraid to challenge dominant ideas. It’s going to lead to a lot more conformity, a lot less creativity.
And much more great discussion here on learning the importance of how to disagree with people, how to engage with those you disagree with and the importance of surrounding yourself with people you disagree with and expose yourself to ideas that you might not like in order to grow as an individual which in turn makes you more of a benefit to society as a whole.