Resolutions don’t work. We know this. New Years is no better a time than any other to make a change in your life, aside from the fact that it’s satisfying to mark up a fresh calendar page. Still, my birthday is also in January, and these dual reminders of time passing do make a person want to take stock of things, at the very least.
This year, instead of any hard-to-keep promises to do less of this unhealthy thing or more of that healthier-but-less-pleasant thing, I have one goal. In a sense, it’s the boiled down essence of all New Years resolutions ever, all crammed into one — a sort of life resolution — and less an optimistic short-term goal for change. It’s simple, but important.
Really pay attention to how I spend my time.
Spend more time doing things that make me a happier and/or better person.
Spend less time doing things that don’t.
Note the “and/or”, which is key. Watching the NFL playoffs with a couple friends in a crowded pizza place certainly doesn’t make me a better person either intellectually or physically. But delicious food, a few pitchers, and the feeling of excitement in the air made me extremely happy (go Niners). The prospect of sitting down to write this didn’t make me happy (at first), because I was feeling uninspired and I wanted to read some of my favorite blogs instead. But writing is good for the brain, and now that I’m typing away, I happen to be feeling pretty good.
This year’s mantra is part process, part demand. I’ll have some self-evaluation to do along the way over the difference between ‘occupied’ and ‘happy’, as well as what constitutes ‘better person’ vs simply ‘person who feels better about himself’. For example, will reading more books this year make me happier or better, or am I lazily pinning my self-worth on a data point to uphold the image I have of myself? Maybe it’s what and how I read that matters more? So learning to define happier and better will be gradual. Then, having reflected on those things, the trick will be learning to catch myself in the act of totally wasting, or just poorly spending, my time. Having the presence of mind to divert myself from killing time to filling it with more constructive pursuits may take some force of will too, and that will take practice. Still, as a plan for the future, this mantra is hard to argue with.
Not to make this just a diary entry though, let’s get back to this “I’d rather be reading a good blog” thing. Related, but more useful in making a finer point.
I’ve realized that I spend a LOT of time on Twitter. I love it. I check my feed several times a day for a total of, what, half-an-hour? An hour? More if you count actually following links to things worth reading or watching. That’s a lot of time per day, per month, per year.** I supplement it with my favorite blogs, and try my best to keep up with Good Citizen things like The New York Times, a local news site, some professional stuff, some cultural stuff. Let’s just say that between Twitter and my preferred RSS reader, there’s a lot of daily input. But how much of this daily media time in particular is making me happier and/or better as a human being?
(**Couldn’t help doing the math. Conservatively: at an average of 30 min per day x 365 days = a total of 7.6 days per year spent just on Twitter. Probably more. That’s a whole vacation!… Taken in increments, all year long… Maybe not terrible?)
I would argue that Twitter is a net positive for being the most consistently interesting, immediately informative, occasionally hilarious and always diverse source of ideas in my life. I can safely say the time spent in this one channel is making me both happier and better, a large portion of the time. Plus, it’s easy to brush past the waste. Maybe I need to unfollow a few duds.
My policy has always been to quickly abandoned those that over-Tweet and abuse the privilege of my attention. Media outlets especially just tweet everything they post, often without respect to the form (tip me as to why I should click from within the tweet; stop obfuscating or baiting me). The narrow context of a scrolling column can go from easily-skipped to just-plain-cluttered pretty quickly, and that ruins its beauty as a channel.
As for non-Twitter sources like blogs, I’ve grown a new appreciation for outlets like The Morning News, who offer a quirky compendium of important, thought-provoking, or curious items twice daily. And of all things, Dave Pell’s Next Draft has given me a new found appreciation for the lost art of the email list, with a daily top ten list of stories worth knowing about, from world-shaking to merry-making. These sources — like Twitter without the strict character limit — are quickly scannable, well-curated, and link to all the great places like The Atlantic or NYT I’d normally have to spend time digging through to find the best bits.
Which brings me to the weird realization that of all my media inputs, it’s the New York Times I no longer want in my feeds. Any of them. I love a lot of their reporting. Their long features are especially good — usually through Instapaper — and I would gladly pay the appropriate sum for the right to read those things, just as I would with any great outlet. What I don’t want is to spend time flipping through ten pages of New York-centric stories, reviews of high-end fashion shows, sports recaps, or trumped-up trend pieces only to click on the three links to current events or opinion pieces I actually care about. I have a job and a wife and hobbies and books; I want to spend time reading, not looking for what’s worth reading. I have Longreads to find the best features. I have favorite writers who tweet interesting links with much greater personal filters than the outdated ‘front page’. And I have The Awl, where I somehow enjoy reading almost everything they post, long or short, thoughtful or frivolous.
It makes me feel like a traitor to the classy intellectual I want to be, but part of spending more time doing things that make me happier AND better means not trying to keep up with a magazines’ or newspapers’ full fire hose of content. It’s an outdated model that doesn’t fit my life. I’m done feeling like I’m always behind. I’m going to let the curators, who’ve chosen this as a specialty, do that job properly where I am doing it poorly. I’m going to immerse myself more and browse less.
So there we go. Realization number one. And the year’s just beginning.
I caught this clip while half-watching an episode of Conan a few weeks back, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Its echoes have bounced around the back of my mind. Its subtext has haunted my subconscious. Its hypnotic hold over me was so powerful, I was compelled to break my summer-long hiatus to write about it.
(Not that said actually-longer-than-summer-long hiatus wasn’t somewhat planned. Intentionally timed, at least. Personal time off, let’s call it. A concerted attempt to avoid late nights glued to a screen and spend more time cuddled up next to the wife mostly, with every intention of returning to writing more come fall. At least that’s what I told myself as the non-writing weeks piled up. But that’s not what this is about. Not entirely anyway.)
Getting back to the clip. It’s actually the perfect subject for a return to writing. If you haven’t already clicked by now, please enjoy:
It’s patently absurd and totally hilarious. One awkward, badly-written local news segue after another, all going for the same tired joke. I laughed loud and hard at this premise (and at the idea of some poor editor going through hundreds of hours of clips to find this much material).
But then it gets uncomfortable. This isn’t only a handful of clips, it’s a deluge. And it just keeps going. To the point where you hope it’s over, but it’s not. Not even close.
By the end it shifts fully into depressing. It keeps going past the point of, “I get it, that’s enough,” and on into, “What’s going on? Is this real? Are we as a species doomed to this level of awful cliche? Do these people not know how unspecial they are? Make it stop! Please! I’ll never eat ice cream again, I’ll change my ways, just please let it end!”
That’s the part that stayed with me for weeks. Not how funny this segment was, but what it says about all of us. Most of us are not original. At all. We make the same cheesy, obvious jokes. We have the same uncomfortable self-awareness while we make those jokes in an attempt to connect with other human beings, and even the same awkward tone while we acknowledge that self-aware cheesiness to show we’re in on the larger joke of how sad the whole charade is. And yet here we all are, going through the motions… again, and again, and again. And again.
With Google search and Twitter tags and all the collective babble recorded for all to cross-reference, it’s easier than ever to realize how original we aren’t. Look at the photos on Yelp reviews. Click on a trending topic. How can it be anything but paralyzing? Why bother saying or writing anything? Someone else has already said it, or is busy saying or tweeting or blogging it better than you ever could. The odds of you being unique and sparkling and clever and making a lasting impression on your dinner guests, your social network, much less the world, is so incredibly small… why even go to the effort?
So sure, in addition to the personal time off, maybe the other reason I haven’t been writing is that fear that there’s nothing new to add. Better to spend my time reading what others — LOTS of others, the really smart, clever, always-leave-an-impression types — are saying. Some of their thoughts are truly original; some of their words are truly profound. Maybe it’s better to benefit from their ideas than struggle to add my own to the noise.
Of course, getting started on that track, it’s easy to find a whole other kind of deluge. Once you’re looking for them, there are actually lots of genius ideas and thoughtful writers and sharp thinkers. So many that you start thinking again, maybe I can do this too. Maybe I won’t go down in history as one of the greats, but even one would do. Just one original thought. Or if I’m lucky, a few per year. One per month. I’m not greedy.
So the cycle completes. I may spend most of the time being not very original, not very genius, but if I never try I’m accepting a world of others’ ideas without ever contributing my own. If that clip proves how dull we mostly are, in a way it also shows that it’s okay to be mostly dull, because that’s how people are. Just keep trying for that one original thought. Maybe it’ll come, maybe only rarely, but at least it’s not giving up and sitting around eating ice cream.
[Addendum: Between writing this yesterday and posting it this morning, a talented, incredibly original film-maker took his own life. I obviously don’t know the circumstances that drove him to such a drastic end, but if anything, the timing serves as a reminder that the search is ongoing, and better for ourselves and the world to keep looking as long as we possibly can.]
I must say, I’m fascinated by hipsters, but almost equally fascinated by the prevalence of people analyzing what hipsters really are. Seems like a day doesn’t go by that some article or another isn’t written about what makes someone a hipster, or how to classify different hipsters, or what hipsters are into lately. Either they’re the most interesting subjects in culture right now, or they’re the only avid readers who can be counted on to click headlines about themselves. Either way, it can feel like a bit of a dead horse source being beaten for stories.
However, last week there was a legitimately excellent sociological take on the phenomenon of hipsters in the New York Times. Finally, a piece examining hipsters not in terms of what, but in terms of why:
Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.
All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.
The whole article’s worth reading, because for once it’s about the disease, as it were, not the symptom. In the great social mess of urban life, clothes and music and preferred cheap party beer are all well and good to be talking about, but at the end of the day hipsters and yuppies and high paid executives are really all playing the same game: trying to impress each other. Displays of wealth and taste or non-wealth and alterna-taste are just a matter of saying that at least you’re better than someone, so you don’t have to be totally insecure about your place in the world.
Or to put it even more simply, there’s this cartoon:
I’d been meaning to share this article by Douglas Coupland, in which he offers “A Radical Pessimist’s Guide to the Next 10 years.” It’s 45 quick, pithy ways things are going to be different whether we like it or not. A few favorites:
9) The suburbs are doomed, especially thoseE.T. , California-style suburbs
This is a no-brainer, but the former homes will make amazing hangouts for gangs, weirdoes and people performing illegal activities. The pretend gates at the entranceways to gated communities will become real, and the charred stubs of previous white-collar homes will serve only to make the still-standing structures creepier and more exotic.
17) You may well burn out on the effort of being an individual
You’ve become a notch in the Internet’s belt. Don’t try to delude yourself that you’re a romantic lone individual. To the new order, you’re just a node. There is no escape.
I think the beauty of this list is how widely varied his points are, how short and simple they’re stated, and how true they all feel.
Any one of these points could be an entire treatise, but instead, it’s a list of pithy points that feels disturbingly right on.
This is something a lot of great writers, comedians (see last post), politicians, and even marketing strategists/copywriters have in common: a real talent for telling us things that we already believe, but either didn’t know consciously, or hadn’t quite put into the best words.
Convincing someone of something is hard when you have to present a long, reasoned, evidence-backed case. And with enough time, research, art direction, word-smithing and so on, really anyone could do that. But the most impressive folks, the ones I aspire to be like, are the people who can cut all that part out and just deliver that sense of “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” in one artfully stated sentence.
[Nevermind the clear evidence on this blog that I still have a long way to go, since every post containing one interesting idea is about five paragraphs long. Discipline, my good man!]
Also in the department of things that just feel true in your core: the new album by No Age. Top five of the year, at least. I’ve been ‘Fever Dreaming‘ and ‘Glitter’-ing like crazy for the past month since seeing them open for Pavement. Highly recommended.