About stuff (including me and writing)

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True HermitThe Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

It's a fascinating story that requires experiencing oneself as a voyeur. In the middle I was frustrated with how this true mystery about a man who lived alone in the woods, surviving in large part by theft and by emotional avoidance, was developed in the book. In the end, I recognize I needed that frustration.

Read it if you are drawn to physical survival and wonder about aloneness and compromise. Skip it if you want an adventure.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

A little story or three on bias and connection

I am currently consulting on a book about empathy, and teaching an online course about liberal arts learning. This week in the course, we're considering scholarly sources and the value of recognizing bias. And in that way life likes to do, the two jobs got together in my head, pulled up chairs, ordered coffee, and became friends.

So, I wanted to share a little story (with a couple of stories stuffed inside) about Bias and Me.

This is my third book consultation in a year and through it and other life experiences -- which are what distinguish bias from prejudice in our class material -- I've come to perceive a trend: Sometimes men of a certain age, professional success, and global experience develop a bias against the new-old-days and in particular the present ways of so-called communicating.

(Foreshadowing: our protagonist Rini isn't sure the ol' days were so good nor the new ones so new or bad.)

In this job, it came to a point in a chapter on communication and empathy -- in particular, on social media. Some folks, based on their experiences riding high in various communications professions (like marketing and broadcast journalism) a few decades ago, have a pretty strong idea that "new media" are bad. The nature of social media is to divide and reduce the globe and all of us to angry, small-minded, non-thinking word- and meme-combatants.

(Fun fact: Wikipedia tells us "dumbing down" was a phrase in use in the 1930s. The good ol' days.)

Enter Rini, professor of media studies, analyzer of communication across cultures, user of Twitter (like, a lot). My bias is toward seeing people who dis "social media" as people who don't know social media, or at least have not observed or experienced its potential. Nothing pushes my buttons like implying the good-ol-days of newspapers and telephones and broadcast TV news and cups of tea in a parlor were the Unbiased Way God Intended Humans to Communicate. Let me pass you one of my spare copies of Amusing Ourselves to Death from 1985, okay?

So, I pulled together all these wicked positive data on how social media (Twitter) can save the world and along the way, I 1) had to wade through all these dominant data that show social media is designed to exacerbate our biases; 2) remembered a fantastic book I'd been reading earlier this year; and 3) remembered a fantastic academic paper I gave at the Popular Culture Association conference in Toronto in 2002.

And I recognized and sort of acknowledged my own bias that was suppressing a point of connection that was right there in the research. In 2002 I wrote about my observations and experiences of being a U2 fan online and in line at concerts where a hundred-fifty or so of us would gather from the wee hours of the morning on the day of a concert to ensure we got inside the arena first, to grab the closest spots in the general admission sections right up against the stages. We knew where to line up, who we might see again from the last city we attended, and what the parking and public bathroom situations were because of our interaction in online fan forums. (Many were using them, too, to arrange places to sleep and transportation to the next gig.)

This was pre-Twitter (though it continues in that vein through today), but it was a similar concept and it actually brought my client's and my competing biases together, introduced them, got them settled in comfy seats, and ordered them coffee and pie as they got to know each other.

My argument about the (potential and real) valuable outcomes of social media use is that it can connect humans who may be especially disconnected. Maybe geographically, more often sub-culturally. It allows people to say and hear what they might not otherwise say and hear. My client's argument about the (potential and real) harmful outcomes of social media use is that it can divide humans and cater to especially strong perceptual and confirmation biases. It walls them off from seeing or hearing what they would really rather never see or hear. In addition, this perspective goes, it makes us all "bowl alone," not talking to each other in person or making eye contact.

 So how about if we looked at some examples of people using social media to connect across such vast divides, face to face in situations that would otherwise justify fear and biases? That's where (techno)sociologist Zeynep Tufekci's Twitter and Tear Gas book comes in, and especially two extraordinary stories on p. 106-108. I highly recommend buying the book (proceeds support refugees), but it's also viewable without cost (link and click-through above). I won't retell her two stories of social media meets face to face here. They are striking examples of overcoming bias in particularly volatile circumstances, and they reflect arguably uneven examples of self-awareness and recognition of bias. Go read 'em.

So we come to one of the questions in this week's class: What is the value of recognizing one's own bias? For one, for me, it is the potential for productive, even genuine connection that can result, and the movement toward more whole, integrated understanding of (and empathy for) our co-humans. Bias isn't necessarily wrong or even bad, if we think of it as an angle. Angles gonna angle. Proportion is all out of whack. But we usually know how to make an effort to take in some other sides in the pursuit of truth and love.

(Plus recognizing bias's super useful in information literacy and doing academic research.)

post script: I want to note here that this ain't rose-colored and everything we perceive is not real and all we need is not just recognizing our bias. I still see that social media use can be fruitful even when it doesn't lead to in-person-breathing-the-same-air. But it's a good starting point that can help make a connection, which is needed in order to communicate and learn at all.

post-post script: I have a fair share of biases, and when I can get around to the right spot to recognize (or, more significantly, acknowledge) them, some fine combination of these happens to happen: I slow down. I shut up (for at least a minute). I get curious. I ask questions. I do research. I read another book (follow another Twitter handle). I might, but only briefly (because all of the above), feel embarrassed (or, more sophisticatedly, chagrined; or, less intensely, regretful). You?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

"Nah" no more: my first #NaNoWriMo crashed my slumber party

 Not my book

Literally right before I fell asleep last night, literally right before 2 a.m., my head flooded with an almost fully-formed idea for a novel.

I had characters, dialogue, action, and setting, setting up scenes on the sound stage in my brain as if arriving for rehearsal and I was just standing there on the side wondering if I was the production coordinator or had just wandered into the wrong room.

This little situation had not been on my agenda this week. And extra especially, it had not been scheduled for the middle of the night. But I guess it's the stuff of writer waking-dreams, so once I realized what was happening, I started typing away on my tablet's screen and didn't stop for maybe 30 or 45 minutes.

It's not an altogether unfamiliar event, but I definitely haven't had the gang all show up ready to be typed (or, back then, written in a spiral notebook) for probably decades. I've followed through a few times, but since about fourth grade never completed a full fiction manuscript. And even then I kept adding chapters because it was really a bit of a soap opera.

(My elementary novel - written on my own time in the midst of math and language arts and best-friends-angst and passing notes and whatever else it is kids do when they're nine and an old soul - was titled The Smiths, The Jones, We'll Break Their Bones.)

I'd been thinking about writing a short novel to experiment with Amazon self-publishing to see if there was anything promising in that world, but hadn't thought about it in a while and was always hung up on the absence of an actual story. Characters, I got. Characters galore. And dialogue. And settings. And background music, costumes, and animals and such. But plot progression? A key obstacle and goal? Look, we're all just trying to get by, I can't think of the grand stuff right now.

Until I did.

Ridiculously, it's a "YA" gig, starring a ninth grade girl, which is not in the universe of ideas I'd been visiting.

At just before 2 a.m. last night I was thinking about how to stop thinking. I was imagining tomorrow-today, with a 10 a.m. work phone call, half-a-day's writing assignments now two weeks overdue, and a little thing called being "under the weather" by some. I was succeeding in stopping the imagination and starting the blessed blank sleep. The timing was silly, but the gift was a gift.

And would you look at that - it's National Novel Writing Month next week, a possibly fun thing I've never done and rarely paid attention to. Oh, it's also adding a new teaching gig, continuing two writing/consulting gigs, weeks broken up by health care appointments, securing Obamacare for next year, nephew getting married, here come the holidays Month.

But I'm in. You?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Welcome to College!

 In bed, throw the covers on your head / You pretend like you are dead
No way, you can fight it every day
 But no matter what you say
You know it, the rhythm is gonna get you
 No clue of what's happening to you
But I know it, the rhythm is gonna get you     - Gloria Estefan

Thirty-eight of my forty-five years as a human being have included at least one First Day of School. Eighty-four percent. I didn't even live with a cat for that many years! For more than one of those years, I had First Days of School in two different countries. I've had the darn things in five states, on ten different campuses.

In a couple of weeks, I'm having one again, for the first time in a couple of years.

This time, I will spend the least amount of time ever for a First Day of School planning what to wear. I probably won't carry a backpack. But I am planning for some jitters, meeting new people, asking for help, and most likely taking a lunch break. And supper. Maybe midnight snack.

At the end of October, I start teaching an eight-week first year seminar online for SNHU. My role, in keeping with the distinct SNHU approach, is as a mentor and guide, weaving my knowledge, connections, suggestions, advice, feedback, and encouragement into the established structure of a "Perspectives in the Liberal Arts" course. My undergraduate, adult-learner students' average ages will be around the age I was starting my last new school, in 2004 at UConn, a bright-eyed doctoral student with two First Days of School (in two New England states) that fall.

They'll have more than one full-time commitment, probably kids and a job and a return to school after some time away. I hope they'll be curious and hopeful and determined. I hope I'll empathize and be helpful, resourceful, and at least a little bit funny sometimes.

In the calendar year 2016, I had no First Day of School for the first time since Y2K. My first days since then have been many and varied. In shifting professional commitments to consulting, writing, and editing, I now experience jitters and meeting new people without the comforting embrace (or bookends) of the rhythm of schools. I don't get much orientation and knowing who to ask for help is not handed to me in announcements and handouts.

But some familiar things have bridged the gap. I have a lunch period, for one. (Because my office-mate-host-brother invites me to shadow his work-from-home schedule.)

So I'm gearing up for my new First Day of School and more schedules and priorities and commitments living in tension with each other. I'm filling out my color-coded calendars (don't think I'm not buying three-dimensional school supplies just because the class exists in a net of ether). I may actually buy a new (comfy) outfit. I've had lots of help from The School in figuring out who to ask for help. And I'm excited about learning and wrestling with ideas, new weekly topics, and assignment due dates with a group of humans sharing my First Day of School.

(Except the online course is almost totally asynchronous.)

Friday, July 07, 2017

On the roundabout road to not much to do about not much new or now

via Goodreads

On the Road with Charles KuraltOn the Road with Charles Kuralt by Charles Kuralt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Read through my 2017 eyes, this vignette collection is occasionally sweet, rarely--though not never--provocative, and always repetitive. Besides a few gestures at poverty, which is never confronted, just overcome through good will--none of the stories incorporates conflict. It's a picture of the people on the back roads of the US that is too comfortable in nostalgia and its yearning for authortative, meaningful, cohesive, harmonious pastness: The Past and The Old Ways which must be glorified because goshdarnit they're the good ol' guys. The book works as it's designed, in spurts of short and vivid anecdotes. But if I weren't reading it to get some genre context for a comparable current project I'm editing, I'd have had no drive to keep reading to the end.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Part I: Shelter

I didn’t know, when I drove three days down here two years ago, that I wouldn’t be driving back.

Well, my brother drove most of the time.

Two years ago I packed up half my college-professor-office and cleaned up my condo, both on the north shore of Boston. I turned in final spring semester grades, stopped by doctors’ offices for one-last-appointments, and headed southwest to my family roots in DFW. We drove through horizon-blurring fields in New York, shared a quick and quiet Lake Erie beach moment with a van of Amish women, ate pizza and filled up with gas in a possibly sad, once-industrial town in Pennsylvania.

I think it was the day after Cleveland residents protested the acquittal of an officer who shot unarmed individuals that we skirted that downtown on an Interstate. I remember driving over the Ohio River into Kentucky while eating a fragrant orange; my brother was driving. I rode, sore and serious but happy for a sweet little moment and view, in the passenger seat in front of a semester’s worth of stuff, halfway to my overdue half-year sabbatical. It rained most of the rest of our way, and I think I was the one gripping the wheel through hail and flash-flooding in Texarkana, after a night in a leaky motel room decked in mood-matching decor.

Two months later, I quit my job, flew back northeast, packed up the rest of my office, for good, and piled a relatively modest layer of book boxes in my condo’s spare room, out of the way of a year-long housesitter. I probably wouldn’t be back, but who ever knew.

A year ago, I shipped the boxes southwest, clearing a financially underwater, nor’easter-leaky, brilliant-for-me home of all the furniture and most of the household items and old paper files accumulated over 10, some 14, years.

One of the absolute best things about the last year for me is no longer owning a home. I did love that home.

I bought the shiny, corner condo in a converted 19th century shoe warehouse at the junction of small but busy streets in downtown Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin, in 2006, after spending a liminal year completing my doctoral coursework in Connecticut.

That Connecticut year, the time of Katrina, when I welcomed maybe temporary, maybe not, undergraduate students from Louisiana universities into my Humanities discussion sections at UConn, I commuted once, usually twice, more than once three times a week back up to my office and a friend’s tiny living room-filling air mattress north of Boston. I drove back and forth to teach a class, advise students, help to manage an academic department in a time of extended growing pains.

In my year-leased Connecticut home, I slept on an eternally-flattening air mattress of my own in a dank apartment building in the woods of Ashford, Connecticut, with sketchy cell coverage and familiar neighbors I never got to know. I'd smell and hear the late night meals of Ramadan as I walked down the mildewy hallway to my dark, mainly empty space; or hear the fighting couple across the hall and wish they weren't, or eye closed doors wondering which ones protected the package-under-the-lobby-mailbox-stealer from my disappointed glare. Mostly I was too tired to care.

It was like living in a turn lane or elevator stuck between floors, my books stacked on plastic shelves even I could put together without instructions. It took me a few months to figure out that my cat Buddy’s frequent seizures at night while we snuggled with our skeptical new companion cat Georgianna inches above the stale carpeted floor were connected to the ever-increasing punctures leaking air so we’d wake up on two comfortless layers of rubber, to the sound of a garbage truck or drunk college student at the dumpster gracing our backlot window views.

The year before the in-between year of air mattress living, I slept on a borrowed mattress in the borrowed attic space room of another generous friend’s home on Boston’s north shore, commuting the opposite direction to Storrs once, twice a week in snow and rain and bouncing cell coverage. That’s when Buddy became my friend, The Little Bastard inherited sequentially two floors up from friend to friend to my borrowed apartment, where I believed I could tame the angry adolescent beast or laugh and bleed to death trying.

That’s when I housed my papers and non-blow-up or fold-up furniture and knickknacks in a storage unit on Route 1 I still refer to as the place I lived for two years.

I fell in love with my restaurant and train station views from the high-ceilinged fourth floor windows of my new condo on a lightly raining day. The windows were huge and I almost grew elastic arms to hug them as my gracious friend and I stepped into the wide open space, just to check it out, not yet anticipating an adventure of rewarding proportions trying to hang window treatments in a space defying pre-fab rods and other hardware. I bought the extra longest sets of curtains from JCPenney and Ikea and made a home for myself and my cats that several friends came to recognize from their commuter rail train windows across the street over the next 10 years.

(The short-sale contract for my condo a year ago specified that the washer, dryer, and window treatments were to remain as part of the deal.)

It was a bubbly moment in a real estate market about to implode. An overpriced, idealistically pitched condo designed as part of a plan to create some kind of connection between a catalog-picturesque, private, woodsy liberal arts college up the road and around the lovely bends, to the urban community in my new city with a view of Boston from the public beach. I fell in love with the windows.

After completing my dissertation and what I thought would be the longest, hardest part of my college faculty tenure - commuting between two states for nearly seven years, advancing my degree and chairing my department while teaching full-time - I bought myself a little lemon tree. Shipped to citrus-barren New England from tropical Louisiana, my new pet held its own, with I think seven beautiful yellow lemons in its first full year and another few each year after that until things fell apart. It grew tired and brown and a little mean, producing fragrant blossoms that transformed into Tic-Tac-sized green baby fruit before shrivelling up and dashing hopes.

I never bought a new bed or mattress after the one I got for an unfurnished apartment just North of Dallas in my two years between first-round grad school and becoming an under-30, tenure-track faculty member in Massachusetts. After two rented apartments and a two-year stretch standing on its head in the storage unit I called home on Route 1, I placed the little double bed on the light wood floor in the condo and the cats and I slept in it until we didn't. After Buddy left this mortal coil during my first sabbatical in Texas, Georgianna grew weary and arthritic and I bought pet stairs to help her snuggle up. Then in the last half-year before she joined our Buddy in the afterlife of no pet pain, which turned out to start the hardest year and a half of my college teaching era - leaving seven years of double-duty with grad school looking like a day floating on an intertube on a softly lapping lake in the shade by comparison - I broke the bedframe down and brought the mattress down to stay on the floor so George didn't have so hard a fall when she tried climbing into bed. The night before I became the ex-owner of the condo, my sister, niece, and I leaned the old mattress up against the dumpster downstairs and I slept on the floor cushioned by an unpacked quilt.

The day before I turned in my key at the real estate lawyer’s office for her to close in my absence, we walked the dry-bone lemon tree that could until it couldn’t down to the parking lot dumpster, out of sight of my movie screen windows for 10 years in my own, owned home. Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin, I didn’t go out the way I went in.

These days I sit on a hand-me-down office chair at a fold-up desk in the corner of my brother's living room, watching fearless squirrels mangle bird feeders intermixed with scenes of black- and tufted-crested titmice and chickadees gathering for sunflower seeds every few hours just inches from the window.

Two years ago I moved to Texas. One year ago I sold my condo in Massachusetts. These past two years have been more liminal than the air mattress adventure of 2005-2006, when then I knew the measurable goals and final move-back plans, with my very own new home on the horizon. I have lived in the familiar homes of my family, become entangled with their cats, and acclimated to the sounds of suburbia and the edge of the countryside.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Turn around, bright eyes (but don't look at the map)

Every now and then we are minding our own business, getting our work done, making our stuff, when a stupid jerk starts yakking away about how we are just going to embarrass ourselves or we simply can't make what we're trying to make. The voice is coming from inside our heads!! and it is like a cat pushing our papers off the table, but with greater malicious intent and, significantly, way less self-esteem.

My friend - no really, it was a friend, not me - and mutual tweet-follower Michael tweeted a call for help this morning (hi):

How do we out-wit the voice?

So, a few trusty practices came to mind pretty quickly. Not because I don't have to sit and listen to the inner critic literally every (okay, every other) day as I write, but because I do. There are these things that do happen to work sometimes.

1. Remember a project my gut tells me was done well and re-view it. That will shut the "meh, why bother" voice up at least for a while.
Rini's Personal Writing Archives, Four-Year-Old File
 2. Remember what some people (or gatekeepers) said about something I did and re-view their responses. That will give the voice someone else to argue with while I get back to work.

Then another friend of the Original Poster suggested (in addition to tried and true setting small goals and checking them off) a tactic that has had the opposite effect on me sometimes. He recommended reflecting "on the personal trail you are blazing," but I find that zooming out and looking for proof of Good Work in a big picture trajectory actually invites the mean voice to say, "So this map doesn't impress much, does it? You're no closer to the X than you were five projects ago. Wait, I can't even see the X -- what treasure are we searching for anyway?"

Turn around, every now and then I get a little bit tired
Of listening to the sound of my tears
Turn around, every now and then I get a little bit terrified
And then I see the look in your eyes 
- Bonnie Tyler

That can be a trip-up for the upwardly or treasurably mobile among us. The thing for me is to do The Thing that is being done now well, and to remind myself that a Thing or Two has been done well before, so don't get all mired in the map. Just this one thing now, okay.

Of course, life and creativity and productive work are none of them just a bunch of unconnected things. I am fortunate in that I have never been especially stuck on the single, ever-forward-moving path idea. But I understand its temptation and its authoritative claims for a lot of maker-workers, and Purpose driving - maybe for some, even, a 15 Year Plan - has its virtues.

There is a third Silence the Downer Inside tactic I practice even more regularly, and that is the move so fast my mind can't mess me up move. This is when I do what it takes to build some momentum - in my case, in writing - and pound out 750 or 1,000 words or more in one breath. I usually tell myself going in that "it doesn't matter if they're good or not" but that's all I'll say to myself about it because this exercise is not about self-affirmation, it's about action. Most of the time when I exhaust that burst of productivity, I look back over it without trepidation and find there is good, usable stuff right there and as a bonus, the Critic Inside got distracted and is taking a nap or something.

A caveat, for me, is necessary when it comes to pitching and self-promoting -- as in a job application, book proposal, letter of interest... They're a tricky Thing when it comes to revisiting and powering through, because the whole Thing is to deny the critic within and without.

I'd like to get better at stopping and taking more time to represent Me, rather than Perfect Pitchy Me in these projects. Because sometimes I see or think up something I want to do and I'm in such a hurry to get my "Pick me!" in front of the Picker's eyes first that I bulldoze right over the good that comes from self-criticism -- the humor, the carefulness, modesty.

So, that's my take on what to do to do good stuff when I doubt the stuff is good-able.

You? Hit Michael's tweet up (if he's still looking), or share around here with us and me.