Why We Create

Before the year ends, read Jia Tolentino’s searing essay Worst Year Ever, Until Next Year:

In any case, someone will tweet “worst year ever” every few minutes until 2016 is over, and then people will begin tweeting “worst year ever” as soon as 2017 begins. They will type “worst year ever” because of spilled drinks and late Ubers, a new Trump story, a new dispatch—if she miraculously manages to survive until then—from Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl in Aleppo who’s been tweeting, with her mother’s help, her fears of imminent death. There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it—no guidebook for how to expand your heart to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience; no way to train your heart to separate the banal from the profound. Our ability to change things is not increasing at the same rate as our ability to know about them. No, 2016 is not the worst year ever, but it’s the year I started feeling like the Internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all.

Perhaps it is the horror that swells, perhaps it is our awareness of it.

Yet I have friends who agree that this year was terrible culturally, and declare that it was their most fulfilling and happy year personally. This doesn’t diminish the personal pain that many others have gone through, but allows that there is a limit to the usefulness of abstract empathy. Despair is a passive verb. Even anger is more useful. One can both mourn and feel joy.

A shitty year is the most compelling argument for building oneself a joyful refuge. It doesn’t help anybody to freeze out in the cold.

It might be your best year ever. Please, fiddle while Rome burns. More than ever we need your songs.

Why We Do Better

In the physical world, echoes muddle. An echoing voice (say, a friend calling out to you in the forest) gets softer, cloudier with each bounce. We hear the pitch, but the message is garbled.

In the informational domain, echoes do the opposite: they clarify. Take an idea and listen to how it echoes in the history of literature, or philosophy, or political action. With each echo, each occurrence, the theme distills, the message sharpens. When history echoes, we understand it more clearly.

This short movie visualizes a speech by Alan Watts. Watts reminds us of something we knew as toddlers:

“The physical universe is basically playful…the same way [as] dancing. You don’t aim for a particular spot in the room because that’s where you should arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance.”

When we watch partners dance, we don’t observe the angle of their elbows, the sway of their hips and grasp for a greater purpose. The purpose is the dance.  We may understand our entire life in this way: the goal is not achievement or completion, but engagement, expression, presence.  In this way, we dance with every moment.

Seven-hundred years before Watts, the poet Rumi echoes:

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
In this way, we dance with every moment.

There are many ways to dance. You might smash cake. I might make soup. (More echoes.)

You don’t have to change anything you’re doing. You don’t have to stop; you haven’t been going anywhere. You’ve been dancing the whole time.

In this way, we dance with every moment.

 

Why We Act

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes since I learned about them last night.

Smash cakes are whole cakes that parents give to their babies on their first birthday to mash into with their faces, dig into with their hands, to messily revel in, like a tiny infant hurricane tearing through a frosted beachside villa.

99 times out of 100, I’m sure parents just want to have a fun day and a cute photo op.

But, parental intent be damned, there is more than just batter in this cake.

What is a smash cake made of?

1. Vicarious indulgence: Every single 30-year-old I’ve talked to about smash cakes has replied with some variation of, “Jesus, I want that immediately.” When we watch an infant grip her cake with two small fists and smear her cheeks in frosting, we are reminded of how rarely we let ourselves plunge recklessly, shamelessly into pleasure. Cake smashes are no doubt fun for the baby, but they are cathartic to the adults hovering behind the highchair, cameras in hand. For ten minutes, our imaginations smash the cake too, fully present, carelessly free. Just like Pixar movies and trampoline parks, smash cakes are really for us, not them.

2. Ritualized destruction: I am reminded of sand mandalas, the exquisite, kaleidoscopic depictions of the divine universe created by Buddhist monks over days or weeks. After completion, mandalas are destroyed, brushed into an urn, and poured into a river to demonstrate the impermanence of all things. Similar rituals of artistic destruction appear throughout history and across cultures, all the way to present day festivals like Burning Man. Smash cakes carry this lineage of sacred ephemerality. One could argue that infants are better participants than monks to carry out this act of destruction, for even their memories of the event are lost to time. Parents, as usual, miss the almighty point by documenting the occasion like a Kardashian wedding.

3. The first hit of sugar: Smash cakes provide many babies with their first taste of processed sugar. Parents see this as a moment to celebrate. I can’t help but mourn. For most in the Western world, sugar is less a treat than a chronic toxin, strongly linked to the wave of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity that is crushing entire communities. While sugar doesn’t create the physiological dependency that opioids do, the taste preferences and habits we acquire as infants are arduous to reprogram as we age. In this context, watching a cooing parent push a frosted slice under their reluctant child’s nose recalls the dread of a slasher flick. I yell at my screen, tell her to run, run. The protagonist is deaf to my cries.

4. Shut up, it’s just meaningless fun: You read all this and sigh, come on, man! It’s not a ritual or a meditation or a metaphor for jack shit. It’s a fucking cake and it’s a fun, silly thing. Shut up. It’s meaningless. But (I reply) that is meaningful. (You are on the verge of punching me at this point.) I continue: a first birthday marks the symbolic end of an age of meaninglessness.

We demand nothing of infants. They act on impulse, gleefully free of the cultural ideas and interpersonal norms that shape our every shudder. Outside of a few sensations (the sight and sounds and smells of parents prime among them), very little has meaning to them. They could crash a Rolls Royce into the last living polar bear without breaking a sweat, and no jury would convict them because they understand what none of those things are.

Around 12 months old, babies begin to develop mental representations of the world. They notice that Buzz Lightyear continues to exist even when he is hidden behind mommy’s back. They form a hazy understanding of cause and effect, of goal and intent. As they begin to comprehend that a world exists beyond their field of vision, that world starts to place basic expectations upon them about how to exist. We snack on the fruit of knowledge, and suddenly we’re told to put on some damn underpants.

A first birthday is our grand entrance into civil society, with its rules and taboos and demands. In this light, smash cakes form the centerpiece to a sort of baby stag party, one last sensuous celebration of egocentric independence, a hedonistic abandon that will soon be wrenched away forever.

This means nothing to them. What a gift.

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes.

Why We Create

Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred, pro wrestling storylines are insipid, insulting, and exhausting, and yet pro wrestling is the only narrative form I’ve seen consistently execute the most difficult storyline device out there:

The double-turn.

A double-turn is when a hero and villain walk into a match, and by the end of their fight, the hero has become the villain, and the villain has become a hero.

The most famous example:

In 1997, long-time fan favorite Bret Hart met chaotic evil asshole Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin had trash talked and sneak-attacked Bret for months, and Bret, a no-nonsense veteran, couldn’t wait to get his revenge. When the two finally met at Wrestlemania 13, the fans cheered Bret to the ring. The match quickly became vicious and intense. Bret expected to dominate Austin with his technical arsenal, but every time he had the upper hand, Austin brawled back.

Bret became increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t put Austin away. While Bret’s hair was a oil-tinted lion’s mane, his personality was all crew-cut: tight-lipped and taciturn. Now, however, he seemed fatigued and annoyed. For the first time, Bret’s straight-laced persona began to crack. His blows became crueler, designed to injure rather than score a victory. It was no longer enough to beat Austin, Bret wanted to diminish him, humiliate him, break him. Twenty minutes in, Bret opened a terrible gash along Austin’s forehead. Blood spilled down into Austin’s eyes. Between the sweat and crimson, the ring mat became an unfinished Pollock.

Austin, for his part, wouldn’t relent. Through the pain and abuse, Austin would raise a middle-finger and claw his way back into the match.

Finally, however, the Bret found his endgame, locking Austin into the Sharpshooter, his brutal submission leglock. Austin writhed to relieve the pressure, but couldn’t reach the ropes to force a break. Bret sat back and wrenched harder. Austin howled in agony. Blood poured down his face, a horror-movie mask. The crowd roared – but were they cheering for Bret or screaming for Austin to fight on? The longer Austin resisted, the more the audience found a grudging respect for his toughness, his courage.

Austin couldn’t make it to the ropes, but he didn’t tap out either. With his spine mangled in the Sharpshooter, Austin passed out from the pain. The ref ended the match, but Austin never gave up. He wouldn’t be broken.

Bret couldn’t accept that. The match over, he stood over Austin’s defenseless body and stomped into him, threatening to tie Austin into the Sharpshooter again until the referee pried him away. Hart sulked from the ring to a chorus of boos. As he walked to the locker room, he turned back only once, to look a betrayed fan dead in the eyes and shout “Fuck you.”

Once awake, Austin limped to the back under his own power, groggy and defiant.

The crowd chanted his name.

Plenty of movies have face turns, where the dreaded villain redeems himself in the climactic moment – Vader throwing the Emperor down a ventilation shaft to end Return of the Jedi.

Plenty of TV shows have heel turns, where the protagonist’s guileless smile curls into a snarl – Walter White watching Jane choke to death to reclaim control over his business.

And yet somehow pro wrestling – baffling, sprawling, incoherent pro wrestling – alone wields the most breathtaking narrative trick of all. The double-turn.

It’s time for Hollywood to catch up.

Why We Create

If you feel like politicians don’t represent your attitudes, it is possible that you are not strange enough.

In the documentary Objectified, industrial designer Dan Formosa describes his lab’s approach to building new products:

“We have clients come to us and say, ‘Here is our average customer.’ For instance, ‘Female, she is 34 years old, she has 2.3 kids,’ and we listen politely and say, ‘Well, that’s great, but we don’t care . . . about that person.’ What we really need to do, to design, is look at the extremes. The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the strongest, the fastest person, because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.”

My take: This approach is currently being tested in the U.S. presidential election. We will find out whether speaking to the oddest, the angriest, and the most dogmatic at the exclusion of everyone else is a viable political strategy, or whether you really need to cater those in the middle: independents and undecideds.

More than that, this is a lesson for anybody who has something to say:

Who is your least interested audience? Who are your biggest opponents? Who loves your work? Who are your True Fans? Whether you are crafting a presentation for management, planning a protest, or starting a blog, these are the two audiences you need to consider. Shock your opposition to attention. Nerd out with your homies. No middle ground. No average users. The mean will take care of itself.

To learn about how Tim Ferriss used this principle to learn Spanish in 8 weeks, read The Four-Hour Chef.

Why We Create

If you understand the difference between a physical book and an eBook, then you understand the difference between religion and atheism.

Why We Create

When you visit Paris, avoid The Louvre. Despite its reputation as the center (or centre) of high art, its massive size and dense crowds create an exhausting experience for many people. Unless you are an art student, a fan of indoor hiking, or a talented pickpocket, just skip it.

The Louvre’s biggest attraction and most upsetting experience is the Mona Lisa. Each day tens of thousands of people crowd into the room where the painting hangs behind bulletproof glass. Only the tall and persistent get more than a fleeting glimpse of the canvas. Most spy it only through the neck-and-shoulder gap of a tourist raising an iPad above their head, snapping a blurry memory that will surely last a lifetime.

Instead, wander the small streets around Rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais neighborhood, and explore as many of the contemporary galleries as you can. Seeing a breathtaking painting up close is an experience at once religious and deeply humanistic. Observe the way the paint rises and falls, smudges and streaks. What was a vivid figure standing before you becomes a series of a hundred million movements of a person’s hand. A marriage of intention and coincidence, perfectly arranged imperfection. Up close, you see the brushstrokes. You see the hand that made the brushstrokes. You see beyond the image that the paint depicts, you feel the fragility of the painter.

Go explore the world and look for the brushstrokes.

Attending a performance by Cirque du Soleil or a fight in the UFC is completely different from watching the televised broadcast. Up close you are overwhelmed by the sense of physical risk. Our notions of courage and harm are largely informed by images on screens. Rarely do we see people risk their life before us. Being in the room gives us a bigger thrill, yes, but also a more profound understanding of their talent and a deeper respect for their defiance of fear.

Since the printing press, reproduction has given us the incredible opportunity to spread our work to millions. Yet, each reproduction distances us from the creator. It is easy to forget about the artist, or worse, to idealize them. To imagine their ability as innate and not painfully, arduously earned. To assume their success was inevitable and not a series of daily skirmishes with doubt and fear. To view them as immortal and not laughably frail; people with sore wrists and gas and bouts of forgetting friends’ birthdays.

When we get close enough to see the brushstrokes, we restore humanity to the creator.

And only when we get close enough to feel their humanity do we understand their divinity.

Uncategorized

Bury a body on the beach.

No one needs to know about it but you.

And when they find the bones washed up, the mystery will captivate them.

Chaz Bundick of the band Toro y Moi describes a body he buried in the lyrics of his song Half Dome. Toward the final chorus, he repeats the line:

Look at who you are beside

Again and again, the words lapping like waves. And on the final repetition, nearly inaudible:

Look at who you are beside

(No one)

What could he mean? Is this an illusion to a specific person in his life? An observation about the obliterating vastness of a walk in nature? A red herring to throw everyone off the trail?

When brought in for questioning by the Song Exploder podcast, Chaz offers his confession:

“Yeah, that was intentional. I threw it in there just because it’s fun. The Beatles would do that, just throw in random stuff that was inaudible. It’s for purposes like this, like ‘I found this, what is this?’”

He had no motive. In the midst of creative intention, a carefully obscured piece of nonsense will fascinate them, aggravate them, confuse them, inspire them.

Your art should be a bit weird, a bit inexplicable.

What is this? The question will drive them mad. In your next project, bury a body on the beach.

Why We Do Better

“It’s not rocket science.”

Maybe they’re right. Perhaps the challenge you’re working on isn’t Literal Actual Rocket Science With Rockets.

But if it feels like rocket science, like success requires defying your own personal gravity, then remember this: it takes a team to build a rocket. To put a satellite in orbit or ten toes on the moon, you need a hell of a lot of brains.

So to you, lonely novice, daring changer, rocket scientist, you damn fool – understand this. It’s time to assemble your team.

Why We Create

“If you want to watch what someone fears losing, watch what they photograph.”

Merlin Mann, Roderick on the Line (1:12:30)

The conventional take is that social media presents us with only half a story. We see their view from the summit of Mt. Shasta, their tiny espresso on Rue Mouffetard, their group photo in Napa, friends arm in arm, wide smiles. We see their joy and their fulfillment (this line of thinking goes), and we miss the other half: the stumbles and struggles, the insecurities, the boredom.

What if our friends have been showing us all along?

Yes, our Instagram feeds our curated. Everything, from our subject, to our framing, to the filter we apply, each choice is the story of a moment – not as it was, but as we need to remember it. Each photograph captures a feeling we fear might slip away.

There is a second half to every photo, a face in the vase.

We may feel closer to our friends when we consider the choices that went into their photos. Why here? Why this moment? Why do they want to hold onto this, remember with this lens? What happened just outside the frame? What is it they fear to lose?