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 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 Talk

I spent the day after the election reading essays written by friends on Facebook. They wrote paragraphs, paragraphs revealing their wounded, worried hearts to the world. They shared their personal histories: who they are and what their country means to them. They speculated about their place in the world, their purpose in the months and years ahead. They asked for help.

These were friends who, until this moment, used Facebook only to share the concerts they attended, the meals they ate, the trips they’d taken.

This is not a critique.

Something has changed.

In the period following a disaster, our sense of community swells. In this circle of shared trauma, we feel comfortable sharing ourselves in our full complexity and contradiction, full of fear and stress and hope. We tell stories we’ve never told. I see my friends more fully now, and I find myself smiling. Like superheroes, we shed our civilian clothes and save each other.

It’s possible that as a writer, the past few days have been especially profound, as I’ve had the opportunity to read my friends. Writing is the most direct access we have to the gestures of our inner monologue – not just what we think, but how. We learn that a friend who speaks in terse declarations, thinks in wild, winding, upside-down musings. We learn that a friend who fills the room compresses their thoughts into ordered, logical clips. Perhaps we have heard their song for years, but this is the first time we’ve seen them dance to the music.

I know this will recede soon. If we had Facebook after 9/11, we would have shared our pain for a several weeks, we would have posted forceful political opinions for a few months, but slowly, the new movies come out, and a football player makes a cool catch, we have a busy stretch at work, and the emotion draws back.

But I can’t help but remember who we were then, who we always could be.

Why We Act

Space-time is, broadly, the concept that time and space are not independent structures; the flow of time changes relative to an object’s position and movement through space.

As I sipped absinthe in a secret red-walled bar down a Shibuya alleyway, I considered the existence of a new theory of relativity: the space-food continuum.

What I discovered in my liquor-ish haze, is that my food selection changes relative to my position and movement around the globe.

I treat food like I treat maps.

When I visit unfamiliar cities, I discard maps. Fuck a map, I am a space explorer. I lose time. I lose myself. I pick a point and wander, turning randomly at intersections, no destination in mind. I prioritize novelty over all else. I don’t particularly care where I end up, or when. I trust curiosity, fortune, and friends to lead me to the right spaces.

And the right foods.

Plunk me in a new city, and I will eat everything, try anything. I chuck calorie tracking and nutrient density out the window. My intention is to amble about the culinary topography, to taste the strange, the banal, the obvious and obscure; to let luck guide my tongue.

At home, I turn from explorer to engineer. Space is an optimization exercise. I study the map. I figure out where the fewest stop signs are located and I track the lengths of stoplights in order to shave seconds off my travel time. Beating Google Maps’ estimated travel duration brings me great joy. Missing an exit on the freeway brings me great shame. The purpose of commuting isn’t to commute; the purpose of commuting is to Get There.

At home, food becomes a route to a specific destination. To lower blood levels of LDL-P. To reduce body fat by 5%. To deadlift 35 more pounds. In the kitchen, I track macros and weigh meat. I record weekly averages. Food follows function: I prioritize effectiveness and efficiency over aesthetics and chance.

My tolerance for serendipity increases as a factor of distance from my house.

This is what I define as the space-food continuum.

Why We Do Better

If free food doesn’t excite you, nothing will.

That’s about the least you can care about something. If an event boasts of free pie, you know they are in a low-care business. The conference room might be packed, but 99% people are just there for the food. When the food runs out, or the organizers ask people commit to anything (anything), the attendees will flock to the exit.

And of course, you avoid opportunities like that because you’d rather spend your time on something that you care about, pie-or-no-pie.

So that’s one end of the Care Spectrum. What would sit at the other end? What is the opposite of free pie?

How about a punch in the face?

Very few people would show up to an event that boasts it will punch every attendee in the face. In fact, let’s assume this event is extremely expensive as well. You might pay several thousand dollars to attend this event, and you will be punched directly in the face an uncertain number of times.

Very few attendees, indeed. But you can bet that whatever this event is about, the attendees care a whole hell of a lot about it. Whoever these attendees are, they are the experts and nerds, the pioneers and changemakers.

We all want to make a difference, until we get punched in the face a few times.

You might know exactly what you want to do. You might even be great at doing it.

But the question is, what are you willing to take hits for? Because this isn’t the end of the Care Spectrum: it’s the new beginning. This is the least you can care and still make a difference.

Which conferences do you show up for, punch or pie?

 

Want to learn more about how to care (and more importantly, not care) about the right stuff? Check out Mark Manson’s  The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.

Why We Love

“Every hour, 10 of us are asked to go rescue an influx of 200 people.”

I can’t stop thinking about the short documentary 4.1 Miles. It follows the day of a coast guard captain on the island of Lesbos, which sits 4.1 miles from the coast of Turkey. Every day, thousands of refugees attempt to cross the gulf in cheap inflatable rafts. Many capsize in the strong waves. The Greek coast guard tries to rescue as many people as possible.

The documentary reveals the incredible courage of the coast guard and refugees, and the unfathomable toll the struggle takes on both.

4.1 miles is roughly the distance between Penn Station and the top of Central Park. Facebook headquarters to Stanford Stadium. The length of the Bay Bridge.

Our brains tend to equate size with power, distance with struggle – an echo of our ancestors’ lives in the wild.

To endure so much sorrow in so short a span – our imagination fails us here. We must observe.

Why We Learn

There is such a thing as a bad question.

On Reddit’s fitness forum, people share stories, trade tips, and ask questions on a shared quest to improve their health and sculpt their bodies. The site is a treasure for the motivated, curious beginner.

You also encounter questions like, “Is it okay to eat a grapefruit before my workout or should I wait until after?”

Bad question. Good person, but bad question.

This is a bad question because it is fear disguised as curiosity. Learning a little more, reading another book or blog post can feel like progress, but it is also a common stalling tactic. Same with asking for advice. The wisdom of experts can help us avoid painful, time-consuming mistakes.

But this question is about grapefruit timing.

I want to grab this person and yell, “JUST TRY IT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS!”

Yesterday, I talked about passive curiosity, which asks, “What do people already know about this subject?”

Active curiosity wonders, “Let’s see what happens when I try this.”

The curiosity of taking apart a camera to see if you can put it back together.

The curiosity of introducing yourself to a group of strangers to see how they react.

The curiosity of taking the long way everybody avoids rather than the short cut everybody seeks.

The curiosity of failing forward.

The curiosity of taking the first bite.

The curiosity of saying yes.

When a person specializes in passive curiosity, we call her well-read. When she dedicates herself to active curiosity, we call her well-lived.

The well-read person is sometimes interesting, and often dangerous. The well-lived person is always interesting, and often heroic.

It is the difference between timing a grapefruit and starting a movement.

Why We Do Better

Let’s not pretend you aren’t a hero. And as you wander your world map in the direction of your next quest objective, you are going to encounter enemies at random intervals. Sure, you could tank through your battles, soak up damage and mindlessly swipe away at your foes. This might suffice through your small skirmishes, the weak and timid challengers to your productivity.

But why not play to your strengths? The better you understand how to use the items and magic you have at your disposal, the more flexibly and confidently you will deal with the razor-toothed, thickly-carapaced fuckers that guard the entrance to the temple.

Know your buffs and auras, Hero.

Buffs are items and spells that strengthen you for a short duration. In a typical game, you might have the following buffs:

Attack up: Sharpen your daily work – Examples: Eight hours of sleep, eating well, 5 minutes of intense poetry or music before work, coffee.
Defense up: Resist anything or anybody that drains at your energy or attention – Examples: Meditation, blocking news and social media sites, coffee.
Speed up: Get things done more efficiently – Examples: Morning journaling, Pomodoro timer, coffee.
Stamina up: Work harder for longer – Examples: Jazz, classical and minimal electronica, coffee.
Health up: Restore your energy immediately – Examples: Naps, conversation with a close friend, coffee.
Regeneration: Increase your energy in increments over time – Examples: Short walking breaks, giving complements, coffee.
Perception up: Increase the chance that your work moves your target audience – Examples: Reading for 30 minutes a day, asking questions, coffee.

Auras are heroes or spaces that strengthen you as long as you are near them. In a typical game, you might encounter:

Hero units: People that inspire you to resist defeat, to aim further, to hit harder – Examples: Professional mentors, friends that lift you, podcast interviews with accomplished guests.
Areas of effect: Sacred spaces, inside which you are impervious to harm, inside which you grow stronger by the moment – Examples: Your favorite cafe, a room that you have personally decorated, a local park.

Here’s what you do, Hero. Sit down tonight and identify your IRL buffs and auras.

What Came Next, Why We Act

Artificial intelligence will not kill us all. Instead, it will ground us like an angry parent, send us to our room.

David Krakauer suggests that the threat of technological progress is not existential, but volitional. He asserts that algorithms that curate, like the one that recommends our next movie on Netflix, erode the concept of free will. To the algorithm, the tendency of humans to surprise, to contradict themselves, to act unpredictably is an inefficiency. By constraining our set of visible and viable options, artificial intelligence effectively negates the possibility of freely-made choice.

Krakauer provides an analog example in our choice of dress:

“I am a Western male, you are a Western male: you are probably wearing trousers and a shirt. The sartorial options available to you are extraordinarily small. If you look at world culture, and historically look at Persia or the Roman empire, or China, the way we have chosen to adorn ourselves is incredibly diverse and fascinating. And yet, now as Western men we all look like clones. I would claim you are not exercising your judgment, you’re being told precisely how to dress. And when you get to exercise your judgment, it is a very, very low dimensional space around texture and color that the manufacturers of clothing, based on purely economic efficiency, have decided to give you.”

But is his premise accurate? If, as Krakauer implies, free will is exercised via deliberation over a complete data set, then even nature itself is a kind of curator. After all, our environment constrains the availability of flora and fauna we might choose to consume or wear or convert into shelter. Does the height of trees and the tensile grip of our fingers limit our choice of recreation any less than Amazon’s recommendation engine? Are we truly exercising free will when our habitat and biology provide only a narrow band of easily-accessible options?

Of course we are. Free will is not at stake, but heroism. Heroism is finding, then crossing the boundaries of conventional wisdom and curated options. It is grasping for the uneasily-accessed branches.

Religious theocracies curtail choice, but not free will. Authoritarians build fences, heroes hop over them.

Algorithmic curation suggests we choose from a small set. Heroes venture beyond recommendation.

Artificial intelligence draws from the oldest human tradition. Every society places borders around what constitutes normal, responsible, civilized, sacred. So do our psychological biases and intuitions. If artificial intelligence further shrinks our set of choices, then the opportunity for heroism has never been greater.

Why We Talk

On long train rides, I consider the helplessness of Superman.

The public has, perhaps unfairly, concluded that Superman’s powers are limitless. Therefore, when a problem – any problem – goes unsolved, the point of failure is obvious: Hostage situation? Capsized pleasure cruise? Unexpected volcanic eruption? Superman problems.

Systemic racial bias in policing? Hidden debt in derivatives markets? Mounting threat of mass extinction due to global climate change?

Alas, Superman’s abilities end at the boundary between quick disasters and slow disasters.

Quick disasters are events that erupt in moments. They tend to be single-factor, physical, objective, observable incidents. Falling planes. Speeding cars. Aggressive drunks. Catastrophes that can be averted by lifting, swooping, blocking, catching, and most thrilling of all, punching.

Slow disasters brew and unfold for decades or centuries. They are often complex, contextual, informational, nonlinear systems. Regional political disputes. Behavioral norms and biases. Environmental and economic degradation.

In the age of Buzzfeed, I imagine strongly worded Open Letters to Superman, penned daily by representatives of communities obvious and obscure, decrying his inaction on the amount of GMO grain in chicken feed, and the shrinking of Australia’s coral reefs, and the development of commercial properties on tribal lands, and, and, and.

Not Superman problems.

Clark Kent problems. Clark Kent, the journalist.

The power of the written word: to snake through the boundary between quick and slow disasters, to lift hearts and minds instead of overturned school busses. To inspire mass action, to salve (if not solve) a generation of sectarian divide, to plant vision and ethics and seeds that grow for centuries, long after Superman returns to that great Fortress of Solitude in the sky.

Imagine if Krypton didn’t imbue Clark Kent with superhuman strength, but superhuman wit and empathy. Able to bridge bitter conflicts in a single aphorism. More inspirational than a parent’s sacrifice, a preacher’s pulpit, or a clear view of the Milky Way in the night sky.