Thursday, September 18, 2014

On human nature, nationalism and self-determination

Scots are voting on independence today. I'm not a Scot, and I don't vote in the United Kingdom. I have no opinion on the referendum, nor am I entitled to have one. But the debate has stirred a lot of thoughts in my distracted brain.

Above the auditorium entrance in Georgetown's Intercultural Center, which houses its School of Foreign Service, is a quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist:
"The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudices and build the earth."
As a 16-year-old college freshman more than 30 years ago, I believed that. I wanted to do that. I saw that the division between our side and theirs was artificial and unsustainable, and I believed we were moving toward a new era of communication and peace.

This is why it's always young people who lead revolutions.

It's not cynical to say that human beings can't be trusted to do the right thing, it's history. The gift and curse of our creation is free will: we are capable of great goodness and great evil, but mostly we incline to indulgence and expedience. As an old boss of mine liked to say, we are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. That's not a moral judgment, that's just biology. We breathe, we excrete, we eat, we reproduce. We fear darkness and danger, so we band together, and then we fight with each other because no group allows every member to get everything they want (Yeats on Ireland: "Great hatred, little room"). But because we are human and not rats, we yearn for meaning and we dream of freedom.

Teilhard wrote about nationalism in the wake of the Great War, where he had served as a stretcher-bearer at the first Battle of the Marne, and the battles of Champagne and Verdun. After the war, he got a doctorate in geology, and he spent most of the rest of his life doing paleontological fieldwork in China. What he learned and what he found gave him a mystical insight into the universality of the human condition, over both time and geography, and an understanding of the futility and wasted energy of national boundaries.

Because the first thing that nationalism does, Teilhard understood, is dictate who does and doesn't belong to a group. We are Us; you are Them. We celebrate Us, we reject Them, like that "Simpsons" episode about the old enmity between Springfield and Shelbyville. If you believe, as Teilhard did, as I do, in an omnipresent and all-forgiving God that created us all, there is no Them. Who would be Them? Who does God call "Them"?

Do away with nationalism, then, but it leaves us still with the drive to self-determination, which is not only a human desire but also, in this post-Eden exile, a human obligation. Especially now, in 2014, when our religions seem to be failing us and our governments and public institutions have become too large and complex to be held accountable in any meaningful way, we crave some sense of agency over our own lives. Or at least I do, which is why I have been self-employed for the past 15 years, and why I moved to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, and why — or at least one reason why — I never married. It's not a noble thing; it's not so far removed from my three-year-old self, who snatched away utensils, washcloths, and items of clothing from adults with a shove and "By myself!" It's the teenager's manifesto: You're not gonna tell me what to do, man.

The problem with insisting on independence, I have found as I approach my sixth decade, is that people will give it to you. Cooperation and collaboration take time, energy, compassion and compromise. It is, in the short term, often harder to do something as a team than on one's own. It's just that teams can do more, for longer, without tapping out every one of their members.

My big lesson, after almost five decades on this planet, is that it's a lot harder to be a good team member than it is to be a solo operator. The mistake people make — or at least, the mistake I made, and continue to try to correct in myself — is thinking that belonging to a team means that the team comes first, and that the team's interests override its individual members'. The best teams balance the needs of the group with the needs of the individuals, and operate on a constant cycle of feedback: What do you need? What do we need? How are we doing? What are we doing? It's hard, and the bigger the group, the harder it gets.

So maybe Scotland has the right idea: take it down a notch. Make the group smaller, so that we all listen better. Can we get to a point where no country's big enough to marshal an arsenal that will destroy the world? That's probably naive. It's certainly romantic. But I watch today's election with fascination and hope. Whatever the outcome, it would be nice if it meant everyone listened to each other a little more closely.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Freelancing and the Law of Diminishing Returns

diminishing returns, also called law of diminishing returns or principle of diminishing marginal productivity, economic law stating that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output.

Encyclopedia Brittanica

I could give you anything but time.
Elvis Costello


It's Labor Day, and I'm working. I worked yesterday, too. I worked Saturday. This is the nature of things when you have clients instead of employers, and when your clients pay for prompt attention and rapid response. If I want to take time off, even a day, I have to let clients know in advance; I've learned this by making the mistake of not letting clients know in advance. A lot of what I do is not especially time-sensitive — does it make a difference, really, if you get manuscript edits back on Wednesday instead of Monday? — but some of it is, and some of the work I do is not the kind you can leave for 24 hours at a stretch without some kind of backup in place. I have no backup. That's also a common issue for freelancers. 

I'd hoped to take a week off in July. I announced it to my clients well in advance. I had plans, or at least plans to do nothing, for at least five days and maybe as long as seven. But then one of my clients got an offer, and in turn made me an offer, neither of us could refuse. I figured I'd find a week to take off in August. 

Instead, this August was the busiest I've ever had, in 15 years of freelancing. I turned work down in August. I'm still catching up. And I am exhausted. 

A friend said to me yesterday that I work all the time, and it was meant as a personal criticism, not as a compliment. I admitted it. How could I deny it? I've gotten myself into a spiral I don't know how to break, though I see that it is unsustainable. I feel so anxious, all the time, about so many things I can't control. The only reliable remedy I've found for that anxiety is completing a task for a client, and the only sure motivator for me is an external deadline. So I keep the to-do list full, and I move from task to task, and I am so tired and distracted I put my phone in the dryer yesterday. (I heard it thunking before any damage was done.) 

I need — I need — what do I need? It's more than a single day off, but I don't know what. 

A Facebook meme is going around about the Ten Books that Have Stayed With You, and I posted my list last week after Erin Mitchell tagged me. One of the books I always include on that list is Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. My mother gave me a copy for Confirmation, and it ranks second (only behind John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things) as the book I've most often given other people. This morning I pulled it out again, and found this:
I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact — to borrow from the language of the saints — to live "in grace" as much of the time as possible.
If I could find that place, I tell myself, I would not need to be so busy. If I were not so busy, I tell myself, I could find that place. 

I have no answers to this. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Social Media and My/Your/Our Terrible Summer

The other day I did something I hadn't done in much too long: I read a daily newspaper, on paper. I was meeting friends at The Tombs for an early dinner, and for once in my life I got there before they did. I had a beer at the bar, and picked up a newspaper lying by the register.

Once upon a time, all bars used to have at least one newspaper on the bar, for patrons who were drinking alone. You see it less often now, because of the assumption that people at the bar are otherwise occupied, watching one of the many screens on the wall or looking at their phones.

Since the paper was there, I read it. And it felt like taking a long bath, or going for a walk, or having enough oxygen after a run. It felt like a luxury.

I haven't subscribed to a daily paper in about ten years, which embarrasses me. I pay for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Portland Press-Herald online. I get daily news summaries emailed to me from Bloomberg Business Week, The Boston Globe, The New York Post (for the horoscope) and something called Trove that I don't even remember signing up for. I follow Slate, Vox, Politico, FiveThirtyEight, The Wall Street Journal, The Texas Tribune, Romanesko, RTE and at least half a dozen publishing newsletter/blogs on Twitter.

I am a news junkie. And whether it's booze, pills or news, addiction kills.

Everybody agrees that this has been a terrible summer, terrible to the point of absurdity. War in Gaza, war in Syria, war in Ukraine, war in Iraq — and those are just the wars the global media are reporting. Ebola in West Africa. Refugee children at the U.S. border, being treated like criminals. Ferguson, God help us, exposing the ugly truth that some people sincerely believe we're not all equal citizens in this country. Robin Williams' death. The Hachette-Amazon dispute. I could keep adding things to this list all day, but let's move on.

The one constant through all of this has been my Twitter stream, which I made the mistake of downloading to my phone four months ago.

"Doesn't it seem to you like people are crazier than they used to be?" I've had that conversation with at least half a dozen friends in the last month, in almost exactly those words. People are losing their ever-loving minds. But why? Are things really so much worse than they've been? Are they worse than the summer of 2002, when we were (or at least, I was) looking at the sky for strange planes and jumping at unexpected noises? Are they worse than the summer of 1998, when Congress was getting ready to impeach the President of the United States? (And God, doesn't 1998 sound great right now?) Are they worse than 1968, which I barely remember except for the smell of smoke from downtown Norfolk, and my mother crying in front of the television?

I don't know. I only know that it feels worse, and I've decided that Twitter is why. Facebook too, but Twitter more so.

I love Twitter. For people who work alone at home, like me, Twitter is a constant online cocktail party. I keep the Twitter window open on my computer all day — it's open now, with a tab telling me there have been 62 new posts since I last checked it. I justify that by saying it's part of my work, because I do help some authors manage their Twitter feeds.

But I'm realizing that Twitter is a big part of the anxiety that's infected me this summer. Twitter is a constant emergency, and it's all too much.

Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist, published a study several years ago that found that most people can maintain meaningful social connections with a maximum of 150 people. This is not a Western phenomenon; this is a global pattern, whether you live in Greenwich Village or a village in central Asia. Relatives, friends, co-workers, connections — 150 people is about the limit of how many names, faces and relationships we can take care of.

I follow just over 1,000 people on Twitter. I have 572 Facebook friends. How can I pay attention to 1,000 conversations at once? How can I be a friend to 572 people? I don't even know who some of my Facebook friends are; they're aspiring authors who sent me friend requests in my early Facebook days, I think, or friends of friends, but now they're in my news feed and it would feel unkind to drop them.

It has to stop, because it's making me crazy. This summer has not been bad for me personally. I've had a lot of work, I've seen family and friends and baseball and some great movies, I have a ridiculously good cable TV set-up and a view of the Washington Monument from my living room window. I have a rooftop pool, for God's sake! Which I've used exactly twice this summer, because the pool doesn't have wi-fi, and God forbid I detach myself from the electronic tether.

Let me be clear: this is my problem, and I've written this all out because I suspect I am not alone. I am not saying that social media or the Internet is bad — they're obviously not. I'm saying that I have been binging on social media and the Internet like a teenager on Boone's Farm, and it needs to stop.

The first step is taking both Twitter and Facebook off my phone, which I'm doing right now. The next step is to shut the Twitter window (41 new posts since I checked it!). I'm going to subscribe to the paper Post again, and make an effort to get more of my news from print and less from Twitter. I need that distance, that space. The step after that . . . I don't know. Ideas, suggestions?

Yes, I realize the irony of blogging to request help with my Internet self-discipline. Send me a letter. I'll email you the address.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Real Housewives of My Existential Crisis

On Saturday afternoon, through no deliberate choice of my own, I wound up watching several episodes of "The Real Housewives of Orange County." Although several smart friends and people I admire a lot love these shows, I'd never seen one. I remember when Bravo used to be a specialty cable channel for the performing arts; you could probably make the argument (and I'm sure someone has) that the Real Housewives shows are another type of performance art.

But the show upset me, and two days later, I'm still trying to figure out why. I can't figure out what the shows or their participants want from their audience. Are we supposed to mock them, or judge them? I don't want to do either of those things. Are we supposed to plunge ourselves vicariously into their artificial drama? I don't want to do that, either. I felt as if just watching the show, and trying in the process to understand or relate to or sympathize with those women, corrupted my soul and made me a worse person. That’s not an exaggeration.

I can’t stand back and mock them; they’re creatures in such pain that they need to act out their lives for television cameras, and create artificial drama with strangers the producers have thrown them together with. What is their use on the planet, what is their value? How do they think that being on TV will improve their lives, and why would they have sought out that experience? How are we supposed to know which of the emotions they show on screen are real, and which are only for the benefit of the cameras?

I’ve worked very hard to make my own life as drama-free as possible. I got a lifetime’s worth of drama before the age of 25, and I don’t need any more, thank you very much. Where are these women’s children, and what is their life’s work, except to be immortalized on these TV shows? It makes me feel horrible and scribbly inside, and I don’t know what to do with it. I was already feeling horrible and scribbly.

My friends who love these shows might say, “Don’t take it so seriously,” but these are women who want to be taken seriously — aren't they? — who yearn for connection and meaning and psychic weight. Which is tragic. It’s all tragic, and the tragedy overwhelms me. If I want to be overwhelmed by tragedy I can watch “Intervention,” which at least is not asking me to laugh at it.

Do you watch "The Real Housewives"? If so, why, and what do you get out of it? Am I over-thinking this, or do I need to watch more to understand its true cultural significance?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Thoughts for a Rainy Tuesday

The most-visited post on this blog, by a huge margin, is this list of Five Practical Reasons Not to Kill Yourself. I closed it to comments a long time ago because I got tired of depressed people trying to convince me to give them permission. The whole point of the blog post was that I don't give myself permission.

I didn't know Robin Williams, and I'm not sure I even know anyone who worked with him (which is a little surprising, because he worked with a lot of people, and I know a lot of people, so those groups might have overlapped). His brand of humor was one I had to take in small doses, because it was so transparently manic, and mania scares me (I feel the same way about Jim Carrey). But he was an extraordinary actor, with an almost unmatched gift for disappearing into a role the way few movie stars can. And the most casual observer could see that he noticed everything, and felt it all deeply.

Last night on social media I had a brief exchange with someone who was trying to argue that depression (or, presumably, bipolar disorder, which was Robin Williams' ailment) had to be seen as an existential disorder, not a medical one. He said you couldn't see depression in an autopsy, therefore it's not an illness, and we do harm by framing it that way.

I don't have enough formal education to be able to dispute that, and I wasn't interested in arguing with a stranger in 140-character chunks. But I will say here what I know to be true about depression, from my own experience and from my observations of friends and family members who struggle with it.

It's not reality-based. That is, depression is not a rational reaction to a chaotic world, as this guy was implying. Sorrow, grief, anxiety, yes — all those things are reasonable reactions to a world in which governments bomb children, police terrorize people in their own American neighborhoods, and people win arguments just by shouting loudest and longest. Depression's something else. Depression is shades of gray and the absence of joy. It's irrational fear, magical thinking, compulsive behavior and the need to punish oneself for daring to exist, much less trouble anybody with some stupid request for help.

It's not really emotional, except when it is. This is the hardest thing to explain to people who haven't been depressed. Depression is not "the blues." Everybody gets sad sometimes, and some people feel really sad, with reason, for a really long time. Depression isn't grief. In the worst bouts of depression, simple sadness would feel like a breakthrough, because then at least I'd be feeling something. Anger is welcome, because anger (at least for me) is a sign that I'm coming out of it, that I care enough about anything to get pissed off. Sometimes I try to make myself angry so I don't get depressed. If you know a rageaholic, that might be their issue, too.

It is not something you can reason your way out of. Pep talks don't help. Everybody who suffers from depression and lives eventually figures out tricks to manage it (and this is why I recommend cognitive behavioral therapy — they teach you this stuff). I make lists and agree to external deadlines: when everything is terrible (when I am terrible), being able to complete even the most basic task is something that helps. The anxiety of knowing that a client is waiting for me to complete a task is usually enough to get me out of bed in the morning, to move me to the computer, to make me leave the apartment and get on a train or a plane. But not always. And that's the last point I want to make:

Depression is not something you can fix on your own. Last week I went to my doctor to ask for help, for the first time in years. I've been treated for depression, on and off, for most of my adult life — but I thought I was better, I thought I could handle it, I didn't have decent insurance, and for all those reasons and more I stopped the treatment. I told my doctor this and she, in the kindest possible way, got a little exasperated. "If someone had told you, when you were 21, that you had Type One diabetes," she said, "you wouldn't stop taking your insulin just because your blood sugar was under control."

Some day, when medical science knows a lot more about the brain, they'll be able to sample brain tissue and say, "See, this person had too much [fill in the blank] and not enough [this other stuff], and that's why —" But until then, the science of brain chemistry is still very much a trial-and-error process. I'm about to start that process again, and I admit it scares me. I've also learned that doing things that scare me is another tool that helps manage my depression.

If you hear I've gone bungee jumping, you'll know why, and I hope you'll come along if you want. In the meantime, I recommend this and this if you want further reading.



Saturday, May 17, 2014

On Treasures and Treasure Houses

I was on my own today in New York City, on my own with no particular place to go and no particular person to do it with, once I’d fed the three bulldogs I’m looking after for my friend Megan. I was in danger of being paralyzed by choice when a friend suggested The Morgan Library — which is what I always suggest to people who have an afternoon free in New York City.

The Morgan Library is an extraordinary place. It is built around the personal collection of a single
man, J. P. Morgan, who was quite possibly the wealthiest man on the planet. (Among other things, he bought out Andrew Carnegie, launched U.S. Steel, and bailed out the U.S. banking system in 1907.) Morgan was curious, energetic, and acquisitive. He had the money to buy the things that interested him, and he was interested in almost everything. Once he had more than would comfortably fit in his own mansion, he asked the architect Charles F. McKim to build him a separate library next to his house, a library that would include a personal office.

“Do you figure it’s haunted?” I asked the security guard who was standing at the entrance to Mr. Morgan’s office. The office is large, but not inappropriately so — no larger than most other executive offices I’ve seen, and smaller than some. It’s dark, with red walls, dark wood and only as much light as would have been available in 1906, although the City had electric light from the mid-1880s. It’s comfortable, and decorated with the pieces I assume he liked best: among other items, a extraordinary 14th century Spanish polyptych, a 15th-century portrait that looks a little like Ian Rankin, and a portrait of the man himself.

“Oh, I think so,” the guard said. “He didn’t live very long after this library was built.” Morgan died in 1913, less than seven years after the completion of the Library. He was 75, on a trip to Egypt and Rome, and his doctors had described him as depressed. (Some have speculated that Morgan's rival, Andrew Carnegie, suffered from what would now be called bipolar disorder; I've never heard that about Morgan, but the man had earned his exhaustion.) He left his collection in the hands of his son, Jack, with the direction only that they be "permanently available for the instruction and pleasure of the American people."

I sat for a while in the original library room (seen above), which has beautiful Art Nouveau skylights, and I thought about how everything, taken to an extreme, becomes the opposite of itself. J.P. Morgan, the richest man in the world, bought as many of the world's intellectual treasures as he could. He bought cuneiform tablets, medieval manuscripts, Thomas Jefferson's correspondence, Jane Austen's portrait. He bought Mozart's handwritten scores and as many copies of the Gutenberg Bible as he could get his hands on (three, two on paper and one on vellum). He bought ancient cylinder seals and fine Gothic metalwork. And he saved it all so that it wouldn't be destroyed, and so his countrymen would be able to come and see it, and study it, and use it to move forward so we wouldn't have to reinvent everything all over again. His extreme acquisitiveness became an unimaginably generous gift.

A case in the original library holds about a dozen examples of late incunabula — the last books created truly by hand, before the invention of movable type. Before movable type made printing (relatively) easy, it took months or years to create a book — so the books that were created were only those deemed critically important for human enlightenment or salvation. Naturally, most of those books were religious documents: bibles, Torahs, the writings of St. Augustine, prayer missals. But the Morgan Library also has a fabulous Italian encyclopedia/dictionary, because the other natural thing to do is to write down all the things you know so future generations don't have to figure these things out for themselves.

What good is that, though, if no one goes looking for the information that's been collected and recorded? Humans have learned how to do great things in our 50,000 years or so of "behavioral modernity," but every few generations, we've also done a great job of forgetting things our ancestors knew. We don't know how the Pyramids were built, or Petra, or Machu Picchu, or Mesa Verde. We haven't been able to recreate Greek fire. Here in the United States right now, we're letting our bridges and highways crumble, and some of our cities fall to ruin. We're bickering about the causes of climate change, but meanwhile doing nothing to defend ourselves against its undeniable effects.

Worse, we're assuming that because the Internet is a giant storehouse of all human knowledge, we don't need to learn things the way we used to. I'm not talking about Common Core (which I don't know much about because I don't have kids in school). I'm talking about my own habits. I don't take notes the way I used to. I don't even pay attention the way I used to, and I certainly don't learn things by heart the way I used to (although you can still try me on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" after a drink or two). I spent fifteen minutes dithering over a book this afternoon (The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald) because I couldn't remember whether I'd read it or not. I feel like I should have read it; maybe I'll get 30 pages into it and realize that I have. The part of my brain that should remember doesn't any more, because I keep a reading log in Excel. (I bought the book, because that's what J.P. Morgan would have done.) 

The advent of print killed the bardic tradition, and the advent of keyboards has killed the art of penmanship. Thomas Jefferson wrote a beautifully legible hand, which you can see at the Morgan Library. Are computers killing memory? Is the Internet killing libraries?

J.P. Morgan had the world's knowledge in one single building. Theoretically, I have the world's knowledge in the MacBook Pro on my lap. I am not sure I'm better off. I certainly don't have as nice a view.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The View from Room 820

Because objects in motion tend to remain in motion, it should not have surprised me that the gallstones that brought me to the emergency room 10 days ago would continue to wreak havoc. Last week was spent trying to find a balance between extreme discomfort/nausea and a medication level that would let me get my work done, as well as shuttle back and forth to the doctor's for tests and scans. The tests got worse, not better, so when I saw the surgeon at a previously-scheduled appointment yesterday morning, he said, "I think we're going to admit you."

"Look, you're in the penthouse," the hospital auxiliary lady said when she showed me to my room. It's true; I'm on the top floor of the Virginia Hospital Center, with a wall of windows that looks out onto a nice suburban neighborhood. I can see trees and the highrises of Ballston, though it's been pretty gray since yesterday.

The Virginia Hospital Center is rated one of the nation's best hospitals, with good reason. It used to be Arlington Hospital, but was rechristened 10 years ago after a massive renovation/expansion. The buildings are big, clean and shiny, and the staff have been nothing but kind. I'm in a private room, with wi-fi and cable and an IV drip that beeps if I bend my arm wrong.

That said, hospitals are for sick people. I don't think I belong here, or at least I don't want to believe that I do. I spent about an hour (at least, it felt like an hour) in an imaging machine last night, and based on those results I think I'm having some kind of surgical procedure today. I'm really, really hoping to be home tonight, even though my bed at home is not adjustable and the hospital has better cable. I have no big insights from my hospital experience, except the obvious ones: nurses are great. Patient care assistants are great. Twelve hours is probably too long for a shift. Hospitals smell weird.

The one really good thing about all of this is that I have health insurance. God forbid this should have happened last year, when I didn't. 

Thanks to everybody who's called or emailed to express concern. I'm in good hands and should be home soon, tomorrow morning if not tonight.