Rethinking My Feeds: Addict.

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Early last week, I put up messages that I was taking a few weeks off of social media. I wanted to do the “Digital Detox” thing that Newport recommends in Digital Minimalism. I logged out on Tuesday or Wednesday and said, “okay, that’s it for a while.” My plan was to stay off of social media for at least the next 30 days, maybe into the summer sometime.

I keep logging back in. 

On the plus side, more than half of the time, I will check for notifications, maybe peruse the first screens of items in my feed, and then log out. In other words, I haven’t been idly scrolling and losing all track of time, like I would sometimes do before this.

But I keep going back. I keep wanting just to check if anyone has said anything to me or tagged me on any conversations. I log in, hoping for the little dings and pings I’ve become so enamored of.

As much as I try to describe my use of social media in noble terms, as a way to connect with others and find edifying and challenging content, the diabolical truth of the matter is I use social media most often because I want attention. I want to be noticed.

Like a dumped boyfriend or a cut-off junkie, I keep lingering around the periphery of Twitter and Facebook, hoping to get a peek at what’s going on, hoping to be seen. Hoping to be missed. Trying to get just enough of a fix to take the edge off.

Okay, I’m being hyperbolic. But it’s not as much of an exaggeration as it should be. See, I know something that none of you readers do: I know my heart. I know my sinful little self. And I know that I want to be known. (And I cringe to acknowledge it, but to my wicked heart, being known by the very Creator God of the universe doesn’t seem to scratch that itch, some days.)

So here I am, taking my seat at the table, cup of cheap coffee in hand.

Hi. My name’s Dave. I’m addicted to social media attention, and I need to change that.

#FridayFive: 5 Web-comic Artists I Enjoy [4/12/2019]

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Happy Friday, friends! This week, I wanted to point you to five web cartoonists whose work is always worth a look. You may be familiar with some or all of these artists, but I would recommend you check them out (or check them out again) this afternoon!

XKCD — Okay, fine, file it under “obvious statements are obvious,” but Randall Munroe’s brainy webcomic is a mainstay of the format, and always worth a look. His work is clever, dry, and expressive even in its simple stick-figure design. In other words, it’s not as much about the art as about the ideas behind each post (especially when some of the best material is hidden in the “scroll-over” text of the published image). I should hope by now if you are able to use “the internets” in any form, you have already enjoyed some of his work, but if not, here’s a recent post that made me smile.

Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet — Let’s acknowledge and set aside the recent hubbub about Pyle’s alleged pro-life views, the “cancel-culture” dogpile, and his subsequent “clarification.” His series of comics examining common human behavior from an alien’s perspective is full of off-beat, pointed observations, drawn in a charming style that brings a smile to the face. I just found out about his work a few weeks ago (just before the dust-up), but no matter what his politics are, I really do enjoy his work on this series and will continue to follow his updates.

The Awkward Yeti — I’m not sure when I started following The Awkward Yeti (Nick Seluk), but his colorful designs and relatable punchlines keep me coming back. I am particularly a fan of his charming (and hugely-popular) “Heart and Brain” series. If XKCD tickles my geeky little brain, The Awkward Yeti touches my geeky little heart.

RefToons — If you’re into Christian theology (particularly of a Protestant bent), get thee to RefToons immediately. Paul Cox has created a host of lovely illustrations and portraits of figures from church history. His figure style has the feel of a more complex and artistically mature “Calvin and Hobbes,” and I find his work absolutely delightful. Check him out, buy his merch, support his work.

Adam4D — I think my favorite cartoonist online is still Adam Ford. His work is sharply-written and thoughtful (no surprise from the founder and former editor of The Babylon Bee), and his art is simple but subtle. Again, these are comics about ideas–and sometimes those ideas are challenging. (Case in point: On Wednesday, Instagram removed a comic he posted that compares the arguments used to justify abortion to those used to justify slavery–a post that contained no profanity, no slurs, no suggestion of violence or abuse, but was deemed “hate speech.”) I hope he continues to produce work like this, and keeps pushing the boundaries to challenge mainstream ideas that should be re-examined.

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There you go–five web-based artists whose work I enjoy. I hope you are able to find something new and fun to check out among these listed.

Do you have any favorite web-comics or artist/illustrators online that I haven’t mentioned? List them in the comments below!

52 Stories #10-11: Two Stories About Consulting Detectives.

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week, I’m delighted to discuss two stories about the most famous consulting detective in literature: Sherlock Holmes. The first is a tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called “The Red-Headed League.” The second is another unexpected delight from Neil Gaiman, titled “A Study in Emerald” (recommended by Pedro Jorba on the GOLiverse Facebook page). So, can I deduce some interesting insights from these stories? Elementary, dear reader!

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“The Red-Headed League” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Pitch

Sherlock Holmes is hired to find out why his client was paid to copy pages out of the encyclopedia. Naturally, the game’s afoot.

The Pay-off

This is a pretty standard Sherlock Holmes story–a curious case, a few interesting details, and a brilliant Sherlock deduction that’s almost too clever by half. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t stick to the ribs. I’ll try not to give too many details, in case you haven’t read it before.

The Takeaways

I wonder if I’m a bit too familiar with the Sherlock formula, because as soon as one minor character was introduced, I knew something was up. I’ve read just enough Doyle to know to look for minor details and unusual characters. (Though I’ll admit, I totally passed over one key detail.) When it came down to it, I had basically figured out the broad strokes before the story’s climax. I wonder if this is more due to the fact that Doyle is essentially the gold standard for the genre, so his techniques have moved from innovative to perhaps a little cliched. Readers familiar with the formula know what to watch for, in other words. (Think of it as the detective-fiction version of the “Shyamalan Problem.”)

I feel cheeky to even mention it, but it almost feels like ACD makes Watson a little too dense in order to make Holmes look even more brilliant by contrast. I’ve always understood that Watson was no fool, and I think ACD sometimes does the character a bit of a disservice in order to make his hero shine. That said, oftentimes the resolution of a case depends on Sherlock’s encyclopedic knowledge of arcane details (very likely unknown to the reader) and his keen observation of details we must be told rather than shown. Frankly, it takes away some of the fun if there’s almost no way we could have worked out the solution ourselves. In those instances, the climax is basically “Oooh, look at the big brain on Sherlock.”

That said, if you haven’t read “The Red-Headed League,” it’s worth your ten minutes or so. It’s not a bad little tale, even if it’s not one of ACD’s best. Here are a few favorite quotes from the story:

  • When Sherlock walks a civilian through his deductive process and they respond that it now seems almost obvious, Sherlock quips, “I begin to think I make a mistake in explaining.”
  • “As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is, the less mysterious it proves to be. It’s your commonplace, featureless crimes that are really puzzling.”
  • And the source of one of my favorite Sherlockisms: “[German music] is introspective and I want to introspect.”

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“A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman

The Pitch

The consulting detective and his military veteran sidekick are called in on a grisly murder scene involving a member of the royal family. Then things get…weird.

The Payoff

Oh my goodness, y’all. I was ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED by this story. Gaiman turns the formula (and the reader’s expectation) on its head, as he spins this variation on Doyle’s classic “A Study In Scarlet,” filtered through the unearthly prism of H.P. Lovecraft’s paranormal horrors. This story is another entry in Gaiman’s collection Fragile Things, and I cannot encourage you heartily enough to read it. It’s my favorite #52Stories read so far, and will no doubt be in the running for top-five at the end of the project. If you have any appreciation for Sherlock Holmes, file this under “Must Read.”

The Takeaways

I’m loath to divulge much if any detail, so I’m going to go ahead and put up a SPOILER WARNING right here. I want so badly to talk about it, but I would hate to ruin the fun for you, reader.

I mean it: If you haven’t read the story yet, bookmark this page, go read it, and come back. I’m serious, do it. You really do want to read this story with no advance details other than what I’ve given so far.

We all caught up, class? Okay, good. Onto the bullets!

  • The last time we looked at a Gaiman story, I mentioned that the normal-seeming story veered suddenly off the rails with dialogue and details that made me do an actual double-take. This was no different: specifically, when the sleuth asked our narrator, “Was it the number of limbs?” Um, I’m sorry, WHAT?
  • I adore the “advertisements” between each section, which feature subtle allusions to other horror icons (though I had to do an internet search for one Anglo-centric reference in particular). It’s the type of added detail that might feel a little strange and disconnected to readers who aren’t familiar with classic literary horror, but for geeks like me, the references made me actually giggle.
  • “They call her Gloriana because she is glorious. They call her Victoria, because she was victorious in her conquest of us hundreds of years ago, and because her name cannot be spoken by human tongue.” Paraphrased from memory, but still my favorite line from the story. Making Queen Victoria one of the Great Old Ones was inspired.
  • Gaiman’s off-handed reveals of the religious and political realities of the story are stunning. What an effective way to leverage the reader’s assumptions in order to surprise.
  • There is so much deep Sherlock lore in this story. I’m not fully conversant in the Holmes cases, but I knew enough to catch the more obvious Easter eggs. I also freely admit that I looked up a few names or phrases that seemed to have meaning behind them. Gaiman employed a deep familiarity and obvious love and care for the source material when he constructed this gem.
  • THAT ENDING! I’m still “shook” by the final reveal, y’all. Remember the last scene with Paul Giamatti’s character at the end of The Illusionist? The sequence in the train station, mixing flashbacks, Edward Norton’s voiceover saying “Everything you have seen is an illusion,” and the shots of Giamatti, camera spinning around him as his middle-distance concentrated stare breaks into a smile of understanding and appreciation. He laughs once and claps his hands as the pieces fall into place. THIS, this EXACTLY, is how I felt when I read the last few paragraphs of “A Study in Emerald.” When Gaiman pulls off the final trick, revealing the identity of the murderers, I was gobsmacked. What a triumph. What a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand.

I loved it. I just loved it. AAAAHHH. So much fun.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

Rethinking My Feeds: Sabbath.

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(For the record, that is not my actual back porch. But, hey, #HouseGoals, right?)

I spent most of my Sunday screen-free.

I’ve been trying to do that more often, with varying levels of success. This past Sunday wasn’t perfect in that regard, but I’m getting better about it. I noticed throughout the day that I was getting tasks done, I was engaging with my family, and I was feeling more relaxed in general. Who would have thought, right?

While I’m not any kind of strict Sabbatarian, I see the value and blessing inherent in carving out Sunday as a day of worship, rest, and reflection. (And reading–LOTS of reading.) So it makes sense for me to try to make Sunday screen-free as well.**

Online commentary in recent years that examines or critiques our current screen-focused culture often recommends regular breaks from tech as a way of finding refreshment and gaining perspective. (Seriously, do a web search for “digital sabbath” or “digital detox”–ironically, you’d be staring at a screen for ages trying to read it all.)

One of the points that Cal Newport raises in Digital Minimalism is that removing a huge chunk of unproductive (or even harmful) screen-time isn’t enough. Something needs to fill the void, lest we go back to our old habits.

If you’ve been thinking about taking a break from your devices or distractions (whether for a few hours, a day, or even longer), here are a few recommendations for redeeming the time in your now-quieter weekend:

  • Sleep. Let’s get real for a second: you probably don’t sleep enough. I know I don’t sleep enough. There are all sorts of reasons we stay up too late (maybe related to our tech, maybe related to our anxiety, maybe related to our out-of-balance work-life). So if you make the choice to turn off the screens for a day or two in the near future, please take my advice: take a nap. That thing we all hated in kindergarten is now a thing of beauty and joy, and a gift to us from the God who never sleeps.
  • Enjoy some face-to-face time with your loved ones. When I stop reaching for my phone to scroll random folks’ text-only communication, I can hear my 20-month-old daughter better, as she learns new words, makes phrases and sentences I can actually understand now, and mixes in babble that she tells me very emphatically (which is seven different kinds of cute). I can talk to my wife about her day and the challenges of being a mom. I can spend time with family members or friends from church, and not be pulled away (mentally or optically) by pings and buzzes. These people, these faces, they mean something to me. I honor that when I give them my undistracted eyes and ears.
  • Spend time with God. It’s all too easy to be harried and distracted by my daily life so that a thousand petty annoyances crowd out time to read the Scriptures, pray, or read a good book of theology or church history. I’ve been trying to devote my Sunday reading time to things that feed my soul and not just my mind. (That said, I admit I still need to be more intentional about devoting time to talk to God and not just read about God.) Whenever I make the choice to focus my heart on Jesus and not on entertainment or distraction, I come away feeling more alive, not less. More human. More thankful.
  • Do something physically active. I’m a desk-jockey five days a week. I eat too much sugary food and drink too much caffeine. If you’ve seen me in the flesh, this won’t come as a surprise to you. So my goal for this next Sunday is to do something active. Take a walk. Play on the floor with my daughter. Maybe break out my workout mat and do a quick session with DDPY. (Does that involve a screen? Technically, yes. …What are you, the Screen Police? Never you mind.) I need to make the decision to be more active. No, not *just* on Sunday, but I think it’s a great time to celebrate the “rest” I have been given in Jesus by being active in a way that is refreshing and restorative rather than laborious.

I’m not good at making changes in my life. I’m lousy at consistency. I tend to talk a good game but not back it up well. But if nothing else, I am trying to attain “expert” status at being stubborn enough not to give up on things that I know matter in the long run.

My wife likes to remind me of the verse in Proverbs that says “A righteous man falls seven times and rises again…” While not the perfect contextual application, I think there’s merit in that reminder. Victory, change, and growth sometimes start with just getting back up and starting over (and over, and over, and over).

Sunday is five days away. Can I challenge you to make the decision now that your screens stay dark as much as possible? Then, come back to this post next week and let me know how that worked out for you.

 

 

** “Screen-free Sundays, even during football season, Dave?” Yes, I’m going to try to keep it up even during football season. That’s why the good Lord gave us radio.

52 Stories #9: “The Baptism” by Ron Rash

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week, let’s take a step back from sci-fi (I promise, not *every* story I read will be sci-fi… just, ya know, most of them) and talk about something written in the last few years. I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2018, edited by Roxane Gay, and flipped through it to find something different to read. Truth be told, some of the stories in that collection weren’t really my bag. Several of them, in fact. But the title of today’s story caught my eye (understandable, being a Baptist myself). As it happens, “The Baptism” is a western, so no matter how I try to avoid genre fiction, I can’t stay away!

I looked briefly and couldn’t find a (legal) link for you to read the story online, but you can find the collection at your local library, if you’re interested.

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The Pitch

A Protestant minister in a small prairie town must decide if he can baptize a very wicked man in order to protect the man’s fiancee from harm.

The Payoff

Rash’s story challenged me to put myself in the position of the minister and answer the question: To what extent can I hold to fidelity in doctrine or practice, if doing so brings direct harm to another? (This question is more deeply and brutally examined in Shusaku Endo’s powerful novel, Silence.) Reverend Yates is challenged by Gunter’s open malice and arrogance, wrestling with his role as a protector of the flock. In the end, the plot resolution was a bit too clean, although the final paragraph or two leaves the reader with some lingering questions.

The Takeaways

(Spoilers ahead, FYI.)

  • Rash might be charged with pulling his punch a bit, as he uses a “Deus ex Remington” to remove Reverend Yates from his impossible choice. By doing so, he left the question of Yates’ decision open and difficult to answer, given how little the reader knows about the preacher.
  • That said, I half-expected Yates to push Gunter under the frozen water during the baptism and then hold him there until he drowns, allowing his body to float away under the ice. No doubt, the townsfolk present who were already alarmed at the possibility of Gunter and Pearl’s marriage would all agree it was an accident and walk away (much as they did in the actual resolution of the story). Part of me would have preferred that ending–something more decisive. Ambivalent protagonists can be frustrating. (Yes, yes, Hamlet, yada yada yada.)
  • Yates’ uncertainty about what to do made me uneasy, especially when he was making counter-arguments to the town elders. Rash effectively muddies the waters (pun intended) so that the reader isn’t sure what to expect when morning comes.
  • FWIW, I can understand wrestling with the hope that Gunter *could* change his ways, but obviously I disagreed with the minister’s suggestion that the waters of baptism could have any spiritual effect on an avowed sinner. (I can’t remember what denomination Yates is supposed to be a part of, but it’s not Southern Baptist!)
  • In the end, Reverend Yates seems to decide to accept the burden of guilt for his actions–whether that’s the guilt of providing apparent absolution to an unrepentant abuser and possible murderer, or allowing the man to destroy himself without a word of warning.
  • The story has as “happy” of an ending as it can, but even then, it comes at the cost of a dead man in a river. Depending on the story you’re writing, sometimes there’s no other way for justice to be done.

This was an interesting tale. Nothing that will stick with me for years, but Rash presents an interesting and complex situation, in terms of both justice and faith.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

Rethinking My Feeds: Unfollowed.

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[Note: The timing of the post is incidental. There is no joke coming. FYI.]

A couple months back, I shared some thoughts about rage-baiting and resisting the pull of hot-take media seeking to enflame our passions and soak up our attention for ad revenue. (At that point, the outrage du jour was Gillete’s “toxic-masculinity” advert and the Covington boys’ protest debacle–feels like a year ago, doesn’t it?)

I’m still thinking about my relationship with social media and how I use it. My recent dive into Cal Newport’s writing has further encouraged this self-analysis. (I’m currently listening to his last book, Deep Work, and it’s really, really good.)

New Twitter, Who Dis?

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about audience and curation–whom I’m speaking to, and whom I’m listening to. (Since Twitter is my main social platform, that’s the focus of my consideration here.) I’m reminded of a suggestion from Senator Ben Sasse in his book Them. After talking about a prolonged hiatus from Twitter, he came back to the platform with an entirely different perspective. His intended audience changed. When he used his personal Twitter account (his “professional” account is run by staffers), he stopped trying to impress the mass of humanity who happened to stumble across his tweets. He said he started writing to a specific audience–friends of his from his early adulthood, people he still kept in touch with over the years, despite physical distance. He said he wanted to write for them, to connect to them, to make them laugh.

Sasse described how having a specific audience in mind for his social media posts helped him focus on how to use the platform more intentionally.

Digital Connection Isn’t Worthless, It’s Just Insufficient

This idea of having a specific audience in mind got me thinking: why am I on Twitter, really? Though I have to admit that I have sometimes chased the attention of “celebrities” or others that I esteemed highly, over the years what has kept me on Twitter is the “digital friendships” I’ve made with like-minded people online, across the country. I’ve only met a handful of them in real space, but I hope to–that’s the biggest reason I want to make it to the G3 Conference or ShepCon one day.  It’s this group of connections that keeps me coming back.

If you recall my Digital Minimalism review a few weeks back, I wrote that Cal Newport dismissed these digital interactions as mere “connections” rather than communication, and he argued that digital connection should have the explicit goal of providing logistics for in-person communication. I think that’s partly true, but on the other hand I think there’s a place for the encouragement and (dare I say) friendship that can grow out of initially-digital interactions.

Are these folks on Twitter my friends? In one sense, no, because there’s no real-space experience communicating with each other. But in another, I can’t help but think of these people as my friends–my Twitter squad.

Trying Something Different

This leaves me with the question: if I’m going to use Twitter in an optimized, healthy manner, what would that look like? Two specific goals come to mind:

  • Following My Squad: One way to optimize Twitter is to dramatically reduce the accounts I read and engage-with to the handful of people I enjoy most. Here’s the thing: I don’t care to use Twitter for engaging ideological opponents or calling out falsehood. Maybe that’s your mission or ministry–have at it. I’m not trying to change lives here. I’m just looking for a little encouragement, a little humor, and the occasional free book giveaway. Limiting my inputs to people who provide that specific value could eliminate a lot of needless scrolling and still maintain some of those digital connections I enjoy.
  • Seeking Edification: Following people whose content challenges and encourages me in my faith and thinking is another beneficial method of approaching Twitter. Following the accounts of certain theologians and groups can bring a net-positive into my feed.

Now, there’s a clear disadvantage to this approach–namely, that it makes it much easier to crawl into an echo chamber and not engage ideas that differ from my own. I’ll grant you, that’s definitely possible; but isn’t it better to risk doing so and be honest about it? If you follow everyone under the sun but only stop to read and engage positively with the tweetfolk with whom you agree, what’s the difference, other than a bit of self-congratulation because your feed is “diverse”?

And that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to follow people whose views diverge from my own. I have several beneficial friendships and interactions (both in real life and online) with people who vehemently disagree with my religious views, politics, and perspective on the world. Some of those interactions (specifically, the IRL ones) produce good conversation and understanding, especially when we are reminded that the other person isn’t an abstract idea but a person with dignity and value.

That said, I don’t feel the need or obligation to expose myself to interactions that serve only to enrage or frustrate me. I get to make that choice, because Twitter (like all social media) is a voluntary program. I can choose whom to follow, whom to mute, whom to block. I shouldn’t be afraid to do all three, as need be.

If I’m mindful of the dangers of groupthink and seek high-value interactions online, there’s a good chance I can make it worthwhile to stay on social media, while limiting the scope of how I use it. I’d call that a win-win, wouldn’t you?

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Here’s my question for you, dear reader: why do you use social media? Who’s your audience? Do you agree or disagree with my proposed “squad and edification only” approach to Twitter, described above? Sound off in the comments–I’d like to hear your perspective on this. Thanks!

52 Stories #8: “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week, I wanted to talk about another classic tale from legendary sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick. Thanks to my long-time friend Trevor Taylor for the recommendation of a PKD story!

I read this story in a PKD collection I checked out digitally from the library. You can find it here.

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The Set-Up

Douglas Quail dreams of having adventures on Mars and pays Rekal, Incorporated to convince him he’s been there.

The Pay-off

“He awoke…and wanted Mars.”

I’ve never seen Total Recall (either version), the famous film adaptation of this material. Going into this story, I had heard that it involved memory manipulation, Mars, and a woman with…unusual physiology. (That last one is apparently just in the first film version.) Nevertheless, the source material had a reputation as being one of PKD’s finest short stories, and it did not disappoint. I appreciated the details, the escalation, and the way the story resolves, though it was just oblique enough that I had to read the last few paragraphs again to make sure I understood what he was implying.

The Takeaways

Now, the hail of spoilery Martian bullets–and if you aren’t satisfied, we’ll refund half of your fee (that’s more than fair, Mr. Quail):

  • Let’s jump right to the big twists: first, PKD reveals that Douglas Quail actually *was* a secret Interplan agent, and then doubles-down by revealing that he is in fact the most important person alive, on a cosmic level. That’s…bold. One thing you have to appreciate about PKD, he just GOES FOR IT. No half-measures.
  • That said, there’s an almost quaint groundedness to his settings, as if he can’t quite fully imagine the great leaps of technology affecting every part of life. Example: This is a world of space travel and memory wipes, of 3-D hologram phones and cranial implants, but they still use “microtape phone books” and typewriters with carbon paper. Just a reminder, kids: you actually do live in The Future, with your email and Google and whatnot.
  • Buried in this pretty straight-forward science-fiction story is an interesting peek into the life of someone who just needs to feel important, as well as a brief consideration of the nature of memory and experience. Is having the memory of an experience a suitable substitute for literally experiencing it? You could draw a jagged line from Rekal’s pictures-and-props approach to the fragmented documentation of life we maintain on our social media feeds. “I don’t remember much about the concert, but I got some great footage on my iPhone…” Is it really that different? As Morpheus would say, “…Hm.”
  • Some of PKD’s grammatical construction got under my skin–to the point where I jotted it down. Example: “You remember,” the policeman said, “your trip…” There is no reason to break up that phrase, Phil. None. Stop it. Stop it now.
  • Was Kirsten an Interplan operative, in place to keep an eye on Douglas? It’s not explicit, but PKD implies yes, and that Douglas knew this all along, at least subconsciously. It reminded me for some reason of The Truman Show. (By the way, would you like some of this delicious Mococoa Drink?)

In a word, I liked the story–it was a tidy and effective sci-fi story that gives you just enough to be satisfying while leaving several questions unanswered. It doesn’t have any emotional resonance, but it’s well constructed and fun. You should read it.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #7: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber

[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My friend Betsy Montgomery on Facebook recommended this classic from the great James Thurber. I grew up watching the timeless Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo comedy based (loosely) on this story, and I even saw the recent (tepid) remake starring Ben Stiller, so I was happy to take a look at the short story that started it all.  Thanks to the folks at the New Yorker (where it was originally published in 1939), you can read it for yourself here.   Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

The Set-up

Mild-mannered Walter Mitty escapes domestic monotony via thrilling daydreams.

The Pay-off

The 1947 Danny Kaye comedy of the same name is almost an entirely different animal than the original story by Thurber, although you can see the family resemblance. That said, there is humor in this story but it’s much more understated, to the point of becoming tragicomic. But man, it works so well. Thurber’s character work is outstanding here.

The Takeaways

Brace yourself for the pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of bullet-point observations:

  • In the film version of Mitty (and for our purposes, I refer only to the superior 1947 film), he is engaged to a fretful young woman with an overbearing mother (or perhaps it was his mother who was so oppressive). He is surrounded by people who dismiss him, take advantage of him, or just run rough-shod over him. In the story, however, while he faces a few slights and disrespects from strangers, his wife is the laser-focused source of belittlement and oppression. It seems like the screenwriters copied Mrs. Mitty directly from the short story into the screenplay and fragmented her ire among several secondary characters.
  • Another difference from the film: Though Thurber doesn’t say it explicitly, Mitty seems to be middle-aged, even late-middle-aged. The interactions with his wife indicate a man who has been browbeaten for YEARS, whose daydreams are as much a rebellion against her as they are a bulwark against his mundane life.
  • While the repetition of the “pocketa-pocketa” noise in each of the dreams is a classic element of both the story and film, I was further delighted by the repetition of Dr. Renshaw’s name. The Dr. Renshaw that Mrs. Mitty said should be called for consultation immediately becomes an inadequate surgeon in Mitty’s next scenario.
  • Another great detail: Thurber shows us how Mitty’s mind functions, much as our own, jumping from idea to idea, with random thoughts triggering memories. For example, calling a roughhousing district attorney a “miserable cur” reminds Mitty he had to pick up puppy biscuits. I relate so much to this. Sometimes, to amuse myself, I retrace my mental steps to see how my train of thought bounces between several disparate subjects. …Okay, maybe that’s just me.
  • Thurber’s characterization of both Walter and Mrs. Mitty is done mainly through dialogue and internal monologue, with minimal exposition. However, through Thurber’s use of implication, you easily understand the broad contours of their relationship and can extrapolate what life in their house is like.
  • Obviously a film adaptation takes a short story’s plot and fleshes it out a bit, but what makes the two Mitty’s so different is the ending. In the film, Kaye’s Mitty finds himself flung into an actual adventure with a beautiful damsel in distress. In the story, Thurber’s Mitty gets no slam-bang action ending. Rather, he patiently endures the ceaseless nagging of his wife, with his only consolation being his own imaginary heroics. In the final daydream, he faces a firing squad with a defiance he could never quite muster in real life. Nevertheless, in his mind he remains “Walter Mitty the undefeated, inscrutable to the last.”

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a quick read and quite a lot of fun. If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t actually read the story, go back to the link above and check it out.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

The4thDave Reads: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

We’ve seen the blog posts and editorials for years: “How I Gave Up Social Media for 30 Days and It CHANGED MY LIFE!” “Why I Quit Facebook and Got My Life Back” “Quitting Instagram Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds and Run The Boston Marathon!!!” (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Hand-wringing posts about the dangers of online culture, social media addiction, and how often we contemplate quitting (or quit and then come back) are almost becoming a cliche lately. (Guilty.) But no matter how many productivity gurus talk about the power of “digital detoxing” and the benefits of set fasts from social media, many of us are still struggling with this form of addiction. (Yes, us, I’m a junkie just like you.)

I read these types of posts constantly. The most clear-headed thinker I’ve found on this topic is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. I’ve shared the link to his TED talk about quitting social media in the past. I heard sometime last year that his next book would deal with the idea of “digital minimalism” and was immediately intrigued. Well, it was well worth the wait.

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in A Noisy World is a persuasive call to reconsider the choices we make about our digital lives.

Newport challenges the reader not to throw away all technology–he’s no Luddite seeking a purely analog life–but rather to ask very pointed and thoughtful questions about why and how we use technology. He challenges the notion that a mere potential benefit of a device or service is a good enough reason to adopt its use, or that having more features is automatically better. He draws the reader’s attention to the fact that we are the product being sold by social media corporations, and that our time and attention have been monetized for someone else’s benefit.

Beyond a Simple Detox

Newport suggests a 30-day challenge: an intentional digital fast (with common-sense provisions for certain necessary work/life demands), followed by a slow and deliberate re-integration of tech. During this post-fast period, he suggests that we ask 3 questions of our devices and apps: Does using this tool support a belief or priority that I deeply value? Is this the best way I can pursue that ideal or value? Can I optimize the way I use this device or program in pursuit of that value?

For example, if we use social media for keeping up with our family, Newport would argue that what we’re doing when we like or share or comment is mere connection, and it doesn’t take the place of real communication. Instead, while we might still use social media in a very limited way (both in time and scope) to catch up on news about our loose circle of acquaintances, we should also pursue actual communication with people who matter to us via in-person visits, phone calls, or even video chats (for far-flung loved ones). The complexity of face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication, Newport writes, is what provides the richness of human interaction–a complexity that text-based communication falls short of providing.

Don’t Click “Like”

Throughout the second half of the book, Newport gives recommendations of practices one can pursue as part of the “Attention Resistance” pushing back against screen consumption. Some of these ideas are pretty simple (make time for solitude, go for walks, pursue an analog leisure activity that requires physical exertion), while others are a bit more challenging, at least for me.

One such challenge Newport makes is to stop clicking “like.” He talks about how social media introduced the “like” button as a way of providing a minimal amount of feedback that still stimulates the user (the “digital slot-machine” idea of irregular positive feedback conditioning). I struggle with this, because I use the “like” button a LOT (as those of you on my socials can attest). However, I see what he means. A real-world example: I just posted on Facebook 42 minutes ago that we were having another baby. As of right now, 3 people have actually commented (2 of which said “congrats!”), and 20 people have hit the “Like/Love/Wow” emoji. [Update: I’ve gotten more comments since then, but the ratio of reactions to comments is running about 4-5 to 1.] Now, I do appreciate that these folks reacted to the news (that’s how Facebook describes it–reacting), but the vast majority so far have only reacted enough to click a mouse or tap a screen and then likely moved on with their scrolling. And I can’t fault them; that’s just what we do, isn’t it? But Newport suggests we stop, because this isn’t actually communicating anything. It’s one bit of information, a blip on the radar. And it’s a far cry from actual human community.

(And for the record, if you are one of the “likes” on my FB wall right now, this isn’t a slam against you. Thanks for taking a moment to read this. But hey, gimme a call sometime, so we can catch up, yeah?)

One Weakness

The only critique I have of Digital Minimalism is a worldview issue. Newport is writing from a secular perspective, so when he talks about the evolution of man as a social animal, he is missing a glaring clue as to why we are social creatures. Mankind was created by a personal, social, communicating God, a God who speaks and interacts with His creation, and because we bear the imprint of His image, we are social and communicative beings. That’s part of the reason why this reduction in human interaction is so unnatural; we were made by God for community, but our community is being undercut by a digital counterfeit that steals time away from incarnated interaction. The spiritual element of this whole idea is missing from Newport’s thinking on this subject, which is why other books by authors like Tony Reinke and Andy Crouch are necessary and helpful supplements to the ideas Newport presents.

Final Review

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism does more than simply point out the problem of digital addiction and social media enslavement. Newport helps the reader consider how to use these tools in a way that is healthier and more intentional than simple consumption and constant attention. While I think there are some blind spots in his argumentation due to differences in worldview, I would happily recommend this book to anyone who struggles with the idea of giving up digital tech or social media but still wants to reconsider the way he or she approaches these tools.

Placing the Big Rocks.

20190311_084109My wife made this picture for me when we were dating. (One of her many gorgeous papercraft creations.) It’s based on the analogy of the rocks, gravel, and jar. In short: a teacher challenged his students to put several sizes of rocks, along with sand and water, in a jar, but they could only do it by putting the big rocks in first. The lesson is this: if we don’t prioritize the things that matter most, they will get crowded out by the lesser things that take up all the space.

Early on in our relationship, H. knew that one of my greatest challenges in our marriage would be trying to manage the big rocks, so she made me this as a reminder.

Lately, I’ve been focused on three big rocks in particular.

My Household: Thing have been going well at home. My wife and I will be married 5 years this summer, and married life is a blessing. We’re looking forward to a family beach vacation in a few months and making plans for the near future. The kiddo is now a year and a half old, and just brilliant; her mind is a sponge, and she’s got a goofy and playful personality.

But the biggest news on the family front is this:

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Baby girl #2 is set to arrive this summer, and we couldn’t be more excited. We have been duly warned that going from 1 to 2 kids is a game-changer, but nevertheless we’re eager to meet this little sweetheart.

My Church: Being an elder at my church is already rewarding and stressful. There are new and more challenging questions I’m asked to consider, more conversations to be had, more responsibilities to shoulder–but I love it, y’all. The biggest challenge for me currently is working through the vast amount of material and training for child safety and abuse prevention materials. As I’ve noted before, this is becoming a big ministry focus for me lately, as I work to make sure all of our policies and procedures are consistent and up-to-date. I’ve been filling up a legal pad with ideas and questions, and what I really need is a day or so to sit and synthesize all the information I’m learning. (Anybody got a spare day laying around that they could loan me? Because I’m time-poor at the moment.) Unfortunately, this isn’t an issue that can or should be put on the back-burner. The time to address these issues is now, and I want to make sure I’m moving forward with the intentionality the issue deserves.

My In-Person Relationships: One of the ideas kicking around in my head as a result of reading Cal Newport’s latest book (review forthcoming) is that in-person communication and relationship-building is more powerful and more meaningful that digital, mediated communication. What this means is that being in the same physical space as the people you care about and want to connect with is worth the time and effort to do so. Sometimes that looks like driving across town through the evening rush to visit a family member in the hospital, or meeting a long-time friend for breakfast whom you haven’t seen in a few months. Maintaining these connections takes effort and grates against the easy-everywhere connection of likes and comments. But I’m finding that it’s worth it.

That said, there are a few big rocks that I’ve neglected lately, like exercise and writing and prayer, that I need to work back into my life. The fun distractions like social media and movies are sand and water in my jar. They work fine as fillers, but if I don’t get ALL these big rocks in place first, they’re just not going to fit.

I’m chewing on some ideas about how to do this better. I’ll share those when I come to conclusions worth reading.

So there’s the update. Hopefully, you’ll see me back here sooner than 2 weeks from now, which appears to be my average time between posts lately. I bet we can do better than that, though, right? Let’s try.

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Your Turn: What are the “big rocks” in your life right now–the most important things you actively make time to pursue? Feel free to share below. See you next time!