Blogging Nostalgia

Perhaps it’s my age, but I’m prone to nostalgia lately. More, in fact, than I would care to admit over the past couple of years. It’s not just music, mind you, although I’ve pined my share over that. It’s not just old Saturday morning cartoons, or even old breakfast cereals, though I’ve certainly found myself drawn to those quite often of late. No, the chronology of my longings isn’t nearly so narrowly defined. In fact, other things, things from barely a decade ago, have piqued my reflective longings recently.

And yes, I do realize just how much I’ve dated myself in that last statement.

Is there a point to this? Yes. The point is this post from a blog that I began following years ago when I was writing prose more than code (and beginning the novel that I swear I’m going to finish at some point). As the comments poured in over the subsequent weeks, it became obvious that I wasn’t the only reader with whom Mr. Bransford’s thoughts had resonated. I’ve enjoyed reading those thoughts. I always have enjoyed reading others’ thoughts. That’s what was always so powerful about the blog.

I began writing a blog as an experiment back in 2005, and, although I rarely read that first post, when I do, it makes me pause to think about what’s changed about the writing and the writer over that decade. The purpose of this space changed as my focus and interests became more defined (“faith, art, and culture” came more than two years after I began blogging), an epiphany that happened in large part because of my writing here. I found my voice as a blogger…so different from that first post…along with that focus. Simply, I came to call myself a blogger, to take this seriously. Certainly, I’ve waxed and waned a bit in my frequency of posting over the years, but I’ve never left. I’ve waxed and waned in my reading of others’ blogs, as well, no longer finding the time to peruse my feeds every day, but more likely once weekly.

I initially found these blogs through a bit of a curated experience, of course. I began, as many bloggers did, with Blogger (I was writing there before it’s acquisition by Google), and, like many bloggers, I outgrew it. Like many bloggers, I used blogrolls to discover and be discovered. I was always looking for a new blog to add to my reading list, because the things that you discovered, the things that you learned, by reading the thoughts of people from all over the globe, was so amazingly enriching, so profoundly important.

I met friends through blogs. People passionate about blogging, and passionate about writing. People passionate about faith and theology, about the arts and so many of my other interests. Some faded away over the years, and I’ve lost touch. Others I’ve met in person and continue to communicate with to this day.

I commented on posts. I subscribed to comments. My posts received comments. We interacted, those other bloggers and I. We discussed, almost always civilly, and, in doing so, we learned things and grew.

This wasn’t just about entertainment. It never was for me. It’s more important than that. More profound.

So, nostalgia. Nostalgia because I miss what it was. I’m not saying that blogging is no longer existent, or no longer important, or that it’s only on the fringes and important to only a few writers who refuse to accept change. There are those who say that, and I couldn’t disagree more. Blogging isn’t the only option, now, and it isn’t the only way to discover other people and discover their thoughts. I don’t comment nearly as much as I used to, nor do my posts receive as many comments, even though the number of you reading these posts has only grown. That’s okay…it’s the evolution of the medium. I sort of miss it, though, because the discussion is what made this so special, so different from the streams of consciousness that are social networks, for better or worse.

What feels most void is that I miss the discovery of other’s blogs. I miss going looking for new blogs. I miss not having the discovery process dominated by the algorithms of Facebook or Twitter. To be honest, I miss having the time to do this discovering.

Many of the blogs that populated my feed years ago are no longer active. They exist, but with most recent posts of two or three years past. Some no longer exist at all…they’ve been taken down, domain names now belonging to others. I’ve no intention of doing that for some time to come, although I’m not nearly naive enough to believe that this medium will never be replaced by another and that this will never cease to exist at some point, replaced in the evolution of technology. There are, however, a lot of very active blogs out there, and I don’t fall into the “it’s over and I’ll always miss it” sort of nostalgia of many of the commenters on Bransford’s post. There are fewer personal blogs, perhaps, as more have become focused on what we do for our livings as professional and personal are tragically forced to meld beyond healthy boundaries. But there are still blogs, good blogs, waiting for readers with the time to engage in the writers’ thoughts.

Not just their in-the-moment impulses. Their thoughts. The stuff that makes us grow, that expands who we are as people, that helps us to know each other better…and hopefully even, in an ideal circumstance, hurt each other less.

That’s why this is so important, and why I’m nostalgic for what it was, even while being fascinated by what it becomes.

When All Time is Screen Time

I wrote once before about how I saw our culture of ever-present televisions screens moving toward, and yet narrowly avoiding, the dystopian predictions that once lay 20 minutes into the future. I occasionally wonder, of late, if we’re about 15 minutes after that.

I spend many of my waking hours in front of a screen. It’s the nature of what I do for a living. Our schedules are busy, and I notice our daughter craving attention more, and resenting the screens that pry our attentions away from her…until she has the opportunity to watch what she wants on a screen. Then, prying her attention away becomes the task at hand, fraught with a host of unpleasant crying and occasional tantrums.

Given how guarded we were with her screen time initially, I wonder how far we’ve fallen.

A few weekends ago, we were traveling to visit family. My parents took all of us out to one of their favorite restaurants, where we attempted to have conversations and catch up…the purpose, after all, of those sorts of trips. The issue was that there were large flat screens positioned for each vantage point of the restaurant, each showing different programming, so that, regardless of where one sat, one had television to watch. I tried very intentionally to remain focused on the conversation, but the television drew me back within seconds of each attempt. The hour that passed during that meal was essentially lost, at least for me, as I heard little and contributed less, victim to the distraction of the closed-caption onslaught of images that drew me back, back, back.

And, when I did manage to return, I found our daughter showing the disappointment which has become all too familiar, so strongly desiring my attention to shift to her.

A former physician for our family had a large waiting room. What I remember most about that waiting room is the cacophony. There were, again, flat screens on each wall, all muted and closed captioned, with a radio station playing from above, as well. Add the conversation around you from others waiting, and I did well to hear my name called. That waiting room was an exercise in creating a true attention deficit disorder.

The city where we lived shortly after moving to New England had a very attractive coffee shop. The atmosphere was quiet, the hearth comfortably warm, the drinks of high quality, the surrounding conversation always good, except for…the television in the corner that was always tuned into, of all things, Fox News. Want to kill a wonderful atmosphere? Blaring news programming will be most effective.

The point is, whenever the television is available, it wins. No matter how devoutly we may wage war against it in favor of giving our attention to those we love, the programming will always be too strong an opponent. So, while I’m not given to using war metaphors for my examples, I’ve determined that the only manner in which to effectively combat such an enemy is to avoid the conflict altogether. When we don’t have an option? When the enemy awaits us, innocently disguised as the normal expectation in a waiting room or a restaurant? We lose. We’re set up for failure. It’s over before it began.

And I watch our daughter’s excitement when I am finally able to close my computer for the day and divert my eyes from the screen to meet hers, to engage in her world of play and imagination. Hers is an excitement that’s wonderfully contagious, and yet the kind that is borne of finally being able to grasp something that has previously proven so frustratingly elusive.

I watch this, and I realize how widespread the casualties of this war are, and how very, very important it is that we find a way to escape with what Salinger so well described as having one’s f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

Limits of the Unlimited

"Kindle 3" by Zhao! Used under Creative Commons.Recently, Amazon released an unlimited Kindle plan in which readers can use what’s affectionately known as an “all-you-can-eat” selection of books.  As long as you maintain the subscription, you can read these books whenever you like. The books are unlimited…or so, at least, is the illusion.

Now, it’s no secret that I hold no love for Amazon. However, through a series of unfortunate events that would take some time to explain, we have a Prime membership, and it doesn’t look like we’re getting rid of it any time soon.  I do not own a Kindle, as I intentionally choose to use Barnes & Noble instead, mostly just to give business to Amazon’s competitor. Even if I did own a Kindle, though, I wouldn’t use this so-called “benefit.”

Why? Glad you asked.

I’ve struggled with a love-hate relationship with e-books since I first bought my Nook. My book purchases are about evenly split between physical books and ebooks. One of the reasons that I prefer the Nook is that, whenever and from whomever I purchase an e-book, I want to make certain that it’s in what’s known as an ePub format, which is the standard for e-books and will work on most devices (unlike Amazon’s proprietary format). When I add a book to my collection, I want to know that I have that book in my collection, because there’s something about having a collection that’s extremely important. I don’t mean this in a materialistic way. I’m not advocating hoarding (we downsize our library by donating books occasionally, at least). I just recognize that there’s something important about being able to go pull the book off the shelf that has that thought or concept that’s on your mind so that you can reference the entire chapter. This is why we still have shelves filled with old undergrad textbooks, which do, in fact, come off the shelf on a somewhat regular basis.

Our bookshelves aren’t unlimited. Space on them becomes a topic of much debate in our marriage at times. Still, we devote a lot of space to bookshelves in our house, and I love the fact that I can retrieve a book from one of them to loan to a friend, to re-read, to reference. The books that are important enough to earn a permanent spot on these shelves are ones that have been of the most importance to us. They’re not beholden to a continued subscription fee. They’re always there, those words and ideas always ready to become a conversation piece when needed, a part of us. I think that an unlimited plan of this nature would cheapen that experience, devalue each book as some possession rather than something that has influenced me, in some ways profoundly.

I actually have enough of a disconnect with e-books in that regard, and sometimes wonder if, futurist thinker though I am, I might leave them behind altogether.

Perhaps I’ll do just that.


Image attribution: Zaho! under Creative Commons.

Why We All Need More Red Ink

"Concentrated" by Andreh Santos, used under Creative CommonsYou remember what it was like, right? Those high school English classes? The days on which the papers that you had submitted the week before were returned to you, and you found them full of red ink conveying comments and criticisms, some of which just stung, along with the circled grade at the top?

The red ink phenomenon became worse, or course, in college, when professors, as we humorously turned the phrase, “bled all over” our papers. The comments and criticisms became more helpful, and more full of sting.

As I moved from writing papers to writing articles and op-ed pieces, the red ink from my professors paled in comparison to the red ink from my editors. Although the red markings had become digital by grad school, the sting had increased exponentially. In every case, though, the sting was a good thing, because, when heeded, it made me a better writer, a better thinker.

In the interest of putting what you’ve learned into practice, I gave my share of red ink, as well. Classmates frequently asked me to edit their papers before submitting them, and this even became a service that I offered as a freelancer for a while. The comment markup in the word processing document was not ink, but it was still red. Well, sort of. Something for which I was notoriously picky was grammar.

Rightfully so, of course. Submit a paper in grad school with grammatical errors, and your grade will suffer a harsh fate. This mentality, I think, is justified at this level of academic work. The care with which you craft the language of your argument is indicative of the care with which you pursue your discipline.While everyone is only human and prone to mistakes, typos just simply shouldn’t make it “into the wild” beyond a certain level.

So, what, I wonder, is that level?

I read a lot of blogs. Over the last three days, I’ve counted no less than four posts…one of which was about writing good web copy…that contained painfully obvious typographical errors and mis-spellings. Egregious oversights, such as missing articles and incorrect tense, peppered across posts that were on their way to making good points otherwise. These sorts of errors are severely distracting to me, to the level that I find it difficult to stay on track with the thesis of the post. I find myself distrustful of the writer’s competency in the subject matter, their reputation failing in my mind. After all, if one’s educational level is such as to permit such careless handling of the language in which one writes, how competent can one be in any chosen field? This isn’t some kind of advanced philosophy…this is basic language arts.

However, while I’ve witnessed first-hand how aggressively reading and writing skills are tossed aside in the public education system, I don’t think that my admittedly (and unfortunately) snobbish knee-jerk reaction is accurate in most cases (I’m working on the snobbish part). I think that, more often than not, what I’m seeing is the result of a lack of time.

To pay attention to these sorts of things, time, quiet, and presence in what you’re doing are all required to focus. That time is so fleeting to us now, flies so quickly from our grasp as we struggle to divide our attentions in so many different directions. Add to this what studies have suggested…that time to let the imagination meander with no external stimuli demanding action is necessary for the creative process…and the pressure to keep an editorial calendar full of content for blogs and other digital media easily becomes counter-intuitive for the writer. When we rush a process, the point of diminished returns makes itself apparent even more quickly, and the quality of everything suffers.

The result is that these sorts of simple typographical mistakes are either accepted as commonplace, or, even more frightening, not even noticed by most readers.

Even more frightening than that is the idea that most editors miss them. If those tasked with distributing the red ink are too rushed to do so well, how do any of us get any better?

Slowing down makes every project better, and time without producing anything is of insurmountable importance to the creative person. I’m really concerned that we’ve lost sight of both of these truths as we’ve succumbed to the lie that time is money.

As much as it stings…I think that we could all use a bit more red ink in our lives.

Image attribution: Andreh Santos under Creative Commons.

Degrees of Separation

Photo of man in hallway

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I made my living in the behavioral sciences. My workday revolved around seeing people face-to-face. While it was quite exhausting for an introvert to spend most of a workweek conversing with others, I found that I knew the team with which I worked every day. We knew what was happening in each others’ lives, we celebrated career milestones with each other, we had each others’ phone numbers. In some cases, I worked in high-stress situations keeping very odd hours, and I knew what it was to see my colleagues more than I saw most of my other friends. We were, after all, the only ones who could really appreciate what the other was experiencing.

Now that I make my living in the digital realm, I mostly work for myself. I do work with clients from multiple states, most of whom I haven’t seen in person in over a year. In one case, I did a project for a client that I had never met in person. I’m currently doing work with a team that is spread out all over the world, from both coasts of the U.S. to Europe. As everyone in the world of digital content has the freedom to work from wherever they choose, I regularly have “meetings” with people that I have never met face-to-face. I speak with them every week, and know their personalities at some level, but I cannot say that I really know any of my colleagues on this current project.

That’s not to say that I never keep office hours in this line of work. I actually do on many projects, and, on the occasions that I have, I feel that I’ve gotten to be very well acquainted with my co-workers. On each of those occasions, I’ve kept in contact with those co-workers and carried at least some of those professional relationships forward.

This isn’t so much an issue of effectiveness. I’m an introvert, so I’m perfectly content to be alone with my work for long periods of time. I’ve found, though, that I feel more satisfied with the projects that I’ve completed alongside people with whom I’m connected, colleagues that I’ve seen in person and whose interests and personalities I’ve gotten to know.

It’s interesting how the human factor to doing our work is only effective up to a certain level of abstraction. Beyond that, while not, at least in my experience, a point of diminished returns, there’s certainly a point at which the work becomes more robotic, less…meaningful…in nature.

And we all want to do work with meaning, to not be subjected to drudgery.

Ultimately, we’re doing our work for people, for each other. I think that our work is done the best when keeping that in mind.

Photo Attribution: mark sebastian under Creative Commons