Be More Materialistic

This is the essay version of a recent Toastmasters speech. Hat tip to David at Rapitude whose piece We are not Materialistic Enough Inspired this speech/essay.

 

To be ‘Materialistic’ means ‘excessively concerned with material possessions, money-oriented’ and I’m not advocating that you, or anyone should be ‘excessively concerned’ with anything. But, in common usage, we mainly say ‘materialistic’ to describe people who aren’t sufficiently concerned with material possessions but who instead are interested in status and image and the appearance of wealth (and who are often quite unconsciously so). To illustrate, let me tell you a story about my daughter.

At two and half years of age, my daughter is innocently materialistic. This last Christmas was her third Christmas; her first Christmas was just another swirling cascade of sights and sounds without much context, her second Christmas was dominated by the crinkle joy of pulling wrapping paper apart, but this was perhaps the first Christmas wherein she understood that she was being given things that would be hers.

She would be given a present, a book say, and after opening it she would immediately want Continue reading

Writing is Absurd

As counterpoint to yesterday’s post, I wanted to write about the absurdity of writing.

People claim to write due to a whole litany of reasons that all sound good on paper: truth, art, beauty, to persuade, to improve society, to communicate truth or to transcend this particular moment/make something that lasts. The fact is however, most writing will not be read in a meaningful way, and of that tiny fraction that is read or popular, only a tiny fraction has a chance of being read ten years from now… let alone a hundred. For any of the above stated goals, for any sort of work that is generally considered ‘meaningful,’ a would-be aspiring writer would most likely be better off investing their time they would spend writing into making money, and then using that money to influence society in ways that are meaningful to them/support better artists.

While we dress it up in fancy words (as we dress up *everything* in fancy words) the truth is, most writers write simply because they have the itch to write. At best it is a simple itch, a single story that wants to get out. At worst it is a constant pressure, similar to that or a dairy cow that wants for milking. Writers excrete stacks of words because they need to, and then elevate, glamorize this process, pinning some higher motive beyond absurd cognitive relief after the fact.

These word stacks are never the experience they harken to, and as such are paltry and withered in comparison. Even worse, the word stacks can get in the way of seeing, understanding, taking part of the experience; the sign and symbol replacing the reality and encouraging people to live in a threadbare map rather than the territory.

The vast majority of writing -and hence the writing most writers can reasonably expect to create- is (at best) masturbatory; that is to say, a fun way to spend some time that is not really of interest to most others. And at worst, most writing is solipsistic, trapping writers and cognition in a simplified world of their own without touching or making a mark to the world at large (or drawing attention from it).

Many years ago, I was given the advice that if you can quit writing, you should do so. For better or for worse, I can’ quit; and hence will do my best to own my absurdities, my inadequacies as a writer striving to be the best I can be (while still keeping in mind that this is an often absurd exercise).

Writing is a Sacred Act

As counterpoint to tomorrow’s post about the absurdity of writing, I wanted to post today about how writing is a sacred, vitally important act for me.

When you compare human beings to our closest living relatives -the other great ape species- you notice several interesting and base physical characteristics: we have smaller jaws, we maintain our juvenile features longer, we are able to live and coordinate as part of larger groups, and so on. All of these are hallmarks of domesticated species. And so, one way to understand what a human being is is to consider them as a domesticated great ape.

If you accept this framework, you immediately ask well what domesticated us? We did, or dogs, or wheat are all compelling answers. But I think the most accurate way to consider us is that we were domesticated by story. And just as dogs have been selectively bred to better manipulate us (and we have been bred to better function as part of dog-human teams), so too have we co-developed with stories, our abilities to tell and shape them growing in tandem with their ability to guide and shape us.

To be a writer is to commune, argue, shape, fight, love, remake, and be remade by story. You don’t have to invent any fictional entities to understand that writers & storytellers of all stripes have always been doing the same sort of work; communing with stories to guide their communities and (if they are skillful and good) reshape their social world for the better or (if they are unskilled or bad) lead their people to ruin.

The use of word, the use of story is the prerequisite for everything not determined by biology and it is a fundamental tribute to the success of past writers that the most successful stories have been rendered invisible, are -for most everyone- indistinguishable from our biological imperatives. Long term, the stories we tell about ourselves lead us to heaven or hell, thriving or extinction.

Words are our escape from atemporality, like the ‘words’ of our DNA they allow communion over vast gulfs of time; the chance to preserve something worthy, transcend the limitation of our present moment. As writing/story weaving can be used to help or harm, reveal truth by inducing a sideways glance at it or lie; there is no greater sacred trust: Writing is a sacred act.

Review: Omegaball by Robert Peterson

4/5 Stars

Summary

Omegaball is a YA science fiction about rival twin daughters of radically different impairments playing hyper robot football with a backdrop of future VR internet & terrorism. It’s a well crafted story that -though its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp- works more than it doesn’t.

Longer Review

One of the things I most liked about Omegaball is that it is stuffed full of great ideas; from the well visualized future VR internet based on an utterly unique (and story relevant/evocative) interface of ‘jacking in’ to other individuals to a completely plausible future robot sport. Omegaball never suffers from ‘lack of cool.’ While introducing these concepts it manages a nice balance of informing the reader while keeping the plot moving forward.

The characters were well realized, although the depth of the antagonism between the two twin sisters felt unreal, soap-operatic. Likewise, the book suffers most from a few too many layers of plot trying (and failing) to do that Hunger Games trick where the ‘sport’ the players are engaged in ends up having massive socio-political consequences. [Spoiler Warning] Also, in my opinion, it sabotages the natural moment of emotional resolution, the twin sisters playing ball against one another for a pseudo-reconciliation based on both being in mortal danger by the bad guys). Even with the ‘commentary’ levels of narrative the terrorist part of the plot feels stapled on, a graft weakening the main body of the story.

That said, Omegaball is worth your time as a fun young adult romp with cool tech, well realized characters who move past the stereotypes of their impairment, and bitching VR and Robot sport scenes.

Buy a copy of Omegaball

 

The Skills I Intend to Give My Daughter

The only thing I know about the future is that it will be different than today. This presents an interesting dilemma when it comes to deciding how to raise my daughter: what world will she spend her life inhabiting? What can I impart that can last, can remain useful? Many, most of my ideas will –inevitably- be dismissed as the laughable prejudices and stupidities of the past, so many of my skills will be rendered outdated within my lifetime (let alone hers); so much of what seems absolutely vital today will be dragged out with the tide into the sea of obsolescence; my ‘best guesses’ are fragile sand-castles destined to be crumble in the face of the lapping waves of time.

What can I impart that will be worthy enough for her to carry forward, into those years I myself cannot go?

Ultimately I don’t… I can’t know. But to look at my own life, I think I can spot a few concepts, qualities, skills (and meta-skills) that I have utilized (or sorely missed the use of) throughout my whole life:

  1. Attention Management It is a truism that in this particular moment, we live in an age of information hyper-abundance. Funnily enough, men and women complaining about the glut of information and the discussing the problems of the endless mewling of distractions has been a common refrain since we’ve had the written word to record it. Moreover, even a human being alone in the most Spartan, barren environment imaginable is receiving more information than they can possibly hope to keep complete within their awareness: the sounds of their own heartbeat, the feel of sunlight playing across their skin, the way the breeze tickles the small hairs across their nape and on and on. There is more information held within a grain of sand than can fit within the human head (even if most of this data is beyond the scope of our senses). Regardless, I bring this up only to point to the fact that being able to manage one’s attention –most especially in the arms race of experts and algorithms who get ever better at convincing us to direct our attention where it is most useful/profitable for them- is something I believe was vital yesterday, I know is pivotal today, and am very confident will be critical tomorrow.
  2. Mood Management For me, this is so strongly related to attention management that I’m almost against listing it separately as –other than pharmacology- nothing shapes our emotional landscape so much as choosing where\how to shift our attention. But, there’s other tools by which we manage mood (or how it is managed for us): conscious use of exercise, socialization, eating… every aspect of our physical\mental input\output gives us a lever by which to move our emotions (always leverage though, never tyrannical control). It is the primary social superpower to be able to stoke a particular set of emotions in others and then suggest how people should *use* those emotions. To be able to decide for oneself how you wish to feel, to nudge oneself in that direction but most importantly to decide what actions one will take in response to feelings is a massively important set of metaskills. Advertising, the media empires, the ‘news,’ the public face of political communication, charities, girl scouts selling cookies are all about inducing millions of people to feel a certain way so they’ll act a certain way; to be equally as adroit, as calculating in the emotional management of oneself can feel almost inhuman but is is perhaps the only to thrive in a media environment that would see you sobbing useless in response to tragedies about which you can do naught, supporting policies that only lead to the needless suffering of yourself and your fellows.
  3. The Full Compliment of Relationship Skills Relationships are not skills, but there are dozens of skills that you can develop that allow you to develop better, richer, more satisfying relationships. As long as there’s humans, as long as one wishes to remain human in the fullest sense of the term; relationships will be there. These are the skills I think about here are being able to signal that someone is important to you, separating your feelings and issues from those of your dance partner, parsing out which issues are manageable/acceptable and which can not be abided, setting boundaries, wielding accountability, practicing honesty and vulnerability and on and on.
  4. Goal Setting There are ultimately two paths, though we tend to jump back and forth between them in an endless drunken stumble: an individual can have their aspirations determined by the suggestions or arguments of others, or one can set their own (or, this might be impossible, but it is a worthy ideal to chase). I think a lot about the William Blake quote, ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s …’ I hope I can teach my daughter to set her own goals, to orient herself to and for her own ends, and give her the tools to create a framework wherein she can evaluate herself in the pursuit of her ideals.

But what else? What am I missing? If you have kids – what skills (rather than values) are you trying to teach? Whether or whether not you’re reproducing, what skills do you have that are valuable now, and that you’re convinced will be valuable in the future?