Thursday, June 13, 2013

Nostalgia for the Ephemeral in the Age of Urgent Now (3/3)

The dream SnapChat pitches: "Snap an ugly selfie ... and send it to a friend. They'll receive it, laugh, and then the snap disappears ... It's about the moment."

SnapChat: It's about the moment.
More like SnapChat: Because would you let your kids use an app called DickPix?

There's something disingenuous about a promise to regain something that never existed. It was always a lie, this sense of anonymity and being lost in the vastness of the internet. And it's not a lie we should perpetuate if we want people to grow up and manage a successful digital presence.

For me, the mirage dissipates when I realize I'm feeling nostalgic for being so damn naive.

Logically, SnapChat is for sending pictures you wouldn't want the other person to keep or share. So: pictures you very, very clearly shouldn't send in the first place.

Very simple strategies exist for the person on the receiving end to capture SnapChats. Just search "SnapChat Leaked" on Facebook and Google. (But not if you're at work, you dig?)

All the issues of trust and permanence are still there, only now if I send you a Snap of my cat doing something adorable, it's gone in an instant when you'd rather hold on to it.

We're only scratching the surface of how our technology is shaping this paradigm of the permanent and urgent now. I think SnapChat proves we're longing for a way to keep our connectivity without sacrificing our own impulsiveness, to be in the moment but free from the record of it. SnapChat pretends it can give us that back, but did we ever actually have it? On the internet, I mean.

Is this the trade-off: we get connected to everything, but everything gets connected back to us?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Nostalgia for the Ephemeral in the Age of Urgent Now (2/3)

Douglas Rushkoff argues that digital technology and perpetual connectivity have created a kind of "Present Shock" in which we experience "a diminishment of everything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is."

Urgent, interruptive nowness is partnered with over-whelming permanence. Social media has ushered in the Age of Now (which you're missing out on by reading this btw), but the record of the moment still lasts forever.

For. Ev. Errr.

And that moment has been indexed, and it's very searchable.

There was, at first, promise of a kind of freedom on the web — before social technologies boosted our limited exposure. Back in those more naive times, we shared more openly, as if our posts sinking into the depths of whatever-we-called-it-before-Timeline was sufficient to erase them. We hid behind handles like they were codenames and shared peer-to-peer. No Google search string was sufficient to find you if you didn't want to be found. Anonymity was part of the game on "the net" and it was fun.

If you came through that in my generation, you grew up into what we have now. Facebook monitors your web surfing so it can sell you the shoes you were thinking of buying. Employers will dig up your bong-filled college photos on MySpace and pass you over for a job while the NSA sifts through your old Hotmail account to keep America free from terrorism.

It's been kind of a rough coming-of-age.

Given that, I can understand this counter-intuitive desire for impermanence. When SnapChat creators Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy were on Colbert (where I apparently get all my information), one of the things they mentioned was this ephemerality.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Nostalgia for the Ephemeral in the Age of Urgent Now (1/3)

I decided to give SnapChat a go (bluekitsunebi is my handle).

I didn't really get why such a thing existed and I had no interest in using it, which was precisely why I felt I had to get an account. I did it for science. Also to answer the question: "Why else could this possibly exist except to drunk-send naked selfies?"

Funny thing, though: using SnapChat made me nostalgic for my AIM away messages. For when Facebook was only for college kids. For having a LiveJournal and a Geocities web page that I was sure no one could ever a.) trace back to me if they didn't already know me or b.) find without invitation.

Basically nostalgia for being a naive, 19-year-old hormone-bomb who impulsively shared anything and everything without fear of the consequences!

All of that stuff did not disappear. I had to find it and delete it and I'm only half certain it's actually gone. Some day I expect some of this old content to manifest, a ghost of my angsty youth, and destroy my already barely professional online persona.

Maybe that's what they're symbolizing with the cutely evil, gleefully mocking little dude in the SnapChat logo:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Users: Engage!

What I'm hearing from the social media experts is that page likes and follows are shallow metrics.

This isn't news, especially since it's built right into Facebook's EdgeRank algorithms: a page like has less 'rank' than multiple post likes (at some point), and a share is worth more than a comment is worth more than a like.

Which ups the strategery, makes it all about the 'engagement.' Are they commenting? Sharing? That's Edge Juice. Digital capital.

If folks engage, they are more likely to see my future content, and that's a win for me and my brand.

It does not help the rank of my future posts if I share stuff no one wants to talk about.

Knowing this, I'm sure I'm not the only one to push things out into the virtual world hungry for that validation.


So what if it doesn't happen? Recently, hearing the crickets, I did a slapdash piece of market research. Having posted about once a day for a week regarding goings-on in Turkey (which feels REALLY IMPORTANT to me by the way) I decided to count up those posts (7 of them) and see how many likes and comments there actually were.

I then compared that to the last 7 posts I've made about anything else. The mix of text, image and video was about consistent.

I said slapdash, guys, this isn't real science. Just a quick pulse check.

Out of 7 posts, I had 28 likes and 9 comments. (I'm not a super popular guy.)
Out of 7 Turkey-related posts, 3 likes and 2 comments.

Getting say ~15% my 'normal' engagement on the Turkey posts than the rest?

The hot cakes really aren't moving.

How to interpret this? I could get judgey and decide that everyone's so jaded and uninformed. Why else don't they care? (Easy to feel this way. Why should kitty photos trend more than revolution?)

But I take this "data" with a grain of salt. All I know is that the topic of Turkey is getting poor user engagement among my Facebook audience. Without access to more complicated analytics, I couldn't even tell you who's clicking through this stuff.

It has me wondering: are there times when user engagement is a bad metric to rely on? What if some topics get seen, even clicked -- but not liked or commented on? Does that always mean I should post something else? That I made a mistake? Do I just need to position the content differently? Try a different platform? Seek a different audience?

Does the user engagement metric drive us to preach to the choir? There is always the case of strong disagreement (flaming and haterade are still user engagement, I guess), which suggests at best that digital discourse is likely to polarize.

Probably yes, some of those things. But also I think maybe user engagement isn't always everything. Some things we need to see even if we're not ready to talk about them. How do we measure that?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Suck Zone

A long, loud tone blasts through the terminal.

"May I have your attention please," begins a calm-voiced woman, and the dude next to me wryly speaks my thought: "Trust me, lady, you have it."

I'm in the St. Louis airport waiting on an evening flight to the Windy City. The weather has been downright mid-Western all day and all the news is about destruction in Oklahoma.

They've made less intrusive alerts already about "severe thunderstorms," including the comforting instruction to stay away from windows.

None of which prepares me for what follows.

"There is a tornado in the area. Do not panic."

Too late. 

I'm from Boston. We get an occasional blizzard, rather quaint in their own way, a nor'easter or two over the years -- enough to titillate but rarely to threaten.

(Ok, I guess we also have spats of terrorism punctuated by gun violence, but that's a recent development.)

I don't do tornados. I also don't do crowded airport restrooms when I can help it, but unfortunately that's what passes for the emergency shelter, so it's either that or the suck zone.

I'm actually just outside the restroom when the cyclone hits. The ground shakes almost imperceptibly and a gust of wind pours through the terminal. The power cuts, but the generators kick in so fast we barely notice.

And that's it. Only later is it confirmed: the airport was hit on the far side from where we are and sustained some damage.

Now we're all perfectly safe, and completely stranded.

I wish that had been the end of the story.

After a couple of flight reschedulings and finding a nearby hotel room for the night, not to mention many a thought about the cost in time and dollars of driving from MO to MA, a shuttle delivers me to an Embassy Suites and I'm given a room on the fifth floor. I lug my belongings into the elevator and take it up to 5.

30 seconds later I'm in my room. Another 60 after that the power cuts out. 

The first twinge of anxiety comes from how dark it is: I barely had time to register the layout of the place before having to find my way back to my iPad flashlight, running my hands along the wall and groping for imaginary furniture.

Then the screams start.

Someone is trapped in the elevator and something is wrong. These aren't calls for help, they're incensed poundings on the door. Howls, growls, almost inhuman. Someone is either injured or hulking out.

My first instinct is to investigate, my second to help. But how to get downstairs? Before I can figure that out, I see that hotel staff is on the case and put it together that this lady is not hurt, just living her worst nightmare. 

I can relate, I mutter, thinking back to that men's room.

All that remains is to help some folks carry luggage up the stairs and try to sleep. 

It's up and out early in the morning to see if I'm ever getting out of this city.

(Update: Published from 25,000 feet. (: )

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Life Anxiety, Epilogue: Terror Management

(Earlier posts in this series.)

Why would a story that portrays the murder of children as a triumph over evil resonate with someone? Answer that question, and you've taken serious steps to understand the Boston Marathon bombing, not to mention the American drone war.

It's not to say those two examples are identical, as one overtly targets children and the other rationalizes them as "collateral damage." But these two share more than the effect of child corpses. They also share a cause: the attempt to defeat evil by locating it in others and destroying them.

In my last post, I said that it's our job to write better stories than this. We need to figure out how to spin out yarns for ourselves that are 1.) aware of our fear but 2.) allow us to become the heroes we know we are.

In order to do that, we first need to consider the possibility that our own issues with mortality are propelling a less-than-conscious hero narrative, one that puts us at many disadvantages but which we are unwilling to change because it forms the locus of our self-esteem.

Phew. No easy stuff.  

To help with that, the Ernest Becker Foundation strives to share Becker's message and ideas, and the work of Becker lives on in Terror Management Theory.

Really interesting experiments are being done that add data to these ideas. For example, did you know that subtly reminding someone of their own mortality can make them more aggressive, less forgiving and more reliant on cultural symbols? It's a fact.

Just ask Reapy.

 I hope you'll read on, and write better.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Twelve: Unfreedom

(Earlier posts in this series.)

So Becker suggests that we need "healthy repressions, ... explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transcendence." Whatever that means!

We need to feel secure in the face of death. We need a bid for immortality and we need to see ourselves as heroic. Otherwise we retreat from life until we have nowhere left to run.

We live in a state of constant anxiety, hence the name of the blog.

But what are "healthy repression?" How can we be "explicit" about our own mythologies and still believe in them? Dr. B leaves it to us to figure the rest of that out.

Clearly it's not enough to just follow heroes who preach love and peace.

Especially if they are made of guns.

If all we needed were peaceful lover-leaders, the KKK would never have lynched in the name of Christ and Gandhi would have ended all the wars.

"What is it good for? Absolutely nothing." - Gandhi

But the more "explicit" we are about our need for heroism and our association of evil with death, the less likely we are to come under "The Spell Cast by Persons" a.k.a. "The Nexus of Unfreedom."

We live on borrowed power. That doesn't change. We look for something outside of ourselves to connect to. We find the person telling the story we need to hear. We project our needs onto their story and make it our own.

What's left for us to figure out, and it's no small task, is: "What is creative projection? What is life-enhancing illusion?"

After all, we write these stories. For ourselves and for each other.

Imagine what we could do if we were all better writers.

Epilogue: Terror Management

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Eleven: Holy War

(Earlier posts in this series.)

So Becker argues that "to become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life."

This is no easy task. "Self-knowledge is the hardest human task because it risks revealing to [us] how [our] self-esteem was built: on the powers of others in order to deny ... death."

Doing a little analysis on the hero myths provided by culture, he finds that "every society ... is a 'religion' whether it thinks so or not: Soviet 'religion' and Maoist 'religion' are as truly religious as are scientific and consumer 'religion,' no matter how much they may try to disguise themselves."

All wars are holy wars.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Bill Maher.

Merely realizing the fundamental need for a heroic purpose, which society is built to meet, will not somehow cure humanity of this need.

Instead he suggests that we need "healthy repressions, ... explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transcendence."

Next: Unfreedom

Monday, May 20, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Ten: Space Opera

(Earlier posts in this series.)

Previously, on a very special Life Anxiety, we discovered the root of all evil. No big.

No wonder Becker won a Pulitzer.

Turns out money isn't the root of all evil. Or greed. Or "hate." It's heroism.

See why that's funny? Because every time something evil happens we smother it in heroism. It's like trying to put out a fire with napalm.

Scenario: the righteous rag-tag band of outlaw underdogs lead a quest to liberate everybody from a conquering Empire. With the help of a mysterious and supernatural Force, they exploit a weakness of the Empire's stronghold and blow it up.



And you thought Episode 1 was a disaster.

So what can we do to break up the "useless self-sacrifices in unjust wars" or the "ignoble" or "tormented heroics" of, say, your Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

Becker answers: "To become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life."

I love the qualification "main self-analytic problem." The main main problem of life, then, could arguably be a lack of sufficient self-analysis -- although this is not quite Becker's conclusion.

Next: Holy War

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Nine: Root of All Evil

(Earlier posts in this series.)

Primal terror is controlled through smaller, more concrete anxieties, and so you end up washing your hands 'religiously,' avoiding bridges or trains, keeping your voice down or on a shrill note higher than everyone else's.

But there is no heroism more direct than choosing death in the name of something greater than yourself. We should try to remember this, every time we greet a returned Marine or spit at the image of a terrorist's face. A wide world may seem to exist between the cherished heroism of the one and the despicable evil of the other, but underneath beats the same heart: a willingness to deal death and to risk it oneself in the name of what is "good," however that's been defined.

"As Nietzsche saw and shocked his world with ... all moral categories are power categories ... Purity, goodness, rightness -- these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death."

We've made lasting symbols to ensure immortality, and our greatest anxieties are located there. If they are threatened or attacked, it becomes very clear to us where the evil is. By extension even the reform of some social structures is certain to appear downright apocalyptic, as we see going on right now in the marriage equality debate.

Doing good turns into getting rid of evil. George W. Bush proved that even in America, this does not have to be unconscious or metaphoric.

It's a war of ideas, but actual bodies stack up. Becker's pronouncement is chilling and severe: "man's natural and inevitable urge to deny mortality and achieve a heroic self-image are the root causes of human evil."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Eight: The Heroism of Denial

(Earlier posts in this series.)

Most heroism demonstrates a pattern.

As Becker puts it, "history is the career of a frightened animal who has to deaden himself against life in order to live." It's a matter of range, not state. One is never submerged completely in the raw stream of life. You can't exist outside of the process of self-mediation that is your essence.

Phenomenologists call this "the impossibility of a complete reduction."

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
This is good news, really. Many have drowned in that stream. Human history is littered with the shattered lives of those whose coping methods broke apart. Or their victims. No one said performing in a theatre of heroism was easy.

Becker sometimes sounds pejorative about denial and repression, especially on a first read. But he also insists that it is necessary. Some amount of sustaining narrative is necessary to get us through the days. Whether it's desperate spin or enriching myth is up to us.

Most cultures interpret denial and repression in heroic ways: "a human animal who is partly dead to the world ... is most 'dignified' when he shows a certain obliviousness to his fate."

Heroes risk -- or give -- their life for others.

The courage of the warrior is an expression of heroic repression.

Next: Root of All Evil

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Seven: Theatre for Heroism

(Part One.)
(Part Five.)

We've finally gotten to where Becker begins: "Heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death."

Heroism is the essential component of the stories we invent. Becker quotes the psychologist William James on the subject:

We extend our thirst for life into that theatre, that symbolic arena where we seek a performance that scores a victory over meaninglessness, transience and death.

Of course we deflect this task in order to shield ourselves from its magnitude. For most of us a local heroism is sufficient, whether it's earning our family's daily bread or "piling up figures in a bank book."

For others, life exerts a greater pressure and demands a greater response.

Either way, the theatre is a fabrication, our construction. "This is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism."

Next: Heroism of Denial

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Six: Composing

(Part Five)

I know phenomenology is for most either unheard of or incomprehensible psuedo-science, but it's the one philosophical strand I wish was more present in Becker's synthesis. Here's the briefest of overviews:

Phenomenology is a way of thinking about thinking. It's about describing as opposed to explaining how the mind works, how our perception constructs and reconstructs reality.

Phenomenologists find that we are made up of connections to the world. We are always in a situation that we're responding to, so we're never the wholly self-contained creatures we rationalize ourselves to be.

In fact, what we are in essence is a process. Many Eastern religions and mystics hit on this. Buddhism calls it interdependent becoming: we are connected to everything and all of it is happening, is in flux.

I'm drunk on panda mystery.

The essential process of our minds is composing the story of which we are part. To us, that story presents itself ready-made. The world already has meaning and we discover it there.

So this "situation" we are in is more than the objects around us, more than our senses, more than the weather. The situation includes our feelings about the situation. It includes placement in time as well as space, includes where we come from and points us forward to what we intend.

All the time the brain is explaining itself to itself, is carrying out this act of composition.

This hardly happens in a vacuum. We also find ourselves already inside pre-made stories, whole narrative threads that we have to write ourselves into or against.


Some enter into these cultural constructions more passively than others. How can they do otherwise, having never been taught to compose themselves?

But everyone interprets, and thus can warp, distort, mutate.

Becker still comes more or less to the conclusion that if the essence of what we are is an act of interpreting and making stories, we'd better get really goddamned good at interpreting and making stories.

Next: Theatre for Heroism

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Five: Inheritance

(Part One.)(Part Four.)

Regroup: the simplest expression of what I've been writing about is that "man transcends death not only by continuing to feed his appetites, but especially by finding a meaning for his life, some kind of larger scheme into which he fits."

To get that larger meaning we've "erected cultural symbols which do not age or decay."

We do this "to quiet ... fear of [the] ultimate end."

Ok, these are really two ideas, or at least two versions of one idea, and I think sometimes Becker doesn't discriminate enough between them.

The first idea is about fear. The root of fear is death. This Becker emphasizes. We have to do something with that fear. We need to put death in its place -- this is fundamental to our survival.

We need a view, a pose, a "vital lie," a sustaining fiction. We need to control that primal instinct which senses the danger of the "overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world."

(That primal instinct we might call "life anxiety," if we were into burying ledes.)

This means we invent character to protect ourselves from the world. This puts fear at the root of all we create.

Some Trees
"A silence already filled with noises"

But the other side of the coin is in that "man transcends death" bit. I don't think Becker means that ironically. Even if it may be correct, in one sense, to call character a "lie," that lie is still "vital." It's a fiction, really. An art at the heart of who we are.

Our stories are vehicles to overcoming the limits of mortality. Stories are the only kind of power we have over the world.

It's easy to get caught up in the idea that everyone else is living a lie, especially if their story conflicts with ours. In the same way, "at heart one doesn't feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him." Or woman. Ahem!

We all participate. We are all creators. Faced with the disabling presence of disease and death, we either write our own way out, or we lean on stories co-authored by others. Stories powerful enough to combat finitude.

This is not something we can opt out of. We can't call out others for having a "vital lie" without hypocrisy -- though we can certainly question a lie's effectiveness or call out its effects.

This shared project of confabulation is part of our unique human inheritance.

Next: Composing

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Four: Immortality

(Part One)

Last time the poet Rilke taught us that you can be extinguished, but you can't be revoked. You were. In the face of outstanding odds, despite the obscene and the absurd, you happened.

How far is it, really, the distance between seeming irrevocable and being immortal? How far to any one of the direct immortality narratives provided by the world's many religions and mythologies?

Our mere existence suggests some kind of permanence to us, if only because we aren't cognitively capable of conceiving of our consciousness ceasing to exist.

For Becker (an anthropologist, remember) the consistency with which all cultures have invented immortality narratives suggests that there must be a need for them. Becker questioned the purpose of these stories that guarantee our permanence.

More than that, he asked why these stories meant to assure our permanence are worth sacrificing our actual lives.

He concluded that "what man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance."

We have to do more than happen. We have to leave our mark on the world. Something of us has to remain.

We all need some bid for immortality.

Fortunately, immortality narratives seem to be in abundance. Certainly our children are a direct route to leaving a part of ourselves in the world, moving forward beyond our deaths. But many also believe that when their body dies, their spirit or soul will hang around, even transcend to paradise.

Some believe they will come back again in another form. Even science takes as a basic principle that energy cannot be destroyed -- and matter is just a form energy sometimes takes.

In the same way that our body is made up of star matter, we know that something does remain of us after death.

If only that were enough.

Next: Inheritance

Monday, April 29, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Three: Once

Why commit an act of terrorism? And why call it terrorism? What is terror, anyway and why are we at war with it?

Becker answered these questions in the 70's. Sometimes it seems impossible to me how much our society struggles blindly with evil when the 101 textbook on the subject has been around for 4 decades.

But before we get to evil, we have to talk about terror, which means we have to talk about death.

Day in and day out we exist inside of a protective bubble built out of the real and symbolic problems and joys of our lives: our hungers and aches, our careers, our loves, our families, our politics, our pleasures, our grief.

Then a flash, deafening heat, and the body is torn apart. Those who survive are forced to witness, to remember that it's only flesh after all. And to fear the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

What if that were it? What if you were snuffed out in a tragic instant?

Then they put some rotting meat into a dirt hole, and the "cosmic specialness" that was you simply ceases forever.

The mind rejects such a thought. Rather, at the very least, the epigram Becker gives his magnum opus, from Rilke:

And we also once. Never again. But this having been
once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
seems irrevocable.

For us, the idea of death is a terrible burden that must be dealt with.

All terror is at root the terror of death, which we refuse to allow entry into our conscious lives.

We have always been at war with terror.

Next: Immortality

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Two: First Page

Previously: Science of Man

Here's a taste of the chilling (or hilarious, depending on your palette) Introduction to Ernest Becker's Escape from Evil:

"Life on this planet is a gory spectacle, a science fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh."

Yep. That's from PAGE. ONE. A reduction of life to "a constant struggle to feed," to gnashing and excreting, to flesh and shit.

You just totally got Walking Dead. You're welcome.

Becker is very intentional in this perspective. He takes as a page one premise a vision of humanity that we've been fighting for eons. Though Freud and Darwin did a number on the collective psyche by knocking man down off his own pedestal, even today ardent creationists consider evolution disgusting.

We blaspheme to relate the grandeur that we are to mere animals. We do not descend from beasts, but from God.

We are sustained by this belief that we are God's children, made in His image, or that we are magic and have control over the forces of life and death. We must be blessed with the love of a beneficent divinity or guided by cosmic forces to some eternal bliss.

Sure. Maybe. But if we are like unto god, then it's "the god who shits."

What's on page one of a science of man? We have to deal with what the poet James Merrill named "God B": Biology.

Half of Merrill's poetry was dictation from his Ouija Board.

Confront the idea that you can only exist by consuming other life, until the gunk you are made of gets too clogged to continue.

Becker calls this our 'creatureliness.' Our self-serving stories are aimed at disconnecting us from it. At heart we dislike, even fear our creatureliness, even as we take pleasure in it. The body is our vehicle to satisfaction in the world, but it can suffer, become sick and broken, even perish.

Consider that you are wingless, flawed and fragile, and you will come up against one of the foundational motivations of human activity: death.

Next: Once.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part One: Science of Man

In the wake of the awful Boston Marathon bombing, many people will ask "Why?" A lot of answers are going to fly around. I think the best one has already been written. (But I still want to hear your thoughts. Tweet me @strangewander!)

Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize winning Denial of Death and its companion, the posthumous Escape from Evil, are an attempt at a "science of man." If that sounds vague, it's because "psychology" does not adequately describe this work.

One of the fundamental and revolutionary aspects of Becker's work is its interdisciplinary nature: he brings together ideas from biology, anthropology, sociology, literature and history, philosophy, mythology and theology.

He does not just include more facts. He draws connections. He reminds us that these things are already connected.

Becker's goal was to harmonize, to synthesize. To escape what Norman O. Brown called "sterile and ignorant polemics," those one-sided pseudo-conversations that go nowhere.

Looked up 'sterile polemics' in the dictionary!

So what is a "science of man?" It's a holistic understanding of how the human animal functions. How biology sets the parameters for psychology, which sets the parameters for culture.

Becker's books are about what we need, and what we're willing to do to get what we need.

Yes, Denial of Death and Escape from Evil are about death and evil and death. I know. Sounds hard, and way too dark.

Darker than what, I ask? Twilight? Hunger Games? The Walking Dead?!

All stories are about evil and death.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Life Anxiety: A Table of the Contents

A Table of the Contents:

1. Science of Man
2. First Page
3. Once
4. Immortality
5. Inheritance
6. Composing
7. Theatre for Heroism
8. The Heroism of Denial
9. Root of all Evil
10. Space Opera
11. Holy War
12. Unfreedom
Epilogue: Terror Management

Life Anxiety, Prologue

The title of my blog is in honor of the late Ernest Becker, whose books changed my life.

Because his books changed my life, I want to write about him.

His work is about evil and terror and death. There's been an extra portion of that in my damn environment lately. So really I need to talk some Becker.

I'll be releasing a series about Becker's ideas over the next few weeks which I hope you will tolerate. I promise to write too many posts but to keep none too long. Why not try giving some a read?


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Making Song of It


All day in the wet air, all night almost
rain. We watched for it. Angry ghosts
stalked the attics of our houses. In the wake
of what we said shrapnel rippled out, mistakes
we'd made. It was how we read it that really
mattered, all we later saw we couldn’t see,
density determining which debris sinks or
which rises higher with each passing hour.
Too late a crack of gray spills onto black
for a boy adrift in a still afternoon.
Blood hardens instantly into fact
and the waters come for us too soon.

Follow me on twitter: @strangewander

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dirty Old Town

I've been reading about branding and thinking about poetry. I have these things I want to say about words but now I don't know how.

I spent Patriots' Day wandering around my city. Alone, without ear buds or iTunes, from the Common through Downtown to the Waterfront, I listened and I watched.

I saw the suits by South Station and wondered if they ever feel like targets, those folk (like my brother) who work in the Federal Reserve building.

You wouldn't get that idea watching dudes on their lunch break, running across to the train station's McDonald's while they commiserate about a coworker with unrealistic expectations.

Just another day downtown.

After being a New Yorker for 3 years, I've always been grateful to feel safer in my own city, my home, which I do not think of as a place you'd want to explode. But I still got a shudder walking by the World Trade Center. The name alone seems to invite evil.

At the Boston Public Library I used to transcribe the poems of a would-be Transcendentalist who shared a meal with Emerson. Copley is where I read my poetry at the wedding of two good friends. Where I got to discuss Wallace Stevens with a Berkeley academic.

And I remember witnessing, years ago, an old man collapse in the square, blood spilling slowly from his brain -- not the first corpse I'd ever seen, and not the last.

What we do in a crisis is always moving: people rush in to help and there's a feeling of being knit together. Then someone asks "Why did this happen?" and the chorus clamors for more death.

The answer to the crisis of our age won't be on Twitter and it won't be on CNN.

But tonight the ghost of John Wieners reads on the library steps. Watch for him. And listen:

Yes rise shining martyrs

out of your graves, tell us
what to do, read your poems
under springtime moonlight.
Rise and salvage our century.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

YOLO? Yes, but YOLO.

You know?

I've been thinking about that scene I love in How I Met Your Mother. Marshall and Ted decide that the bad consequences of some action are problems for future Marshall and future Ted. And screw those guys, right?

 Later, Ted and Marshall wonder how they got in to such a mess, and realize they've been set up by past Ted and past Marshall. Screw those guys!

 I want my choices to have an anti-hangover effect. I want to wake up tomorrow and feel my good choices paying off.

So a... dropunder?

That's why I proposed to my girlfriend. That's a decision I anticipate will keep paying off.

For the rest of whoever dies first's life. #YOLO

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Poems 1: Out Loud

April is Poetry Month.

Why April? Probably because a key English poem  -- one of the very first -- opens with a description of April.

T. S. Eliot
(Not this guy's.)

The first sentence is epically long. The middle of this sentence is unintelligible to modern speakers of English without help. The rest is surprisingly accessible but only if you read it out loud.

Preferably like you are doing your very best Geoffrey Chaucer impression. Think Downton Abbey minus 500 years. 

A Knight's Tale
There he is.

If you find your brain shutting down, just skip to the end for now.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne;
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yƫ --
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages --
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

Yep. It's as I've always said, "April showers make the world flower drunk. Breezes and birdsong in the sunny fields, lying awake at night fucked in the heart  -- makes you need a spiritual journey."

Poetry Lesson One, from someone who's read so much poetry he's ruined himself for anything else, is the first lesson this early poem teaches us:

You have to read poems out loud. Half of what poems mean is in the sound of them.

Poets string similar sounding syllables together.
They play around with vowel sounds.
Poets take advantage
of opportunistic pauses.

Remember in 10 Things I Hate About You when the English teacher raps Shakespeare?

This young man is thinking about taking a spiritual journey.
Sir William?!

If you're someone who says "I don't get poetry" AND you're someone who's never read poems out loud, you should instead say "I haven't taken the time to actually hear any poems."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Flavor Marriage and the Strategic Plan

Update for all you soakers:

I was just on the Food Network web page for my go-to granola recipe (Alton Brown's, natch), when I saw a comment that made me laugh. The idea here should be familiar.

The first step to the recipe calls for the usual separate combinations of dry and wet ingredients before you mix them with each other. One commenter helpfully lets us know that he likes to leave the dry oats and nuts alone for a while after initially mixed, "to let the flavors marry, if you will."

I will NOT.

OK, so this is just a fundamental misunderstanding of how cooking works. Dry + wet + time (+ heat, typically) produces flavor marriage. Your oats aren't talking to your cashews because they're in the same BOWL for an hour. That's what syrup and/or honey and/or cooking oil is for, not to mention the oven.

But it charmed me even as it tickled my condescending side. Because this is a narrative of doing nothing while feeling like something is happening. This is the kind of wasted time I've been trying to talk about.

Recently I was challenged to define instances that fit the soaking metaphor, and failed. The concept is easier in the abstract: planned inaction raises the question of whether lack of action is truly strategic or a cover for -- lack of a better plan, say, or insufficient motivation.

Apply this towards literally any goal you have. For example: I have a career vision -- and it's easy to think "I should get more experience and training before seeking a new role." This is a sensible stance if I am actually doing the seeking of more experience and training, and if that is really what I need. It could as easily be what I am telling myself so as to avoid the hard work of a.) actually learning new things, b.) updating my resume, c.) figuring out what to do for a living, d.) seeing what kind of jobs are out there, etc.

Sometimes general strategies lack specific action plans. You do nothing but assume that things are still chugging along, just because time is.

Then some time goes by, and you're pretty much still where you were.

This is my fundamental problem with what passes for strategic planning, particularly in Higher Education. Ben Ginsberg says that strategic planning is neither strategy nor plan, but "a substitute for action."

The problem is definitional. A strategy is a set of principles for guiding future action. A plan is a set of actions that you are doing or need to do. Making a plan that is strategic is wise. But there are certain criteria that are necessary for it to be an actual plan: "A plan typically presents concrete objectives, a timetable for their realization, an outline of the tactics that will be employed, a precise assignment of staff responsibilities, and a budget."

In Higher Ed, strategic plans tend to take on the language and motive of "vision statements," which articulate goals you hope to meet.

Your goal is not your plan. And having a goal without a concrete plan will not move you closer to achievement.

Taking time to plan is essential, but the more resources devoted to planning, the less actual work that's being done. Planning for planning's sake can kill the whole endeavor altogether.

At least soaking your dishes will make eventual washing easier. But leaving your oats alone with your nuts? It's a plan, I guess, but it's not very strategic.

Selling Fancy

Microsoft will always and forever be my go to punching bag for terrible, terrible "innovation."

They have this incredible knack for integrating new features into their software that backfire, often in an effort to promote their other software.

They are always trying to copy Apple's awful proprietary model -- like how if you buy songs in the iTunes store, suddenly you need iTunes for everything, and you're buying an iPhone instead of a Droid, and.... you know. It's Apple everything.

But Microsoft lacks Apple's slick simplicity and overall user-friendliness. iTunes, iPhones, etc delivers on what users want, so they're willing to go Apple for everything. The word "innovation" seems to be paired with the brand "Apple" a lot, and for good reasons, but a lot of Apple's success isn't really about being new and fancy. It's about consistently satisfying their users' basic needs. (And much, much better marketing than Microsoft, but that's a story for another post.)

It's about asking a simple question: what does your end user WANT?

I mean that literally. Ask them, and then listen.

Marketing works this way, now more than ever. It used to be about making up a product and then finding the right narrative to sell it. It's become increasingly more fashionable (and more efficient) to just listen to people tell you what they want. Then you give that to them and they keep coming back.

As soon as you try a ploy that benefits YOU, and not your customer, you're on thin ice. Better make sure that new feature is AMAZEBALLS.

But this is what Microsoft actually tends to deliver:

The new Outlook for Mac! Now with MSN Messenger integration, for all your contacts on MSN Messenger!

Right? Who gives a f*#&?! Why don't you just link it to my old AIM account?

Because of this new feature, here's what happens. You get an email, and Outlook inserts the name of the contact in place of the 'From' email address. This is pretty standard, but actually kind of a pain if you want to know exactly where an email is coming from.

In my line of work, for example, I sometimes need to check that an email is coming from an '' address. Occasionally students from other universities email me about our programs or scholarships, or to ask for advising. That's not actually what MIT pays me to do, so...

I used to hover over the contact name to see the email address. Simple. Works in GMail! Google: good at ensuring that the delivery of basic is not impacted by the innovation of fancy.

In the new Outlook, if you hover over the contact name (which Outlook renders regardless of whether or not that person is a contact or even an actual person (see the above Sri Lankan spam as a perfect example)), you get a pop-up window that still just shows you the contact name... along with an MSN Messenger status.

Since I don't have that program, nor am I considering using it, the pop-up window just delivers this default message: "Presence Unknown."

For every email, every 'contact,' every time. "Presence Unknown." What does that even mean? Is this some kind of po-mo existentialist poetry? Outlook has decided that this is more important information than the email address of the person who emailed me.

How long do you think it took me to figure out what "Presence Unknown" means? Google it, and you find yourself in a lot of forums full of angry Outlook users demanding to know where their email is coming from.

To see the actual email address, I need to "double hover." Guess how long that took me to figure out.

The moral of the story? I despise Outlook. I am writing a boring blog post just to whine about how stupid Microsoft is for wasting my time figuring this crap out. And for slowing me down every time I need to look at an email address. (Also: can't copy/paste that little yellow box! For that, you need to open the contact or forward the email -- more clicks, more time wasted.)

Frustration! And for what? Because they tried to get all fancy in a very self-serving way, and wound up obstructing a simple, basic function that I require of my email software.

You can't sell fancy if you can't deliver on basic.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Make this Yogurt

Foodies, bookmark this page.

(The rest of you can come back later to help me discuss if punk rockers have a brand.)

Making your own yogurt is worth the minimal effort it requires. Plus it is not as hard as you probably think. I was taught by an eminent MIT historian with help from one of my favorite cookbooks, Sally Fallon's wacky Nourishing Traditions.

This is yogurt sans sugar, preservatives, "natural flavor" (whatever that is) or xanthum gum. It's safe and actually natural and delicious.

For starters, here is my fancy yogurt maker:

It consists of a styrofoam cooler I got from the hospital (it once held cancer shots, 2 pts), a glass jar that holds half a gallon or so, and an old bath towel. THAT'S. IT.

You will also need a pan, a thermometer, and a few more (smaller) jars, like mason jars or re-purposed pasta sauce, pickle, apple sauce jars etc. Wash and soak the heck out of them until they smell clean.

Now the really complicated part. The ingredients: milk, yogurt.

You use yogurt as a starter. For the first ever batch, use the best commercially available yogurt you can get your hands on. I like Stonyfield Farms Plain Organic. You need about half a cup.

The genius is that when you've made yogurt once, you just reserve half a cup for the next batch, so your yogurt becomes its own self-perpetuating deliciousness.

(here's the jar heart of my yogurt oven next to the starter)

A word about milk: I use Organic Whole. You know, no hormones and all that. But whatever suits your fancy -- this will turn out with lowfat (though it might affect the consistency) and you do NOT need to use raw.

As to your thermometer -- meat or candy will do the trick. Heat up a quart of milk in a pan (gently, no higher than medium heat) until it reaches 180 deg. Fahrenheit. This is to kill off competing bacteria ("and to denature the milk proteins so that they set together rather than form curds," says wikipedia).

Now the hardest part. Remove it from heat and leave it alone. Booooring. Go wash some dishes or make a tune in Garage Band, but check back every so often.

At this point I usually turn on my yogurt oven. Heat up a kettle of water and pour it piping hot into that big glass jar. Pour the water in with the jar already resting inside the cooler -- don't want to try to move that hot jar!

Carefully close the jar's lid lid and keep it wrapped in the towel in the closed cooler for now.

When your milk cools to around 112 deg. F, add your starter and mix well to ensure the bacteria is evenly distributed. Pour the milk/yogurt mix into a couple of jars and tuck them in the cooler around the hot water jar.

Tuck 'em in snug.

Now lots of websites say "leave for 2-4 hours" or some-such rubbish. Heck. No. 12 hours minimum. I often do this before I go to bed (say 10-11PM) and take it out when I get home from work the next day around 6PM. That's 19-20 hours! 

When you take it out, you will pour off the whey (it can be kept and has many good uses -- topic for a future post). The best way to achieve a thicker texture from here on out is to strain it through cheese cloth, or if you are a mad genius, this strainer from etsy. A cloth strainer like this will really cut down on the fuss or mess of straining yogurt -- but again, if you let it "cook" long enough it will be decently thick anyway. You can also refrigerate and just absorb whey with a paper towel now and again.

If it seems too runny, strain it some. Too thick? Stir it like you mean it and add back some whey.

It's tangy and delicious. It goes amazing with fruit and/or my favorite homemade granola. It's great in a cucumber mint dip with toasted sourdough (sourdough: topic for a future blog post!). 

Stick it in the fridge and then stick it in your face hole.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sunday Morning

I want to be an integral part of your Sunday morning.

I want you to nose about over breakfast, see what's happening in the world.

I want this place to be a part of that world. Or this place.

So I can tell you what the Ouija Board told Merrill, or what problems with heroism told Becker, or what the eye told Stevens.

Paul Simon could gather all the news he needed from the weather report. What if the most important news you read all week was a bit of verse, a scrap of philosophy?

The words in your head are the weather of your days. And you can rewrite them at will.

This idea is old, but it's still a radical notion.

Wittgenstein started and ended his famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by saying "Die Welt is alles, was der Fall ist." The world is everything that is the case.

What is relevant. At hand. Not passive objects. Facts. Bits of meaning.

Merrill unpacks this. "Open the case."

In Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning" he asks, "What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?"

But also "in contentment I still feel / The need of some imperishable bliss."

This is perhaps the oldest of radical notions.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

*Read the Comments

Maybe extended metaphors are lost on the literal-minded. Alternately, maybe even I lost the thread.

Because I don't know what I was talking about yesterday. I should have just linked Ze Frank's brain crack vid and dropped the mic.

Don't wait, is all I'm saying. It's 5 points for cancer reference. The future might not be what you expect. The future might not even be coming.

If you are me, you might want more education, more experience, a better job, financial stability. A house west of here. A dog and a wife and a couple of kids.

Well, now my future children live in a really expensive freezer. I took a sick day this week that I literally don't have to deal with pain, exhaustion and the panic that my cancer is coming back. I'm definitely too poor for a house and I'm going nowhere as slowly as I can.

Although I am now officially blog published*, no matter what any of my 11 Twitter followers might think.

So I win.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Wash the Damn Dish

Look, everybody soaks. It is often strategic and necessary. Fill that pan with hot, soapy water and leave it alone. Let time do the hard work that you can't of eroding grease and washing away lingering odors.

What I'm asking is are you a Soaker? Do you say "I'm going to let this soak." Regularly. For lots of stuff. Because as it turns out, with some intention and what my dad calls 'elbow grease' (I believe the dictionary calls it "effort"), a lot of what you're soaking can get clean in a short amount of time.

Being a Soaker is not about the act of soaking. It's about the lie you tell yourself when you transform "I don't feel like washing this right now" into "I'm going to let this soak." The lie that allows you to feel productive while rationalizing your own procrastination.

It will be easier to wash this after it soaks.


Because it will be LATER.

And that's a problem for your future self.

Serial Soakers are the people leaving clean looking bowls in the sink at work you share with like 30 people. The people whose dishes pile up for days -- until all that soaking has to turn into actual washing anyway. People who assume as a knee-jerk reaction that doing something later will be easier than doing it now.

Will it really be easier later? How much?

It's like what Ze Frank once said about brain crack. It's better to reward ourselves now, to feel satisfaction at our good ideas, than to execute them and risk disappointment and failure.

The difference between a Soaker and a brain crack addict is that the addict only imagines the rewards of projects perpetually put off -- but the Soaker walks away confidently, perceiving inaction as action.

For the addict, the lie is: it's going to be perfect.
For the Soaker, the lie is: it's going to be easier to do later.
The addict celebrates his delayed success, the Soaker his strategy of delay.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Internet Unicorn

Have you ever been part of a productive discussion on the internet?

I mean not including among friends. Especially your friends.

Have you ever seen a single worthwhile comment posted on anything? That rare beast.

The internet makes me feel like Atreyu slopping through the Swamp of Sadness. But then, like a magic creature, noble and pure, it appears. That pristine white horse, the helpful comment.

(Ignoring for now that trolls come and make it sink into the swamp -- we're going to get all our metaphors mixed up.)

I was reading this ProPublica article about a town in Texas that had an EPA decision overturned on them recently. Basically this company (Uranium Energy Corp) is looking at a pocket of uranium sitting on a pocket of pristine, untapped water. Guess which one they think is worth destroying for the other?

The EPA was all "nuh-uh," but then some lobbyist went to work, and now they are all "fine but just the tip."

The comments were what you'd expect for this narrative storied out on an independent not-for-profit news site. Hordes of folks showed up to create the Swamp, just bemoaning the failures of the Obama administration and predicting doom on all of us when the inevitable day comes that we wake up in an episode of the Walking Dead and there's not a drop to drink.

 Ok, ok, maybe some people gave instructions on how to write your government representatives, and maybe I'm too jaded for scoffing at that out of hand. Probably I was distracted by the genius who suggested 'let the politicians come drink the water' as an "elegant solution" to the problem as opposed to a dumb revenge fantasy he drummed up to divert that nasty "I need to do something but I am truly powerless so why bother" feeling. Symbolic action! I did it with my words!

But then one dude goes: "The residents should have their waters analyzed before the mining starts and do it every 3 months there after. If the water gets polluted, maybe the residents will have a bigger pull with the EPA to get the mining stopped?"

 Look, I'm not saying he saved the day. That's the point. Nor am I chastising us all, myself included, for not rushing to Texas' defense. I'm just saying that somehow, against all odds and with no clear external motivation for doing so (see above where the horse drowns in the shit, Kiowa-style), this guy took a second to offer something that was actually contributing to an ACTION PLAN and not just a RANT or a PIPE DREAM. Or illitrate nonsense. And I was really stunned, which kind of brought into focus something I guess I've long thought about the internet.

I want to believe that access changes that. Free knowledge. Humans connecting. Then Zuckerb makes a billion turning the most cherished online community into a fucking billboard that spies on you while Swartz is literally scared to death by society's response to downloading too many JSTOR articles. ("What store?" -Everyone.)

What do you think? Can technology help us have a more productive conversation? Is it just a poor carpenter that blames his tools?