Spotlights and blind spots

I’ve never had anyone tell me I’m a bad writer.

I was reading professional, life long writers and parsing it for guidance and my internal estimation of how good a writer I am tells me I’m a good writer because I’m not guilty of a lot of the things they warn against.

I realize I don’t need much in the way of play book coaching I need real you-fucked-up-son coaching.

Stephen King in On Writing talks about being edited for the first time and what a joyful revelation it was. He was already a good writer and people told him nothing but that. When a newspaper editor got out the red pen Stephen loved getting the feedback, it was a lesson on how to be better than good.

The same thing goes for songwriting. I’ve only ever had people tell me I’m a good or great songwriter. So naturally it seems true. Any advice I read I’ve already learned and applied on my own. This means that I don’t know what I don’t know. I’ve got unknown unknowns.

On the one hand I think we all get caught in bubbles because people tell us we’re great at what we’re best at, even if we’re barely good at it, and no one likes to tell us what we’re bad at.

Even in the area of friendship people will say you’re an arrogant piece of shit rather than tell you you’re bad at listening. For virtues we credit skill and for vices we blame character when really any vice can be seen as a lack of particular skill.

When it comes to who can criticize who things get messy. All opinions have value but that doesn’t mean they have equal value.

This is why I use the term laymen a lot. In cooking the laymen opinion is if it tastes good it is good. They usually reject fancy food and I imagine it comes from a self conscious fear that they simply don’t know what else their supposed to be rating it for so it’s easier to reject than think or ask.

This happens in music all day everyday.

Back to food though, the educated opinion (and I mean even with zero technical education, just a passing knowledge of food) knows that things that taste good aren’t always good. That’s why we have the term junk food. Hell even antifreeze tastes good to dogs but you wouldn’t think you’d ended a discussion with a chef defending that point.

I’ll do my best to spare you my usual ranting hatred of anti-snobbery because my point is still supposed to be about improvement.

If you’re a cook you can never be better than good getting feedback from laymen. They don’t know what they don’t know. You can cook for six hundred people and get a thumbs up from all of them you might still be shit. Just the least awful shit they’ve had.

Pleasing your target audience is not inherently bad it’s just that you can’t grow, you can’t get better than good. And if your goal is simply the biggest possible audience you can’t do better than junk.

If you cook for cooks (or sing for singers or astronaut for astronauts) you’ll get data that’s all over the place and maybe reflects their blind spots and spot lights too, but you can dig into that information and find ways to grow in the directions you want to.

Unfortunately this sort of thinking leads to one of my most hated arguments. The who-are-you-to-criticize defense. This happens when one laymen disagrees with another and all the sudden expertise is on the table. Don’t like my mom’s cooking? Well you can’t do any better so I give your opinion no value. Ta da, just like that. Don’t like my favourite quarter back? Well you don’t know what it takes to be a quarter back so there.

The thing is if you declare the negative opinion of a demographic has no value then correspondingly the positive opinion has no value either. Meaning yours, in this case.

We can all detect bad cooking and quarterbacking. What’s hard is tell good from from great using something other than results. Which would mean the best author is the one who sold the most books and we’re back to junk.

This is why the world needs editors, gate keepers, even referees. It’s about refining the signal-to-noise. Anyone can come up with one good point in ten thousand words. Everyone has something to say but it’s not different from what someone else has to say and if they can say it in a hundred words as opposed to a thousand I can safely declare who isn’t worth listening to.

This is why I think critics are good. Roger Ebert spent his entire life studying what makes films great and he didn’t waste any of that time making films, making his own mistakes and learning from them, he learned from everyone’s mistakes all at once. When you’re making a movie (or running a restaurant or playing a sport) you’re essentially studying that one movie (Or restaurant/sport) as it unfolds for the years it takes to make. In that time an expert has studied hundreds of films (or sports restaurants) so their opinion draws on a lot more value than the lone creator.

Why do some fish stay in small ponds? Because it’s where no one tells them they need to be better than good.





Posted in Songwriting

The myth of single motivation

Our minds like to keep things simple, our minds like to keep other people simple, our minds even try to keep ourselves simple.

Oh I know you think you’re complex, you have layers,  because you’re confused about yourself often. Your mind pulls you in different directions at different times, it’s only confusing if you don’t acknowledge it. Our minds want to simplify ourselves otherwise all we would do is ponder and starve.

We want there to be a single, straightforward, core self from which all situational selfs spring. Which sadly isn’t the case, in fact it’s the other way around.

Think about how you often you make very simple identity statements like “I’m the kind of person who tells it like it is” that’s actually such an over simplification it’s meaningless. Is telling it like it is the same when talking to a cop and talking to your friend’s mom? If you were in a physics lecture would you raise your hand and start telling it like is, correcting the teacher with a layman’s idea of Newton?

We simplify ourselves to ourselves by writing identities in contexts. Different sides come out as a way of simplifying ourselves to guide an interaction.

Think about when you’re actually alone. Not now, even if you’re the only person in the room you’re not alone because my mind is up all in yours as you read this, you’re thinking about yourself and others in a social context right now. For most people the only time they access the lonely, diffused mind is the shower.

As you go over old arguments and come up with great ways to say the things you didn’t say stop and ask yourself why you didn’t say them. Why didn’t this alone and hypothetical more pure version of yourself come out? Because in a social situation you got simplified into a role and you played it, you shut off huge parts of yourself. You don’t bring the part of you that’s a son or daughter to a date or a traffic stop, you don’t bring your pillow talk self to a football game. They’re in there, but your central executive doesn’t call on them when they raise their hand at this particular meeting.

This is what leads to the myth of single motivation. It’s simple to label someone as (for example) greedy. Even a greedy person though has part of them that wants to be (for example) a good athlete. Now if they were given some clear cut choice between satisfying greed or satisfying athletics they’d take greed but that choice never comes up in real life. In real life they’ll do things that potentially satisfy both and they’ll occasionally be pulled towards one or the other depending on something as simple as the movie they watched earlier. Their athletic desire can be raised by athletic stimuli, just as their greed can be mitigated by generous stimuli. But it would take massive, unpredictable swings for anyone to feel they weren’t being themselves.

And you or I are not different from them. It’s all we.

We, each of us, get pulled a lot of different directions trying to satisfy a lot of varying, fluctuating impulses. And I think we’re better off if we acknowledge that. Instead of thinking about taking a job that pays the most versus taking a job you love and would do for free, acknowledge that sometimes you’re going to feel that each way is or was the best choice and that’s okay. There are parts of you that want to be in a relationship and parts that don’t – the pain is only going to come if you keep wishing the vote was unanimous.

You might feel good saying you love someone and would do anything for them but if four of your other impulses gang up on that one it’s not going to work out for you.

So be careful of the stimuli you feed yourself, be careful of the impulses you give veto power to, and be careful not to think you’re complicated because you’re confused or confused because you’re complicated.

Posted in Pop Culture

Second guessing vs audience guessing

The Freudian super ego is misunderstood. It’s not about a huge ego it’s about the social mirror, the audience effect.

An effect that in all previous societies was turned off most of the time which we now have access to all of the time.

I’m accessing it right now as I’m writing this because I know it’s going to be read and furthermore because it’s not anonymous.

I don’t think the perpetual audience effect is good for anyone. The fame hungry can try to gorge themselves and the neurotic can micro analyze themselves to death.

We live in a time when everyone is needy and almost no one is needed.

We no longer need to convince other people we’re good to feel good about ourselves, we just to need to pass our own internal audience test, it doesn’t matter what anyone else actually thinks because we know no one is actually thinking about us, as long as we can convince ourselves that we’d think it about us if we were someone else.

I haven’t posted a Facebook status in a long time. They’re worse than pointless, they’re an insult to the reader and the author even when they’re utterly banal. I don’t need to be making tepid identity statements to a mixed bag of people I don’t want an opinion from. That’s literally the purpose of designs on t-shirts.

I’ll just rant a little bit about facebook comments for a while longer and I can get away with it here rather than there because once you clicked over to read this you were no longer in quick scan mode – if you were you wouldn’t be this far. Here you and I are at a table, I’m talking and you’re listening – on social media we’re at an extremely crowded table, your brain doesn’t want to miss anything so it picks up tiny bits and moves on. That’s why you internally sigh when you see a post in paragraphs, it’s asking more than your brain wants to give in the situation.

With short posts that are accessible they still have the problem of being annoying if they’re about something and annoying if they’re not. An example of not about something is sharing a meme about your cousin was your best childhood friend with a like and share if you agree. If you do that you clearly don’t have a self.

Posts that are about something have a head space problem: If you say something in person to a friend about having a bad day they’ll pick up signals if you’re susceptible to cheering up or if you need patience and empathy. On FB however they’ll go with whatever head space they’re in without deducing yours and the chances of a comment feeling so off-base it’s insulting are basically 50/50. Whether it’s a lighten up or a hugs, feel better it’s still helpless drivel.

I’ll try and put the FB portion of this to bed by pointing out that no one enjoys it anymore, if in fact we enjoyed it ever. Everyone hates Facebook we just take it for granted that we’ll miss out on things if we don’t have it. Which isn’t quite true, it’s just the feeling of getting a second hand invitation when someone asks if you’re going to a thing you hadn’t heard of yet feels vulnerable.

However I do think there is good audience effect, getting back on point. I’m getting preoccupied with recording everything in some fashion, in blog, in song, in podcast, or on video. If we didn’t have mirrors we might never look good, turning on a tape recorder makes people think about what they think. That’s why I write this blog, it focuses the hundreds of jumbled thoughts I generate in a morning into a line of reason that either makes sense and gets fleshed out or into mental guck that needs to get cleaned out so I can not bring it to other thoughts throughout the day. Like the best way to learn something is to teach it, the best way to think is to essay about it.

To truly explore a thought, to essay about it as I’m now verbing the term, it has to start private and go public, starting public – like writing something directly to social media or talking off the top of your head to a table full of people – doesn’t allow for honest reflection, it just turns your knee-jerk, end-result, over-simplified opinion into a commodity no one was offering to buy.

As does commenting on anything.

Posted in Depression & Suicide, Pop Culture, Pragmatism

Nostalgia: escapism vs narrative

I’ve expressed my disgust with nostalgia repeatedly and I’ve  often talked about the sense of life-narrative I carry and assume we all do.

The early meaning of nostalgia is pain of the heart, close to what we’d call bitter sweet. From there it became whimsical and then it became escapism.

From there childish escapism mutated further to become brightly coloured candy shop kitsch but that’s outside the current point.

I do feel a yearning for nostalgia, I walk through my old neighborhood and try to look at exactly the same things I looked at eleven years ago, not in the hope of feeling exactly the same but to feel a value in the difference between now and then.

And what I’m scared of finding is a meaninglessness in that difference.

We all hope we’re getting wiser as we age. But what if I’m so wise now that who I used to be is meaningless? Living in the present is a popular virtue but what if you acknowledged that your childhood was meaningless? Amnesiacs live in the moment and they don’t seem too stoked. Why? No sense of narrative to give the moment meaning.

The other, current sense of nostalgia is escapism, aspiring to be amnesiac. To emerse yourself in childish things as much as possible (and while drunk and high) to block out any feeling that moment you are living in matters, as an attempt to go back, even for a few minutes.

And if you acknowledge that you can’t go back yet still feel a whimsical tugging in your heart that’s classical nostalgia.

Strange how years get stream lined down to one feeling. Anyone who’s spent too much time with a friend and had things go sour only to declare it the best summer ever a few years later knows what I’m talking about.

I probably never had a bad time at the Seanachie. In a few years of drinking there, a few years of working there, and then a few years of drinking there again. Yet going there again I feel no whimsy, no nostalgia, no sweet and not even any bitter. Just amnesia. The staff has all changed a hundred times and anyone who remembers me is also not remembered there. That’s to be expected. What’s sad is that I feel no connection anymore, something that over time felt so good and so bad now feels glaringly indistinguishable, even when the view from the barstool is exactly the same.

The question is: have I changed so much that I’ve alienated my narrative sense of self or have I simply not changed and feel morose at the lack of growth?

If we only measure growth by the esteem of others than that isn’t growth, that’s performance. If we only measure growth by feelings of positive change than that’s not growth that’s delusion.

And if we view the past as part of our story that’s good nostalgia, but if we view the past as a place to retreat to, then we’re not growing, we’re just aging in secret.

Posted in Pop Culture, Pragmatism

What ‘slut’ actually means

Men call a woman slut if she’s giving sexual attention he wants to someone else, even if that someone is imaginary.

Women call women sluts when they’re getting attention they want, even if that attention is imaginary.

But that’s how slut is used, not what the word means.

As a lover of words I really like Slut. It’s a power word. You can draw out those first three letters as long as you want and then punch that T nice and clear. Do it, it’s fun.

And slut is in the club of words that a group has tried to ‘take back’, to own in a way that implies strength.

Skank is kind of a fun word but it’s never going to get that level of power and nuance. Although I am seeing some use of hoe in a lighthearted, non-condemning way so we’ll see on that one.

Also I treat Instagram as the pulse of youth nation.

Anyway back to them sluts. I think the word slut means selling yourself low. Like if you hang out with someone you don’t like because they have beer, you’d be kind of a beer slut, but if you also didn’t like or make any distinction about the kind of beer they were offering then you’d truly be a slut.

So calling someone a slut for rejecting sexual advances makes no sense. If they were a slut they would have accepted your advance even though you’re clearly not a prize. It’s a meaningless insult. Meaningless insults disgust me, I say go for the meaningful ones if you’re a baller.

Calling someone a slut for receiving attention you want is a bit trickier. It’s implying that she is only getting the attention because the giver feels an elevated chance of success. The meaning is that the accuser is more discerning than the accused. It’s a petty self-defense mechanism. It’s saying she has all the attention but I have all the standards so I’m actually better. It’s just kind of shitty to throw another woman under the bus in order to feel that way.

The positive thing to do if you feel that way is know that instead of focusing on broad appeal you have a specific value and that means that although you may meet fewer people when you do meet someone they’re usually right for you because they’re not drawn by something superficial. Fulfillment comes not from having the most open options but from making single, strong, meaningful choices.

Again, back to them sluts. The Last Living Slut by Roxana Shirazi (good read, mixed feelings, which is what you want out of an interesting book) tries to make slut an empowering self-identifier. And I’m not sure it works and neither does the Ho Is Life trope but what it does is highlight that we don’t have a word for a woman who likes sex and is in control. Shirazi only sleeps with rock stars. That’s a high selling bench mark and furthermore she makes fun of girls who sleep with roadies to get close to stars, which is actually selling low and therefore calling them actual sluts. I’ve known women who have sex with exactly whoever they want and no one else and we just don’t have a short hand term for that.

I don’t have a firm answer on the use in the context of the Slut Walk or Riot Grrls writing SLUT on themselves at shows. They’re not trying to turn the word into a positive, they’re taking a label given to them and throwing it back in the giver’s face by wearing it. Which, I think, reminds the giver of the humanity of the labelled person. Instead of turning the other cheek it’s turning the same cheek back so the person has to think about the fact that they just slapped you.

Posted in Gender, Pop Culture

Right and Left, Individuals and Monoliths

Have you noticed on the traditional (and outdated) spectrum of left and right politically that the left, with all its notions of collectivism is fractured and never achieves any kind of unity, while the right manages to act legion despite their obsession with individualism?

On the modern left it’s just a mess. Every possible demographic claiming to oppressed and misunderstood by every other and the confusion of what’s an ally and what’s a sycophant. But it was just as true in the way back when as Marxists, Marxists-Leninists, Trotsky-ites, and socialist democrats argued endlessly with Anarchists and the only people who got things done were totalitarians.

There’s a million places talking about what’s wrong on the left, a lot of them run by leftists and liberals, so I’ll short-hand it.

What I find interesting and what no one seems to talk about is what’s right on the right. Not economically, of course because that’s essentially nothing, but in terms of organization from the grassroots to the elites. And I suspect the focus on individuality makes it possible. People on the right don’t worry if someone agrees with them on every exact thing, they care deeply about a few things and leave as much as they can to personal discretion.

On the right you have to be extremely, overtly racist before they figure you’re more harm than good. On the left you just have to be accusable, you get excommunicated for not being not-racist enough. You have to be so not-racist race is all you think about.

On the right there are as many or more people who hate cops. All those truck driving rebels who think justice is best handled by whiskey-fueled gut instinct are in and out of custody a hundred to one on anyone who’d call themselves a leftist. Yet the left, who are the most polite law abiding people generally go on and on about cops being instruments of oppression and kick them out of their events, won’t do the essential community building that means dealing with local police.

This illustrates the crux of the issue. The modern leftist view of identity and demographic treats cops as legion, as a racist hive mind, and the entire institution of policing as a single, broken, lever of society.

The right takes a nuanced view on cops right now. Cops are people and some people are bad, some people are inexperienced, some people are burned out, some people are doing an unpopular job for nowhere near the money they could get in private security. Every situation needs to be weighed a lot of ways. Yet the left views cops in a monolithic way they accuse the mainstream of viewing Islam. I’ll go for a wicked paraphrase and say not all cops are racist and not all racists are cops. If you get outraged at a photo of a cop displaying “Infinite patience” with a gun wielding white guy you’re being a simpleton, you see evidence of racism in the fact that men of different ages, locations, and experience make different choices despite wearing the same shirt to work.

The left has this strange phenomenon of breaking itself into smaller and smaller, hyper specific groups while always claiming the needs of the many…

Even the concept of Intersectionality, which was supposed to bring everyone together in their grievance against… well, everything, just became a way of kicking white women out of feminism, and anyone not trans out of the gender rights movement. It’s the takfir of the left (look it up).

And maybe the core of the problem is the left usually defines itself against things and the mainstream right defines itself by what it’s for. Which makes the right susceptible to manipulation as simple as gun manufacturers getting the NRA to nudge America and say hey, you’re for gun rights, aren’t cha? Even framing a debate as pro-life shows the notion of being for something so strongly you ignore the consequences.

A lot of my anti-right bias is still creeping into this. And that’s the meta problem on the left. Communism takes hold when it’s for the workers but it falls apart when it’s just about hating the rich.

Furthermore I see this in every layer of discourse. There are extremely few people piping up with good ideas or even engaging honestly, we’re inundated with voices that have nothing to offer except their disagreement.

Posted in Pop Culture

The Delusion Of Impartiality

It’s often presented that men are out of touch with their emotions and woman are the opposite in touch. Or it’s presented that woman are overly emotional and men are not.

I don’t see evidence of these claim at all.

What I see is some people think they are impartial and some people do not. It’s not that people are in or out of touch with their feelings, or that some people are overpowered by their emotions while other’s have them ‘under control’.

The difference is that some people think they are so aware and so baseline impartial that their feelings are purely dependent on the situation and therefore always appropriate and therefore there’s no point in examining them.

Let’s use an absurd example to keep this fun.

You and a friend, a friend with delusions of impartiality, own very similar shoes.

One day you tell them they are wearing your shoes and they say they are not. Already the delusion of impartiality is showing, they don’t feel wrong so they don’t accept the honest possibility that are. As the conversation goes on they start getting upset.

Second phase is saying they’re not upset, they’re just correcting what you said. Now maybe you’re totally spineless and you walk off mutter that they are your shoes but you just don’t want to fight about it and you vent to everyone else who will listen while never dealing with the actual problem again but let’s hope you’re not that person.

Then phase three, they admit that they are upset but it’s only because of what you said and how you aren’t listening.

At this point they’ll start pulling other things you’ve said or done into the conversation, airing grievances past or attacking your character.

It’s not arrogance per se that makes people reinforce their feeling of correctness with increasingly shitty tricks, it’s fear.

True arrogance would respond to those are my shoes with yeah, I’m borrowing them. Delusions of impartiality respond with remember when you were wrong about O.J? You always do this.

Now let’s say the conversation goes on and you prove the friend was wearing your shoes. This where they’ll pivot. Because they have to maintain the idea that they are impartial, they are not emotional, they still have to somehow have been right. So they’ll look passed the fact that you were factually right and justify being angry because at the time it really looked like the shoes belonged to them.

A truly impartial person would say you were right and I was wrong, someone with delusions of impartiality will act like no one was right, it was all up in the air until they decided it wasn’t.

You hear the accusation leveled at a lot of people that they always think they’re right. Which of course they do, we all do, no one walks around holding onto to opinions they assume are wrong. The always right accusation actually comes after when the person starts twisting after being shown the truth and they still need a way to feel right. Sometimes that means moving the goal posts, claiming relativism, or in the case of delusions of impartiality saying that they were only acting the way they did because you were acting the way you did, or whatever other external forces caused them to. It’s the last defense against admitting that their emotions can be dismissed the same way they dismiss the emotions of others.

Posted in Pragmatism