The not-so-shocking news that Lou Reed’s body finally gave up on him came earlier this week. I didn’t expect to be moved in any way, but I rather was. I usually don’t ascribe to the rock star cult of personality. After all, these aren’t people I know directly and love in tangible ways. That said, I have felt mournful about it, affected in the same way I was when Adam Yaucht from The Beastie Boys died a couple years ago. I’m not sure how connected the two actually are, but I ascribe my sense of loss to a broader nostalgia about my own past that is now gone. Yaucht was the most soulful member of a group that filled my childhood and high school days with so many beloved memories. Lou Reed was something else entirely.
I first remember Lou Reed because I hated the song “Dirty Boulevard.” It was a staple for a couple of months in the late 1980s on MTV, and I for the *life of me* could not understand why that crappy song was being played on MTV when they could have been using every free moment to show “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard (or any of the other six videos from their Hysteria album). As an unironic lover of cock-rock in the late 1980s (I was 12 and 13 years old after all), Skid Row and Motley Crue and Guns ‘n Roses just seemed so much more cool, violent, and fun-loving than this droll, gross looking man complaining about New York.
But Lou Reed was there as a constant. I was the one in flux, moving out of my small town, going through a gangsta rap phase in a new school (hello N.W.A., bye bye Sebastian Bach), and then finally landing back where my music education had started…The Beatles. My dad told me not to listen to the blue Greatest Hits album (Beatles 1967-1970) because that was the one with all the drug songs. Of course there is nothing better for a teenage boy than forbidden fruit. I immersed myself in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “I Am the Walrus,” “A Day in the Life,” and all the other epics of the late Beatles. I had crossed into dangerous territory. Or so I thought.
Around sophomore year in high school, Andy Green, my academic rival and arch-nemesis, mentioned off hand that I should check out The Velvet Underground. Being a good rural boy, I had of course never heard of them. Still, with such an iron tip from a social and cultural rival, I decided to buy their Greatest Hits tape at the mall. The first chords of “I’m Waiting for the Man” struck and I was done. It’s simple jingle jangle, its lack of ostentation, the way the singer said “26 dollars…in my haaanndd,” and even its droll stand-offishness just sent me to the moon. Where had this been my entire life?
Then I got to “Heroin.” And my father had the audacity to label The Beatles’ late music as their drug songs. This, my friends, is a drug song. This song represents the exact moment when I figured out that form could mirror function in art. When Lou Reed sings, “And I put that spike into my vein, and I knew that things won’t be the same,” the music comes up in its own rush. Sterling Morrison’s guitar moves from its langorous drone to mimic the rush of opiates into the body, the heat comes up and you can feel the spoon and the body burning with the lust to feel that way, if only for a moment. “Heroin” never once made me consider trying said drug. What it did, was open my eyes to a new arena of authenticity. The whole topic was just so taboo. As a D.A.R.E. kid from the 1980s, I wasn’t used to such a brazen distaste for authority. With Lou Reed and his heroin songs, there was no moralizing and no glorification. The act simply just was. He did heroin, he sang about it, and then he went looking for more. Or at least the characters in his songs did. What else could “Waiting for the Man” and “Sunday Morning” be about? It’s about that evil, blank search for that needed score.
The Velvet Underground is surely more than just Lou Reed. John Cale’s electric viola in “Venus in Furs,” Nico’s odd plaintive voice in “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” Maureen Tucker’s minimalist drumming sans symbols (see “Foggy Notion” for a great driving Maureen song) – all contributed to this feeling of discovery that knocked me on my ass. You were supposed to like The Beatles. Hell, you were encouraged to like The Beatles as the safe rock institution they were and continue to be. John may have been a sarcastic deviant, but good boy Paul McCartney was still there to reign in the weirdness and maintain that critical-commercial posture their work always maintained. The Velvet Underground just destroyed that paradigm for me. Their albums had sold nothing at all. Their most well-known song was about the most taboo of all drugs. But when I opened their gateway, they flowed unto me like a powerful drug.
From the Velvets came Iggy Pop and then The Sex Pistols and The Clash. For a boy who grew up in a small town with no record store, these groups offered startling revelations from underground cultures that I would never meet or understand. They were rebels. Mostly, they clung maniacally to their authenticity. Or even better, they literally didn’t think about it. They rarely made compromises and stayed hidden as a result. When notoriety reached them, they wilted. They had no songs like “She Loves You.” No “Honey Pie” or “Martha, My Dear” or tender “Julia” (although I’ll put “Pale Blue Eyes” up against any love song ever written). This was music without filters.
By the time I got around to “Sister Ray,” I thought I knew what the Velvets were all about. I’m never quite sure what “Sister Ray said,” but it usually comes on the heels of a fiery screeching guitar solo amid a frenzy of noise, and it lasts for an eternity. The monolothic, overpowering drone would some day turn into “Metal Machine Music,” but to my naive teenage years it was the next logical step on from “Heroin.” Music without limits or forms. I mean, what exactly is “Sister Ray”? I knew then that how peopled pre-determined and pre-defined forms for anything – my life, music, writing – simply did not matter. Forms only mattered if you allowed them to matter. I’ve still never experienced quite another musical moment anything like that first time I listened to “Sister Ray” through my headphones in the upstairs room of my parents’ house next to the Burger King. It’s a deadly menacing march. Later I would appreciate Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” and most of the great extended jams in the Phish catalog because that track made me fall in love with musical adventure. Here was noise as narrative. No need for Dylan and all of his incredible lyrics and multiple verses. I can still hang with “Desolation Row” and its ilk, but the realization that noise told the story convinced me that the world was full of such non-literal narratives. Listening to music could be an epic journey, a Tolkien-esque foray into a world of sensation, a place where my imagination could frame the action because the words weren’t already boxing it into a form. “Sister Ray” has words, but the guitars have the voice.
I could go on. Endlessly for that matter. The subtle and beautiful tracks on The Velvet Underground’s eponymous release are worthy of more attention than they get. I could pontificate for hours about Loaded even though it is the least Lou Reed influenced of the four cardinal albums by the group. Even if he already had one foot out the door, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” will stand forever as timeless classics. And don’t even get me started on “Cool It Down”… Maybe that’s how I’ll choose to remember the man actually: “
Cause you know you betta cooooolllll, iiiittt dooooowwwwn.” The voice is just unmistakable. I may be naive, but Lou Reed’s voice was cool precisely because it wasn’t affected. I bought his authenticity. No one will ever capture that lightning in a bottle ever again. It took Lou Reed to do that trick and the rest of the pretenders have been trying to capture it ever since.
I don’t know how much authority I can claim to know anything about Kanye West. I’ve listened to all his albums, but only know Yeezus and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with any surety. I’m a recent convert. I’m a suburban white middle age dude. For some reason, though, Kanye has a grip on me. He both fascinates me and terrifies me. He is both apocalypse and renaissance, the end of moral decency and an unvarnished creative force. He is a living, breathing paradox of his own creation.
I got on my recent Kanye kick after talking last week with Cyndell Perkins-Prewitt, one of my AP juniors. She asked me what tracks I liked off of Yeezus. I immediately shot back that “On Sight” and “Blood on the Leaves” were my favorites. I debated in my head about “Hold Your Liquor,” but decided I really only liked the beat in that track. Anyway, she told me that her favorite song was “New Slaves.” So I threw on my headphones to walk home for lunch and popped on that track. I have to say that it is pretty sweet, but I had to wonder why a teenage girl would love a song whose main chorus goes like this: “I’d rather be a leader than a follower/ I’d rather be a d*** than a swallower.” There are other lyrics, but I couldn’t get past Kanye’s misogynistic moment and his constant need to talk about his manhood. And why would a high school girl find his egotistical rants interesting? Why do I agree?
In fact, Kanye’s fixation with lyrically describing his d*** and/or balls is one of the few constants in the furiously innovative soundscape of the Kanye West catalog. Sometimes, his lyrics can be so ridiculous that I question my own integrity, my own preference, my own drive to listen to recorded music. I am thrown into an endless whirlpool of Kan-sanity. I question whether I can still be a good father. I laugh at demeaning jokes toward women and others. I indulge some sophomoric fantasy within my workaday life. I see myself chillin’ with Rick Ross, watching a fat black man roll blunts and sing about bitches and money. I wonder if I am becoming the “Monster” Kanye, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Jay-Z and Bon Iver sing about on My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy.
I hate to trundle out that dead warhorse Sigmund Freud, but Kanye embodies everything that Freud thought about the id. He is pure reckless, animal instinct. I loath his swaggering sexuality. I also drink it up. If most of us spend our time living a proper life, Kanye is the opposite. He’s a man without a filter, a cock looking for a home, a rooster unafraid to crow about himself. He exists so often on impulse alone that part of you can’t do anything but admire the attempt. If we are all men of appetites – for food, sex, vanity – then Kanye is who we are but hide. Admittting one’s gluttony for women or a feast is just not polite. Thank God we have Kanye to speak for that half of our brains. He does not care a lick.
Of course, so much of Kanye’s work takes place within a mediascape of his own creation. He’s both savvy to it and willfully ignorant of it. He shapes norms and breaks norms. He creates alternate universes all his own. He leaves you to ask the big questions: Is Kanye appealing because he so willfully goes against what is right? Or does he willfully go against what is right just because he knows that is what sells records to the repressed masses? Is he a jagoff or a genius? Understanding where the authentic Mr. West begins and the Legend of Yeezy ends is impossible. After all, the title Yeezus does link the legend in his own mind to Christ himself. I’m still twisting back and forth whether the title is just a braggadocio’s blaspheme or a brilliant invocation of the sinner-saint duality that lies within each of us.
I also can’t figure out if the whole walking paradox thing is a plan or a coincidence. I’d feel ashamed if he was an idiot rather than a genius. I’d also be offended if he was a genius instead of a plain idiot. If Kanye West is what genius looks like these days, then brace yourself for the coming apocalypse. Of course, you could also argue that Kanye is our savior, a creative malcontent with the brass balls to check us out of our habits and our compromises, a genius malefactor meant to recharge our limp spirits and fading sexual bravado with enough brash male ego to get us through our workaday lives. You be the judge.
“A School Poem”
It felt like a school poem
With all the talk of rhythm,
Meter, rhyme and reason,
The little pitter-patter of
Anapestic feet on well-worn
It felt like a school poem
As it built to a crescendo,
A defined moment of greatness
With nary a space for surprise
Or a nascent sense of life in
Its chilled innards.
It felt like a school poem
Because I had to write it,
I had to spring the words out
On command, at the urging
Of a bellow, a force fed
Gift to the muses.
It felt like a school poem,
For how can these tears have
Any choice in the matter?
They loan themselves at interest,
Assign their bloody trajectory,
With no regard for my feelings.
It felt like a school poem,
But it was not that at all.
It rang with strife and shouted
For eviction, ordering its way
Out of my blunted skull – a demand
Without my approval.
On December 31, 1999 I witnessed one of the most ground-breaking and incredible rock concerts in music history. For their New Year’s Eve show, Phish decided to play a two night festival at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian reservation in the Florida Everglades. The concert and the festival that surrounded it were notable for many reasons. It was the fourth in a series of 60,000+ person festivals that Phish had thrown (preceded by The Clifford Ball in 1996, The Great Went in 1997, and The Lemonwheel in 1998). Despite no Top 40 hit or mainstream notoriety, Phish managed to sell an absurd amount of tickets to festivals held in far flung venues and with themselves as the only performers. No traveling caravan of bands like Lollapalooza. Just Phish, three sets each day, and minimal interruption from the civilized universe.
Each of the preceding three festivals before Big Cypress had tweaked some of the forms surrounding a rock and roll show. Big Cypress took Phish’s entire career and advanced it to a surreal conclusion: on the night that ended the millenium they promised to play from midnight to sunrise. I was at the Phish show in Columbus, Ohio on July 23rd when they made the official announcement, but even then people still couldn’t quite believe it. Were they really going to play all night long? Was that even allowed? Or humanly possible?
The demolition of the rock concert “form” took enough convincing that Trey Anastasio, Phish’s lead singer, announced to the crowd of 75,000 at the end of the December 31st afternoon set that they were indeed going to play all night. He advised us all to get some rest.
We would all need it. Phish’s Big Cypress performance is now part of rock and roll myth. Around 11:30 pm, the stage lit up and a figure dressed as Father Time started riding a bicycle on stage, setting the entire apparatus in motion. Phish emerged just before midnight, fed Father Time some meatsticks, played Auld Lang Syne and then vanished into the deep. Reconstructing the entire experience is difficult for anyone involved. No official recording has ever been released. There was no video release (even though they filmed the entire concert). Trey recently said in a recent Rolling Stone interview that he has never listened to the show nor will he ever. It has become the band’s idealized pinnacle, a set embraced with warts and all because it was the ultimate challenge to establishment thinking.
There was a balloon drop, a Down With Disease complete with fireworks, a full band vocal jam on Bathtub Gin, a break-in from ABC News where Phish played Heavy Things to a world-wide audience, a ridiculous 30 minute version of The Velvet Underground’s Rock and Roll, a shaded interlude where the dude in front of me screamed maniacally for the Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless,” an incredible twenty minutes where they totally played his song and took it all the way to the top, an absolutely inventive moment where the Who’s “Drowned” segued back into “After Midnight” (which had been played as the encore of the afternoon set), going to the bathroom around 3:00 am during a groovy 40 minute jam of Sand into Quadrophonic Topplings, seeing David Bowie breath fire at 4:30 am in the morning, reeling in amazement as Piper reared its ugly head in savage and beautiful glory around 5:00 am, the chugging ambient glory of Ween’s Roses are Free played into droning bliss sometime before sunrise, the beauty of the pink sunrise as it came over the trees, Wading in the Velvet Sea becoming a classic, the one Page couldn’t even sing at Coventry because of this memory, the reprise of the Meatstick, the knowledge that we weren’t going to set a Guinness Book of World Records group dance record that night, but that we had experienced something much more gratifying and worthwhile than we could ever have imagined. As we all filed out, there was nary a sound. The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” rang out over the loudspeakers. There was no encore. The emotion was…silence. No one spoke about what had just happened. Walking out was the grand implied gratification of our young lives.
The above paragraph makes sense to Phish fans. To most, it is utter nonsense. Neither feeling especially matters. Looking back on it now, what matters is the challenge of it all. They played all night long. Some people may have seen that a club or in some long ago reality where bands got to play all night long. But nowhere at no time is a major rock band in this day and age taking that risk. Bruce Springsteen plays long shows, but they still exist within the form. Pearl Jam just played from Midnight to 2:30 am at Wrigley Field after thunderstorms threatened cancellation. But no one does eight hours. It’s a form buster.
Looking back now at the multitudes of Phish shows I’ve seen, I realize that their challenges to existing forms are my major philosophical reason for loving the band. They play long. They play lots of covers. They appropriate Zappa and Dadaism and Surrealism and a myriad of other influences into their own truly original stew. Even 30 years in, they still challenge existing forms. Last week in Chicago, they brought the improv players of Second City onstage for a 22 minute rendition of Harpua, a Phish rarity. The performance was kicked off by Trey responding to a sign in the audience that read “Poster Nutbag: The Right Way.” To summarize, Poster Nutbag is the character Jimmy’s cat. By the end of each Harpua, usually through some kind of attack, Poster Nutbag dies. En route, the band usually sings some outrageous cover. In this particular version, the band brought the Second City players onstage to mock the idea that they often fail to play things the right way – the right songs, the right length of songs, the perfect set list flow, the perfect show. It was a classic Phish meta-moment, aimed at the small minority of online critics (see the Phantasy Tour message board) that make it their business to bitch about everything the band does. Again, you had to ask, are we at a rock concert? Are vacuum solos and trampoline jams and multi-beasts really part of the acceptable rock vernacular? What is this thing they are doing onstage right now?
Phish has asked these questions for 30 years, and they have always encouraged me to ask them of myself. As a good kid growing up, I always followed the rules. As a 36 year old man, I’ve grown to have a healthy distrust for forms. My favorite question to the authorities that run my life is always, why does it have to be this way? Why do I have to fill out this form? Have you ever thought there would be a better way to motivate students? Is there a better way to teach writing? Does the ACT really measure anything valuable? Isn’t it healthy to question whether college is the only option? Why is 90 miles a week not an acceptable running volume for a high school senior? Why do we accept the format of radio stations these days? Why should I buy a smartphone and learn to text? Most of these questions can be answered simply: that’s the way most people choose to do it.
The key word in this whole series of questions is “choose.” Most people choose to follow forms. That’s because forms are comfortable. They give a comfortable payoff, something akin to all of the other payoffs they have ever given before. They guarantee some advanced version of mediocrity. They guarantee an experience just above the mute button. Maybe a couple ticks of volume. But surely, no heat.
I ran a sophomore Gifted class once with 13 students. We tried to follow the form of a “class” for the first month or so. I handed out some projects and took rigid attendance. Somewhere around the second month, we decided to do a project where each of us brought in a song or two that expressed something vital about who we were. We shut off the lights, laid on the floor in the dark, and listened to each other’s music. The CDs were anonymous so we had to guess whose it was and then proceed to discuss the music from there. From there, we grew an even better conversation: Would it be acceptable to run an entire class on the principle of getting to know each other as well as possible?
No one needs to be intellectually gifted to do that. In fact, anyone could be in a class that disdained the traditional subject matter for an attempt to truly know each other. From that point on, we gave up on functioning as a “class.” We swore. We confessed deep fears. We cried over relationships with our mothers. We attended the funeral visitation of a local Marine, James Stack, who was killed in Afghanistan. We organized a care package drive so that every member of his unit received a random gift from our class. We listened to each other rant and rave, we found inspiration in our flaws, and we finished the year as friends who had been through an experience rather than a class.
Not soon after that class, our school district cut the Gifted program as we knew it. They wanted something more defined, something with more rigor, something with more…form. I’m glad we rode it until it bucked us. The fourteen people who were members of that class will be close for life. It was memorable and risky and lazy and inspiring and unforgettable. It was the exact opposite of everything that most of us had ever experienced during school. I feel safe in saying that it was the pinnacle of my teaching career.
Forms are like the minimum wage of life. They pay a set amount, but no jackpots. They keep the follower on a steady path, but never let him see the mountaintop. Sometimes, a person needs to bet big and challenge the box he chooses to construct himself within. The world is never happier than when the individual chooses his box. The world is even happier to present forms as the only course of action and then watch the vital man starve with the malnourishment of the slight offerings. When I had to get married in the Catholic church, the priest informed me that I had many choices from the Catholic script about what vows I wanted to say to my wife. They had seven choices. Seven. None of them expressed anything I would ever have said to my wife. Be careful of the illusion of choice. It often obscures the beauty there is to be had if you just would have parted the underbrush and looked out the other side.
On Friday this week, my wife and I are taking our entire family to see Weird Al Yankovic for Christopher’s fifth birthday party. It’s not your normal childhood birthday. I’m reminded all the time about the importance of putting my kids in youth sports, enrolling them in as many extra-curricular activities as possible, pushing them to read and write better before it’s even their time to do such things. How come no one ever reminds me how important Weird Al is? He dared to be stupid a long time ago. He invented a form where it’s okay to play your accordion, sing medleys of polka songs, ridicule the rich and famous, bring joy to millions, and every now and then write an incredible original song like “Albuquerque.” Weird Al is worth it because he challenged the forms. I’m sure he was told, “You can’t make a career out of this. You’ll be a joke. No one makes a living that way.” Except Weird Al. Point taken.
When I was in Colorado with the cross country team this summer, torrential downpours inundated Palatine. We had a record amount of rainfall and flash floods plagued the area around the high school. My neighborhood was especially hard hit that Monday. When Meg Harahan, our nominal housesitter, stopped by on Wednesday, she found that our basement was flooded. Hundreds of miles away in Estes Park, Colorado, Meredith and I felt helpless. We could smell the mold and mildew growing from afar. The next day Meg called back. She and Paul and Jan Herzog had moved all of our possessions, cut up our carpeting, and removed everything from the basement. I was bowled over by the gesture. In my entire life, I have never had anyone do something so selfless and giving for me.
My wife and I had no idea how to thank Meg and the Herzogs. Most of us wouldn’t want to do that kind of work on our own house much less someone else’s. Their charitable actions reminded me of a great quote from late in Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: ”If we start to call online spaces where we are with other people ‘communites,’ it is easy to forget what the word used to mean. From its derivation, it literally means ‘to give among each other.’ It is good to have this in mind as a standard for online places” (238). Giving of oneself online may involve a comment or some distant emotional support. Giving of oneself in a real community sometimes entails cutting out musty carpeting.
The distinction matters. Meg, Paul, Jan, myself, and countless others are part of the Early Bird Running community. Each summer we get together at 6:00 am and run, five days a week, Monday through Friday for much of the summer. Paul and Jan have chaperoned trips for the girls cross country team. Both of their kids, Josh and Rachel, ran for the Palatine cross country teams. Meg has been the coach of our little kids in the program for 3-4 summers now. She also ran for the Palatine girls cross country team. They are just three of the vital cogs in our community. I have established similar bonds of loyalty and hard work with other Early Birders such as Trudy Hoyer, Scott and Diana Starcevich, Bevan Das, Kristin Jordan, Dick Guthrie, and many others. These people are not figments of some virtual world. They are real people I commune with each summer. When I needed help most, they were there for me. No ignoring my e-mails. No screening my calls. There.
Turkle draws a great deal of info from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Touchstone Books by Simon and Schuster, 2001). Putnam’s book charts the ramifications of our decline in civic participation. Although a bit dry, he shows through exhaustive research just how much our participation in civic associations has atrophied. More and more, we do not gather in churches, American Legions, women’s auxiliary groups, softball leagues, or community running programs. I’m sure many readers can point to some of their memberships and argue with that point, but the averages do not lie. Americans today are less involved in their communities than ever before.
This detachment from the traditional bonds of society has vast implications for communities nation-wide. Nowadays I can complain about the status of my basement on Facebook, but be less sure that anyone would answer my appeals. After all, my flood is just another item in the news feed that day. I’m just one of thousands of friends when my family and I need to be the only one. It’s like ignoring a person’s suicidal ideation on Facebook: A broad appeal to a mass of “friends,” a cry for help in a community of thousands, but one with too little chance of success. Real community means that sometimes you have to cut the carpet and sometimes you need to drive over to your friend’s house and deal with their messy reality.
I crave that kind of intimacy. I don’t want to be held at arms length or ignored in a see of Tweets. When it is time for a community to work for each other, we can’t do it through a device. We just need to stand up and do it. No more hiding behind the screen or being distracted by the next click. Turkle writes: ” These days, as a continuous stream of texts becomes a way of life, we may say less to each other because we imagine that what we say is almost already a throwaway. Texts, by nature telegraphic, can certainly be emotional, insightful, and sexy. They can lift us up. They can make us feel understood, desired, and supported. But they are not a place to deeply understand a problem or to explain a complicated situation. They are momentum. They fill a moment” (168). Intimate communities stand the test of time.
The notion of an intimate community is paradoxical, but it makes sense. We need people in our life who support us and help us through the tough times whether those people are siblings, friends, wives, husbands, or Early Bird runners. I have given my life and my energy to the running community at Palatine High School. I’ve written recommendation letters for the sons and daughters, seen many through their successes and failures, and shed more than a few tears. I’ve been there when their grandparents died, when their girlfriends left them, and when they’ve achieved at their full potential. The community of people that run at Palatine High School, both on my team and in my summer program, mean the world to me. It is humbling to know that they were be there for me when I needed their help most. I hope I can pay all of them back someday.
So maybe the best way to pay back Meg, Paul, and Jan (outside of re-roofing their house or something, which I couldn’t do anyway) is to make sure that the community survives and that I continue to care my best for the people in it. Per Putnam’s research, such communities are increasingly rare and should be treasured. Most people these days – awash in connection and increasingly alone – have no access to such a powerful species of belonging. I wish they could feel the depth of the gratitude I felt this past June. I wish everyone could experience the safety of such intimate connection.
If we are to rediscover intimacy within our communities, we have to put down our phones and leave our screens behind. We have to get out the door and commune with others in real time. Paraphrasing Putnam, Turkle sees real communities “constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities” (239). No hiding. The price of intimacy is genuine emotional commitment to one another. Such commitments come with significant costs. Opening up to others could bring us to heartache or a scary species of emotion. But such connections are and forever have been our vehicles of uplift. Intimate connections are the risky buys of the human world. We might get burned by them from time to time, but they also open the door to the sublime. Or maybe just a clean basement.
I was being a lazy fool the other day. Unhappy with any of the food choices in my house, I decided to drive the five blocks to Panda Express and get myself some fast-food Chinese. “Fast food” was a bit of misnomer. I ended up waiting twenty minutes to order and get my food. Bored and with only my thoughts for company, I started an experiment. I grabbed a sheet of scratch paper and a pen from my car and began a poll of how many people were playing with their cell phones as they drove up to the Stop sign nearest to me in the parking lot.
My brief notes showed seven hits out of thirteen cars in the time span from 5:03-5:19. The perpetrators included six female and one male, including one woman who was “texting while lefting” – my new phrase for blowing a Stop sign while turning left and not looking. Another teenage girl in a Range Rover looked like she was having the time of her life as she typed madly into her phone with the music on full blast.
I perform this experiment everywhere I go. You can do it in the line at the supermarket, in a restaurant, in a bar, at the park. I don’t own a cell phone nor do I use one on a regular basis. My wife has a cell phone where we are forced to buy 50 minutes a month. We use it solely for road trips or babysitter calls. I have never sent a text, bought an app, or searched in my phone for the nearest anything. This lack of connectivity enables me to watch connectivity. It is one of my favorite activities.
Have you ever realized how intimate people are with their phones? I can’t get over the hyper-sexualization of the touch screen phone or the amount of care the users demonstrate. They fondle their phones in their hands. They make eye contact with them constantly, often sharing bemused grins, smiles, or scowls. They touch them lightly and delicately, stroking them with their thumbs and pushing buttons with great intensity. Many of the same touches and looks we share with our most intimate friends, family, or lovers are now given over to our phones. Most cell-phone users look like they are consoling a baby. So gentle. So engaged. Intimate.
I am by no means a Luddite. I’ve been publishing on the Internet for years, have a daily round of web sites that I read, have a Facebook account, and post to Twitter from time to time. A day without e-mail or computer connection is rare, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Connecting with others through the Internet is a vital way to build community in the 21st century. Check my last post on “Niche Communities” if you don’t believe me.
There is something amiss though with our smart phone culture. I’ve been a critic since the start and have backed my ill-feeling with a personal line in the sand – no smart phone, no texting, no grocery line zombie stare or thumb stroking. Much to most people’s amazement, I get along just fine without the burden of constant connection.
This intuitive critique led me recently to Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011). I truly believe that books come to me when I need them most. They provide a sense of clarity and depth to thoughts which already have begun to coalesce. A thirty year professor at MIT, Turkle began her career as a clinical psychologist before gaining interest in the cultural shifts surrounding humanity’s technology use.
I will use this entry and its follow-up not to critique Turkle’s book in formal fashion, but to discuss some of its key insights. I’ve divided it into two parts: “Part 1: The Lonely Connection” chronicles the downward spiral of human community in the face of constant connectivity while “Part 2: Rediscovering Intimacy” proposes some solutions within the current technological milieu.
Over the years, Turkle’s research has led her to a space of caution regarding technology. Much of Alone Together is a presentation of interviews she has conducted with various subjects over the years. She divides the book into two main sections, one on the impact of robot/AI technologies and the other on the impact of connectivity in its various forms. Honestly, I could have cared less about the first half. It lacked relevance to my experience and was ponderous to read as a result. I read 50 pages before skipping to section two for the main course.
Turkle opens her book with a simple critique: “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run” (1). Her use of the word “architect” is apropos. We rely on an inanimate object to be the primary building tool of our social selves. Reality is “on the run” because we immerse ourselves mentally and emotionally more often than ever before in worlds that do not exist with people who are not actually present. She writes, “A ‘place’ used to comprise a physical space and the people within it. What is a place if those who are physically present have their attention on the absent? At a cafe a block from my home, almost everyone is on a computer or smartphone as they drink their coffee. These people are not my friends, yet somehow I miss their presence ” (156).
In such ways, we have become “alone together.” We physically inhabit the same spaces as one another, but more and more often we conduct our communal interactions with those who are not physically present. Thus we have absent presence. Present absence. Choose your paradox as you will. We’ve all felt it. Turkle argues that all of us have become “pausable,” a nod to the moment when your conversation is interrupted by an intruding Myrtle Wilson crashing your avid conversation from long distance (161).
This interruption of our shared moments, this paradoxical dislocation of actual community within the face of virtual connection, provides Turkle her biggest pause. She worries that too often “the performance of connection seems connection enough” (9). We are constantly attuned to the many layers which now exist within our in-the-moment experiences. Too often, we substitute a distant quantity of attention for the present quality of it. The thousands of texts we exchange break up our moments alone and with each other into fractured bits. Even when we are present, we are elsewhere.
The implications of such behavior are vast. The seduction of instantaneous connection with everybody we know threatens to reduce our relationships to afterthoughts. Woe unto us all if we start to confuse the mechanics of constant communication with actual intimacy. John Lennon once sang that “life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” The great Beatle might have to amend that today to “life is what happens when we are busy playing on our phones.” Turkle writes, “…we cheapen the notion of companionship to a baseline of ‘interacting with something.’ We reduce relationships and come to see this reduction as the norm” (55).
Ouch. Who can’t relate to that? It doesn’t take much smart phone era rudeness to reduce a relationship. I take a group of cross country runners to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado each summer to train. We had to ban cell phones a year ago because an entire living room of teenage boys spent a mute hour in the main room of our lodge staring into their phones. Nevermind the mountains, the streams, or each other. It looked like a zombie takeover.
Turkle calls such magnetic attraction to our technologies the “unsettling isolation of the tethered self” (154). Like boats tied to our docks, we become less human and less capable of functioning in actual communities. We feel always connected, but hold the world at arm’s length. Turkle argues that “”One of the emotional affordances of digital communication is that one can always hide behind deliberated nonchalance” (198). Rather than calling another person, we can hide behind a text. Rather than dealing with difficult emotional issues, we can hide behind a screen name, content in our affected persona and enraptured by our online performance. Despite our urge to connect with an ever growing number of people, our capacity to deliver mute indifference has never been greater.
Connectivity makes intimacy convenient. At that point, it ceases to become intimacy at all. In an extended attack, Turkle writes, ”We struggle to raise children without the support of extended families. Many have left behind the religious and civic associations that once bound us together. To those who have lost a sense of physical connection, connectivity suggests that you make your own page, your own place. When you are there, you are by definition where you belong, among officially friended friends. To those who feel they have no time, connectivity…tempts by proposing substitutions through which you can have companionship with convenience” (157). Watch any smart phone toting parent at the park or on a walk with his or her kids, and you’ll see just how convenient our time together has become. To the woman texting while pushing her daughter in a swing last week at Lindberg Park, I’m sorry you missed it. Your distance has been duly noted.
Here is where Turkle really gets the bit between her teeth. Because we have accepted connected community as the new norm, we have settled for something far less satisfying. No amount of Skyping can make a family be together in the emotionally supportive ways that we need. No amount of texts can substitute for a lover’s touch. Facebook statuses cannot truly share your life with anyone. We have to live together and work together and love each other in the real to do any of that. I fear that we have become a culture of cowards, too chicken to declare our loves and engage with each other face-to-face. We may know more about each other’s whereabouts, habits, and Likes, but we now accept human communion in too many bite-sized portions rather than the whole meal.
In “Part Two: Rediscovering Intimacy,” I’ll work through both some of Turkle’s suggestions as well as a few of my own. Thanks for reading!
I was at the grocery store yesterday with my two older kids, looking for microwave-ready meals in the frozen food section. Down the aisle a guy in his late-20s with a beard was staring at me. As usual, my first reaction was, “What is my four year old doing now?” Instead, as I approached he simply went out of his way to say, “Nice Phish shirt.”
I’m going to talk about the Phish experience and the band’s aesthetic quite a bit in this blog. If you don’t know who they are, then no explanation from me will do it justice. The shirt I was wearing was tie-died blue and yellow and depicted the four members of Phish as Simpsons characters. I bought the shirt outside the Miami New Year’s Eve show in 2009. I remember having a lengthy talk with the artist about his pride in having hand-drawn the shirt. Fifteen dollars seemed a small price to pay for an authentic totem.
I relate the man’s recognition from the grocery store to indicate the power of a niche community. In fact, I had worn the shirt because it spoke in a type of niche “code,” one that enabled me to reach out to other true believers. I asked the man if he was watching the show later that night, and he said, “Of course!” Phish recently webcast all three nights of their run at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in New York. The venue had been the scene of two of the greatest shows in Phish history – the epic weekend run of 6/19/2004 and 6/20/2004. Held only a couple of months before the band’s drug-infused demise at the Coventry festival, the 2004 Saratoga shows were evidence that the band still could bring it if the moment was right.
I had ordered the last two nights of the current 2013 Saratoga run to watch in my basement. With my laptop jacked into my 55 inch TV via HDMI cable and plugged into my stereo system, I proceeded to dance the summer nights away alone in my basement. Yet, I also felt intensely connected to thousands of people who were doing the same thing. Such is the fervency of the Phish community. Not only did the Saratoga shows sell out and not only did thousands travel from around the country to be there, but thousands more watched online for $15 per show just to feel some sense of that live show community.
Starting with the rec.music.phish newsgroup in the early 1990s, the band and the Internet grew hand in hand. Rather than being isolated in small towns and large cities around the United States, the band’s fans built a fervent and impassioned community that met at live shows but lived together online. Phish’s message board on PhantasyTour.com – the infamous green board – is both a discussion venue about the band and a lifestyle. Phish fans perform the holy communion of seeing the band in concert as often as possible, but they spend far more time in the virtual world analyzing the band’s music, dissecting various phenomenons of pop culture, and having banal and ridiculous arguments.
When our only option was to engage face-to-face in the communities where we lived, life had to be shared with others based on agreed upon commonalities. These common touchstones might be one’s church, high school football team, the radio, television, or family bonds. We still exist every day in these same communities. In the last 20 years, the Internet has afforded us the the opportunity to indulge in the micro-sized aspects of our identities that are too often submerged in a broader community. My wife found few people in East Moline, IL who would ever dare to love The Smiths as much as she did (and does). There weren’t a ton of androgynous, curious, gay, or zany folk wanting to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show in small town Geneseo, IL where I grew up.
People’s odder proclivities have always existed. Unfortunately in the mass market, we can agree on the bigger principles, but the true oddities we carry around – the niche-oriented aspects of ourselves – yearn for fuller expression. With the aid of the Internet, we can more readily talk with and meet others who enjoy model airplane building, BDSM, graffiti art, or whatever your personal interest is.
The Phish scene demonstrates the great paradox of the movement toward niche communities. I would love it if the sense of community I felt with people who loved the band and its music extended to the people in the community where I live. I want to feel that rush of commonality. I want to share something I love so deeply and passionately with everyone around me. The paradox, of course, is that the more people come to love my niche, the more I start to dislike it. If Phish were as popular as Pearl Jam or U2, I’d have to deal with the inevitable fact that the very qualities that inspired my ardor for the band would have to be dumbed down and prepped for mass consumption. If my favorite band has to become an American Idol contestant for me to truly feel a sense of broad community, then I think I’ll pass.
I live within two ferocious niche communities every day of my life. Listening to Phish and coaching cross country are two of the nearest and dearest activities in my life. They have increasingly come to define who I am, both literally and philosophically. I could go on for hours about how seeing Phish live and coaching the Palatine cross country team have hardened my belief about what is good and worthy in this world. I wish that everyone could come to understand and love the experiences and philosophies that inform these insular niches. But it will never happen. Maybe it shouldn’t. If cross country became as popular as football, it would come at an enormous cost to the sanctity of the niche. The same goes for Phish.
In the end most of us settle for living in a bifurcated blend of communities. We live and work with others every day. We go to the Fourth of July fireworks together and pay attention to what’s popular in theaters. We can speak the banal language of the general culture and feel a general togetherness toward one another. From my niches and my niche people, though, I grab the life-sustaining breathes of real intimacy. When I danced in my basement last night jamming to a sublime version of Ghost, my favorite Phish song, I danced freely and with the knowledge that everyone watching the show from their couch and at the SPAC “got it” in exactly the same way. When I ran 13 miles this morning, with the hammer down under 6:00 mile pace from the halfway point, I knew I was sharing something real. Maybe the niches where we feel such security are meant to be kept in the corners. If so, then I am happy to stay out of everyone’s way. But…I always wondered how much more interesting it would be if people really “got” these things I love so much. In my idealistic state, I think having the intimate closeness within the broader community could cure so many of our ills. In reality, I have pretty much reconciled myself to the notion that broader participation in anything I truly love would utterly ruin it.
Long story short, I walk around Palatine all the time hoping someone will recognize my coded Phish shirt and want to talk about the band. Usually, I just buy my groceries and move on. Every now and then though I meet a true believer. We share a knowing nod and some banter. I then move along to buy my ham and swiss at the deli counter feeling marginally less alone in the show of life.