Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Conversation

Blogging is a new, strange experience for me, and not one that I'm fully comfortable with. I love to write, and long-form discussions come naturally to me. Those who know me well are aware I pass through short-term obsessions where I learn everything I can about a selected topic and go on and on about every fascinating aspect of it. Writing blog posts is the perfect outlet for that. I can sit down for a few hours and empty out my mind without talking anyone's ear off. That part comes naturally to me. But putting it up on the internet and telling people to read it is not my idea of a good time.

There's a certain weight placed on anything published, even if it's just put up on a free-to-use blogging website. If something's in print it takes on a different voice - for better or for worse - and I don't enjoy it much. It's too much pressure. When you're talking with your friends about your thoughts on life it's just a causal conversation. But put it in a blog and suddenly it's “Oh,look at you with all your big opinions.”

So why do I do it? To challenge myself. You can never grow unless you try new things, specifically those that frighten you. And I do it for practice. I see myself as a writer. I doubt I'd ever be good enough to do it professionally, but it's a skill I have and like any skill it can only be developed through practice. When I put it up for others to see it holds me accountable for quality. I'm aware exactly how cynical and nit-picky I am when reading what others write, so I know if others are reading what I write I can't half-ass it.

But the real reason I do it is to be part of the conversation. I am fascinated by media and politics and the clash of ideas that make up our culture. It's why I'm a news junkie. It's why I love opinion pieces.
I've spent a lot of time reading the ideas and opinions of others, keeping track of the twists and turns of public opinion, but I was never part of it until I started blogging. Now my small, quiet voice is part of the discussion. In my small way I am having an impact on things. I am participating, not just observing. And it's not just politics – in fact I rarely write about politics. I prefer writing about the arts and my progress in life. But whatever topic I choose to cover I am impacting the culture by putting my ideas out there to float around in the mix.

There is so much power in the way things are defined. One of my favorite examples is the 2009 health care debate in America. If you polled people on their support of “universal health care” it scored significantly higher than polls asking about “government takeover of health care.” Two names for the same policy, completely different reactions. Of course, I'm less interested in short, convenient labels than I am in the exchange of actual ideas. But it demonstrates how we are all battling for the way things are understood and defined.

This is why I love participating in political opinion polls. I was first called for one around the 2010 election and couldn't have been more excited. The constant state of campaigning and elections in Wisconsin right now has given me even more opportunities to answer these multiple choice questions about my political views. Because that is the real way to get your voice heard. Voting is the most important thing, but there are major limitations. There's no place on the ballot for “I don't think this guy can fix any of our problems but I trust him more than the other one.” There is simply yes or no. In a survey you can share your more nuanced stances. And despite what they'll tell you, these things effect the decisions politicians make. And they effect what gets discussed in the media and therefore among the public. It doesn't have the clear yes-or-no distinction of election results. Your ideas become part of the shifting, nebulous mass of public opinion and policy. The dirty process of democracy.

I believe in the popular modern philosophy that there are very few absolute truths. There are my ideas and there are your ideas and they are both right and they are both wrong. And when I hear your ideas they change mine, and when you hear mine they change yours. And the conversation is a journey to understand more and more, and move closer and closer to a truth that we will never actually reach. But if you talk and if you listen you will move yourself closer.

My goal as a writer is never to lecture to a captive audience. I don't mean my essays as definitive statements on the way things are. I consider myself most successful when an idea I muse about is filtered through the experiences of a reader and then comes back to me as a new idea. I realize that sounds like the kind of pretentious, convoluted and ultimately meaningless description you'd read in an avant garde literary zine, so I'll give some examples to try and clarify what I mean. I started this whole blogging experiment with a two-part exploration on independence and dependence. This was inspired by and centered around my experience working with people with disabilities. But upon reading it my able-bodied friend told me he reached some very important conclusions about his own life and his dependence on others. That hadn't been my intention, but the conclusions he reached were there in what I wrote. I laid out the dots, he connected them, and we both learned new things that we couldn't have individually.

My most recent and most successful post was about my idea that a major part of human behavior comes from the need to be understood. It spurred a few interesting dialogues. I had been serving as an apologist for young folks, explaining that their actions are a lot less selfish than older generations would assume. This got one of my friends, a choir teacher, to start a conversation about how difficult it is to teach something as long-term and patience-based as music to children who live in the instant. Another friend explained that, despite my stance suggesting it's not the main motivation of our generation, she indeed does want to be famous. And in discussing it I had to admit that I too have a secret desire for notoriety; it's another factor in why I write. Both of these conversations were branches off my original point, things I mentioned as minor details to get my point across in my essay. But seeing these connections made is what gets me to keep posting my writing for public scrutiny, despite the accompanying anxiety.

Let's be clear here. My blog is not going to change the world. I'm lucky if I get 30 views on a post. I've had this thing for four months and it has been viewed less than 700 times, which I think includes times I've signed in to edit things. But we can't ever really know what our full impact is. Everything we take in changes us, and everything we put out changes others. I know I inspired one of my friends to start writing himself, and that's pretty cool. And I think of all the fantastic articles I've read without ever giving notification to the author how their writing changed me. Maybe I've had that same impact on others. Maybe not. It's not important. It doesn't matter if I receive recognition or gratification for what I do. All that matters is that I am participating.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Need to be Understood

What's with all these tweets and twitters? These kids are just writing about what they had for lunch. Why do they think they're so important that everyone wants to know what they had for lunch?

There goes your crazy old uncle. Complaining about kids these days and how they're spending all their time on the internet trying to get a million hits on their viral video and get everyone to read about everything they know. It's a time-honored tradition. I don't presume to know how far back in history, but I know it goes back a long time. Each generation is baffled and confused by the generation that comes after them. We put minimum effort into making sense of their actions but are fast and loose with accusations and condemnations. In the 60's and 70's: all these kids care about is sex and drugs. In the 80's and 90's: these kids don't care about anything at all, except being different and feeling sorry for themselves. And the great misconception about my generation and even more so about the generation coming up after mine:

All these kids just want to be famous for doing nothing.

They just want to take pictures of themselves hanging out with friends or take videos of themselves doing something stupid and get a million people to look at it. It makes sense if you're looking for a quick and easy answer to behaviors you don't understand. We do spend an inordinate amount of time sharing information about ourselves on various forms of social networking. There was a study done recently (which I don't have a citation for and therefore can only use as an anecdotal reference) where people of varying ages were given cameras and told to start filming. Almost everyone over 30 filmed the world around them, while almost everyone under 30 filmed themselves. This is something that is very clearly happening, but the misconception is in the assumption of fame as a motive.

It would be presumptuous of me to try and speak for my whole generation, but I would like to suggest that our actions aim more to serve a basic human need: the need to be understood. It's not exclusive to my generation. Everyone is constantly seeking to be understood, whether they know it or not. It's one of the main purposes of any relationship. Think of your best friends. What do you like about them? They get you. You can talk to them about topics you can't discuss with others. You reveal more of yourself to them than you do to others, because they understand and relate. And that draws you to spend more time with them, and place a higher value on the time you spend.

Friendships are one way of being understood. These crazy internets that the kids are into are another way. Consider how much of time spent on the internet is spent on interacting with friends. You might dub this an inferior form of interaction, but that's a judgment call. But an equally important part of Facebook and Twitter and anything else in that vein is putting your ideas out there for scrutiny and (hopefully) affirmation.. You can create something and someone else can look at it, understand part of who you are, and give you a little thumbs up let you know that “hey, you're okay.”

You don't need to be an artist or a writer to find a means of expression. You don't have to create anything. When I hear a song that speaks to a deep or profound part of me, the first thing I want to do is find someone to share it with. I want someone else to hear it and confirm “Yes, Kevin, this song is as phenomenal as you think it is.” I want to find someone whose human experience is reflected through this song in the same way that mine is. And sometimes I'll do just that. I'll post a link to it on Twitter. And even if nobody acknowledges it, and even if I had no part in creating the message the song conveys, I'm putting a bit of myself out there.

I learned a new word today: grok. It's a verb and it's stupid. It sounds terrible (because it is comes from a Martian language in a science fiction novel, though it's now part of English and permissible in Scrabble) and doesn't match its meaning at all, which is to understand something profoundly and intuitively. It's a beautiful meaning; it's the way I feel about the song in the above example. I grok that hypothetical song. As true as that is, it sounds stupid and as a result I will never use it outside this essay. Yet I share it because it demonstrates something about me as a person. I'm a sucker for obscure new words; any words, really. I'm like the lady in the YouTube video who wants to hug every cat but she can't; I want to know every word but I can't. And I want to find ways to use those words. Not to make me sound more intelligent. Simply because words are fun. Words are toys that never break or run out of batteries and can be combined in endless combinations.

If you read that last paragraph and agreed with it you are helping me achieve my goal, and I am helping you with yours. You are validating part of my personality through understanding. You are confirming that the way I feel is not unusual or strange. I am not the only one who feels this way, and neither are you. Writing it out like this it sounds more desperate than it is; I didn't intend for it to sound that way. But we do all have a basic, unspoken need for someone to say “Yes, the way you feel is correct and I feel that way too.”

The original point of this was to explain why my generation does what it does. Our intention of being understood is no different from other generations, it's just expressed differently. In the past people relied more on direct person-to-person contact, building lasting relationships. We value that, too, but perhaps we're not as good at building them. So maybe our methods are less substantial and fleeting, but they work the same. I'll write this meandering, caffeine-fueled essay in my blog, then link to it on Facebook and hope it doesn't garner too much ridicule from people I know. You might post pictures of you and friends; I was here and I did this and this is who I am. You might write a song and post it on YouTube. Or write a song and sing it to yourself. Or call your mother and tell her about your long, tough day. All different means to the same end. All trying to prove that you are not the only one.