Life

Blocks of Marble

At birth, everyone is given a giant block of marble. In our early years, our parents place in our hands a hammer and chisel, and show us how to hold them. In school, our teachers show us the blocks of marble those figures of the past carved for themselves. And give us instructions on how we can chisel away at our own blocks.

Soon, we start to lay hammer and chisel to stone, and piece by piece, we slowly chip away at the edges. As we grow older, the chips grow larger and shapes start to emerge from our giant blocks of marble.

For years we carve. Each of us making the best of what we have. Some are given more tools, some are given less. The instructions change, the chisels break, the system is not always fair. But the block of marble is always the same. And, if we’d like, we can shape it the best we can.

Eventually, we will strike the final hammer blow, drop our tools, and step back to see what we have wrought.

The Future of Learning

Nearly a year ago, amidst a new world of online learning, I made the decision to drop out of school. As my friends and peers soon made the journey back to schools across the country, I started to take Masterclass and Skillshare courses in an attempt to continue my own personal education.

I was immediately shocked by how much I was able to learn on my own, and how cheaply I could do it. The only real barrier was self-motivation. Anyone can learn pretty much anything on their own these days, if they are able to force themselves to work at it without a school or a teacher or a parent constantly looking over their shoulder.

I learned a lot, sitting down for 30 minutes a day for several months, watching professionally developed videos, taught by extremely talented teachers – often either professors or professionals in a field. I couldn’t imagine, when EVERY single teacher across the country was now having to teach in the exact same manner as these courses, through a screen, why more students were not taking gap years or dropping out all together. Why settle for a professor you might like alright in person who is now bungling their way through online coursework, when you could learn from a true professional? From some of the best in the field? That question stuck with me.

Today, I was served an ad on YouTube, from a company I’d never heard of: Outlier. The beautiful visuals immediately hooked me, and I watched through the whole thing – a very rare occurrence indeed. I even clicked to see the company’s website. An education company that looked much like Masterclass from the ad, that was aiming to bring the absolute best professors in the country right to your laptops, for a fraction of the cost of traditional university courses. AND giving you transferable college credit from the University of Pittsburgh (low and behold, it was indeed from the co-creator of Masterclass).

Scrolling through their website this morning, I was floored. This is the future of education. This is what education today should be. This is what education of the future needs to be.

I’m rooting for Outlier, and the outliers it will inspire.

Generational gaps

My grandma opened a laptop a few weeks ago. Well, my father opened the laptop in front of her, while she sat peering through thick glasses, her hands curled in her lap. The screen booted up, and my grandma sat silently for a moment. Then, looking at my father, she gestured at the keyboard and trackpad and said, “Now what’s all this junk?”

I watched the video my mother had sent of this moment, and laughed. Grandma will never know how to use computers. But really, there’s a reason for that. The pace of change today is so rapid, and the nuance of change from iteration to iteration so complex. If you don’t keep up with each new version, you’ll quickly get lost in the sea of change. We tend to take out own understanding for granted.

A dotted line, or a variation in color, or the placement of a certain word is enough to clue us in on how to navigate a smartphone menu. We know where to click. We know where hidden options lay, where links are stowed and what benign gestures lead us from place to place in our digital worlds. Because we’ve walked through the experimentation, and experienced the iteration.

We expect proficiency and understanding, but we need grace and patience. It may seem obvious to us, but that never matters. We are completely different people, and completely different generations. We need to accept the beauty in that, as well as the challenge, and work to bridge the gap.

A Narrow Bond

London Symphony Orchestra: They started recording film scores - 13 moments  that... - Classic FM

There is a term in movies when the music the audience hears is heard by the characters as well. It’s called diegetic music. It’s a rare moment in cinema when audience and character are experiencing the same thing in the same moment – it creates a bond, if just for a moment. As if the people on the screen are really right there in the room with you. Or, better yet, that you are in the world with the character you’re watching.

Here’s a video essay that explains this concept using The Simpsons, and mentions the ability to craft diegetic vs. non-diegetic sound for laughs at 2:45. (Baby Driver is another great example of a movie that plays a lot with diegetic vs. non-diegetic throughout)

Baby Driver GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Today though, my generation isn’t watching movies, they’re watching Tik Toks. Short, breathy videos that last no time at all, but bleed one into another, hour after hour. They are not meant to be watched with others. They are simply scrolled to, seen, and scrolled past. With no memory that it ever existed. There is so little common bond in media these days, whether it’s between members of an audience in a theater, or the audience and a character on screen… At least, I suppose, none of the common bond I’d wish for. (I realize I’m being haughty and judgmental)

The excitement of sitting in a theater to see a movie with dozens of others who have been waiting and waiting just like you. That’s a feeling I want to preserve when I get it again. A feeling I want to bottle. The feeling of laying on my couch and scrolling through a feed of short lived, frail clips, putting off the work that needs doing and the more impactful media I’d rather take in – that’s a feeling I disgust.

Sensory Overload and the Power of Silence

A couple nights ago, I was sitting at the dinner table with my sister and her partner when we got onto the topic of autism. A popular YouTuber I liked shared a video a day or two before about his son who has autism, hoping to raise awareness and spread some of the beauty that surrounds the conversation and community of autism.

It’s a conversation I hadn’t thought much about before this year. But in learning more, there is so much to be gained. So many of the actions those with autism take, for example, are things all of us do every day.

All of us regulate – bouncing our leg, tapping the desk, clicking the pen, scratching at finger nails – to help keep a sense of rhythm and regulation as we go through our days. Many of us experience sensory overload – the music is too loud during a conversation or the wind is blowing too hard in the car or the texture of that food is just too horrible to try again. We all check out of conversations or activities – to preserve brain space or cut off sensory overload.

Today, with so much constant input and stimulation from the world around us, these actions have become even more important for everyone. We all need time and space to check out when we feel overstimulated, to find emotional and physical regulation in our day-to-day experiences.

There is no real sense of limit when it comes to external stimulus these days. There is no real sense of regulation. There is no real silence in our world. We have to make a concerted effort to find silence. Maybe not because we want it, but because we need it.

Silence is a key. Silence gives our brain time to recharge. Like a passive state. Turning off the music or the podcast or the phone can give your brain the space and time it actually needs to think about things deeply and process and regulate.

I’ve never much liked cooking or doing dishes, but I now find myself really enjoying that space. It becomes a time of relief. A space of absent focus – passive activities that I don’t need to focus on, but keep me busy.

The conversation around autism cannot start and stop with understanding the autistic spectrum and attributes as it applies to the autistic community. It has to move into a conversation about our own lives, our own attributes, and understanding ourselves better too – because we are all the same in so many ways.

Chain of Events

Last week, my car was hit on the street in the middle of the night and totaled.

Now going through the insurance process and the tedium of car-buying, I keep thinking about chains of events, and the affects of our actions.

I wonder who hit my car, and what they had been doing that night. I wonder if they were drunk or texting or crying or fighting. I wonder what they thought afterward. I wonder if their car is okay. I wonder if this chain has affected their life. I’m not trying to say this in a bitter way, grumbling angrily to myself – but just genuinely curious.

There are so many places I’ve been this week, and situations I’ve found myself in that, if not for that one moment of negligence late on a Monday night, I would never have experienced. Our actions and reactions ripple. They are links in a chain.

Pondering this more, the image of a garden grew clearer in my mind.

If each of our own little worlds is a garden, and we are the gardeners, then every time we step outside our front doors, past the gate and onto the soil, we have an opportunity. Surrounded by plants in all states of growth and variety, we have an opportunity to nurture and cultivate the garden. Or to stomp through the beds hither and dither, not watching our step, just trying to find the shade and sitting by, neglecting the sprouts and wrinkly leaves all around us. To plant good seed or ill.

Actions can be the planting of something new and words can be the misplaced stomp of a boot.

Each day, we are planting seeds and walking throughout the garden. So spread good seed and tread gently.

Pens with Powell

It’s a practice that begin in 9th or 10th grade. After seeing the old notebooks of my dad, in his neat, printed handwriting. That very day, I ditched my mechanical pencils and my sloppy, middle school handwriting. It took some getting used to. with lots of accidental lowercase letters and flipping my pen around to erase what were suddenly permanent mistakes etched into my spiral notebook. Now, though, years later, pencils feel flimsy and waxy and less substantial if I try to do anything but sketch. Even writing the date next to a portrait or drawing of a giraffe in my sketchbook feels odd. I just love writing in pen. And seeing pen marking the page.

I had a friend in high school whose love of ball points pens went unrivaled. He was one of the first people I ever met in my large and daunting public high school, in Algebra 1 on our first day of freshman year. His name was Powell. He was usually more tan than the rest of the guys around him, cause he played tennis for the high school and had long tournaments outdoors on the weekends. We had a few classes together through high school, but it wasn’t until AP Government in my junior year that we really started to connect on the pen-front.

By then, the pencils were long gone from my – pencil case. And every other day, I walked into Mrs. Darcy’s classroom (though we always called her Miss Darcy), sat down, and quickly turned to my right, looking one row over and three seats back to Powell, lounging against the back wall, staring me down with a new fancy pen in his hand and a smirk on his face.

We swapped pens and complimented the action on the click. Measured the weight and balance. Tested them on the corner of a page page, just a few signatures and squiggles, with maybe a checkbox or two.

That was the friendship. That’s what I always think about when I think of Powell. And whenever I find a pen with a particularly good click or a line as smooth as can be, I think of Powell then, too.

I write with a Pilot G-2, 0.7mm. It’s basic. But I wonder what Powell writes with these days. I bet it’s got a great click.

The Distraction Quandary

Tom Sachs, a New York-based sculptor, gave a interesting TED talk on creativity and standards. In it, he said:

“Authenticity also demands endurance. Do it for a long time – whatever it is. Two years, it’s just an interest. Do something for five years, and it’s a hobby. Do something for 20 years, and you begin to build a sense of mastery and the holes in your position on the thing become too small to be of any consequence.”

The problem is that I’m constantly distracted. Distracted from my book while I’m reading. Distracted by that idea I need to jot down, or text that I’ll forget to send. Distracted from hobby to hobby, focus to focus. From season to season to season.

How do I attain mastery over any single thing when my lens of attention is constantly shifting?

Leonardo Da Vinci, famous for his mastery over so many varied things supposedly uttered these final words before his death:

“I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”

Of course, that is ridiculous. Leonardo was one of mankind’s greatest artists and thinkers – yet he too felt this sense of impending failure. Honestly, I don’t know how to reconcile that contrast. That a man we revere for what he created and gave to the world, himself felt unfulfilled.

For now, as I ponder the quandary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s happiness, I suppose the only thing to do is continue in curiosity. To look every more intently for the beauty the world has to offer, so that I may add to it in whatever small bits I can. And, of course, to take David Sedaris’ advice from his book, Calypso:

“The key of course, is to stay busy.”

Life in a Fish Bowl

The other day I stopped at a friend’s house and, while I was there, noticed their bright blue beta fish sitting in a small clear bowl. His name is Henry. He lives on the bookshelf away from the window.

There was nothing else in the bowl with Henry. Just him, his thoughts, and a little bit of water that he doesn’t even know is there. I stood for a minute, watching him swim round the bowl, bumping into the edge over and over trying to get to the big world just on the other side of the glass. It made me sad watching turn and turn in his endless loop to no where.

What a horrible way to live. Your only purpose to be glanced at every now and again. And I thought about how, for a while now, lots of us have been stuck in our own little fishbowls. Though ours are a little better – and a little worse.

Through life in a pandemic, lots of us have felt like we’ve been dropped into a glass fishbowl. Just swimming round and round in the same place, waiting to be let out again. But what Henry will never know is the world he’s missing outside of six-inch sphere. He will never understand that there are bigger and better places to swim. Never understand that there are sand bars and fishy schools he’s missing out on. But we do – we’re staring out through our fishbowls at a world we know is better than the one we’re living in now. The ignorance of the outside world is truly bliss for Henry.

Of course, we also have one key advantage over Henry. Though he may yearn for something more than his endless laps, he’ll never know why he’s in his bowl. There’s no purpose to hold on to. But we have a reason. We stay behind the glass for all the other fish.

But soon the bowls will break, and we’ll all be able to swim to open oceans again.

Ted Lasso and the Meaning of Life

I already talked about the spirit and impact of Ted Lasso, but I can’t stop thinking about this character. Specifically, the seemingly endless well of optimism and joy that Ted carries with him everywhere he goes.

The idea of happiness is one that I think about a lot – where does it really come from? How do we find it? How can we live a life centered around happiness?

My mom used to always say that your attitude is a choice. “You can choose,” she’d say. “You can choose if you’re going to be angry or upset. You can choose joy or frustration.” I sort of thought this was codswallop. I can’t just choose, I’d think. It’s not that easy mom, you just don’t understand. But I think there is truth there. Of course, you can’t choose what your emotions are, and you certainly can’t choose to pretend to be happy in the midst of sadness or grief or stress – that is neither helpful nor healthy. But I believe there are countless moments in our days and lives when, thinking we have no control, we settle for anger or sadness. But maybe it’s not the emotion we are choosing, but the attitude. The attitude then impacts the emotion.

In a powerful moment near the end of season one, Ted brings up a Walt Whitman quote: “Be curious, not judgmental.” Choose to listen rather than reject. Choose to engage with the world rather than block it out.

Proverbs says something similar:

Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to the words of knowledge (23:12).” and “The beginning of Wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight (4:7).”

So is this curiosity or penchant for learning what gives Ted his optimism?

Maybe happiness just comes naturally when we work our very hardest to give rather than take. In a TED Talk, the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt said:

The more I go after that powerful experience of paying attention, the happier I am. But the more I go after that powerful feeling of getting attention, the unhappier I am. If your creativity is driven by a desire to get attention, you’re never going to be creatively fulfilled.”

Ted works to be actively curious and engaged in those around him. Maybe it’s through his curiosity that he finds things that bring joy. Perhaps in order to be happy, you first have to work to see the happiness around you.

Of course, maybe Ted is just a wildly happy guy, and it’s simply by being happy that he is able to inspire joy and change in those around him. But for those of us with a curmudgeonly bent, we need a stepping stone.

Be curious – you may just stumble onto something that will make you smile.