Some thoughts on planning and remembering (i.e. “getting things done”)

First, a note of explanation: What follows is not a post on “getting things done” or on the merits of various productivity tools. It is, rather, some thoughts on the ways I’ve found those tools to shape my thinking and my work.

After almost four years of trying to keep track of all my various projects with various apps, I’ve given up and gone back to a combination of a paper journal (hardbound, dot-printed rather than lined) and, for long term planning of specific projects, various homespun electronic documents and spreadsheets. It’s working wonderfully; I find I’m far better able to keep track of what I’m doing and what I’ve done. Having made that change, here are some of my observations.

  1. The promise of having continuous access to my project information was… well, promising, but I never did get around to using my smartphone in that way. I hate typing on my smartphone. I have fairly big hands, and staring at little screens makes me feel boxed in, almost claustrophobic. A hardbound journal meets the same need; it’s always with me. Better, it’s always open on my desk; I don’t have to push buttons to access it. I can’t, therefore, ignore it. (If I tried, it’s orange.)
  2. Apps swallow their past. Once you check an item off as completed, it disappears from view. There’s nearly always a way to retrieve that information, but not typically in a way that I find conveniently displayed. Loose sheets of paper are worse; they get thrown away. A journal, as long as you mark entries rather than crossing through them, preserves the past in readable fashion. That’s of some practical value: I can, for example, see when I last gave the dog her heartworm preventative or note a tendency to put off certain tasks. I can learn from my mistakes in a way that’s impossible if I hide or erase or throw away (or even cross through) what I’ve done. But there’s also something philosophically worrisome to me about the ease with which productivity apps move you inexorably into the next task. It encourages presentism, an emphasis on what’s important now and on what’s next, and I think the culture already encourages far too much of that. Hardbound journals, by contrast, encourage reflection and a vision of oneself as a whole over time.
  3. An app, no matter how flexibly it’s designed to be used, is inherently algorithmic. Computer code is algorithms. And if I’m using that code, I, too, have to follow the algorithm; my own thinking must shape itself to the algorithm. Now, it’s true that processes of work must always adapt to fit the tools at hand, but some tools are more flexible than others. Blank sheets of paper, dotted rather than lined, bound into a journal, give me tremendous flexibility. I can choose my own symbols and systems, index as I wish, organize as suits my preferred ways of thinking, planning, remembering, and visualizing. As my thinking about my thinking evolves, my processes can evolve with it. With an app, I’m stuck in someone else’s head. (There’s also a difference, I think, between a tool and an algorithm, but that needs more thought.) A simple table in an Open Office document serves that end when paper doesn’t.
  4. There is some satisfaction to writing, physically writing, the X next to a task completed. It serves the same purpose as checking a box on a computer screen and watching it disappear, and so they may be functionally identically, but to claim that the two actions are thus identical and interchangeable reduces human experience to mere functionality. I’m not an algorithm (see #2, above); I have a body, and I think with it.
  5. I buy the blank books and ink for my fountain pens from a local stationary shop — yes, I still have a local stationary shop, an amazing thing, and I’d like to help keep it in business! Both come ultimately from some company or other, I don’t know where. (France?) So I’m not claiming any sort of purity. But to use them, I don’t have to support my cable company, my phone company, or one of the world’s largest global corporations (e.g. Apple). And when I stock up I get to have a chat with a guy who calls himself, professionally, Crazy Alan. So there’s that.
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That which cannot be possessed (not by you, anyway)

Dan Cohen’s “review” of the Wu Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (HT: Alan Jacobs) is primarily a meditation on the nature of art and ephemerality, but I have trouble getting past the story that sparked it.

This is what we know: On November 24, 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan sold its latest album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, through an online auction house. As one of the most innovative rap groups, the Wu-Tang Clan had used concepts for their recordings before, but the latest album would be their highest concept: it would exist as only one copy—as an LP, that physical, authentic format for music—encased in an artisanally crafted box. This album would have only one owner, and thus, perhaps, only one listener. By legal agreement, the owner would not be allowed to distribute it commercially until 88 years from now.

Once—note the singularity at the beginning of the album’s title—was purchased for $2 million by Martin Shkreli, a young man who was an unsuccessful hedge fund manager and then an unscrupulous drug company executive. This career arc was more than enough to make him filthy rich by age 30.

Then, in one of 2015’s greatest moments of schadenfreude, especially for those who care about the widespread availability of quality healthcare and hip hop, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI for fraud. Alas, the FBI left Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in Shkreli’s New York apartment.

Presumably, the album continues to sit there, in the shadows, unplayed. It may very well gather dust for some time.

This has made many people unhappy, and some have hatched schemes to retrieve Once, ideally using the martial arts the Shaolin monks are known for. But our obsession with possessing the album has prevented us from contemplating the nature of the album—its existence—which is what the Buddhists of Shaolin would, after all, prefer us to do.

Setting aside the matter of what the Buddhists of Shaolin would prefer us to do, I think Cohen is giving the Wu-Tang Clan a little too much credit.

  1. WTC made, after auction fees, at least a cool million off of their album, which is pretty good money for doing what you (presumably) love. They got more publicity selling it this way than they would have by releasing it traditionally. What they did is indistinguishable from a publicity stunt, and from good business.
  2. Their method of selling their work doesn’t demonstrate ephemerality; the album still exists, it’s just that no one is listening to it. It has not, unlike some of the other art Cohen mentions, ceased to exist, nor is it expected to, except in the sense that all digital work will someday become unreadable (which is, given Cohen’s work, surely in the back of his mind—but that’s no reason to single out this album).
  3. It is, on the contrary, all about possession. Someone paid $2 million for a unique recording precisely so that he could possess it, and so that no one else could. This isn’t about non-possession; it’s about exclusivity of possession, and specifically about exclusivity of possession by the rich. It is, in that regard, less a statement of Buddhist philosophy than an expression of America’s Second Gilded Age.
  4. The tendency to cloak activities that are fundamentally about making money in the language of Buddhism (see also: tech companies teaching meditation to make their employees more productive) ought to trouble American Buddhists, as the tendency to cloak activities that are fundamentally about making money in the language of Christianity (see: much of U.S. history) ought to trouble American Christians. Likely it too seldom will, as it too seldom has. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the defect isn’t with Christianity.

While I was writing this a sparrow perched on the rail of a chair outside my window and sang. I took no photograph and made no recording; his song was unheard by anyone but me and himself. It was a gift, unexpected and unearned, and now it is memory. And nobody made any money off of it. I am not an expert on Buddhist philosophy, but I’ll take the sparrow as my emblem of ephemerality over a hip hop album any day.

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Blessings for children

Last Tuesday in the Western Christian calendar was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates Herod’s murder of the children who might have been Jesus:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. —Matthew 2:16

Even Christians who devoutly proclaim the Incarnation, the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ get squeamish about whether this actually happened, but arguing about historicity misses the point of the story and of the commemoration: horrors of this nature have happened, and do happen, and children suffer most for the schemes of adults. The Catholic and Anglican traditions keep plenty of days to remember martyrs and saints who are praiseworthy because they chose their paths; this is a day to recall those who were too young to choose or even to accept their fate.

It’s also a day to bless and ask blessings on children, and I found this old prayer for Catholic laity, which I believe came from one or another version of the Baltimore Book of Prayers:

O God our Father, whose Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, once embraced the little children who were brought to him, saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and their angels always see the face of my Father;”  Look now, we beseech thee, on the innocence of these children: Bless them and protect them this night and throughout their lives; (the parent makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each child) in thy grace and goodness let them advance continually, longing for thee, knowing thee, and loving thee, that they may at the last come to their destined home and behold thee face to face; through Jesus Christ, the Holy Child of Bethlehem, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Then, taking the head of each child in both hands, a parent says to each one:  May God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit bless you and keep you both now and for evermore.  Amen.

This is a beautiful prayer, the sort of thing (like the Feast of the Holy Innocents) I’d never been exposed to in my days of Methodist Youth. If I was prayed over, and I assume I must have been, I don’t remember it, because the prayers made no impression. The language of this prayer is lovely, and serious; what’s even lovelier and more serious is that it isn’t about the person doing the praying. There is a Protestant belief that if you aren’t making it up as you go along immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit you aren’t sincere in your prayer, but not everyone is a professional writer, not everyone has a way with words, not everyone is extraverted or sufficiently fearless to speak aloud for others their hopes and fears and feelings — or even necessarily to know what they are, until they’re reminded. Though that strain of Protestantism is meant to be egalitarian — no top-down directed praying for us! — I’m increasingly inclined to see it as elitist: The theological and literary rich, unfettered by tradition, can fly as high as they like, while the poor in spirit flounder in a sea of dull maxims and half-baked banalities.

Here, by contrast, is a beautiful, direct, concise, sincere prayer available to any parent. Surely we don’t need to question the sincerity of parents’ love for their children, and even a father who does write well, and who has composed prayers and poems for his daughter, appreciates (maybe more than most) the blessing of not always having to roll his own. Why not stand on the shoulders of giants, when you can?

And so Tuesday night at bedtime I sprung this on my kid. I might have changed thee and thou to you and converted the -eth to -s, but the formality served as a clue to the seriousness of what I was doing and asking. She understood the gesture; YMMV. Your kids may just be embarrassed by this sort of thing; but then again you’re going to embarrass them regardless, so why not do it with style?

Be warned, though, that it may be hard to make the sign of the cross on your child’s forehead without choking up.

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Children of the (Christmas) Revolution

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on December 20, 2015.

Luke 1:39–55

That’s a heck of a greeting Mary gets from her cousin. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

Still, you don’t meet a lot of people who would respond even to that by crying out “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

If you tried that, people would smile pacifically and back slowly away.

On the up side, you’d have that seat on the bus all to yourself.

Seriously, though, did you ever wonder what kind of person Mary really was? We know so little about her, and we have so many agendas. Growing up Methodist I didn’t hear much at all about Mary; we didn’t have pictures of her hanging up in the church, she barely got a mention. Except at Christmas — when suddenly she’s everywhere, loitering on front lawns with her husband and the kings and the lone representative shepherd that came packaged with the Wal-Mart crèche. It’s hard to learn much about her from most of these setups, and those you can… well, let me give you an example.

Take the people who used to live next door to me in my old neighborhood. I knew they were churchgoers, because the bumper sticker on their car said so. They had the polite but stern and unhumoring quality I had learned as a child to associate with certain classes of evangelical Protestant. They had a perfectly maintained lawn that they never, ever used, not even the clean white porch swing in the side yard. And every Christmas they put a crèche out front, a simple one: Mary, Joseph, Jesus in the manger, and a tiny shelter representing the stable. There may have been an angel; I don’t remember. What made this display noteworthy was that all of them — Jesus, Joseph, and Mary — were represented as babies. It was the complete inversion of the Medieval practice of representing the infant Messiah as a miniature adult, with adult proportions and an adult expression. Out on my neighbors’ lawn, even Mary and Joseph had disproportionately large heads, like babies of almost any mammalian species—it’s how you can tell Charlie Brown is a little boy and not a balding old man, and how the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind were made to look safe and innocent instead of weird and scary. Worse, they wore the placidly idiotic expressions of baby dolls. They were cute, like pandas or someone else’s puppy. If they hadn’t been made of cheap plastic they might have been cuddly.

When my former neighbors bought that house and I saw their crèche for the first time, I was not a Christian. I was coming out of a long atheist interlude, drifting in a direction people call “spiritual but not religious” — sensing that something was missing, casting about for it, open to ideas and suggestions and potentially convincing narratives.

What I saw in my neighbors’ front yard was not a potentially convincing narrative.

At best, it was nice. Pleasant. Polite. Sentimental, yes. Safe? Very safe. But I didn’t need pleasant and polite. I didn’t need sentimental. I could find those things elsewhere, plenty of places — and they weren’t enough. I didn’t need a god who was merely pleasant. Although I may not have recognized it at the time, I didn’t need a god who was safe. I needed a god who could shake things up — who could change things — who could change me, who could save me. I needed a god who could kick some butt — mine, when necessary. And that was going to take more than a really super nice guy. It was going to take more than a god who would pick a babydoll to be his mommy.

Now, having been raised Christian, having been exposed in my collegiate singing career to Latin masses and the works of Thomas Tallis, and having studied and written about the Old Order Amish, I was aware that Babydoll Crèche did not represent the full breadth and depth of the Christian experience.

Nevertheless, when I saw that crèche… well, I thought, if these people don’t take their god seriously, why should I? Continue reading

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Some thoughts on suffering, “cures,” and ethics

Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with people with autism argues that yes, we do need a cure for autism:

Would something be lost if autism were banished from the world? Probably. Autistic people have a unique way of looking at things that lets them solve problems differently from everyone else, and we all benefit from that insight. On the other hand, everyone always gives the same example of this: Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin is pretty great. But I am not sure that her existence alone justifies all of the institutionalizations and seizures and head-banging and everything else.

Imagine if a demon offered civilization the following deal: “One in every hundred of your children will be born different. They will feel ordinary sensations as exquisite tortures. Many will never learn to speak; most will never work or have friends or live independently. More than half will consider suicide. Forty percent will be institutionalized, then ceaselessly tyrannized and abused until they die. In exchange, your slaughterhouses will be significantly more efficient.”

I feel like Screwtape would facepalm, then force him into remedial Not-Sounding-Like-An-Obvious-Demon classes.

I didn’t know that there was a movement against cures for autism, but Alexander objects to the notion that people with autism who spend much of their time banging their heads against walls or trying to chew off their limbs are that way because they’ve been treated badly. He argues, reasonably, that (1) some children with autism are that bad off at home with parents who love them and are doing their best, and (2) this society isn’t going to come up with fantastically functional institutions any time soon (see: nursing homes). His best point, the one I want to focus on, is this:

Let’s taboo whether something is a “disease” or not. Let’s talk about suffering.

Dropping the binary distinction that assigns various people various mental diseases or disorders would seem to me to be a step forward in our thinking about how the mind works, at least in many cases — I’m thinking of depression, for example. And I agree that it is far better to approach people by considering whether they are suffering than by assigning them an identity.

Autistic people suffer. They suffer because of their sensory sensitivities. They suffer because of self-injury. They suffer because they’re in institutions that restrain them or abuse them or just don’t let them have mp3 players. Even if none of those things happened at all, they would still suffer because of epilepsy and cerebral palsy and tuberous sclerosis. A worryingly high percent of the autistic people I encounter tend to be screaming, beating their heads against things, attacking nurses, or chewing off their own body parts. Once you’re trying to chew off your own body parts, I feel like the question “But is it really a disease or not?” sort of loses its oomph.

Here’s the problem, though: If you want to talk about a “cure,” then it seems to me you had better be talking about a disease. Continue reading

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Technological change and the hard work of parenting

Alison Gopnik reports in the Wall Street Journal: “Two large-scale surveys done in 2007 and 2013 in the Netherlands and Bermuda, involving thousands of adolescents, found that teenagers who engaged in more online communication also reported more and better friendships.”

That’s a heartening correlation to anyone who doesn’t want to have to worry about the consequences their kids’ technology use, but it isn’t causality. It should not be surprising that people who have more and closer friendships would communicate with those friends by whatever means their society and economy provides, and that “more online communication” would thus correlate with “more and better friendships.” I do wonder what, exactly, “more and better friendships means”; in particular I wonder if the researchers’ construction of that idea ultimately collapses into a definition of extraversion, but I’m not interested enough to dig up the original article. I’m more interested in Gopnik’s use of the study, which is to dismiss the worries of parents (or of anyone else) as mere nostalgia. Continue reading

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We walked for miles to see him

I read this poem, or rather story in the form of a poem, in lieu of preaching a sermon on John 6:1–15 at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on July 26. I had no great words of wisdom to offer about the story of the loaves and fishes, and, in any case, I’m a writer, not a preacher.

We walked for miles to see him, this brand-new prophet,
packed a picnic in the dark before dawn:
bread, a little stale; some cheese, a skin of wine,
more than we needed. My wife overpacks.
On my back I bore this feast, beyond
the town, the stubbly fields, into the desert—
the wilderness, she driving me before her
like a damned goat to die. We lived, of course,
but that was later. Meantime the sun shone hot
and hotter as it climbed, as we climbed
one hill after another, to see another valley
void of life and full of rocks, the few
bare bushes brown, and worse than none.
The sky became a vast and cloudless fire
that washed the world to white. We kept our eyes
down on the ground. A lonesome vulture fed
on carrion—though what could have lived here
long enough to die, I could not guess. Perhaps
another prophet, less successful. This one—
This one they all talk about, the one
the fishmonger says is Lord. I’ve heard it before.
My wife, my neighbor, the fishmonger say to me:
You have to hear him preach! But all I could think,
trudging over hill and sun-baked vale:
If this guy is Lord, someone forgot
to prepare his way. Continue reading

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The Lord is not a shepherd

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on April 26, 2015.

John 10:11-18
Psalm 23

I was determined that I was not going to stand up here and talk about sheep, but in thinking about today’s readings I kept being pulled back to the image of them—the shepherd, the flock, the pasture, the sheep. I have to admit I’m just not crazy about that image. It isn’t that I don’t like sheep. I do like sheep. I’ve toyed with the idea of having sheep some day. They’re relatively easy to manage, and they’re good for multiple purposes throughout their life cycles: they give wool, they give meat, some breeds even give milk. They can live off of relatively poor land. They can be integrated fairly easily into a multi-purpose farm and a household economy. And lambing season, if you don’t mind being kept up at night, is a glorious thing. Wendell Berry, one of a dwindling number of literal “good shepherds” the western world has left in this age of industrialized agriculture who also gives us his own eloquent descriptions of the experience, has this to say about keeping sheep:

The old shepherd comes to another
lambing time, and he gives thanks.
He has longed ever more strongly
as the weeks and months went by
for the new lives the ewes have carried
in their bellies through the winter cold.
Now in the gray mornings of barely
spring he goes to see at last
what the night has revealed. 1

Berry is a Christian, which I think shows through pretty clearly in his poetry—not that he is actively trying to convert anyone, but that he never strays very far from the image of rebirth. The care he takes for his sheep is the sort of care we’d want from our own Good Shepherd, but Berry’s is a very human shepherd—a humble one, who “gives thanks” for a lambing time that he, far from controlling in the manner of an industrial foreman or a software engineer, takes as a holy mystery. Continue reading

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Loving one another on Thursday evening

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015. A note to the reader: The service at which I read this included footwashing and an agape meal, and it was held in, literally, the upper room of the parish hall, where we were all seated at tables in a rough circle. Knowing that context explains what I was evoking and may make a few of the references clearer!

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

And so we come to the end.

Jesus has spent three years traveling the length and breadth of Israel, preaching the kingdom of God. He has dined with tax collectors, forgiven prostitutes, and interceded for the condemned; disputed with priests and smashed up the temple. He has turned water into wine and a few hunks of dry bread into a feast for thousands. He has healed the lame, blessed the poor, and resurrected the dead. He has been revealed to his closest disciples as the divine Messiah, come to earth in human form to teach us, among other things, how to be human.

And now, when it’s time for him to go, we see him at his most human. Continue reading

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Losing our language

This news has been wending its way through the blogosphere for a few months now, with predictable hand-wringing and defense, but Robert MacFarlane reports in Orion that the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary replaces a number of words from nature with terms for technology.

Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.

Oxford clearly thought the technical terms more relevant to children’s lives than those they replaced, and that, sadly, is probably true. MacFarlane observes, correctly, that “The substitutions made in the dictionary—the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual—are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live.” But it’s his notes about the colorful variety of traditional terms for natural phenomena in the British Isles that intrigue me:

Consider ammil, a Devon term meaning “the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar-frost,” a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”; and another, klett, for “a low-lying earth-fast rock on the seashore.” On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight. Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now that I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.

What’s wonderful about these words is not only that they’re colorful and descriptive but that they arose from folk usage. They’re highly local; they’re rooted in a particular place and culture. The terms Oxford removed from its children’s dictionary didn’t display that color or variety, nor were they local in origin — but note how many of the new ones were imposed from above. They tell you what to do (attachment, cut-and-paste), they serve as advertising for services (broadband), they use inscrutable abbreviations (MP3 player), or they just feel forceful (bullet-point). The nearest to a folk term is blog, which seems like a common-sense contraction of web log, but it’s hard to separate the early common, bottom-up use of the term from the popularity it gained when the Blogger platform was released. Even those technology terms that begin in common, informal usage are almost immediately co-opted by one or more businesses for marketing. They don’t spread because they’re useful as much as because that’s what we’re told to call things, by someone with something to sell us.

The changes in the Oxford Junior Dictionary show us just how much power we’ve lost over our language — and therefore over our communication and, indeed, our own thoughts. Of course, the fact that people are buying and selling dictionaries in the first place tells us pretty much the same thing. Just not as vividly.

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