Just Stories

As Asha and I wandered through the Colosseum, we came across an exhibit detailing ancient mythology. Both of us took real delight in the stories we encountered about the gods of old.

Why was I able to enjoy them so much? Part of it has to do with the fact that they're thrilling stories wrapped in an incredible amount of symbolism. The stories we encountered were the way in which the beginnings of modern civilization made sense of a changing world. The turning of the seasons, for example, can be explained by the tale of Persephone.

Besides the fact that they're examples of good storytelling, I think that another reason why I was able to enjoy them was that we have all decided that they are just stories. No one professes belief in Zeus anymore. Because no one stakes meaning on the veracity of these stories, we are free to appreciate their poetry.

I've spent a lot of this trip wandering through religious landscapes. The exhibit at the Colosseum was the first time that I could really lose myself in the religious story before me because it was just that: a story. The day after the Colosseum, we visited the Vatican and all the usual mental roadblocks took up their position. It was hard for me to appreciate the beauty of the Sistine Chapel when I knew that so much meaning and the foundation of many people's lives rides on the truth of the stories depicted. Unlike with the stories of the old gods, to not buy into the stories on those ceilings comes at a cost. In that beautiful space, my lack of belief and the faith of the onlooking true believer are locked in a zero-sum game. Each of our perspectives implicitly returns a negative judgement on the other. Trapped in this zero-sum game, I lack the freedom to just enjoy the story.

I don't have any of the answers but I do believe stories will always be how we move the world and make sense of it. The tools of our storytelling -- and the stories themselves -- will naturally change and adapt. That much is certain. I wonder, though, which of the stories we tell ourselves today will withstand the test of time.

Our Colosseums

I visited the Colosseum the other day. Its history is rich, but I want to focus on one detail in particular: it was a creation intended for the masses.

There's an idea that was part of my study of international relations at Carnegie Mellon called selectorate theory. The theory describes, explains, and predicts both the internal and external policy of a country through a focus on the leaders of individual states. In a few words, the theory pays attention to the relationship between the groups that are involved in electing a leader or keeping a leader in power. Of particular interest is the smallest subset of the group that selects a leader, the winning coalition. When leaders have a small number of people to win over, say, in a dictatorship, the theory predicts the distribution of private goods. When leaders have a large number of people to win over, say, in a democracy, the theory predicts the creation of public goods.

In some sense, the emperor had to pay attention to the masses. They did not select him, but the sangunity of the public was still important. As a result, the building of the Colosseum, while extravagant, could arguably be a smart investment on the part of a ruling emperor. Providing a space for entertainment like gladiatorial contests was sure to have made the public a happy bunch.

Politics has changed quite a bit from the kind we might find in Rome during the time where the Colosseum was in actual use. However, it hasn't changed completely: far from not having to pay attention to the masses anymore, the rise of democracy has made it more important that leaders focus on satisfying the masses. In a sense, then, democratic society still has its metaphorical Colosseums: "projects" already completed, under construction, or promised by potential future rulers in order to sway our opinion.

The Colosseum as it was long ago is no longer, but it leaves a distinct impression of dramatic and public violence as the opiate of the masses. That is, at least in part, the Colosseum's legacy. Today, we can choose our Colosseums indirectly through the power of the vote. What structures will be built to appeal to the masses? We must choose carefully the legacy we intend to leave. Thousands of years from now, will the Colosseums we choose today still stand? What will they say about us? It's up to us.

Go the Other Way

Go the other way.

Is it deep into the night or creeping into the early morning? Get out there and witness the different rhythm.

Is it raining? Head somewhere popular and observe its character in the state of desertion.

Is there an escalator? Take the stairs. They will be less crowded, you'll get some exercise, and probably get where you're going faster.

Are people burdened with luggage like pack mules? Pack light and go fast through crowds.

Are there massive lines? Skip them by planning ahead, going during a different time, or skipping the thing altogether. Sometimes the collective hype is just hot air.

Is everyone heading into subways and taxis? Walk, if you can. You'll see a fuller picture of things.

Do people unquestionably believe something? Double-check if the wisdom of the crowds has true wisdom.

Do you unquestionably believe something? Ask yourself what it would take for you to change your mind.

Go the other way.

Skimming Stones to 10,000 Hours

Writing this blog has been an experiment ever since I first ventured to Malawi in 2009. I didn't think that much about creating the (then) Wordpress site and sharing my thoughts about the first time I left the United States. My writing from that summer is sweetly pure.

Over time, however, I've become more self-conscious of putting my writing out there. We get older and wiser, but we also get more afraid. What will my family, friends, and peers think of the words I put on the page? Am I saying something worthy of people's attention?

Even though I've always seen the project of writing online as a way of navigating my own sense of becoming, pulling my thoughts to the page as a way to make sense of them, these doubting questions can weigh me down sometimes.

The common advice about art is to just churn out more of it, to get your 10,000 hours in any way you can. I think I worry about my art -- writing -- producing beautiful "hours" in the process. The truth of it is that it's all likely to be ugly, with only a few gems to come from it. I know, for example, what's good in something that I write and what's bad. It's only the smallest bits -- a turn of phrase here, or a run of thoughts there -- that I can hold up proudly. I recently read a short essay where someone compared the exercise of a writer's morning pages to that of skimming stones:

You spend a couple of seconds looking for a good stone and you throw. There’s no concern about the quality of the throw, a few throws is all that’s needed to get better.

Most of the stones I throw these days are crap. But if I just keep all these throws to myself and wait until I've reached some sort of self-certified mastery, what's the point of it all? To connect is to be human. We have to show our work of being human. I hope that by putting out at least some of my crap on display, I can nudge myself to keep logging the hours and occasionally stumbling upon beautiful. Maybe others will reach a point where they extend bits of their soul out for others to see, too. What I say doesn't have to be profound and it doesn't have to be inspiring, it just has to be honest. I've just got to keep skimming stones.

The Pause

I've been watching a lot of people take photographs these last few weeks. Buildings, landscapes, food, drinks, art, movement: everything is a potential shot. The constant presence of photography in action made me think about what we are doing when we stop for a picture.

When we see something beautiful or interesting and then move to capture it, what's going on? Part of it is probably rooted in the ego: we want to have proof of where we go and what we see. When we share that proof with others, we are met with adulation, often in the form of abstract Internet approval. Another part of it might have to do with our attempts to bottle the awe and interestingness we encounter and share it with others. Humans have a deep drive to connect with others and one of the most powerful ways of doing that is to let in others on the story we see unfolding before us.

The drive of the ego and our desire to share could explain why we pause to take a photo, but I think there is more going on. Before photography, what did people do? They sat there for a moment and took it all in. Maybe they wrote, painted, or told stories to keep the memory alive. Now, though, we have the option of memoralizing it at low-cost. The choice is ostensibly between keeping it forever and letting it go. "Capturing" a photo is an apt turn of phrase: we either catch the moment or let it return to the wild. These moments don't exist in any true sense beyond the present moment. This impermanence -- the ephemeral nature of what's before us in every moment -- presents a frightening chasm that the past swallows up. It's no surprise that we turn away from embracing this impermanence and cast our nets out to try and keep what we can.

I'm convinced, however, that in the process of running away from the impermanence, we are losing something. We see the photo before we see the moment. This would make a good picture, we think, pulling out our camera. Through the act of framing a picture, our very experience of the moment is also framed.

Let's be clear: I'm not advocating for people to stop taking photographs. They can be a wonderful medium. I take pictures and will continue doing so and the stories they can tell are worthy of deep effort and a keen eye for what makes the world beautiful. I just think that we have to wrestle seriously with the way in which we respond to impermanence. Before you snap, soak it up. Maybe experiment with letting it go completely, freeing yourself of the burden of trying to keep what is ultimately impermanent.

It's worth noting that there's something strange about the language we use for photography. Capture. Shoot. Take. All of these are violent, aggressive words. Even the advice for good photography mirrors the advice for good marksmanship: breathe out when you shoot the photo (and the bullet).

Maybe we can experiment with letting go of this violent attempt to hold on to the past every once in a while. Maybe we can decide to transmute what we see into other forms in order to keep our memories adaptable and multifaceted.

If after a pause, the moment deserves the photo, then, by all means, take your picture. This pause is everything. Learning how to sit in that small space of pause is the battleground for our humanity. It is where we explore the choice of calmness over anger, mindfulness over desire, and courage over fear. We can choose to journey there more often. We should.

Now, hold on a second, I've got to take a picture of this vista...

Drowning in Art

Asha and I have had the chance to drop by a few renowned art museums over the last few weeks. It's been a strange experience for me. When I'm looking at these world-famous paintings, I feel like I'm drowning. I don't know how to swim in this kind of art. I've seen some of the most lauded pieces of art in human history and my gaze passes over the work, gasping for something yet returning nothing. Art should move us and so far these art museums have been an experiment in going nowhere.

Art is undoubtably a subjective experience. The further you drill down, the more the objectivity of the viewer unravels, giving in to raw subjectivity. Every kid has been thrown for a loop when they try to wrap their head around whether the blue that they see is the blue that others see. Maybe the styles of painting that I have encountered aren't for me and that's the end of the story. Certainly, the vast collection of religious art is emphatically not preaching to the choir.

Alternatively, it could be that I'm drowning because I lack the requisite foundation from which to appreciate the work. It could be that I'm outside of the flow channel in Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's flow channel): I have a healthy amount of interest, but too much difficulty. For me, though, that begs the question: is there value in the intrinsic accessibility of art? At least on my end, there's something immediate about good art in other mediums. Powerful writing, music, or film just hits you. You don't need to play classical music to be moved to tears by a beautiful symphony or have to be able to write a novel to be transported by a passage. Of course, the same feeling of drowning could be present when others try to swim in these mediums.

With that said, I think there's some value in drowning. We should all feel completely out of our depth every once in a while. A healthy serving of humility has never hurt anyone. But I still think there's some intrinsic merit to art's accessibility. Maybe someone can throw me a lifeline and keep me from drowning in art any longer?

Out of Time

I'm out of time. Not running short on it: I'm outside the usual stream of it. One way of looking at this unit that we measure our lives by is that it's like a bunch of different streams all running in the same direction. I feel like Asha and I are in our own little stream here in Madrid. Partly it's because we traveled here: the act creates its own offshoot stream in time through the oddly shaped days, byproducts of moving across time zones. Travelers dip in and out of these offshoots, unique streams that eventually vanish as one adapts to the rising and falling of the sun in a new place. Adapting here in Madrid is made more complicated by the fact that Spain has a whole different rhythm than home. It's like that scene in Whiplash: "Not quite my tempo." Breakfast isn't the deal I make it at home; lunch waltzes in late; dinner hides until late into the night.

I'm not complaining, really. It's just that we are in this one stream of time and I keep looking at everyone else in that bigger stream, wondering what it feels like.

Sometimes this feeling of out of time is a revealing one: the strange aliveness of early mornings or late nights. Riding those streams, one can capture different parts of the human experience. Still, being out of time like Asha and I are at the moment isn't always what one wants: it's fun to be not only the same place but the same time as everyone else. If time is subjective, there might be some value in buying into the collective experience of a community in time. I think Asha and I might be chasing that more than anything as we wander through Spain.

Eventually, we will return to the bigger river and the stream we're passing through right now could be lost forever. For this moment out of time, though, we are in a whole new world of experience. Maybe "suspended in time" means that you've temporarily stepped out of the main community of time to exist in your own stream for a moment. From this place out of time, you can look on at the main river and wonder where it's all taking us. I guess all we know is that it's somewhere downstream.

Stories in the Sky

Watching movies on a comically tiny screen is a required ritual of traveling by airplane. All those movies that I would never go see in the theaters become the perfects companion for the twilight hours I spend in a metal box flying through the sky.

Asha and I were deep into one of these movies on our flight to Madrid when something unusual happened. As a rule, I try to appreciate any art. No matter the quality, it takes some effort to create and we should always begin our experience with art with that in mind because it allows us to lose ourselves in a story. I like to give every story a chance and see if it can take me along for a journey.

This movie we were watching, though, upended my normal approach, fracturing my viewing experience. Normally it's not until after a movie ends that I take of the hat of the pure viewer and try to reflect on what I saw. Almost immediately upon watching the film, my viewing experience began to bifurcate: Daniel lost in the story and Daniel with a bird's eye view of the narrative.

I got a sense that certain parts of the film's story wore thin, some felt just right, and others lagged a beat too long. This scene had the wrong dynamic to it; that scene didn't quite move the story as intended. At the same time, I was still enjoying the movie: certain narrative tools always make me smile. The whole experience was kind of like trying on a coat. I was at once wrapped in the coat, inundated with the story as Daniel the viewer, and viewing how it looked in the mirror, seeing the whole arc of the story as Daniel with some perspective.

The simultaneous experience of these two viewing experiences was strange, but highlighted the importance of each. Both are not only essential important to enjoying a film's story but also your own story, too. Without the ability to get lost in your own narrative, you miss out on the moment to moment magic that the present can offer. Without the switch to seeing your story in the mirror in all its beauty and flaws, you lack the chance to mend the story for the better and to see how it all fits. But when you do find the right coat -- the right story -- for your life you don't need to do anything but put it on and keep moving.

It Comes In All Shapes and Sizes

Asha and I are heading to Europe for a few weeks. I've finished up my internship this summer and have a long stretch of time before classes begin again in late September. Asha doesn't start her new job until October, so now is the perfect time to grab our bags and get out of town for a while.

I've never been to Europe before; neither has Asha. We'll be roaming around Spain, France, Italy, and Greece. I suspect that we've packed things a little too tightly with our schedule, but we've counterbalanced a full itinerary with light backpacks. Packing light never gets old: I love it when people ask, "That's it?" Yes, I say, this is it, but there's so much more out there.

Things have been a little crazy getting ready for this trip. Asha moved across the country to San Francisco and we found a place in the city close to my family. Between wrapping up the internship, doing a few interviews for next summer, apartment hunting, and trying to nail down some logistics for the trip, I haven't really had a chance to really think about traveling in the first place.

Things were different with my trip to South America. I had a lot of time to dream about the mythos of the traveler and envision what it would be like to venture alone through the varied landscapes. However, I only had a plane ticket to Lima, Peru and no fixed plan or point of return. I hopped from one place to another on more or less a whim.

Now, it's only a hot second before I hop on the plane that I'm starting to imagine what the stories of tomorrow look like, but I have the vessels for all those stories laid out for me: a timeline for cities and travel, AirBnBs booked, transportation arranged.

Granting that not everyone can travel and that it's not some panacea for the soul, if you do travel, it's worth exploring the different ways you can bottle the experience. I'm curious to see how this upcoming trip will interact with its constraints. I suppose that's all you can really ask for at the beginning: raw, open-minded curiosity.