logging off

Last week, after a lengthy discussion about time wasting and procrastination with my roommates (this discussion served as exactly both things), the three of us decided to take a facebook hiatus. We passed our computers to the right and changed each other’s passwords to obscure Ja Rule lyrics (hope this doesn’t give anything away, Marielle) and agreed to log off for a certain amount of time. I did this once last year, deactivating my account for a week during winter quarter, but I wanted to try it again this time not so much as a let’s-see-if-i-could-go-without-it-for-a-week kind of thing and more of a lifestyle change kind of thing.

Inherently, there is nothing wrong with facebook. It serves many useful purposes– you can connect with people who are far away, publicize local events, and there are a couple important pieces of news I am mildly embarrassed to say I found out about first on facebook (sorry bout it, Bin Laden and Gaddafi). But maybe the actual usefulness ends there. My roommates and I agreed that if all anyone ever did on facebook was send messages to faraway friends and become aware of important events, then it wouldn’t be so bad. But half the time what happens (at least for me) is you go into this terrifying state I like to refer to as the Facebook Haze.

The Facebook Haze can manifest itself in different ways–sometimes its as basic as sitting down to write a paper and not actually getting a word written until you’ve put in a good hour of browsing/trolling/stalking. Other times, it will be when I realize that I have multiple windows of facebook open at once, hiding behind each other on my desktop without even knowing it.  But sometimes, I experience what I like to call the “blacking in” effect where I suddenly “come to” at profile picture 45 of someone I barely know, have to shake myself, and close out of the window immediately in shame and confusion. Because seriously, what am I actually doing with my life?

I decided that I needed to log off. I had started getting this nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach after too long of a session on facebook, similar to what one might experience after casually killing half a package of oreos or taking down an entire bag of skittles. Needless to say: not good.

Sometimes I actually start to feel claustrophobic when I think about how much digital and social media has encroached on our every day lives (I of course say this while using a type of digital media that will be sent out over two forms of social media). But in all honesty, it has made everything around me, all the time I spend on these types of things, feel strangely artificial. You can’t touch any of it, you can’t feel any of it, all any of it is is words and images on a screen, something so apart from actual, visceral life.

I spent this past Saturday in the Forest Grove preserve in Western Illinois chopping and clearing the invasive species buckthorn with the awesome organization CommuniTyler, founded in memory of my friend Tyler Lorenzi who died last spring. We woke up at the crack of dawn and drove an hour to Forest Grove, and quickly began hacking and sawing at the buckthorn that littered the snow-covered area. This all occurred on a 25 degree day, at an hour that usually passes by unbeknownst to my sleeping body, but I haven’t felt so good in a long time. Not to just be with a group of people who knew Ty, spending time in the woods that he loved so much, feeling like he was all around us, but also to be outside, doing something physical, interacting with people and with the earth. No phones, no computers, just trees and people and air. (Here is a wonderful video of the event).

I can’t help but feel that in a world that seems to be inexorably careening toward intangibility of all things, that it is even more important to spend time doing things with our hands, with our feet, with our lungs. To move around, to be outside, to do something physical, to talk to people, spend time with people. To read actual books and articles, to write by hand, to unplug.

I have been off facebook for over a week now, and I have to say I don’t miss it. There are occasional moments where I forget that I’m off it and go to check something or look up who someone is, but most of the time, I just feel freer, healthier. It feels good to use time I would have used on facebook to do other things– to call someone on the phone instead of messaging them, to read a book instead of my newsfeed, to sit and listen to music or talk to my roommates or take a walk or a run. When I think about the things that are actually important to me, that actually make me happy, that actually matter– none of them have anything to do with facebook or twitter or any of that. So as of now, the hiatus is going to last for the foreseeable future.

I leave you with one of the most amazing videos I have ever seen, something that I think really encapsulates what makes me feel like I’ve just eaten fresh fish and vegetables with a tall glass of water rather than a chipotle burrito and package of oreos. Whenever I feel like I’m concentrating on something small or petty or in the grand scheme of things insignificant, I think about the immensity of those mountains, the the vast sky teeming with stars, the endlessness of the open space.

Stop looking at your screens, and look up. Look around. Look outside.

mediocre games

I had been decidedly against the Kindle on principle– I wanted to be a writer, damnit, I wanted to write books that people could hold in their hands, could write in the margins of, that would, with any luck, become dog eared and tucked on a shelf. It doesn’t sound quite as good when instead of snuggling up with something you made, someone clicks “download” and snuggles up with some a little screen that uses some bizarre ink technology to reproduce your words. It was not exactly what I’d dreamed about as a little girl writing stories on yellow lined notebook paper, to say the least. But when my friend Natalie and I started throwing around the idea of spending some time traveling and teaching in South America next year, suddenly the idea of a portable library became more and more appealing. Having carried a backpack full of twelve books to Chile this summer and nearly dislocating both my shoulders in the process, I realized that owning a Kindle might actually be pretty handy. And so, one merry Christmas later, and I am now the somewhat sheepish owner of that silver little bundle of joy.

The reason I bring all this up is that I got the Kindle with a bunch of books I’d been meaning to read loaded on it. I got through Into The Wild, Born To Run and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close over break, and have just recently begun the Hunger Games trilogy– had to see what all the fuss was about. And while I found myself, like most other who have read the first book, unable to put it down, I found myself constantly being pulled out of the narrative by the mediocre-at-best writing. What was it about these fantasy young adult novels that had people addicted? Had Stephanie Meyer laced her disgustingly melodramatic dialogue and pathetically flat characters with crack? Did Suzanne Collins skip the high school English class on showing not telling to practice techniques of hypnosis? It’s unclear, but there must be something going on in both of these series that is providing the authors with widespread success, movie deals, and c-a-s-h.

Having read books from both series (I begrudgingly admit), there seem to be several similarities:

1. Elements of fantasy (vampires and werewolves in Twilight, imagined future technologies in The Hunger Games)

2. Love triangles to appeal to female audiences (Edward, Jacob and Bella in Twilight, Gale, Peeta, and Katniss in Hunger Games)

3. Violence/fighting to appeal to male audiences (werewolf vs. vampire battles in Twilight, children fighting to the death in Hunger Games)

4. Boring, forced, unoriginal, cringe-inducing prose. (“About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him– and I didn’t know how potent that part might be– that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionaly and irrevocably in love with him” –Twilight, “The sun persists in rising, so I make myself stand. All my joints complain and my left leg has been asleep for so long that it takes several minutes of pacing to bring the feeling back into it. I’ve been in the woods three hours, but as I’ve made no real attempt at hunting, I have nothing to show for it.” –Hunger Games)

The first three elements seem to be enough to catapult these series into world-renowned success, and the authors are somehow allowed to get by writing sentences that wouldn’t have been acceptable in my high school English classes, let alone college ones. Stephanie Meyer appears to be too busy pushing a not-so-subtle Mormon agenda to think about things like logical timescale, believable relationships and clear character motives. Suzanne Collins, I think, realizes that she can distract readers from boring prose with a high-stakes, high-drama plot and unusual character names. (I would like to note that I leave J.K. Rowling out of this– she is a witty, inventive, complex, and talented writer who deserves every bit of succes she has received)

I discussed this phenomenon with my brother Matt the other day, who as a self-proclaimed “connoisseur” of the genre (leaving Twilight out of it, of course. I can feel him scoffing from here) reaffirmed my suspicion that “it is not about how well you write, it’s about how compelling your plot is.” This is upsetting to me– do the two have to be mutually exclusive? Yes, a large portion of Collins’ and Meyer’s readership are middle and high school aged kids who may not be seeking high brow literature, but that doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent, and it doesn’t mean they can’t be exposed to quality writing. It is actually possible to create a book with a compelling plot that is well written and geared toward young adults.

Which is when I subsequently realized my path to fame and financial security is clear– write a fantasy young adult trilogy that might actually stimulate kids’ brains through varied sentence structure and rich diction, and provide them with substantial, believable characters.

So if you see books on the shelves in the next ten years about a spunky mermaid caught in a cross-species love triangle attempting to save her ocean home from pollution by any (violent) means possible, do me a favor and pick up some copies for your kids.

into whatever crazy beauty awaits

I am here to take issue with the phrase “supposed to.” It may have a place when referring to household chores or speed limits or syllabi, but I want it to have no place in the grand scheme of my life– of anyone’s life. It’s possible you’re supposed to take the trash out on Tuesday nights, you’re supposed to yield to pedestrians, you’re supposed to turn in your midterm paper by 5pm three weeks from today, but beyond that I want nothing to do with it.

“Supposed to” is crippling, it’s inhibiting, it’s uninvited. “Supposed to” is a stencil I didn’t ask for, a set of thick black lines that cramp my style. My point is that “supposed to” may have its uses when trying to get young children to stay within the low painted walls of the campo or dogs not to pull you when you’re crunching through the snowy woods, but when it comes to how you live your life, where you go, who becomes part of your universe, “supposed to” should not exist.

I spent the entirety of fall quarter holding myself up to standards I hadn’t set, looking for jobs I didn’t want, adhering to guidelines that were completely irrelevant to my life, my interests, my personality, my dreams. I don’t know when the moment occurred, perhaps on the phone with Nellie or reading “The Future Has An Ancient Heart,” but it brilliantly and suddenly occurred to me that there is nothing you’re supposed to do. There is no way you’re supposed to live. And if you are feeling the pressure of those things, it is a construct of some third party– one you should be ignoring. Your life is stunningly, thrillingly, singularly yours. There is no stencil. There is no rulebook. There are no speed limits.

There are so many millions of dazzling avenues that lay ahead, ones with forks and alleyways and offshoots, and there is no right way to go, no right path to take. Each one of us is different, wants different things, has a different starlight guiding us onward. How could there possibly be a “supposed to”?

I found out yesterday that I was accepted to NOLS next fall, which will essentially involve me backpacking, mountaineering and sea kayaking around New Zealand’s South Island for three months. At whatever point I dispensed with “supposed to,” I realized that especially as an aspiring writer, there is no set career path I have to take. Anything I do that involves me seeing things, gaining experiences, meeting people, learning things–will be beneficial to my writing in the end. And beneficial to me as a human being in the world– something I think is true of every single person, regardless of their career trajectory. Spending three months outdoors seemed a great a way as any to spend a few months out of the two (or so) years I take off before getting my MFA in creative writing.  And strangely enough, I realized that I would not have been able to take advantage of NOLS had I not been able to graduate early this March and save a quarter’s worth of tuition. And had I been accepted to the year-long fiction writing sequence I applied to for this year, I would not have been able to graduate early. Further proof that we have absolutely no idea what lies ahead of us the majority of the time.

The choices we make are ours, no matter what point of our lives we’re at. Whether you’re seventeen and looking at colleges, whether you’re twenty-two and trying to figure out your next step, whether you’re fifty and figuring out what’s best for your family, whether you’re seventy-two and deciding how to fill your days. What is right for one person might be completely wrong for another person, and vice versa.

You have to decide what’s important to you, decide what you want, and chase it down. Success does not fit into a universal definition, it is a unique, specialized concept that has a different shape and color and sound for each person.

Call your own shots. Cut your own trails. Seek happiness as hard as you can.

a new kind of resolution

I often feel that whenever a new year rolls around so many of the resolutions that are made are really more like new year’s eliminations, new years guilt trips, new year’s punishments. What new year’s resolutions force us to do is look at the unsatisfactoriness, the failure, the shortcomings of the previous year. And that may be the only reflection we allow ourselves. Things we did we wish we hadn’t, things we didn’t do we wish we had. And somewhere along the way we forget to look at the good things, to reflect on the positive, to remember the gleaming golden moments, our successes, the things we did right.

Because though each year that passes may be filled with things we can improve on, with things we can do better, with things we can avoid doing, they are also filled with wonderful things that happened, with marvelous things we did, with instances of joy and triumph and peace. And while self-improvement is something crucial and beneficial to our development as human beings, it does not come from criticism alone– it comes also from the recognition and cultivation of the things we are already doing right– a list that might be longer than we think it is.

I recently watched a fascinating documentary called Life In A DayA National Geographic Films project that solicited footage of people’s everyday lives on one day– July 24, 2010– from all around the world and compiled it into a film that not only demonstrates the stunningly eclectic diversity of habits, routines, and customs on the planet, but also the larger universal truths that span across all geographic and cultural distances. The project received 4500 hours of footage from people all around the world and compressed it into a poignant one and a half hour film that deals with quotidian simplicities like brushing your teeth, hitting snooze on the alarm clock, and making breakfast, but also the broader themes of ambition, loss, rejection, and love.

What was fascinating to me beyond the astounding beauty of amateur cinematographers capturing simple, ordinary moments was the concept of the amount of total minutes that occur each day. And I don’t mean  the 1440 that belong to each one of us, but that number multiplied by the number of people in the world. Because every set of 1440 minutes allotted to each person every day are spent differently, are unique, are their own. And so when National Geographic films asked people to film their lives on one day, on one set of 24 hours, the number of hours of footage they received was far, far greater. And those 4500 hours are only a portion of all the hours experienced by people on earth. What it made me realize was that time is our own, that each day we have 1440 minutes to spend however, wherever, and with whomever we choose. Every one of us.

And so to look back on 2011, on 365 sets of 24 hours, of 1440 minutes, how many beautiful, good things can we find? Even if it’s just enjoying nature or being kind or observing the tightly wound red threads that tie us to everyone around us, our years are so rich with dazzling slivers of life it seems more productive to focus on them, to try to expand and replicate them than to spend so much time over the workouts we didn’t do or the closets we didn’t organize or the old habits we didn’t kick. There is nothing wrong with working on our shortcomings as long as we balance it with reflecting on the good things.

2012 is clear and bright, wide open, free and unfilled. Ripe with opportunity to make it as brilliant and magnificent and breathtaking as last year. Balance resolutions that begin with words like “stop” and end with words like “more” with ones that start with “keep” and “always.” Keep getting fresh air. Keep exploring. Always tell the people you love that you love them. Always be kind. Keep learning. Keep being curious. Always help others. Always express yourself. Keep laughing. Keep smiling. Keep holding hands. Always be thoughtful. Always be grateful. Keep doing what you love. Keep believing. Keep living.

Happy New Year!

*Life In A Day is available on Netflix Watch Instantly