Context is on the table. Get the paddles.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: What follows is now popularly referred to as a “rant.” Although it’s content can refer to my work as a photographer, marketer, writer, and filmmaker, I offer it up more as a grousing, bitchy commentary on the listing ship of society as I see it.
Bah. You’ve been warned.
“He just loves to listen to himself talk.”
You know the type: the sort of people who ramble incessantly about every subject — any subject, no matter what. They are either immediate experts about every topic, or have an opinion about every subject you bring up. They are caught in the vortex of their own perceptions, and there may be some pretty compelling reasons why this has happened in their life. But their speech habits probably won’t inspire you to ferret them out.
They have no inner monologue, only a direct line between their observation and their mouth, and it seems like they are condemned to share every vocal synapse with you — or perhaps you’re the one condemned to endure it.
“…a continual dripping on a very rainy day…”
I never thought I was that guy. At least, I don’t think I’m that guy.
Geez Louise: please don’t let me be that guy…
But a few months ago I had an experience that made me wonder.
Every spring at my day job, there is an event that is a knockoff of the Oscars. It coincides with that great American ritual where our cinematic heroes are honored for their achievements. At least the ones that belong to a pretty powerful union.
I knew that I was about to be called up to the podium when the award giver said, “This goes out to our own resident storyteller, a person for whom you must have an extra 20 minutes whenever you want to stop by and ask him a question; a person for whom the water cooler is his own private research forum.”
When my name was called, there was laughter, and I was handed a small, plastic Oscar replica emblazoned with a small faux brass plate, reading, “The I Digress Award.”
Of course, they only meant it in good fun. I was surprised, however, at the depth of my emotional reaction.
Our organization, like most in the corporate world, is obsessed with the notion of “fairness” in seemingly every way except compensation and desk location. Since I didn’t win any awards last year — and since we’d lost a pretty good chunk of our head count since the last awkward, forced camaraderie escapade, I figured the odds were pretty good that the Gods of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity would smite me with a gag award. So, I dug deep into my internal VHS collection of excellent award show speeches, and I came up with a version of Hugh Laurie’s impossibly brilliant thank you at the People’s Choice awards from 2012.
Confidently, I strode up, accepted my Kewpie doll Oscar, and gave my hack job of a speech, complete with a series of torn paper “names.” and sat down. (Never forget, my tender pea shoots, that creativity is little more than the fine art of concealing your source. In this case, I’m bravely sharing mine.)
While the rest of the crowd moved on to the next ritualistic character assassination disguised as team-building, I sat there feeling as embarrassed and made fun of as when I told the sixth grade class clown, Benny, that I dreamed I had kissed Janine Dewey.
So I, the shy guy, actually have a terminal case of diarrhea mouth? Really?
I was shocked. I felt numb, actually. All this time I thought that I was simply bringing a little rounded context to the answers I gave whenever I was asked a question. Whenever someone said to me in the kitchen, as I was brewing my loose leaf tea, “how are you, Sam,” I would never insult their interest by simply responding with the rote, “fine.” I would actually tell them how I was; inspired, mesmerized, lost, overwhelmed, or even indefatigable — complete with the luscious details of why.
Of course, I’d also describe to them how, by pouring the boiling water from the reverse osmosis machine back and forth between two coffee mugs exactly 9 times, no more and no less, you’d be able to get the water to between 175 and 183 degrees Fahrenheit — exactly where a Chinese green should be brewed. That way, the bitter tannins wouldn’t release from the leaves, resulting in a cup that tasted more like unleaded gasoline than tea.
Of course, my error was in assuming everyone actually had interest.
Now I had apparently gained an award-winning reputation of being the person for whom you’d have to prepare an escape route whenever you encountered him in the hall.
I was mortified.
But that experience opened my eyes to a larger reality: people genuinely resent context.
OK, I get it — they resent having context foisted on them.
My passionate expository on tea brewing aside, it frustrates me that people are increasingly choosing to live in a self-blown bubble. They are comfortable there, with limited patience and an even more limited vocabulary, especially a limited cultural vocabulary. They’ve got their slippers on, a 32-ounce Big Gulp tucked tight between their propped-up thighs, and the tips of their fingers aglow with orange powder from the never-ending stream of Doritos that keep their tongues much busier than with an engagement in curious conversation.
Don’t write me a dissertation, just give me a few bullets.
Can’t you distill that to a few PowerPoint slides?
Come on Sam, just get to the point.
I don’t want a full-serve up, don’t sell me: what’s the punchline?
I don’t want the entire album, I just want to download the one or two songs I recognize.
There are many ways to describe the phenomenon: you could say that people are becoming more insular, or you can say that they’re becoming more specialized, or you can say that they’re becoming more intellectually and culturally isolated — or perhaps homogenous.
It is the ultimate irony: we hold the accumulated knowledge of the world in our palms, but the choices that we make form an ever-constricting circle. And that circle is the circle of our own familiarity. The great shame in our connected world is the shriveling of curiosity.
Big-budget movies are terabytes of CGI now. Songs that are “hits” seem to be all auto-tuned. We don’t sit and listen to side one and then side two of the album, with the songs in the carefully constructed order the artists wanted, we download songs that sound like the other songs in a collation, thanks to someone to whom we’ve seeded the role of “curator.” Online ads are automatically triggered by the text in our Google searches and even the language we use in our private emails.
Where is exploration? What death is curiosity dying? If all who wander are not lost, then tell me who the hell is wandering anymore, so I can walk to the library with them and get lost tickling the stacks in the card catalog?
In the Kiersey-Bates Temperament Sorter, inspired by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, there’s this question:
I’m actually annoyed that I can’t respond to it in essay form. But hey, I digress.
Facts never speak for themselves. They have to have context in order to be properly understood and set up. If you think you can live a robust, rich life, going from Google search to Google search, then krikey, imagine what you’re missing. The texture, the mortar between bricks, the handiwork, the spice… It’s like thinking you can learn kung-fu from tapes.
Damn you, Keanu.
Why do I carry not one, but two Moleskine notebooks with me everywhere? (One’s lined for journaling, the other is unlined and “reporter style” for sketching.) Why do I insist on only using an absolutely antiquated fountain pen when I write or sketch in those Moleskine’s? Why do I always acquire an entire album when I come across an interesting song? Why do I adore and prefer to ride my bicycle or motorcycle when I could easily take a car?
I’m not a curmudgeon (although my best college chum has told me that I’m likely to rap young whippersnappers about the head and shoulders with an umbrella rather than a cane in my doddering old age.) I simply want to be immersed.
I want to be the one absorbing the whole experience in a way that will let me slot it into a larger, richer story when I get more parts to it, later. Instead of making a 140 character note on my iPhone about a notion I’ve come up with, my nose would rather smell the acid-free paper, my fingers wrangle the leather cover, and my hands and wrists and arms push and flow with the ink that takes an interminable amount of time to dry — all while I’m feeling, thinking, and brooding over — anything at all.
It’s not the destination, silly. It’s the trip.