Standing Ovations

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself at a David Copperfield show.  Yes, that David Copperfield.  I’m not a magic aficionado, but the show was fun – well produced, polished, and generally entertaining.

I’ll admit that half the fun of the show was not the show itself, but watching it and figuring out how it was produced.  I don’t really mean the magic – figuring out how the tricks worked – that was mostly beyond me.  I’m perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief and just agree that he’s sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a full head of thick black hair, and the ability to make big stuff show up where big stuff could not possibly have been moments before.

What I found interesting was the sheer amount of production that went into the show.  Everything was rehearsed, and rehearsed thoroughly (and repeated several nights a week, I guess).  Nothing went wrong – and when it seemed like things might be going wrong (as it sometimes does whenever members of the audience get involved), Copperfield’s experience as a performer and manager of audiences, clearly extensive, took care of it.

Everything had a place.  Every step, every trick, every word.  It felt like watching a TV show in person.  The entire thing had been crafted – designed to direct our eyes, our attention, and our emotions.

The end of the show rolled around, and with it some kind of 2 part finale.  I don’t actually remember what the tricks were, I just remember that there were 2 standing ovations. I’m always intrigued by the concept of the standing ovation.  You go to a show, you get to the end, you’re already applauding, but it’s not enough.  You’ve got to really let the performer(s) know that they were so compelling, so amazing, that you cannot stay in your seat.  You have to stand up, clap wildly, even whistle, if you’re one of those people blessed with the ability to make a shrill, fingers in your mouth whistle.  And it’s never just one person.  The whole crowd gets up, or at least the front section (why is it always the front section?) in a nearly unanimous decision that the performance was too amazing – butts cannot remain in chairs.

So I was particularly surprised when, at the end of this show, not one but two standing ovations took place.  The show was nice, I enjoyed it, but I would not put it in the category of “to applaud this man while sitting would be a travesty”.  And everyone in front of us stood up to clap.  Twice.

But I noticed something during the first standing ovation.  Being alert for this kind of thing (I’m always keen to try to work out the motivations of that first person who stands up during the applause.  What a weight on their shoulders!), I watched the first dude stand up.  He was young-ish, probably early to mid 20s.  But what struck me was the fact that after the applause, he left, like he had to go to the bathroom or something.  Then the second standing ovation rolls around, and lo and behold, it’s the same dude.  Stands up, gets the ovation going, and leaves.

So clearly, he’s part of the show.  And his role is: Trick (guilt?) the people in the front section into standing up and clapping.  And that doesn’t sound so surprising, but think through how this went – they planned this.  They sat down at some point before the show, and somebody said

“Alright, Chad, you’re on ovation duty tonight.  I want you to sell it.  Don’t be a Zack.  We all saw what happened to Zack.  I’ll give you a crisp $5 bill if you can squeeze a tear out.” 

 And he went out there and did it.  And dutifully, the people around him bought it, and stood up.  

Chad here, who showed up 38 seconds ago, found this performance worthy of a stand-and-clap.  Good enough for Chad, good enough for me.”  

Or maybe they didn’t buy it.  Maybe they saw through it, but somehow felt like it was their job to stand, and Chad was their leader – giving them non-verbal cues on how they were expected to behave for their privileged position at the front of the theater.  Maybe they felt bad for Chad, standing all alone, and quickly got up so he didn’t feel silly, or, you know, suffer the same fate as Zack. I don’t know.

Regardless, the lesson was:  Don’t trust Chad.  And maybe don’t trust our deeply ingrained, follow-the-leader instincts.  Because apparently (I learned after the show), this is so common, it’s a thing, with a name.  We’re all so willing to follow the Chads of the world, who will head to his next job, resume in hand, listing his exemplary skills in “Leadership in standing up”.

Don’t follow Chad.  Watch out for Chad.  He’s at the theater, where he’s innocuous, but I’m guessing he’s elsewhere too, preying on us psychologically, convincing us of what to care about, what to do.  And he’s doing so with his own motivations, his own goals, his own agenda.

I’m watching you, Chad.

Passion

In the past fifteen years, the only time I didn’t look at my bank account every day was when I was doing something I was passionate about.

Altucher, James | Choose Yourself (p. 130)

Everything seems really important.  Your job, your bank account, your house, your car, your clothes.  Your TV.  The shows you watch on your TV.  Your furniture.

I walk around my suburban neighborhood in the summer, and it’s all pristine yards.  Green grass, well trimmed.  Well maintained landscaping.  To be clear, this includes my house.  And I walk around, and I can’t help but wonder:  Do we all care this much about our lawns?  Is this really important enough to justify the amount of time and money spent?

I think most people don’t actually care about these things, at all – or, put more honestly, I don’t think I care about these things at all, in spite of the fact that they feel important to me.  You probably have a different set of things that feel important but you don’t care about, which overlaps to some degree with mine.

I have an actual list titled “things I don’t care about”, which includes the things above.  Making that list is difficult, because if you want it to be meaningful, you have to be really painfully honest about it.  And maybe I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t care about how my yard looks, but I do.  I actually love yardwork.  That’s ok.  Making a conscious decision, giving it some actual thought is what is valuable.

Here’s what I find more interesting, day to day: the amount of time and effort I spend thinking about or working on the things that are on my “things I don’t care about” list is directly related to how excited I am about whatever else I’m doing in my life.  I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how justifiable it would be to buy a new car?  Perusing luxury home listings and thinking about how to get rich?  Probably a good indicator that I don’t really care about what I’m doing with the rest of my day.

” … for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Jobs, Steve | Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005

 

Chula

I dare you to watch this and not enjoy it.  Let me walk you through the emotional rollercoaster you’re about to embark on:

:00 – :50 | I guess this is like, costumed breakdancing with tap boots?  Novel.  I’ll give this about a minute, pat myself on the back for being “cultured”, and be on my way.

1:00 | Quite the costumed call-out there, black boots.  Part of me wants to mock, but he’s so committed, so fearless about it.  Lets see what white boots has to say.

1:30 | I think white boots is the literal definition of panache.  I can’t let this go quite yet.

2:20 | I guess this is on.  This is happening. Nobody is backing down here.  Still – I’ve seen them both dance now,  I’m certainly not going to watch this whole thing.  I’m an adult with things to do.  I’m surprised I made it through 2 minutes.

2:35 | I realize they’re commanding the live band by tapping their boots.  I can’t lie, I’m suddenly flush in the cheeks.

3:10 | How many spins was that?  Did anybody see that?

3:10 – 15:00 | Did i just watch this for 15 minutes?  There’s no way I just watched this for 15 minutes.

15:15 | WHEN DID BLACK BOOTS’ HAT COME OFF?  Gather round, everybody, it’s about to get real.

16:05 | Add “take off my scarf and jump rope with it” to the bucket list.

18:13 | I did it.  I watched 18 minutes of this.  And somehow, I’m disappointed it’s over.

 

I don’t know what this is.  I don’t know what the rules are.   I don’t know who won (yes I do, black boots definitely won).  But It was good.  They were good.  They were passionate, talented, practiced, and committed.  And that’s fun to watch.

Bravo, mystery dancers.

Courtesy of digg.

Kilian

When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.

Pirsig, Robert M. | Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Every time Kilian Jornet pops up in a video, I’m entertained by him.  In today’s sampling, he attempts the Seven Summits of Romsdalen in Norway, a 77km route, in a single day, using only skis and feet as transport.  but my favorite part is (spoiler) when he fails – conditions aren’t quite right, and he can’t make it in a day.   He admits it, maybe he’s a little defeated, but it’s ok.  It’s a huge day just the same, and he’s expended a huge amount of effort.  And the cameraman asks him “What now?” and he replies

Kilian: Shower… Eat… And then just, I don’t know like, just to plan for tomorrow, ah?

Cameraman: (laughing) Are you serious?

The best part is that he’s completely oblivious to how nuts everyone else thinks this is.  It’s not nuts to him because it’s who he is.  To take the ZAMM quote literally, he wasn’t climbing the mountain to prove who he is, he was climbing the mountain _because_of who he is.  He had a goal, it was hard, he couldn’t reach it – but the point was not really the goal, the point was a fun day in the mountains, and tomorrow is no different.

Why Read Fiction?

I was at a conference a couple of years ago, and I sat through a session where the presenter ran through a series of ideas about how to accomplish more.  Or be more productive.  Or maybe it was about APIs?  Something.  Honestly, I don’t remember – but one bit of it actually stuck with me (not so much that I can remember the conference, topic, or speaker.  Sorry, mystery person who helped shape my thoughts).  He said something to this effect (believe it or not, I’ll have to paraphrase):

Read fiction.  Nonfiction is great, and it’s important, and worth spending time reading.  But so is fiction.  Fiction gives you new perspectives – it helps give you the fuel to power your imagination.

Some guy | At some conference | Talking about something.  Probably < 2015.

What was so notable to me about this was that I had never heard anyone actually defend reading fiction before.  I mean, nobody is attacking here, so defend might not be the right word – but I’d never heard anyone sing the praises of fiction, outside of the context of either Art/Culture, which were terribly uninteresting to me at the time, or Entertainment, which was the only reason I could understand that anyone would read fiction.

But then I started reading more.

I’m not sure exactly why (maybe it was this guy!), but I felt compelled to start reading more.  So read more I did. And mostly these days, I read fiction.

It started, like I said, purely out of a desire for entertainment.  Reading fiction felt to me like really classy television:  You’re just in it for the entertainment, for the distraction, but the fact that you’re reading puts you in a different class than those mouth-breathing TV watchers (note: I’m a mouth breathing TV watcher, and my description of both the activity and myself probably deserve to be brought up with a therapist).  Reading fiction is compelling enough that I’ve stuck with it pretty regularly over the past few years, but my opinion of it has changed.

I no longer believe that reading fiction is entertainment; a distraction.

Why is the author writing?

The first book that really made me stop and question an author’s motives was Anathem, By Neal Stephenson.  Anathem may be my favorite book of all time – certainly top 5.  What made me stop and question was the feeling, relatively early on, that the author was not just trying to entertain me – he was trying to get at something himself.   He built an entire world around a few specific ideas, in a way that felt like the entire goal was simply to explore them.  “What would happen if the perception and role of religion and science were reversed?” felt like the first question in Anathem – and it could only be answered through real, thorough exploration.  I won’t spoil the book by asking the other questions he digs into in that book, but there are many, and they’re all interesting.

After Anathem, I dug into everything else from Stephenson I could find, and each time I found the same pattern:  An interesting question or idea, and an entire scenario, environment, world built simply in order to explore it.

Soon after, I started noticing the same pattern, if not quite so overt, in other authors’ work.  Slowly, it began to dawn on me:  It seems some questions can only be answered – or maybe it’s that they can only be shared – through stories.

What does it mean to me?

There’s an idea I mentioned yesterday, that is played on heavily in Siddhartha: Siddhartha is unwilling to accept the teachings of others.  I get this, I feel it, I relate to it.  But that’s exactly the point: By hearing the story of Siddhartha, which is, of course, fiction, I put myself in his shoes.  I figure out the ways in which we relate, and suddenly I can feel what is happening to him as though it were happening to me. I understand better his point of view, why he behaves the way he does – it’s as close as I can come to living his experiences without actually living them.

And, again, to reference the actual story in Siddhartha:  Sometimes in life we actually have to live things to understand them. I think there’s no way to get closer to that experience than to read well-written fiction (or, to be fair, nonfiction, told as a narrative).

So go read a trashy romance novel, and call it personal development.  If anybody questions you, just have them talk to me.

Siddhartha’s Many Deaths

Now he saw it and saw that the secret voice had been right, that no teacher would ever have been able to bring about his salvation. Therefore, he had to go out into the world, lose himself to lust and power, to woman and money, had to become a merchant, a dice-gambler, a drinker, and a greedy person, until the priest and Samana in him was dead. Therefore, he had to continue bearing these ugly years, bearing the disgust, the teachings, the pointlessness of a dreary and wasted life up to the end, up to bitter despair, until Siddhartha the lustful, Siddhartha the greedy could also die. He had died, a new Siddhartha had woken up from the sleep.

Hesse, Hermann | Siddhartha  (p. 46)

 

Siddhartha is a great book.  It’s not that long, it’s not a particularly difficult read, and it’s got a lot of interesting ideas (especially if, like me, you’re not particularly familiar with eastern philosophy).

There’s so much going going on in this quote, but I’ll just focus on one thing:  Siddhartha gives himself completely to whatever phase of life he’s in.  This idea is probably one of the things that had me thinking about consistency in opinion yesterday.  In the book, Siddhartha has a friend from youth, Govinda, who leaves him and becomes a follower of Buddha, where he stays for the rest of his life.  Govinda seems to lead a fulfilling life, and it’s one in which he really doesn’t have to change  who he is.  He makes a decision and he sticks with it for the rest of his life.  Which is great, and interesting, but, I think, not nearly interesting as how Siddhartha lived.

Siddhartha commits completely to whatever phase of his life he’s in.  When he’s an ascetic, he’s a committed ascetic. When he’s a merchant, he becomes wealthy and successful.  Siddhartha is unwilling to accept teachings without experiencing them firsthand for himself –  He accepts that he’ll change throughout his life, and that to find his path, to continue moving forward, he has to be different people, and then let those people die.

Siddhartha learned through living.

Waffling

Yesterday, in a footnote, I mentioned that I was clearly contradicting myself from a few days before.  At the time, I just meant it as a joke – but I think there’s more to it.

I dislike being wrong.  I dislike admitting I’m wrong.  I think stereotypically when I imagine a person who doesn’t want to admit they’re wrong, I imagine the school know-it-all, or the arrogant boss: so smug in their superiority that they can’t imagine a scenario where they’d be wrong.

Maybe that’s not actually how it is, at least not always.  My discomfort with admitting I’m wrong doesn’t come from a place of arrogance, an assumption that I do know everything.  It comes from insecurity – the fear that you’ll realize I know far less than you assumed – or worse, less than I lead you to believe.  To be discovered to know less than I’ve implied is literally a worst case scenario for me.  It’s the kind of thing that will keep me up at night.

As with any insecurity, in time you begin to build walls around it.  Once a feeling you don’t like is identified, you start changing your behavior in order to make sure you’ll never have to feel that way.  So I stopped having opinions on all but the safest topics – or those that could reasonably be argued in either direction.  To take a stand on a topic and be proven wrong, or to change your mind, was unthinkable.

But once you start down this path, the topics you can comfortably have an opinion on shrinks.  And as it shrinks, your ability to have interesting conversations shrink.  Interesting conversations are built around honesty and vulnerability, and avoiding sharing an opinion – avoiding even having an opinion out of fear is about as far from vulnerable as you can get.

Writing this is my immersion therapy.  I’m here, sharing half baked ideas.  Most of them aren’t as safe as I’d like.  It’s uncomfortable.  I’ll turn on some of them in days, or weeks, and decide the opposite true, or discover I didn’t have the whole story, that I hadn’t thought things through all the way.

But here’s why I’ve decided it’s ok, and why I’m writing anyway:  Constant adherence to who you were yesterday is dishonest.  It’s ok to contradict yourself.  We all change.  We get new information, we have new ideas.  If we only share the ones we’re absolutely sure of, or force ourselves to maintain opinions we had yesterday, last week, last year, and make a point of crucifying those around us who don’t, we’ll all be absolutely right, absolutely static, and absolutely boring.

Hard.

Tonight I went for a run.  But in order to prop that run up as something meaningful and noteworthy, and significant enough to expend all these precious keystrokes on, I have to lay out the rest of my day:

I didn’t sleep well last night.  I don’t know why – I got to bed later than I wanted to, a certain child kept showing up in my bed with bony knees jabbing into my side, and I had to pee several times, because I guess I have the bladder of a 70 year old man.

This evening was kindergarten orientation.  There seem to be multiple versions of this leading up to the school year.  This was the one where you don’t bring the dagger-kneed child.  So we dropped the kids off at my parents, and endured enjoyed a run through of what kindergarten is about, how to make sure our little angels are properly prepared, and a tour of the school.  After that, seeing as we had no children handy, we went to dinner, during which I consumed entirely too much sushi.  It was delicious, and I can’t say that given the opportunity I’d do anything differently, but by the end of the meal, it was apparent that I’d made a mistake.

We left dinner and picked up the kids.  Somehow, in the hours since dropping them off, the temperature dropped 30 degrees, and gusty winds started blowing.  It got cold.

We got home, the kids reluctantly went to sleep.  I was sleepy, uncomfortable from overeating, and just generally grouchy.  And I remembered that I have to run tonight.

I’m not generally a person who “has to” run.  I’ve never met a training plan I’m unwilling to ignore.  But last weekend, for reasons I can’t remember, I stumbled on Pact, a website that forces you to stick to your plans by charging you $5 every time you don’t.  And, because I was probably bored, and it was a Saturday, I went ahead and signed up, said I’d run every day this week, and then gave them a credit card.  Weekends are strange, dangerous times for me.

So that brings me back to tonight.  I’m grouchy and uncomfortable, it’s cold and windy outside, and I have to run.  I’m not going to pay $5.

So I dutifully put on my shorts, running shoes, headphones, and step outside.  And it starts to rain.

At this point, of course, I’m spectacularly annoyed.  But I go anyway.  And almost immediately, something magical happens:  It feels good.  I still don’t feel good – I’m cold and now wet and I feel a bit like I’m going to barf – but forcing myself to do something I don’t really want to do, when I had every reason not to do it feels good.  And soon I’m running too fast, forcing myself to slow down to avoid getting hurt, or bonking before I get home.

Sometimes hard is good.  Maybe sometimes hard is to be sought after.  Maybe it makes us better, gives us a reason to fight.  Maybe there was something off about that sushi.  Regardless, tonight’s run was good.

And before someone tries to call me out on the fact that 2 days ago I mocked suffering for the sake of suffering, let me announce: I’m aware.  And I don’t care.  Looking at you, Mazur.

Fiber

 “None of them would ever volunteer to go get his legs shot off in the jungle, just to piss off his old man. They lack a certain fiber. They are lifeless and beaten down.”

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash (p. 170).

To me, strangely, this quote goes hand in hand with the “Into the Wild” quote from the other day.  Sure, that one was an actual quote, from an actual person (who was a little crazy), with some serious actual followthrough, and this one comes from a fictional mobster to a teenage girl in a post apocalyptic, virtual reality obsessed wasteland – but they share something important.

There’s something beautiful about reckless defiance mixed with conviction.  For McCandless, it was about rebelling against society and social mores.  For Uncle Enzo (who is speaking in this quote), it was about rebelling against his father.  Both took risks that were likely pointless, and incredibly dangerous.  But the value wasn’t in the specific rebellious act – Uncle Enzo didn’t make a significant difference in (fictional) Vietnam, and we all still measure our self worth in new cars in spite of the fact that McCandless died for his choices – the value was in their willingness to rebel, their willingness to accept hardship (or death) for something they cared about regardless of what the thing they cared about was.

I’ve tried several times, unsuccessfully, to write a conclusion to that – to wrap this up in what it means to me, what this class of person is.  Should they be looked up to?  Scorned? Ignored?  I don’t know.  Having convictions and being willing to make real sacrifices for those convictions – regardless of what they are, or if they’re broadly considered valuable or foolhardy – there’s something to that.  As uncle Enzo says, it “gives a person a certain fiber”.  I like the sound of that.

I’m sure I’ll write more about this topic, I don’t seem to be able to stay away from it.

Highlighting for Fun and Profit

I read a lot, almost entirely on the kindle.   I like the kindle.  Some people swear by physical books – the smell, the feel, the weight, the ability to carry them around and look important.  I get it, but I don’t get it.

Aside from the convenience, both in being able to carry all books easily, but also in purchasing, my favorite thing about reading on the kindle is highlighting.  I tend to be moved by particular passages in books – the punchline, the careful phrasing used for the literary climax of an important point, or even a throwaway filler line that, for whatever reason, feels profound.  Without a mechanism to note them as important or notable, I’ll lose them – and benefit for only the few minutes they stay at the front of my mind.

Highlighting provides that mechanism.  Not only does the physical act of marking the passage to be highlighted give the line or thought a little extra sticking power in my brain, but it’s easy and convenient to scan the highlights of a book when you’re looking to quickly be reminded of the high points or particularly moving ideas.

Try highlighting.  Alternatively, if you already do, go scan back through some past highlights, and relive only the best parts of a recent book you enjoyed.

Bonus:  I recently discovered Your Highlights, which lists all your highlights, regardless of book.  Handy.