The Inaugural Outdoor Run

The Inaugural Outdoor Run

I don’t run all year round—I usually stop running sometime in early November, and don’t start again until the first 68º+ day of the year. Running outside when it’s cold is terrible, and I just know I would slip on some ice and bleed out off the beaten path. And then I’d be found by children on their way to school, and it just wouldn’t be great.

But today the high was 70º and sunny, so away I went along the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge. This essay is in honor of the inaugural outdoor run of the year.

Running is interesting because:

  • You can do it by yourself, or with others.
  • You can listen to music, or not.
  • You can run indoors or outdoors.
  • You can wear some standard gym attire, or go for the (wonderfully) ridiculous neon shoes runners are known to possess.
  • You can run one mile, or 10+.
  • You can run slow, or you can run fast.
  • You can assiduously track every stat about your run (mph, length, calories, elevation, and so many other things). Or you could just step out the door and make your legs carry you however far you feel like.

It’s a wonderfully versatile sport, which means that it’s also open to many different kinds of people. I would never say that everyone should run, because there are many ways to move and some people just hate running, but I do think that there’s a good amount of people in the world who should try it for a month. That’s long enough to allow your body to adjust to what you’re making it do, and long enough to get sufficient experiential data to see your near-future trajectory.

The very first time I ran was when I signed up for the 7th grade track team, which was motivated in large part by the knowledge that my mother ran track when she was in high school. The first day of practice, our coach had everyone run one mile on the track. It was absolutely one of the worst physical experiences of my life up until that point—I was a thin, frail, asthmatic kid, and I took 17 minutes to run that mile. For perspective, I usually walk miles faster than that now.

But I wanted to be a runner for a variety of reason, so I stayed with the sport. I’m glad I did, because it’s a way to experience sunshine in solitude, even in a city. I also derive immense satisfaction and self-esteem from building my body and making it faster, and testing its speed regularly.

And also I get to wear my running tights.

Side note: I’m a writer, and also a runner. This seems to be a common pairing. When I think about why, I think about something Anne Rice (author of Interview with the Vampire) said in a 1988 interview with Writer’s Digest:

“Unlike moviemaking, dancing, classical music, painting–anything at all–writing requires a minimum of equipment, yet allows for a maximum of expression of passion and creativity.”

Both writing and running are bare manifestations of movement and expression, with little need of other equipment or medium other than the person doing them. And both allow many people to feel and express many things.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words, but a Song’s Worth a Million

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words, but a Song’s Worth a Million

After writing yesterday’s post, and realizing that I tend to attach music to my essays to give them depth, I thought I’d just write a musical essay. Below, you will find a list of songs, all of which I consider to be profoundly provocative for one reason or another. I’ve also tagged each with an emotional association.

A note: most of the pieces don’t have vocal parts, and if they do it is in the form of an accompanying choir. Some of the pieces are long(ish), and I consider these to have value in their buildup. The final release and climax of the songs are just that, and they have the same sort of emotional rhythm as sex (I don’t consider this to be crude–it just is, and it is beautiful).

There are so many more songs than these that I love, but I’ve only included eleven, and they are all roughly on the positive side of the emotional spectrum. But there are plenty of songs that I love that make even rage and wrath seem beautiful. For a Spotify link to the playlist, click here. Otherwise, I’d recommend copying and pasting the song name and source into YouTube for the full length of each.

1. “Forbidden Friendship” from the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack (my favorite soundtrack):

  • Emotional associations: discovery, soaring above clouds to meet the sun, triumph, self-actualization.
  • Emotional climax begins at 2:48.

2. “Coming Back Around” from the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: earned happiness, sweet reward, celebratory triumph.
  • Buckle up at 1:08, and remain seated until the song’s conclusion. I listen to the part at 2:18 at full volume. It’s worth the ear drums. Do not listen to this while driving a car unless you are fine with your foot involuntarily accelerating the car in response to the music.

3. “To the Spaceport” from the Treasure Planet soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: sense of adventure.
  • If you don’t want to hop a steamship to the new world by 1:14 in this song, we are very different people.

4. “Romantic Flight” from the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack (you thought I was done with it. I’LL NEVER BE DONE WITH IT).

  • Emotional associations: beauty, romance, sweetness
  • Brace for the part at 1:27.

5. “The Ludlows” from the Legends of the Fall soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: a sunset over the full big sky of the American plains, connection to the events of long ago.
  • 4:44 adds the final bittersweet tinge to this song.

6. “Planet Earth II Suite” from the Planet Earth II soundtrack

  • Emotional association: pure, unadulterated exaltation. If I were to start my own church, this song would be its anthem and only hymn.
  • This song is short, and yet takes a while to build. It is possibly my favorite piece of music. The brief hint of profundity that appears at 1:42 only increases until the climactic end of the song. It’s like the feeling of waves going in and out at high tide. The water leaves, and comes back a little higher. It leaves, and then comes back a little higher. All at once, without noticing, you’re inundated at the 3:00 mark.

7. “Alice’s Theme” from the Alice in Wonderland soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: to abscond, to flee to adventure, the feeling of being surrounded by old New England brick and lore, “follow if you dare.”

8. “No Time for Caution” from the Interstellar soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: inevitability, accepting mortality, foreboding, finality.
  • The organ introduction at 0:44, and the way the instrument is woven throughout the rest of the song, gives it all meaning for me.
  • When I listen to this song on a high quality sound system, my body jerks at the impacts beginning at 2:35–they’re such that the audio feels like it should be a solid impacting mass.

9. “Heart of Courage” by Thomas Bergerson (the only song on this list not from a soundtrack):

  • Emotional associations: this is Sparta, ferocity, resolution, strength.
  • It really is Sparta.

10. “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: connection with humanity (humanity has few things in common, but Harry Potter is one of them), deliberate progression and pressing forward, flying over and under and around.

11. “God Yu Tekem Laef Blong Mi” from the The Thin Red Line soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: the relief that follows bereaved weeping; a soul departed to peace.
  • This song comes and goes in waves, with repetitions on the theme building as the song goes. 1:29 is its height.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

A Few More Weeks of Winter, Please

A Few More Weeks of Winter, Please

I look forward to winter all year, but not because of the holidays. For me, winter is the time of year when I get the most done; I produce the most writing and I read the most steadily. My focus is at its height.

This is because winter inspires an enduring melancholy in me. It’s not depression–it’s not debilitating. It just removes the impulsive desire to try new things and go new places that rules me in summer and lingers into fall. It also makes me less anxious for romantic connection, which, as well all know, can be insanely distracting. Like the snow of the season, the melancholy has a muting effect on the more adventurous and extreme emotions that the other seasons permit.

In summer, I wake up to radiant sunshine and want to take a ferry to an island, or drive to someplace along the coast. Even if I have work to do (and often it’s work that I want to do) those desires are insistent, and sometimes become intrusive. I do enjoy them, but sometimes I wish there was an off switch. Winter is that switch, and I’m glad to engage it every year.

This might sound terrible to some people, and it might very well be for them. But not for me.

This week in Boston we will have two consecutive days of weather above 60 degrees, and both will have sun coverage. I already feel the “I must get outside and do [all the things]” urge, and I will at least go for a long run outside both days. But when that feeling appeared for the first time this week–the same one that you get when you wake up to sunshine on a beautiful summer morning, maybe the morning where you leave for some summer trip–my first desire was to mute it. My actual reaction at the first return of the summer adventure feeling was, “Aww crap. I don’t have time for this–there’s too much still to do.”

I like the seasons (except spring), and the differences that each one brings in me and the world. I wouldn’t wish away the summer, or live my whole life in winter.

But I’m not done with winter and the melancholic focus that it gives. I know many people want a few more weeks of summer every year, but I’d gladly forgo them in exchange for a few more weeks of winter.

Note: in the past, I have tried to explain the particulars of my winter melancholy to people, but only with partial success. Music often does better than words for some things having to do with emotion for me, so if you really want to know what I mean by “winter melancholy,” listen to Brian Crain’s “Dancing with Eyes Closed,” and then “Ballet of the Little Cafe,” in that order. The emotion you’re left with after the sequence is sort of what I mean.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

On Goodbyes

On Goodbyes

There’s a different meaning to the word “sorry” depending on the way we say it, and the context in which we say it.

If you say it absentmindedly after bumping into someone, the word “sorry” effectively means “pardon me”—I’ll call this the common sorry. It’s not at all a supplication for absolution or whatever else sorry might mean to someone who’s done something wrong, which I’ll call the absolutionary sorry (I don’t subscribe to the standard use of absolutionary sorry, but that’s for another post).

And I think most people readily recognize that “sorry” means many things, depending on context. Otherwise the convention of “you said it, but you didn’t mean it” wouldn’t exist.

For me, valedictions operate the same way. “Goodbye” has different meanings, and, like “sorry,” it has two general categories of use: quotidian and violently potent.

We say “goodbye” or “bye” to people all the time, especially in text or over the phone. This is sort of the equivalent to the “pardon me” version of sorry, except this ordinary usage of “goodbye” means “we’re pausing for now, and this is the end of the current communication/interaction, but nothing else.” The common goodbye, as I’ll call it, functions just like a period at the end of a sentence; we pay attention to it just as much, and it carries all the same emotional weight (which is to say, none).

But there is another kind of goodbye, just like there is another kind of sorry. This is the denouementary goodbye; I don’t think “denouementary” is technically a word, but I made it from the word “denouement,” which is “the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.”

The denouementary goodbye is perhaps one of the most forceful things in the human world. We say it to enemies, to loved ones, and many people in between. Its purpose is to bring a grand thing to a close, whether that is a relationship, a phase of life, or even a life itself. We give the common goodbye every day, but we reserve the denouementary goodbye for: trips across the planet, weddings, college departures, and funerals.

And I know that traveling abroad, like many things, isn’t as final as it used to be, especially with communications technology. But when I’ve travelled, the denouementary goodbye isn’t exchanged because that moment of international departure is final—it’s exchanged in advance, in case, because of events that may happen far away, it would have needed to be.

Because of its nature, I do not generally like to give the denouementary goodbye. To give it is to recognize a final end in some form.

I’ve moved across the country a few times, for a variety of reasons: college, work, or because I wanted to. I’ve lived abroad several times. And now, just as I (perhaps) am starting to stand still, I find that others are moving around me, in life and location. I’ve generally been the one leaving others, and rarely am I the one being left. It’s a curious reversal to say the least, and not necessarily a bad thing.

When I’ve left people and places, I’ve refused denouementary goodbyes, both giving and receiving them. And I still do. In many cases, someone moving across the country warrants a goodbye, but it’s a kind that stands between the common and denouementary. It’s sort of a very extended “see you later.” I’ll call it the extended goodbye. And it truly is just “see you later.” Life is long, and full of surprises. Combined with technological advances, there is a decreasing need for the denouementary goodbye, and more need for the extended goodbye in its place.

But I also recognize that there could possibly come a time when denouementary goodbyes will be warranted, whether I want them or not. If I ever get sufficiently old, or sufficiently sick, they will be necessary. If someone I love does either, they will be necessary. If I fall in love, and then the love fractures, they will be necessary.

Denouementary goodbyes, until recently, could be used on both good and bad occasions. They marked a final transition, and those are both good and bad. But our technological progress as a species increasingly turns the cases of good denouementary goodbyes into simple extended goodbyes. More and more, denouementary goodbyes are solely the province of those finalities we would rather not face if we didn’t have to.

There’s no moral to this essay, just a reflection: I’m happy that I currently have a life that requires many extended goodbyes, but no denouementary ones. I know that will change, but it hasn’t yet.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Speaking Up

Speaking Up

When someone says or posts something that I think is very ill-informed, or especially bad in a variety of ways, I think something along the lines of: “I should say something. I know what I’m going to say…but…I mean, what’s the point? If they’re the kind of person to say/do that, they’re not likely to be persuaded by me anyway. And in any case it would just be a scene to address the issue, not to mention uncomfortable.”

It is a constant goal of mine to make that voice shut up.

I think there are times and places for silence and lack-of-response, certainly. Sometimes living to fight another day is the best option. And (mostly) no one is obligated to address every bad thing that they come across—you’d surely develop some kind of mental illness if you forced yourself to address every toxic, or simply misinformed, thing.

But if you don’t get into the habit of addressing bad things, you will remain pre-disposed to saying nothing—I know I would be. And if enough people say nothing, then the only voices left will be the ones saying the terrible things—they usually don’t mind saying them.

(Note: sometimes someone says something off the cuff or impulsively that really is bad, but not really reflective of their character. I think that happens, and I note it to say that I understand that not all bad things are said by bad people.)

In our current political climate, I think we have a severe lack of good people speaking up in productive ways (if good people speak, but they only respond to vitriol with more vitriol, they’re just adding flames to the fire). I know many people who remain silent even when they want to speak, and I understand why. Speaking up is highly uncomfortable, especially at first.

But more people need to speak up in good and productive ways. Hopefully some who read this will push past the discomfort to start doing so. If it helps, I had to push past discomfort when I first started to deliberately speak up. I still have to, although less so now that I’ve gotten into the habit and sharpened my rhetorical skills.

To read more about in which manner I speak up, take a look at this essay’s companion. This is an excellent example of someone else speaking up.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

I Am Displeased with Political Memes: A Title in the Form of an Understatement

I Am Displeased with Political Memes: A Title in the Form of an Understatement

Note: the topic of this post is rhetoric. I don’t think I have anything new to contribute to the topic here, mostly because I’ve been preempted by Aristotle by ~2,400 years. The scaffolding for my discussion does, in fact, come from Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Second note: this essay was directly motivated by current political discourse, although I am always generally concerned with its topic, not just when provoked.

Americans are divided about a lot of things—always have been, always will be. This is perhaps most apparent in our politics, and most recently (and perennially) in debate about gun policy. I have specific thoughts about gun policy, but my point here isn’t to address them, it’s to address how I approach discussing them: I tend toward essays and discussion, and avoid memes.

In general, whenever I enter a debate/discussion on politics or philosophy, I am worried that I am tricking myself, or being fooled by my own cognitive biases. For example: I worry that, in the face of disagreement, I will slip into defending my point to win, rather than to discover the actual truth, regardless of whether that is my point. I also worry that I am not aware that sometimes, despite using the same words as someone else, we might mean very different things (the phenomenon of “talking past each other”).

It becomes difficult to monitor oneself for all these things in middle of a discussion, especially if the other interlocutors don’t share the same concerns, so most of my improvement in persuasion and discussion has come from building good habits over time, rather than policing every thought in the moment. The habit that has been most helpful has been writing my thoughts down, and discussing problems in an extended fashion with others. I avoid cultivating the habit of meme sharing (whether on social media or in person by repeating certain kinds of soundbites).

Assuming that I am confident in my knowledge of something and attempt to persuade others to my point of view, I will be using rhetoric, the art of persuasion. It is a neutral tool that can be used to amplify both good and bad messages, which is why I have the concerns in the above paragraph.

There are three components to rhetoric:

  • Ethos: the trustworthiness of the speaker
  • Pathos: the emotion inspired by the speaker
  • Logos: the logic of the speaker

Each of these functions differently, and they all have varied effects depending on your audience. But I think it’s clear why each of these is a component of rhetoric. You won’t be persuaded by someone you don’t trust, you will have a hard time being persuaded by a dull speaker, and you will dismiss a speaker who lacks facts.

I am most concerned about striking the right balance between these three things in my own rhetoric. My tendency is to focus too much on logos and ignore pathos and ethos—but I’m aware of this tendency, so it doesn’t rule me.

But based on its contents, it appears that many individuals’ (and certainly most highly visible individuals’) contemporary political rhetoric is heavily unbalanced, with a severe over-reliance on pathos/stirring up emotions. In this kind of speech, logos is largely relegated to insignificance.

Persuasion only through pathos is dangerous, because if you get in the habit of only playing on emotions, and others get in the habit of being overly swayed by their emotions, everyone is sort of playing Russian roulette. Sure, emotions are persuading people now, but there is no guarantee that they will persuade people tomorrow (especially with that dang hedonic treadmill). It also means that everyone gets used to not dealing with facts, the province of logos.

In a world where everyone relies on pathos to persuade, facts cannot save you. That last part is scary, but it is the world we partially live in, and the world that the majority of us built.

Given all of this, I approach political persuasion with caution. But I also have a clear goal: mitigate the effects of pathos, and restore the use and reliance upon logos (sorry ethos, you will come up in another essay).

This means that I am generally suspicious of all political memes on social media—and given recent events, everyone should be. Memes, based on their nature, are ill-equipped to deal in facts. They have to be pithy and hit you somewhere in your emotions, whether those are pleasure or pain. Facts are best understood in context, with explanation—this is done with the mind through essays and books, not memes.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why memes are persuasive; it’s easier to send and share funny pictures than it is to get all your friends to read a particular book or long essay. I just don’t make memes the focus of any contemporary political persuading I do—to do so prioritizes pathos, and marginalizes facts.

Because I’m concerned with my own rhetorical propriety, I will maintain and cultivate my habit of long-form thought in reading, writing, and conversation. And because I don’t like what I see in the average use of political rhetoric, I think everyone should take a hard look at their own use of rhetoric if it is over-reliant on stirring up emotion, especially with memes. It is easy to share a meme (again, this doesn’t have to mean sharing a picture, it could be a political slogan or something else), but good political discourse isn’t easy, and there’s no way around that.

But, of course, rhetorical skill is not good if you never deploy it. Speaking up can be hard.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.