Shock and Fluff In The Age of Distraction

A writer’s conundrum

Tristan Harris is right. We are currently “engulfed in an arms race to the bottom of our brain stem to capture our attention.”

Think of that little timer counting down the seconds on Netflix or YouTube as you’re reaching the end of an episode. Or compare both the noise level and the speed at which scenes are switched in a modern-day documentary, with one filmed, say, before the 1990s. It’s enough to cause one vertigo and often feels like some two-bit swindler is trying to hypnotize you so he can steal your wallet.

And what about the news? now forced to shock its distracted audience with hyperbole: ‘STOCK MARKET PLUMMETS!’ ‘CARNAGE IN CAIRO!’ ‘MONSTER STORM ENGULFS GULF COAST!,’ ‘MAYHEM IN MINNEAPOLIS!’

When the news is finally delivered, it’s as anticlimactic as masturbating, even on a good day, they say.

Are people simply becoming dopamine junkies? Like porn, needing an increasingly higher dose after each hit?

This scourge has also infected the work of other writers, bloggers, and editorialists. If they wish to gain and audience they must perfect the art of screaming and stirring outrage and peddling snake oil instead of meaningful content. Moreover, they must adapt to a culture whose attention span is now shorter than a sneeze.

No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the masses. — H.L. Mencken

As an artist who approaches his craft like a Michelin Star-winning chef, I refuse to sully my work with shock or fluff. Especially fluff! I also refuse to compress complex, meaningful ideas into fast food for the brain. Not surprisingly, my work withers mostly unread.

I come from a land of siestas, meriendas, and sobremesas… lazy naps, midafternoon grazing, and endless after-meal conversations with loved ones and friends, so have always wondered why Americans are in such a rush. It doesn’t seem like they’re getting much done. Not lately, anyway. In fact, in their frenzy, they’re not only crashing against each other but toppling everything around them, like, say, the entire planet.

It’s not enough to be busy; so are ants. The question is: what are we busy about? — Henry David Thoreau

In ‘Lazy: A Manifesto,’ Tim Kreider writes that “if you live in America in the 21st century, you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy Busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’

“Even children are busy now,” laments Kreider, “scheduled down to the half hour with enrichment classes, tutorials, and extracurricular activities. At the end of the day, they come home as tired as grownups, which seems not just sad but hateful. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter. The busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Is that what it is? A sense of meaninglessness, existential dread, and emptiness? People needing distractions to avoid confronting their misery?

Wounds don’t heal in the dark and skeletons don’t simply vanish through neglect. At least not mine. In fact, they get angrier. They only way to appease them is by bringing them out of the closet and engaging them in deep, focused conversation. Which is what I try to do with my work, hoping to help others deal with the thorniest dilemmas of human existence so they can heal.

But this takes time and cannot possibly be delivered in a 5-point listicle or quick-read book. Chances are you’ve read more than one and soon forgot all the magic recipes and instant formulas. Case in point, Americans spend over 11 billion dollars per year on self-help and personal development stuff yet live in the unhappiest place in the world… wtf!?

Because it’s the land of the quick-fix and the magic pill. Where instead of wrestling with the underlying causes of despair, people numb them with drugs and distractions. It doesn’t take a genius to realize it’s not working.

One of my most read articles on Medium, for example, is ‘The Meaning of Life.’ I figured that in a country hungry for meaning, the least I could do was offer a remedy and a way forward.

Like most other forums, Medium is now compelled to post the time it will take a reader to get all the way through. God forbid it’s longer than 6 minutes because most readers will ignore it. ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy Busy.’ Who has more than 6 minutes to spare nowadays?

Mine is 7 minutes long (sorry), and although now read by over five hundred people, the average time devoted to the article by each person has been 1 min 5 sec. Really? Speed-reading through the meaning of life?

“A writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, said author Saul Bellow, “and out of distressing unrest — even from the edge of chaos — he can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this.”

That may be the case in Europe, or in my country, Mr. Bellow, but in America — the land of the microwave, the 3-minute cake, the quick-pass, “quickie,” and life in the fast lane — people hunger for instant gratification.

A man’s constant escapism into busyness is the greatest source of his unhappiness, suggested Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, a sentiment echoed by Blaise Pascal who said that the sole cause of man’s anguish is that he does not know how to sit quietly in his room.

For the longest time, I’ve been trying to invite people to sit quietly and take time to work through the toughest afflictions of the modern world, and together, figure a way out of their despairing lives.

Alas, refusing to use shock and fluff, my tireless work goes mostly ignored and the despair never ends.


Congratulations! You made it all the way to the end and I only stole 5 minutes of your precious time.


Related Reflections:

Do You Have a Minute?

Time Out!

The Unhappiest Place in the World

 

Next In Line!

My number’s up and I’m scared.

Next in line

Standing at the foot of Dad’s deathbed watching him take his final breaths, I pictured myself at a Deli counter holding a stub with the #A01 and hearing the butcher scream, “next!”

It’s the only time you don’t want to be next in line.

I can’t hand over the ‘lucky stub’ to the person behind me. That’d be one of my daughters and to outlive them would be worse than death. No choice, then, but hope the butcher gets distracted, at least for a while.

I’m 58, and as far as I can tell from those close to me – knees and hips crumbling in their late 60s – I have about ten to fifteen years left of brain and brawn. About the lifespan of a turkey (I just checked) and I’m certain no almighty, benevolent skylord will pardon my execution.

So 15 years at best.

But how can I be so sure?

Like poet Billy Collins, I often worry that a tiny ship of plaque is about to unmoor and set sail across the bloody rivers of my body headed straight to my brain causing a major stroke, paralyzing half my face, and leaving me bloodshot and drooling like a Basset Hound. Or what if, as Collins said, what if Death were already “stepping from a black car parked at the dark end of the lane, shaking open the familiar cloak, its hood raised like the head of a crow, and removing his scythe from the trunk?”

What if?

Yet most of us live our lives as if we were church pillars, meant to last forever. We think 15 years is a long time until it isn’t. Look back 15 years at your life and you’ll know what I mean. Kind of a blur, right?

In youth, we live as if we were immortal. Knowledge of mortality dances around us like a brittle paper ribbon that barely touches our skin. When, in life, does that change? When does the ribbon tighten, until it finally strangles us? – Amadeu de Prado

Not long ago, I found Dad standing on his balcony looking wistfully at the end of another day and asked him what was wrong. “I don’t know where the last ten years of my life have gone,” he said. “They’re just a blur.”

A blur that began in his mid-70s, and, from what I can tell, the previous ten weren’t that memorable and he died with a thousand regrets.

That’s how life often seems, doesn’t it? A blurry madhouse crisscrossed by our darting shadow busy “making a living” while putting our dreams on ice. Postponing, stalling, dithering, delaying… telling ourselves ‘just as soon as…’ while sitting in traffic gripped by the death lock of monotony contemplating the lugubrious parade of our disavowed longings march down the road not taken. ‘Just wait a little while longer…’

But while and while have no end, wait a little is a long road, and the Deli spool won’t stop spitting-out stubs, bringing our number closer.

Should we, then, live like the terminally ill? Assume we’ve been given just one more year and throw caution to the wind?

With that mindset, I’ve been doing just that for the past three years after taking a hard look at the previous ten and horrified by how unmemorable they were. Ask me what I did, and I’d bore you with an explanation rather than a great story. So I broke free.

I realize that having that choice is a privilege denied to many. Born and raised in a poor country, I suspect that any first-world tourist dumb enough to tell an unfortunate fellow in one of my city’s slums to ‘follow his dreams!’ will most likely get laughed at or punched in the face. Adding ‘carpe diem’ to his callous injunctions will probably get him dismembered with a machete. The poor have no choice — period. They do what’s necessary to survive which is often more heroic than doing what you love.

After I fulfilled my obligation of raising my daughters to the point of self-reliance, I reached a crossroads. I could continue on the familiar, ‘safe’ road, gathering wealth for that hoped-for day when I’d feel secure enough to finally unbridle my pent-up longings, or take the riskier path of adventure. Having witnessed my father lose the lion’s share of his savings in the crash of 2008, I chose the latter.

Ask me right now if I made the right choice and I’d equivocate. I can’t tell for sure, and I’m scared.

On the one hand, I’m doing exactly what I love and believe was meant to do with my life, so my days, just like playwright William Herzog’s, feel like one long vacation. “For me, everything is constantly fresh and always new,” he said. “A vacation is [only] a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine.” I know what he means.

Most days, I’m like a child on Christmas morning, waking up at dawn with great excitement for the creative challenges ahead and hardly ever tiring, despite working long hours.

The awareness of ‘The Blur’ has also been a terrifying agent of authenticity. I realized there was no time to waste pretending to be someone I was not. “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly,” says the Bhagavad Gita, and I now get it.

As I age, I have also learned what a true friend is, and so, like an artichoke’s unwholesome bottom leaves, I have discarded those who are unworthy of the name. I don’t have time for that shit anymore.

My whole being has recovered its erotic power, not just in the sexual sense, but in its broader meaning held by the ancient Greeks: the impulse, or desire, that links us to the whole web of life. I have, if you will, fallen in love with life.

But right about now, my love feels unrequited.

I was under the illusion that if one did exactly what one was meant to do in life and brought the gifts of his unique talents to bear on the needs of the world, the world, in turn, would reward him, not lavishly, but with enough to survive with dignity. I’m not seeing it.

I was comforted and inspired by what Johann Goethe said, that the moment one definitely commits, then providence moves too; that boldness has genius, power and magic in it. I’m not feeling that magic either.

I was goaded at the start of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore by serendipitous writings on walls, like, “Don’t let your dreams fall asleep,” and “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Back then, I really felt the Universe had my back.

Taken at an art gallery in Mexico at the start of my adventure.

So far though, the steps keep leading me down a slippery staircase inside what seems a bottomless pit of hardship and despair. I am living the myth of the starving artist and not really enjoying the view. Every time one of my well-intentioned daughters tells me to get a “real” job, I cringe and seethe.

When exactly did art become “unreal”? Was it when we decided that someone skilled at whacking a ball with a stick or good at shooting hoops was worth more than a teacher? How, I ask, would it feel to live in a world with no books, movies, plays, concerts, art exhibits, and so on?

Regardless, I can’t turn back now and rejoin the rat race. People my age appear as unnecessary to society as another pair of shoes in a woman’s closet. Besides, notwithstanding the hardship, I still prefer living on the edge of uncertainty doing what I love, rather than securely shackled to a desk, hating what I do. So deal, right? Grow a pair!

Here’s the scary part, though. If my number’s really up, I mean, like soon, it would make my reckless decision one of the best I’ve ever made. If, on the other hand, the butcher gets distracted for, say, thirty years, I have no idea how I’ll survive.

Author Paulo Coelho better be right when claiming that the road of adventure becomes less daunting over time; that age only slows the pace of those without the courage to follow their true path, and that the world hungers for romance, passion, and daring tales of great endurance.

Otherwise, best to hurry up to the counter and get it over with, or move to Norway, the “best place in the world to be a writer,” though I’d first have to get past my revulsion against Lutefisk and ghostly-white people in tacky reindeer sweaters.


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When life gives you lemons…

Astounding tales of resilience.

Things are not working out. This shit’s too hard. I’m giving up. The odds are stacked against me. Life’s not fair…

Writing ‘The Hero in You is beginning to feel like a conversation with myself. I now understand what Ursula Le Gwinn meant when saying that storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.

More than a conversation unspooling in story, it’s like an extended, revelatory life-coaching session; like having a one-on-one with Obi Wan Kenobi, the legendary Jedi Master in ‘Star Wars’ training young Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force.

It doesn’t feel like a book for just boys anymore but one with the potential to transform the lives of men and women; young and old alike. It’s certainly changing the life of an aspiring writer fast approaching sixty.

Take adversity for example…that bitter lemon of life.

I began the book four months ago. With still no income in sight, a small pension claimed by old debts, and credit cards maxing-out, it felt like one more reckless decision. Irresponsible! Especially in light of the slew of rejections to my Memoir assailing my inbox like a storm of jagged hailstones. After two years with little to show, starting another project seemed as futile as plowing the sea.

How about a ‘real’ job, Dad?” my daughters counseled.

I was smack inside the Inmost Cave; the edge between life and death found on every hero’s journey; the darkest hour where the hero must face his greatest fears. Think of Dorothy walking into Oz’ throne-room and facing the giant head of an angry old man surrounded by flames, smoke, and thunder; where the mighty Wizard says he’s prepared to grant Dorothy her wish but imposes seemingly impossible tests in hopes that she will desist.

I keep reminding myself I’ve been in worse financial situations before, and still here, now doing what I believe I was meant to all my life.

If this is not a real job, why does it feel so right?

J.K. Rowling was unemployed, divorced and raising a daughter on social security while writing the first Harry Potter novel. After Sidney Poitier’s first audition, the casting director instructed him to just stop wasting everyone’s time and “go be a dishwasher or something.” Poitier went on to win an Academy Award.

Sometimes in life, situations develop that only the half-crazy can get out of. — French philosopher La Rochefoucauld.

In a way, I am still inside the cave, quivering with my greatest fears: losing face with those I love — my two daughters and my partner — and the fear of a final deathblow to my lifelong dream of becoming an author stirring uncertainty of what I’d do if I fail. Add to the mix the fear of reaching the end of my life without meaningful impact…I do not want to be someone who ends up simply having visited the world.

Life’s bitter lemons…

More like first-world laments I’ve realized as I sift through hundreds of stories of real-life heroes for my book and finding astounding examples of ordinary people who turned much bitter ones into lemonade.

Some, literally, like Alexandra Scott who two days before her first birthday was diagnosed with cancer. When she was four, having just finished receiving experimental treatment at Connecticut’s Medical Center, she told her parents she wanted to set up a lemonade stand and give the money she raised to her doctors. That first stand raised $2,000.

Alexandra Scott

In the next four years, inspiring hundreds of supporters who set up lemonade stands throughout the country, ‘Alex’ raised a total of $1 million for childhood cancer research. She died at the age of eight, yet her cause lives on through the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.

I then discovered William Kamkwamba, the African boy who harnessed the wind to save his family and village from starvation.

William was born in Malawi, Africa. He was the only boy among six girls in his family living in a mud and brick shack with no electricity. He was a simple farmer in a country of poor farmers.

When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, all Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate one meal per day. His father could not continue paying for his education so William dropped out of school.

“It was a future I could not accept,” William said.

Hungry all the time, with little education, poor English, and no computer or access to the internet, William spent months inside a rickety library pouring through outdated magazines and books learning all he could about physics and electricity. He dreamed of building a windmill to power a pump which would draw water from a well to irrigate their fields.

Boy who harnessed the wind

Armed with that knowledge, William scavenged through a nearby junkyard and finally convinced his father to surrender his only bicycle whose frame was needed to build the contraption. William eventually erected his windmill and saved the day.

Talk about bitter lemons turned into lifesaving lemonade!

What about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a frail and poor farming boy in 14th Century Japan?

Hideyoshi was short (about five feet tall), weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was butt ugly and unathletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him an ape-like appearance resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.

This “monkey” squeezed all the daunting lemons of his physical ‘limitations’ and ‘disadvantaged’ beginnings into practical wisdom which ultimately put an end to Japan’s Age of the Warring States and made him supreme leader!

He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.

Hideyoshi

Alexandra Scott, William Kamkwamba, and Hideyoshi are among the real-life heroes featured in my book as examples to young boys who might feel overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable odds to do something meaningful with their lives. I reassure them they do not need superpowers to break through the prison of their limitations. I then guide them — like Obi Wan — to tap the Life Forces they already possess to write their own hero story. It doesn’t have to be something extraordinary, I tell them…

“Helping a blind man cross the street because you have the power of vision is a heroic act. Helping a friend with his math homework because you’re good with numbers is the act of a hero. Cooking dinner for the homeless in your neighborhood because you love to cook is heroic. If you make just one positive difference, you’re a hero.”

Boy feeding homeless

My extensive research has also led me to author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, someone much closer to my — and every writer’s experience.

In his late thirties, armed police dragged Ngugi from his home and jailed him in Kenya’s Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison for having written a play critical of the government. While in prison, he wrote ‘Devil on the Cross’ on toilet paper.

“The paper we were given was not the soft kind we find on television,” he says. “It was a bit hard, a bit rough, so to speak, but very good writing material. It held the pen very well.”

0007_uc.nobelprof.xxxx.ia

A recipient of the Nonino International Prize for his work, Ngugi has also been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in literature. As for that elusive prize, Ngugi says he is more interested in what he calls “the Nobel of the Heart.”

If Ngugi was capable of squeezing such nasty lemons onto toilet paper and inspire the world with his noble work, what’s my excuse?

In Spanish (my mother tongue) we have a word for such work:

‘Ofrenda’ is work offered in gratitude, love, and service to others; work dedicated to a noble cause. That’s how I consider my work on The Hero in You.

Rightly shamed by all these ordinary heroes, I am done with my first-world laments!

While still in the cave, like Dorothy, I will defy my fears and will not desist. I will see this to the end.

Failure is an option, fear is not. — James Cameron

When overwhelmed by the stacks of books and publications I must research, I attack them with a Warrior’s sword and a Lover’s heart. I remind myself that, while strapped for cash, I have found purposeful work; that sweet spot Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. Further, I am loved and am loved in return by three extraordinary women. I possess the wealth of kings. I ask for no more.

Finally, I’m committed to help as many young boys enter the path of authentic, generative manhood and won’t let them down. I consider this cause to be of supreme importance to the world.

Will my book be a hit? Will it make me money? Will I be famous? Wrong questions.

If I can stop one Heart from breaking

I shall not live in vain

If I can ease one Life the Aching

Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin

Unto his Nest again

I shall not live in Vain. — Emily Dickinson

“No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive,” wrote Ella Wheeler Wilcox. “Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity.”

Sweet are the fruits of adversity. — William Shakespeare

Dead tree with fruit

From now on, I promise to spare you my first-world laments and let my book inspire you.

Whether you support its cause or don’t, I am rewarded by believing its footprint will guide you on your own hero’s journey.


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Read the book’s version of lemons and lemonade.

Dunking Under Waves of Rejection

A lesson on resilience

Rejection hurts.

In my country we call it feeling like caked dogshit on someone’s shoe. (Think of sneakers with deep grooves).

As I began submitting my second book for publication last month, I remembered the pain and sense of defeat I felt years ago as the mailman kept delivering pithy rejections to my first one. Adding to the sting, I then recalled the dejection I experienced during my sorry days of online dating.

But this time around I armored myself for this second, anticipated onslaught.

Tempering my expectations seemed like a good start. They are, as philosopher Alain de Botton says, “reckless enemies of serenity.”

Level-headed realism was next. When it is your first novel, author Jim Harrison warned, and assuming you are not witless, you know well that the odds of your work being published are ten thousand to one against, and even when it is published the reactions from friends and relatives are often puzzled and evasive. (Tell me about it).

Despite digging myself into a deeper financial hole through this process, and now and then, I confess, daydreaming of an advance payment to save my divinely foolish ass, I keep reminding myself that my decision to reinvent myself as a writer was not spurred by the potential monetary reward (that’d be funny), but because it is the only thing I wanted to do with whatever is left of my “one wild and precious life.” (Mary Oliver).

One must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without hope for fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well, wrote G.K Chesterton. Such a man, he added, must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. This is the root meaning of ‘amateur’ – from the Latin amare: to love.

An amateur has only one reason for doing something: the genuine fire and unbridled passion, concluded Chesterton.

After all, one doesn’t sing because one hopes to appear one day in the opera. One sings because one’s lungs are full of joy. No one can be paid to irradiate joy. – Henry Miller

Besides the joy and exhilaration I feel when doing what I love and fires my passion, I insist on never calling my writing work but ‘Ofrenda’ – Spanish for anything done as a contribution to something greater than oneself. Writing the saga of my love and existential tumult is my way of lighting William Faulkner’s match.

Literature is like a match out on an empty field at night, the author said. While it barely illuminates, it makes us realize how much darkness surrounds us.

It is my way to add brightness to the lodestar shining with the wisdom of sages, poets, and writers who help us navigate – away from distractions and beyond our delusions – onto saner shores.

Finally, from day one, I vowed to never allow the romance of my journey to be dulled by the obstacles I sensed would make the path hard and steep. After all, the view is still magnificent!

I felt –  and still do – that if I stay true to its course and true to myself the path will eventually ease its angle of ascent and turn generous, although, as writer Paulo Coelho promised, it will never turn smooth and secure but always gift us new challenges. I hope he is right.

As I begin harvesting rejections (3 so far), I find it easier to think in metaphors so cannot but think back to my childhood when I first braved the treacherous riptides and large swells of the Pacific Ocean pummeling the black-lava beaches in my country. Young and brash, I stubbornly tried to dive over the oncoming waves to reach the calm waters beyond the crashing surf only to be humbled, roughed-up and tumbled back to where I first started while my father watched and smiled.

“Dunk under,” he repeated his patient advice. “Just dunk. Otherwise you’ll only get hurt and never reach the other side.”

So I’ll dunk, and report back to you when and if I get there.


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(Photo credit: Tim Bonython)