The Curious Case of the Selfie

I spent the last couple of weekends on the shore of Lake Superior, taking advantage of dropping off and picking up the kid at camp to get mini-vacations in. We’re not having a vacation this year – too many medical appointments and catastrophes keeping us busy at home. So we take a night here or there, even splurging on a hotel room with a balcony view of the lake. It didn’t go as planned – these moments never do. The trick, I’ve discovered, is to find those moments in between all the disrupted plans.

canstockphoto1492996As usual, I popped awake at 4 a.m. I made my coffee, grabbed a blanket, and went out onto the balcony. Orion was hanging low in the sky over Lake Superior and a full celestial buffet of stars stretched out beyond the harbor lights. On the ground, two floors below, there were rabbits. At one point, I counted about a dozen of them. It was an odd thing. The grass along the lake walk trail was stubbly and mowed short. But the rabbits seemed quite content to hop between patches of grass. A few even explored the rocks on the shore. Seeing an eastern cottontail standing on a large rock near the lake was sort of funny. I wonder what it thought of the expanse of water.

The night before, I sat, like a creepy spectator, watching people traverse the shore. Humanity observed. A gaggle of teenage girls gathered under a light and took turns taking pictures of each other. Boys clambered atop rocks while their friends took pictures and egged them on. Earlier in the day, a group of young women were snapping selfies at the end of the canal pier, leaning up and considering climbing up on the concrete wall to get a good shot. I hustled my family away, muttering I’m not diving in if one of these dumbasses falls off the pier.

I try to resist the old lady in me that simply can’t comprehend the picture-taking craze. From an anthropological standpoint, I suppose it’s the modern “Kilroy was here” – trying to establish our presence, our significance in a universe where we’re proportionally as important as specks of dust. People say it’s all about likes and views, but what are those, except attempts to feel like we matter in a world that is largely ignorant of our existence?

30008950I’ve been reading Emily Esfahani Smith’s The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. The nihilist in me scoffs – well, no matter what we do, it doesn’t really matter, does it? But I’ve taken the author’s point that if we’re here, our lives only have the meaning with which we imbue them. This is the whole purpose of religion, social media, and storytelling – to have rudders in this tumultuous pond we call life. But if the stories we create about our lives, be it through words or pictures, take on more weight than curiosity about life beyond our personal selves, then we are living a life based on finding bandages for our insecurities.

As a person who sees the world in words and tends not to find meaning in visual representations, it’s hard not to judge someone who pops out their phone camera at the drop of a hat. But my curiosity demands that I work through my judgments, that I try to figure out why someone does something. There are times when the selfie-taking is disruptive (concerts) or dangerous (on the wall at the end of pier) or disrespectful (Auschwitz). Mostly though, it is uninteresting, poorly framed human distraction. An imitation of life.

But then, I’m a writer. What is writing but an imitation of life? What is it but a desire to feel relevant, find meaning, craft my own story? What is the difference between this essay and a selfie? Not much, except in this essay, I’m much younger and thinner.

I Need a Decon Shower: A Week on Twitter

I set up the account, started poking around, did some following, did some unfollowing, and spent most of my time on Twitter using the Block function. I didn’t Tweet a single thing, because I don’t trust myself. There are a lot of reasons for this, but mostly because I’m having a long run of insomnia. My judgment is impaired and my defenses against bullshit are weakened. If I ended up dealing with some numbnut on Twitter, I would really screw my chances to be President. Hahahaha…cough, cough.

As a member of my own passive-aggressive anger management program, there is something so damned delightful about Blocking people. These are people who would likely never show up on my feed, who don’t follow me, who I’ve never interacted with. My sponsor tells me to take it one Tweet at a time. I’m pretty sure I’m getting a “You Could Be Worse” coin next week.

canstockphoto3368485There isn’t much to learn about human nature on Twitter, except that self-definition ofttimes has a high degree of self-delusion. I respect a person’s right to believe whatever they want, but if you want to be public about it, you may want to check your values alignment. I’ve never seen so many Christians who hate so many people. Or Constitutionalist libertarians who, by their own comments, have never actually read the document they ascribe to. Or patriots who slap a flag on everything and think their guns are more important than the rights of other citizens to, you know, be alive. It is clear that words have no real meaning on this venue.

I’m currently reading Rebecca Solnit’s Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays). I think a lot about language and how it is used these days – so often as a weapon and insult and much less to convey true meaning. Words that used to have real, concrete meanings, take on an amorphous cloud of denigration and implied values.

Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides brutality.

Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)

As a writer, I can spend hours thinking about word choices, seeking the words that best convey an emotion or character’s intent or, as in the case of blogging, my intent. I understand why many writers avoid social media. It dumbs down language. We write as we read, which is why I am constantly forcing myself to read up. Twitter is about reading down. Of making the complex seem simple. Of rendering points moot and words meaningless.

canstockphoto27625102Some would ascribe this to its limitations of characters, but the narrative distance of typing on a computer to strangers adds another facet, as well as the speed of response. Many people feel that they are not accountable for putting bullshit out into the world. For lies. For ignorance. For made-up meanings to words that already have well-established meanings. Thus far, my experience on Twitter has simply reinforced the idea that its usefulness is limited.

There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

There were people who I followed who were very funny. Levity is good. We need some of it to balance out the doom and gloom. But inevitably, their Tweets had heavy political components, which led to me Blocking a whole slew of commenting knuckleheads – people I hope to never hear from again. By the end of the week, I carefully curated my Follow list down to literary journals and fellow writers, determining that my feed will only be about literature and writing and working as a writer.

canstockphoto11497160This isn’t to say that I didn’t spend the week thinking up quippy bon mots that I could Tweet. But I have a feeling I’ll be managing my social media communications like angry letters to an ex-boyfriend – holding onto them until the morning, by which time they don’t seem as well-reasoned or worth sending. And then I’ll send nothing. I have to work on that and learn not to be terrified that I’ll send something out with a typo. Because you can’t put “Writer” in your profile and then barf out mangled Tweets. Although a curiously large amount of people do that.

I haven’t even tackled the Facebook chaos yet. I’m still trying to understand who sees what and what I’m going to get stuck with seeing. I would like to believe that eventually this aesthetically ugly platform will die out and be replaced with something better. I will have finally gotten through all the Terms of Service by then. My brief forays in Facebook remind me of the days when I would get urban legend emails about needles in theater seats and Budweiser frogs. It all seems just a bit spammy and fictionalized.

canstockphoto10130733This week, I’m committing to sending out my first Tweet, in addition to my blog posts being pushed out. I’m sure it will only take 3 or 4 days to compose and a night to sleep on it. If you choose to follow me on Twitter, you have my apologies in advance. But at least I won’t clutter your feed.