Sunday, September 12, 2021

Adventures in Pupating, Part 3

I thought we were done with the swallowtails after our last crop of dill all went to seed, but as it turns out I was wrong. Volunteer dill has sprouted up all over the yard, and with it comes a new batch of caterpillars. 

Unfortunately, the caterpillars have also caught the attention of our local wasp population, who would love nothing more than to eat them alive. So we decided to bring some of them in.

You'd think, by now, their life cycle would seem more mundane. We've been raising them all summer long, and from one individual to the next the basic stages are almost identical: 
  1. Eat as much dill as you possibly can
  2. Poop (also as much as you possibly can)
  3. Grow a hundred times your original size 
  4. Take one last, giant dump for old time's sake
  5. Run around like a maniac until you find a spot to build your cocoon
But despite this consistency, it never gets old. There's something intriguing about their single-mindedness. All they want is to grow, and they follow nature's command by consuming a staggering amount of food, the equivalent of you or me leveling a small forest by eating the trees down to stumps.

In the swallowtails' favor is the fact they're only eating our dill, which grows a lot faster than we could possibly eat it ourselves. Their ravenous cousins, the cabbage worms, receive far less friendly treatment when they're desolating our broccoli and kale. (And let's face facts: cabbage “worms” are caterpillars, too, but their diet has earned them a worse reputation.)

As for that fifth stage -- the restlessness -- it took us some time to get used to. With the first few caterpillars we raised we didn't know that was part of the cycle. Even after we found one creeping across our kitchen island, we figured it must have gotten confused and we kept trying to put it back on the dill.

Some of the runaways were more successful. One we later discovered in a cocoon hidden behind the kitchen trash. Another we found on the lam crawling across the floor, where it had somehow evaded the cat. And a third is still unaccounted for, although by this time I have to assume it met an unfortunate fate, since no swallowtail has ever appeared.

Once we finally understood this was a normal part of the process, we moved everyone into a protected enclosure. This doesn't stifle the wanderlust, but it does prevent them from getting lost in our kitchen. Instead they now walk loops around the enclosure, sometimes for hours, until they settle down to build a cocoon. Do they stop because they're exhausted? Or is there some secret signal that tells them this is the time, and here is the place? So far, I haven't figured it out.

What I do know is that their growth imperative is replaced by an urgent desire to travel as far as they possibly can. They're not just leaving behind their old feeding grounds, or finding a nice, quiet place to build a cocoon. They're traveling far, covering huge distances even at the risk of exposure. This may be the most vulnerable moment in the whole life cycle. Surely even the most bumbling predator would notice a plump, juicy caterpillar crawling around out in the open?

Yet somehow it all seems to work. Not just in our protected enclosure, but out there, in the wilds of the backyard with all its birds and wasps and neighborhood cats. I know it works because the caterpillars keep on coming, turning up in our dill as regular as clockwork. As much as I'd like to believe we've helped goose the numbers of our local swallowtail population, Nature's never really needed our help.

But we help anyway, and we watch, and we wonder: What would it be like to live with such purpose? And how does it feel to so effortlessly follow your nature? 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Bikes and Books

It's been a strange week. September hit and it was like somebody flipped a switch—we've had nothing but cool, beautiful weather since the first. After a punishing run of 90-degree days in August, it's nice to spend time outside without having to periodically wring out my shirts.

But beyond the weather, there hasn't been a whole lot to celebrate. A friend and a family member both got hit by the new wave of COVID. Other friends got bad medical news entirely unrelated to the virus. The national news is grim. The international news is grim. And while a cynic might say that's always the case, I'm not conceding the point.

Toward the end of The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius makes the argument that all fortune is good fortune. And it really does feel like an argument—of all the back and forth between Boethius the Narrator and his companion Lady Philosophy, this is when things get most desperate and heated. You can feel Boethius the author trying to drag himself over this last philosophical hurdle, to convince himself that the universe is good and just no matter how it might seem in the moment.

When my father was dying of frontotemporal dementia, sometimes I could temper my own anxiety by telling myself, “This isn't happening to you, it's happening to him.” It was a way to reorient my thinking, to put somebody else at the center. At times this was a pretty good trick. I could focus on my dad, or even my mom and my sisters. Other times I would have to admit that, while I might not be dying of dementia, maybe I still had reason to feel like shit.

So was it a healthy coping strategy in the end? Man, who knows. It beat the hell out of drinking, I'll tell you that. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but in any case it's not the kind of thing you would ever say to somebody else. If someone's mother was sick, you wouldn't say, “Just remember, it's not happening to you!” Not if you wanted to keep all your teeth.

Generally, when people talk to you, they're not looking for a new philosophical framework. They just want someone to hear them and express some concern. They want a little human moment to hang on to before they have to dive back into the shit.

This morning I got up and the sky was overcast, and the clouds just kept getting darker while my wife and I finished our coffee and eggs. At the risk of a very wet ride, I stuck my bike on the back of the car and drove to a new trail not too far from home.

Well, I shouldn't say “new” trail, so much as two sections of old trail that had finally been connected, granting me an easy freedom to bike six miles until I reached the next county. I expected the trail to be packed, as it usually is when the summer heat finally breaks, but because it was morning or because there was a forecast of rain there really weren't many people around. A few other cyclists, some runners, some walkers, but scattered so far apart that it still felt like I had the trail to myself. 

Just as I hit the sixth mile, a little drizzle started to spit. I was planning to turn around anyway, but this seemed to seal my decision. The rain never really materialized, though. I stayed dry the rest of the way back, so I decided to push my luck and stop at the local vinyl and book shop, which is exactly as hip as it sounds.

I was looking for the new Stephen King, which Mystery Scene described as both King's most straightforward crime novel and also an ode to writing itself. I tend to think that's when King can be at his best—his books On Writing and Misery are two of my favorites for that very reason. This particular bookstore sees no great value in alphabetizing their stock, which is great for stumbling over the unexpected but less helpful when you know what you want. Eventually I found the store's sole copy of Billy Summers tucked away in a corner, which made me suspect I might be slightly uncool for buying it.

The cashier rang me up and offered a bag, and I reflexively turned it down. Then I looked out the window and saw my mistake. The clouds had finally made good on their threat of a downpour.

“I guess I will take that bag.”

“Yeah, I was going to say.” The cashier snapped open a green plastic sack, then handed it over the counter. “Is that your bike out front?”

“Yeah. I might have picked a bad day for it.”

“No you didn't,” the cashier said, which was perfectly true. “Just be careful out there going home.”

I agreed that I would, then put my book in the bag and went back into the rain.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Arts of Noticing

Earlier this month, Austin Kleon's newsletter tipped me off to a book called The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker, which sounded like something I'd like. I really enjoyed Freeman Patterson's Photography and the Art of Seeing for the lessons it offered on close observation, and I figured Walker's book might provide something similar.

When I looked it up at my library, I discovered a second The Art of Noticing in the system, this one by an author named Mary Coons. It wasn't the book I was looking for, but I couldn't resist the synchronicity. I requested both versions, and both showed up the same day.

Coons is an Indiana writer and illustrator, and her book is a collection of short personal essays. Some touch on writing and creativity, others on her family history, and some are simply life observations. I didn't know what to expect, but parts of the book are very charming, and I enjoyed spending time with her stories. At one point she makes an offhand reference to Pride and Prejudice, and by chance it got me to thinking. 

Every now and then I get rid of a book I really enjoyed, and I always seem to regret it. That was the case with Pride and Prejudice. I loved reading it, but my personal copy landed in a Goodwill pile for one reason or another, and I've always wished I held on to it.

So a couple years ago, I began looking. Not just for Pride and Prejudice, but for the exact Bantam Classics edition I read in my high school literature class. Maybe I was being sentimental, or maybe I just liked the challenge. Either way, I wouldn't accept anything less than that particular edition.

Since beginning my search, I haven't walked into a Goodwill or a used bookstore without checking for that particular book. And because of that, it's taken on a kind of cosmic significance. I started thinking of it almost as some kind of an omen—if I ever found the book it would be the universe's way of telling me something big was just around the next corner.

But the universe chose to stay silent. I even bought a Goodwill copy of Jane Austen's Persuasion to try and meet it halfway, but this did nothing to impress the powers that be. I continued to come home empty-handed.

All these thoughts were stirred up while I read Mary Coons, and so I happened to glance at my shelves. There, sitting right next to Persuasion as if it had never been gone, was the Bantam Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice.

I was dumbfounded. I got up and pulled the book off the shelf, then flipped through the pages. I'm not sure what I expected to find. Maybe a note tucked behind the front cover, or some passage meaningfully underlined. Anything to give a hint about what, exactly, just happened. Was this my own private example of the Mandela effect? Or had I just been confused all along? Because now my copy of Sense and Sensibility was missing. Was that the book I'd actually been looking for?

In hopes of confirming that I hadn't lost my mind, I started reading through my old daily journals. After spending so much time looking for that particular book, surely I made some reference to it. But no—after reading two years' worth of daily entries, there was absolutely no mention of Pride and Prejudice, or, for that matter, Sense and Sensibility. I did record the day I purchased Persuasion, but said nothing of the fact I was looking for a different book entirely.

Like the aftershock of any good Mandela effect, all I'm left with is the spooky sense that something in the world is not what it should be, even while the rational part of my brain keeps insisting that I'm the one who made the mistake. Interestingly enough, though, this whole experience is in line with the exercises in Rob Walker's The Art of Noticing.

Walker's book is more like a collection of games to help sharpen your skills of observation, similar to ones you might have played as a kid. Here are just a couple examples of the exercises Walker suggests:
  • Conduct a scavenger hunt
    Create a mental search image (dogs, Volkswagen Beetles, security cameras) and see how many you can find when you're in a new place.
  • Spot something new everyday
    During your familiar daily routines, work to spot and record something new—something you've never noticed about your environment before.
  • Count with the numbers you find
    Hunt for numbers in your environment, following numerical order (e.g., start by looking for 1, then look for 2, then 3, and so on).
  • Get there the hard way
    Going somewhere new? Dispense with your phone's GPS and write down the directions instead. If you get lost, that's part of the fun.

Walker's point seems to be that the way we observe our surroundings changes to the extent that we will it to change. We can fall into habit and routine, or we can set up new mental parameters before we go into familiar situations in order to discover things hidden in plain sight.

My constant search for the Bantam Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice (or was that Sense and Sensibility?) was just the kind of game Walker suggests. And because of it, Mary Coons' offhand line in a book I never intended to read sent me down this strange road—even if all it proves is that I'm far less observant than I'd like to believe.

Sunday, August 22, 2021


 “If you have turned your mind to higher things, there is no need of a judge to award a prize; it is you yourself who have brought yourself to a more excellent state: but if you have directed your zeal toward lower things, do not look for punishment from without; it is you yourself who have plunged yourself into the worse condition.”

-Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

Of all the things a guy can get addicted to, "the internet" is probably one of the stupidest, and yet here I am checking off all the boxes.

Compulsive use to relieve anxiety? 

Usage interferes with other activities, work, and/or relationships?
The trifecta, yes.

Unable to quit despite the desire to stop?
I'd say this was overstating the case if it wasn't for the number of times I've been startled to see it's two in the morning and I'm still scrolling through dumb internet bullshit. Am I getting anything out of those late hours spent on my phone? No. Do I still do it anyway? Absolutely.

So I've decided it's probably time for a dopamine fast. The wrong reward circuits are getting reinforced in my brain, and I'm overdue for pulling the plug. I got curious, though, why this happens in the first place, and so I started digging around.

(I do recognize the irony here. "I'm wasting too much time on my phone. Better use my phone to figure out why." It's insidious!)

The popular theory about doomscrolling is that it's a result of how we're hardwired to think. We helplessly seek out awful news online because the brain specifically wants to be aware of potential dangers in our environment, and strategize on how to avoid them. But the modern digital world has a bottomless reservoir of bad news to provide (and lately “bad news” feels like a polite euphemism for “apocalyptic”). So our brains keep seeking it out, and the internet keeps serving it up, and the two engage each other in some terrible informational death spiral.

This theory sounds pretty persuasive until you stop to think about what the internet is actually like. Because it isn't a bottomless well of human misery. Sometimes you also get puppies.

Does that sound facetious? It isn't meant to. Think about the feeds you browse every day. Sure, some of what you see is pretty horrible, but how often is that intercut with things that you like? Cute animal videos, an inspirational quote, a funny clip from The Office. I don't care if you're browsing Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter—what you'll encounter is a wild variety of highs and lows, triumphs and losses, consolation and rage-bait.

In other words, you're not just tripping a "danger" wire. It might feel like you're doomscrolling, but I suspect very few people spend their time online looking solely at terrible things. It's more like a slot machine, and scrolling is a way of pulling the lever. There's a feeling that if only you keep browsing long enough then maybe you'll come out ahead. Maybe you'll see enough kittens to make up for the things that upset you.

Here's how MIT researcher Natasha Dow Schull talks about slot machine addiction. But tell me if it sounds familiar:

INTERVIEWER: How does gambling promote a sense of security? Isn't gambling about risk?

SCHULL: When gamblers play, they're going into a zone that feels comfortable and safe. You're not playing to win, you're playing to stay in the zone—a zone where all of your daily worries, your bodily pains, your anxieties about money and time and relationships, fall away. One addict I interviewed described being in the zone:

“It's like being in the eye of a storm … Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can't really hear anything. You aren't really there—you're with the machine, and that's all you're with.”

INT: Why are slot machines so much more addictive than more traditional forms of gambling?

SCHULL: … There are three reasons why: Playing on slot machines is solitary, rapid, and continuous. You don't have interruptions like you would in a live poker game, waiting for cards to be dealt or waiting for the other players. You can go directly from one hand to the next—there's no clear stopping point built into the game. You don't even have to stop to put bills in the machine.

INT: What do new gambling machines say about our relationship with technology?

SCHULL: The cultural history of gambling in this country follows alongside technological advances—not only because technology makes these new kinds of machines possible, but because we've become comfortable interacting with and even trusting computers and machines.

If there's a lesson here, it's an old one: The odds will always favor the house. The only way to win is to choose not to play.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

What I Love

I read a very bleak essay this week by a writer who is about to publish a book. That's the kind of occasion most writers look forward to, but the thrust of the essay was that, since the author's last book publication hadn't made them happy, there was no good reason to think this new book could do the job, either. Especially since, as the essay concluded, people don't change—even if they'd like to.

It's hard not to feel a little annoyed at the start of an essay like this. (“What the hell, don't you know how lucky you are?”) But by the end, well, I wasn't won over, exactly, but I did feel more of a kinship. I'm no alien to what the essay described. I've chased my share of ephemeral pleasures, hoping to find some way to stretch them into a permanent state of contentment. I think it takes a deeply honest person, with an equally deep knowledge of self, to acknowledge their conflicted feelings around achieving a significant goal. It's very human to hope some thing will satisfy your restless heart, while knowing full well that it won't.

Still, when I finished reading the essay I couldn't help but ask myself, what's the point? What is the point of making time every day to go write? And what's been the point of making writing a central part of my life for the last twenty years? If publishing stories and books can't make a person happy, then why not just stop to do something that can? Or at least to do something more profitable.

Here's where I could cite the Bhagavad Gita or Stephen Pressfield or the Stoics. I could talk, in a general way, about how we can't control the result of our labor, we can only control the labor itself. I could point out that since I cannot count on success I should learn to enjoy the work.

Philosophically that's all wise and good, but today I'm just not in the mood! Seneca must step aside for the moment. Instead of these broad philosophical strokes, I want to be more specific. Here's what I love about writing that makes it feel like an end in itself.

I'm more at home on the page than in person.

Sometimes, when I'm talking to someone, it feels like I'm watching myself from a great distance and observing the scene. When this starts to happen what I'm usually thinking is, Dear god, why don't you shut up? The "me" doing the talking feels like somebody else—like a mask or a puppet I've stitched together over the years, one which is capable enough to navigate through most of my day.

But, at some level, I don't really believe that he's me. He's just some meat suit I wear to move around in the world, the fleshy avatar that makes it possible for me to eat tomato sandwiches and buy new books and listen to music. But the real me, the purest version of me, is the one who shows up when I write. When I sit down to write after a day in the world, I feel like a caught minnow being dropped back in a pond. I'm back in the place I was made for.

I love the practice of writing.

I take real pleasure in making a bad sentence better. The context barely matters—it could be from a short story, or it could be from a product report for work. It's a satisfaction that emerges from practice, I think, a kind of positive feedback loop that develops in the brain as you hone a particular skill.

I suspect this feedback loop could be created out of almost any regular practice. Maybe the pleasure I get from writing is the same someone else takes from cooking, or landscaping, or carving jolly little sailboats from driftwood. Whatever the case, it seems like a miracle that this function exists in the brain at all, that instead of boredom it's possible to continually uncover new levels of meaning just by the practice of a thing that you love. For me, that just happens to be writing.

Writing surprises me on the page.

No matter how much you outline a story, you can never plan for everything that will happen. (The only way to do that is to actually write the damn thing.) Every line of dialogue, every moment of observation, every transition into new a scene is the opportunity for something to surprise you. That doesn't mean it will always happen. But, more often than you might think, you reach for a detail and what comes to mind catches you completely off guard.

How does this work? How can you surprise yourself? I don't know the full answer, but I suspect it works like a dream.

What I mean is this. A few years ago, I had a vivid dream in which I was flying over the rooftops. When it was time to land, I came down on a roof next to some air ducts. I touched one of the ducts to steady myself, and in that moment was startled to find it was warm and silently vibrating.

Where did these details come from? They didn't come from me, by which I mean my conscious brain. I wasn't trying to will a scene into existence; I didn't pause to ask myself, “What should an air duct feel like if it's actively venting out heat?” But those details were there all the same. They had to have come from somewhere.

What happens, I think, is that the unconscious mind serves up the details when called for. If the conscious mind is thinking too hard—trying to force imagery, a scene, some dialogue—the unconscious can't do it's job. But when these parts of the brain can cooperate, we can surprise ourselves because we've opened a channel. Some other part of the brain joins the conversation, with its own startling ideas and logic. To the extent that our own human consciousness can actually be expanded, writing seems to be one way to do it.

Writing surprises me in real life.

When I was in seventh grade, writing stories in a spiral bound notebook, I couldn't have imagined how much of my life would be shaped by that one simple act, repeated over and over. But somehow, almost by magic, placing one word after another turned into a path that's taken me some surprising places.

I've interviewed my literary heroes, had drinks with a MacArthur fellow, read on stage with nationally famous writers, and met some of my best friends because of writing. I've gotten emails from strangers who liked something I wrote, and eye rolls from friends who did not. I've learned how to get back up after rejection and failure, how to accept criticism, and how to hang on to the joy of something I love no matter how it might be received.

What an embarrassment of riches that is. What unexpected surprises. None of these things were why I started to write—in seventh grade, none of them were even on my radar as something to hope for. Nevertheless, these things have all happened as a byproduct of that one simple act, repeated over and over.

Writing is fun.

This gets lost sometimes in the cycle of writing, revision, and rejection, but the truth is that writing is fun. It's real fuckin fun, and that's the main reason I continue to do it. Like most writers, I write to make myself laugh or to see how I think, or just to get something out of my head. I write because I enjoy it, and it's a joy and a privilege that I get to continue.

But it's also fun because people do change. I am not who I used to be—nobody is. That's easy to lose track of sometimes, but writing gives you a way to crystallize a piece of yourself, a little relic of the person you are in that moment, and the way that that person thinks. Sometimes it's a little embarrassing (“I wrote what??”), but sometimes you can also discover some part of yourself you'd like to get back, like an old friendship it's time to rekindle.

Writing creates a record of these selves and how they all interact, and the ways in which they have grown. As a writer, the path ahead may not always be clear, but you can see all the way back to the spot where the adventure began.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...