Day #33 – Sharing Pages

An older, retired couple (retired from their jobs rather than retired from being a couple – in this moment, they look very much in love) sit at a table and read.  She stops every so often and reads him a line and he tells her what he thought when he first read the same book.  He stops her in the flow of reading to share a story from the newspaper.

“Can I ask you a question?” I ask the woman.

“Sure,” she says.

“What are you reading?” I ask.

“What’s that?”

“What are you reading.  Would you share what you’re reading.  I’m always interested in expanding my taste in literature.”

“I don’t know if this is literature. It’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest,” she says.

“Sounds like a cheap knock-off of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” I explain.

“Yes, well it’s a sequel to that book,” she answers.

“Oh.”

“It’s a great read.  It’s much faster than the last one.  It has you thinking about what’s going to happen next.  There’s suspense and you know, the character development isn’t bad,” she says.

“She used to be an English teacher,” the man explains.  “She used to make fun of this stuff.  She called it fluff.  Now she sees that some fluffy things are good.  Like whip cream.”

*     *     *

A few minutes later, I turn to the man at the table next to mine and ask, “Would you share a page with me?”

“Sure, which section?” he responds with a thick New England accent.

“What do you recommend?  It’s your news feed,” I respond.

“News feed?  It’s just the paper.”

“Yeah,” I say awkwardly.

“I recommend the sports section.  The business section is depressing.  But Boston is a game away from winning it all.”

“Is there an article you would want to share?”

“Right here.  Page A7.  It’s about the Republican debate getting lower ratings than the hockey championships.”

“Thanks.”

*     *     *

Originally we had planned to print up websites and blog posts and pass them out to friends.  However, after sharing links at professional development and passing out Drawn Into Danger to friends, but it didn’t seem to capture the random nature of sharing links with acquaintances.

The truth is that we share text with friends quite often.  When Javi the Hippie borrows a book, it’s a guarantee of a great conversation.  When Julia borrows a book, I know I’ll get it back in a week with a very concise review and a series of thought-provoking questions.  When David borrows a book, I can expect him to stop by the house to talk about it throughout the reading process.

Back in college, I used to borrow books from Brad the Philosopher.  I had never seen someone so intentional with his reading.  I’d read scribbled lines in the margins and I’d question why he underlined certain lines.  It was the story within the story, reminding me that reading is never quite as solitary an endeavor as I had once imagined it to be. It became a silent, asynchronous conversation.

As we move toward e-readers, tablets and online reading, I wonder if we’re losing something valuable in sharing books.  Like physical photo albums or front porches, we’ll wake up from the digital fog one day and realize that we miss the notes in the margins.

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Day #32 – Sharing Music


So the first time I heard norteño music, I couldn’t stand it.  I was a freshman in college and thought it all sounded like a drunk polka. I could tolerate Spanish rock, but anything with a tuba and an acordian had no place in the twenty-first century. All I could hear was the elements that made it foreign and unpalatable.

After awhile, I started hanging around homes and tolerating the music.  I could distinguish between Los Tigres del Norte and Vicente Fernandez.  It was subtle, but I started singing the songs on my own.  Eventually, I set a few Spanish stations as presets on my radio.  When fellow gringos would ask, I’d lie and say it was to learn a foreign language.

Eventually I moved past “appreciating the difference” and started hearing the similarities.  It was no longer “foreign”music, but rather human music.  I could listen to Counting Crows and Los Tigres del Norte and it didn’t feel strange.

It became a symbol for people.

It’s impossible for me to love who I don’t know and it’s really hard for me not to love those I really get to know.  

Perhaps a little trite, but it’s become a conviction I have about life and the world and humanity.

Sometimes I get to a place where I label people.  I find people who are just like me and build a friendship upon shared interests.  Without meaning to, I try and friend myself, forgetting just how different my friends are or just how common our shared humanity is with those who seem “different.”

*     *     *

When I was in the eighth grade, my sister played August and Everything After on the tape deck.  We mocked Adam Durtitz’s whiny voice, but after a few weeks, we tolerated it.  Over time I yearned for the solitary bass line opening the entire album.  I embraced the collective sound of “Omaha.”  The album became a part of me; a soundtrack through the broken relationships of high school, the confusion of college and the need for memory in teaching.

In high school, Grant introduced me to ambient techno, Tori Amos and the Chemical Brothers (who sounded neither chemical nor fraternal).  In college, Andrew told me that I needed to listen to Pedro the Lion.  Dustin and Quinn hounded me about Thrice.  Paul played Sufjan Stevens on repeat in car rides across town.

These weren’t simply musical recommendations.  These were a recognition of something we shared.  Each time someone said, “I think you would like . . . ” there was a sense that a friend knew me on a profound level.  It wasn’t about matching styles.  It was about matching themes and sounds and stories to my identity.

Now I have Pandora.  Instead of calling up Quinn for musical recommendations, I allow an algorithm to suggest that if I like Death Cab for Cutie, I might enjoy The Postal Service (which is essentially Death Cab for Cutie with Super Mario music added to it).  It’s not entirely asocial.  Every time Pandora plays one of my friend’s songs, I see a profile picture, leading me to the scary reality that everyone in my “friend network” now knows that I gave a thumbs up to Jim Croce.

The social interaction remains muted, though.  I know that Dan also likes Damien Rice, but I don’t get a chance to listen to the album with him.  I know that four of my friends also listen to Sufjan Stevens, but I miss the collective experience of hearing it together.

Despite these limitations, my friends still try to share music on Facebook.  They take blurry-rainbow pictures of concerts and write notes and quote song lyrics.  Sometimes they embed video clips from YouTube.  However, the process is always awkward, like eating a virtual pancake or sending a vapor high-five.  If Facebook is a party with every person I’ve ever known, none of us know how to share our music.

Quinn the Business Bohemian doesn’t believe in letting algorithms decide his musical taste, so he actively engages people in conversations about music.  “Do you ever listen to Mumford and Sons?”

“I’ve never heard of them,” I tell him.

“Really?  John, you need to listen to this album,” he tells me.

“Why is it so vital?” I ask.

“I brought the album up to Prescott.  Abbie and I sat their and listened to it.  I was in tears.  It’s powerful.  It’s spiritual without being religious,” he tells me.

Quinn stops by and lends me the CD. The next day, I listen to the album from start to finish.  I call up an acquaintance and tell him that they should listen to Mumford and Sons.

“Hey, my friend lent me

“John, everyone’s already heard their music,” he says.

“I didn’t know that,” I tell him.

“Yeah, I think they were nominated for a Grammy.  Pretty mainstream.”

It has me thinking about the death of a common songbook.  With iTunes and Pandora and a close friend network of likeminded people, I’m rarely experiencing those moments in an old Pontiac, forced to listened to whiny-voiced pop music that I eventually fall in love with. It has me thinking that maybe the “relevant” sort feature on Facebook pushes me away from diversity and into a world where I won’t experience the Norteno music effect.

*     *     *

A few days later, Quinn stops by.  We share our thoughts on relationships, politics, music, novels and God.

“Quinn, you have to listen to Hayden.  He’s not an easy listen.  He doesn’t have that wispy voice of most indie singers, but that’s why I like his music.  It’s unvarnished,” I tell him.

“I’m drawn to a unique voice,” he tells me.  And he would be.  Everyone says, “I listen to a little of everything,” but for Quinn the Business Bohemian, it’s true.

“He has a horn and a harmonica.  I love the harmonica.  I didn’t when I first heard it.  I thought it sounded like an asthmatic donkey, but now I enjoy it.”

“You’ll have to lend me the cd.”

“Maybe you’ll get it in vinyl and we’ll listen to it at your place,” I tell him.

It has me thinking about my favorite musical memories.  I think of slowly falling in love with an album that I first detested.  I think of sitting around a living room in a circle singing songs that I once found trite and repetitive.  I think of Javi the Hippie busting out the acoustic guitar and filling our home with spontaneously live music or Christy’s grandma at the grand piano playing hymns that I hardly recognize.

I think of Christy at her recital. She’s beautiful and so is her voice.  She sounds like herself, but also like another person and though I don’t understand a single word of the Italian song, she’s speaking a language that’s much more powerful and I’m hooked – in love with a song that Pandora never would have recommended to me.

I want my life to be less Pandora, less filtered and less customized. I want it to be more acoustic.  I want a live life.

The Part I Haven’t Been Sharing

In re-reading older posts, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in this blog.  I’ve self-censored it.  I’ve written a highlight reel rather than highlighting the real and in the process I’ve appeared to be much bolder than I truly am.  The truth is that I’ve gotten scared.  I’ve chickened out.  I’ve had a bold plan in my head and decided, ultimately, that it broke too many social boundaries or sacrificed my sense of public propriety that I hold dear.

These are the parts of the story that Christy knows.  We both share moments when we decided, at the last minute, to abandon the experiment.

Here are a few examples:

  • Failing to ask a barista at Starbucks to sign my cup as “Starbucks,” as an autograph for a fan of the chain.
  • Failing, at the last minute, to go to the public library and get people to sign up for a cause I believe in
  • Failing to share my drawings or pictures with some of the strangers I’ve talked to
  • Failing to write something more meaningful in a private message
  • Failing to create an event with an invitation
I’ve considered turning this blog into a book.  However, if I do that, I want to revise this story, not to save face, but to lose it; to drop the mask of bravado and admit that there were moments I wasn’t able to face my fear.  I need to recognize that throughout this journey I have been as much anti-hero as I have been a hero.
Just thought I would spell that out in case people didn’t do.  Sometimes I get scared, really scared, and I hide socially.  And sometimes I hide the fact that I hide.

Somebody Else Is Doing This . . . Sort Of

I’ve had a lot of people e-mailing me, retweeting and mentioning the following video:


I have mixed feelings about this.  A part of me gets scared that I’ll look like a copycat, even though our experiment happened first.  After all, his video is well-produced and it’s gone viral.  Can’t say the same thing about this blog by any means. (A simple glimpse at the few hundred visitors and small handful of subscribers will prove that)

I can’t claim to be “the first” to do this, either.  Although it felt original at the time, I’m sure it’s been done in the past.  My hope is that people will see the difference between that video and this project.  I’m hoping they’ll see it as complimentary rather than competitive.

It’s the difference between a poem and a novel.

His video begins with the presupposition that Facebook is all about friending strangers and then invading their personal space.  The result is a somewhat awkward Jackass-style series of interactions.  Our presupposition is that an in-person Facebook should reflect the way we interact on Facebook.  So, we friend strangers, but they are the aquintances we meet in the real world – the cashier at Target who we’ve never left a positive comment for or the barista at Starbucks whose name we never knew.

Thus, instead of seeing how awkward and artificial social media can be, we’re often coming to the opposite conclusion that we will live more authentically in the “real world” if we live a more Facebook-like experience – sharing pictures, asking about books, enjoying live music, handing out positive notes.

Social media did not come about out of a need to be more socially awkward.  Instead, it met a very real need for identity, community and belonging in a postmodern, lonely planet.  The extent to which it works online is debatable.  The extent to which it can work in real-life has been mind-blowing to me.

This blog is also different in the fact that we try and doing everything people do on Facebook for an extended time.  Instead of attempting to do it all at once in a day, we want to take our time and reflect on the process.  Again, it’s a novel and we’re trying to make sense out of the setting and how it is reshaping the characters.

Day Thirty-One: Even When I’m Being Private, Anyone Can See My Profile

I arrive to the grocery store wearing my profile shirt.  I figure it’s a pretty inoccuous place where I assume most people will stare at the box of Pop Tarts rather than my profile shirt.  While this might seem like cheating, I have my rationale.  People tend to look at a profile only if it’s someone they know and if they run across it on accident, they don’t stare for too long.

However, the shirt still draws attention to me.  Holding Brenna helps to mitigate the concern that I might be homeless.  Yet it does nothing in terms of proving that I’m not crazy.

“Excuse me,” a lady asks nervously.  “Is that like your profile?”

“Yeah, it’s my real-life, Living Facebook profile.  Want to read it?”

“Let me get this straight.  You say ‘no thank you’ to religion, but you like Jesus?”

“Yeah.”

“What if when they say ‘this is my body broken,’ we’re also his broken body? What if you can’t have one without the other?”  I stand there holding gluten-free crackers, dumbfounded by the reply of a stranger.

Minutes later, a man asks to see my shirt.  I can tell he’s nervous, but he studies it closely.  “What’s orange baseball?”

“I play it with my kids.  We take oranges and do batting practice with them.  They explode in the air and we’re bathed in stickiness.  You should try it.”

“Oh,” he says and scurries off down the aisle.

Finally the cashier asks to read the shirt.  “See, that’s me right there.  I’m at Squaw Peek.  Those are the mountains.  That’s my big nose.”  She stares at it silently while I fill the conversational void with more ramblings about my profile picture.

“You can’t be libertarian, republican, democrat and green,” she explains.

“Yeah you can.  You just have to make sure they’re not proper nouns.  As long as I stay away from capitals, I’m safe.”

My profile shirt confirms something I’ve experienced throughout this experience.  Strangers are much more thoughtful, kind and interesting than I had ever imagined.  And there’s something disarming about breaking the social norms first that allows an urban metropolis to feel a little more like Mayberry, minus the whistling.

Day Thirty: Please Comment On My Pictures

I’m sitting in the cushy chair at the coffee shop, flipping through my stack of stick figure drawings.

“Hey, would you comment on my picture?” I ask the lady next to me.

“Pardon me?” she asks in confusion.  This is the first time in the experiment that someone truly thinks I’m crazy.  I venture a smile, but I think it makes this worse.

“Uh, nothing,” I respond.  I’m too nervous to pull this off.  I think she can sense the impending awkwardness, so she scurries away as I pop in my head phone and engage in a Twitter conversation.   Maybe asking people to comment on my pictures was a bit much.  Or maybe by “pictures” I needed to choose photographs instead of stick figures and cartoon sketches.

A few minutes later, a man sits down next to me.  “Hey, would you comment on my pictures?” I ask him.

“Like Facebook?” he asks.

“Yeah, just like it,” I respond.

“Where’s this?” he asks.

“It’s a picture of me at Flagstaff,” I explain.

“At the McDonald’s?”

“That’s not an m. That’s a bird,” I tell him.

“And that one?” he asks.

“That’s a picture of me taking a picture of myself in front of the mirror.”

“I hate when people do that.  It’s too personal.  It’s creepy,” he tells me.

“So, leave a comment about that.”

“Do I have to draw a box and write it out or can I say it out loud?”

“Out loud will work,” I respond.

“How’s this?  ‘That stinks.’  Get it,” he laughs at himself and then says, “Well, I need to get to work.”

I decide at this point that it’s too awkward for me.  Besides, no one on Facebook comments on a stranger’s picture anyway.  So, I rethink this approach altogether.  I decide to sketch out new pictures and mail them out to friends.  I’m hoping for a comment better than, “That stinks.”