Monthly Archives: November 2009

From the deep archives

Going through the old Ambiguous, I found this note from 2003:

Did you know this week is National Drinking Water Week? Wow. We have a national drinking water week. Which is different than Bechtel’s clients, who generally have a week’s worth of national drinking water.

How to Open a Vein redux (text as written)

(Numbered by the minute. Tip for other Ignite speakers: I used text to speech to time the talk, which worked pretty well.)

0. Hi my name is Quinn, I write for a living. Some days I write more than others. I am not going to tell you how to be a good writer. There’s a lot of people much better at teaching that than I am, and it can’t be done in 5 minutes. There’s one thing they say can’t be taught even if you take years, and that’s how to open a vein. I figured years might be the wrong approach, and I’d see if I could do that in five minutes. First off- done right, writing is a risky business. When I say I’m a writer I mean I’m a thrill seeker in emotional hellholes. I’m like Steve Irwin but for the inner demons of humanity instead of crocodiles. There’s a reasons so many of us drink ourselves to death and eat gun barrels. But let’s say you still want to write. What does it mean to open a vein? Imagine for a moment a man with a gun to the head of your mother, and he’s going to shoot her if you don’t tell him exactly how your mom makes you feel,

1. really, all of it, the ambivalence and the irrational adoration and how that irrational adoration sometimes pisses you off. And he can tell, and you know he can. And your mom’s right there. That’s a little like the vulnerability of writing from the heart.
It is not just telling a factual truth, but your very own truth. I write because I like to tell the truth. It makes me more sure of my own existence. When I find something strange in the world, something you may fear or hate or just not know about, and I make you understand it, you are closer to me. Sometimes you can borrow passion on a subject from a person, but only if you care about the person. You never escape empathy, either you have to have it for yourself or for them. You never get away from confessing that you care, which means confessing not only that you can be hurt, but exactly how to hurt you.

2. The first barrier to good writing comes from the schoolyard, the first time a bully finds out something tender and teases you, and you learn you can be shamed by your peers, you learn to live in their heads to keep yourself safe, not your own. And you cannot write from anyone else’s head. When I don’t put my heart in my writing, I’m being insecure, and I’m talking down to you because I don’t trust you. Specifically, it’s the self protective arrogance of still not wanting to let the teasing sting, not wanting to take this risk that when I get off this stage tonight someone is going to say “That was inappropriate”, or “You’re just wrong.” or “We just don’t like that sort of thing here in New York, could you cease to exist now?” But none of that is as important as telling you how to get your meaning from your heart and your brain out your fingertips.

3. Start tonight, by blurting the truth to someone, pick a truth, and blurt it, come what may. and when you’ve walked off that cliff, you can rephrase it, to make damn sure they understand what you’re trying to tell them. Not to make it better, but to make damn sure they understand what you mean. A couple warnings: 1) When you are doing it right, it will never be good enough. There’s not a point where it’s finished, there’s a point where you can’t go on. 2) For many people, you can write about it or you can talk it out- talking out your feelings and verbally telling your stories is great for productive group therapy, not so good for writing. You can talk away your thunder. It’s cathartic and fun but it’s not writing. If you think all of this doesn’t apply to your python documentation, you may be right. But it applies as soon as you’re explaining. We think tech or science writing has no blood in it, but when it’s good it does. It’s there whenever you care more than you fear.

4. So if you want to write, if you want to really write, ask yourself, “Why do I care?” Why is this important enough to risk humiliation, ridicule, a broken heart, and madness? And when you answer that, you will know how to make us care. Words are barriers and conduits. Horribly and wonderfully, they are for the most part, throughout our lives, throughout history, all we really ever have of each other. They are the semi-permeable membranes of our minds, through which we touch and shape and do violence and love one another. Make them count. Write the truth. Thank you.

A couple worthy comments

From Dylan Tweney, friend and dad of two, who brings up the practical problems with a protective parent culture:

I can’t leave a comment on your blog without a login so I’m just going to email this, since you asked for feedback.

I’m really sympathetic to your argument and it’s one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I want Clara and Curtis to have the same kind of independence I enjoyed as a kid. And while I grew up in a very different environment than you (small-town Ohio, in my case) I had some of the same experiences: biking all over town, exploring things on my own or with friends, and in general having my days wide open within very broad limits.

Lots of the parents I talk with also had similar childhoods and want their kids to have the same. But none of us do.

The reason it’s different now is structural, I think. It has less to do with fear than simple logistics. When I grew up there were a lot more parents around — usually moms, but my dad too. If I went to a friend’s house there was a good bet that an adult was there, or nearby. Responsible adults were never far away. And for that matter, it seems to me that work hours were shorter — my dad was home for dinner at 5 or 5:30pm every single night. He often had breakfast with us too. And while he was a university prof, my friends whose parents worked in different fields had similar schedules.

Most of the parents I know now are in two-working parent families. Even if you wanted your kid to wander around all afternoon by herself, there would be nowhere for her to go, because all her friends would be in after-school programs or soccer or dance class or swimming lessons too. Whole neighborhoods are absolutely deserted between 8am and 6 or 7pm because of working, commuting parents.

On top of that my daughter has far more homework that she’s expected to do than I had at that age, and her school day is longer.

In other words, the center of children’s social lives has shifted. It used to be child-centric, open-ended and relatively unstructured. It is now adult-driven, centered around programmed activities and highly structured. Going against the grain is not a simple matter of decided not to be afraid and sending your child out into the world — because the world you want to send her out into doesn’t exist any more. Her friends are going to be in those structured activities.

The only hope, as I see it, is for lots of parents to band together and decide to do things differently, preferably on a neighborhood-wide basis. I don’t know of any place where this is actually happening, though.

Side note: I know one stay-at-home dad who insists on giving his kids lots of independence. He has let them walk around his (fairly safe) neighborhood since they were 4 or 5 years old, and often sends them off to play unescorted. It is working just fine for him & his kids. However, he is very nearly a pariah among most other parents, who view his approach to parenting as appalling and possibly reprehensible. Not sure that exclusionary kind of tactic extends to his kids as well, but I worry. But then, the suburbs may be more repressive in this way than urban environments.

And from my mother:

Many people my age and older think this overprotectiveness is just weird.

Parenting in the age of Paranoia: A Small Manifesto

We live in a contracting world, with diminishing options to travel far from your home and meet people of unfamiliar backgrounds- if you’re a child.

With increasingly regimented time, homework starting in Kindergarten and ever-constricting public space children are sent a message the world is too full of dangers for them, that the world is not for them. In short, They are told their lives are too precious to be lived. If they aren’t, it seems to be they are told they aren’t precious, and being allowed into the world devalues them.

The irony is that it’s far less dangerous than it was when I was a child. I regularly rode my bike far and wide, explored up the local creek for hours with and without friends. I explored the city I lived in, which was not only Los Angeles, but LA in the 80s. I learned to steer clear of scary people. I learned how to navigate the roads, and how to talk to people. As a teenager I hung around the mall and snuck around the beach at night. I ran around Westwood, lost my wallet a few times and had to avoid the occasional civil unrest. I saw strange things my mother never did, and sometimes I even told her about them. I nearly got locked in a mausoleum one night. I used to bring my mother a flower from nearly every trip when I was very young. In fact, I would stress out about leaving the house without at least a dollar- the price of a carnation. I got into some trouble and had to call her a few times. She came and got me, and chewed me out, but I was out there again next week, still tromping out the steps of my childhood in all the wonderful and strange environs for LA- even hours spent swimming hard in the Pacific.

My six year old daughter is the most precious and wonderful thing in the world, but she is not a Ming vase. She’s entitled to the choice and freedom I have, even if she chooses a riskier life than I have, or a less risky one. She’s entitled to make informed choices about the level of risk she assumes, armed with an understanding of how to cope with situations as they arise, and how to analyze both the world around her and her level of comfort with it. We do our child a great disservice when we protect them from all risk and harm, as great as letting them go into the world unable to read. These experiences are the things that lead to the social skills and confidence that let them find their place in the world as adults. To prevent them from talking to strangers or explore strange places is as disabling as protecting them from reading books because they might get ideas from them.

Horribly, my social group is creating a construct whereby I can’t easily give my daughter her freedom without sending her the message that I don’t care about her. This is a first attempt to strike out against that. When enough parents are saying they restrict their children’s freedom out of love and responsibility, I have to defend my desire to let my kid experience new things- it’s not indifference and negligence. It’s being the kind of parent I would want to have, and putting her as a person above my own desire for comfort.

I won’t ever teach my daughter to not talk to strangers. I will teach her that context matters, and we will work together to learn how and when it is safe, and perhaps even safer than not. I won’t be teaching her to automatically trust anyone in a uniform. I’ll be teaching her that situations where a number of strangers are gathered together make even bad actors behave, when they know they’re being watched. I will not teach her to run to abstract authority figures when she’s in trouble, I will teach her to build up goodwill and social connections in her community, and to have a number of people always in the back of her mind she knows she can turn to.

I won’t be telling her there are bad people out there- I will tell her even good people can get sick from things like drugs, depression, or anger, and do bad things. I will give her the skills I can, and teach her above all to know herself and trust what she knows, and to seek help without shame where she needs it. I will talk to her about the consequences of her choices. I will hope that a few painful turns early on will inoculate her from big unconsidered choices as a teen or adult. I will be trustworthy for her, and I will show her trust.

At the end of all this I will- yes, possibly nauseous with fear- let her go. As far as possible and reasonable I will always be a resource for her, but I accept that role will diminish with time, that it’s even far diminished now from what it once was. I will always express my interest in her life, but her life truly belongs to her, just as much at 6 as 36. For now I am the steward of abilities and knowledge she doesn’t yet have, and where I make choices for her and limit her it should always be guided by giving her the benefit of my life experience as she makes the choices she can for herself. It’s not mine to choose what she wants and is good for her, but to help her keep safe from immediate, non-theoretical dangers and to give her tools to keep safe in as wide a set of circumstances as possible.

There are no guarantees. I can’t keep her completely safe, ensure she’s happy and that nothing bad happens to her. I know her heart will be broken, and that she will face loss and death in the fulness of time. I know she’ll get hurt in all sorts of ways. I know there is always a chance I could lose the most wonderful thing in my life, and I know that she could lose me. None of this is a reason to cower in our houses. That bit of safety isn’t worth trading the adventures of the world that filled my childhood, and I hope will fill hers.

To reverse the attrition by Twitter

Of small notes. Has anyone else noticed this addendum on the Whitehouse Flickr stream of this:

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

But the copyright notice says this:

United States Government Work

Which links to this:

A work that is a United States Government work, prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties, is not subject to copyright in the United States and there are no U.S. copyright restrictions on reproduction, derivative works, distribution, performance, or display of the work. Anyone may, without restriction under U.S. copyright laws,

* reproduce the work in copies in print or in digital form;
* prepare derivative works of the work;
* perform the work publicly;
* display the work;
* distribute copies or digitally transfer the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.

(Which I knew)

So that note above is a bullshit bluff, which is common, but seems beneath the dignity of the Whitehouse.