NaNoWriMo Day 1: Not a Novel

Digital Doodle

Digital Doodle - Color

I know NaNoWriMo is about writing a novel, or story, or something with a story arc of some sort, but since I’m only sort of participating, I figure I’ll do it however I like. Today I’m not exactly bursting with fictional creativity – there’s something about spending all day around financial forms that seems to dry up that normally overflowing spring (are there springs that don’t overflow?) – but I can’t really blame it on anything other than myself, really. Lots of people have soul-sucking jobs that are far worse than mine, and they still have lots of creative juices. In fact, it seems like some people just burst with it in general, like being in a blank job just gives them time to come up with cool ideas.

Maybe there’s a discipline to creativity, as with anything in life. The more you practice your creative passion, the more you’ve got ideas about it, the more you want to do it, the more you improve and enjoy yourself. Maybe that’s why watching movies (for most of us) isn’t so great. It’s often more a passive absorption than a creativity-stimulating exercise.

But maybe that’s partly because I prefer to watch stupid, feel-good, totally brainless flicks. Judge me if you like; I’m sticking with it. I encounter plenty of pain and suffering and misery in my real life and, indirectly, through the news. If I want sobering stories of the depressing realities of life, I’ll just open up a newspaper (metaphorically – which, incidentally, is why newspapers are struggling! Imagine 30 years ago not getting a newspaper, and now the Seattle Times has barely over 150,000 daily deliveries; but that’s an issue for another time).

So, yes, I like dumb feel-good flicks that don’t force me to examine my soul or life choices. I’ve got plenty of that in other parts of my life. I know that just being alive as an American I’m using more than my share of resources, living more comfortably and with greater waste and excess than any other culture in the history of forever, and that this lifestyle is destroying the planet. I’m already depressingly aware of the hideous things people do to one another, and I don’t need a documentary or some “based on real life” film to fill my mind with even more images of the horrors we inflict on each other. Maybe it’s just that we’re finally approaching the end of what may have been the filthiest, most horrid campaign season ever, but I’m feeling plenty depressed with our cultural choices in every arena right now. No need to watch some movie to rub it in.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Creativity and discipline. As I spend more time as a grown-up, it seems like I keep running up against that old idea of discipline. Now, when I was a kid, I would’ve said that discipline and creativity were diametrically opposed. Isn’t the point of creativity to break the shackles of society’s mores and explore yourself and your ideas in freedom?

Of course, that’s an easily refuted argument. What of artists and musicians and other creative folks who spend years of their lives perfecting their art? Discipline is most certainly required to play a musical instrument well: You can’t just pick up a violin and produce music to make an audience weep… except perhaps from pain. Surely the same is true of artists, writers, and all sorts of other creative types. Only after mastering the discipline of an art can true creativity blossom.

For that matter, pretty much any activity in life goes better with the discipline of practice. We think of hobbies as the thing we do for fun, but how fun is something you never practice at, and therefore (in general) aren’t very good at? I ride my bike with discipline (sometimes) and as a result enjoy myself more when I achieve goals I set. Perhaps for hobbies we don’t think of it as having discipline, since we get to choose to do the fun thing. But I think still there are times you do something for a hobby that requires exerting discipline.

When I slack off (which, full disclosure, I’m doing now, and feeling rather guilty about it), I usually regret it later. I tell myself, “I just need to take it easy and not have to do one more thing.” We definitely have cultural support for this concept, too, the whole, “Go on, you’ve worked hard all day long – you deserve a break from having to do one more thing.” In reality, maybe the fact that we are so utterly drained at the end of the day that we need that complete and total cessation of discipline reflects badly on our (as a culture) life choices.

If we didn’t worship work so much, would we expend a little less energy there, and maybe have a little more energy to other healthy activities? If we didn’t idolize our children, would we give them a little less attention and have a little more time for other relationships? I pick these examples because I’m following the old adage to “write what I know,” and I know those things all too well.

When I started my job, I worked 10 hours a week. But over the last year, my hours have crept up so now I’m doing over 100 hours a month when needed. Some months just don’t have that much work. It’s a cyclical business, to some extent.

You know how I feel when I see my timesheet tipping in at over 20 hours a week? I feel first proud, like I’ve accomplished something. If I’m below 20 hours, I feel like I should try to get a little more done. But the I feel disappointment and shame, because what’s to be proud of? I spent less time caring for my family, less time caring for myself (it’s either bike or work when Benji’s otherwise accounted for, usually a pretty stark choice), less time caring for the house, more time stationary in front of a computer screen. For what? For $20 an hour? So then I’ve used up time and energy and discipline, to fill out forms and answer emails and make phone calls.

And what about idolizing our kids? Don’t take this to imply I think we shouldn’t spend time with our kids. We should, and that’s one of the blessings and curses of being a stay-at-home mom. Yet I think that, in general, there’s this view that we can’t spend enough time with our children. That once they’re born, children should be the pinnacle of our lives, the thing we’re most devoted to, the most defining part of who we are. But all too often I feel like, at least in my family, that becomes a paramount and unquestioned duty, to the detriment of other important relationships.

What about taking care of my marriage, that foundational relationship with my spouse? We take it for granted, yet if that fails, what happens to the kid? We underestimate the importance of investing time in our marriages, I think, because somehow kids seem more important. However, without that cornerstone relationship between spouses in place, the entire family crumbles and falls. We forget that we are more than just “Mommy” or “Daddy” – we are “Wife” or “Husband,” too, and that relationship doesn’t just stay healthy on its own. Will my flabby abs will become a rippling six-pack if I just ignore them? Will my leafy yard rake itself? Will my empty fridge fill itself? (OK, maybe a bad question, since they are moving towards fridges that can reorder food when they detect it getting low.)

No wonder I’m – we are – exhausted by the end of the day, discipline reservoir used up! My life is a piece of cake compared to many, and still it’s hard to force myself to do even enjoyable hobbies by the end of the evening. I’m sure we’re not the only family to collapse in a heap on the couch and watch an episode on Netflix most evenings. When it’s not Netflix, I’m just sitting and reading my own book, which I’ve looked forward to all day.

Nothing wrong with spending time those ways, per se. Movies, books, relaxing – no harm there.

BUT.

Almost invariably, I feel happier and better about myself when I overcome the voice of inertia and laziness. I’ve hardly ever regretted a bike ride, except a few rides where I was sick and should’ve stayed home. I’ve rarely regretted keeping Netflix off in favor of a long, screenless conversation with my spouse. What’s the point here? The point is that everything comes down to discipline. Not punishment-style discipline; self-discipline. When I’ve made my life too busy, too full, too tiring to responsibly exercise discipline in pursuing my hobbies as well as my duties, I – and those around me –suffer for it.

So, yes, I do believe this is turning into the argument for working less and playing more. What a ridiculous thing to have to argue for! And yet I myself easily buy into the idea that I’m more valuable because I work more, or because I parent more, or because I execute whatever my other duties are. Sure, duties have to be done. It’s part of being an adult. That’s fine. But I am more than my job (thank goodness), more than a mother, more than a cyclist or a wife or any of those good things. I am the sum of many things, all of which require my time, attention, and, you guessed it, discipline.

We have a choice, about how many duties we take on and in what manner we execute them. Do we choose to allow any one thing, or a few things, to suck dry our entire spring of self-discipline? Why do we feel those specific responsibilities require such devotion? What makes those duties paramount, worth sacrificing our own ultimate well-being for?

I guess I’m advocating for a theory of moderation in life* that allows us to have the energy and discipline to pursue our hobbies and passions with the same energy that we devote to our duties. I think we’d all be substantially happier, better rested, and overall healthier if we gave this a shot.

Building Character, One Mile at a Time

Yesterday, Dad and I rode Mt. St. Helens. I last did this back in 2011, also, and I remembered beautiful views and difficult climbing, with stiff headwinds on the way back. The roads were nicely paved, though. Yesterday was similar but also very, very different.

So I’ve been thinking about how to approach talking about this ride, because it wasn’t quite the ride I planned on doing. As you know, I normally don’t even mention my rides unless they’re really exceptional. Our St. Helens ride certainly was noteworthy. Yesterday I was going to talk about what went wrong, but after sleeping on it, I’m going to talk about what went well first.

Good

  • The weather wasn’t too hot. This may seem like reaching for good things, but actually, we are normally scorched. Yesterday it was cloudy and high 50s for much of the ride, and then later the sun did come out, but it never got above 70. I actually wished I had my vest for most of the time.
  • A couple other people showed up! We didn’t actually expect anyone, so when two other guys showed up, we were pleasantly surprised. One of the guys was a little slower, but it worked out fine.
  • When the clouds cleared, we got some phenomenal views of Mt. St. Helens, and there were some really pretty stretches of road with nice scenery. One of the really amazing things about this ride is that as you come around corners and over hills, you get these stunning views of the mountain. Here are the pictures I took at the top. They actually weren’t the most beautiful views; some of the viewpoints along the way offered those, but I didn’t want to dig my phone out of my bag to get them.

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  • Overall, the ride felt relatively easy. Dad and I were in good shape, and started off optimistic about our ability to set a new higher average pace and get some PRs. By the end of the ride, we felt like we had worked hard, but we weren’t completely exhausted (mainly for reasons to be noted below).

So overall, lots of good parts of this ride.

Not So Good

Nary 5 miles into the ride, we saw a sign that said “Loose Gravel – Next 35 miles.” This translates to “all the way to Johnson Observatory,” our destination. But we elected to just see what that meant, and for the next 10 or 15 miles, it really didn’t mean anything. Just a little extra bit of gravel in the shoulder, but nothing noteworthy.

That remained true right up until we came upon the long line of traffic stopped by a flagger. Ahead of the flagger, we could see some really bad news: A long road of chip-seal being freshly laid down as we watched. The flagger told us that all the cars had to wait for a pilot vehicle to come drive them through the work zone, and that we had to wait not only for all the cars to go, but then wait for our own pilot vehicle to come escort us.

We had ridden barely 20 miles at that point, and having driven 2.5 hours down there, didn’t want to turn around with not even two hours of ride time. So we waited, and got our own pilot vehicle. They wanted to make sure we didn’t exceed 25 mph up the mountain — ha! Anyway, that was fine. We were able to ride in the lane not yet chip-sealed, and then in the shoulder where the chip-seal didn’t extend.

We did deliberate some about whether to continue, if it was all like that; but the pilot car driver told us it was only a couple more miles, and then the rest was well-packed but un-sealed gravel chip-seal. Not my favorite riding surface, by any stretch, but not alarming like the loose, freshly-laid gravel. I kind of pushed for us to go on — after that whole drive, I wanted to make it worth it.

The ride up went tolerably well. The chip-seal wasn’t fully sealed — it still was gravel, without the final layer of tar/oil/whatever black gunk to hold it all together completely — but it was very firmly packed down and not troublesome to ride on. The shoulder, with its random loose bits of gravel, was actually worse. On the way up, we had no real trouble.

The climbing wasn’t a problem, the road was extremely bumpy and a little alarming at spots, but tolerable, and the weather steadily improved. The clouds cleared and we got some lovely mountain views. Dad and I felt strong and while we did feel like it was challenging at the top, it wasn’t the kind of grueling slog I felt at the top of Haleakala (presumably because I’d done barely 1/2 the climbing yesterday — 5,000 feet compared to 10,000).

On the way down, the un-sealed packed chip-seal was more problematic. Normally we’d have been flying down those descents, but with the gravel being only packed and not sealed, I (at least) took it much more cautiously. It was a bit of a bummer to only go 20 or 25, but I didn’t trust my ability to stop on that gravel. Every time cars went by — which was pretty often — another layer of dust and gravel went flying into me. I was filthy, I got tons of road dust in my eyes, and my bike paint job will probably never be the same.

There was some extra climbing on the way back, which made the ride feel like it was uphill both ways; and we did have headwinds, as I recalled. But really those were overshadowed by the unfinished chip-seal of the road. When we got about halfway back, we planned to stop at the Forest Learning Center to refill our water. But right before we got there, we hit the construction zone where the cars all lined up waiting for a pilot car to go the other way. We had to wait for a long, long time for that pilot car, and then we had to wait for the very long line of cars to go by, and then we were finally allowed to ride 1/2 a mile from the flagger to the Forest Learning Center.

Things got worse from there, at least for me.

So what you should know is that I’m terrified of loose gravel. I don’t have the best bike handling skills, despite years of practice, including multiple LCI trainings and bike handling clinics on my bike racing team. I’m just really concerned about slipping and falling.

I rode in the snow in Massachusetts, but was an effort to overcome my fear every time, and I did fall many times. But falling in snow isn’t that bad; you’re bundled up, at least, and snow is fluffy and soft (although, to be fair, ice isn’t).

What’s not fluffy and soft? A road freshly spread with tar and then unpacked chunks of gravel.

Suffice it to say that the interminable section of fresh, unpacked gravel literally brought me to tears. At first it was OK, but as it went on… and on… and on… I slowly descended into terror and misery so deep I just started weeping. I’m pretty sure my face was horrifying. I didn’t stop riding; but I rode and wept and doggedly fought to stay upright and moving forward as the guys I was with disappeared into the distance, and even Dad pulled away. I was just so terrified of crashing, and I could so keenly imagine the feeling of falling and having that gravel embedded in my skin, I was utterly overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with fear. I was utterly miserable, in the “depths of despair,” as Anne of Green Gables would say.

Terror, fear, and misery. Not generally associated with a positive bike ride experience. I imagine lots of people feel those when riding, but I don’t, usually, because I stick with what I know: Road riding. Call me a wimp, but I have always stuck with what I can do decently well. This ride forced me — literally — to ride through conditions I would always avoid. I would ride 50 miles out of my way to avoid that 5 miles of loose gravel, but there was no choice, no other road. If I wanted to finish, I had to do it.

So I did, terror, fear, misery and all. I finished the ride feeling unsuccessful, disappointed with my performance, discouraged, and wishing I’d done something else.

So What?

I’ve been thinking about this, though. And in the sermon today, I was listening and thinking about being handed a “hard word” — something you need to hear, but don’t want to hear. The sermon was in the context of a job, and I do have that in my work sometimes, but yesterday was a hard word for me about my character.

I have let fear rule my choices, not only in biking but in other areas of my life. The ride yesterday, being forced to confront that fear and, frankly, feel like the fear won… made me realize I don’t want to let fear rule my life. I was too afraid to look up from the road to see the spectacular views. I let my friends get away. I was alone, too afraid to try to stay with them. I was willing to give up everything that made the ride wonderful and worthwhile, just to try to avoid crashing.

Yet, crashing, is that so bad? I wasn’t going real fast, I might have gotten some nasty gravelly road rash, but unlikely to break anything. Ultimately, it probably wouldn’t have been that bad. A little painful, yes, but probably not more painful than being overwhelmed with fear and misery.

This ride and the sermon today made me realize that I’ve been willing to sacrifice the opportunities in favor of maintaining the safety of the status quo, because I’m afraid change might bring something worse. That’s always possible, but without change I can’t get to anything better, either.

I’m tired of letting fear rule my life. I want God and His priorities to rule my life first and foremost, whatever that looks like, however frightening.

Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias.

Philosophy of Christmas Gifts

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking about Christmas presents lately. Not what to get my family (although, of course, I’ve done that, too), but more the philosophy and theory of gift-giving, specifically: Why do we give gifts at all?

Now, birthday gift-giving seems somewhat logical, with friends giving the birthday-ee gifts to express their appreciation for the friend’s life. Perhaps we’re using presents to say, “You are a gift in my life. Let me give back to you a token to acknowledge all the joy you bring to me by being my friend.” That completely makes sense, although since having Benji I’ve thought that moms should really get the presents on the kid’s birthday, but that a different story.

Christmas gifts, now. There are two perspectives one could take: Christian and non-Christian.

The Christian reason I can see pretty easily: God gave us Jesus, and Jesus gave his life, the ultimate sacrifice to give us the free gift of a redeemed life in Him. As Christians, we then would give one another presents to remind ourselves of that truth. However, if that were the only reason to give gifts, presumably we would simply give one another cards, or some symbolic token, like the bread and wine in Communion.

But we still give one another real presents, and often agonize over what to give, too. This leads us to the same place as non-Christians giving presents: Why? Why do we put so much time, effort, and money into one single day of giving presents? More, what I really want to know is, why do we agonize so much over finding the perfect gift for loved ones? The pressure to find many different people a unique, thoughtful, meaningful present can turn the holiday into a month or two of horror.

Is this some kind of evolutionary adaptation? Do we have an innate desire to find just the right thing in some evolutionary dive to keep our tribe happy, thereby keeping it together, keeping the individuals safer, and making it more likely to propagate our genes to the next generation? That seems a stretch, especially given the failure rate (how many times have you gotten something not right for you?) and the fact that we often give gifts to people who provide no evolutionary advantage, like old relatives or friends far away.

So, then, is this gift-giving mostly driven by marketing pressure, businesses spending months braying about finding the “perfect present for someone who already has it all,” leading inevitably to the unfulfillable expectation that we will find perfect gifts for everyone we know?

If we weren’t so obsessed with finding the exact right thing, presumably we would all give one another gift cards or cash with a note that says, “I love you this much*.” It seems like that should satisfy both the need to show your love for someone and the difficulty of finding an appropriate gift – let the recipient purchase his own thing, but with your money. But gift cards, although frequently given, seem to be perceived as a last resort or failure on the giver’s part: “I couldn’t think what to give her, so I got her an Amazon gift card.”

This makes me think there’s a happy medium we’ve been missing here. Clearly we value tangible physical objects (or their emotional equivalent), and want to give something real and appropriate to our loved ones at Christmas. And, despite what all the previous discussion may have led you to think, I’m all on board with giving presents in general. I don’t want it to sound like I think we should just toss out the entire tradition. I just feel that maybe it’s time to reassess our assumptions and expectations about what an appropriate gift looks like.

Christ never cared for stuff, and I can’t believe that He would like our current obsession with giving things at Christmas. He said it was harder to be a wealthy believer, because our possessions really possess us, distracting us from the point of life – loving other people.

How about if, instead of finding the perfect thing, we relaxed a bit and bought something enjoyable and at least moderately appropriate to the recipient, and called it good? Even more radically, what if we took a friend out to dinner, or went for a walk, or wrote an appreciative note, or made a donation in a friend’s name instead of having to spend lots of money and time cudgeling our brains into a thoughtful, clever, exactly-what-he-wanted (maybe) gift? I suspect that if we gave those kinds of gifts, Christmas would not only be more relaxed and enjoyable, but more authentic. (Plus, we could have much smaller trees, not needing tons of room beneath for lots of boxes!)

I think I’m going to try this next year, so if you get a heartfelt note from me in lieu of the perfect thing, you’ll know why. I would love to receive those kinds of gifts, too, so feel free to test this theory out on me.

And, if I don’t get to it between now and next week: Merry Christmas!

* Note: There seems to be an implied but not universal assumption that we should/do spend more money on people we love more, and therefore you can gauge how much the giver loves you by how much they spent. Again, clearly not true – a homemade gift may be far more loving and heartfelt than an expensive one; plus, many people don’t have the resources to put into that kind of giving – but still this idea does linger, presumably also driven by money-grubbing advertising.

Construction Joy

Yesterday Benji and I went for a walk in the morning. On our way was the former site of a gigantic nursery, now (surprise!) being turned into a vast housing complex. While my enthusiasm for this project in general is minimal – I dread the added traffic congestion and increased student load on Benji’s future elementary school – at the moment I can’t imagine a project more thrilling to Benji.

We walked a little way along an offroad path that parallels this construction site and found a safe, quiet spot where Benji could get out of the stroller and see standing up by himself. (This didn’t, however, stop him from wanting to be held up the entire time. Isometric exercises?) Here’s what we saw.

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Yes, that’s a huge dump truck dumping a load of tree debris right in front of us. Most of the action was far away, and although Benji seemed to see just fine, this dump truck moment elicited a constant stream of excited babbling. Here’s a link to a video I took: https://flic.kr/p/oxgxx9

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This was the view in general. It’s hard to make out in the picture, but we watched two bulldozers moving dirt, a digger, dump trucks dump two loads, and one claw-ended digger thing carrying tree parts around. I finally made us leave because we had a playdate with friends, but it was like tearing a cover from a book. We spent the rest of the day on and off recounting, with great excitement, everything we’d seen.

Boy, life’s thrilling when you’re almost two. Actually, recently Ian commented to me on how Benji feels strongly enough about things to actually feel heartbroken when they don’t work out. Yes, to us, they’re unimportant; grown-ups don’t deeply value putting truck cans and trailers together, or eating apricots, but to Benji, these things matter. When was the last time I let myself feel this strongly, about anything at all? I shield myself from hurt and disappointment by not letting myself feel deeply about anything at all. It’s a defensive strategy we all use, I think. But I’m coming to suspect that our adult lives are poorer for it, since eliminating feeling deep pain means sacrificing feeling deep joy, too.

And if I’ve learned one thing from Benji so far, it’s that life offers moments of joy constantly. We get to choose whether accepting the risk of embracing those feelings is worth the pain. I hope I can be brave enough to live with the same delight I see Benji finding in life.

Sunny Day Speculations

Day’s Verse:
Don’t procrastinate—
there’s no time to lose.

Proverbs 6:4-ish

Today spring came to Seattle.

We all spent the month of March (and the previous months from September onward) hunkered down, praying to simply survive the almost 8″ of rain that fell… and fell… and fell. The average temperature remained stubbornly a couple degrees below normal. It was, in a word, miserable, and I think everybody living here felt kind of miserable most of the month. I, at least, found it difficult to get much done; I only wanted to curl up under a blanket with a cup of something hot.

However, weather in April looks much more optimistic so far. Today, for example, we woke up to clear, sunny skies. The temperature accelerated past 60°, a benchmark we’ve hardly even approached since last fall. Deborah and I had planned to get together for a walk, and she also brought her gardening supplies. So we walked to the paint store in Woodinville and picked out some paint chips for the boy’s room. Then we spent a couple hours sprucing up the front yard, following the sun. It felt so good to spend time in those long-absent warm, golden rays, even pulling weeds. I wore a T-shirt and capri-length pants and left all the house windows open.

In the afternoon, sun still shining, I rode my bike to REI to use up our soon-to-expire 20% off coupon. I wanted to find another pair of pants with a stretchy waist, which I hope will last me at least for a while. I can’t imagine any normal pants will still fit me in August, but I’m darn well going to keep wearing as many of my normal clothes as long as I can. My goal is to buy as few actual maternity clothes as possible. I’m aided in this goal by the fact that in recent years wearing stretchy clothes that show the pregnant belly has become much more socially acceptable, as opposed to having to wear lots of flowing, belly-hiding maternity-specific clothes like women did when I was born.

Riding to REI, I noticed something amazing: People looked happy. At a stoplight, I had a very cheerful conversation with a postman who had his window wide open (they drive on the opposite side, so he was close to me). On the 520 trail, I had at least three upbeat exchanges, mainly about the weather, with other trail users, and saw numerous business-attired men walking along smiling. In Redmond, a girl talking on her cell phone while sitting on a bench paused to tell me how much she liked my pink bike. The examples could continue.

Why is this? In places where sunny days are normal, I don’t think people are happier on average. They certainly don’t seem to smile more, or exhibit greater friendliness than people do in Seattle. Riding along, I decided people are happier because of our rain. It’s not a radical conclusion, but there it is. We need all the rain to keep Washington gorgeously green… and maybe we need to viscerally appreciate the loveliness of a spring day, too. You can’t appreciate beauty without ugliness, satiation without hunger, music without discord, sun without clouds.

Thus, even more than in other places, when spring comes to Seattle, we celebrate it. We take half-days off work to spend time outside. We go for walks at lunch time. We sit in sunny spots. We take endless pictures of the astonishing snow-capped mountains, of fresh green leaves stretching out in the warmth, of sunlight shining through flowering cherry trees’ blossoms. We congregate on trails and sidewalks, greet neighbors and strangers with animation, and generally bask in a way foreign to denizens of sunnier climes. And it’s all thanks to the dark and drizzle.

Is Facebook Stealing Personhood?

Day’s Verse:
Calling the crowd to join his disciples, [Jesus] said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”
Mark 8:34-37

Here’s a philosophical question for you. Let’s say that you could map all your neural connections and processes into a computer so that the computer exactly, identically duplicated the way your brain works. It’s a perfect copy of your neural network. It will respond exactly the same way you would in any given situation. The question is: Is the computer copy you? If it’s not you, is it still a person? Would erasing it be murder? Does it have a soul? Is it alive?

At first blush, I’d say no, it’s not a person; it’s just a clever copy made possible with some amazing technology. It’s just 1s and 0s floating around. But giving this a little more thought gets into some pretty hairy philosophy pretty quickly. It really asks a deeper question: What makes a person a person? How do you define personhood?

This is a particularly interesting question because so much of our lives — what we do as people — is mediated by technology these days. In his book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier argues that we’re actually losing what it means to be a person because of our increasing reliance on computers, and particularly websites like Facebook, for mediating human interactions. Essentially, by fitting ourselves into simple categories, as required by social networking sites like Facebook, we’re sacrificing the depth and breadth of what it means to be a person. This one reason why it’s important to know what makes a person a person: So that we don’t inadvertently lose some key element without even realizing it, and later find that we aren’t as human as we used to be.

Lanier’s concern is that no database can accurately capture the nuances of a person’s individuality. Drop-down menus and multiple choices can’t really capture what makes you you. For example, on Facebook I’m listed as Deborah Ferguson’s daughter, even though I’m her daughter-in-law, because there’s no daughter-in-law option. This loss may not seem particularly important, but cumulatively, these compromises in nuance add up. Lanier argues that we’re losing culture because people are less individual and more cookie-cutter than they were. This blog, in fact, would almost certainly draw his scorn because it’s template-based, and not as truly reflective of me as if I’d created the entire thing from scratch.

I’m not on board with all of what Lanier says in You Are Not a Gadget, but I have to agree that by moving relationships online, we have sacrificed depth for breadth. Instead of having 10 good friends, we can now have 200 Facebook friends, whose status updates we follow religiously. It lets us feel involved without actually being involved. I’ll take in-person or even just voice any day.

Now, Facebook does have its place. It’s a nice way to “keep track” (I use quotes because that’s the phrase I most often hear in this context) of people you wouldn’t regularly communicate with. Those old high school or college friends who might in the past have just faded from your life in years past now play more of a role in your life, if you want. I’m frankly ambivalent about even that “benefit”: Is there real value in keeping track of people from previous phases of your life?

Anyway, I’m not sure about Carmel’s personhood, but she’s our house guest for the next three days while Mom and Dad are out of town. She sheds more than other house guests, but she also fetches tennis balls, which most people don’t do very well.
Carmel, April 13, 2011