lies

Health, Work, Discipline, and Pandemic 2018

Yeah, hi. Hi! Hello there! I am writing to you live from my living room, which is nothing short of a miracle on several fronts: I am not asleep, I am not buried under a pile of tissues, I am upright and dressed in daytime clothes, I’m even well enough that I feel like I have spare brain cycles and words to spare for a blog post, rather than pursuing any of my more pressing interests or obligations. Whew.

We won’t talk about my coughing fits, though. 

You may correctly surmise from this that I have had the flu. This is true! I had the flu, but the cough stuck around, and something-something bronchitis plus nose and throat inflammation, something something secondary infections, no seriously are you SURE you’re not a smoker...? (I am not a smoker. I have never been a smoker. I had to assure them several times. They didn’t seem to want to believe me?) 

This blog post, then, is made possible by no less than six prescription medications because asthma sucks, and so do secondary infections following influenza. Get your flu shots, kids, wash your hands a lot, and this year, if you get a sore throat and cough three times, get to the doctor ASAP for Tamiflu. Be quick about it. Tamiflu doesn’t do much if you don’t start it within a day or so.

So I haven’t done a lot of work over the last *looks at calendar* wow, three weeks. To be sure I’ve done some work — some few thousands of words of novel-writing and light scheduling — but nothing like the volume I’d set for myself as my January goals. I’d hoped to have almost twice as many words written than I have. I’d hoped to be on top of my email. These things have not happened.

Oh, but I’ve been sick. I can’t possibly expect myself to work when I’m sick, can I? Or... can I?  Health fails us all in the end, and if I don’t find a way to work even when my lungs don’t quite work right, even when my head is full of biowaste, even when I’m tired, surely this means I lack the discipline to pursue my craft and I should...

Shh, shh, stop laughing so hard, you’ll make a scene. People will stare.

There are many true facts underpinning this spectacularly flawed logic. One is that you can’t and shouldn’t wait for everything to feel and be right before you embark in your creative work. There will always be another set of dishes to be washed, another errand you should run, another loose end you really need to tie off before you can focus. And you do have to be disciplined to write. Doing the writing inevitably means not doing something else — maybe that something is a video game, but maybe it’s also laundry.

That other thing you are not doing so you can write should not ever be “resting so that your health improves.” 

It’s also true that one of the not-very-joyful joys of age involves an increasing degree of disability for most of us, and we all eventually need to find ways to work within the framework of our capabilities. I mull over this from time to time, wondering if I’m really feeling so poorly, or if I’m just making excuses to be lazy. But this working-through-the-pain should never happen at the cost of meaningful recovery, or if that’s not the hand you’ve been dealt, at the cost of worsening what level of health you have.

I think a lot about how Jim Henson died of pneumonia. It was a secondary infection after the flu. If he had arrived at a hospital eight hours earlier, he might have lived.

Take care of yourself, blossoms, and rest when you need it, and see a doctor if you possibly can. The future needs you much, much more than right now does.

 


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The Lie Every Social Network Tells

Let’s talk a little more about the problem of disentangling yourself from the possibly-democracy-destroying social networks that currently dominate public discourse.

Now that we’ve moved full-blast into a gig economy, one of the most frightening prospects of leaving social media is losing the network that keeps you afloat. Artists rely on their social graphs to spread the word when they have new work out, or when they need a new project. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, to be sure, but a total lack of exposure means you’re definitely not selling any books (or games, or commissions, or...) Obcurity is the biggest problem early and even mid-career creators have to solve, because it doesn’t matter what heartbreaking works of genius you produce if nobody ever looks at them.

So sure, I could delete my Twitter account in a principled stand for what I believe in. But I’d be losing access to (as of this writing) 6,757 hypothetically human followers who have opted in to what I have to say. Gosh, that’s a lot of potential book sales to give up, isn’t it?

And yet.

Here’s the lie every social network is telling you: It’s your friend or follower counts. Your number of impressions and views. Your numbers of likes, faves, RTs, hearts.

We live in a world that wants to quantify everything, a kind of numeromancy meant to give us the feeling that we know and can control the future. Your resting heart rate and the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream become the entrails we read to know if we will die soon. Calories consumed and burned become a scale of virtue, weighing our moral worth. Likes are a way to scry the hearts of others, to know how much they love you.

Did I say yet that this is a lie? Because it’s a lie.

This is a problem advertisers have grappled with for decades. There is no way to measure the hearts of humankind, so we measure what we can and pretend it’s the same thing. We have a whole arcane set of practices arisen solely from trying to derive truths about what we can’t measure from the things we can: conversion rates, A/B testing, sentiment analysis.

These numbers we can see and know feel like money in the bank. But the dirty truth is that I can’t count on all 6,757 of those people to buy a book. To the contrary, I can count on the fact that they won’t — and if I sell that many of anything, most of those people won’t know a hoot about where to find me online.

On Twitter, I can’t even count on all of my followers to even see my promotional efforts, no matter how hard I dance. Honestly, I can’t count on all of them to even be human beings, or to still be active on Twitter anymore if they are. So the loss of value to me in leaving is far less than 6,757 book sales, multiplied by however many books over however many years Twitter is the place to be.

How much less? Who can say?

This is an even more complicated problem when it’s not a career issue, but a personal one. It is nonetheless the same problem. You can have five hundred friends on Facebook but nobody to call to feed your pets because you have to make an emergency trip out of town. You can have five thousand Twitter followers and nobody who checks up on you at the right moment because they know you’ve been having a tough time these days, and they just want to see if you’re okay.

It’s possible that the 51 people who have subscribed to get my blog posts in email (and perhaps also the couple-hundred who read me in RSS)  are all the people on Twitter I could count on in the first place, as audience members, or as colleagues, or as friends.

We have a lot of ways to say this same thing. The map is not the territory. Quantity isn’t quality. And you know the alleged Mark Twain quote, that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.   

Numbers can be real, and yet not true. Let’s not fool ourselves. And let’s not allow ourselves to be fooled. 


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