Best of The Halcyon Days

It’s been over two years since I published something to this blog, to which I published assiduously when I was in college at The University of Chicago, but began to neglect when I left to work on Mergenote, a startup of mine.

As I figure out what I want to do with my personal homepage, jasondrowley.com, and contemplate archiving this blog, I figured that it behooves me to have something other than a post on Overcoming Writers Block from two years ago (the irony of which does not escape me) to be the first thing you see.

Here is a list of some of my favorite posts from The Halcyon Days (in no particular order):

So, that’s that, then. I hope you enjoy the reading.

If you have any suggestions of what I might do next with my website, I’m all ears.

On Overcoming Writer’s Block

I’ve been battling writer’s block. I haven’t posted anything since early August and nothing decent since June 5. I’ve been trying to figure out what happened.

It’s not like I’ve been lacking in topics to write and opine about. A lot has happened since early summer: revolutions and social movements at home and abroad, the continuing obdurateness of politicians, shortsighted and decaying public discussions about all manner of things; I’ve been working on building a company with two excellent gentlemen; I’ve watched one of my friend’s startups go from an idea he and I discussed in the waning days of last summer to being covered in TechCruch; and I could go on for pages and pages about my choice to take a break from my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago. But for some reason or another, I haven’t.

I don’t find writing difficult. I can churn out 500 well-chosen words, without egregious syntactic or grammatical error, in under an hour. Easy. For me, my writer’s block wasn’t caused by the fact that I find writing difficult or laborious. It isn’t a lack of discipline that caused me to stop writing here for four months, because I’m most at home with a keyboard under my fingers or a pen in hand. It is, simply, what I’ve been born and love to do. I’m the type of person who needs to be disciplined about going to the gym, not expressing my thoughts.

Nor is it stage fright. Writing for an audience, whether for my gig as a journalist/editorialist or on The Halcyon Days, is liberating. It saves me from the kind of self-involved, emotionally-burdonsome introspection I usually save for a Moleskine. Writing things for public consumption is the only kind of performance I don’t get sweaty, shaky and generally freaked-out about. Yes, writing is a kind of acting, but the character, the voice I’ve nurtured for this role is one I like. It’s me. I have no reason to be afraid of you people, my readers.

If you’re reading this in hopes of finding the cure for some blockage, the kind experienced by all creatives from time to time, you’re not going to find it. I’m going to burst your bubble: I woke up this morning with this compulsion to write. I didn’t read some book or blog post about How To Unleash Your Creativity or How To Get Over Writer’s Block or some such specious bullshit. I didn’t force the issue; it just happened. And because my return to the keyboard happened naturally, as a result of intrinsic motivation, whatever I produce from now on will be better for it. It will be genuine and earnest, in whatever way writing for public consumption can be.

I will say this, though: If you are experiencing a block, don’t force your way through it. Enjoy the extra time you won’t spend in front of your canvas, whether that canvas is a keyboard, computer monitor, notebook, sketch pad, musical instrument, a block of marble or wood, or your actual canvas. If you’re a creative like I am, there will come some moment when you want to go home too. We all have these abstract thoughts we try to articulate through some medium–whether it’s language, digital or physical paint, pens and pencils, three-dimensional objects like ceramics, glass or sculpture, or music in its endless variations–into some concrete, sharable, interpretable expression of what’s going on inside our minds. Let me tell you, your work will be better for the time you spent away from it. You may be rusty when you come back, but in due time you’ll find your old vim.

I certainly did.

To The Child Sleeping On The Bus,

You will grow up and do unspeakable things, will perpetrate countless tiny acts of evil on your fellow humans being, and you will become an adult and develop callouses on the soles of your feet because the path to the grave gets increasingly rocky and jagged the farther one walks toward its terminus some ways away beyond the horizon.

We all do these things. I walk that path too.

The world shrinks as you get older. The horizon grows nearer, and begins to resemble a hill crest toward the end, before becoming a precipice. And when you stand there, toes curled over the edge, waiting for a breeze or sudden muscle spasm to hurl you into the maw of eternal stasis, if you can look backward for a second and survey the ground you covered and then marvel at that winding trail, you’ll fall forever knowing that you did something worthy of being called “good”.

But for now, sleep well, and know that the women on the bus are clucking approvingly amongst themselves about your father, whose leg is your too-firm pillow.

On Breaking Radio Silence

After a long hiatus from writing on my blog, I feel this surprising emptiness. One would think that taking almost two months off from writing anything personal would leave one bursting with ideas and stories and hundreds of observations gathered while doing something other than sitting behind a computer screen, tapping away on a keyboard. But after weeks of trying to dig deep and find something worth writing about, something worthy of breaking weeks of dead air, I’m at a loss.

I have been sitting behind my computer, researching, working, writing, and learning how to use Adobe’s software. But the one thing I noticed, after spending so much time chasing the bleeding edge of the present, and divining plans for the future, is that time spent online is time wasted. It’s a bad hangover: hours condense into moments, and mornings trickle into afternoons into evenings without so much as a peep.

And it’s a real shame too, because the coolest things I’m working on must remain tucked carefully away for the time being. You will see them soon enough.

 

An Open Letter to the Higher Education System

Dear All,

I think what’s going on here is a confusion of ends and means. Guys, I believe very deeply in your end goal. I believe in the individual, and I believe every individual can and should be an expert in something, and that that person should be held individually accountable for her or his expertise.

But I don’t agree with the means. I don’t like your current model, where students sit in a classroom, take furious and wildly oversimplified notes in their own notebooks and parlay class discussion into an opportunity to impress the professor instead of inquiring deeper into some topic that deserves to be explored deeply.

I’m not the only one to see a different way forward, an alternate set of means to the same end. Over the course of my college career, I’ve noticed a shift in the way that young people get work done.  When I entered college, everything was pretty traditional: I did my own work, I interfaced with my professors, and I worked with my friends only on group projects, more or less.  And I did some copyediting on the side, so I guess in that capacity I worked with people on common projects.

Then, Facebook was kind of this thing one guiltily spent a great deal of time on. And everyone did this, spent time on Facebook. But we didn’t really talk about it because it was not considered standard, copacetic social behavior. One did it in lieu of spending time with friends. But over the course of a few years, we’ve changed the way we view spending time with other people online. Time on Facebook, for many of us, is time with our friends, now. Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter and other tools have changed the way a lot of young people view information, how we share information, how we understand what “our work” and “other people’s work” is and means. How we view privacy, and how we view propriety. Information, knowledge is social.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not the only one out there saying we need a change. We are seeing a paradigm shift, okay? Nobody told students to get together and share notes. Nobody told them to divide massive reading assignments amongst a group, and they weren’t instructed on how to outline their allotted segment of the readings in such a manner that, when shared with collaborators, it would be legible and intuitive. They just did it. Just do it now. At some primal, gut level, a whole bunch of people just felt that collaborating, doing their own honest work together, was the right or prudent thing to do, that it was morally and socially acceptable, Charles Lipson be damned.

So the burden shifts to higher education systems, and it shifts to the students who recalcitrantly adhere to academic solitude and puff themselves up, snobbishly, like they’re some paragon of integrity or whatever. To those students, I just say, “Keep on with what you’re doing, dude.” Because it’s working out so well, right? Because you really love sitting in the library late at night in the stacks, sweating jittery and alone with some ungodly pile of books beside your laptop. Because that silence is imperious but leads you to believe you can actually get something done because finally for once you are alone with your thoughts and you can get down to the business of making your brain dance, right?

Does this touch on something, here?

But even these most anachronistic of students will eventually notice that their collaborating classmates seem to be having a lot more fun, that they are, ostensibly, enjoying their work. They’ll also notice that these students do better on their exams and papers, and that they retain more material long after they’ve received their final grades, more material than the stoic academic marooned on her/his deserted island ever hopes to hold onto.

Because knowledge–thought itself–is socially constructed and should thus be constructed socially. Learning together makes knowledge a conversation, and contextualizes information in a medium–interpersonal communication–for which evolution prepared us.

Working together, thinking together, sharing with small groups and creating something bigger than ourselves is what evolution has programmed us to do. We are hardwired for small group work, whether it’s stalking, killing, skinning, breaking down, cooking and eating some poor beast out on the Savannah or taking lecture notes, making outlines, brainstorming, exchanging and critiquing ideas, hypotheses, and theories, sketching out and ultimately–privately or collectively–crafting some artifact–e.g. a paper–or facing some challenge–like an exam–of or to prove our newfound knowledge, we are naturally inclined to work in packs, in bands, in tribes.

The way forward is to turn things back to a time before anyone can remember.

Educators are now faced with a choice: either y’all can keep on with the whole individualism thing and face increasing rates of disaffection and more books ringing your death knell, or y’all can adapt to my generation’s new way of working. If you choose the former, I promise you, promise you, things will get worse and worse. You’ll be coercing ever more connected, instantaneity-fueled students into what they’ll find to be an ever more inflexible, insular, and depersonalized system of expectations: namely that they do their own work without the help or input of others.

Unless you change with us, you’ll be forcing us to conform to some broad-based standard, one with little bearing on our highly personalized lives.

All media is social, now. Media is us. Our likes and dislikes are customizing, personalizing each of our media-consuming experiences. Just as the value proposition of television to advertisers–that “hey, we just produced this show that’ll attract a demographic of _____ ages __ to __,”–is getting a little old, because, let’s face it, markets and demographics are so segmented with such fine granularity today; that narrative of “Hey, guys, so I’m going to ask all of you to read this book or take this test so I can certify that you know __.” is also drawing some questions. Because why do we all have the same discussion that nobody likes when we could split up into groups and discuss a couple of  ideas we’re all passionate about?

I’m not suggesting that you guys go that far, letting us author our own syllabi (unless I am).

But in all honesty, I’m not suggesting that. For real.

I guess I just want to say that if we’re all going to be evaluated on the same material, I believe students should be able to learn that material however they please. And I believe it’s your responsibility as the guardians overseeing our intellectual journeys to equip us with the tools we need and want. If you have a policy against collaboration, change it. If I can’t convince you to change it, you’ll still end up changing it within the next few years. If you stand by a basically non-functional technology platform for officiating coursework and haven’t yet heard complaints from students about it, you will.

Take a walk around your campus.  Ask students whether they would like to work with their friends on coursework. If you’ve done what I’ve done, and pitched them on the idea that they can take notes together, share ideas together in real time, do readings together, team-edit papers, and eventually do all of this not only on the university’s web page but on an app that runs natively in Facebook, where they spend the overwhelming majority of their time already, you’ll notice that the overwhelming majority of them light up. They smile and say something like “wow, that just makes so much sense.” Because it does. Because it’s what they’ve been itching to do all along.

I am working with two of the brightest people I know. We all have our different talents. One of us is a brilliant computer programmer, another is a whip-smart tactician, product developer, operations guy and is a fellow tech journalist. Together we are working on something that will change the way students work. I’m still figuring out where I fit into the whole equation of our little company. You could think of me as the “Ideas guy” or the “Vision guy”, or as our first sales guy. What I am for now is an articulator and an elaborator; I’m proud to say that I’ve come up with some of the core features and functions of our software platform, but I’m even happier that we as a team have run with them far beyond what any one of us could have imagined. We’ve gotten as far as we did through teamwork, by assuming good faith. And if I have my druthers, we will change the way people conceptualize work, learning, and knowledge.

Steve Jobs was the guy who changed the way we think of computers; he made them personal. Mark Zuckerberg changed the way we think of our social lives; Facebook showed us that it’s not all about us, that our interactions are part of a larger conversation happening all around us all the time. I want to be the guy who changes what it means to think, what it means to work, how people work together, and how people do the two things I love more than anything: sharing and developing new ideas, and learning.

To be honest, there is nothing I’ve been raised to believe in more than the higher education system. My mother’s parents came over from Greece in the late ’40s. They raised my mom and her brothers with the understanding that a college degree was the key to success, a way out of the immigrant existence that found my grandmother a garment worker and cut my grandfather’s dreams of going to law school short. My maternal grandfather, despite his lack of formal business education, became successful in the restaurant business, and despite the fact I always bring this up when he mentions that I must finish college, I can never seem to refute his argument that a degree makes life easier, that it’s something to fall back on.

My dad’s side has more academics than you can shake a stick at. And all from the University of Chicago, where I’m a student now. In all likelihood, my grandfather wouldn’t be able to do his immunology research, and my grandmother wouldn’t have discovered the Philadelphia Chromosome, a genetic mutation that causes some types of leukemia, and her findings wouldn’t have been extrapolated to explain that genetic mutations cause cancer and not the other way around if it wasn’t for the intellectual openness of an academic institution and academia in general. Would they be afforded the same freedoms at, say, Eli Lilly, or Abbot? Unlikely.

So why is it that my generation, this group of kids who’ve been told since they were infants that they are going to college, that it’s the best time of their lives, that it’s a transformative intellectual experience, (because their parents have been saving for their children’s college education practically since they started dating,) find the college experience somewhat empty? Is it because we’re just too smart for college? I don’t think so.

The past 130 years have been an exercise in increased connectedness. That’s history in one sentence for you.

But education hasn’t meaningfully progressed, technologically, since the printing press, and before it, paper and ink. (And I know what you’re thinking, but the progression from handwriting to typewriting to word-processing is still inextricably linked to the limitations inherent to paper, and to bookbinding, etc.) And now, we’ve come to a jerk in the curve representing innovation in communications and information technology.  My generation, more than any before it, is deviating from paper and all its limitations farther and faster. We’ve plowed brain-first into this wide open world where everything is contextual, everything is embedded and linked and showcases an emergent intelligence. Our intelligence, together. But if you take a look at the kids just a few years younger than me, they’re a different animal altogether. You guys think 20 year-olds think in threads? Do we parse, recall, and concatenate thought into syntax faster than those thirty-somethings? Just a few years ago, we were the news story about those crazy teenagers and their texting. I have nothing on your average seventeen year-old. But I can articulate in a way they can’t understand.

My syntax, like yours, is somewhat deprecated and is decreasingly supported by each successive generation. We speak a dying language.

Here is my indictment: You, people in higher ed, constantly complain that technology is dumbing us down, that it’s making us scatterbrained. That’s the defeatist message of a system which was too inflexible to change a hundred-some years ago.

If you embrace it, now, if you communicate with and to us through the media and in the language that we use to communicate with each other, you might just save us from an eternity of sex scandals and asinine Youtube videos of cats playing pianos, which is what mass culture is becoming today. If you allow my peers and the kids younger than me to engage with you and your system and your vast resources in the same way that we engage each other, we’ll get more out of the student experience. It’ll be more than just four years of partying and half-assing assignments because we were busy chatting with friends on Facebook about the onerous nature of said assignments. And I think that this would make the world a better place, because your capital-L Learning and capital-W Work would be brought to the level of little-c conversation. It would bring knowledge and information back to its roots. It would become less laborious for everyone.

And if my core belief is true, that everyone retains in their core a curious kid with a butterfly net and a magnifying glass, maybe some of the interesting things you try to teach us will trickle deeper than those who’ve gone to college and heard it firsthand. Maybe, just maybe, y’all can shepherd us through this storm of stupidity. Because perhaps we’re being beaten by it, just like you.

And this was just a 2,420-word way of elaborating my points in summation:

  • With regard to your adherence to the ways of bygone analog days, it does you no favors. It hurts you more and more the more you adhere to it. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
  • If you are willing to change your expectations of what constitutes academic work, we’ll be able to change our expectations of you.
  • We want to help you change the world, ostensibly the goal of education writ large. But you’re going to have to change with us.
  • Ends are achievable by different means.

And I want to help you too. The team and I, we’re doing our part right now. If you are interested in learning more, please sign up. At the time of publication, we just got a bare-bones website up this week. There’s no real content, yet. But you can leave your email address. We’ll keep in touch.

Best Regards,

Jason D. Rowley

 

On The Importance of Losing Oneself

A friend sent me and a couple other friends an email. Attached was a link to a David Brooks piece in the New York Times, which articulated quite well one of the things I’ve been struggling with lately: how to reconcile the fact that my grandparents (on both sides) appear to be extremely high-functioning adults, that they had remarkably free and open childhoods, that they got married before they were twenty-five. That they tied themselves down so fast. And then there are my parents, who are, by and large, also very much functional adults, and that their lives followed this same freedom–>obligation arc as my grandparents’. And then there’s me, and my generation, one that’s been so tightly regulated and supervised, one that enters the so-called “real world” of what used to be called adulthood and begins a prolonged echo of what used to be adolescence. We see the progression as one from {obligation, supervision, constraint} => Freedom.

And so I’m getting a little antsy, with all this freedom. And I’m grappling with how I can call myself an adult when by my age my mom’s mom was a new mom, or when my dad’s mom finished medical school when she was 23.

And here I am asking myself whether I want to get plastered on my 21st birthday, in 18 days.

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Here’s the last few sentences from the article:

Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

One of my friends who was cc’d on the email, I’ll call him D—- (the number of dashes varies), said he honestly does not get this last part. “Somebody help me here?” And so I took a crack at it, which can be found below.

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I think what was meant by “The purpose in life is not to find yourself but to lose yourself” was rather simple. Think about it for a second.

Almost every waking moment of your existence is self-focused, whether we’d like to think of it as self-focused or not. You’d know, as an entrepreneur, that your number one obligation is not building a fantastic and beautiful product for the sake of building such a product, your goal is to do so for to the benefit of your shareholders. Because you are a shareholder, all your activity is still self-focused.

Let’s get concrete.

I don’t know what your relationship status is right now, but let’s pretend you’re single. And you run into a nice, cute girl. Chances are that one of the last things you’re thinking about when you talk to her is, “D—, what can you give to this girl?” In all likelihood, you’re thinking about all the things you could do together, the things you can do with and to each other, but rarely will you think about what you could do “for” her.

Your most creative moments, most meaningful moments, those moments which you’ll remember for a long time are not moments of personal accomplishment or triumph–those come and go every day in big ways and small ways. No, if you think about it, the times at which you feel most powerful, most triumphant, come when you lose awareness of yourself and your surroundings and you channel your mental energies directly into the task at hand. And whether that task is originating an awesome business model, coding a particularly brilliant script, admiring the view from some high vantage point, or engaging in some emotionally intense naughtiness with your significant other, these moments’ significance come from their rarity. Because it’s not very often that one gets to give the whole of oneself over to something.

Letting go of the self, stripping yourself bare of labels like “D—” or “Male” or “Student”, reaching that state where there is no inner monologuist to parse mental input and output, where you lose track of you and become lost in experience, lost in time, lost inside the mind of another, that’s where a life is made. Remember that you, D—- (or T— or P— or whomever this f—–@aol.com person is), are a self-created character. You construct meaning around events in your life. You are ultimately the author of your own story, but in those moments where your internal narrator loses track of plot, loses track of its voice, one experiences, however fleetingly, the plot twists around which you’ll mold your character.

Losing yourself, becoming sufficiently courageous to acknowledge that there is no such thing as you, as D—-, leads to an important discovery: your future is, by and large, not determined by the events of the past. As the author, creator, and curator of your character, you have every right to discard rough drafts.

Learning to cede that control is beautiful. It is from this loss of self that springs creative energy, pure selfless giving to an other, and, more broadly, other acts of altruism like love and forgiveness.

How (Some of) Us College Kids Feel About Facebook

I subscribe to a very, very heavily-trafficed LISTSERV mailing list called Wallace-l. While the primary subject is David Foster Wallace, there are often discussions about topics tangentially related to him, such as, in this case, a commencement address by contemporary writer Jonathan Franzen at Kenyon College, where David Foster Wallace delivered his famous address which became the short book, This Is Water, and can be found in full here.

I was, rather suddenly, compelled to write a quick response to some of the discussants. I wanted to let them know that not all of us college kids are so blindly devoted to the Web. Some of us see its current limitations. (And some of us, myself included, are working to compensate for them.)

So, here it is.

I just read the modified version of Franzen’s address on NYT.com.

I have no idea what the age demographics of this mailing list are. As a college student myself, I believe that Franzen did bring up a couple of good points about technology and the pervasive nature thereof.

While it is silly to make some broad overarching statement about how many college students feel about technology, I feel compelled to detail in, like, four (run-on) sentences what many of us socially-networked natives of the web feel.

1.) It’s kind of ironic that we search and search for more meaning and personal connection, more run-ins and confrontations with other people, yet do so by demanding more ways to connect through facebook and more powerful, socially-aware deep-digging algorithms from Google, Bing, and other such unfortunately-named “Decision-” or “Knowledge Engines” instead of just backing away from the computer screen and going out there and actually engaging one-to-one with others.

2.) Sometimes there are things which simply can’t be conveyed with a keyboard, which is why it’s at once sad and a bit charming to see lots and lots of teenagers writing hand-written notes, scanning them, and posting the scanned images to their Tumblr accounts.

3.) Many of us take guilty pleasure when we have to apologize for being AFK, because, well, everyone deserves a little shameless AFK time every once in awhile.

4.) We’ve all been told that computing /is/ infinite possibility, but it’s becoming abundantly clear that this is false, that it has been false, that it’s time AF our Ks that provides the greatest room for expression and connection, that allows us to be human and forces us–by dint of longstanding social custom–to be more civil and humane to one another than we’re obliged to be online.

The 19-22 year old set, many of us, have this love-hate thing going on with technology. Those younger embrace it like we never could. I grew up learning how to socialize and be productive before I got onto facebook or was introduced to MS Word. Many young people today learned how to socialize through their use of Facebook. They are blind to technology’s limitations; their world is large and linked and easily navigable, but it’s shallow. Meaning carries a time-decay function, now.

It’s kind of like that DFW quote about modern party dance. Those who choose not to use facebook or twitter or tumblr or whatever because of those platforms’ confining nature are themselves confined. Choosing not to use those tools, ostensibly in order to converse and communicate more freely, in turn removes the non-user from the very space(s) where her/his friends are conversing and communicating blithely because they believe they’re engaging each other in this new and putatively unconstrained way.

Jesus this was long and rambling, but that’s okay.

-J

 

What I Learned in College, in 372 Words

In college I majored in Victorian novels and travel writing and cold unfeeling minimal house. I dated and fell in love with delicate abstractions of my own thoughts, many of them. I learned that structures based on recounting the tales of old truths is what academia is.

University of Chicago, Early Spring 2011

That in spite of the putatively groundbreaking research occurring somewhere behind those ivy-covered walls, in spite of students’ yearning for something more tangibly modern, contemporary… tangible, and in spite of my friends’ numerous, furtive gchat sessions complaining of obscene workloads and a dearth of straightforward coursework that would prepare them for the rest of their lives in art appraisal, investment banking, wild and crazy Silicon Valley startups where people wear cheap flip flops or Birkenstocks every day to work, we continue to insist that walking blind and backward into a world that requires more visual acuity and foresight than any before it is the smart or prudent thing to do. In a world that needs certainty I was taught relativity. To argue for proof of truths but also to cloyingly dance around them, lest I step on them, because I was told that there would be nothing in that center. That there is no fact. Because, dude, like you could just kiss that shit goodbye. Um, if it was there to begin with. But it, like, maybe probably hadn’t been there at all. Like ever. Truth.

But this much I’ve learned, lately: sometimes people are tremendously unintelligent, sometimes they do drag on the system, and sometimes it’s okay to say that. Because it’s true, sometimes. I’ve learned that 42% of Detroit is functionally illiterate. And I’ve learned that even the most stridently optimistic of my friends can, with time, let go of that optimism and have a hard time picking it up again. But let me tell you something, I’ve also learned that newfound optimism, shed relativism, and a belief that there is indeed something called “truth” out there is a gift to those who’ve never had it, more so than it is a benefit to those who’ve had it always. I’ve discovered the perverse relationship between optimism, sincerity and spirituality. It’s good to be out and working on something I can believe in.