A Monkey-Mind Afternoon

Donkeys on Lamu I have a lot of things running around in my slightly achy head today (in addition, of course, to snot). I've been picking through my newsfeeds, discovering articles I'd marked to read six months ago, and remembering why it is that I read stuff online: because reading stuff online is like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

It's like this: you read someone's blog, and there are so many links you could possibly click, so you choose one, and then that takes you somewhere else where there are still more links to click, or things to investigate, and you go on choosing until you find you've made a journey in your mind. That's a good feeling; I'll never give up reading books, and I like to peruse the weekend papers over a pint of cider in my local pub, but the beauty of internet-based reading is that special level of interactivity. I often feel like an explorer, an Egyptologist in a forgotten tomb, wandering down corridors and dusting off artifacts and forming an new picture in my head of how the world is.

So, let's talk about blogs, and the internet. Because here we are in this funny world where these things are important. They're important in new and exciting ways, and we're all learning how to use them, and in the process, sometimes we mess up a bit. We become over-dependent, or rebelliously under-dependent. But there's a lot of interesting writing happening around this idea.

Are there rules to blogging?

Apparently there are. In a roundabout way, via Academic, Hopeful, I arrived at this post by Penelope Trunk, of Brazen Careerist fame. In the post, she quotes Phil van Allen, a faculty member of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena: "The most interesting blogs," writes van Allen, echoing Trunk herself, "are focused and have a certain attitude."

Trunk and van Allen also seem to agree that a blog is essential, "a way to let people know what you are thinking about the field that interests you." Here's Trunk at her tough-love best:

Each day you have to wake up and do something. So you have to guess where to aim. We are all just guessing. Make your best guess and keep going in that direction until you find something else. And your blog is an expression of that commitment to yourself to have direction, even as you doubt it.

I guess that if there are rules to blogging, and these are them, it's safe to say I've broken them and maybe I'm breaking them now. Not deliberately, not maliciously, but because I haven't been paying much attention to where I'm aiming. Sometimes it's here, sometimes it's there. No wonder I sit and stare out my study window so often feeling stretched thin.

But two comforting points also come from Trunk:

Blogging is about self-discovery Blogging is about connections

When I wrote the "about" page for this blog, and I said, quoting the poet Louis MacNeice, that it was "incorrigibly plural,” I think in a lot of ways that I meant exactly what Trunk has said: it's about self-discovery and about connections. And not necessarily in that order; usually, the self-discovery comes after the connections.

And why do we blog, anyway?

I spend some time--not a lot, but enough to notice it--trying to mentally defend blogging to myself. If something is public, you can't just do it because you enjoy it, and I know that if all I enjoyed about blogging was the writing bit, I would write in a journal instead and keep it locked away.

But what I enjoy is the fact that in this weird internet world where I can spend an afternoon on the couch exploring other people's virtual caves, it's all about drawing links between ideas. We can do that now! All of us! Once it was a thing that only academics did; they wrote dissertations and books and gave complicated lectures. And now blogs have democratized this playful aspect of academia.

We may not all be as qualified or as educated but, in a comfortable online forum, we can play with ideas, and have conversations (overt or implied) about them, and through all of this play, maybe we go a little further down the path of self-discovery and maybe we figure out where to take aim and maybe we eventually figure out what it is we're meant to be doing; or maybe not, maybe all that happens is that we have some fun and see the world a tiny bit differently, if even for an instant. It hardly matters; whatever happens, it's powerful stuff.


But maybe the best part of my monkey-mind afternoon is this: having read and thought all this stimulating stuff about the wonders of our age of connectivity, I stumbled upon Alain de Botton's recent essay on distraction at the School of Life. "The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything," de Botton writes. "To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible."

And that's the tricky bit, isn't it? The tricky bit is learning to absorb all this information, connect all these ideas in our heads--and then to step away, to unplug, to sit and to stew or to go for a good old fashioned brisk walk along the river or clean the kitchen or simply to have a drink and a hearty laugh with some mates. We'll find the balance eventually.