A little girl in an oversized chair playing with a tablet at a Hearthstone tournament.

I remembered that Jekyll doesn’t do a feed out of the box so I added one. The last few weeks have had some ups and downs, including a mystery illness that hung on. I’ve spent a lot of time on website stuff because the declutter process I undertook in March pointed me to a few things I’ve just taken to calling “purposes,” including writing and photography, and I had very little creative energy but plenty of nervous energy.

Building websites has been a small distraction from a bunch of things … something to do with my hands. I think I ended up picking Jekyll because its plain-text, command line, git-deployed nature is an experience I’d call tactile. It is soothing to me to figure out Liquid syntax, dink around with HTML, and try out deployment pipelines. Code, preview, tweak, reload, iterate, wonder, dig, tweak, reload, etc.

But it is also a distraction. Building websites isn’t really one of my purposes. It’s just a way to platform my purposes. So the danger for someone like me, who can sometimes defer unease or anxiety by going into the crystalline world of tech stuff, is that I’ll slowly begin to confuse my purpose with my tools.

So I decided to write this post to say to myself, “I added a feed, I like the way the galleries work, I have category pages, the whole GitHub-to-Cloudflare deployment pipeline ‘just works,’ and I’ve made a basic editorial calendar that goes out six weeks. So I can put this down for now, call it v1, and get on with it serving my purposes.” That’s what it’s here for. That is its purpose.


Finished reading: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport ๐Ÿ“š

Person reading alone on a rooftop patio
Person reading alone on a rooftop patio, January 2022

A few years ago, pre-Trump, I quit social media and most news apps cold turkey. I was bothered by the effect social media dynamics had on my photography, and I was bothered by the engagement-driven nature of news apps. I wanted to listen to just myself on a creative level, and I hated the way news apps worked.

Over time I reestablished social media presences and spent some time tuning up how I read news. When I compare where I am today to where I was when I felt like I’d just had enough of all of it, I feel generally healthier. At the same time, I still catch myself exhausting the well of things to read or catch up on, and I find myself swiping down the screen in a motion Cal Newport describes as pulling the arm of a slot machine that is eating my useful minutes.

Newport’s definition of “digital minimalism” is:

“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

He cites three principles of digital minimalism:

Principle #1: Clutter is costly. Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.

Principle #2: Optimization is important. Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, itโ€™s necessary to think carefully about how theyโ€™ll use the technology.

Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.

I’ve known a few people in whom I can see those principles at work, and I’ve always admired the deliberation with which they approach new technology. It has often read to me like a particular kind of self-care. I’m more of a magpie when it comes to new things and have thought that kind of self-care might be a good thing to adopt.

There are a few tics in the style that I suppose are just part of what is normal for this kind of book. The phrase “it turns out” pops up a few times. The phrase “we’re wired to …” pops up a few more. But rather than being a Jonah-Lehrer-like recitation of a bunch of studies (though a few are cited) this book is a little more quiet and less breathless. I was left feeling relieved that Newport has a full-time job he likes, because there’s a moment where it feels like the book could have tipped over into the sort of cloying pseudo-movement merchandising play but ultimately did not.

What is most compelling to me about it is less its identification of everything that is wrong with digital technology – the attention-mining, the emotional toll, the wasted time – and more its temperate prescriptions.

Yes, it does discuss a 30-day “digital declutter,” but less as a cold-turkey feat of will and more as a call to fill that time in other ways and see what you get before gradually letting things back in as you determine the ways in which they can serve you.

There is a mild fixation on doing all this “to live a more remarkable life,” and that stirs in me a peevish resistance, but it’s tempered by noting that it is okay and life-enhancing to simply do things for their own sake, or because they bring you pleasure or make your life better, and not because you should be out there crushing it in all things. It does argue in favor of more vigorous, mindful leisure, but not so much because it’s important to be constantly “productive” as much as it is because it will probably make you feel better than social-media-enabled “doing nothing.”

Published in 2019, one poignant, melancholy aspect of this book is that it spends a lot of time on the value of unmediated human connection. Its prescriptions include avoidance of assorted “like” and other reaction affordances in favor of spending time talking to people. There are a few examples that are about being with others in gyms, exercise groups, etc. that are almost jarring as we close in on two years of pandemic life. It helpfully suggests that Facetime is a great technology for keeping personal connections over distances, but cannot anticipate the dull, suffocating exhaustion of contemplating yet another video meeting for people who have spent the past two years staring into screens full of flattened, grainy faces staring back.

Finally, it was kind of interesting to see the ways in which, over the past three years since the book was published, at least Apple has begun to help implement some of the attention-preserving, deliberate living practices Newport advocates. The Screentime tool provides a way to understand how you use your phone and where your time goes. The Focus tool makes it possible to filter out notifications or tailor the interruptions you’re willing to indulge.

So, definitely recommended for its low-key vibe, and its emphasis on deliberation and care over simple prescriptions or tech abstemiousness. I’m going to give some of its ideas a try.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport ๐Ÿ“š


9, 23, 25, 26, 29, 33, 35, 39 & 46

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. โ€” Psalm 90:10

There is no safety in the threefold world; it is like a burning house, replete with a multitude of sufferings, truly to be feared, constantly beset with the griefs and pains of birth, old age, sickness and death, which are like fires raging fiercely and without cease. โ€” The Lotus Sutra

9

When I was nine years old, I borrowed a collection of Star Trek stories from my dad. It included this one, wherein William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly all end up in the 23rd century owing to some sort of freak transporter accident.

That was a pretty exciting premise to me. Since I knew that I was living in the 20th century and that Star Trek was happening in the 23rd century, I could do the math to figure out how long I had to wait to see it all for myself.

23rd century - 20th century = 3 centuries, pretty much.

So if it was 1977, then I was looking at having to wait around until 2277. I grabbed dad’s Commodore calculator (it looked like this) to help with the next part:

2277 - 1968 = 309 years.

So, dad being in seminary at the time and our family being church-going anyhow, I had some idea that some people lasted a pretty long time. Methuselah had a pretty good run. Hadn’t Noah made it to 900? Needed to check with mom, though.

Yes, she explained, people in the Bible lived a long time, “but we get threescore and ten years now.”

I knew how much a score was because Abraham Lincoln was my hero.

So …

1968 + (20 * 3) + 10 = 2038

and 2277 - 2038 = not even close, really.

Further away from now than last year’s bicentennial had been from the first Independence Day.

I just wasn’t going to make it.

21

My favorite grandfather is dying of a brain tumor. Mom goes down to Texas, hoping to make things right, but all she does is get in the way of the t.v.

23

I don’t think what I experienced was a “death trip,” exactly. I just remember that things got pretty morbid some time around dawn. I was in the tv room at the house in Indianapolis, looking out at the parking lot behind the back yard. Cody and Kevin and Bill were riding bikes in the morning fog, gliding in and out of view.

24

Hudson was so stupid and inept. They made him my buddy and told me if he didn’t make it out of basic, it’d be my fault.

The last week, we were out in the field under a tree. It was raining and Hudson had fucked something up and all he could do was cry. All I could do was put my arm around him and tell him it’d be fine.

25

Jump school seemed like a good idea. It never really occurred to me to feel frightened during the day, but every night I dreamed of falling and falling with no parachute. My subconscious mixed it up by letting me ride a mattress into the dirt one night.

26

The team’s up on the Richmond site outside of Taejon. It’s an old building behind a gate. We’ve put up the mast and we’re on the network. The team chief asks us what we’d do if the balloon went up. Oh … I know this one:

“We take our defensive positions and the one on radio watch burns the SOI and takes an axe to the COMSEC gear, then we all defend the site.”

The team chief says, “you do that. I’m gonna run my ass down the hill before it gets shot off. They won’t bother with soldiers anyhow. They’ll just dial us in and light us up.”

and

I arrive at Ft. Bragg the week a major in my brigade had a bad landing, broke his leg and the bone severed an artery. He bled out on the drop zone before anyone could find him and help him. I don’t know if he knew what was happening.

29

That last nine months I was on jump status, I was pretty sure each jump was going to kill me. If you could be on jump status, though, you were supposed to be on jump status. That’s how it was. The sergeant major would cut your wings off your chest in front of everybody otherwise.

33

They aspirated a lump in my throat on a Wednesday, the doctor fucked off on vacation before the labs came back on Thursday, and nobody would tell me anything until the next Tuesday.

It was fine.

35

Ben. He stirs some things up.

39

“I mean,” says my friend, “FORTY. Aren’t you freaking out?”

“I just don’t, I guess.”

It wasn’t a question for me though, was it? In retrospect, I regret the answer.

46

Here we are.

I still don’t.

Some days, I feel naive or clueless and I think to myself that I might be wrong, and that I might be giving the wrong answer on a cosmic test.

Some days I think, “you’ve taken advantage of a number of opportunities to consider it.”

Mostly I think we’re born in a house that’s on fire, and there’ll be a moment between flame and ash.

We’ll need to have been kind.