I‘m envious of Oliver Sacks’ ability to convey, in a sympathetic and non-judgmental manner, the inner life of the neurologically impaired. They are not portrayed as being insane. Their words and actions are not judged as being right or wrong. What they say and do are manifestations of the varying ways that the human brain shapes who we are and how we interact with the world. Sometimes I can be like Sacks, interacting sanely with the insane. But this is often short-lived. As I try to understand their world as they see it, I find that their insanity seeps into my brain. To preserve my sanity, I’ve created a mental safe haven. I’ve stopped reading the columns of Ross Douthat and David Brooks. I did not watch the Republican Triumph of the Will. I’ve ignored most of the Romney campaign and, on a very personal level, I unfriended or blocked several people on Facebook. None of this has stopped the insane from pounding on the gates, nor has it stripped them of their power. However, it has sharply reduced their ability to make me insane so, in that respect, I’ve reduced their power over me. In like fashion I have avoided the circus known as the Democratic National Convention. I’ve read no more than a few paragraphs about the event and I have not watched any video clips.
I’ve also taken a break from Facebook. I sneak in for a few minutes and quickly get out. I’m trying to understand Facebook from the outside by seeing it as an outsider. After I accidentally stopped watching television over thirty years ago — accidental because it wasn’t an intentional act — if and when I watch television (always at someone else’s house or when we are on vacation because, at home, we do not have cable television), the flow and rhythms of the television become painfully obvious. It’s like a choreographed metronome whose beat changes, dragging your emotions along with its perpetual motion. Imagine, for a moment, that you had to describe a television to a stranger. You might describe it as a box or a panel on your wall. This box shows pictures one at a time, accompanied with sound. The pictures and sound move quickly, creating the illusion that you are watching real people in motion. (Well, you are watching real people but it’s an image of real people. The people are not inside the box, despite Mr. Wonka’s invention.) If I then had to describe Facebook, I would say it is a peculiar sort of television. The “pictures” may be words or a digital image or some combination of the two. Some of those words or images may have a “link” which is a device that allows you to go from one image to a completely different image. I’d explain how the images are stacked one above the other, allowing you to see five, six or more of them at one time. After I got the nod of understanding, I’d then explain how the vertical images on Facebook move all by themselves, then suddenly stop, then start moving again. New images appear at the top, pushing the others down. This goes on and on and on as everybody adds their own images and, since everyone wants their image to be seen, they add the same or similar image, again and again, day in and day out.
After hearing this description, the stranger may come to the same conclusion that I’ve come to: Facebook is a form of insanity. There is no narrative framework to tie everything together. There is no end point or goal. It is a visual perpetual motion machine that, at the end, creates nothing of lasting value. While it does make it possible for some people to get to know one another, unless one leaves Facebook and exchanges emails or phone calls, it is rare — though not impossible — for the “knowing” to get beyond the superficial. When it does go into some depth, when you do get to know others beyond the superficial within Facebook, it is done “off to the side” in some exchange of comments that is part of that endless stream but not completely a part of it, since only the end of the “conversation” appears in the ever-moving vertical stream. If you come to the side conversation a bit late, or you only see the last few parts of the conversation streaming by, you may not understand what was really taking place.
While looking through a collection of photos about child labor in America, I was struck by the photo of a family sitting in a room sewing garments. I’ve seen many photos like this but this time there was an eery familiarity to it, a déjà vu-type experience.
In 1998 I freed myself from the burdens of a steady paycheck and retirement benefits so that I could be an entrepreneur, a French word that means “to enter poverty.” It was a great two years. Then the Internet bubble burst and business took a nosedive. Then business became even worse after 9/11. Then business picked up a bit but took another nosedive by 2007. I closed down my business, got a regular job, but was liberated — by my employer — in 2009. Throughout my ten or so years of being an entrepreneur in the technology field, I’ve done many fixed-cost projects which, to some degree, is not all that different from what the family in the picture is doing except they called it piece work. In either case, you are paid a fixed amount for whatever you produce: a garment; a website.
After I closed my office in 2000 (post-Internet Bubble bursting), I set up a home office in one corner of my living room. If you were to peek in through the living room window, you would see my family engaged in “modern” piece work. After putting in eight or ten hours at her job, my wife would be typing on her laptop, working on the never-ending paperwork — now “digitized and online” — that she’s required to do. My older daughter would be staring at her laptop, reading online material for a college course while my younger one would be typing a paper for her college course. If you looked for me, you would only see my back as my focus would be solely on my computer screen. (At around age six, my younger daughter gave me a home-made Father’s Day card. On the cover was a picture of me sitting at my computer. All you could see was the top of my head and my back.) In some strange way we are that family doing “piece work” and “homework.” Of course we have more comfortable surroundings. We have air conditioning and a flat-screen streaming NetFlix movies. But all of us toil away 50, 60, 70 hours or more. There is no separation of work and family.
ADHDers have trouble conceptualizing time, yet somehow I have no problem conceptualizing time that spans years or decades. My brain makes vast leaps through time. I can see the invisible hands of the past shaping the present. The discovery of the Higgs-Boson subatomic particle this past July, is one of those events that leaps through time, a reminder of how the present is shaped by the past. The discovery was made at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider — an “atom smasher” — located in Geneva, Switzerland. If you are a physicist you would be a fool not to want to be where the action is, namely Switzerland. If CERN continues to make more discoveries, they will likely attract even more physicists. This will increase the likelihood that other discoveries will be made and, most importantly, it means that there will be a critical mass of the best and the brightest and some of those physicists will go on to discoveries that have enormous commercial potential, such as quantum computers or, perhaps, nano-machines that can crawl through our bloodstream and remove dangerous blockages or some other yet unheard of breakthrough. What should be of concern to us here in America is that these potential discoveries are not taking place in our country and they are not happening because we decided such things were no longer important to us. In 1993 we decided to stop funding the American-equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider. Whatever benefits would have come from discovering the Higgs-Boson in the United States are now gone. Whatever benefits would have come by attracting the best and brightest of the physicists are now gone. Think about how many other projects we decided not to fund, how many other research endeavors our short-sighted, narrow-minded political leaders, who kowtow to equally short-sighted, narrow-minded constituents, decided to stop funding. Think about how many technologies will not be discovered here in the United States and will not help to rebuild our crumbling economy.
If you are not wiping tears from your eyes (just the mention of subatomic particles makes me weepy), maybe this will help. It’s called Spinoffs, a listing of all the technologies that we’ve come to know and love and which were spinoffs of technology created, in part or whole, by NASA. Yes, NASA. That same agency that we’ve been slowly defunding and trying to privatize.
There’s an interesting irony about the 1993 defunding of our own supercollider. The supercollider was to be built in Texas. How many of us remember that Texas, the same state that gave us George W. Bush, gave us some of our most innovative technology. Perhaps you’ve heard of Texas Instruments or Intel or Southwest Technical Products?
“For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks, who took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills, were dead. They were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it.” That sounds like it could be an off-the-record remark from Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs or, perhaps, Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase. It’s actually the voice-over of Henry Hill in Scorcese’s Goodfellas. I can’t watch the movie without thinking that, with a few judicious changes, it could be a movie about Wall Street.
I‘ve created a mental safe haven. I’ve withdrawn from the world in order to better understand the world. I go to my yoga practice three times a week. (I’m still in need of a chakra realignment but I think the vision in my third eye is improving.) I stopped listening to talk radio. (My kids are happier because I’m no longer screaming at the radio.) I’ve read Chris Hedges’ Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, I’m currently reading Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, and I’m having fun reading the old detective stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. (See my Pinterest board on pulp magazines.) My business has actually improved but I’m having difficulty finding dependable employees. (Yes, William. There’s the rub.) If I have any free time, either late at night or early in the morning, I work on my fiction writing.
Perhaps the plummeting stock value of Facebook results from the realization that Facebook doesn’t really do anything. It’s the online equivalent of millions of people holding up picket signs with everyone in continual motion, pushing their sign in front of your face, hoping you’ll take notice. If you’ve ever walked a real picket line you know that you have to keep moving in a circle to avoid being arrested for loitering. Once you stop moving, you’re in legal hot water. So you move because you have to move, knowing that the goal for the day is to circle and circle and circle, while wondering if you can circle fast enough so that you can see the back of your own picket sign.
Facebook has a similar feel. We “post” our “signs” on Facebook and then check periodically to see if anyone saw our signs and, of course, to make sure that we can see our own signs. Perhaps we need to post our signs again. Maybe your friends didn’t get the message the first four hundred times that you posted your sign that you are concerned about animal welfare, or genetically modified foods, or the logical inversions of the “opposing” political party. Of course, your friends already know what interests you and yet, while engaged in the never-ending circle of Facebook, you worry that their memory retention has been reduced to the brief moment that the sign goes whizzing past their visual field. Perhaps the words “memory” and “retention” have no meaning within the confines of Facebook’s visual cacophony.
I‘m trying to live my life as a man, husband, father, uncle, cousin, friend, neighbor, and entrepreneur who happens to have ADHD. Though the ADHD is part of the underlying canvas of my life and you can, at times, see hints of earlier paintings, I’m focusing more on the current painting, less on the earlier ones, and even less on the canvas itself. Using my personal genetic palette, I’m trying to make the latest painting as colorful, as coherent, and as pleasing as it can be.