“Society starts at dawn.”
I’m not sure what the Styles Desk is, but The New York Times recently published one of the Styles Desk writers’ reflections on the experience of delayed sleep phase syndrome:
My father, who was an extreme lark, would wake up by 6:30 a.m. and storm into my room, huffing, “Society starts at dawn,” as he yanked off my bedcover.
Growing up, I endured a similar perspective shared by one of my parents. I’m willing to bet the author’s father, who uttered the statement in the title, was not only a lark, but an extrovert. I can’t think of a statement more wholly encompassing both modes of being.
I suffer chronic sleep deficit. That is, I have a so-called sleep problem, although technically, that is not accurate.
I sleep fine. It is everyone else who has a problem with it.
My wife, who sent me a link to the piece, says this is me. She’s not wrong.
Williams’ experience of the working world mirrors my own. I don’t find much comfort in that, though it’s nice to know someone out there with a larger platform is willing to engage the problem.
By necessity, much of my life has occurred on lark’s hours. We all, larks & night owls, are shoehorned into them during our school years. Even the relative freedom of graduate school was a double-edged sword. I did most of my reading, and almost all of my writing, during the late night hours. This was ideal from a working perspective; the problem was that my days were a jumble of courses and teaching, and I taught every semester. There were definite times for certain kinds of work, but there was always additional work with the potential to be done at all times.
[A]bout 40 percent of the population are morning people, 30 percent are evening people, and the remainder land somewhere in between. “Night owls are not owls by choice,” he writes. “They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hard wiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.”
There have been three times when I’ve felt my hours matched my chronotype: working a factory’s third shift in high school, working afternoons/nights in a high-end restaurant, and overnight watch in Iraq. All three point to a reason why I feel less sanguine than the author about traditional 9-5 workplaces’ accommodations for chronotype.
During my senior year in high school, I took a job (through a temp agency) working in a factory that screen-printed labels on bottles for major cosmetic companies. It was, in some ways, a great job — it planted seeds that grew, with sufficient fertilizer, into more thoughtful perspectives later in my life. In some ways it was a lousy job — I was working a minimum-wage gig from 11pm–7am, then going to school from about 10am–3pm, then engaging in after-school activities until 7pm or later. I didn’t do this for the full year, thank goodness; it lasted some number of months, but I no longer remember how many. Had I not still been in school, my hours outside work would probably have been filled by a second (also hourly) job. As it was, by that point I’d already given up on going to a four-year college after high school, so it was a good introduction to the life that lay ahead of me in the restaurant world. Second and third shift work schedules are a reality for many folks who have little choice but to simply endure it, whether or not they would choose it for themselves if given the opportunity.
When I was working in the restaurant — typically 4pm-midnight Monday–Thursday, 3pm–1am Fridays, & 10am–2am on Saturdays — my hours were actually set by lark-driven society. I simply had the luxury of working in a service industry that catered to larks’ desires for their leisure time. This is good work for a night owl, assuming a sustainable position can be found. I was a full-time student at the same time I was a full-time line cook; it was simply unsustainable.
At one point during my deployment to Iraq, I was assigned the 6pm–6am watch shift. I was the only one awake on our tiny FOB for the entirely of that time; the platoon commander, the sergeant of the guard, even the squad on watch all would sleep for part of those hours. Once I got over the eerie feeling of being the only one awake through the night within hours of our FOB, I came to love it. The most analogous roles in US civilian life are the folks who care for & keep watch on us overnight: emergency services, night staffs of hospitals & care centers, & infrastructure workers. Again, these are good gigs for night owls, provided they fit with the rest of one’s life.
Society likes morning people. Loves them, actually. Early risers tend to be more punctual, get better grades in school and climb up the corporate ladder. These so-called larks are celebrated as the high achievers, the apple polishers, the C.E.O.s.
The author of the Times piece focuses on “hacker hours,” revealed by shifts in the tech industry & “creative sectors” that suggest “the new workplace culture is less about punctuality and more about creativity and breaking the rules.” That may be the case in these spheres of labor, and shifts there may drive shifts in related industries. But I think there’s an inescapable gravity to the point made by the author’s father: whether or not the larks’ hegemony over society’s work-time structure is total or partial, our society will continue expect that certain kinds of workers will always maintain daytime hours — including healthcare practitioners, workers in the trades, and educators — especially elementary & secondary teachers. While some people might be happy to be able to see their optometrist in the evening, or have access to a plumber’s services at midnight, elementary & secondary teachers will be among the very last to see a significant change in their workday.
In a world where a dual income has become necessary to simply fall behind less rapidly, schools preform the vital function of caring for children’s needs during the hours claimed by many parents’ employers. A work hours shift by employers will not immediately precipitate a shift in school schedules, which have proved remarkably resilient to broader societal changes, including the dwindling necessity to peg the school calendar to the seasonal demands of agrarian life. Should employers liberate their workers from the hegemony of the larks — either out of benevolence, or velvet-gloved coercion — workers with children will feel the strain of reconciling their new work schedules with the schedules of their children. No doubt some affluent, voucher-cashing private schools will market themselves as accommodating the modern schedules of their equally affluent client families. But can one seriously imagine the public school system, with its constituency of middle & working class families stretched ever thinner, shifting either quickly or uniformly? Perhaps the unchecked rise of service sector jobs, and the continued atrophy of industrial labor, will drive such a change. It could happen.
The trends I’ve observed in my lifetime don’t support such wishcasting. What I’ve observed is life becoming economically more untenable for most of us, while our labor is demeaned & devalued. What I’ve observed are major economic & quality-of-life gains being realized by an elect few, while the rest of us are coerced to go along with the fiction that their success & the country’s gross economic production has some relevance to the majority’s increasingly marginal existence.
Until something is done to address the fundamental inequity of our economic system — something that frees everyone to find work that recognizes their dignity, matches their skills & experience, and fits the tempo of their life — I’m afraid any implication that most folks — night owls as well as larks — could find work that embraces their genetic makeup is purely pie in the sky.
When Leaders Become Followers
Yesterday morning I listened to a lengthy conversation about social media, one that left me really frustrated. The conversants were discussing two particular platforms — one, which we’ll call Platform X, is large & longstanding, yet increasingly beleaguered & abusive; the other, Platform Z, is new-ish, much smaller, & somewhat unproven. I came away feeling the conversation had been extremely one-sided, overly lenient (perhaps out of familiarity bias) of Platform X’s noxiousness and hard on Platform Z’s perceived shortcomings.
The comments made in favor of Platform X, or against Platform Z, struck me as curious. I thought — how would these sound if Platform X was a physical, rather than an online, space? What follows is an exploration of those comments.
Podcasters like coffee, right? Let’s take paraphrasing of comments made about Platform X & Platform Z, then pretend we’re talking about two coffee shops — Coffeeshop X & Coffeeshop Z — that have similar characteristics.
I’ve worked hard to attract a large audience on Platform X, which has become toxic. I don’t want to leave it because I will have to start all over with my audience.
If your ability to engage your audience is limited by your participation on that platform, is it really your audience?
Let’s say Coffeeshop X has been your longstanding hangout. You’re a regular there, and you know many of the other regulars; some of them are good friends of yours outside the coffee shop. You routinely suggest it to friends & business associates as a rendezvous spot. Your previous open-mic nights have been well-attended, and people who run into you elsewhere mention how much they’ve enjoyed your performance. Lately, though, Coffeeshop X has become an uncomfortable place to be. Friendly people still show up to see you, but so do others who heckle all of you, grabbing the mic & hurling abuses, sometimes directed at specific people, sometimes people you care about. Despite the disturbance & hurt caused, the management of Coffeeshop X shrugs its shoulders. They’re not going to ask the mean people to leave as long as they keep buying coffee.
You have a choice: do you keep showing up at Coffeeshop X, hoping the mean people go someplace else, like some Mean People Coffeeshop? Do you keep asking people to meet you there to catch up, talk shop, or make a deal? Do you post a note near your usual chair, saying you’ve decamped to Coffeeshop Z — which isn’t so well-established, but is run by good-hearted people you already know — and invite your friends & associates to find you there?
The choices made by Platform X’s terrible management don’t affect what I get out of the service.
What about your audience? Do those choices affect them? What is their mental state while on the platform? What does that portion of your audience dealing with those effects think of your continued support of Platform X?
Let’s say Coffeeshop X has decided to allow its patrons to bring in their own boomboxes. A group of people have decided to abuse this policy and routinely bring their boomboxes in and play a ten-hour loop of TV static at high volume, with the speakers pointed at the plate glass windows to maximize the reverb. The management doesn’t take any action to stop this — they say everyone can form their own opinion of the white noise. Besides, these white noise boombox people are buying coffee.
Basically, if you want to keep patronizing Coffeeshop X, you can sit there with your noice-cancelling headphones on, perhaps in one of the alcoves where it’s a little quieter. Is this the kind of environment you want for a coffee date with a friend? Would you invite someone to Coffeeshop X to meet you for the first time? Or to discuss something important?
I conduct business on Platform X; leaving Platform X will hurt my business.
Platform X is counting on you to feel like you have no recourse but continue to use it. That might be true in the short term, but what long term harm is Platform X causing to your business?
Coffeeshop X has been an important venue for your work. You advertise your creativity, technical skills, & products there. You have meetings there. Your partners & patrons frequent it, too. For a good while, Coffeeshop X was a good place for all this business activity. Many of your partners & patrons still seem to be showing up to Coffeeshop X, but you notice they’re looking less enthusiastic & more harried with all the white noise boomboxes blasting. Your conversations are becoming more guarded, and you are less interested in openly engaging new folks who wander into the coffee shop. Other old partners & longtime patrons don’t come in anymore, so they don’t know about That Cool Thing You’re Doing Now.
Platform Z is interesting, but nobody is there.
Measuring the strength of a platform by its gross tonnage of accounts & number of reactions per post or updates per minute is certainly one way of guessing at its potential reach. Measuring the strength of a platform by the quality of engagement is more difficult — it takes time, resists easily-mined raw metrics, could be more subjective, & requires asking fundamentally different questions — but strikes me as a better way of determining whether the people who use it are thoughtful, respectful, & supportive.
Coffeeshop Z opened just a little while ago. You poked your head in the door and noted the coffee brewing smelled pretty good. But you didn’t recognize any of the faces in there. It looked like there were some open seats at the bar, some open tables, quality provided reading material, and a pretty casual vibe. Somebody you didn’t know actually waved at you, but since you were alone, you turned around and left.
None of my friends are on Platform Z. Who would I talk to?
How do your friends feel about Platform X? Would you all, as a gesture of your mutual friendship, consider trying a new thing together? If Platform Z doesn’t work out after an agreed-upon interval, could you either go back to Platform X or reassess your options?
Your friends tell you that they’re tired of the white noise boombox people at Coffeeshop X, and they’re fed up with the management of Coffeeshop X enabling — or is it encouraging? — that behavior. You’re all still going there, but you can see that everyone’s feeling the strain.
You poke your head in at Coffeeshop Z again. People at the counter are chatting with one another. The actual owner is there behind the counter, serving drinks alongside the manager. At the tables, people are reading newspapers, magazines, & books, some of which you enjoy, and some of which you’ve never seen before. A couple groups of people have pushed together some tables and are talking about TV shows, movies, & music. A couple people with shoulder bags & backpacks are at a standing bar, chatting about professional stuff while taking a break from work.
You don’t know any of these people. A few of them smile at you when they see you looking at them. You remember your friends, hunkered down back at Coffeeshop X, trying to hold a conversation while wearing their noise-cancelling headphones. You miss them.
On Platform X, I can block anyone for any reason. Platform Z doesn’t have a blocking feature — that’s madness.
Does lacking a block feature reflect negatively on Platform Z, or does it say more about the environment of Platform X, where it’s become a necessity?
At Coffeeshop X, you can prevent anyone from sitting at your table. You can even put up some smoked glass that prevents them from seeing you at your table while they’re in the coffee shop.
When you poked your head in at Coffeeshop Z, you noticed they didn’t have this feature. Instead, you noticed, right inside the door, a sign stating Coffeeshop Z requires respectful treatment of everyone. The sign stipulates that those who cannot be respectful will be ushered out of the coffee shop & will not be permitted to return. You notice only two people are working there — the owner & the manager. What happens when the place gets busy? What happens if it gets busy and the white noise boombox people show up?
Someone in Coffeeshop Z was already rude to me.
You did not deserve that. They should not have been rude to you. You probably weren’t the only one to notice. Hopefully others — including strangers — stepped in to support you.
Should the rudeness continue, the owner and the manager of Coffeeshop Z have already said they will take care of that kind of behavior. Do they deserve the opportunity to stand by that principle?
The Notables: Following the Leader
In his recent essay on the state of social media, Smokey Ardisson coined a term — “the notables” — to describe prominent users of social media. I like this term, because it encompasses a group of prominent users, while creating space for a distinction between types of notoriety. A good many of these folks are notable because their professional perspectives are widely (and deservedly) valued.
The problem is, some notables seem to sense their notoriety is predicated upon their status within a particular social media platform’s caste system. While they maintain other outlets for their work, they depend on their position in the social media caste system to attract interest in their work. I don’t believe for a moment that Notable N couldn’t attract a sizable, engaged audience if they were to leave Platform X for Platform Z. Of course, Notable N might object: “An engaged audience is all well & good, but how do I quantify my notability to my partners if Platform Z doesn’t present engagement metrics to me?”
Inevitably, the notables become so invested in being notable on a single social media platform (attracting & maintaining an audience of “followers”) that the thing they’re actually notable for — their legitimate creativity, piercing insight, impeccable memory, or astute analysis — appears worth (far?) less to them without that notoriety. In an effort to preserve gravitas, they’ve hitched their star to a black hole, and now they’re along for the ride.
The notables aren’t leading anymore; they’re followers, too.
The Sympathizer: A Review
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer directly refutes a dominant perspective: many of its readers likely think of the Vietnam War as something that happened to America, a big mistake that started in the Gulf of Tonkin and was largely resolved when US combat forces left in 1973. In this sense, Nguyen’s novel is the best complement in English-language Vietnam War fiction to what Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990 did for American histories of the war — acknowledging that war’s more distant beginning in an anti-colonialist independence movement and tracing its aftershocks well beyond the flight from Saigon. For its scope, depth of perspective, quality of prose, and its seductive, baroque narration, The Sympathizer is — along with Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn & Alfredo Véa’s Gods Go Begging — one of the three best Vietnam War novels available to an English-reading audience.
The Captain (the novel’s otherwise unnamed protagonist) is in the tradition of the Dostoevskian anti-hero, a misfit, an outsider with divided loyalties. Nguyen, with deliberate care, develops a picture of a man compromised from the moment of corrupt conception. The “bastard” epithet continually directed at him fits not only the circumstances of his birth, but the bifurcations that multiply as his story unfolds. While I don’t share the same identities, the Captain’s great blessing and curse — seeing the world from multiple perspectives — resonated with me on a smaller scale: my parents’ divorce in my early childhood created parallel worlds I lived in simultaneously, a Rubik’s cube of interpersonal, political, religious, and cultural identities that all shifted as I traversed the no-man’s land between parents. Nguyen’s treatment of this condition — in The Captain’s racial, cultural, political, and religious identities — is not simply convincing, it’s masterful.
In my more jaundiced Iraq War vet moments, I find myself sympathetic to various immigrant & refugee Vietnamese characters’ piercing, Solzhenitsyn-esque disaffected criticism of what they see as the US’ decadent society & shallow popular culture — ostensibly of the Great Malaise era, but every bit as resonant today. I admit I enjoyed the skewering of the Hollywood that produced not only Apocalypse Now (the primary inspiration for the book’s biting critique of American Vietnam War cinema) and The Green Berets, but — pushed forward — the post-9/11, Global War on Terror-era’s Homeland.
The Sympathizer is a necessity for any conflict studies or Vietnam War reading list or syllabus. In fact, it’s just downright necessary — and excellent.
One of the candidates in my state’s gubernatorial primary wants to make our state the first to fully convert to renewable energy. It’s a laudable goal for every state, though I think it’s unrealistic that the state where I live will be the first.
I’d love to generate our own electricity at home with some solar panels and a little wind turbine. If anything could, that would make us more mindful of what our family consumes every day. If we generated enough, we could sell some back to the grid, too. We probably don’t need all that power every day.
I think that renewable energy metaphor is an interesting model for social media, particularly since Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is fond of comparing his company to a public utility:
I think Twitter’s a success for us when people stop talking about it, when we stop doing these panels and people just use it as a utility, use it like electricity. It fades into the background, something that’s just a part of communication.
The comparison’s ridiculous unless Dorsey wishes to hand Twitter over to the FCC, but let’s go along with it for a moment.
If Twitter is a utility like the electrical grid, where does it get its energy? For all the energy dissipated on its platform, Twitter doesn’t generate much on its own. Instead, it relies on its users to generate all that energy from pithy remarks, photo uploads, tweetstorms, breaking news, and the occasional productive conversation. Oh, and marketing. Lots, and lots, and lots of marketing.
Twitter takes all of that energy and uses it for its own purposes. It’s in Twitter’s best interest to ensure as much energy is generated as possible, because that’s what keeps it relevant. Twitter’s relevance, particularly post-IPO, is ultimately its only case for profitability. All that user-created energy is what gives Twitter its power.
At the same time, Twitter — this massive online be-in — allows some pretty terrible people to feed off that power all its users create. I’ll pass on pointing out its position on the current President of the United States, whose online conduct is reprehensible, simply because it seems unlikely any company in the world will boot a president from its platform. I’ll skip Alex Jones, because Jones isn’t the only example of Twitter’s terrible custodianship of all that power. Instead, how about these:
Did you know David Duke is an active Twitter user? Yes, former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke. Duke has almost 50,000 followers. Maybe all he posts are cat memes.
Peter King, the New York congressman who has likened kneeling football players to Nazis, has over 34,000 followers.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed AIDS was engineered by the West, has over 45,000 followers.
Neo-Nazi Richard B. Spencer has nearly 80,000 followers. Yes, a real Neo-Nazi.
Holocaust denier & convicted racist Jean-Marie Le Pen’s on Twitter; he has almost 125,000 followers.
David Clarke, the ex-Sheriff of Milwaukee County, maintained a policy of shackling pregnant inmates during labor, forced religious proselytizing on his employees at mandatory meetings, and has described a members of a minority group as “uneducated, lazy, and morally bankrupt.” Clarke has over 950,000 followers.
Dinesh D’Souza — who asserted “The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11,” claimed that prisoners at Abu Ghraib enjoyed conditions “comparable to the accommodations in mid-level Middle Eastern hotels,” and who used Twitter to mock children who survived a school shooting — has over 960,000 followers.
Nigel Farage, who believes in a “fifth column” of religious extremists in the UK and went out of his way to endorse an alleged child molester for federal office in another country, has over 1.2 million followers.
Jenny McCarthy, whose claims that vaccines trigger autism have endangered countless people, has over 1.3 million followers.
Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House-turned-conspiracy theorist, has over 2 million followers.
Laura Ingraham, who has used Twitter to taunt a school shooting survivor and called detention facilities for children separated from their parents “essentially summer camps”, has over 2.35 million followers.
Sean Hannity, a conspiracy theorist, torture advocate, and bigot, has nearly 3.7 million followers.
As long as Twitter refuses to remove people like the above from its platform, it is effectively condoning their messages. There are doubtless many people who use Twitter that see this and are disappointed, upset, or appalled — yet who continue to use Twitter to communicate with their own audiences. Their persistence effectively supports not just Twitter’s relevance, but its continued dominance. Twitter has made clear its position on the custodianship of its platform.
Why would anyone sell their power back to Twitter, knowing Twitter uses some of it to run the microphones it hands to terrible people?
Kitchen Confidential was published less than a year before I entered culinary school. I was at the front end of a big rush into the culinary world that swept restaurant industry lifers, high school graduates, and adults looking for a new life into professional cooking programs, not all of them rigorous or focused on the healthy growth of the profession or the individual students paying sometimes Ivy League-levels of tuition for a culinary education. I read Tony Bourdain’s memoir, sometime shortly after I’d started, with a jejune mixture of amusement & anticipation of the promise it held for me: the promise of a place in a pirate crew held together by terrible wages, late-night Dionysian debauchery, and restless exploration of new frontiers of sensation, food & otherwise. I found some of those things in my time in professional kitchens, but never in the quantity my appetites craved. Ultimately, I mostly found hard work, along with some deeper lessons that had to be slowly simmered before I could truly appreciate them.
Although the angry, sensitive young man I was then has receded into a shadow of past lives, the things I learned from Tony, that I most internalized, remain. He helped me think about food as a way I could show love to others, a manner of expression I was familiar with feeling from my grandmothers, but had never seen expressed by a man before. In my eyes, men were marginal cooks — either inept, or unwilling, or limited to suitably “manly” methods like grilling. Tony opened every method, every domain of cooking, to a young man who hadn’t found a respectable place to channel sensitivity & an appreciation for artistry. Tony’s view of the world wasn’t broken — he publicly appreciated women in professional kitchens far more vocally, and far earlier, than many of his macho executive chef counterparts, though in his own (at that time) hyper-masculine-on-the-surface style. It was my world that was broken, a world where the man I thought I might be didn’t fit with the limitations — social, cultural, and economic — of my origin. I wasn’t ready for every lesson Tony hinted at in those pages, but appreciated how he wove them into his subsequent career, and I always remained open to hearing what he had to say because what he’d already said resonated. I continued to learn from him, even as the personal image he had projected at first became one he himself criticized.
I didn’t stay in kitchens. The place Tony touted as the last refuge of the misfit ultimately wasn’t the best place for me to figure out who I was or what I wanted to become. Between the 40 hours a week in my school’s kitchens and the 40–55 hours a week I was simultaneously spending working in professional kitchens, I learned fairly quickly that my spirit didn’t have what it took to live Tony’s life. So, I became one of Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children instead. It seemed the next logical step, particularly for someone who wasn’t convinced he belonged anywhere in this world, and who had already dug himself a pretty deep hole figuring that much out. This seems cheap to say now, in light of Tony’s end, but my contemporaneous protestations about foreign policy & civic duty aside, at the time I wanted to put it all behind me. Oddly enough, I attempted to do that by joining another discipline where I was the resident misfit.
A few years after I left the Marines, Tony came through the city where I was living. I’d continued following his career, continued absorbing what he had to say about the world he encountered through food. That night, I asked him, in front of an auditorium of people, whether he’d ever considered turning his focus toward military food, with the idea that people in uniform deserved better than MREs and T-rats. My question was ham-fisted and ill-formed, the product of nerves (speaking to an idol, and in front of such a large crowd), enthusiasm, and sincere interest in his answer. Tony’s answer was funny & gracious. In my memory, it contained a bit of a joke (something to the effect of “Why would I ever put that garbage in my mouth? That’s a better question for Andrew Zimmern; he’ll eat anything.”). I don’t know if he’d ever had it suggested to him before, and I’d like to think he heard the real question I was asking. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter; he was as kind to me as I was nervous about speaking to him.
I learned much from Tony Bourdain. I learned I could say things about what is in my heart with food that I couldn’t — sometimes still can’t — say with my mouth. I learned to be a good guest, to be as curious about the people making my food as I am about the food itself. I learned to love the “nasty bits,” which, in their preparation, contain some of the purest love & good wishes anyone could offer another person. I learned that chefs have plenty to say about the state of our world, exploitation of people and the planet, and about where we fall short in living out the love contained in the simplest of dishes.
I learned I can love others the same way my grandmothers loved me. I learned even misfits can find their place, and that masculinity can be what I already am, not some archetype created & expected of me by others.
Thanks, Tony. I will miss your restless curiousity & infectious enthusiasm, your conscience & conscientiousness, your singular voice, your visceral gratitude.
Bring Them All Home
Today, as on every Memorial Day, I remember my brothers: Lance Corporal James Casper, Lance Corporal Hugo Lopez-Lopez, Corporal Zach Gamble, & Corporal James Blizzard.
Casper & Lopez-Lopez were mortally wounded in Iraq. Gamble (my one-time squad leader) & Blizzard became casualties of our generation’s wars after leaving the Marines; I don’t think they ever really found their way home. Neither of them will be counted in the war’s official death toll, or have their name carved in stone for the ages.
Every war creates its lost ones. We need to bring them all home.