Reader Request Week 2019 #4: The Things You Outgrow

For this entry, Amysrevenge wants to know about:

Things you fall out of love with as you age. Example: Heinlein was super relevant to 22 year old me in 1997. He was enjoyable to 33 year old me in 2008 in a nostalgic sort of way. He basically isn’t relevant to my interests anymore at 44 years old in 2019. Do you find yourself letting go of things that you’ve… I don’t know if “outgrown” is the right word, but let’s say outgrown, that once were very important to you but now aren’t part of your life, or do you hold on to those older interests?

I generally let them go. For one thing, time is short, both on a daily and on an existential basis, and there is only so much of it that I can devote to enthusiasms. So for the most part I’m going to go ahead and focus on the things that I’m enthusiastic about now, rather than the things I used to like when I was younger (which is a lot of things when one is 50) but no longer really have an interest in anymore. I have enough stuff I like now, you know? It’ll keep me busy enough.

Also, I think it’s perfectly fine to let things go, and to realize that just because something was important to you at a particular time and place in your life doesn’t mean you are beholden to it your whole life. Times change, people change, hairstyles change. Equally valid, it’s okay to still like things you liked when you were younger, but just have them be less important — a thing you were super passionate about ten years ago can be something you interact with only occasionally now, for example (and vice-versa). Additionally, some things you may find you never outgrow, and that’s cool too. It’s okay to have things that are part of you all your life.

I think what can complicate this festival of enthusiasms is when, as sometimes happens, there’s something that you liked or loved that has become part of your self-identity, and thus it becomes much harder to separate it out as you get older. Lots of enthusiasms have communities around them — look at the fandom of science fiction and fantasy as a very relevant example of this — and in those communities people often find friends and partners and an identification that speaks to their soul. Separating one’s self from something like that (not just SFF fandom but any community) is hard. It’s easy to feel like you’re turning your back on people when that happens.

(The flip side of this also happens — sometimes the community and the enthusiasm just plain disappear. 25 years ago I was active on USENET and on the newsgroup alt.society.generation-x. The people there became a community and would have things like get-togethers (called “tingles”) and group events and so on. Then USENET stopped being a thing and people drifted away from the newsgroup (it’s still technically there, it’s just a shell), and the context for that part of my life went away. Some things are bounded externally rather than internally. Moments pass for all sorts of reasons.)

I look at my own life now and I can think of things for which my enthusiasm level is in flux. I used to play video games a lot more than I do now, as an example — I tend to play them less now because I have less time for them, and also because so many of the major video games really really really really want me to have to play with other people (which I mostly don’t want to do) or either pay for things within the game itself, or grind away senselessly to get a hat (or whatever) that I don’t care about. I was really into making electronic music at the first part of the century, then got away from it for years, then picked up guitar and ukulele for a few years, and am now swinging back to electronic music again. I like science fiction fandom about as much as I used to, but these days when I go to conventions I tend not to do a lot of panels, which was a thing I used to really enjoy, but these days I find not as much fun (and also, I get bored with myself on them pretty easily). On the other hand conventions let me DJ dance parties now, and I’m really enjoying that.

Then there are the creative people whose output meant one thing to me when I was younger but means a different thing to me now. To use the example of Heinlein above, I can’t read Heinlein at 50 years old with the same simple joy that I read him at 15 — but this doesn’t mean I don’t still read him. I read Time Enough For Love, Citizen of the Galaxy and Friday this year alone, mostly on airplanes because that’s where I do “comfort food” reading. My reading of him today is, I think, more nuanced and rather more aware that the hand that created these characters and incidents is not neutral. As a result, my relationship with the work and the author has changed. I wouldn’t say I’ve downgraded my opinion of Heinlein; I still admire him and his writing skill. I would say I have a better understanding of him as an author and creator and a person of his time, with work that now exists outside that time and has to be recontextualized because of it. Everything is more complicated there, and that’s not a bad thing.

And also, there’s the fact that at 50 years old, my frame of reference for writing and writers is a much broader and wider one than when I was 15, so Heinlein’s relative position in that frame has changed substantially. It’s not just him, it’s also every other thing I liked and enjoyed at 15: films, music, television, art, etc. I still enjoy Heinlein; I still enjoy the music of Journey and Depeche Mode; I still enjoy a lot of things that were important to me at 15, and acknowledge their significance to me at that age. I also have better idea where they stand in the larger landscape of art. Doing so does nothing to diminish their importance to me in a certain place and a certain time in my life.

With that said, there are some things I enjoyed when I was younger that I just can’t go back to. Jo Walton famously describes this as your favorite work being visited by the “suck fairy” — you re-read (or re-watch, or re-listen) something you remember loving and you’re appalled at how terrible it is. The art itself hasn’t changed, but you have, and that makes all the difference. This too is okay, and a reminder that before you recommend something you loved 30+ years ago to anyone else, maybe check in on it again to see how it holds up. The number of GenX parents who fired up Sixteen Candles for their own kids to watch just to be horrified at the racism and sexism that they totally forgot was there is too damn high.

The gist of all of this is: Yes, I can let things go when they aren’t speaking to me anymore, and I think that’s fine and a natural aspect of life. You can and should too, and when you do, it’s okay not to overthink it. Times change. People change. Hairstyles change. And you’re making room in your life for new things and experiences to speak to you in ways that engage and inspire you. If you’re lucky, you get to have that happen to you your whole life.

(There’s still time to ask questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to see how to get your own request in.)

Reader Request Week 2019 #3: Blogging With Extreme Confidence

David Orr asks:

One noteworthy aspect of your blogging style is your extreme confidence. If you have an opinion to offer, you may caveat it in various ways, but usually not in ways that indicate any uncertainty. For instance, you rarely prefix statements with “I think that” or “Probably” or other indications that while this is your view you acknowledge that you could be wrong.

To what extent is that conscious? Waffling on opinions doesn’t necessarily make for compelling blogging, even if it might be good epistemology. Do you aim directly for “authoritative and confident” as your blogging voice, or is that just how it comes out?

Well, first, I’m not sure I agree with the suggestion that I don’t put qualifiers like “I think” or “probably” in my posts here, since I just did a search for both phrases in recent pieces and they both pop up not infrequently. Second, I’m pretty good at admitting when I don’t know things, because I think it’s fine to admit there are things I don’t know, and that as a consequence whatever I’m saying about a particular subject I don’t know much about will have to be tempered by those facts.

Third, there is a site disclaimer, accessible on literally every page of this site, which covers this pretty clearly:

Everything on the site is my opinion (except comments written by others, which are their opinions). I have strong opinions. At times, you may not agree with these opinions, or how I choose to express them. This is not my problem.

Having written in the site disclaimer that what I write is here going to be my opinion, I don’t feel obliged to hem and haw about things every single time I write a post. It’s covered, you know? And if someone is all “well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man,” I’m all, well, yes, obviously, did you not read the Site Disclaimer? It’s right over there in the sidebar.

So, I don’t think it’s that I write in a way that’s heedlessly unqualified; it’s that I’ve set up the site — and my internal world view — to entertain and accept the possibility that what I’m writing is a) my opinion, and also b) I might occasionally be wrong and indeed c) I might have my head entirely up my ass. Having done so, I’m able to proceed with a minimum of fuss.

It is absolutely true that when I’m holding forth here on one topic or another, it’s of a tone that could possibly be best described as “avuncular omniscient” — the voice of someone who is both confident in their opinion and in the belief that what they are saying both should be heard and heeded, and who pitches that voice to be generally accessible to a wide audience. Why do I hold forth in this manner? Well:

1. I used to be a professional newspaper opinion columnist, and “avuncular omniscient” is (or was) the default tone for newspaper columnists.

2. Before I was a newspaper columnist, I wanted to be one, and read a whole bunch of them both for entertainment, and to internalize the stylistic and rhetorical elements of that format. So one could say the “avuncular omniscient” is part of my baseline writing study.

3. I’m a straight white dude and straight white dudes are used to both expressing their opinions and also assuming those opinions will be heard. As I’ve gotten older and smarter I’ve better internalized the idea that in the great wide world I need to bring more to the table than just “Hey, I’m a straight white dude and I got opinions.” Because that sort of person is not exactly thin on the ground, if you know what I’m saying. In the world outside this blog, I try to be better at making space for people who aren’t like me to have their say. I want to be part of the mix of voices, not necessarily the only voice. But here, in my own personal space that no one has to visit unless they choose to, my holding forth is not getting in the way of anyone else having an opportunity to be heard.

4. Also, and in a general sense, I’m not exactly shy, am I, and have never been. In addition to all the reasons noted above, this particular tone is me, or part of me, at least, the part that is tuned to addressing an audience. And I like addressing audiences — writing for me has always had an assumption of a readership outside of my own head. I’ve always written outwardly. And when you do that, you write to project your thoughts, rather than keeping them small and quiet, and hoping someone who wanders by peeks in to see what you’re up to.

Are there drawbacks to this “avuncular omniscient” tone? Oh, my, yes! This sort of presentation can make one comes across as heedless, clueless and obnoxious, especially if one is indeed some combination of those things. It is the tone of “that asshole with an opinion,” and in recent years one could easily say it’s been weaponized by the sort of alt-right chucklefuck who understands the rhetorical value of swaddling hate and bigotry in a moderate-sounding tone that your grandparents were trained by years of daily newspapers to file under “reasonable” in their brains. These chucklefucks aren’t good at maintaining that tone, I should say, and the minute you poke them they revert to a sort querulous whining. But that doesn’t mean they don’t use it.

Nor have I in my time avoided these drawbacks entirely — not the alt-right bullshit, mind you, that crap has nothing to with me. I’m talking about the “heedless, clueless and obnoxious” part. There’s a non-trivial number of people who find me and/or my tone here exhausting and enervating, and as a result choose not to have anything to do with me or the site any further. Also, there has been more than once where I led with tone and then showed my ass and then had to try to find a way back from that, which usually involves apologies and redoubled effort to do better in the future. As I’ve become a better writer and, I think, a better person, I screw this up less, but it’s not to say that I don’t still screw up, or that I won’t screw up again. Life is a learning process, or at least it should be, and you try to keep doing it better.

At the end of the day, however, I write the way I write because I am who I am, and I while I heartily admit I am and will always be a work in progress, sometimes wrong and always learning, I don’t see the presentation of who I am on the blog changing all that much over time. On balance it’s served me well, and I think it’s served the people who read here well. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

(There’s still time to ask questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to see how to get your own request in.)