In June I took part in a social experiment with Jason Becker as part of his Letters Project. He has been corresponding with people using email, in letter form, for many months now.
We each posted our letters online.
This morning I read a series of letters between Robb Knight and Jason Becker. They came about as part of project Jason is undertaking to have conversations with others in the old form of letters (even if written by email).
If you take the time to follow the link above and read the letters as posted you will see a pattern of conversation that I’ve observed often happens when people get to know each other. They start with something mundane (weather, family, where they live, job etc.) and over time get deeper and deeper into each other’s lives and interests.
It is critical we allow ourselves the time to converse human to human.
We so sadly lack this in the majority of our conversations today. There is no time to deal with anything other than the immediate. If writing letters back-and-forth is the way to start it is worth doing. Though it isn’t the form that ultimately matters. It is the focus and intention of the conversation.
Jason and Robb set out to have a conversation purely for the sake of conversation. Neither knew where it would lead, and as far as I know, neither had an agenda of topics going in.
Friday night, the TV’s on in the background, and I’m wondering where to start.
I first came across your “Letters Project” via previous participant Robb Knight. At the time I was craving conversation and if letters back-and-forth are not conversation, what are they? That seems as good a place to start as any.
As a 50+ year old (mid-early-50’s lol), I’ve been exposed to many concepts. Some resonate strongly and immediately feel right because of their ability to explain my world experiences. The importance of conversations in our life is one of those.
Just now my attention has been taken by the Ben Robert-Smith story on TV. He’s Australia’s most decorated living war-veteran who has lost a defamation case against three newspapers for claims they made that he is a war criminal. The stories are all “He’s guilty! Strip him of his medals! Take him to criminal court!“. The last I agree with as it is the only way to get beyond allegations to evidence.
The media leaves no place for conversation - no place to explore - no place to learn - no place for grey nuance.
I assume the case was thrown out of court because the newspapers had sufficient justification to make the claims they did and so, it’s not defamation. That does not equate to criminal proof. I can’t be sure of that, because it’s not being reported anywhere. Just the result for everybody to lay judgement on.
I see the same in the workplace, in families, on-line. We are not taking the time to sit in conversation. In my training as an ontological coach, we were told conversation is a dance. How much conversation is not a dance but a toe-to-toe fist-fight? The closest it gets to a dance is the gang fight in West Side Story.
I’m confident in saying we’ve forgotten how to listen, but I also think there is a big time factor in there. We don’t leave ourselves time to ask questions, to sit quietly and think, to consider what we’ve heard, or to consider our reaction to it and what that may teach us about ourselves.
That’s the conversation I crave. That’s what I hope you and I can engage with over the coming weeks.
I’ve written enough. Time for me to listen.
Best regards, David
I am also craving conversations, having come to the same set of conclusions as a mid-late-30s year old.
There’s little room for nuance, and so often cries for nuance are made in bad faith. One of the most difficult things about online conversation and media narratives is that they’re so often, fundamentally dishonest. The questions being asked are about framing the debate, not curiosity. Introducing complexity is genuinely seized upon by bad actors to support ideas that are not at all a part of the goal of the initial speaker.
You can’t dance with someone who walks on the floor with the purpose of making you look bad. There has to be some agreement on the basics, and so often these days our dance partners aren’t even listening to the same music we are.
I don’t think individuals have forgotten how to listen. I think this is why in person conversation and face to face interactions are so different from online interactions, especially synchronous or near synchronous, short form, broadcasted “conversations”. 1 One of the reasons I like podcasts so much is that the human voice can generate a level of empathy and compassion for each other that is missing during online sniping. Folks I feel are abhorrent with views that cause my blood to boil become possible to hear from when they are speaking in their own voice in the room with people who disagree. There’s something about having to face other people impacted by your own argument that softens, expands, and explains to a different degree than the online world or even the written word that’s not built in conversation.
Op/Eds are not conversations, they’re screeds.
I enjoy the long form, asynchronous conversations that Letters has provided. It’s a different type of communication that feels like it was common and now, not so much.
Thanks for jumping in this month.
Funny that you should say “You can’t dance with someone who walks on the floor with the purpose of making you look bad”. I think of conversation as a dance where both people have to be willing to move back and forth, even if there is a stumble from time to time. It’s also similar to something I’ve often said about trying out new things at work. “You can play by new rules if everyone insists on playing the old game.”
Speaking of games, I’ve finished playing The Last of Us Part I this week (4th time through) and have started on Diablo IV. Gaming has become much more acceptable than it was when I was a teenager in the 80’s. Still get weird stares from a lot of people, but not as many now. Like anything else it’s a hobby and I would guess closest to reading — though more interactive. During the Covid lockdowns it was gaming that allowed me to travel to far-flung places and other worlds to escape.
This week I’d like to focus on changing some of my habits. Some work for me and others don’t. My task is to identify the cues that cause a bad habit to kick in and leverage that into a new habit. There are some where it feels like the cue is just the day. “Oh, it’s Monday night so off to the supermarket for a bag of chips.”. I’ll need to be a bit more precise if I’m going to shift things in the right direction.
Tomorrow (if not Wednesday) is going to be a hard day. As a family we made the decision yesterday that it’s time to let our 15 year-old dog Sam pass on. His health has deteriorated over the last 12 months and is accelerating. Most of the time he looks miserable and pleading. Sam came to us at 4 years-old as a second time rescue dog. We believe his first owner abused him and his second was a single male who, because of the way Sam had been treated, wasn’t able to connect to him. I can understand that. For years, Sam would not even come near me. Originally an outside dog, I found out the girls had been letting him inside during the afternoon, and then swooshing him out before I came home from work. Now, he’s as indoor as they get. I’m glad we’ve been able to give him a better life than he started with. If only everyone’s life could work out that way — getting better all the time.
It’s funny — I fit all the trappings of a gamer as a mid-30s white guy in tech who was an absolute nerd my entire life. But, I actually stopped playing games around high school. I remember selling all of my video games to buy a guitar. It didn’t feel like a statement moving away from gaming. In the past, I’ve taken creative license in this re-telling to claim that I was making some kind of move to make myself more attractive or fit in better or something in a self-deprecating way. But honestly, I was just less and less interested in games, even as an avid Nintendo Power reader and someone who woke up to play RPGs for an hour before school, and more and more interested in music. I think it was less about rejecting being a nerd — I couldn’t shed that identity with all the money, dedication, and time in the world. I think it was more about being lonely, and gravitating toward thing that were more social. Playing guitar was something I could do with my band (I started just singing and learned guitar to add that to the mix). Playing video games, at that time, was not something easily done with friends. I wonder if I would have made different choices if I grew up when online gaming and voice chat and all of that were around.
Habit changes are so hard. I have been on a mission to be more healthy since the start of COVID, really jump-started in part from my dad’s heart attack that happened in the first year of the pandemic. I’ve found it’s easier to build new affirmative habits — “start doing this” — then to discard bad habits — “stop doing that”. It’s especially true when the new pattern I want to establish takes something from being an easy default to something that requires attention, intention, and energy. Adding “start going to volleyball” is a lot easier than “stop eating a full pizza every time something bad happens as a coping mechanism”. I hope you find some success in changing your habits. I’ve made it at least part of the way, but I’m currently in a back slide. What I’m thinking about now is how I may need to do more to do less. If it’s easier for me to start something new, maybe I need to fill my time and energy with new things to crowd out what I want to stop. If there’s no time for bad habits, I won’t do them.
Letting go of a loved one is hard. I grew up with a golden retriever/yellow lab mix Martina, from the time I was about 5 until I was about 19. She had a really tough last couple of years, but I think overall had more good than bad in that time. It was very hard to let her go. When I was 24, my partner and I got a dog together, Gracie. She’s now starting to show some real signs of aging, and it’s been really hard on us. The vet visits increase, the vet bills increase, and although she’s absolutely still having a happy life, it’s also clear that there’s less quality. She’s able to do less and is motivated to do less with the passage of time.
Sam knows he is loved, and Sam had a life that was better because you and your family were a part of it. I don’t think that’s enough, but it’s something.
My gaming took the opposite track to you in the early days. Funnily enough, games then were 2 player at best and unlike the Internet multi-player games we have now - which I tend not to play. In the days of the Commodore 64 we’d sit around and take turns. There was also a large social aspect in “swapping games”.
We were lucky to have the C64. Dad won it at work as a prize for sales I think. That wasn’t his job, but I expect in early 80’s few knew what the prize was. And it was a doozy. A Commodore 64, TV, printer and 5.25” drive.
Fair to say the opportunity was my gateway drug into my career.
I got back into tabletop role playing a year or so before Covid. I’d wanted to play again for a long time. With nobody to play with I headed into my local gaming store and asked if there was a game going. I enjoyed it very much. As an adult there was so much more I could bring to my characters. Covid and anxiety had me pull out. I was playing and DM’ing. It became too much. As a DM playing on Sunday afternoons, not thinking about the game all week until the next Sunday morning and then politely swearing to oneself is a sign of too much. I’m reluctant to get back into it because I’m concerned I’ll end up leaving again at short notice and that’s not fair on others.
I like your guitar story. Justified embellishments aside, were you that self aware of the decision at the time? I’m not sure that I would have been. Hobbies are wonderful things. We each get deep into what calls us and that’s often to the bewilderment of others. They can bring us together in weird and wonderful ways.
Two of my workplaces have had a “What was good last week?” check-in and depending on the cohort in the meeting I’m met with crazed looks or murmurs of appreciation.
Changing habits. Let’s not mention that.
I think my awareness on guitar went as far as this: I am enjoying playing music with friends in all forms, whether with my nascent band at the time or in jazz band and wind ensemble at school, while the video games feel less and less present to me. It just wasn’t a thing I was reaching for with my friends or a thing I much felt like talking about or engaging with anymore. My love of computers didn’t change, and this was an era of all kinds of horrible skinning you could do on Windows and futzing with Linux desktop and the like. But games just fell away, maybe because of shifts in friends or just shifts in priorities. I don’t think the awareness extended to “this is a thing I can do with my friends now” but it definitely was an awareness of “this is a thing that I love doing that energizes me, that is not”.
My early computers was not from the Commodore 64 days— I was at the very early Windows 3.11 Gateway 2000 club. The new hotness was the CD-ROM drive where I had Dinosaurs and Encarta and I spent tons of time browsing through both.
Things come and go. Sometimes I like cooking, sometimes it feels like a chore. Sometimes I like playing guitar, other times I haven’t picked it up in a few months. I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it, but I do try and remind myself that these things bring me joy, and sometimes I don’t feel like doing something because I haven’t done it in a while. Sometimes, I’ve forgotten what things mean to me, and I have to force myself out of a bit of a slump. The activation energy is hard, because remembering the joy can be really tricky.
I think you should head back to the TTRPG world. Just take it easy. I have found that it was way too easy to leave things behind due to COVID that I actually don’t want to leave behind. It has taken real effort to re-introduce those habits and hobbies, but also a great reminder of why they’re important. You need to fill that bucket up. Maybe being a DM is just not a thing that you can keep doing at this stage, or maybe joining an existing campaign will make you realize how much you miss it and give you the motivation to not feel like DMing is Sunday anxiety and drudgery. Or maybe you should try something like a trading card game or board games to see if that can generate a similar joy and social connection without the pressure of DMing each week. I think part of why I have moved away from, and stayed away from, video games is because most of the games I liked were huge commitments. I just didn’t have the energy to play like that anymore, and that’s why it became a chore.
I will likely get back into D&D soon. Once a few things settle down at work I’ll have a bit more energy to play.
Hobbies come and go. I’ve known that for a long time. I’ll have interest in one, then move to another, and another, eventually coming back to the original. Often I max out on one as it has my interest, then I move one.
I’m a couple of days late on this one. Will just make it within the month of June. Time since the Covid lockdowns has been weird. I had a keen sense of time beforehand and that has gone now. Getting older brings with it the sense of time going quicker. What I’ve lost is my sense of distance with time. An event that’s 2 weeks away feels like it’s later than something 3 months away. Makes me a little sad. Makes it hard to look forward to something.
Today has been a long time in the car. 5 hours as I headed NW to visit a couple of clients and return home. Good audiobook time. I’m listening to “Three Body Problem” off the back of the Netflix trailer. I read the book just 18 month ago and couldn’t have told you what it was about (yeah, ok maybe there is a pattern here) but the memory is returning as I listen to it. Years ago I would have dismissed audiobooks. Now I enjoy them, blending with my Kindle reading and my podcast listening. There is something different about a story being told to you. The slower pacing, even for a book I’ve read, means I often pick up nuances I missed first time around.
I will write up some thoughts on our letter writing in a separate blog post and send you a link when done.
Thanks for the conversation, David
It’s funny, I have been talking a lot about the Three-Body Problem lately. Must be due to the trailer. The idea of the dark forest haunts me.
I have never been able to get fiction audiobooks to click. I listen to tons of podcasts, and I can listen to some non-fiction audiobooks (sped up), but my mind drifts while listening to fiction. For some reason, it doesn’t stick, even though I much prefer to read fiction. I think it’s that slower pace causing me not to focus on details I missed, but instead, drift into the my own thoughts.
One hobby I’ve been dong a bit more of lately is cooking. Of course, I am always at least cooking sometimes. What I’m doing now is taking care when I cook. I’m not slapping cold cuts on cold bread. I’m spending that extra time making a small sauce, toasting my bread, chopping veggies to go inside of it. I’m just being a little less lazy about my food. It feels good. Sometimes I forget that it takes less than 10 extra minutes to make something that’s twice as good.
Sorry I’m late on this response.
Last weekend, this time, I was pretty certain our older dog Gracie had just days to live. She’s home now, comfortable, after 3 nights in the ER followed by a couple of days spending 8am to 6pm at the vet. She’s reached the point where she’s not going to get any better, but she’s mostly stable and seems to still have some time with reasonable quality of life. Thankfully once she was home for a couple of days and out of the anxiety of the overnight pet ER and vet, she seems to be about 80% her normal self. We have to give her fluids at home and she’s on a host of medication. But she’s eating, she still likes going for walks, and she loves us.
All that to say, I’m a bit late at least in part because other than work, the gym, and volleyball, I have done little else lately. My thoughts are, well, preoccupied.
Thanks for chatting with me in June.
In 1988 I was an exchange student in Denmark. During my 12 months away I would have written and received over 150 letters in each direction, each penned by hand. Phone calls were expensive and had to be scheduled by letter in advance to cover off on the different timezone between Australia and Denmark.
Since then, the only letters I have written involve business transactions in some way.
Throughout June 2023 Jason Becker and I wrote eight letters back-and-forth between us (four each). These are my reflections on that experience.
Our letters were via email and we constrained ourselves to one each per week. The artificial timing matched the timing we would have expected if we lived in the same town instead of on opposite sites of the planet. I found that I wanted to rush the conversation forward faster, compounded partially by following Jason’s blog and Mastodon posts. Email gave me the means which I ignored.
There was something more than time involved in my desire to push forward. Our conversation felt like it was stuttering and couldn’t get traction. To write a letter of meaningful length prevented the one line question or clarification that would occur in a face-to-face conversation. The conversation was transmit-receive-transmit rather than the dance of conversation we spoke of in Week 1 and Week 2.
Beyond that initial exploration of why conversation was important to us and our participation in the exercise, I deliberately chose to stay out of the meta conversation about the letter writing and let that happen.
Now that we are done, will we write again? Possibly, but not in the same week about format. I’m conscious of Jason’s time and him giving it to the next person who wants to participate. This is one area where social media and forums work well. People are able to drop in and out of conversations as it suits them. So, I’ll keep in touch with Jason by commenting on Mastodon.
Another byproduct of the week about writing was a block on topics going to their natural conclusion. I felt there was more to say on some topics, and more to listen to, yet I felt compelled to add something else to get the value of my digital postage. Most of our letters as you can see here are approximately the same number of paragraphs. Certainly for me that’s the length of conversation where I started to feel uncomfortable not having immediate feedback.
I’m glad I put my hand up to play as pen pals for a while. It was nice getting to know Jason better and to have an opportunity to explore some of my thinking.
How often do we forget that a conversation in public has audiences besides the interlocutor? ↩