Benjamin Caro

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Writing

And the myth of the insightful workshop

Gianluca Antonini

The babble of the fish tank trickles next to me. The desk is a dump of discards, a haphazard depository. Even my chair sticks out insolently from the desk.

There doesn’t need to be candlelight or the right soft angle of the sun (seems like light could be important to me, huh?), the right sound bed or the right tabletop. Did Newton or Da Vinci have the “perfect” spaces to allow their minds to come to inhuman insights? Or is that an embellishment that we’ve romanced out of them? There are reports on famous routines: Socrates’ four-hour sleeps, the 20 cups of coffee, even Franklin’s early-to-bed-early-to-rise. For these famous prescriptions, where does the legend end and the fiction begin?

I thought to clean my desk before sitting down to work so that my mind could allow for uninterrupted insight, but if I had, I suspect that all I would have accomplished is a cleaner desk, and less time for insight.

The Myth of the Insightful Space

I want to view these creators’ milieu as larger than my own life, as if their oil lamps and sepia-tinged existence granted them some ancient powers of insight. That would certainly excuse my mediocre level of contribution to the world. Though routines and spaces might help, I suspect their achievements came to them through the same means they come to the modern high-achievers we see often in the news today: through grit, discipline, and a frame of curiosity.

In fact, I bet their work came in spite of their surroundings, not because of them. It’s fun to imagine Galileo in a bronze-adorned studio with astrological designs swirling over the walls, but I imagine he might’ve worked under filthy conditions, dust and disease. But still, he worked.

Do I really have an excuse because my desk isn’t clean enough? Because there are too many fluorescent lights? I thought to clean my desk before sitting down to work so that my mind could allow for uninterrupted insight, but if I had, I suspect that all I would have accomplished is a cleaner desk, and less time for insight.

Who knows. I might’ve not written at all.

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I like to describe Medium as YouTube for text. There’s a big community of writers running on on likes, comments and engagement, hoping their writing pushes through the noise. Because it’s the brainchild of one of Twitter’s founders, there is a vast majority of writing about startups, tech and digital nomad-tinged life advice. This is why when I wanted to write a satirical piece about an iPhone app that rates and organizes your photos, I chose to publish it on Medium.

The Roll is admittedly a pretty neat app that assigns your photo an “aesthetic score” and then describes your photo using keywords. The best photo on my camera roll, a picture of my girlfriend exploring the rocks on a beach, scores a 96%. I decided to test The Roll to see how it would do with a “random sampling” of photos pulled from the internet. I posted the score and keywords it assigned them. As you could guess, my “random sampling” includes some instantly recognizable famous photos, known for not only their aesthetic beauty but for their political and historical impact.  Here’s a sampling from the piece:

Kevin Carter, "the vulture and the little girl"

Kevin Carter, “the vulture and the little girl”

Aesthetic score: 35%
Keywords: animals, field, livestock, grass, nature, landscape, herbivorous, outdoors, day, grassy, brown, rural scene, selective focus, animal, beauty in nature, tranquility.

While The Roll is able to detect the “beauty in nature” this photo exhibits, The Roll is unable to comment on the responsibilities of Western journalists in the third world, their conflicting roles as both objective documentarians and active players in the horrors in front of their lenses; nor quantify the tragic consequences of photojournalism in the public sphere. But it’s early. Looking forward to the next update.

The story behind the vulture photo is disturbing, one of the reasons that the photo matters. Check out the full article  on Medium for more misguided photo analyses, and my conclusion of whether technology will eventually be able to replace humans when it comes to judging visual art.

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1. You’re cooking on the stove and a GREASE FIRE breaks out. What do you do?

a) Cover the pan with a lid, smothering the flames.

b) Try to eat the food, even though it’s clearly mostly burned. End up ordering pizza.

c) Take your family out to McDonald’s.

d) Take your family out to an especially nice restaurant. When your spouse asks you why you chose such a nice place, try to pretend it’s not to an apology for all the times you might’ve ruined dinner before, or any time she’s gone to bed disappointed with you, in want.

 

2. You head to The Cantina, your favorite college bar, with a couple of girlfriends. You’re talking to this cute guy Brett who you’ve been eyeing during 2nd Semester Spanish. After putting your margarita on the bar, you head to the bathroom. When you return and continue sipping, you feel suddenly lightheaded and drowsy. Hay carumba, you think. Something must be wrong. What do you do?

a) Better make that next one a vodka soda.

b) Better make that next one a vodka soda, and a water.

c) Grab your girlfriends. You’ve been drugged. While you can, tell them you think Brett was the one that drugged you. But please, don’t say anything to him. You don’t want to be that girl. I mean, you‘d totally lose your chances with him, whether it was true or not.

d) ….


3. You wake up in your bed at 4 a.m. after only two pathetic hours of sleep, and notice the thick, metal ceiling fan 10 feet above your forehead beginning to rattle. Dust drips down from the corners of your room. You are encased in overwhelming dread as you realize what is happening: there is an EARTHQUAKE. Your girlfriend next to you turns on her side and looks you in the eye. She asks, “Do you even care that I can‘t sleep right now?” What do you do?

a) Say, “How was I supposed to know that? I was asleep.”

b) Whisper, “Of course I do. I was so worried about you that I wasn’t able to sleep myself.”

c) Scream, “Jesus Christ. Is it always about you? We have to get out of here. There is an earthquake happening!”

d) Lean in, silently wrapping your arm over her side, and pull her in close.

 

4. 8th grade. Middle school. Do you remember it? A CHEMICAL FIRE breaks out from a freak explosion in the chemistry lab. Kids are running down the hallway dripping in bright blue flames, clutching their backpacks as if trying to catch the bus. You look down and some of the fire has been thrown onto your pant leg. Jessica is watching you, horrified. God, you remember Jessica. The flames creep up your pants, and as you look at her, her luscious, plump skin, her cleavage peeking rhythmically over the top of her shirt (as she tries to inhale the remaining oxygen from the room), your loins become enveloped in the chemical heat. Your heart feels like it is on fire. What do you do?

a) Take a deep breath. There’s nothing to worry about. Your body’s just going through changes you may not understand right now.

b) Make a joke about it. Girls like jokes, right? Have you heard the one about being burned alive.

c) Whatever you do, do not let her look down at your pants. She will run, screaming, and will never forgive you for expressing your true desires.

d) If the fire has not spread to any of your other clothing, strip off your pants. Make out with her right there on the hard, linoleum floor, writhing among the casualties.

 

5. You and three coworkers get stuck in an elevator. One of them is Brad, which is terrible, because you’ve been avoiding him ever since you slept together after the office Christmas party and he moved back with his ex-wife a week later. Between the four of you, all you have is two pieces of granola, a cigarette, a lighter, a travel mug. You have no idea how long the elevator will be out of order. You need to ensure your survival and get help. What do you do?

a) Hit the “emergency” button. After about an hour, it becomes clear that no one is coming to help. This stresses you out, so you smoke the cigarette. Brad gives you a look, because that asshole knows you’ve tried to stop smoking before.

b) Midway through the cigarette, Brad gets the idea to set off the smoke alarm with the lighter. You curse yourself for not thinking of such an obvious solution. You only started smoking again because of his ex-wife bullshit. Now he’ll certainly get the Account Manager job instead of you. Unfortunately for Brad—but you’re not sure you mind—he couldn’t get the lighter to set off any alarm. Serves him right.

c) Twenty-four hours pass. Two of the coworkers have urinated in the crack between the elevator and the door to your disgust. All four of you sit on the floor among the stink, and Brad is beginning to look sincerely fatigued. You know, relationships are tough, scary, all of them. As Brad sits against the wall, his knees facing skyward, his eyes closed to the fluorescent lights beating down from above, the sweat beads are undeniable. Surveying your inventory you begin to think, Wow, this travel mug is useless in this situation. Why was it even mentioned? Why are we locked in here? You begin to believe it is some sort of design. You, Brad, and the other two guys did something to deserve this. What did you do? You must all tell each other. You begin to spurt out everything you’ve ever done wrong, anytime you were confused and scared, anytime you felt unsafe in your own skin, looking into the eyes of a friend. The hours pass. Brad interrupts you. “I’m done listening to you.” “Screw you, Brad,” you say. He says, “Fine, but I want a turn to confess, too.” You say go ahead. This should be good. “The first mistake that comes to my mind is how I treated you,” he says. “I never should’ve gotten rid of you like that.” You immediately look at your feet, tucked barefoot under your skirt. “I didn’t know how I felt about you. It was scary. If I wasn’t so reckless with my actions, with my feelings, we would never be locked in this elevator like this.”

d) You begin to feel for him. “It’s okay,” you say. “I was reckless, too.” You reach out your hand to him because you notice his eyes begin to water. “Don’t cry,” you say, because you believe you know the answer to the question that keeps repeating, over and over. You get on your knees, and crawl to him. You gently rest your hand on his shoulder and with your other hand reach into his left pocket. Inside his pocket is a sheet of paper with a combination of numbers and letters lying upside-down at the bottom of the page. It’s the answer key. He had it all along. You just had to reach in and get it out of him. The elevator melts away, and for the first moment in a long time, you finally feel safe.

—–

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Still, my heart. Do not
Try to love this thing.
It is a dead end, dead
Before the chance, before
Even the touch of regular air.

Still, my body. Do not
Work too hard to give this baby.
Water on a brick
Does not grow flowers. The brick stays a brick,
And cracks when it falls.

Still, my mind. Do not
Panic at this dead chunk inside.
They’re working to remove it,
And after, you can shed yourself
Of this tumor inside.

Still, my I. But my I can’t help but wonder why
And mourn a dead, just a little pound
Spilling out: My dear daughter,
First try, first kiss, my first love now blacked.
Heavy hole, and the next I fear will be another blank

Weight inside, another bad egg and another,
And instead of trying again, the terror of
This cancer will linger and tumors will continue,
And instead of two it will just be me,
Forever alone filled with tumors, my husband forever alone.

Still, I can’t let that feeling become. I will
Push against despair, because I know
Life continues, so
My heart, my body, my mind,
Be still: and push, push, push.

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Erin I want you to know that
Don is tryin’ to get a hold of you
We all are I think, I think so

None of us seen you in three days now
behind the gas station where they throw out donuts or
the alley with the dogs where
we ain’t woken by cops you know
the place. And then

Angie thinks you might’ve gone off
with that dope dealer fuckhead
but you told me on Tuesday that wasn’t
part the plan, so

I’m just wondering where you sleeping.
Cause you know

you’re not too old yet, you’re not the rest ‘us, or
maybe you are cause what I heard is you
been through it too – Bobby said
You swung the door out when you fled your house
so your daddy had to shut it himself.

And Derek you know the guy
who works at the store Derek says you
went home, probably, but see
he don’t know why you left,
he don’t know that you don’t want to be
touched no more, and you’re never goin back
just like all us out here.

I’m just worried is all, so
if you get this, if you hear any of us, just know
Don is trying to get a hold of ya, Erin.

Just want to know where you’re at.

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I always tell friends
when I’m helping them move

Three things that cause people the most stress
are death, divorce, and moving

I think it helps.

And with that logic

If a friend of mine dies, I’ll make sure to tell myself
Hey man, don’t worry about it

People get stressed about this.

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