Am I the only one who goes back to read my old comments on online forums?

I’ve been active to varying degrees on a few different websites over the years (no, I’m not saying which ones—those things are pseudonymous for a reason!), and most commenting systems have the option to look at all of the comments made by an account at once.  A few years ago, I mentioned to a colleague that while commenting online includes being part of a conversation, it is also something like a mirror.  It was difficult to explain what I meant by that, but I think I had the review function in mind: going back (sometimes years, in the case of a few websites I’ve spent way too much time on), I can see a clear picture of who I was, what I was doing, and what my thoughts were.

As I mentioned before, I was once a regular journal-keeper and diarist, recording my thoughts for posterity.  Part of the appeal of journaling is the idea that someone in the future might want to read your writing, perhaps because your thought process and opinions would be worth knowing, or at least because your observations are clear enough to give an accurate picture of the world you live in, for history’s sake.  In that sense it’s just a few drafts away from being a memoir, composed one day at a time.  There’s also the more immediate pleasure of revisiting your own thoughts: very often I’ll encounter a detail in my writing that I had completely forgotten, and the written word will cause a flood of memories.

Reading my comments online can be like that, but very often it’s less like a diary and more like the conversation books left by Beethoven’s visitors late in his life: because of the composer’s deafness, visitors had to write their side of the conversation for him to read, leaving a record of only half the discussion.  It’s one thing to reread a comment that contains a fully-formed opinion and think, “Ah! Yes, that sums it up!” or “I remember that!”  It’s quite another to look at a comment reading “I agree!” (or, God forbid, “LOL”) and not remember what it was in response to, or read a comment that was obviously a real zinger in context, knowing it was part of a very funny comment thread, but falls flat or simply makes no sense in isolation.  Online interactions may be saved on servers forever, but not all exchanges were meant to be timeless: sometimes you just had to be there.

Taking part in online conversations has also helped me to sharpen and clarify my opinions: one can hardly write anything on the internet without facing disagreement, so writing (and defending) opinions, and accepting that others will see things differently, is an excellent spine-strengthening exercise.  I’ve seen more than one forum poster claim that taking part in the forum helped them to become a better writer, and to the extent that participating helped them solidify their point of view and express it clearly, I believe it.

Of course, all of this assumes a certain level of civility, not always easy to come by online.  I’m not sure the internet has truly lowered the level of discourse, as is sometimes claimed, or if it just allows us to see more of it than we would normally encounter without the flood of information coming to us through Facebook, Twitter, et al.  (And of course, even traditional media outlets now expect that their audience will want to talk back, a development that is mostly positive but which is also an open invitation to kooks everywhere.)  I avoid the comments sections of news sites like I would avoid bad neighborhoods; I resist the quixotic urge to correct every misinformed thinker I encounter online.  In retrospect, there are a few occasions I wish I had spoken up, but mostly I just get worked up and agitated arguing with people I don’t even know, and the well of ignorance sometimes seems bottomless: arguing with people could be a full-time job, and for some people it apparently is. I’ve come to believe that strong moderators are essential for preserving lively discussion without descending into flaming and abuse, especially in the early going; after a forum has been around a while, with a number of regular posters, a tone is established, in general set by the content of the site and the guidelines set by the moderators.  To state the obvious, speech online isn’t that different from everyday speech: you aren’t free to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  The website isn’t “censoring” anyone: as a private enterprise, it is free to set its own standards of conduct.

I’m not as active in forums as I once was, and for some of the same reasons I don’t journal: I don’t have the time, and If I’m going to spend time writing I’d rather put the energy into something more permanent.  Being able to comment online is like having a bar or coffee shop in your home, open twenty-four hours a day, where you can always get into a conversation (or pick a fight).  That’s a strong temptation, and for most websites it comes hand in hand with a continuous flow of new content to spark discussion.  In that sense it’s not that different from the way I used to watch television, but it can feed into the feeling that I need to be entertained every moment, that I can never be alone with my thoughts.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way (witness the productivity programs whose selling point is the ability to lock you out of your email and social media so you can get some work done); it’s a battle I keep waging, even if I know I’ll be more successful some days than others.

Introduction

Welcome to my blog!  To explain what Medleyana is, it’s probably easier to explain what it isn’t.  Medleyana is not going to be a personal diary.  When I was a young boy I kept a diary, and I did my best to stay true to the “daily” aspect of the root word dies, even going so far as to backtrack and write entries for days I skipped writing, until I was trying to remember what I had been doing on days weeks before to catch up, and the whole thing started to seem ridiculous.  Life sometimes moves too quickly to record everything.

As a teenager, I tried again, this time with a “journal,” which sounded more serious and grown up to me, and which I told myself I wouldn’t feel compelled to write in every day (even though its root word, jour, also implies a daily use).  I would only write in it when I had something to say.  In addition to personal reflection, I wrote about musical or literary projects I was involved with, explored my creative process, and recorded my reactions to books I read and movies I watched.  With that freedom in mind, I was able to keep a journal into my late twenties; I might go weeks or months without writing, but when I did I felt confident I was creating something substantial instead of simply recording mundane details out of a sense of duty (although there were also plenty of mundane details recorded along the way).  The only real restriction I placed upon myself was that I wouldn’t go back and change or erase anything from a previous day: it would be a record of the moment, not an exercise in hindsight.

The end of this journaling phase came one day when my composition professor pointed out that I was spending more time and energy recording my ideas about writing music than actually composing.  At the time, I couldn’t deny the truth of that: I’ve always enjoyed talking shop with other composers and creators, and reading and writing about the process, and when you’re doing that it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being creative and doing great work without actually finishing anything.  Perhaps that insight should have led me to change my major to journalism or creative writing, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and I put the journal away and committed to pouring that energy into music.

So why blog now?  In part, my life has changed so much since then that I feel more confident I can balance creative work and commentary; a few years ago, I made a conscious decision to focus on finishing smaller projects so that I didn’t have a new piece only once a year, and these short articles fit right into that ethos.  Also, a public blog is quite a different matter than a personal diary: I hope to begin a discussion, and my focus will be on aesthetic issues rather than my personal life or what I had for breakfast.  I won’t deny that shifting my work to the internet age has been awkward for me: I’m not too old to use computers by any means, but just old enough to be uncomfortable with the “share everything” spirit of the twenty-first century.  I can be a perfectionist, which is okay, but it has led me to keep a lot of work under wraps that I should probably just release to the world and accept that some of it will be liked, some disliked, and a great deal ignored.  That is simply the way things are now.

Perhaps more importantly, I am no longer teaching in the classroom.  In addition to teaching music theory and aural skills (ear training), the bread and butter of composers who are otherwise unemployable, I spent several years teaching music appreciation and music literature.  These classes were wonderful arenas for discussion and exploration (on my part, at least, even if students dragging themselves in at 8:30 am didn’t always feel that way), and I now find myself in need of a comparable outlet.  (Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with rhetoric about the internet being the world’s biggest classroom, or anything like that, nor do I mention my teaching experience to claim any special authority: on the internet, I’m just another voice.)

Okay, Medleyana isn’t a diary, or a classroom syllabus.  What is it?  I’ve subtitled it “In Praise of the Eclectic,” which sums up my interest in “inclusive” aesthetics, artistic and musical styles that draw influence and ideas from lots of different sources.  My interest is twofold. First, I’ve always been a sucker for formats that bring a variety of items under one roof: anthologies, omnibuses, samplers, miscellanies, and medleys.  Second, I’m intrigued by artistic styles that do the same thing, but which may appear on the surface to be unified, either transformed by technique or by the strong personality of a single creator.  There will be more on these subjects to come.  And in that grab-bag spirit, I reserve the freedom to throw in whatever else I might feel like writing (convenient, no?), but I’ll use tags to keep things organized as we go.

I’ll leave this thought in conclusion: I try to approach eclecticism, both as an audience member and as a creator, with the kind of attitude attributed to the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki in an oft-repeated anecdote (this version of the story is from Sally Wendkos Olds’ A Balcony in Nepal):

 I remember a story I heard about a young monk who saw his teacher in the dining room reading a book while eating his lunch.  The novice stood quietly by the older monk until he raised his head from his book.  “Yes?” “Excuse me, roshi,” the young monk said.  “But in your teaching this morning, did you not tell us, ‘When you eat, eat.  And when you read, read?’” “Yes, of course, I did.” “But, roshi here you are eating and reading!” “Yes, of course,” the elder replied calmly. “When you eat and read, eat and read.”  And he went back to his soup and his book.