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To Recede Into AirPods 9 min read

To Recede Into AirPods

On how to engage with the world around you, plus student protests at Columbia, Oxford English Dictionary, Trump rallies, comedy, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

How do I want to interact with the world around me?

Seems almost too huge to be meaningful, but I’m thinking in concrete terms. Namely, what to do with my AirPods? 

Courtney and I were on a walk, enjoying the weather and rambling, digressive conversation, as most to which I’m a party tend to be.

At some point, I started trying to talk through this push and pull I feel when it comes to simply being in public. The crux of the problem is simple: I’ve grown accustomed to retreating inside the protective bubble creating by noise-canceling headphones. If too long goes by without them in my ears, I’m suddenly inside every nearby conversation and unable to tune out the din of everyday life. When put that way, it seems a reasonable solution to simply put on music or, more likely in my case, a podcast. Or sometimes just the noise-canceling nothingness. 

But then I thought about this quote from David Sedaris when talking about his diary:

“That’s the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.”

And the part of me that considers myself a writer, a chronicler of the life going on around me at various times, feels a bit ashamed by how desperately I cling to control the noise that goes into my ears. Let it be a pleasing song, not that baby’s shrill screams. Let it be one of any hundreds of podcast episodes queued up and waiting for me, not the obnoxiously loud guy mansplaining some video game. Let it be an audiobook, not a woman sharing her loss of faith in humanity after yet another terrible interaction on a dating app. I find these things exhausting, and I value the freedom to tune them out. 

But I don’t think Sedaris would find them exhausting. They’re the stuff stories and essays are made of. I should find them invigorating in some way, but all I find myself thinking is, “This seems rude to the rest of us. I can tell that my conversations with a friend don’t happen at that volume, in part because I don’t need to be that loud (who does?) and in part because I consider myself courteous of the others who came to the coffee shop that day and didn’t necessarily sign up to join my conversation.

I worry about it what it says about me, beyond the fact that a truly believe I have misophonia or some other noise-averse version of OCD. I worry about it making me a nameless, faceless member of society that goes through their days completely oblivious to those around them. I know that generational aversion to life was noticed in newsrooms when I was starting out: People my age and those younger by and large don’t like cold-calling strangers. It was seen by those older newsroom veterans as a deficit of my generation growing up with computers and the rise of texting, and there’s absolutely some truth to that. I feel like it is even stronger in the generations younger than I, when I work with them on their reporting. There are lots of search results related to Gen Z’s lack of social skills and the driving force in most of those articles is somehow connected to an over-reliance on technology and a lack of in-person interfacing. 

When I retreat into my headphones, I feel more antisocial than any Gen Zer ever dreamed of being, and here’s the thing: I’m perfectly content with myself. It’s made worse by the fact that love listening to podcasts. Can’t get enough of them. Time in a coffee shop alone is, arguably, the perfect time to crush some tape. But I undeniably miss out on a lot.

I’m stuck wondering: Am I really getting the affirmation of community in this way? Does it count if I use all my other senses to experience the hustle and bustle I so drastically lack in my work-from-home life? Is it enough to just see the people on their dates and study groups and work interviews, or do I need to hear them, too? I wonder.

My mom constantly comes to me with new stories of random people telling her their stories. She jokes, “I must just have a face that says ‘Tell me your life story.’” Sometimes they’re pointless meanderings, the detritus of everyday life shared by someone without anything better to do. Sometimes they’re overly personal and Mom’s left wondering, “Whyyyyy is this person sharing this much with me, a total stranger???” Sometimes, they’re heartbreaking stories from people who seem to need to get them off their chests. That’s always seemed like Mom’s curse, the face that brings these people out of the woodwork. She’s definitely of that older generation who doesn’t go around with AirPods in their ears constantly (though she’s got a pair somewhere at home), and likewise, those who chat her up are often of that older generation, too. But as I think about it, I feel the desire to want to keep that sort of thing alive. (I worded it in that convoluted way because I don’t feel the desire first and foremost; that’s reserved for the desire to run away from it all. But I want to want it, you know?) And I think there might be hope for me yet: If anything, I look a lot like my mom. Maybe mine, too, can be a face that says, “Tell me your life story.” The challenge will be getting the rest of myself to that place.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. Last week, I was trying to watch a movie on the Criterion Channel before it went off the service’s offerings, but I couldn’t give the film an honest shake. (It was John Cassavetes’ Husbands, if you’re curious.) I couldn’t focus because I was glued to Twitter watching updates about the NYPD’s dispersal and arrest of numerous Columbia student protestors. Since then, there’s been a lot of writing about the the Columbia protests and those elsewhere across the country, but it was a surprising treat to see New York magazine collaborate with the Columbia Daily Spectator for an inside account of the protests.
  2. On the topic of the protests, Zadie Smith wrote a great essay for The New Yorker on the language used in the protests that could very well be updated and applied to a lot of political topics.
  3. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve considered buying a compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I got obsessed with the idea at some point after reading that John McPhee had one in his office, and it seemed like something attainable whereas “writing like John McPhee” most definitely is not. So I loved this piece from Commonweal, a book review of The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary.It grew out of a notebook kept by a former editor that contained the names of reviewers and contributors (the OED was a crowdsourced project), and it’s a collection of short biographies of quirky word-lovers.
  4. Words have power. It’s such a simple concept that it’s easily overlooked. Sometimes I tune out what’s happening in the political realm, often because the words have taken on a cringey, eye-rolling tone. But this piece for The New York Times Magazine, written by a fellow alum of the Gillette News Record Charles Homans (now a political editor for the Times) reminded me of some of the actual words Donald Trump says at his rallies to his adoring supporters. They are genuinely shocking at times, and it’s important not to lose sight of that or become numb to it. As a style/design note: I loved how the Times used a format like hyperlinking not to redirect to another website but simply play the underlying audio of particular Trump quotes. It’s just a really nice integration of technology into a digital feature story.
  5. I learned about this interesting (potentially depressing?) story in Politico Magazine after Charlie Pierce blogged about it for Esquire. It’s about a new documentary depicting the events of January 6, 2021 from the vantage point of six workaday Washingtonians. The film was bankrolled by A24, but right before the movie was to premiere on Amazon Prime’s streaming service, it suddenly wasn’t. It could be seen if rented, but that’s not quite the same thing. A24 didn’t seem to be promoting the film through its normal channels (namely social media), and the article wonders what could be behind that? Is it the subject matter? Is it the possibility of another Trump presidency? Is it a downstream effect of the wayward film industry?
  6. I enjoyed Jerry Seinfeld’s interview on The New Yorker Radio Hour.It was ostensibly part of a press tour for his new movie Unfrosted (on Netflix), which was first brought to my attention by Seinfeld himself while at his standup show in Memphis, Tennessee, last September. He ended his show with his bit on Poptarts, which I (and probably the rest of my family) thought was fresh new material, but I later learned was a staple of his live show for a long time—see, this interview for The New York Times Magazine from 2012. He caused a lot of waves by saying that comedy had been eroded by “the extreme left” and “P.C. crap,” and a lot of the comments in response were taking shots at the new film (which, according to my mother (a regular attendee in the Church of Seinfeld), is not good), his eponymous hit show, or his standup material, which is famously banal (it inspired a “show about nothing” after all). I think he’s more than qualified to make statements on the state of comedy in our current culture, even if it doesn’t largely apply to his material. It’s not to say it never applies to his material. Back in September, in an otherwise tightly scripted show, I felt there were a few times that I could pinpoint the new stuff, and one topic was a short riff on the fateful Titan submersible voyage and implosion. He was not kind or P.C. in his material, but I can imagine a certain trepidation in him to try out the new material. As a scholar of the craft (and no serious person would suggest he isn’t), he takes in a lot of comedy, and I think he’s exactly the type of person we’d turn to in order to discern how, if at all, comedy has changed. Just made me sad to see how rightwing bozos leapt up and claimed his comments as if they came from a politician and how leftie critics skewered him as out of touch, bordering on “Old Man Yells at Cloud” territory.
  7. One more bit on the funny front: The excellent podcast Science Vs. attempted to figure out what the funniest joke in the world is, but do it, you know, scientifically. There’s a lot of great insight into that purest of reactions: human laughter. The jokes themselves don’t always land, and it gives a lot of credence to the fact that comedy is more art than science. But the science of humor and laughter is undeniably interesting.
  8. For a thoroughly depressing dispatch from the land of middle-school readers, this Slate piece looks at the overall sad state of affairs for the book publishing world but through the narrower lens of kids’ books. The part of me that taught reading in middle school finds this interesting, if not particularly new, and the part of me that works with college-aged writers found it interesting as a potential explanation for why writing competency has gone down (so goes the reading, so goes the writing).
  9. Loved this piece from The New York Review of Books on the glut of super skyscrapers in New York City.
  10. More love for Adam Moss’s new book, The Work of Art. I wrote about it on my blog, both when I first became aware of it in a real way(from Ezra Klein’s podcast) and from when I picked up a copy for myself. It’s a beautiful book, and I can’t say enough good things about it. Here’s Moss talking to NPR, Vanity Fair,The Creative Factor, and Vulture.

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

'The Work of Art' Is A Work of Art

Good Mail Day: Field Notes and New Yorker

Paul Auster on Radiolab

A Pocket Notebook Miracle

James Baldwin and Film

George Mallory's Notes From Mt. Everest, Digitized

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

4/29: The Sympathizer (2) (Max); Top Chef, S20(3)(Peacock); DEFENDING YOUR LIFE
4/30: The Sympathizer (Max); Top Chef, S20 (7)(Peacock)
5/2: Top Chef, S21 (4) (Peacock)
5/3: Top Chef, S21 (3)(Peacock); DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS (Peacock); Survivor, S46 (Paramount+)
5/4: Survivor, S44 (2) (Paramount+)
5/5: Survivor, S44 (9) (Paramount+)