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July 07, 2005

Outer Life on Choice

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I recently enjoyed swapping emails with the blogger who calls himself OuterLife. Are there visitors to 2Blowhards who haven't yet discovered the pleasures of reading OuterLife? He's a phenomenon, to say the least -- one of the quirkiest and most original bloggers I've run across. No need to take my word for how good he is: Searchblog and Our Girl in Chicago are big fans of OuterLife's blogging too.

Here's a passage I cobbled together from a couple of his emails. OuterLife gave me permission to post the passage here:

Your "Choices" post is so issue-rich I didn't know where to begin. Here are a few more observations, FWIW:

1. Too much policy-oriented writing, whether left or right or libertarian or whatever, is too abstract. Icy cold ideas clash miles over our heads, almost completely disconnected from life as it's actually lived. I don't think the free marketeers are any different than the rest.

I was a young politico once, and after developing a perma-bruise on my forehead from beating it against the same wall over and over, trying to convince you to see it my way, I learned that people pretty much see things the way they want to see them regardless of the logic and force of my arguments. The whole enterprise was more about self-affirmation, surrounding oneself with like-minded head nodders, a massive exercise in group think. I was never one to sit in the stands and cheer for the home team, so I drifted away.

2. I never enjoyed music as much as when I could only afford to buy one record a month. I had to love that record, whatever it was, so I intensely researched each purchase, spending hours at our small local record store poring over albums, cadging a listen from the clerks, trying to get a sense for what I'd like from their limited stock. Even so, sometimes I never got into it, but by and large I managed through repeated and determined listenings to learn to love nearly everything I bought in those stingy days. I had to.

Then one day I was employed and an adult and I had enough money to buy multiple albums at a time, and Tower Records built a superstore near me. Woo-hoo! I went wild, buying records like they were going out of style (which, come to think of it, they were). When in doubt, ring it up!

And, of course, my enjoyment decreased. I no longer researched what I bought as assiduously. I spent less time getting to know what I listened to, flitting about like a bee from album to album. And my tastes changed, subtly, as I lost patience with difficult works and gravitated towards easier-listening melodic immediately-catchy stuff.

Eventually I stopped listening to much music at all.

Then a few years ago a friend introduced me to a piece and I put it in my car stereo and it lived there for three months. My old obsessive listening patterns re-emerged. From there I proceeded to relisten to my collection, culling out the best stuff and discarding the rest. I now limit myself to one CD a month, like in the old days, and it's made such a difference. I'm engaged with music again like I hadn't been before.

I am not sure the massive increase in the selection of music available to me had much to do with any of this, though. I think the issue was my ability to buy more, not the availability of more music, so I am not sure this odyssey is exactly the sort of journey you have in mind.

In fact, I am an enthusiastic Amazon consumer, having absorbed the assumption that whatever book or CD or DVD I want is immediately available. So long as I limit what I buy, I don't see this selection as harmful at all.

3. Maybe the choice issue is all about limits. I feel my mortality (no, I am not sick or anything, I just have one of those Goth-like outlooks), so I question everything I do. Do I really need to spend a few hours of my life listening to this? Do I really want to spend a few weeks of my life reading that? Does my house really need another doo-dad over the mantlepiece? So often, when one thinks of the sands running down the hourglass, one becomes stingy with one's time, hoarding it for things that really matter. So I bought an Apple, not wanting to waste another minute dealing with Windows, I steered my food purchases to Trader Joe's, not wanting to wander another hour aimlessly through the Mega Mart.

4. I never watch TV, and I rarely read glossy magazines, so I am about as ad-free as one can be in our society. It's much easier to set limits, I suspect, when one is free from these expertly-crafted temptations.

I guess at the end of the day I'm agreeing with your antipathy towards choice, and I'm walking alongside you in the get-to-know-yourself walk, but I am very concerned that others' inability to control themselves will somehow limit my ability to do what I want to do.

I find OuterLife's ability to put his life under a microscope and to simply observe and describe what he finds to be quite amazing. His story about how the presence of a nearby Tower Records affected his enjoyment of music, for instance, is priceless. It's also typical of the kind of thing he manages to record on a regular basis at his blog.

Let me blurt this right out: I enjoy following OuterLife's blogging more than I ever liked reading the books of the hyper-praised author Nicholson Baker. Well, I did really love Baker's satirical-erotic fantasy "The Fermata," which I found hilarious and bizarre, and dirty-minded in a hard-to-resist way.

In a very general sense, OuterLife and Nicholson Baker are doing similar things: quirky and alert self-inspection, in a word. But for all his brilliance and his talent, Baker often drives me crazy with annoyance. He's such a hyper-focused, narcissistic, self-pleased control freak that I want to conk him one and then never speak to him again. The fact that Baker knows that he's a hyper-focused, narcissistic, self-pleased control freak -- and that he foregrounds these aspects of himself in his writing -- doesn't redeem him.

OuterLife scrutinizes the particulars of his life too, and he's as drawn to peculiarities as Baker is. Both writers enjoy palpating the air around them; they're taxonomists of close-in surfaces, including the textures of their own thought processes. And the results both writers generate can resemble in verbal terms the kind of art that scientist/naturalists produce: art that's so focused, so detailed, and so true to the facts that it takes on an almost surreal, dreamlike weirdness.

But OuterLife has a more searching temperament than Nicholson Baker does. And the ongoing-blogging format helps keep OuterLife's work open and affable. Baker's thought processes get tighter and tighter; at a certain point reading his books, I start to feel like I'm getting lost in Nicholson Baker's facial pores. To be frank, it's a place I don't care to visit. I understand that this effect is part of what fascinates Baker's fans. It puts me off, though.

Outer Life spends much of his writing time peering through microscopes and into mirrors, too -- but he can't help noticing how very much of the world his viewing devices reveal. Everything is perceived through him and his self, whatever that is, and through his own immediate experience. But his blogging ain't all about him. Even when it is, bits and pieces of life more generally keep breaking through.

Did I mention that he's also a very funny writer?

So get thee hither and treat yourself to some OuterLife. Something artistic and wonderful is happening there. The world seen through OuterLife's eyes doesn't look quite the same as it looks through anyone else's.



posted by Michael at July 7, 2005


Thanks for providing the answer to the quandry some of us "Outer Life" readers have had in the past month or so. Mr. OL's output had decreased and not one good answer was forthcoming to explain this.
Now we know.
It seems he's spent his writing energies communicating only with you! Share the wealth. Let him free. His readers are waiting for his return to the daily Life.
Thank you.

Posted by: DarkoV on July 7, 2005 3:51 PM

I agree that Baker is rather much of a muchness. (Even though he was a '79 college classmate, and uncharacteristically chose not to be photographed for the yearbook!) But his essay from the NEW YORKER (now in a collection of essays he published) on the unhappy demise of the catalogue-card system in libraries is wonderful.
And his mom would win praise from Sucher, Massengale et al.-- as she is on some sort of Rochester city planning/parks committee (her name, not surprisingly, is Ann Nicholson Baker).

Posted by: winifer skattebol on July 7, 2005 4:59 PM

Have you read The Long Emergency yet? Dell can sell us a laser printer for $99 because they're paying someone in China .02 to make it, and then using cheap oil to ship it to us. Problem, we may never see cheap oil again, although today's price will probably soon seem cheap.

In the US, we're something like 4% of the world's population, and we use 27% of the energy burned up every day. The US has 28 billion barrels of oil left in the ground, and we burn 7 billion per year. In the past, we've relied on our friends the Saudis to control inflation by pumping out more oil, but they can't do that anymore -- they've passed their peak. Meanwhile, 70% of everything sold at WalMart, the world's largest retailer by a factor of about a billion, is made in China, and we're also exporting sprawl and an auto industry to them. So they want more oil every day - like our own Unocal. And they own a large percentage of the US national debt, and we rely on them to buy future debt so we can hold interest rates down. It's a good thing we have good conservative financially sound Republicans running the country.

Uh oh,


Posted by: john massengale on July 9, 2005 8:13 AM

Hold on, so if Kerry had been elected, CNOOC wouldn't be trying to purchase Unocal?

Posted by: jult52 on July 11, 2005 1:40 PM

So, which boring liberal cliche is it: MB shouldn't buy cheap printer because Dell underpays (per 5th Ave' standards) poor exploited Chinese OR because evil new-capitalist Chinese' growing auto market/oil appetites are endangering our own consumption?

I guess Mr.Massengale copies his blog entries by hand and fires up his computer by portable [coal] corn-extracted ethanol plant. And uses pure bike power to get everywhere from his [farm in the woods] Upper East Side apartment...

Uh oh...

Posted by: Tatyana on July 11, 2005 9:54 PM

Our dependance on China: I'll let somebody smart explain it to the frightened:
J.Kemp @ TownHall

Posted by: Tatyana on July 12, 2005 10:57 AM

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