I’ve been analyzing the response I get to opinions that I post on this site, and what’s interesting to me is that most opinions are polarized towards emphatic disagreement, or slow-clap-inducing agreement. I wondered why that was, so I started paying attention to my own writing a bit to see what correlation I could find. It’s probably obvious to most, but it wasn’t to me until a month ago: I state almost everything in a black or white manner. I either love the product, or think it’s a piece of shit.
So with statements, reviews, and sentiments expressed in such a way, the readership naturally becomes polarized towards my thoughts. This makes for very interesting interactions on social networks and my email inbox, but I digress.
Armed with this knowledge I started to think about why I lacked in one key area: the middle. In my writing there seems to be only black and white, so where’s the gray?
The immediate fear that leaped into my head was that I am Dan Lyons-ing myself. That is, intentionally being a jackass to serve up more page views and controversy.
So I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of my feelings on this, diving deep into thinking about why I write about things in such a black and white manner. I think I have it sorted now.
The other night I was washing a sink full of baby bottles and other baby related items and I reached for a paper towel. I grabbed the paper towel, pulled out a sheet, and did the old one-handed jerking motion to try and free the paper towel from the roll. As always happens, the paper towel holder tipped a bit, the towel tore, and the paper towel stand wobbled about until it found a new spot on the counter.
The thought that jumped into my head: I hate this fucking paper towel stand.
Then it occurred to me. Here is something that I say I hate with a vengeance, yet my wife and I have had this paper towel stand for close to 4 years now. It’s not fancy, it’s rather cheap, we could replace it at anytime — yet we haven’t. Instead it just annoys me everyday. On the surface it certainly does its job well: the paper towels are held up off the counter enough to be free from sopping up any water, the rolls spin on it, and it looks nice enough. In fact the only thing this stand really sucks at is allowing me to tear a sheet from it one-handed. So in fact this paper towel stand sits in the middle as an average thing in my life if you take everything into account, however, I hate it. I wouldn’t recommend it to my enemy. And yet, truly the paper towel stand is in the gray.
That’s when it dawned on me — when I finally figured out why I write in the black and white, the extremes — it’s not me being disingenuous about my feelings, it’s about discerning the most important part and analyzing that part. So while the paper towel stand truly is average, it also sucks at one primary function that effects me the most: allowing me to tear a single paper towel from it with one hand. For me, that’s the factor that matters most and the factor on which I will judge this item, only taking into consideration other factors if I am ambivalent on the things ability to perform the factor.
So the paper towel holder, is shit — even though if you listed out the “specs” for it, it would look fairly average.
Likewise, I recently traded in my BMW to get a Dodge Journey to fit our family better. It is, by all accounts, an average car. If you asked me if I would recommend it, I’d say no. Flat out, no. It’s not a good car. However, it is a very good car for my family — just not for me.
I judge a car on how it drives, the Journey drives like shit compared to the BMWs I am used to owning. How a car drives is the most important thing to me in a car, however in life the most important thing to me is my family — so I bought the car that best worked for our family, but I still think it sucks.1
I’ve thought long and hard about how and if I should change my writing based on this insight. I don’t think I will, because that wouldn’t be me being honest and to me that is the factor for my writing here on this site.
What I do think needs to change, the thing that I’ve failed to be clear about, is which factor of any given thing is most important to me and therefore the factor that I will be weighting my judgement on something. I hope to be more clear about this than I have been in the past.
If you’ll excuse me, I need a new paper towel holder.
Update: Don’t read this as me changing the way I write. I just want to be more clear going forward.
For the record it actually is a nice family car, but I get zero joy from driving it. ↩