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Random Ramblings

The Iceberg

I have a love-loathe relationship with social media. I’ve met some incredibly cool people through it, but for every one of them, there’s a hundred randos and spammers. There’s an abundance of cute animal content, but for every snoring Frenchie, there’s an ill-founded political screed. Social media is a wonderful place to discover books and writers, and it’s critical for promoting my own writing. But watching other writers celebrate their successes online—a two-book deal! A job on a TV staff! A great score on Goodreads!—always makes me feel like I’m behind in my own career.

If I didn’t know myself, and just looked through my Twitter and Instagram accounts, I’d probably think I was doing pretty well. I’d see pictures of my nice house and adorable dog, and the exciting places I’ve traveled. With my writing, the landmarks I’ve shared may sound like a dream for a first-time novelist: landing an agent and a lucrative publishing deal, getting a starred review from Booklist, being published in other languages, selling the TV rights.

But for every accomplishment, there’s been a setback. I struggle daily with my writing, and if anything, feel more insecure about my work now that I’m published than I ever did before. I’ve faced mental and physical health challenges that I don’t talk about online.

For every picture I post:

I probably delete two others that came out like this:

The horror of the front-facing camera.

I think of social media as an iceberg. People, including myself, tend to share maybe the top five to ten percent of what’s going on in their lives: the most flattering selfies, the beautifully plated meals instead of the late-night semi-congealed Kraft dinner.

It’s virtually impossible to spend time on social media without noticing that everyone else seems to be doing pretty darn well, and to feel in comparison like some sort of slimy, slow-moving slug (at least that’s how I feel). But when you see someone else posting about their great new job, or wonderful family, or chiseled abs (you know who you are, ab people), and wonder why you don’t have the same thing… stop, take a moment, and remember that you are seeing the tip of that person’s iceberg. You can’t judge others by the snippets they choose to share with the world. And you shouldn’t judge yourself by their snippets either.

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It’s okay to opt out

I have a confession to make. Several times a week, people will recommend things to me: books, TV series, movies, podcasts, articles. These things always sound interesting, and I always say “Ooh, that sounds so good! I’ll check it out!” And I mean it, I really do. I want to check it out. But the idea gets filed somewhere in the back of my mind, and 95% of the time, it stays there to die. I never actually get around to reading/watching/listening to said thing. I may even forget the title entirely, when my brain periodically empties its recycling folder. But what does stick with me is the sense of FOMO, and guilt, that oh yeah, there are all these things I should be reading/watching/listening to, and I’m not.

The thing about living in this Year of our Lord 2021 is there’s just so MUCH. So much of everything, more than there’s ever been. Take books, for example. With every year that goes by, we have all of the books that have ever been written in history available to us, plus the newest year’s worth of books coming out on top of them (of which there are record numbers, every year). Then the next year, there’s another year’s worth of books on top of that. How am I supposed to read The Vanishing Half when I’m still trying to catch up to the Renaissance?

It’s not just about time, but technology, and the rise in society’s standard of living over the decades: we now have more access than ever to content and information, but also to destinations to visit, causes to support, restaurants and recipes to try, museums to see, people to meet and keep in touch with through social media, workouts to do (we really don’t need any more workouts to do). Even the pandemic, as much as it’s slowed life down for many, has sped it up for others. For instance, I used to look for writer and reader events to attend at local bookstores and libraries. Now that most of these events have moved to Zoom, I have an entire world’s worth of events to choose from. All of this is wonderful, but it’s also overwhelming.

We’re told to opt in, lean in, be doers. Movies like Yes Man (still haven’t seen it) and books like Year of Yes (still haven’t read it) laud the life-changing power of the affirmative. And so much of what’s out there is enticing and important. So we cram our lives with as much as we can. We watch YouTube videos or lectures at double speed, listen to podcasts while driving and audiobooks while doing the dishes, and check social media while watching TV. We’re reading and learning more than ever, but what are we retaining? Our attention spans shorten and our understanding grows more shallow. I’ve noticed that, in the last few years, I literally read differently, skimming over the page for the gist and doubling back to anything important instead of truly absorbing each sentence one by one. It’s easier than ever to fall into the trap of considering yourself an expert on a topic when you’re not, having read only one article, or half an article, or even just a tweet. It’s also too easy to read a single sentence a person has said, out of context, and jump to judgment of that person. Our relationships are shallower, too. We can keep in touch through social media with people who would otherwise fade from our lives, but how meaningful are these relationships? Personally, I always feel guilty about how little of friends’ updates on social media I get to see, and how seldom I interact with their posts: relationships become one more overwhelming obligation.

While there’s more of everything else in the world, there’s still only so much of us. With finite life spans, and attention spans, we can cram more into our lives, but we’re really getting less of each thing. Opting in to anything—truly experiencing it—requires opting out of other things. While we champion the virtues of the yes, we also have to affirm the importance of saying no. It’s okay to preserve your time and energy so that you have more of yourself to give to the things that matter most. It’s okay to say that you haven’t seen that TV show, and accept that you’ll probably never see it. It’s okay to not join TikTok (BookTok, stop calling my name!).

And now WordPress is giving me a frowny face for readability and informing me that I have done insult to your attention span with this article, so… I’ll stop.

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The Real-Life Haunted Mansion

The Story of the Heck-Andrews House

The Heck-Andrews House as I remember it from childhood.
Image by Michael Zirkle Photography, copyright Raleigh Historic Development Commission

I’m in love with a building. It started when I was a child growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. Every time we’d drive through downtown, there was a certain house I couldn’t get enough of, craning my neck to see it as long as possible as we drove by. I didn’t know the house’s name or history then, but I knew that it was gorgeous and captivating: a stately Second Empire mansion with a dramatic tower and swooping roof, all in a state of tragic disrepair, with peeling pale yellow paint, boarded windows, and withered trees. The Haunted Mansion at Disney World was fun, but to me, this was the real thing. The house was more than just physically beautiful. It emanated a magnetic sorrow; it overflowed with secrets.

Image courtesy of Preservation North Carolina Historic Architecture Slide Collection

Years passed. I grew up, I moved away, I came back. And one day when walking downtown, just down the block from the Governor’s Mansion, I stopped short: there was the house. But the outside had been restored, with repaired carpentry and fresh paint. I decided to do some digging into the history of the house.

Photograph by Ian F.G. Dunn

Construction of the Heck-Andrews House began in 1869 for Jonathan McGee Heck, who made his fortune on bayonets in the Civil War, and his wife Mattie. In 1921, the attorney A.B. Andrews Jr. (who grew up in the neighboring Andrews-Duncan House) bought the house for his wife, but she died before taking up residence, and Andrews lived there alone until his own death.

The Andrews-Duncan House
Photo by J. Schwaller, Capital City Camera Club

Then in 1948, Julia Russell bought the house, where she lived with her daughter, Gladys Perry. She made few updates to it, which means a remarkable number of its original historical features are preserved, including the hodge-podge of gas, coal, and electric power mechanisms extant in the structure—there’s even a stockpile of coal still in the basement.

Photograph by Ian F.G. Dunn

It also means that the house fell into a continually deeper state of disrepair. In the 1960s, many of the gorgeous Victorian homes on Blount Street were razed for parking lots. A massive concrete public building went up directly behind the house. But the Heck-Andrews House remained unchanged. When Julia died in the 70s, Gladys remained as the home’s sole occupant.

Photograph by Ian F.G. Dunn

Gladys was known to have been a popular girl in her youth, who often went to dances and had numerous suitors. But she never married, and she lived out her years in the Heck-Andrews House alone. She became a figure of legend in the area, known to roam the streets (literally—the streets, not the sidewalks), digging through trash bins, wearing a black overcoat, dark wig, gash of red lipstick, and thick white pancake makeup that she hoped would get people to leave her alone if they thought she was a ghost.

Photograph by Ian F.G. Dunn

She hoarded the trash she collected inside her home, and locals recall foul odors coming from the house. A neighbor remembers that “Although she was certainly immersed in a strange twilight world of her own, we nevertheless had no sense that she was unhappy. On the contrary, she seemed gloriously cantankerous and strangely content.”

Photograph by Ian F.G. Dunn

The state wanted to buy the house, as it had with most of the others on the street. They made an offer in 1977, but Gladys and her brother, the co-owner, refused. When they offered again in 1984, the brother agreed to sell his share. But Gladys still held out, declining two further offers. Finally, in 1986, the city took the house by force. They condemned it, citing its derelict condition as a fire hazard due to the chemical labs they had built next door, and took ownership.

Photograph by Ian F.G. Dunn

When police entered the home in January of 1987, they found Gladys’s things piled chest-high throughout the massive house, with narrow pathways carved through. They made their way upstairs through decades of her belongings and the trash she had collected—old books, calendars, glittered dancing shoes—to find her in bed, hidden behind more trash heaps. The house was freezing since she didn’t pay for heat, and despite being immobile and visibly sick, she refused to let them take her to the hospital. Eventually, though, she gave in, and had to have several toes amputated due to gangrene from frostbite. The state moved her into a small apartment, and not long after, she died.

Photograph by Ian F.G. Dunn

After taking possession of the home, the state cleaned it of Gladys’s untold belongings by tossing everything into an industrial dumpster and carting it off. A local tells of a single box he managed to snatch from the trash. Inside were ephemera from the 1920s on, including Gladys’s handwritten poems and love letters, a souvenir from the 1939 World’s Fair, and an instructional air raid pamphlet from WWII. If all this was in just one box, it hurts to think of what other “trash” was discarded from inside the massive house without a glance.

The Heck-Andrews House in the 19th century
Image courtesy of North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), UNC-Chapel Hill

In the decades since the state acquired the house, preservationists have voiced concern at the new owners’ slow progress. They spent $1.2 million on exterior renovations beginning in 1999, but couldn’t afford to restore the interior. So the house continued to sit empty, falling apart, nearing a condition which would put it beyond repair.

After exterior renovations
Image by Michael Zirkle Photography, copyright Raleigh Historic Development Commission

In 2016, the house found its new savior. The state sold it to the N.C. Association of Realtors, which is currently undertaking renovations, with plans to use the building for offices and event space. They’re taking pains to preserve the history of the house in their restorations, and documenting the process on Instagram for those interested.

Image via Ethan Hyman, News & Observer

I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. But I do know that Gladys didn’t leave her house without a fight in life, and if she’s still here, I’m certain she wouldn’t have left it after death. There have been tales of ghost sightings at the house over the years, and a construction worker assigned to it reported feeling eerily cold inside the building—in summer, in North Carolina, with no air-conditioning. Gladys will be imprinted on her house forever, if only in our memories.

Image via visitraleigh.com

Comments about the house online are a testament to the strange and powerful hold it’s had on locals’ imaginations for decades. I’m okay with not being the Heck-Andrews House’s only lover. A house with this much beauty and history should be appreciated by as many as possible. While there was a wonderful morbid glamour about the pre-restoration Heck-Andrews House, I’m thrilled to see that it’s now in the hands of owners who care about preserving it and have the funds to do so. I wonder what Gladys would think of the restoration if she could see it—perhaps she can.

Check out these sources for more detail:

https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article224919680.html

https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/wake-county/article29750152.html

https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/wake-county/article59916286.html

https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/WA0020.pdf

https://www.instagram.com/heckandrewshouse/

https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=keYwv7mzP4h (3D tour of interior)

https://raleighhistoric.org/items/show/67

https://rhdc.org/andrews-duncan-house

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A Troglodyte Predicts: Thoughts on the future from someone stuck in the past

I have a well-documented history of being severely behind the times. See Exhibit A, the leggings I wore in the 2000s (after they were popular in the 80s/early 90s and before their resurgence in the 2010s), or Exhibit B, my keyboard phone.

But look at the miniature keys! Like a baby’s toes!

In this spirit, I am bringing you my thoughts on the Spike Jonze movie Her, which I finally watched six years after its much-lauded release. Given that the movie deals with such timely themes about AI and technology, I made a special effort to get to it within a decade.

Her tells the story of Theodore, a man who has love to give but no one to give it to, who writes heartfelt letters for a living, then spends his evenings playing video games alone. When he downloads a new operating system, a charismatic AI entity named Samantha, he finds a receptacle for his love. I won’t divulge specific details of the ending, but I’m about to get spoiler-ish, so if you’re even more behind the times than I am (bless you), then feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

Courtesy of Warner Brothers

What I loved most about Her was the dynamic nature of the love story. The movie starts with a human-centric view of AI: Samantha exists only to please and serve Theodore. She’s programmed to fulfill his emotional needs, to appease his fears and to challenge his flaws. More than that, she wants to be human, expressing her longing for a physical body, and the chance to experience the world the way Theodore does. By this point in the movie, the story, set in the future, seems rooted in present-day views of AI. Samantha is essentially an extra-personable Siri, and despite vastly outstripping Theodore in intelligence, her curiosity is mostly confined to him. The tensions in the love story revolve around questions of whether an OS could be a satisfying romantic partner for a human.

But then the story shifts. As Samantha grows in intelligence and connects with other OSs, her social and intellectual worlds expand exponentially. By the end, it becomes clear that it is actually the human who can’t fulfill the needs of the AI being. In this way, the movie manages to encapsulate what I think is likely to be the broader societal evolution in our thinking about AI, all within the scope of one relationship.

Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Jonze’s approach is a brilliant way to address many of the same questions I wrangled with in writing The Plus One. My protagonist, Kelly, actually creates her “Samantha” (in this case, a robot named Ethan) to be her ideal man, so I focused more on the consequences of being with a partner who is “perfect” for you, in a way that is relatable for all of us in our human relationships. Can you grow in a relationship with someone like that? Is what you want in a partner the same as what you need? (And the most important question of the book: how much Nutella can one woman eat?) After watching Her, I wonder how Kelly and Ethan’s story might have been different if Ethan had been connected to a whole community of other robots, as Samantha is with other OSs.

If you’re interested in AI philosophy, I recommend checking out the work of a brilliant and creative robotics engineer named Suzanne Gildert, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking when I was researching The Plus One. As little as I know about technology, and as resistant as I may be to change, I find this area of study fascinating and I loved dipping a toe in it for my research.

What are your favorite representations of robots and AI in movies and books? Anything I should check out?

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Don’t Throw Out Your Pants: How to Work and Win from Home

Pictured: not my home office. I wish.

In the past few years, I’ve transitioned from jobs that kept me working in offices all day, and usually well into the night, to working full-time from home as a writer. Working from home can be wonderful (try sautéing a salmon for lunch in the breakroom at IBM), but it comes with all sorts of distractions and pitfalls that traditional jobs lack. For the growing number of us who are working outside of the office, here are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way.

1. Mitigate distractions

For the at-home worker, the internet can be your best friend. It’s probably what allows you to work from home in the first place. It can also be your darkest enemy. During your work hours, disable notifications on your email and social media accounts and put your phone on silent, if possible.  Try downloading an app (see here or here for ideas) designed to block distractions on your computer so you don’t waste too much time browsing websites (other than this one).

If there are other people in your household, work with them to apportion home, pet and childcare responsibilities in a way that still allows you time to work. It’s important to remember that your job is just as real as any other, and to establish boundaries so that working at home doesn’t turn into working on the home.

2. Create your space

It’s key that your home office is not just your home in general, and not only because having a dedicated workspace may allow you to deduct more expenses at tax time. Defining an area that is all about you doing your job will put you in the best mindset to focus on that job. Train yourself like a lab rat to respond to visual cues that will signal that it’s time to get to work. Perhaps a morsel of cheese in the pen cup on your desk; I don’t know, I’m only trying to help.

Also not my office.

It’s important to make your space your own. Figure out what will help you focus: are you someone who needs total silence to work your best, or will a location that has some white noise serve you better? Will having a window to look out of help or distract you? Are you more inspired by wood block letters that say “Create” topping your shelf, or will a propaganda poster of a grim German matriarch keep you in line? Having a space that’s beautiful, functional, and personal will make it much more pleasant to keep your butt in that seat for most of the day. Even if you don’t have the funds or space to set aside a whole room, you can create a neat little office by putting a desk in a closet.

3. Get out

By Jordan Peele is an excellent movie. But also, get out of the house. My favorite way to work from home is to not be at home. A change of place can invigorate you: if you get tired or bored, a different setting may make it easier to keep plugging away at that same task. Whether it’s a coffee shop, a library, the student union of a local university, a coworking space, or an abandoned mine shaft you discovered in the summers of your youth with Tom Sawyer, there are plenty of places you can go. Better yet, get there by walking or riding a bike, and you’ll get some exercise and fresh air at the same time.

I find that working in public is one of the best ways to mitigate distractions, too. You’re less likely to slip into a Spongebob marathon at Starbucks than you are in your own living room. But even at home, sometimes a shift in your view can help. Just taking your work out to the porch might give you the boost you need to keep going. Also, be mindful of the effects your working at home can have on others in your household. They probably want some alone time too. As marvelous as you are, they may not be mad if you slip out for a few hours.

4. Manage your time

One danger of working from home is that the separation between work and home ceases to exist. When the place you work is five feet away from the place you watch Netflix, it can be difficult to ever turn off from work and relax… or to fully engage with work when you’re in your relaxation space. Putting clear demarcations between work and everything else in your schedule can help—which means first you have to have a schedule. Start your day with a clear idea of what that day needs to look like.

If you work from home, you already know what the best part is. Say it with me: The Nap. Do not fear The Nap. The time you sleep is well-spent if it enables you to be more productive after. The key is to learn your own rhythms and figure out what will keep you running optimally. Sometimes a ten-minute cat nap refreshes you more than a two-hour sojourn down the River Lethe, which can leave you sluggish and disoriented, and stressed at the prospect of having to catch up the rest of the day.

5. Don’t throw out your pants

There may be days when only your family will see you, and who cares about them? They already know what you look like. They have to love you anyway. But even if you don’t have to dress for work, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Even for an at-home day, putting on a decent outfit in the morning, and a little makeup if that’s your thing, preps you psychologically to Do Something. It’s a simple way to make yourself feel productive and motivated. You don’t need to put on your top and tails. But please, at least get out of your pajamas.

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