One of the ways I keep myself entertained at night before I go to bed, is to look for a few hashtags that I follow and check the “latest” results on Twitter.  They are a broader cross-section of posts than the most popular tweets and often contain information that the mainstream media has ignored or deemed less newsworthy.  Some of them are quite interesting and I go prospecting to discover more about my chosen topics.  Some of the recent posts had to do with things that people are doing to fill their time while in quarantine.

I have my own ideas about things I like to do.  I could watch a series of movies like the Marx Brothers.  I have good memories of being in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the early 80s during my Junior Year Abroad and seeing some of them with my host family.  As an American in Paris, I was the US personal representative for all things American and while I had no special knowledge of les frères Marx, I had quasi-celebrity status just being from the land of Hollywood. 

While Marx brothers’ movies might not be your cup of tea, a phone call I got this morning from Think Local President Jeff Ball might be closer to what you had in mind: a physical fitness challenge.  Jeff is issuing a push-up challenge and wanted some Facebook advice.  I have seen a basement challenge, attic challenges, barn challenges and other such cleaning chores hit social media as first choice topics for the type-A personality, must-be-productive people.  There are infinite numbers of Netflix series challenges, diet challenges, and abstinence challenges (appropriate for lent), but it seems like there is still room for more.

People with plenty of time on their hands have made graphs, Venn Diagrams, and work-breakdown structures (WBS) worthy of a professional project manager to spur interest and compete.  There are flow charts detailing the different phases of quarantine assimilation:  fear, boredom, complacency, learning modes and acceptance.  Most of us go through many of these phases daily as we sort out the various current needs, future needs and limitations of living in social isolation and coping with the frightening news of the day.

So what things are important for a good #quarantinechallenge?  First, be willing to step out of your comfort zone.  If you’re not really challenged, then it’s pointless.  Second, recognize that others may not share your enthusiasm for the selected topic.  Third, include something reportable.

Here are ten suggestions for #quarantinechallenges:

  1.  #packratchallenge: Pick one drawer or box and divide it into two piles – one you keep, and one you give or throw away.  Post your results.
  2. #youstillmatterchallenge: Pick a friend you have not spoken to in a while and give them a call out of the blue.  I had this happen today and was grateful for it.  Before the end of the call, challenge them to do the same.
  3. #dreadedmaintenancechallenge: Do the one thing you hate to do most, whether its cleaning the gutters, “recycling” fertilizer from the dog area, or balancing your checkbook (do people still do that?).  Post your accomplishment and how long it took you.
  4. #challengechallenge: Come up with challenges that other people can do during a quarantine.  (Check mine off for today…)
  5. #deadparrotchallenge: Watch one randomly chosen episode of Monty Python a day and stop when you get to the skit about the dead parrot.  Post how many episodes it took you to get there.
  6. #icansingchallenge: Join the quarantine karaoke public group on Facebook and perform one song.
  7. #dressforsuccesschallenge: Put on your work clothes and post a photo before you head to the other room to start your day.  Kudos to Walter Reynolds and others in my group of friends who have provided the inspiration for this challenge.
  8. #ifixeditchallenge: Show a novel way to life hack or otherwise repair something that has been bothering you WITHOUT going to the store first.  Post the results, preferably with photos.
  9. #healthychoiceschallenge: Make one New Year’s-style resolution and make a public announcement that you plan to keep it through the quarantine—and longer if you choose.
  10. #itwasntbrokenuntilIfixeditchallenge: This goes with number 8 for those who did not actually manage to fix anything.  Consider it the consolation prize for this stay-at-home game.  Photos are required as well as the ability to accept some gentle ribbing from your friends. 

So keep calm and stay home.  This too shall pass.  If you enjoyed these suggestions, please let me know. – Henry.

The Player Piano

When you listen to a recording, you are hearing the artist performing in the past, in a format that will remain for many years to come, given proper archival treatment.  Recently, I finished watching two seasons of HBO’s Westworld, a fantastic rendition of the Michael Crichton story and remake of the original film starring Yul Brenner.  There were many plot twists and liberties taken with the script, but I want to talk about the player piano.

The piano itself is a central theme from the beginning, and appears in the introduction to each episode.  It is worth noting that the robots who play them aren’t necessarily playing at all, as the piano knows the program from the holes punched in the scroll.  It is an early form of the “magic” used by programmers to emulate life.

In a scene that fans of the series will remember, there is an old Edison Cylinder player outside on a porch while people are dancing.  I was unable to determine the song, but most agreed that it was preceded by a piece called “Reverie” by Debussy.  I inherited a fairly large collection of Edison Cylinders a while back and so I was intrigued to find out whether I actually had the music they were playing.  As it turns out, the piece in question does not appear in any blue Ambersol or other cylinder collection recorded for sale at the turn of the century through the twenties when this format first became popular and lasted until the phonograph made them obsolete.

So I went on YouTube to search more for the music.  What I found there struck a chord.  Here was a video entitled “Debussy plays the Sunken Cathedral.”  It is a beautiful, haunting piece of music.  But, of course, it was not an original audio recording, it was a paper piano roll recorded from a player piano that Debussy had played.  Even more eloquently than words, the touch of the keys were recorded with fidelity to match Debussy’s every stroke, if not the forcefulness of his style.  In this way, his performance, more than just the sheet music, still lives on.

Late in the series, there is a library where people’s lives have been recorded, their personalities more precisely.  One character says that they discovered emulating a human being was a relatively short ten-thousand lines of code.  And when the books in this library were opened to reveal the codes, there were no printed letters or numbers.  They were all pages, punched like the rolls of a player piano, our performances of a lifetime, recorded with fidelity in a book for future reference.

Here is where I depart from the story to observe that in a similar way, our lives are being recorded now to the Internet in a way that may one day read like the lines of the player piano, not simply reproducing what our interests and actions are, but who we are in a far deeper and more sacred way.  The story of Westworld poses the general question of where automation ends and life begins.  How do our daily routines, programmed or not, differ from those of the characters in a play or movie, scripted, repeating on demand, and preserved for posterity?

You may have had the eerie experience of visiting a friend or relative’s Facebook page or other social media page, after they have passed away.  It is an unscripted chapter and verse of a person’s selective interactions with their friends and community.  These friends appear in our timelines, unbeckoned, sometimes jarringly because of the deep feelings they evoke, as memories, or as Debussy and the French would put it, as Reveries.  The story of HBO’s Westworld begins with the creator adding Reveries to the programmed “robots” that inhabit the world.  For the first time, these beings experience memories, sometimes clouded and incomplete, from previous experiences, even previous lives where they had a different role to play.  This “dream” element of their story, more than any other factor, ironically serves to wake these beings into consciousness in a way that is more human than automated.

We may have other instances of the player piano where part of a person’s life is recorded in a way that brings them back, momentarily, to our present, and we again long for their company.  It is worth noting that as with the player piano, it is the hole in the paper and in our lives that brings the experience to life.  Sometimes that which is missing defines us more than what we have kept or what we are allowed to keep.  In remembering what we used to have and what we cherish, our present becomes more precious and real.

Henry Lyons is the owner of Finestkind Web Design in Dresden, Maine. He can be reached at finestkindwd@gmail.com, or through his website www.fineskindwebdesign.com.