OTR, Take 13: Radiohead - OK Computer

Happy New Year! I must admit to being a bit anhedonic this time of year, I think mostly because I rebel against the idea that the turning of the calendar somehow equates to...anything. My feelings about New Year are summed up fairly neatly as such:

Like most of you, I swam through the seemingly-endless posts about resolutions (pro- or anti-resolution) – and I must confess to having fallen prey to the temptation myself, in a somewhat miserly way. I don't begrudge anybody the impulse to improve or make changes. It's just that bold resolutions aren't how meaningful changes are made.

But all of that curmudgeonliness belies the fact that I do have something of a resolution this year.

Toward the end of 2022, Sahil Bloom shared a series of graphs depicting how we spend our time throughout our lives. As it goes with this kind of thing, it was at once shocking and inevitably predictable. (You should check out Sahil's newsletter, The Curiosity Chronicle.)

Here's the first graph that arrested me:

In like a lion, out like a lamb.

On the one hand, it's not entirely surprising that, on average, we spend more time with friends in our youth – we're surrounded by them in high school and college. We are locked up in classrooms with our peers at a time when we are more easily capable of making friends, more open to that kind of bonding.

And it's easy to think that it's the normal state of affairs, but look at that cliff starting around age 21! Man, are we in for a shock. (This chart is the data equivalent of every "back in the days" story.)

Here's the second chart in Sahil's piece that stopped my heart:

I think I need a sherpa...

And there I sit, at 41, right at the steep rise in time spent alone.

Now, more than most people, I love being alone and I require a significant amount of alone time. I'm a true introvert (I've noticed it's become common for extroverts to claim to be introverts, as though it brings some sort of cache – don't do that). I have learned to behave myself in group settings, and can do quite well one-on-one and in small groups. But after a day of meetings? My god, I'm the surliest motherfucker on the face of the earth. Even Clare knows to stay clear.

"Right man...let me know when you're ready to play..."

So what to do with this data? First, it's to recognize and confront why it hit me so hard: I miss my friends. I mean this in a sentimental way, but also in a very real, visceral way. Did you know my great friend Dave Vaala sends me a photo of the record he's listening to every Friday night or Saturday morning to accompany my writing this? So last night, he listened to some BB in Chicago and I'm feeling alienated with Radiohead here in Pittsburgh.

The thrill ain't gone

A month or so back, Rob Lisy asked me when I was going to write up Radiohead's OK Computer. I told him that I didn't know: each week is a bit of a surprise to me, as I pull out whatever record suits my mood. Well, Rob: let's fucking do it.

Stanley Donwood's artwork is so, so good.

Rob, Vaala, and I went to college together. Both Rob and Vaala were a year behind me and so we didn't have the same instant bonding created by being thrown into the same dorm as freshmen and learning to live with strangers.

Rob is one of those lunatic people who was a competitive swimmer (Denison has one of the very best Divsion III swimming programs and he was a multiple-time All American), which meant that, in season, he woke up at 4 am and swam some ungodly number of laps before the rest of campus even thought about rolling out of bed for the dreaded 8:30 am class. It also meant that he crashed pretty early.

This made hanging out a touch difficult. As a result, his freshman year, we knew each other and were friendly, but it wasn't until the next year that we became close. I tell this story because it's emblematic of how being young and the campus environment facilitates this kind of thing in a way that is hard to imagine now.

It was September 2001. (I bet that just took you to a certain mental space, huh?) Rob had the next morning off from swim-related things and we arranged to hang out. He was in-season and a bit tired and I...well, I was not exactly the party sort, anyway. So we bought something like a pound or two of provolone cheese and a case of beer, listened to music, and hung out in my suite.

"Hey, you wanna come over to my place and hang out?"

"Sure, I'll bring some crudité and a bottle of Chablis."

I distinctly remember putting on OK Computer and both of us falling silent for a little while. It's an album that has that kind of effect: at once demanding and interesting, unlike anything else that had been released in 2001 or, if we're to be honest, since. I think part of the experience of listening to the album is realizing just how much is going on. Usually, when the mix is loaded up with pieces and parts, it gets bloated. OK Computer never feels like that: it is a lithe killer of an album. The knife is twisting before you recognize you're in trouble.

Around the time "Subterranean Homesick Alien" came over the speakers (I was stupidly proud of the audio setup I had in the suite: running computer audio through a receiver out to good speakers), he asked me what my favorite Radiohead album was, and before I could answer, he said, "Mine's The Bends" and picked up an acoustic guitar laying around and started picking out the melody from "High and Dry."

Maybe it's the bias of hindsight (we all love to be right and I would have likely forgotten this moment if it had worked out differently), but I knew at that moment that he would be one of my best friends for the rest of my life.

Later that night, Vaala, who lived a floor above me, came down with Jeff Boykin and Adam Pratt, who I roomed with for three years, came home. To this day, these are some of my very favorite people on Earth.

And to think we took it for granted.

Rob now lives in Seattle, Jeff in Los Angeles, Dave in Chicago, and Pratt in Columbus. It is astonishing how easily we accepted that moment and insane that I, at least, never considered that it wouldn't last.

The older I get, the more I think about life as a series of entanglements. You might call them responsibilities or any number of other things. The point remains the same: each decision we make, each relationship we enter, every time we say yes, we constrict possibility.

This isn't a bad thing; it's simply reality. When we get married, take a job, have kids, buy a house, we are making our potential worlds smaller. Every decision cuts off paths, incurs consequences.

When I was younger, I didn't recognize this insight flowing through OK Computer. How could I? I hadn't made enough choices to see the effect. OK Computer is a masterpiece in alienation and displacement. The narrator from Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" wakes up in a post-industrial hellscape.

Hey man, slow down, slow down/Idiot slow down, slow down

Whereas Byrne and company wryfully play with this notion that we come to inhabit lives that seem foreign to us, Yorke and company sit us in the horror of it and ask us to think about what we've done.

I began today's OTR by stating that I do have something of a resolution this year. I have been obsessed with creating: a new firm, reimagining an existing firm, writing a novel, etc. I don't intend to stop doing that. It gives me energy.

But I miss my friends, and as I look at the opposite trendlines of the Time with Friends and Time Spent Alone graphs, I am resolving to do my best not to be the people caught and lost in the world described so powerfully in OK Computer.

That's it for Take 13 of On the Record. You can listen to Radiohead's OK Computer on Tidal.

ALSO: I'm writing a novel, for some masochistic reason. More information here.

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