Building a Base

Reading Time: 15 minutes

I’ve felt free in the past four years or so to speak out on political matters in a kind of back-row, mumbling way. It’s been longer than that actually, and my opining has been public enough and, I suppose, audible enough, because it has always appeared in public places, like this blog, or my other blog (I know, you didn’t know: it’s here: the 02138 blog). As for the “mumbling,” that’s my idea of endearing self-effacement. I know I am articulate enough. From a limited number of what even I can’t help but call admirers, or I’d be insulting them, which I am truly horrified to think of doing, I have received praise for this effusion or that, often a whole paragraph, and, I’ll admit, often enough for a whole piece. Nevertheless, to be honest, I have not expected, nor will I speak of my fantasies, a groundswell of support for my views, never mind an uprising based on the brilliance or inspiration of my rhetoric.

On the basis of this evidence alone, I would not call myself likely material for a political career, neither as strategist, nor, certainly, as candidate. Being outspoken requires a certain finesse of timing—too tedious even to ponder the requirements, measured in self-control, patience, and seizing opportunities, either manufactured or serendipitous. Being right, or sensible, or rational, or articulate, never mind eloquent, count for nothing in the end, as these qualities, though they have a fairly universal appeal, only generate praise, and do not inspire action or commitment. Of course people subscribe to the right, that is, the appealing thing, and are willing to attest to being stirred by stirring talk. However, even the most succinct, never mind gnomic and memorable, rhetoric—essentially incisive, concise, and inarguable except by idiots, zealots, and the insane—is not enough to sustain a political platform or agenda. It may launch a career, but it takes dedication to live with the decision to live a life of political engagement, whether as a politician, the purest form of dedication, or as an activist or full-time advocate and spokesman. For one thing, though it’s not the only thing, you need to build a base of support. It’s a principle that extends to other areas of engagement in the human arena.

We all need an activity, something that keeps us moving. A lucky (I guess they’re lucky) few need few, if any, adherents to stick to what they have come to realize, whether in their conscious minds, or their hearts, or their souls, or perhaps in their ears (“the voices, the voices…” if you know what I mean), is to be their life’s work and endeavor. Sometimes no matter what. The rest of us need a base, in one form or another. Most efficiently, it can be a very small group, and manageable, usually be made up of those we know, or come to know, and trust and respect… and this is enough. For a far greater number, the risk must be accepted of seeking support on a wider basis from the greater mass of men, to borrow a phrase, most of whom we don’t, and really, to be coldly rational about this, cannot, and never will, know. Certainly not on an individual basis.

Speaking of the greater mass of humanity, I was also on Facebook for a while, my modest way of saying that it was five years (longer if you count an earlier, exclusive, boasting-rights sort of subscription that resulted from my taking advantage of having a harvard.edu address, the key at first to exclusive entry–what did it matter to me that, though not a subterfuge, it was as the result of the flimsiest of alumnus status affiliations?; Facebook didn’t seem to care, and this should have been a sign of something, if only to someone more prescient than myself). It didn’t matter much how long a period I stayed, as I wasn’t particularly active for much of that period, both before and after the barn doors were thrown wide open, to admit even the most mongrel and unbred of subscribers. Just another affiliation for an Internet-besotted computer freak.

It was a period when I passed from being idly and distantly curious to an active participant—one friend labeled me a “denizen.” The joining was nothing, because, if a site didn’t appear sinister, or as a container for who knows what kind of technological mischief, say turning my computer into a destructive robot, part of a larger infernal machine intended to keep Walmart’s website from offering this week’s special on Ore-Ida frozen potato products, with me as the unknowing dupe of a captain of this miscreant and piratical cyber-ship, I would join. I still have vestigial memberships in all sorts of arcane sites, usually geeky, but not always (one of them involves incredibly expensive, gourmet foods from the source in southern Europe, the scions of ancient Italian farm families, now specializing, say, in two kinds of tomatoes (canned, alas) or three kinds of olive oil waiting expectantly, somewhere in Umbria or Tuscany, over open cardboard shipping containers for my order to come through on their computer screen from their broker and impresario in the Bronx). Talk about global marketing. The Bronx was the lure for me (I’m obviously speaking of a real website; I couldn’t make this up) as my birthplace will always be a lure for me. It’s a kind of Proustean Pavlovian mash-up of response that dictates if it’s from the Bronx, I’ll sign up. I am the original dupe of the obvious strategy for a website: build it, and I will come. I’m easy.

In a different context, I make the same sort of response to essentially nerdy cohorts who have decided to gather, though it sometimes seems more like a coalescence, on the Internet in solidarity, affinity, and always some bumbling attempt at conveying a wish for good fellowship and emotional connection; often scrutiny of gadgets is offered, either of the hardware sort, but more often of the virtual variety, that is, software promised to do all the things we took up with computers for in the first place. They too managed to get hold of my email address. I actually have about ten addresses, or more, for various and what should be obvious reasons, but I’ve used the same one for over 18 years, so I’m not hard to find, even as I yap from the back benches.

My sense of what computers could do, especially for me, was at the same time (though these are surely apposite qualities, if seemingly at first glance antipodal) intuitive and inchoate. Intuitive, because producing excitement and a gleam in the eye that could not be explained or checked by conscious, that is, rational, effort. Inchoate, because I am still rendered mute by things where the words or even the thoughts won’t form. The best strategy for when I can’t express myself clearly is still, and has been since childhood, just to shut up, and to keep my eyes and ears open, if anything, in an even heightened sense of vigilance–by the prospect of trying to explain untold longings. These often involve how these machines, and their mechanical form subsumes their separable, but unquestionably integral, inner workings—the coded instructions that put intelligible operators on the screen of the computer so that you can “talk” to it, and ask it to do things, and so you can see the result of the commands—will allow me to do the wonderful things that I know I have in me to do.

The words that will emerge, not in serried ranks assembled, like soldiers, like a checklist for what not to forget for a month in the French countryside, are more malleable, flexible, produce even headier feelings of creative power, or at least potentiality (and what is potential, but the storage of energy for later release?). I use computers to manipulate images, mainly photographic, it’s true, but their chief usefulness lies in text. Not texting, mind, but words, assembled into the usual clots of organization and thought that we are still taught in school.

The potentiality of words directed against the simple goal of impinging on the consciousness of another human being still gets me up in the morning, that is, the prospect of producing them does. Some mornings are better than others. Worse, whole days pass, weeks, for a while it was months, when no words appeared at all. None, in any event, that anyone is likely to see.

The vagaries of mental and emotional preparedness aside, and in my life I’ve had as many or as serious, or measured by any dimension the same, constraints by life on my engagement. I measure this vitality, this involvement, by my sense of well being, sure enough. Sometimes I think the proper index is mood, and whether I feel like it’s nice to get up and wonderful to feel alive. After a very long streak, a very lucky one in hindsight, of feeling that way, and then, for even longer it seems, not feeling that way at all. At its worst, it’s Gerard Manley Hopkins’s home turf. “I wake to feel the fell of dark not day.” Other days, it was the blahs. Most days it was the shock of coming around to realize I was still alive when some people whose presence I had come to depend on no longer were there to be depended on, whether they wanted to be or not. I knew only they didn’t want to leave, and that knowledge has its impact also on how the morning portends the rest of the day.

Those people were my first line of support, my base. I wrote for them, as much as for myself, even though I didn’t have them in mind, in a quite literal sense, as I tapped away at the keyboard in the sometimes seemingly illimitable way I have. I know it seems that way to people who happen to be around to watch it happen. It seems that way to me, when I give myself leave to pay any attention while I’m trying to tap the words out and need no such distraction; that heightened meta-sense of oneself doing what one is doing and thinking about doing it while doing and keeping track of one’s own reaction to doing even while not saying a thing about what all that meta-thought is about. It’s my style to meander, to seem to lose track, or follow whatever path opens before me, randomly, as if, trying to avoid what I’ve learned a writer I admire, Geoff Dyer, tries to avoid, and that is being consumed by his own boredom. It was reassuring to learn that somebody else felt that way. He has no more sense that I exist than a cicada on a tree in Cotignac, which is about eight kilometers from where I’m sitting right now, has, assuming that a cicada has the consciousness, or can be occupied with anything more than the rhythmic and grating flexion of the membrane on his (yes, it’s the male that makes all the noise) abdomen. But he’s my base now too. Geoff Dyer, not the cicada. (But given the numbers, wouldn’t that be nice?)

What brings all this up is that I got an email this morning. I say this here and now for a number of reasons. It is the reason for starting to write this essay. I do know of the editorial phenomenon called “burying the lead (or, to use the increasingly de rigeur and hip term, as used by the pros, the ‘lede’–I think that orthography, as an exemplum of the kind of thing I find repellent, I being a language purist, is likely the result of not wanting to confuse references to the lead: sentence, paragraph, editorial raison d’être, whatever, with that element symbolized on the Table of Elements as Pb, as in get the lead out, or graphite in cylindrical form, as in put the lead back in your pencil).” And, with reference to this latter interdiction of not burying it, however you spell it, I don’t care. I do care about using such prohibitions and rules against themselves, or trying to. To me, a rule of style or grammar or syntax is instant shibboleth, and a ripe target for attack; now or later, no matter; I’ll get to it. To me, more often than not, I like to make it a strategy. You see, I hate that question, “Well, what’s it about?” As I used to reply to such questions about my writing, when I used to be a wise guy, “It’s about 2150 words [the rough count through the middle of this sentence].”

My base consists of the people who stick with it, who stick with me while I venture on, not into my head, but out of it, really. If you think about it, I’m not inviting you into my thoughts, but I am inviting you to use my thoughts to enter into your own. It’s an insidious thing, and also, I’ll admit, it’s a really underhanded way of conducting myself, time after time, essay after essay. Seeming boustrophedon (not seeming really; this is boustrophedon), looping back and forth, row after verbal row, back and forth, to those who begin to stray from their own attention to the text, apparently aimless and wandering, but, when it gets to the end, the entire field has been plowed, and is now ready for the seeds sown to begin to germinate. There’s also a built-in test of fertility. If you make it to the end, I for one (and that should be a good enough start for you, dear reader) believe you have shown yourself to be of the right stuff, not merely fertile ground for the propagation of thought you can honestly call your own, but part of the base. And you can count on me to keep coming back to you, as long as you let me. That way, we all get to eat. In a manner of speaking. If we do this right, it can be a feast.

However, I spoke of some email. It was simple really, maybe, even probably, not something to make too much of. On this blog, if you don’t already know it, there’s a place to subscribe. What you subscribe to is notification of the admittedly completely unpredictable appearance of yet another of these loopy and meandering essays, and you’ll subscribe in the hopes of having another experience like the one you had, maybe a number of times, maybe that you’re having for the first time right now. And me, knowing that you subscribed, whether I know you or not, will get that feeling I like, akin to what I feel on one of those good mornings, that I’ve added to my base. Perhaps you’ve guessed that that email was to tell me, and it was just a computer telling me something it was programmed to tell me without human intervention. This particular computer was programmed, because I asked it to be, to tell me when another subscriber had signed up. It may have been on this blog, or on the other one I told you about at the very beginning of this essay. It may have been the subscription form on the home page of the website I consider my official website, bertha.com. Wherever.

On this particular day, so particular as to be today, early this morning, and it’s still now only mid-afternoon, the email told me I had two new subscribers. I don’t know either of these people, and one of them, from the orthography of the name in English, and the email address attached, I have reason to assume is a Chinese person, in China. This gladdens me. Just as an aside, because this truly is a digression, if somehow relevant, especially to the notion that I want a base, have a base, if I’m being honest, and I like having a base, I seem to have quite a following in China. And it’s mainly because somehow or other, and I truly don’t know how, I gained a following by reason of my design or advertising work, or both, because all of the links that used to show up even more prominently than they do now, were on web pages on servers with IP addresses in mainland China and Taiwan. Talk about a base. Characteristically, I did nothing about it, from the time I first noticed. It all had to do somehow with my website, but especially my homepage, even as my homepage had less and less to do with my business of servicing, among others, design and marketing clients, and more and more to do with me and my personal work, which I’ll refrain from calling art: it was mainly photographs, more and more random, usually of French subjects, and less and less frequently posted as my personal life became mired in the miasma of that which makes all mornings hazy and forgettable, and each day a numb ordeal to be gotten through.

Fact is, my website, though occasionally refreshed, especially in a brief frenzied burst of activity when I published a book of my travel essays about life in France, and went to the additional trouble and really, to me, loathsome tasks of creating a way for people to order those books and pay for them. More base. With any greater expenditure of effort, I might even have managed somehow to create some greater mass of followers, even to that personal philosopher’s stone of mine, called critical mass, where whatever words I might put out there would simply, magically, get transformed into another form of gold. Not for the money, because I never suffered the delusion that I could possibly make a living at this, but for the signification. Praise is one thing. A base, and having one is a very big thing. But getting people to part with some of that filthy lucre we, most of us, are forced to carry about with us and transact with others to exchange? Ah, that’s something. Because it means, presumably something to them, and they’re exchanging their meaning, what they value, for some of mine. I haven’t sold a lot of books, but I didn’t make, couldn’t make, much of an effort to do so until now. I haven’t gotten any of those books back though. And people keep subscribing. The base is growing. And if you must know, the book is far more readily available, and far more efficiently delivered promptly, purely by way of going to Amazon. It won’t cost you any less, but the delivery may be free, or cheaper than the method I use. I just tell you this in passing. It’s a base-building measure. Long overdue.

If you go to that website link, you’ll see the same old, by now tired, words and pictures that really haven’t changed materially or, more importantly, in terms of what is called, in that really disgusting notion (disgusting because it refers ultimately to me, and I’m a human being, a person) that the world knows as branding, in at least six years. Now, this kind of talk, about branding, used to be my stock in trade. I understand branding, and I understand, in those completely crass commercial terms what building a base is all about. I certainly understand it, as all politicians must, in terms of politics and getting things done (or in the case of Republicans, managing to extend the world’s longest legislative streak of really getting absolutely nothing done whatsoever). It’s current. It will be for a long time, as far as I can tell, and it means I must pay more mindful attention to it, as I have not done. At least not for the sake of myself.

Soon, because I’ve already begun working on it, when you visit the homepage, if you visit the homepage, you’ll see something Monty Python immortalized, “something completely different.” Just making it different will likely stir some people up, and will attract others out of the woodwork. It’s a phenomenon I know to be true and I now leave to others to explain better than possibly I ever might have been able to, and I used to be considered pretty good at doing that. In the end though, what I’m hoping is that as a real sign of response, of growth, what else can I call it, but a sign of life, those subscribers will begin to roll in. A lot faster, I hope than they have done, but then, and I’m now repeating myself, but, as you can see, I’m close to the end, but then, I have done nothing for a long time.

After the website, the blog sites. Complete makeovers. There will be more photographs. There will be more frequent essays. There will be another book, especially if I get some sense that the base has grown, and the base wants something to be put upon it.

Be my base. You won’t regret it.

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