The New Decorum

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I don’t get it. It’s true it’s been awhile since I was a college student, but I recall a wholly different experience… some might call it alien compared to what the norm is today. I’m reminded of the differences, and I always get astonished, though I shouldn’t, every time I come across real life accounts on the ‘net about what life is like nowadays in undergraduate education.

A Website called insidehighered.com seems designed to be a kind of teacher’s break room on the Internet, with a regular stream of messages regarding faculty-student interaction, both within and outside the classroom. The inevitable culprit in any perceived breakdown in decorum and academic protocol is traced to what are now accepted behaviors with digital mobile devices, if not more specifically social media.

It’s been three years and a bit since I was in a college classroom as a teacher (or “prof” as all students generously bestow as a title), but even cursory and only occasional glances at the chatter among working faculty today tell me it might as well have been a larger span of time.

In the current era there is a decided preference for mobile devices, as opposed to the organs for speech and hearing, to communicate. I’m talking about children, adolescents, and what I’ll call post-adolescents—mainly college and graduate school age students on the normal educational track; adults who return to school for re-education or a career makeover doubtless present a whole different set of problems to their educators.

Users will text, let’s say, with individuals in close proximity, sometimes in continuing intimate bodily contact: hip-to-hip, or shoulder-to-shoulder, never mind simply in the very same classroom, if not also contiguous desks or seats.

Without getting into the particulars of other kinds of behavior, which are covered well enough in the two blog posts I have listed as links below, the result of this constant digital traffic, combined with what I can only call a gigantic breach in what I think—I am pretty old, and the old memory, you know?…—used to be called things like etiquette, decorum, and protocol, all of the rules for which I also seem to recall we learned long before we got to college. And what we didn’t learn could be conveyed, and usually was, in a short speech, less than two minutes, by the “prof” at the very beginning of the first class meeting of a course. Rarely was there a question, except the inevitable, “does everything on the syllabus count towards our grade?”

Between the endless stream of attention diverting exercises, facilitated by all the apps, media, devices, etc. etc. and the complete breakdown of a common understanding of what is supposed to be polite behavior in any social setting, including the classroom—you know, conscientious regard for your fellow human beings, peers or elders—it’s a wonder any learning goes on at all. But wait? Does it? Well, of course it does, but I alway assume under great duress and stress at times for all participants.

Personally, I’m appalled, and I’d love to hear from anyone with a thought or two, including the current college-attendees (who might be able to explain in a plausible and rational way what could sit well with a humanist—you can look it up—what permits such carrying-on in civilized society).

The links, as I said, are below. I’ll just finish by saying that back in the day, for example, we could get through a semester of readings in the British and American Novel of the 19th century, let’s say, with the requirement that we read the individual entirety of each of about 15 novels, attend lectures, participate in class discussions, hand in an essay of at least 20 pages, take two exams: a mid-term and a final, and somehow manage not to miss more than three un-excused class meetings. The classes, incidentally, met three times a week for a semester. The syllabus usually consisted of a typewritten sheet, mimeographed, with all the book titles of required reading, dates, class meetings, and any pertinent rules printed on one side of the sheet. We already knew not to cheat, plagiarize, or lie. The rest of what we needed was in something called the Official Catalog of the University. There was no email. We knew our professor’s office hours. We didn’t know their home phone numbers, and we knew never to call them at the English Department (in this case), because we had to run the gauntlet of the department secretary, who conducted herself more or less as a combination of Gorgon and Cerberus. To be completely fair and forthcoming, I do remember when necessary exchanging actual hand-written correspondence, usually in the form of notes, with faculty. The mechanism was a pen, paper, an envelope, and the faculty member’s “mailbox” in the English Department offices. Do students still use pens?

Today, apparently, a typical class requires the distribution of a syllabus booklet, often in PDF form, but often as well printed out for the student’s convenience, and sometimes easily exceeding 20 pages. It consists of the usual rundown of the curriculum for that course, with a class by class agenda as to what will be covered each meeting for the term. The rest is administrative detail covering every conceivable protocol with regard to academic behavior, within and without the classroom, what, in precise terms and with as little ambiguity as possible, constitutes plagiarism, what defines an excusable absence from class, the penalties for late arrivals, late assignments, etc., and so forth and so on. Having taught as recently as three and a half years ago, I know it takes quite a bit to fill 20 pages with the sort of minutiae that any intelligent 18-year-old, with a reasonably civilized upbringing, and the ability to read the university (or college) catalog, where the general underpinnings for proper academic and social behavior on campus still are already spelled out, and vetted by the institution’s office of the general counsel, as well as several bodies of academic administration.

If I had the time, and any deeper curiosity, I’d delve deeper into what possibly could have happened in a little over 40 years—I mean sociologically, psychologically, and anthropologically—to determine such a sea change, and I don’t mean merely the length of the in-class syllabus. In the meantime, read these two blog posts, and ponder it for yourself.

https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/rethinking-my-cell-phonecomputer-policy

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/27/sake-student-faculty-interaction-professor-bans-student-email

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Famous for a Moment

Reading Time: 20 minutes
Pressed Flowers from Summer 2009

Pressed Flowers from Summer 2009

“What seems paradoxical about everything that is justly called beautiful is the fact that it appears” —Walter Benjamin

“Make no mistake: this is not about more intellectual sophistication… What I am looking for… is an introduction to living, a guide to life (ethical project): I want to live according to nuance. Now there is a teacher of nuance, literature; try to live according to the nuances that literature teaches me.”—Roland Barthes, The Neutral

I’ve been shooting photos for a great many years. Let’s just say, decades. Those who know my work, not as many as I’d like, though more than I’m actually aware of, recognize a certain style. As for subjects, when not shooting landscapes or what the French call nature morte, I prefer maybe most of all to shoot portraits, even of people I don’t know.

It’s not exactly street photography, though a great deal of it is shot in the street. Friends who are aficionados of that genre, that is, street photography, tend to say my shots have a distant quality, do not connect with the subject. Maybe it’s all that landscape photography, or shooting still, that is, unmoving objects, a lot of them formerly alive, like flowers or fruit. One friend, who perhaps knows more about me personally, has said several times it’s quite evident I am unwilling to get too close to the subject. It’s not an entirely prescient remark as I had admitted long since that I am not crazy about doing it. When he says it, or I think about it, it always makes me think of the great photographer from the first half of the 20th century, Robert Capa, who is mainly renowned for his shots taken on battlefields, from the Spanish Civil War to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and is also often quoted as saying “if your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough.” Maybe, but he died because he stepped on a mine during combat in what was then called French Indochina. For my taste, that’s a little too close. However, I’ve strayed from the issue of the specific quality of my “street” images. It may be a matter of distance, and I think it is. However other people than my friend usually are referring to physical proximity, as if intimacy is esthetically explosive and distance is dull. I am talking about a different dimension.

Fact is, I’m not very interested in getting up close and personal—what else do you call sticking a camera and lens in someone’s face?—to someone I don’t know. I have my share of portraits in my portfolio, taken at appropriate distances, of dear friends and loved ones, but a certain kind of portrait, revelatory and intimate, requires knowing the subject, or at least having a chance to allow one’s empathy and intuition to work up a sense of who they are. Distance in inches or meters is not a gauge of one’s ability to do so. I also have a number of what I think are quite successful portraits, to the extent that the designation applies as it has throughout the history of art: as studies of individual human character. In these there is some element or concatenation of elements, a cast of the eye, or an expression involving some or all of the myriad muscles of the face, including the deeper ones, a certain regard, that seem to betray something evident if inchoate about the subject. It may not, in fact, be an insight to the specific and doubtless unique individual portrayed. However, it may be, very well, expressive of some aspect, a quality, of what I’ll call human nature, or the human spirit (at the risk of being jumped on by my friends for certain wholly other reasons) in a more universal or generalized way. The image speaks to us, somehow, regardless of the situational circumstances by which it was captured.

Two women I don't know from two holes in the wall

Two women I don’t know from two holes in the wall

When people have a problem with an image of mine involving a human subject, and usually one with whom I don’t have even a nodding acquaintance, I think there’s something else going on than what the physical evidence of the photograph as record or datum seems to indicate. I think those friends of mine are expecting something that I will never successfully deliver every time. I am not trying to capture what most of the successful and renowned street photographers are trying to catch.

Surely this is true of Diane Arbus, and in much of his work, especially the later work, of Garry Winogrand. They and others were trying, I think, to catch people expressing unaware their anguish or desperation or other extreme emotional states—or possibly some untoward quality of which the subject is either mercifully oblivious, or so beset they cannot help themselves. If I see it, and have a chance to capture it, I will. I either succeed, or not, or I simply don’t get the opportunity.

"Life is not easy." —S. Freud

Sigmund Freud: “Life is not easy”

I’m far more interested in far more ordinary matters, saying this not to try to diminish the significance of anguish and desperation. God knows there’s plenty of these in the world. If anguish and despair are not ordinary, they are surely legion; Freud said, universal, and the hallmark of the human condition. But there are enough photos of anguish and despair, of people in extremis. Especially in the news, where it’s stock in trade, too often photos are a record of death, or the threat of it or of its impact, or where it occurred, or might and on a probabilistic basis, if it’s anywhere more than a handful of people have settled, it will. You can’t get a job as a photojournalist unless you have served your time taking photos of people in some kind of war zone—foreign or domestic. And your subjects are being shot at, hunted down, chased, plundered, dispossessed. What have you. It is a nasty and brutish place, the world, or it can be.

But these are the kinds of photographs that go into many exhibitions, many books. And those that do not conform to this particular formulation are, as a theme and variation, usually of people who are famous, or trying to be famous. Often, they show the subject’s face wreathed in that most utterly anti-evocative of conditions, the toothy smile engaging only superficial muscles, the eyes usually devoid of genuine feeling. Many famous people in photographs that attain to publication are merely famous for being famous. We all know them. The faces that launch a thousand magazine covers at the supermarket check-out counters. The faces that appear on so-called reality television.

But let me stop at that word. Not television, but the other. As the now late, great Robin Williams said early in his brilliant career, “Reality, what a concept!” I think he meant something else than what we see and have seen these several decades on the boob tube. I think he meant, more or less, what a largely forgotten nineteenth century novelist said. The writer also was editor of “The Atlantic Monthly,” still going strong, still trying to grab its share of the attention that heightened awareness brings to subjects accorded the status of icon, or meme, or merely worthy of their fifteen minutes (now shaved, cost-effectively, to 15 seconds) of fame.

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Dean Howells was that man. He was, as well, a friend to Mark Twain who had his fair share of fame and of having his photograph taken, largely because he was Mark Twain, not to mention being a great subject visually, regardless of his stature—but mainly because he was recognizable; alas for his portraitists, they are forgotten, or their names anyway, and just as well, because in many cases except for the fame of the subject, there’s not too much interest in the photo. What Howells said was, “Ah! poor Real Life, which I love, can I make others share the delight I find in thy foolish and insipid face?”

In other words, Howells, long before Robert Redford won his first Academy Award for directing, found his subjects—and he wrote a great many novels—among essentially “ordinary people.” In all of this, of course, resides the subtlest kind of irony. For my part, in my much smaller way, I have always had greatest interest, if not all of it, in the quotidian, in seemingly ordinary lives. What others call dull or plain, or cynics might say is banal, I find rich in possibility. When I lived in the North End of Boston, some years ago, near that other tourist Mecca, Quincy Market at Faneuil Hall, I would stand mid-day, engrossed, as crowds swarmed around me, a sea of bodies, watching people’s faces. Do it only once and there is only one thing to conclude. There is no ordinary. There is a common thread in humanity. It is the discernment that is not so ordinary. The extraordinary qualities inherent in a person’s everyday face reside in its being a map of their lives, including of course those extreme existential conditions no one human can avoid.

What I’ve learned, or persuaded myself, is that because of, not despite, their qualities of the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday, the quotidian and the people who are its inhabitants can be transcended, and, caught at just the right moment, and what is photography really (and famously) but the art of the moment—that is, in the taxonomy of those arts measured by the dimension of time? I’ve long since become inured to the observation about some of my work, “I don’t see why you took this picture; there’s nothing happening. How is this different from a snapshot?”

What is different is that element I (and others) call nuance, which has been the objective in a way of all my endeavors, studies, efforts, and exertions, the entire course of my life. I’ve sought it, I find in retrospect, even as a child, when I could not know or conceive of a quality, never mind the concept of it, that I am calling nuance. It is hard to define, except in context, and there are an infinite number of contexts, as the clock ticks, and eyes wander, and the head changes angle. It is in the infinite variety of man (in that archaic undifferentiated sense of human, not of the gender-sequestrated member of the race), spoken of poetically by my perpetual betters. It is in the “pied beauty” of nature. Nuance is of consequence, however small.

Much art consists in, first, the isolation, and then the rendition with the requisite skills of mastery of materials, of the nuances to be found in nature, that is in poor real life. But nuance, I’ll remind one and all, is to be found in the peculiar and likely unduplicated isolation of the subject as well as its juxtaposition, intentional or accidental, in the setting, that is, the “environment” in which the subject is discovered, perhaps, in some manner that escapes the need for any probity even of the most exacting sort, that makes forensic analysis superfluous, because it is revelatory of some deeper, if of utterly “ordinary,” truth, which begins to challenge in a multitude of ways, as I am trying to suggest here, the very meaning of ordinary.

To make myself clear, let’s take a look at the works of art that have nourished us for the last 150 years or so, give or take. Prior to that time, much art had what I’ll call a hieratic function. Artists were akin to priests, who performed the sacrament of creating art. The choice of subjects was constrained. Go far enough back in time and the constraints were very narrowly defined. Subjects were confined to religious and regal personages and, in the case of deceased personages, saints or entities of even more holy otherness. However, with the wholesale deposition of monarchs, and the evacuation of places of worship of practitioners of the faith, artists were free to seek and depict more worldly matter, that is, of this world.

I put it to you that almost randomly you may choose from among your favorite Western artists, let us say, more strictly for a moment, painters (I am not, after all, trying to make this a treatise on the comprehensive history of art, and for convenience sake, not to mention restricting my remarks, limited by the extent to which I am well informed, which is, in the end, not very well at all, I will also speak only of the culture to which I think of myself as a contributor), and you will be hard put to find subjects that are not, in some fashion, of the quotidian with which the painter was familiar. The subjects, say of the continuum of artists in France, are ordinary subjects to their time, starting in the middle of the nineteenth century and proceeding through the first decades of the following one, recently ended, that is, until other modes and styles than the representational (or, as its called, figurative) came to a superior position of ascendancy. Harvesters of flax, and the postman. Fields of flowers, and women sitting at tea. Workers sanding floorboards, and housewives hanging the wash. The artist’s humble bedroom, or her sister reading the newspaper.

I might even argue that it was the emergence of photography as a medium of artistic expression, never mind the far more numerous specimens (however artful or artless) taken by laymen on a daily basis, with a frequency that multiplies to this day—literally billions of images are uploaded daily to the Internet—that facilitated the migration of painterly exertions into other styles, genres and modes than the purely representational. What has been lost, I am afraid—for any number of associated reasons, that is, they have a lot to do with Western civilization having allowed certain modalities to migrate to computer-based technologies for implementation—is nuance.

The chief benefit of computers being to expedite a process, almost any process that can be converted to digital representation of its operative factors or constituent parts, the rapidity with which we can create (if I may use that word, loathe as I am to do so) and produce whatever it is we feel compelled to exchange with one another: be they images, packets of verbal content (notice how careful I am being with the language…), or even bundles of numbers arranged in a grid, or the ubiquitous and everlasting whatever… grows ever greater. That is, we can do things faster and faster, producing more and more of whatever it is we produce, that the artifacts of production, the images, the verbal packets, grow ever more compact and brief in time as well as their very virtual existence, even as they as grow more numerous. How to contend with this flow? Necessarily, as the number of words and images has multiplied, the substance, that is, the value, or, to use a word long since deracinated, the meaning any one image or packet carries as payload diminishes. Among the first victims, long since, indeed was nuance. More recently, one of the children of nuance, irony, has also, I will tell you quietly and discretely here (in case the disastrous news has not reached you as you pore over your text messages and Facebook news feed), has died. Rest in peace.

Given the amount and duration of the attention that anyone receives for their efforts, it is a marvel that books and recordings still get produced, that is, by anyone other than the actual fabricator. Whatever the outcome of the current struggle between Amazon and Hachette over pricing hegemony, it is clear that the future belongs to the distributors and purveyors of what is now a commodity, except in the rarest of instances—what used to be objects of art and letters are now stock keeping units. Given the numbers, billions of people writing and capturing images with cameras and drawing apps—and that’s just in the so-called developing world—I feel safe speaking in what amount to such apocalyptic terms. The only wrath I face is the indignation of romantics, there’s no other way to designate them, who have not as yet succumbed to assuming the only defense for preserving one’s sanity in the long term, and that is pure cynicism.

We cannot speak of art, not in a world where the likes of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons command millions of whatever currency you choose for the output of their factories, suborned by equally rich, if not richer, agents and impresarios, auctioneers and curators, who form the bishoprics of art, defining it and preserving its sacramental value, facilitating its enshrinement. We cannot speak of literature, not in a world where the preponderance of books, printed in bulk for national distribution, are brought to market by an educational-industrial complex, which churns out product the preponderance of which in markets measured in millions of people will sell in the hundreds of copies, or at best the thousands (50,000 is a staggering “best-seller”) with the gratitude of the practitioners anointed with a pedigree, regaled in a cap and gown, and handed parchment with the only suitable credentials for gaining entry to the publishing world, the holy certification of the MFA. Not that this is a money-making encounter for all but a happy few (that is, the Hirsts and Koonses of the literary world, the Dan Browns and the Danielle Steeles), though an MFA is a ticket not only through the manifold doors of a Hachette or Bertelsmann to the first sanctioned treads on the stairway to modest fame, but it is the visa to the land of higher education where the possessor may teach others, acolytes who dream of taking communion with the rest of the anointed ones. We won’t talk about the fact that a teaching job that our anointed scribes, many admittedly with talent that would stand in any age, most with, well, enough graduate credits for the degree that got them to where they are, is barely sufficient to make what is called, without a hint of irony whatsoever, a living.

It is a parody of a process that used to be called paying one’s dues, affordable, with no expense of spirit in a waste of shame, because the stakes were not of fame, which calls, indeed, for a kind of lust—a sterile kind, and certainly not of money in astronomical quantities, but of proving one’s mettle in the mastery of nuance. Not lust in action, but skill, on a foundation of talent. I’ve looked through the CVs of some of the blue chip names in American fiction-writing of a generation or two ago, the women still active, the men, but one, all dead, and the one who’s alive is, he says, “retired:” Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, John Updike, William Styron, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Tyler, Ann Beattie, Margaret Drabble. Not an MFA among them. A writer friend has justly pointed out to me that likely that was because the degree didn’t exist “in them days.” And I respond, rightly so. They didn’t need it is the point. You don’t need a license to know how to drive.

The same may be said of an equal roster of shining lights, if not stars altogether, in the realm of photography (the nominal subject of what has become a tirade), of an even longer generational hierarchy, though the names are still invoked as the progenitors and models of this newest of the plastic arts, even as they are practiced to this day: Paul Strand, Eduard Steichen, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, Tina Modotti, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Helen Levitt and I’ve already mentioned Diane Arbus.

I shouldn’t mention my own name even in moderate proximity to these greats, heroes and heroines of mine, all of them. Indeed their work is the school to which I went to learn what I hope I humbly and tentatively call my craft. Not only will you not find my name in their company, but unless you actually know me, you couldn’t associate my name with a specific image, so unknown are these artifacts. And yet, and yet… As virtually any figure in any canon of work deemed art, most who labor to produce also harbor the hope of becoming known and understood, if not appreciated. The ways in which the world at large, through history, has acknowledged exceptional efforts have varied. Inevitably, the humblest practitioners have at least enjoyed the commissions of close friends and the circles of individuals surrounding them (rapidly dissipating in inverse proportion to the level of recognition of the artisan). Go far enough back, and the identity of the human being who produced work that embodies those qualities of timelessness and enduring beauty, of the kinds and levels of nuance (if I may be permitted to re-introduce the term at this late point) that separate art from mere craft, of the reach of art to the grace beyond mere technical flawlessness. Indeed, art is often permitted imperfections (the Navajo, for entirely other, ulterior, reasons, having more to do with theology and their sense of the place of man in the universe, deliberately introduced errors, however imperceptible, into their artifacts) that we do not tolerate in mere manufactured objects of desire.

However, it was of recognition that I was speaking, recognition of the quality of the work, and ultimately, of course, recognition of the producer of the work. There are formulae, as I’ve pointed out vitriolically, to attaining a kind of fame, neither entirely reliable in any sense, least of all in the assessment of the actual attainment of capturing the elusive quality of “art,” in the sense of enduring, or (dare I say) aspiring to aspects of eternal, connection with some incomprehensible component of the human spirit. That is, speaking of art, to speak of matters that are largely inchoate, and after tens of thousands of years of being pondered, not only little understood, but, if truth be dared to say, still utterly incomprehensible.

For my part, I cannot explain my stubborn anonymity and lack of a more generalized attention (except of course from loved ones and friends, in many ways most important, and for which I never falter in my gratitude). I cannot explain it whether I assign the cause to the tortuous workings of fate in the context of the particular, and idiosyncratic, choices made in the course of my life, or explain it all as merely due to an insufficiently aggressive or sustained effort to gain attention from the right people in the right circles. I speak only of the “fame”, or, more importantly, the recognition of the stature of my own work, which I have no doubt myself has merit, and not at all of the pecuniary rewards which seem to have become the chief gauge of the magnitude of the greatness of the art in question.

I cannot assign my not so unusual lack of status to the kinds of accidents that befall each of us, if we are to call ourselves human—in short, we all suffer from Miniver Cheevy Syndrome—because there really is no such thing as being born too late or too early. Status, recognition, and the quality of art, transcend such random chronological accidents as the birth of this one or that at this time or that, rather than some other.

How to achieve it at this late point in my career, never mind the actuarial realities of my life? Going back to school is out of the question. Indeed, in a perverse distortion of the hackneyed cliché, I not only do, but I have taught. I am simply not prepared to sit again at a desk facing the blackboard.

I can—and indeed, in a very tentative way, I have done so—buy my way to some attention. But this requires not only money, but a kind of dedication, and it is far easier, I say with mixed emotions, to procure the former than to sustain the latter, until the gears of recognition from the establishment mesh. However I have come up with what I think is a far more innovative, if no less arduous, stratagem. I have decided that the fault, my dear readers, is not in myself, but in the lack of stars in the viewing screen of my camera. So slowly, carefully, and with some reliance on chance—yes, sheer luck—I have been even more mindful of discovering subjects that are not only brimming with nuance, but full of the presence of the elusive sister to Dame Fortune: fame.

Happily, and I will very soon end this treatise with this first bit of evidence, I came upon one such subject, quietly and most modestly sitting in the afternoon sun at a café in the sunny capital city of the great little state of Vermont (and why I should not have expected to stumble on such an august personage in a venue of what is likely the state of the greatest level of self-imposed humility—though well short of squeamish Uriah Heep proportions—is only a measure of the poverty of my own poor attainments in the discipline of mindfulness). It was an entirely lucky accident, as it was only because of my sudden and rare, for a mid-afternoon, desire for a cup of coffee that I stopped at the café. I had taken little notice of the man sitting unassumingly at one of a number of tables on the terrace, otherwise unoccupied. I went in, ordered my mug of whatever exotic potion from African beans was being featured, and repaired outside myself, again uncharacteristically as I am not ordinarily a fan of exposing myself to full sunlight in nearly idle repose.

Having taken note, I guess unconsciously, of which vantage provided for the most likely composition should a photograph somehow emerge from what was the otherwise unremarkable and pedestrian milieu, I sat at a table facing the façade, with a full view of the likeliest subject. It was while scrutinizing the scene, lining up the shot, so to speak, calculating the best focal length of the zoom lens, that I realized just exactly who my subject, of whom absolutely no one else took any note whatsoever, was. Without ready access to Wikipedia I could not be sure, but even approximate chronological vectors are sufficient. So at first, I was sure I was letting my imagination fly away with me, to very distant shores (Vienna is, as it turns out, just a tad more than four thousand miles from Montpelier). If it was who I thought it was, he’d have to be some 150 years old (to be more precise, as I discovered in some tiny bit of research subsequent to our meeting, he would be 158; we did engage in conversation, as you will learn, but it was not within the bounds, especially given the exertion required merely to contain the gross expression of my astonishment, of etiquette to ask my subject his age… and as it turned out, he did not volunteer the information).

As you may have gathered from the foregoing narrative, it’s not my practice too often, if at all, to engage my subjects in any way. Therefore it was extremely tentatively, once I assured myself I had captured the image as it had first presented itself to me in the way I wished to frame it, that I approached his table, and said, just loud enough, I figured, for him to hear, “Doktor Freud?” He immediately, if very slowly and gracefully, put his mug of coffee, which I noticed was nearly light beige presumably from a significant quantity of lightener in it, along with the magazine he had been perusing, on the mesh tabletop. He turned to me, and looking directly at me with a magnificently sympathetic gaze, and said “Ja?”

Considering that even as I can view, from time to time, my decrepitude waiting patiently for me on the horizon, I figured I was at worst barely more than a third his age, I had approached the great man with somewhat the awe of a child for a truly venerable personage. I asked him with a slight tremor in my voice how this could be (there was a faint flicker in my mind, though for some reason so weak as clearly ready to extinguish itself at any moment, that crazy as the moment might be, I was, in fact, dealing with a person not entirely in touch with his own reality; consider the irony of that, if this proved to be fantasy more than actual fact—I refrain from using the word truth, at least this early in the encounter). He told me, in almost so many words that, “like our old friend, Mark Twain said [speak of the devil], the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” and he chuckled, showing a brilliant set of dentures. I figured cosmetic surgery had made significant advances since the radical and dangerous treatment Herr Doktor Freud had had to endure for his oral cancer.

He noticed me looking at his mouth and touched my hand, and told me not to worry, that he was, almost miraculously, healed and not in any great discomfort. He said he did have to watch what he ate, but that his diet was accountable more for the sake of preserving his longevity than any further problems he might have with that particular disease. In fact, as it turned out, well, as several things turned out, he was now living in Vermont and had been since just before, as he put it, “the war broke out in Europe” largely for his health. He said he thought it was well-known that the life in that state, not to mention the typical diet of Vermonters, especially if they were strict locavores, was so salubrious as to be life-sustaining well beyond the normal span of years we are afforded.

Indeed, and as is well-evidenced in my photograph, he was not particularly frail or orthopedically challenged, shall I say, though his stature seemed quite diminished from what I expected. As if reading my mind, he told me that, in fact, he was pretty much the height and weight he had always been, and he assumed that many people were surprised on first meeting him, as in the old days, at his diminutive stature. He attributed this misconception to his appearance in photographs and the added bulk of the usually very layered attire he invariably wore.

He said that since his “retirement” (this is the word he used, with a flicking gesture of his hand, beautifully manicured I might note, as if to say, “goodbye to all that”) he had become immediately very comfortable with the very much more informal garb of the typical Vermonter. He does wear a lot of flannel and wool in the winter, because of the cold, but this is only consistent with local custom.

He kept eyeing his magazine, and I realized I had somehow, in addition to distracting him, possibly was on the verge of becoming an annoyance. I looked at him, and down at my camera, which has a wrist loop, that I had unconsciously laid on the tabletop when I sat down. He quietly asked if I might want to take his photograph, but I demurred. I don’t know why, but I also did not openly admit to having already taken the photo I wanted. Something about the very slight wry smile that crossed his features very quickly and disappeared told me that he already knew. I stood up and he moved as if to raise himself from his seat as well, but I gestured to him to stay put, and excused myself for having bothered him. No bother at all, according to him, but I quickly retreated and when I looked back he had already settled himself as I had first discovered him and was deeply engrossed in the magazine. I had been dying to get a closer look at what he was reading, but he kept the magazine under his arm on the table through the entirety of our conversation. It was a news magazine of some sort, but which I cannot say.

Later, once I returned home and processed the image, assuring myself it was, in fact, as good as I had hoped when I checked it on the tiny viewing screen of the camera, I realized with a start that I had taken no particular note of his reference to Twain, and so I did some research on-line, as is my wont in any event, and found this reference, to a letter that Freud had written to his famous colleague Wilhelm Fleiss, who had noted Freud’s absence from the lecture of another physician, personal doctor to Otto von Bismarck. What Freud wrote was: “Schweninger’s performance, there at the talking circus, was a real disgrace! I did not attend, of course; instead I treated myself to listening to our old friend Mark Twain in person, which was a sheer delight.” In his account of Twain and relationship to psychology, a Dr. Zehr, who is the source of this quotation, notes that there is no evidence Twain and Freud actually met, but that their paths must have crossed many times during an extended stay in Vienna of Twain and his entire family. I have my own thoughts.

However, more pertinent to my thesis (and the aforementioned stratagem) one thought, not an original one for sure, was that it was no coincidence, though it always seemed that connections one can discover in innumerable places when researching the lives of renowned persons are full of nuance, that well-regarded cultural figures very often knew (or know) one another, in some way. I realized that this was the key, absent enrollment in, and subsequent successful completion of, a graduate degree program in the fine arts, to my attainment to the kind of stature and recognition I will now willingly admit to wishing for myself, for the sake of my work being better known.

Therefore, I have dedicated myself to being that much more attentive to the presence of those subjects whose image is an instant entree to that kind of notice and its rewards. I hasten to add that I have no intention of joining the ranks of paparazzi, whose exertions in this regard I would not even deign to call a genre of the art of photography. And of course I have no intention of staking out people’s homes and well-traveled paths, because this is uncivilized.

Rather, let this be the notification that you should pay stricter attention to my posts, as you will see more and more of the kinds of subjects that are of interest for themselves. Consider that however artfully I may render this new category of portraits that the rendition itself is a bonus. And of course, there will be no lack of nuance.

Freud has a mug of joe, reads a magazine at local café in Montpelier.

Freud has a mug of joe, reads a magazine at local hip café in Montpelier, Vermont.

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Ten Squared and counting.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

“1 Standard Deviation” is not only my new (and newest) blog. It is also to be the new home of all previous blog entries on what was my usual writing post, a blog called Per Diem. Though, to the relief of everyone, not least of all myself, it did not live up to its name in a literal way. The blog entries there, as my regular readers, my loyal friends and subscribers long since learned, made up in the volume of words what they lacked in regularity of appearance. In a good week, sometimes essays appeared three days in a row. But that was a rare occurrence. I tried, at least, to concentrate the quality of rarity in the quality of the writing itself.

For three days now (it’s a tedious technical process) I have been importing the Per Diem blog entries to this blog as their new repository. There are now 100 essays, jibes, quips, and observations lifted without alteration to these virtual pages.

If you look on the home page of “1 Standard Deviation,” down there in the left hand column you will see, arranged by month and year, the growing library of vintage Dinin.

If you are or were a subscriber to Per Diem, you might consider subscribing here. The place to do so is just a little further down on the left. Per Diem, as a blog, will be removed from its present location after I have given the web crawlers and spiders to find these essays once again and index them, so people searching on their favorite engines for doing so will find them in their new home. Though hardly pressing, this is as much a cost saving measure as it is an esthetic (the old site was getting a little old, along with my face) and a marketing decision (the cleaner, more accessible design I hope points to some cleaner more accessible content to come, in many forms).

If you have a favorite piece or two of mine that you always mean to look up and read again (or perhaps, more likely, you’ve simply forgotten, as I have, the surprising pleasures—yes, I do surprise myself, as any writer should be able to do—of certain passages or even whole pieces; now’s your chance to re-discover a lost favorite or two).

Enjoy.

I hope in the next day or so to have transferred all the contents of Per Diem to this site, going back to 2002…

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Notes from the Hinterlands

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Despite many promises, often repeated, and most frequently by the more liberal politicians, that all Americans deserve and will have high-speed Internet connectivity, we are not there yet. Many Americans, especially in rural areas, do not. Like so much else that gets promised and then forgotten, until the heat of the next campaign demands new or renewed pledges, if it bothers anyone making the promises, there is no sign of it.

I write from a booth in a “family style” diner and restaurant in a town called both poetically and ironically somehow, “Woodsville” (remembering that the town in David Lynch’s perverse and perverted masterpiece Blue Velvet was Lumberton… which Woodsville decidedly is not, nor could it have served as a model, but the ethos Lynch sought to satirize, if not demonize, with some ham-handedness, is in the air, as it has been since long before any of us were born). I am able to connect from my seat in this two-person booth because they are kind enough along with the generously sized pancakes and the vaguely decadent apple-bacon omelets, to offer a Wi-Fi hotspot of middling capacity in terms of throughput and bandwidth. Wisely they put more emphasis on the quality of the food than on the strength of what I admit are geekish parameters of performance few patrons expect, never mind demand.

Most of the patrons of Shiloh’s in Woodsville, from outward appearances, are either “Middle Americans,” in the sometimes seemingly indelicate, surely insensitive taxonomy of sociologists and economists, or they are working farmers (and I operate under the romantic sentiment that all lifelong farmers are workers, even if officially retired—not in the middle, by any means, but at the foundation of our existence; surely the intensity of their exertions add up in some account to a lifetime of what anyone would consider real work). They are drawn, or so I infer from a periodic survey of the license tags of the vehicles in the parking lot, and this largely in the summer, from the surrounding towns in the county and neighboring Vermont. Otherwise they are drawn from kindred origins elsewhere in the country, farming communities as far afield as Texas (surprising the number of Texans, and distinguishable if I may say so, mainly because of those license tags, that is, everyone has a country drawl of one kind or another, and I don’t listen too closely). and as relatively nearby as New York State—these seem to have more of a recognizable linguistic marker than others, but I was born in New York City and have a particular sensitivity to the accent.

I am guessing that the home towns and villages of the patrons are also farming communities, in fact, if not in spirit. From their dress, mainly peaked caps with embroidered logos of companies serving that profession, t-shirts emblazoned similarly and almost without exception marked in some way with printed matter, text or images or both. Nondescript trousers, dark, of gabardine or denim. The women are in equally casual garb, sometimes in a dress, sometimes in shorts and a t-shirt, usually the difference being a function of age. Further, Woodsville and the other hamlets and villages of Haverhill, the county seat, are decidedly not tourist destinations. Not so much that you’ve seen one dairy farm, you’ve seen them all. Rather there is not much to see in a community that is dedicated, essentially, to hard work when the earth is clear, and then to hunker down, except for feeding the animals from a store of food laid down in part as a result of that hard work, when the fields and roads and hills are covered in snow.

Around here, the farms that make up the larger part of the area of any of the surrounding towns and villages are, indeed, dairy farms, producing milk for local consumption, as well as its by-products, cheese and yogurt and ice cream. Or they are contributors to much larger cooperatives. Cabot, by far the largest of these that produces branded products, based in Vermont, has its trucks ply the roads hereabouts as well as much farther afield. Other mass aggregators, unencumbered by the demands of keeping a brand top of mind among the public, gather milk in anonymous tankers. Then they no doubt dispose of it in markets to major conglomerates. Hood, and all the major supermarket chains come to mind.

The farms, being largely populated by a variety of breeds of bovine creatures also offer up their fair share of grass-fed beef. However, and again I’m guessing, I suspect most of the product of this lesser cottage industry, except for the consumption by the sparse number of nearby restaurants, whose patrons would arrive driven in part by a discriminatory desire for locally raised grass-fed meat (for in addition to beef, there is lamb, and from some farms, pork and veal) is not aged, or even freshly slaughtered. These restaurants would prefer a steady if narrow stream of fresh product, it’s true, and they get it (proudly publishing on the menu the provenance of that choice cut of sirloin or filet—none of your fancy hipster cuts, like tri-tip or hanger steak, and only one place, nearly an hour away in cosmopolitan White River Junction, VT offered flat iron). However, for the most part you can still fill your trunk with as much meat as it will hold, but frozen, hard as the rocks so strenuously dug out of the resistant soil in the surrounding hills. And that’s year round, when the grills are cold and the restaurants, the less stalwart ones in any event, not fully committed to the needs of patrons in these austere climes, are closed for the winter. It seems there is no dearth of local beef (and veal, and lamb and goat). In 2013 local slaughterhouses, of which there were three at the time—these are slaughterhouses meeting USDA approval, meaning spending millions of dollars and creating accommodations (an office and a separate restroom) for a full-time “resident” Inspector—were turning away customers. Apparently there were, and remain, inefficiencies in the logistics of coordinating the needs of a surfeit of small time operators. The slaughterhouse in North Haverhill, brand new, and state of the art, whose owner, a fellow named Pete Roy, said, “it was necessary to go big [as in 10,000 square feet big, as opposed to two thousand in the previous plant] or go home.” They can process 40 or 50 beef a day in that space, but still do not possess the equipment and manpower to handle that capacity. Demand is too sporadic and unpredictable to make the investment.

All of this industrial grade capability, incidentally, is well-hidden. I haven’t asked, but I also continue to have no idea where this sizable operation might be located, and I have been in North Haverhill, where it is based, for over three years now. I can, on the other hand, point out many of the farms easily enough. They are quite visible, as are the crops that grow alongside the cows.

Aside from the pasture and meadow land accessible in the line of small towns on either side of the Connecticut River, which straddles the state line, most of the farmland, some of it rolling seemingly without end to the edge of the distant woods that girdle the rich earth, is visible from any negotiable country road, and often grows right to the shoulder of that byway. For the most part it is given over to corn. Of what type I cannot, with my city-boy ignorance, say by a glance or even a studied look. However, I can’t help but notice it grows wondrously high. Given the sparsity of the market for fresh produce however (for example, in the 2012 count of souls dwelling in Woodsville, a scant thousand residents, almost exectly divided by gender, were counted out of upwards of 440 households), the relatively short growing season, and an abundance of eating corn at a handful of farmer markets and farm stands, plus an even larger inventory in the chain supermarkets that service the local populace, also featuring “fresh” produce, but, not surprisingly, from wholly other venues far afield, I am guessing until I can suss out the data from a reliable source that the corn I see is of another variety. Likely that which was made infamous by food writer and social critic Michal Pollan. At least, I surmise, it some grade of feed corn, not fit for direct human consumption.

The Feds are of service here, with their relentless data collection, which we ordinary citizens never see. No NSA required. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its Farm Service Agency, openly solicits and collects surveys on a monthly basis from farmers who wish to certify their yield (no doubt in service to Byzantine tax-related subsidies and credits, based on even more arcane laws buried deep in the code). A moment’s Google search, with the right terms, through the good offices of the ‘good enough’ wi-fi accessible to me in my booth at Shiloh’s, iPad propped up next to my plate of an egg-white omelet chock full of onions, peppers, spinach and good cheddar cheese, local whole wheat bread and home fries crisped on the grill, and I’m home… with a spreadsheet to download that covers every county in every state of this great nation. It takes a couple of minutes to download.

Sure enough, all of Grafton County is planted over to three kinds of corn. There’s sweet corn, the kind we like to eat right off the cob, buttered or not, and in other forms no doubt. Sweet corn, irrespective of Mr. Pollan’s opinions of the uses of #2 Feed Corn (about which more in a few moments), is a favorite of a great many Americans. We consume, according to recent figures (2012), just shy of 34 pounds of corn products (which includes not only the kernels, but cornmeal, flour, etc.). But let us suppose, because it’s easier, we are talking about corn on the cob, the edible portions. The yield of a bushel of corn, at a little over 15% moisture, is about 56 pounds. This means a bushel of sweet corn will satisfy the average annual needs of almost two Americans.

I’ve saved all of you readers the math and the research time. Here’s a further breakdown of what all of Grafton County, in which Woodsville is situated, and of which Haverhill, the township into which Woodsville is incorporated and is county seat, has dedicated to corn farming. Sweet corn (what we put directly into our mouths) is just short of 1% of all those rolling hills and fields of the tall crop, or about 4400 bushels, or enough to feed 7-1/4 thousand people their corn for a year. That many people, assuming they consumed all of Grafton County’s corn, constitute a tad over eight percent of the county’s total population of 89 thousand souls. Doesn’t leave much for tourists, unless they’re the ones scarfing up all that delicious corn.

But as Mr. Pollan will tell you, that’s nothing. Not compared to the 453 thousand bushels of yellow corn, on 90% of the farmed acreage in Grafton County, corn that is dedicated to silage production. Silage, which this now informed city boy has learned, is for forage, that is, it’s stored for the winter, mainly to feed milk cows (which makes eminent sense, given the cow population), and consists of most of the plant that’s growing above the ground. That’s stalks, leaves, green corn (it’s generally not allowed to mature into grain) and all, cut up and chopped into a form that’s easily stored. Pollan talks a lot about Corn #2, which is largely used by way of harvesting the grain, some fed directly to live stock, and preponderantly processed into high fructose corn syrup, the great contaminant of our food chain, and responsible, ostensibly for everything wrong in our diets and metabolisms, from diabetes to obesity.

Feed corn is grown in Grafton County. It accounts for the other ten percent (if you’ve been silently doing the math) of the crop in 2013, and it mainly is devoted to providing seed for next year’s (that would be this year’s) silage planting, and for the usual uses of feed corn, that is corn byproducts, like corn meal, and alcohol.

So the farmers of Woodsville, I’d say, can rest easy as they’re not contributing much to the degradation and debauchery (as one anthropologist I read calls it) of the American standards of nutrition. They’re barely serving the needs, if the numbers here are anywhere near accurate, of the average demand for good fresh sweet corn, one of the pleasures and treasures of summer dining, especially here in the hinterlands so close to the source. It’s a wonder then that Woodsville, population of barely upwards of a thousand people (evenly divided almost exactly between men and women) make such a poor living. The average household makes slightly over $31 thousand, which is almost exactly half the average household income for Grafton County. Moreover, as a kind of reality check on the actuality of these figures, the average valuation of residential real estate in Woodsville is, again, almost exactly half of what it is in the rest of the country, that is, just barely north of $100,000. Hardly a castle.

Woodsville, and much of surrounding Haverhill, is far and away predominantly white. It is poorer (even than the rest of Grafton County). Generally, the county is older, better educated, and less employed. All of these demographic data seem to point to some internal contradictions, but nothing discernible, not to me. And least of all, in terms of the potential demand for a convenience (I’d call it a utility, like water or electricity, but that’s me) and that’s access to the Internet, which is the subject that inducted me into this meditation.

Being poorer than the rest of New Hampshire, which, according to coverage maps, especially in the southern part of the state, is pretty well served by service providers, I’d expect less demand. There’s also much less call, as I infer from the kinds of stores supplying staple items and other groceries, for natural products. Consumer package goods are generally the same to be found all over the country: over-processed, loaded with high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, salt, and preservatives with long convoluted chemical names. Only one market chain has a store nearby (in Vermont) that has an organic produce section. The same store offers bulk bagels, wholly local oddly enough. This is the kind of anomalous product discovery, like the home-made breads in the local general stores, made from whole grain ingredients and fewer additives of no nutritional value whatsoever, right next to the candy bars and the chips and the Tasty-Kakes, I stumble on from time to time. It’s as if the region, for so long mainly populated by people who worked hard, kept their heads down, fought for lower taxes (or none at all) and willing to live in the kind of community that is perpetually sleepy and a little behind (that’s poetic and romantic euphemism) the zeitgeist that drives the 24/7 news cycles those of us who are denizens (or addicts) of the Internet culture that fills our days, has no need, in fact, for high-speed Internet.

It’s not clear what they’d do with it, even if it’s offered, which it is from time to time, though I guess with no takers, by the local phone company, who bought all the lines and the equipment from Verizon, happy to let them go as this was one of the few money-losing regions of the country of their far-flung profit machine. Life here is idyllic in many dimensions and likely for the locals in this dimension as well. There simply is no call to check into Facebook, Buzzfeed, or send hundreds of images a day via snapchat and Instagram.

Teenagers and even younger folks I see in restaurants are well enough outfitted with smart phones. In fact they are the only people I see in public exercising the right of the plugged-in generation to dispense with etiquette, never mind the basic social graces. Their elders do not sit hunched over tablets and smartphones. They sit looking each other in the eye, and having real honest-to-god conversations. They chat with neighbors at other tables, including “new” neighbors, which is to say, the strangers in the next booth, who may as easily be from Berryville, Texas (population 999) as Wells River, Vermont, the town just across the bridge from Woodsville.

Just across the road from Shiloh’s is a relatively new Walmart, whose parking lot fills fairly early in the morning and stays full until closing. Residents of more than a few years attest that even before the Walmart arrived, the small stores on the classic main streets of the area, and Woodsville’s is as classic as it gets, with banks, merchandise specialists, a railroad stop, beauty parlor, even a bookstore at one time now represented by the empty store fronts they once inhabited, had emptied out or were emptying. The virtue of Walmart, if nothing else (and someone else’s critical apparatus may be tuned to a different set of parameters), is that it is open early and stays open late, so if you need the odd ingredient, or have the odd fixation, you can satisfy it even at ten o’clock at night, when most good farmers have probably already been asleep for a bit.

There’s no shortage of personal computer and mobile electronics, including the latest Kindles and iPads and phones, with many accessories and even the equipment required to pull bits out of the ether, including wi-fi routers. Though who buys and uses this merchandise is unclear, and how they “jack in” (to use William Gibson vaguely distasteful coinage) is even less clear. It’s true the major carriers of cellular voice and data signals have finally (as of a year and a half ago) managed to bring their fastest technologies, 4G and even LTE in spots, to the area. This means that in a region where there is still not critical mass to entice a cable company to pull coax or fiber, and most television is transmitted digitally solely by satellite dishes, which festoon every house, trailer and double-wide, not matter how posh or dilapidated (and there is a broad range of wealth and lifestyle even here in the boondocks), most other digital communication is by phone. I guess the locals surf the Web on those tiny screens.

We live in what is a secondary house for us (we also have another, as I have documented and told of in story and fable, in a medieval village in rural France, about 45 minutes from the foothills of the Alps; there we have DSL service and connect to France Telecom and the world) in North Haverhill. I have spoken repeatedly to the local phone company, a struggling enterprise called Fairpoint, which continues to buy up old Verizon assets here in northern New England and New York. They have DSL service as close as Pike, another unincorporated part of Haverhill, and which consists of mainly a sign on a utility pole that informs you that you are in Pike. We pass the sign on the last leg of the trip here from our urban cocoon, seven hours to the south, and then, two or three minutes later pull into our driveway. But we are still too far from the switch in Pike for them to offer even the barest of essential high speed service.

They are always apologetic, are Fairpoint, but simply cannot say even with cloudy uncertainty when they might muster the justification for installing another piece of equipment another critical mile closer to our house. It’s easy to surmise, there is not much call from our neighbors.

All of this kind of inconvenience, one of the deprivations of the truly spoiled, but still speaking to the more fundamental issue addressed only briefly and by allusion alone in my opening sentences, points to yet another inequality in the United States. The disparity between the access to those aspects of modern life that serve more than a basic set of needs. In an age long since established as a digital age, the digits, it would appear, stop somewhere just beyond the city line. And our rural brethren, both the dying breed of farming stalwarts, who provide so reliably the most fundamental of needs, and the merchants who sell them seed and feed and tractors and wheelbarrows, not to mention the restaurateurs who make them breakfast, are clearly, by default, de facto, and by some not very deep cost benefit analysis not in any way equal to the lowliest urban dweller. The government has long since acknowledged this disparity, but like all other disparities, use it as lyrics to the mouth music politicians like to play.

What I can’t figure out, though I do not by any means question it, is why Shiloh’s, an oasis of family cooking, is also a lone outpost for Internet warriors like myself, so seldom do I show up at their door, and so few in number, clearly, in these parts are my brethren. They don’t even require a password.

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too few begats, too many kidneys

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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My personal legend

Gray1123

I don’t recall when I was told or by whom, but among the several facts about my father’s family are two that I never forget, if for different reasons. Aside from what are to me the obvious jokes to be made about at least one of these (and with some imagination, about both, as related), but quickly to be discarded, I am and never have been sure what to make of these. They seem at once resonant with meaning, and I imagine these are the kinds of nuggets on which whole stories are built, if not legends, and at the same time, they simply point to the kind of anomalous facts we all have in our backgrounds. Accountable for, but never accounted in terms of the audit we make of our lives from time to time.

Perhaps it’s time this late in the course of my life to make something of them myself. So I will present the facts here, and see where I go with them in future installments. Of course, if they are true and there is no one left I know of or am in contact with to verify these tidbits of information, I like to think that somehow, however haphazardly, they obviously have already made something of themselves in me, without my help, or anyone else’s.

They are these.

For one, my paternal grandparents were related. It was always supposed in my family they were cousins. How or through what lines I have no idea at this point, and I am not sure how successful any research might be into records about shtetl Jews from the turn of the last century in the Pale of Settlement. I only know, actually, that what I was told for certain was that they, grandfather Joseph and grandmother Chaia (or Ida, as she was called in English) had the same surname, now mine, of Dinin. That’s what it was in Ukraine. That’s what it still is.

Second, and I wish I could remember the context for my learning this fact, but my father was alleged to have, on one side of his body, a “double kidney.” In fact, this is a common anomaly, the literature says, usually that manifests itself as problematic only in children, and adults with it live normally. It is called, to be accurate, duplex kidney. In effect, he had three kidneys. The normal allotment on one side, and on the other side twice the complement of organ (with twice the number of ureters). It was not enlarged or of mega proportions as I understood it. Rather he had twin kidneys, in effect, on that side. Apparently both worked, or only one, or they alternated. However I was never told outright that he had anything other than normal kidney function.

Aside from the emergent theme in these two otherwise unrelated family traits and acts of the mystery of twinship, of the other, of the nature of the self and where the question of redundancy fits in mystery, the latter fact has proven to be the one of more than passing interest to me. I, who have two ordinary kidneys (and nothing else supernumerary I hasten to add, for the sake of those still stuck on my kissing cousin granny and grandpa), have also been cursed—though maybe I shouldn’t use that word, even for the color it adds—with one, possibly two, related afflictions.

One is kidney stones, with which I have been struck at two times, actually three, in my adult life. I also have gout, a metabolic disorder involving the body’s ability to filter out excessive purines, found naturally in many kinds of food—good, tasty, savory, and nutritious foods, otherwise part of many very healthy diets—both animal and vegetable. It is, of course, the job of the kidneys to filter the blood many things no longer of use to the running of the machine of our physical being, including purines.

Simple facts have a way of leading us to unsuspected places. Nothing at this stage of my life is unexpected, but still, it feels like an adventure to explore the first of these facts I have been keeping alive in my memory for so long. More reports to come.

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