The family: mine that is, on one side. If this doesn’t say “Russia” to you, before it says anything else, you are invited to a serious discussion at our mutual convenience.
It’s taken all this time (and, as trigger, after reading a Louis Menand book review cum essay about Franz Boas and his followers) to understand that in saying I am an ethnic Jew, it means not that my ethnicity is Jewish. My first pass at understanding this in broad terms is that religion has not much at all to do with ethnography or ethnology (Jews, in short or in long, are not the same the world over).
Rather I am of a certain ethnic group, probably with some specificity, the first generation of Eastern European immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in the last wave of migration from that region to the United States that was admitted more or less without negotiable impediment.
My parents both were from Ukraine/Belarus, dating from a time that these distinctions were not made geopolitically. These nations, as they are recognized now, were all part of Russia. And being right on the border, or as near, with Poland, there is some dispute as to the exact way in which such derivation should be characterized precisely. Saying the “Pale of Settlement” covers a lot of inexactitude.
In any event, they both came from families that lived in small towns, definitely not shtetls (though my father did a good job of describing life during his boyhood in remarkably similar ways to the descriptions embedded in classic shtetl literature – Sholem Aleichem, and the like). And so, though there was some resonance, life was not exactly Anetevka and there were no fiddlers perched precariously on thatched roofs. There were resonances for sure, but my father and his entire family were used to many what I would call bourgeois amenities.
He spoke with equal fervor of the “emporium” (I’m sure he used that word at least once) owned by my grandmother’s relatives. It was a capacious store with many departments and sold a wide variety of goods, from the pickles in barrels and caviar (packed in similar fashion, though displayed and dispensed and sold in ways he never specified) to all manner of household goods, clothing, and the like.
My father told me of forebears (though from how many generations back he did not say) who were “magistrates,” a term he meant to be understood as interchangeable with judge—which in many jurisdictions, including current ones, is not an unfair definition. The reason this came up at all, aside from a current of motifs in his stories about his childhood that were evidentiary of the somehow higher or greater status accorded to holders of our family name, was to make a reasonable case for the etymological roots of that last name. He said one theory (apparently held by the clan’s wise men; though he never singled out these individuals as to identity) was that, the Hebrew word for law being “din”… as in “beth din” (house of the law) and these being Jewish judges, the intimation was that the laws used by them to adjudicate matters before them were talmudic derived from Torah, and there you have it. Though the intermediary steps of how these magistrates came to acquire the family name Dinin, as if they themselves embodied these laws, was also never spelled out.
I have potentially valid blood relations with other Russian emigré descendants who settled not only in this country, but even more favorably (given the coincidence of localities from which we can trace our family roots, plus the still relative singularity of the last name) in Israel. These latter, though the choice was voluntary as to the appropriate orthography of the surname, call themselves Dinim, which, in fact, is more consistent with the orthography of Hebrew plural spellings and pronunciation.
With a contemporaneity that extends back at least as far as my paternal grandparents’ births, which occurred in the waning decades of the nineteenth century—which makes it now at least 140 years—the name was spelled Dinin.
I’ve had reason to advert in this space to the blog of my friend Dom Capossela. He’s one of my oldest friends, as in one of the most long-lived friendships I’ve come to treasure. We go back to the late 60s, when I met him and his former wife, on the cusp of beginning a new phase of their lives, opening a new restaurant.
Of late, that is, as of about nine months in a serious way, he has discovered the wonders of the internet and plunged in with all limbs. It’s something of a high wire act, given that he has persisted with a daily posting on his blog, every day since. He’s now up to over 233 days and counting. He has quite a following – a testament to his persistence and tenacity. He has admittedly very few skills, especially in a practical way, in the area of computer science and despite the challenge hangs in there, taking assistance where he can find it. I’ve been known to volunteer.
In any event, aside from providing an alternative outlet for my own writing – there have been a number of entries on this blog, and in other places where I publish, when I have cross-posted as well to Dom’s blog. He expresses great, heart-felt, and sincere appreciation for these contributions, many of which start out as spontaneous email messages from me to him privately, most often in response to some trigger in the content of his blog. I read it first because he’s my friend, and I find I have an unquestioning interest (that is, I don’t doubt my own interests, and therefore I don’t question them; I question him plenty, as in, “do you know what you did there…?”). I continue to read because out of some kind of synergy, or perhaps it’s some kind of geriatric symbiosis (he’s older than me by about four years, and, as I like to joke, he keeps gaining on me) much of what he chooses to write about is stimulating of thoughts about my own life and experiences, and somehow, equally spontaneously, they pour out of me. That’s how Dom puts it, and I’ll paraphrase, “it’s amazing; it just pours out of you, just like that.” I do clean it up a bit before I post it, but it’s pretty much true, that what you see here is what came out of me.
I always accept the proposition that maybe that’s evident enough and I shouldn’t be so proud of myself.
I don’t know about pride. But I do know that my next urge is always to share it, And so here it is.
Most recently, that is, in the last few days, maybe three, maybe four, Dom had occasion to comment on several subjects that were inadvertent prompts for me.
Somehow the subject of games and puzzles came up and he had occasion to opine, as he characteristically does, so enthusiastically, “who doesn’t like puzzles and games?” So, first you’ll see my answer.
Second, and in a continuing suite of reminiscences about his childhood which seems to vary in tone from recollections of the “mean streets” of the North End of Boston in the 50s, to quite touching, almost, but not quite sentimental memories about that same boyhood and his bumptious family life. It’s with a significant pride that he recalls running and playing on the streets of that ghetto (not meant as anything but descriptive; read no negative connotations in the usage, as the word still has a perfectly good denotation), and in the most recent portrayal he speaks of ceding the streets to no one. Generally bereft of automobiles, which were a luxury in that neighborhood, those streets and alleys constituted the perpetual playground for any number of games and sports (there’s that theme again) and the only interruption which was unquestioned was for the unchallenged passage of certain vehicles, usually a “Cadillac with Rhode Island plates,” to which obeisance was given silently and observantly.
And that’s the second subject I’ll address in my own terms as it called up details of my own life at about the same time.
Puzzles and Games
There’s not much inherently interesting, I don’t think, in imparting the knowledge, regarding “puzzles and games,” that I hate puzzles and games, and always did. Even as a kid. Smacked too much of competition for no other reason than to compete. I somehow knew prematurely that life was a rat race and, as Fran Lebowitz long since pointed out (I think it was she, it may have been Lily Tomlin – certain authorities, according to the internet, aver the origin of the statement was actually William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain of Yale University), even if you win, you’re still a rat. Why look for ways to get anxious about existential proxies for survival.
Whatever my predilections, I do remember playing Scrabble with my two grown cousins, daughters of my Cousin Fannie, who lived near us in the Bronx and the relative we were most likely to visit when that cyclic urge to break bread with blood ties came over us. Anyway, both Beverly and Harriet were school teachers. I had a crush on both of them, but especially Harriet, the darker one. She was maybe 22 or 23 back then. Beverly was a couple of years older. I think Beverly had already gotten married. I was, at best, nine. I was also the current really precocious one in the family. At least to the extent that we all need an identity, and that was mine. The little saturnine genius.
Anyway, somehow or other, we seemed always to end up playing Scrabble. I think my animus about games went into suspension with these games as, miraculously, I always seemed to win. They were very convincing. And maybe I did beat them, and at worst they simply didn’t try very hard. It honestly never occurred to me until I was in my late 20s or maybe even my 30s, and had had some harrowing experiences already with women. Two failed marriages by the time I was 35 will do that to you, and each of my errant wives were young – you guessed it – maybe about 22 or 23, as the critical age. One of them was that age when she decided to have an affair. The other was barely that age when I met her. Anyway, it wasn’t until I was only a bit older, and as for wiser, I’ll be generous and call it a bit, that it occurred to me that the fabulous Menn sisters (that was the family name; Fannie was a widow, and my cousin’s late husband – Fannie was a Dinin, like me – was named Hyman Menn) had allowed me to win, because they were teachers of young children, and they knew, preternaturally, that’s what you do. Now I think, who knows? We moved to Providence soon after that, and Harriet got married to Herb, and that was the end of the occasional Scrabble games.
“Cadillac with Rhode Island plates”
Cadillac with Massachusetts plates (photo credit: Fotolia/Hemmings 1949 Cadillac Club Coupe)
The address we moved to in Providence, on the East Side, essentially a Jewish enclave that covered about one and-a-half square miles, was 44 Sargent Avenue. A very modest one-family dwelling that sat on a very odd-shaped, tiny lot that itself was situated at the point where the street took an odd jog, very slightly, to the right as you proceeded uphill, which meant it was nearly impossible to park straight and parallel with the curb right in front of our house. It made other aspects of living there – because we were on the serious part of the rise of the hill all the houses sat on, the elevation of the left side of our house was probably about two feet higher than the right side. The house was built square and level, of course, but it made our basement and the single car garage on the right-hand side of the house truly subterranean. They could only exist as a result of being on that rise, as the lot wasn’t wide enough, and if they scooped out a driveway on an incline, which they did, and built the house into the hillside, which they did, they could tuck a garage in, barely wider than a car and which a nervous, not too skilled driver, like my father, always found a challenge – a challenge he would lose about twice a year – to avoid scraping one side, usually the right side, of our automobile on the frame of the overhead door. It also meant having to back out of the driveway blind almost directly into the street. Being situated on that jog in the street, there usually wasn’t anyone else interested in trying to park there. This meant that the free and clear part of what was otherwise a fairly narrow street to begin with suddenly seemed to widen, so that cars proceeding up the hill would speed up just a tiny bit, and this meant having to be that much extra cautious tentatively backing out of our blind driveway. My father did it for nearly 30 years, into his 80s, until he suddenly got sage and gave up driving altogether.
But this, in retrospect, was only a metaphorical representation, real enough for sure, but only a metaphor, for what I experienced as a displaced child of the Bronx as the precariousness of my otherwise mild-seeming, innocuous ‘hood. It turned out, we learned quickly as we acquainted ourselves with our community, our new neighbors immediately across our narrow street were the Gotz family. They were a couple who lived on the ground floor dwelling of their duplex. On the second floor, with its own entrance and street address, lived Mrs. Gotz’s mother, hardly ever seen as she was a semi-invalid. The other part of her bifurcated life appeared from her behavior when she did present herself in public to be that of a demented person. Or maybe her half-chronic condition was dementia, and she and her dear ones were merely spending their time waiting for the other shoe, or whatever article it was, to drop. She would occasionally appear on the second-floor porch of her apartment and yell at whoever was in the street. If you were a child you learned what the sensation associated with the word “chilling” was, as she would suddenly, breaking the diurnal calm that usually prevailed on Sargent Avenue, start shrieking and yelling. At other times, she was docile and sweet and even attentive, seemingly focused. She took a genuine interest in our lives as little kids, and we, or at least I, enjoyed these peaceful hiatuses into sanity.
The Gotzes somehow persevered with this generational impediment. Usually we saw them if we saw them at all – aside from appearances, not a little like a kind of modest royalty making an audience with their public, on patriotic occasions when everyone was home from work and school and they would stand around idly, in clement weather, on their front porch – on bundling themselves and their son, Manny, into the family sedan in their driveway (a long straight shot, nice and wide, and on level ground, into a spacious two car garage that sat at the rear of their sizable lot, with a generous view of the street and oncoming traffic). And they would putter off to god knows what destinations. They kept to themselves.
Manny was adopted. This was one of those bits of common knowledge that you seemed to assimilate out of the very atmosphere bounded by the street. I don’t remember anyone telling me, or making a big deal of it.
It was a fortuitous match, parents to child, as Manny had the same dark, one might call it swarthy, complexion as his compactly built brooding father – and later in his development it grew to incorporate the quality of being unusually hirsute, with very dark hair growing thickly on his head and his face, and, as was revealed in summer, on his trunk-like arms and legs. Manny was short. Perhaps squat was a better descriptor, as he was always fairly powerfully built. This was one factor in my sense of precariousness, also part of that atmosphere. I was, it almost goes without saying, of a more ectomorphic configuration, tall and skinny. One could say slight. I thought of myself as slight. Except I was so tall for my age, until adolescence when, seemingly, all of my friends caught up with me. Except Manny.
Not that Manny was exactly a friend, or a playmate. He was about three years older than me. I don’t know who he “played” with. He was, as I suggested, quiet, and kept to himself. I can remember thinking quite clearly that I was ill disposed to invite him, however I might have done that, to join the wholly imaginary exercises, a kind of precursor to cosplay, as we did it in our street clothes with only a few props, though the scenarios in our minds were clear enough, of combat (essentially re-enactments of the Korean War, rumbling rapidly into the past, though it had ended only three years prior to our move to Providence). Or they might be the stock tableaux, part of our repertoire, fed by a diet of Hollywood features that were prominent through the 40s and 50s, of belligerent cowboy and Indian encounters. Most of these games involved toy pistols and make-shift bows without arrows. They mainly consisted of a lot of running around, hiding poorly behind physical obstacles, and making gun fire noises with our mouths. Manny simply wasn’t the type. You developed your own style of dying: arrow to the neck, gut shot… usually very dramatically and drawn out.
A transformative incident occurred, after not too many years had passed. I was barely into my scholarly career in junior high school, a couple of years or three into our New England sojourn, that somehow or other, again through that peculiar osmotic acquisition of certain everyday facts about the existence of other residents, even as you assiduously avoided having much contact with them, that Manny had a fairly constant companion. Were they not well into their adolescence, I might be tempted to describe them as playmates, though there was only the most sinister quality, one way or another – yet another, a different form of intuition – about their hanging out. Their most noticeable singular feature, say if a policeman making routine inquiries were to ask if you noticed any distinguishing physical characteristics, was a propensity to present themselves in public with heavy, and unusually well-advanced for their ages, five o’clock shadow. Manny’s buddy, who was a little older, and already had a driver’s license – because Manny had by then stopped traveling with his parents in the sedan, and was now in the company of his constant friend; they would go off together, Manny exiting his house with a furtive air, sometimes bull-like, sometimes with a gentle if gruff grunt of farewell that he projected back through the open glass-windowed wood frame door into the perpetual darkness within. His friend was called, as transmitted by the local wireless telegraph, Ray.
Well, one day, the news came back to us, and seemed to have spread fairly quickly, and not surprisingly, as it constituted notoriety of such magnitude that it was worth reporting in the city’s newspaper of record, the Providence Journal-Bulletin. It seemed that Ray and Manny were “playing” (that was the word that sticks in my mind; I will swear it was reported to me deploying such a word choice). Ray had a weapon, a handgun, apparently a revolver, that he had borrowed from his father. He was proudly showing it to his friend when somehow or other it discharged, firing a bullet, which entered and then exited the fleshy part of Manny’s already ample mid-section. A flesh wound. As the crime shows of the 90s, about 35 years later, would teach us, a “through-and-through.” Manny was patched up and recovered quickly and life went back to the strange normal we had learned, previous to this incident, not to think too much about.
The one note to this story that was at once macabre and highly humorous, especially to the precocious posse of bar mitzvah boys of which I was one, was that, on seeing what he had done, and using what knowledge he had somehow only thus far poorly assimilated from his tutors in these matters, Ray decided that he’d better ditch the evidence, and he threw away the pistol he had “borrowed” from his father. He dropped it into “the sewer,” which is to say, he dropped it into a convenient storm drain cut into the gutter of the street. I have always imagined this bizarre and clownish scenario had come to pass in the dark recesses of 43/45 Sargent Avenue, which did have a storm drain cut into the gutter in front of it, and which I never looked at in the same way every again; but it’s not clear to me, after all this time, where the incident did, in fact, occur… it would have been just as stupid whatever the setting.
The most chilling aspect of this anecdote was what was also general knowledge, kind of part of the legend of that crazy town, belying its vaguely Wild West ancestry, Providence RI. Bluntly stated, Ray was, to give his full name, Raymond Patriarca Jr., son of the mob boss of Federal Hill, the Italian-American enclave in downtown Providence. I have never to my knowledge laid eyes on Mr. Patriarca, though his power and influence always preceded him. My tenure in Providence was brief, only seven years, taking me from childhood to my teen years, when I abruptly left to take up my precocious academic career in Boston, the Athens of America. I say all this with a somewhat sardonic tone, because neither city had yet abandoned, not in 1963, its still decrepit conditions of municipal decay and metropolitan inanition. It took ethnic politicians, Italians and Irishmen, to revive them and bring them to a true state of renaissance.
In the meantime, certainly in the early 60s and into the 70s, it seemed to me, as little as I paid attention to these matters, that what real power there was, was in Boston, which seemed to be ascendant in terms of mob rule of any other part of New England. It wasn’t until the time I lived briefly in the North End, the Federal Hill of the larger city, in the 80s that I learned that it may have been a fact that the local mob boss in that part of town (as opposed to the Irish syndicate that ruled Southie) was a man named Jerry Angiulo, but even he, back in the day, reported to the big boss of New England, Raymond Patriarca, who would appear from time to time, on expeditions, probably something like a papal visit, to the teeming streets of the North End, so the locals could pay their respects.
It made me think of my childhood, of course, and in my feverish and anxiety-laden imagination, my childhood near-misses.
[Disclosure: Some facts and proper names have been changed for purposes of fictionalization]
Though charming people are a delight when we encounter them, most of us rarely think of consciously setting out to be charming. The very idea of learning to be more charming sounds off-key, for we tend to believe at some level that we are simply born charming or aren’t – and that any conscious
Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.
I’m not gardening in the backyard of my old condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Been there. Done that. Howard has left the venue.
I don’t know how you spend your time when not temporizing on Facebook. There’s work, of course. And all the things we do to stay alive. Then there’s everything else. I spend a certain amount of my time on an ongoing basis looking into my roots. I mean in the Kinta Kunte sense; my own little channel of Alex Haley, but of a different skin color and a different continent.
My forebears were from Russia. In my father’s case, more specifically what is now called Ukraine—current hotbed of nationalism 21st century style opposed by Russian recidivists, mainly ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, thinking maybe they should never have left. In fact, my father’s people (and my father and his family) lived in that part of Ukraine often, in our day, violently in dispute, a region still very much riven.
I have no idea where my father, who died in 1999, would fall out on the question. I was raised to understand that he thought of himself and all of his relatives as Russians—though Ukraine has existed, that is, inhabited, for over 30 thousand years. But in modern political history, Ukraine has rarely been independent, free of the Russian yoke.
It was part of Russia when my father was born, 110 years ago. Inevitably the Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement that was constituted in part of parts of Ukraine would think of themselves as Russian.
I grew up on stories from my father about his childhood, about which he had vivid memories, and the ultimate turmoil that transfigured his life and that of his small family: his parents, his brother—my uncle, and his mother’s brother, my Great Uncle Sol. It was Sol (or Zalman) who instigated the move out of Russia to better parts. They settled briefly in Argentina, waiting almost three years to be able to enter the United States under the quota of immigrants allowed from that country. Among the stories my father told was the adventure of escaping by train, past Russian and then Polish guards at the borders—all of it planned and engineered by my Great Uncle, who, my father had also told me was a troublemaker from way back.
I remember my father’s stories, fragmentary as they were, with some continuing immediacy, as he repeated them over and over, and I never tired of hearing them. To punctuate the stories were albums of photos, mainly of his immediate family: those I’ve already mentioned, as well as five (or was it six?) brothers, of whom Zalman was but one. The others were, like their father, my great grandfather in addition to his brother, my great grand uncle, enterpreneurs and business owners. One by one, they were cut down, early in their lives, by Cossacks, by bandits, by the “white army” of the czar, harassed by all of them, and from all sides, with no respite from the mayhem at the hands of the revolutionaries, including the “red army.” It was to escape the conditions, none of them “good for the Jews” that resulted from the upheaval of the Revolution, the overthrow of the czar, and so forth.
Prior to any thought of escape, my Uncle Sol had done his part by aiding the partisan efforts of his more daring and rebellious friends. Sol was protected by the status of his father, a close friend of town officials, including the mayor, from whose offices Sol would steal official blank forms to be forged into documents that allowed free passage from one part of Russia to another, necessary credentials for those bent on fomenting change.
What I am left with, though, is my patchwork of memories of the stories my father told so many times. I regularly would encourage him to write down what he recalled, and especially the exploits of my older relatives. He was only a youth when he left Russia (at the age of thirteen) and my Uncle Alex, his brother, even younger. There would not have been that many stories concerning their behavior and actions, though my father’s memory was comprehensive and incisive enough to form a virtual novella about what life in general was like for a young boy at the turn of the century in Czarist Russia in provincial Russian towns, each with its complement of a Jewish community.
There is something else of a record of that era and my family’s private history, appropriate to the present age of a disconnected if wholly continuous flow of visual imagery, especially with the eruption of personal photographic records, designed to have a half-life almost as brief as particles in a collider, and numbering into staggering orders of magnitude: billions of images every week dissolving into the ether. Ironically, the visual record that I now possess consists not of countless pictures, but more than enough, a surfeit, of photographic prints for the most part. Many of the faces when I uncovered the first cache of photos were immediately recognizable, at least insofar as my father had identified individuals unknown to me (all but my Uncle Sol and my grandfather, Josef Dinin, were dead and gone by the time I was born, and they didn’t last long enough to be recorded in my still undeveloped cortex)—almost all of them existed seemingly mainly to put faces to the cavalcade of names he would rattle off.
After my father’s death, I retrieved boxes of material that turned out to be poorly stored further records. There were some documents, like my Uncle Sol’s papers from Argentina, his passport, the naturalization certificate in the U.S. of my grandfather. But mainly there were more photos, cascades of photos in some instances as pasteboard boxes long neglected disintegrated under my fingers. I removed everything I could gingerly and procured the lot into archival storage containers, designed specifically for photographic materials, or anything on paper really and particularly susceptible to the acids used in most paper and board fabrication.
Now I continue to be faced with figuring out what to do with this trove. Most of the photographs were captured by commercial photographers with studios in the cities and towns of Ukraine, or taken by itinerant traveling photographers, more of the quality of snapshots, but still encased in their presentation covers, of a thin, opaque, and usually black pasteboard. The commercial studio portraits are mounted on thick cardboard, usually with ornate borders and title text, often of a generic nature, suggesting that the photographer bought stock mounting board, with embossed decorations and non-specific renditions of their business, like “Cabinet – Portrait” (French seemed to be a prominent lingua franca indeed, for the commercial and educated classes of Russia, like a bourgeois transfiguration of the habits of the court and of diplomatic circles).
In one trove I found two of literally hundreds of images, two that I thought I recognized readily enough.
If I am correct, and I can’t be sure because the fellow I am fairly certain is the refractory young man known as Zalman, the daredevil and stalwart friend of revolutionaries, is much younger in this portrait (perhaps this is from the office blank stealing phase of his nascent career as a troublemaker) than other positively identified portraits I have. He is the one, the particularly handsome one, sans spectacles, unlike his companions, on the right staring dead on into the camera. These three intense dudes, it seems to me, are clearly close, enough so to be entirely casual in their pose—a departure from the typically stiff and formal portraiture in so many other of the prints I have. I have no idea who the other two are, and I am fairly certain there is no one left alive who I might possibly have a chance of meeting with even the most tenuous of connections with the obscure history of the Dinin family in Ukraine, so as to be able to inform me of, at the very least, their names. I love this photo for all the portents in it, and the stories that demand being told, even out of whole cloth, so alive and direct and frank and commanding are the gazes of these young stalwarts.
Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.
The other photo is really quite small, smaller even than the prototypical snapshot size of 2×3 inches that was the popular format for photographs processed and returned by the drugstores where one brought their rolls of film for processing by labs off-site, when my parents were young and in love, in the 1930s, and of the sort, the snaps and other photos, that is, that comprise another whole portfolio of vexation for me, pondering the challenge of identifying who, and what, and where, and why these images were captured in the first place. But this photo, of a stern-faced woman and a somewhat, but not much, milder looking boy, clearly with a deep and abiding relation to the woman by blood is significantly older than that.
At first, having recognized the woman as a much younger incarnation of my grandmother than in more recent photos I had seen, my father’s mother, Ida, who never knew me, before she died of causes unknown to me, when she was barely in her 60s—at first I took the young fellow as my father, and, indeed, when I scanned the photo, I named the file using his and her name. However, on re-examination and a closer look at that characteristic curled lip, somewhere between sullen and a sneer only one-quarter formed, and after comparing the shape of his left ear and the shape of the same appendage in a much later portrait, taken by me, a teen-aged me, in fact, of my Uncle Alex (his name in Russia, at the time of the portrait of him and his mother, would have been Ilya) persuaded me of my mistake. The portrait, given his apparent stage of development and the indeterminacy of his age, except within a range of three or four years, had to have been taken around the time of the family’s escape from Russia in 1918, when he would have been eight or nine years old. The photo, an oval shape, obviously, was cut out somewhat clumsily from a larger photo and pasted to a nondesript piece of board, with no marks or printing on it of any kind—another attestation to the haste and changed circumstances that surrounded its taking and mounting and preservation. But again, there is no one to tell me any more than what my memory serves and my eyes and imagination manage to tell me.
This is a response, at the request of my friend Phil Mathews, to a blog entry in the New York Times by economist Paul Krugman, which appears here: http://hdin.in/1PAOPYk
First of all, I’m glad for the opportunity to opine about the Apple Watch publicly as it’s a solicitation rather than a personal impulse (the response to which, never mind the receptivity, is virtually impossible for me to gauge; as far as I can tell, I have about three fans, and those not consistently). I do have opinions about the device, which I’ve shared, in pure speculation, because it has not been available for viewing or handling by the hoi polloi, of which I am a decided fixture. But I’ve shared them privately. Just to give a context for whatever else I might have to say, I did agree with another friend here on Facebook that one of my first reactions to the announcement of an actual product, with photos and some cursory explanations as to functions and functionality, was, thank God, finally a gizmo from Apple I don’t want and, when you come down to it, I really don’t need.
I think it’s interesting that Krugman has a point of view about the Apple Watch, of course. However, I’m disappointed that he decides to take a personal perspective, instead of doing what he’s done so well in other regards so often—though not always—that is, to step to one side, figuratively speaking, and look at the phenonomenon of the Apple Watch and the category it represents as the trained scientist he is. More pointedly, it’s possible, in fact, that the Apple Watch will actually end up defining that category, as Apple is wont to do with emerging consumer product technology. They invent very little in that regard, the genre aready exists, i.e., a wearable multi-function computing device. In the same way the portable digital music player was defined by iPod, or a highly portable entertainment, consultative and reference device, with facilities for rudimentary record keeping, similar to both a laptop, for the size of the screen, and a smartphone, for its lightness and compactness by the iPad, of course, and so forth.
Rather he has taken a tack, perfectly legitimate in this world of media wherein anything goes, even in the name of news, analysis, and factual reporting of the truths derived from statistical data and double-blind experimentation on live subjects in actual conditions. If he wants to speak for himself, who’s to stop him? As he says, what the heck?
He does, in the process, break a cardinal rule, as I have always understood it, in market research and analysis, even of a speculative sort, and that is, never to assume that you are yourself representative of even a tiny valid statistical segment of prospective markets.
In the end, I beg to differ with Mr. Krugman (disclosure: I too wear a fitness band, though I gather a different brand than his, and I have always been a small-time aficionado of the art of the horologist, that is, I love watches, and own several; in the past 50 years I’d guess it’s rarely that a day has gone by that I have not been wearing a watch, and for most of the past 20 years or so, it’s been the same watch, the acquisition of which was a purely personal attainment, it had been an object of desire for me for some time and, as it was, at the time, costly (to me) required extra long deliberation about making the ultimate purchase… though once I did I never looked back, and I also never stopped looking at other fine specimens of the watchmaker’s art—none of which I indulged in acquiring).
I think of the Apple Watch, still sight unseen except in dazzling, augmented images mainly on the Web, in the same way I think of the iPhone, as well as of the iPad, and that is, one way or another, they are computers that have been designed to a particular set of applications, in the broadest sense, and in a form that makes them suitable and adaptable to a particular set of highly specific computer programs, or apps as they’ve come to be called.
The first unfortunate observation Mr. Krugman makes is the one he asserts at the very beginning, setting the tone, but more importantly defining a polarity that I think is not even factitious. I think he’s made it up in terms of his own highly circumscribed needs and the uses to which he himself puts these devices to meet those needs.
I’ve gone out of my way to describe the phones and the tablets and even the watches (as well as the music players, and a whole variety of hybrid devices: phablets, lapbook/tablets) as computers, because that is, ultimately, the genus of each of these species of cybernetic creature. Alan Turing, the fathering genius of the age in which we find ourselves, posited in what he called “the universal machine,” or in plain terms of today, a computer (a word which originally meant, when applied to a device designed to a specific task, a machine to do calculations). What Turing meant, and what the whole industry spawned by his idea has set about to make actual—even to defining the epoch in which we conduct our daily business—was that such a machine or computer could use a calculating engine to perform almost any task, including a universe of tasks (like talking in real time to another person over extreme distances in a simulacrum of voices that are unmistakably those of the speakers) that seemingly have nothing to do with calculating numbers. It’s because all tasks can be understood, using the legerdemain of converting physical changes, of even the most minute dimensions, into sequences of numbers that, reinterpreted by a reverse process of conversion back to something resembling the original physical changes, to be mere sequences of coded symbols, called programs. Even the stuff of life, in something of a misnomer—as the real stuff of what we call life remains a mystery—DNA and RNA are understood best as sequences of replicable codes of a deceptively minimal number of constituents.
What I’m getting at, with all this beating around the bush, is that Mr. Krugman can use his fitness band and presumably an Apple Watch, or a competitive product (and I predict he’ll own one, probably sooner than later) any way he likes. I use my fitness band differently, and I needn’t go into it as it’s irrelevant, and I do so mainly because I have a different set of personally important objectives to attain by doing so, than he does.
Further, and truly to get into the meat of the matter, he misses the boat entirely, in my opinion, because he fails to account for what is an indisputable set of phenonmena that have emerged as more and more people use more and more smart devices. Most people have a streak, wide or narrow, it’s there in most of us, wherein two seemingly very human impulses are served.
It is important, in increasingly complex ways, for us to stay in touch with increasingly larger circles of individuals with whom we either share an affinity—even if its only an affinity for staying in touch with increasingly larger numbers of people—or can at least pretend to have an affinity, again if only on the strength of having formed a connection in the first place. And what we share in the actualization of that continuous connection, is information, some of it, probably most of it, of a personal nature, and essentially trivial, banal, and, without using judgmental qualifiers such as these, most certainly quotidian. We tell one another, on a full-time basis, if not, indeed, 24/7, what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we plan to do, even so as to subsume all of our habits, including eating habits, sleeping habits, fitness habits, leisurely pursuits, passive entertainments, and game-playing. Many people, doubtless, share even more intimate details of their emotional states, their loves, their hates, their fears—or why would people keep doing it and yet express such outrage at the prospect of having all that information captured by the government?
Smart devices have made it easier and easier not only to track our own activities, but more importantly, or at least as importantly in a different context, we can not only share the record of those activities with others, but we can count on the computational and analytical capabilties of these really amazingly powerful computers that fit, now, on our wrists (and there has been talk for years, to varying degrees in response to the prospect of horror and wonder, of embedding computer chips into our bodies, with nary a lump or a shock) to allow us to compare our “performance” and achievements with those of our cyber-families.
If anything, because they are more literally more intimate, actually contacting on a continuous basis our skin, the largest organ of our bodies, and tap into the wealth of data obtainable via this means of connection, even to more deeply embedded organs, recording by ingenious means, respiration, perspiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, and, if not now, then no doubt imminently, fat-to-body mass ratio, rate of caloric intake, rate of caloric consumption, etc., and I’m just listing somatic data (mainly because Krugman set the pace, so to speak). There’s also neurological and specific brain wave activity somewhere in the future…
And no doubt, there are many of us for whom, as for Krugman, this is of some level of vital personal significance to know, if only for the sake of knowing as a touchstone for maintaining honesty with oneself about how responsible one is being about keeping fit (as if that were all there to it). I have to wonder, do we even need a minimally 350 dollar aluminum watch, assuming we are desirous of the status of the Apple Watch (a status it has apparently already begun to accrue to itself, still two weeks before the first orders are fulfilled for the first customers) to help us be honest with ourselves?
Krugman mentions only monitoring his personal fitness stats once or twice a day. Sometimes for me, as long as it’s confession time, I rarely consult the gizmo at all. I did far more often when I first started using it, as it represented an indisputable, highly accurate frame of reference—a reality check. I don’t need a gadget to know I’ve pretty much done my duty by myself to get in some physical exercise sufficient to preserve whatever pitiful level of fitness I enjoy at the moment. Whatever it’s merits, or lack of them, to me, I share this information, about sleep habits, steps, exercise, etc. with no one, except my wife, who has a more avid involvement for her own legitimate reasons with her own activities, and a legitimate fond conjugal concern for my state of health. I don’t compare my “performance” with norms established and maintained by the manufacturer of my fitness band. The last thing I would do is share any of this information with my friends. My universal motto, in that regard, as regards all matters of social intercourse insofar as its constituted of the exchange of news about daily activities, physical or intellectual, is “It’s not a contest.” Even less than I am interested in the minutiae of my own behaviors, as measured by these devices and wondrous gizmos, I am not interested in how many steps my buddies have taken that day, or how long they spent on their rowers, treadmills, elliptical trainers, etc.
However, unlike Krugman, by inference from what he says in the Times, I don’t suppose in any way that I am a typical specimen, subject, or consumer. Very much the contrary. I think, contrary to his conclusions “A smartphone is useful mainly because it lets you keep track of things; wearables will be useful mainly because they let things keep track of you,” that both are parts of some larger universal machine that allows the aggregation of data, instantly retrievable, automatically transmitted and shared, and rapidly analyzed for comparative, if not strictly competitive, purposes.
The chief complaint about the Apple Watch in preliminary reviews allowed by Apple to be conducted by a selected band of “power users” and professional industry watchers is that though the functions of the iPhone, especially by way of tracking and notification of one’s own agenda, schedule and itinerary (the framework of a busy life for a particular tribe of people engaged in a particular set of occupations) are no longer an annoyance as manifest on the phone, they are an immense annoyance on the watch, because it not only makes small annoying sounds. It actually buzzes, vibrates, tickles, pokes, and otherwise prods your epidermis in a way that is, by their almost universal account of it, distracting and, in the presence of others, invasive. I see all this not as a sign of a different function for these devices in the Krugmanian formulation: “they let things keep track of you.”
As I already said, I think this is an utterly shallow misreading of the actual gestalt of increasingly personal cybernetic extensions of our conscious preoccupations. And the initial complaints are merely a sign that the necessary adaptation of the always elastic set of protocols and behaviors (what used to be called manners and etiquette) are due for another revision, like a new release of a major operating system. The iPhone, with its beeps, whistles, vibrations and blinking and winking, was thought to be a distraction and rudeness personified. An individual’s attachment to their iPhone, even in public, even in social scenarios, involving as few as one other person, and as many as a conference room full of many others, has become the basis for a normative set of behaviors that people my age find at best amusing, and at worst painfully rude and offputting.
I predict in not too long a period of time (as the Apple Watch seems destined, indeed, to be the best next thing, and an expansion of the armamentarium of gadgetry with which large segments of the population will equip themselves) that wrist consulting, and various otherwise comically impolite sound effects and reflexive behaviors (haptics are a new set of phenomena to which people will have to become acclimated), will become the newly revised norm that in a couple of years we’ll all wonder was such a bother.
Krugman’s got it wrong, because, for once, he’s not looking at a big enough picture.
Note to a Portlandian upset over Salon’s analysis:
It’s been clear to me since I began to learn in earnest about the greater than superficial (i.e., stereotypical—in short, Fred Armisen is NOT your friend) and more salient facts about the culture, ecosystem, and anthropological excrescences of Portland, because some of my dearest friends purely serendipitously (and hence appropriately to the PDX gestalt) moved there, that it is, in fact, a huge movie set, planned, designed and executed by Hollywood moguls, starting, likely, in the 1920s, as a kind of Truman Show on an urban scale and an ongoing experiment.
This magazine’s analysis (and I wouldn’t get my knickers in a twist because Salon doesn’t think you are liberal enough—their shtick these days is to froth at the mouth, and amusingly, they seem close to considering Henry Wallace a closet conservative; must be a new form of jaded NYC chic). Besides, a whole city full of hipsters, slackers, and very very very early retirees and proto-survivalists (or is that pseudo-?) could not possibly sustain a consistent political point of view so as to constitute a caucus, never mind a quorum.
You’ll just have to wait for the list of the ten most apolitical cities. Don’t worry, the delusion that you actually have a political stance, never mind a liberal one, will pass. If not, take two of your drug of choice, and forget about it. Otherwise, your only solution is to move to Vermont—a whole state that, for over 250 years, has been what Portland thinks it is.
Having enjoyed the privilege of a brief—brief to me, but probably an incredibly luxurious hiatus for most people—period of rustication, first in the wilds of Provence, and then in the wilds of Grafton County, NH, virtually on top of the Vermont border, it has been a strange awakening to arrive back in Philadelphia. There was a bracing, very brief interval, between trips to the bosky dells of two continents—mainly I think to get our temporal sea legs to regain their normal status—but not sufficient to be a reminder of what we have escaped during our annual summer run.
But goodbye to that, alas. We are back in the thick of it. The main and prevailing thickness is the swampy weather that for some reason the founding fathers found so congenial here in the Middle Atlantic wedge of the great jaded northeast of the U.S. But there is another thickness, palpable enough, a dimension of the quotidian here in the urban milieu, though wholly invisible. I speak of the thickness between the ears of the collective inhabitants of the region.
In plain language, my friends and fellow commiserators, there’s a reason for that famous apocryphal epitaph of W.C. Fields, and, considering the alternative, which I am wont too often to do (and I don’t mean the Côte d’Azur), I unhappily agree. That is, I do, until, say, I sit behind the wheel of our car, which has taken us through thousands of miles in the north country in safe, largely imperturbable bliss, except for Route 84 in Connecticut. What I have been quickly reminded of are the only too predictable and thoroughly irksome habits of Pennsylvanians, or maybe it’s just Philadelphians, but they do a pretty good job of it in the suburbs as well. So here’s the beginning of an irk list. I am sure, in the fullness of time, as my brain further congeals and grows a defensive barrier, I will dispassionately add to this list in installments.
1. The car horns from the car behind you:
the horn for sitting a nanosecond too long at a traffic light just turned green, before flooring the accelerator for one of those quick Philadelphia Grand Prix starts from a dead stop
the horn for waiting, with your turn signal deployed, to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass safely on your left, before executing a left hand turn removing you from the path of the blower [that would be the horn blaster] who is, of course, tailgating you
the horn in the cramped parking lots, which are legion in the overpopulated suburbs, where life as we know it cannot exist without a strip mall every 1/5 of a mile on major thoroughfares, from the speeding vehicle racing for the exit, as you slowly, gingerly, and most of all anxiously, pull out of your parking space, watching, seemingly simultaneously somehow, the side mirrors, the rear view mirror, the rear camera screen on the dash, and the view through the rear window and side vents, keeping in mind always the deadly blind spots
the horn for actually coming to a dead stop at a Stop sign, instead of simply continuing your forward momentum, with or without the assistance of the use of the accelerator of your vehicle, at whatever speed happens to suit your own sense of urgency at the moment, executing, in effect, the maneuver, formerly known as The Boston Roll, called The Philadelphia Roll [cross reference here: Stop sign behaviors]
2. The car horns from oncoming vehicles, proceeding from either the right or left, and more often than not, both, even with traffic islands, separating traffic, because the Philadelphia driver is nothing if not anticipatory of what’s happening on the other side of the road that could potentially (with a .025% chance of probability) impede their progress, occurring usually at at least 20% in excess of the speed limit
the horn for standing, as a pedestrian, less than a yard (or meter, whichever is longer; just to demonstrate that I have no biases, I mean, the person behind the wheel invisible behind the tinted windscreen, could be British, or Canadian, or European, and also, at the same time, berserk) from the curbstone, especially with no intervening zone of parked vehicles, waiting for the traffic to abate so you can cross [cross reference here: irks for the less than brilliant road and street engineers of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who, it appears, must park their brains along with their vehicles as they report for work to design the highways and byways, the streets, avenues, roadways, boulevards, and alleyways of our fair cities, towns, villages, hamlets, boroughs, and unincorporated IPCs (important population centers)]
the horn for daring to anticipate making a left hand turn across oncoming lane(s) of traffic at an intersection with a traffic control signal, and your own turn signal indicator deployed, by actually stopping the forward motion of your vehicle well short of the trajectory of said oncoming vehicles; special mention for the anticipatory horn blast as the blower approaches from behind you, but is still ¼ mile away from you, and extra special mention for the prolonged blast from the blower, especially after you have, in fact, executed your turn, and are exiting the intersection, thereby removing yourself from the blower’s vector without materially impeding their velocity, not that these people slow down for much anyway; this type of horn blast is always an excellent demonstration of the Doppler effect, in case you have any young students of the Principles of Classic Physics in the car.
I thought I could make this first installment a fairly good introduction to the subject, by making a fairly substantive list of perhaps a half-dozen to ten items in just the automobile horn category, but, I am sorry dear reader, I have to lie down now and rest for awhile.
Like it or not, many of us are spending non-trivial amounts of time on-line using social media, most likely Facebook, but whatever. I’ve decided the time’s long past due for having a way to choose with greater subtlety exactly what we get to look at once we log in, and for as long as we can tolerate being there. I think most of us are aware there are ways to control what we see and what we don’t, at least in crude ways. However, after that, sometimes using even these tools is a bit like learning how to use a new operating system without a manual or an instruction video.
Within the social media in general there have always been coarse means for filtering the continuous stream of data that reaches our information devices. Facebook, being the paradigm because of its size and ubiquity, provides a rough template for methods of distributing or disrupting any part of the flow. Other services may do it differently. We can “unfollow” this person or that (to use the no longer curious, but merely stubbornly ignorant usages of the semi-literate—if it makes you feel better, consider “unfollow” a term of art; in all events, to resist is futile). As a middle way, we can elect to receive messages in some hierarchy of alleged personal preference—like so much else, not only not very precise, but essentially not defined anywhere either—as to the significance of any sender’s declarations appearing on our feed: you can choose to receive “all” of them, “most” or “only important” ones. Who decides? Who knows? We can be sure there’s an algorithm for it. And that Zuck put his stamp of approval on it.
That sort of takes care of incoming. As far as outgoing content, in a drastic, but not extreme, step we can “block” undesirable correspondents (usually originally linked for political or social expediency), simply to prevent the temptation, theirs, to imagine they are chums, or, to avoid the embarrassment, ours, of saying something, anything, these not-quite-soul mates in an unwary and unknowing limbo might consider improper, imprudent or, simply, “fightin’ words.” And of course, there is the radical tactic, the social equivalent online of exercising extreme prejudice, the act of “unfriending.” This, however, is not sufficient to keep the barbarians on their side of the gate.
In one of the protocols of what must be a whole lexicon of obscure rules and terms of engagement, even if you “unfriend” an individual, they are automatically relegated to the status of “follower”—we may assume unbeknownst to either or both parties not paying attention—and they will still receive your wholly “public” utterances. Presumably, Zuckerberg has decided, with his genius for embracing a kind of nincompoop psychology, that having a lot of followers is akin, sort of like a first cousin once removed, to having a lot of friends. However, before I go too far in the gleeful enterprise of making fun of the current supreme idiot savant of technology, I’ll add simply that, despite his protestations that he’s not interested in the money, the Zuck always has his eye on the prize of as many eyeballs as he can sell to prospective advertisers.
Look. It’s clearly deliberately made hard to understand how to use Facebook, and it’s equally hard actually to break with anyone with whom you have even the most tenuous connection to begin with, because the more people who follow you (and you them, of course), the more opportunities there are to sell the myth of affinity. If it were easy to drop people, you’d do it. By the same strategy, this is why, if, for example, you made the mistake of giving Facebook your real baby boomer birthdate, let’s say, you’ll be seeing ads, offering dating opportunities with eligible “mature” women—even though you’re married, which they won’t actually know if you don’t tell them, perhaps out of a vestigial tender regard for your own privacy—and the ad is illustrated with a photo of a comely large-breasted woman whose maturity consists in being able to remember the most poignant moments of passing through puberty as if they occurred yesterday, because, in fact, they did. But, in that immemorial cliché, I digress. In fact, this is related to the dilemma of truly managing your cyber-social life, and so back to that. In the meantime, in your off-hours and I mean off the internet and with nothing better to do, convince yourself you’re not being manipulated.
Now, aside from somehow wanting the power instantaneously to render all of the arcana of Facebook, and of its myriad competitors, transparent, I have in mind something even more desirable. I find myself wishing that there were more precise ways of monitoring and, optionally, diverting the stream of messages so that even my most precious relations can be preserved while I am spared being exposed to every single atom of a personal datum they deem significant enough to mention it—every snapshot, every progressive development, sometimes hourly, of their baby (human or hamster; it really makes little difference, not to me, outside the immediate vicinity… cute is cute and love is love).
Currently, I have a very short friends list on each of the rivals, Facebook and Google+. I believe this microcosm is sufficient to form certain inferences. For one thing, even among a group of only 40 or 50 people, there is great individuality. Simply, we’re each of us different, and, of course, hooray for that. However, one result of our asynchronous traits is a divergence of interests. More critical than that is the way our differing values, however subtly we measure the distinctions, affect the course of daily life: what we think about, concentrate on, share with others. Naturally, we expect our values and preferences may differ. We forget that, until we’re reminded when a best and dearest friend talks our ears off about, say, their latest addition to a collection of antique quilted tea cozies. Yes, yes, I know. So what? If you collect antique quilted tea cozies, I apologize. In private and in person, I smile and listen myself. Online, of course, to paraphrase that famous “New Yorker” cartoon, no one knows you’re yawning uncontrollably. And no doubt there is in each of us the ability to evince the same degree of mute tolerance in others.
What’s trivial to you may be vital to me. What’s compelling to me may be inconsequential to you. What makes me laugh may leave you dumbfounded or nonplussed. We accept all this, usually without comment, especially as we tacitly accept the social contract revisions inherent in adopting the now incredibly expansive entitlement of “friendship.” Friends, after all, accept. They don’t judge. Judgments are frowned on. And we surely don’t comment, if we’re experiencing even the slightest pangs of disquiet. Even nay-saying might be seen as encouragement. Irony is completely out of the question.
All this makes for an interesting mix of exchanged content in a feed, as it develops organically on a web of usually spontaneous utterances. We tell ourselves we are merely sharing news, often personal. We’re letting a large set of people know what we’re up to, essentially that we’re all right, and all with greater ease than by meeting the burden of informing each and every person within the group directly and intimately with some other form of contact. We also use these forums as a means to convey the formalities that constitute vestigial social protocols, like invitations, pleas, and exhortations. As well we can make, with one click, a universal call for the requisite or tacitly expected acknowledgments, specifically, say, an rsvp or at least that diffuse and inarticulate form of encouragement or approbation, a “like.”
Indiscriminately, these generally ordinary, if not banal, and certainly almost all purely quotidian, messages and posts get broadcast, largely wholesale. As it’s simply not worth the effort—and what is these days, aside from signing that consent form agreeing to, oh, I don’t know, chemotherapy?—to spend the time deep in the weeds of deciding which group or list should get what message, we send every message to everyone. The bigger our friends list, the more recipients of the same messages. Concomitantly, with our precious time being a critical factor, and with a reciprocal and mutual number of messages being shot our way by that same mass of “friends,” we do take the trouble to exclude all but the slimmest stream of posts from people we are really interested in hearing from. What describes “really interested?” Likely an honest assessment of one’s gut; and an algorithm is not possible, not in the current state of the art—if you’ve ever had limited space for wedding guests, and you had to decide who you wanted there, you know what I’m talking about. So we have to screen, at least once, and in each direction: incoming and outgoing.
As I’ve pointed out, there are only the crudest tools for including this group or that in a communiqué. That sort of discrimination is only slightly more refined on Google+, with its adaptable taxonomy of self-defined circles. Facebook takes, as usual, a more authoritarian and controlling approach, defining the categories you may use: “best friends,” family, acquaintance, with all the apparatus of discrimination and class distinction inherent in the language–the objective, as everywhere else in almost all social media, seems to be some enforced (or possibly coercive) conformation to some kind of norm. Of course, in my cynical way, I have to note it’s also a gauge of your probable level of compulsion. Most people believe, for example, that blood is thicker than water. If you designate someone as family, it’s likely Facebook can get away with murder telling all your relatives about your sincere, warm and personal recommendations. Like for sources of antique quilted tea cozies.
Beyond that, there is always the danger of committing what has evolved in the second decade of the 21st century into the present-day blunder of making a message “public” that was really intended for that special group of three friends you formed, and which you have to remember to address each time you create a post. It’s all for the sake of getting warm and friendly with three by sending out only a single cozy, so to speak. You could send an email and copy all three at once—and thereby ensure you will get a private response, instead of the compound blunder of having yourself and your friends airing your cozies in public. But email is so 20th century, and it also requires you to get off Facebook. And that might take a whole minute.
What this all means, to me, is that we are bombarded on Facebook, say, (and even outside the confines of this blue zone, if we happen to allow notices to reach us on our phones and in email boxes, each and every time there is activity among our friends). We are cluster bombed with messages and hails sometimes terse, sometimes barely coherent, sometimes wholly pictorial, sometimes by way of linkage or transfer from yet other sources, making the locus of virtual affinity sometimes so wide as to encompass the globe. Notions like nearness, like neighborhood, like geography and boundaries lose all meaning. Next to an image of a squalling infant is a photo of flowers budding improbably in the Antarctic, and immediately next to these, yet another photo of an impossibly cute puppy, next to an endorsement for a brand of rare bicycle parts hand-crafted of military-grade titanium… It’s not only a triumph of mid-cult, as if suddenly a billion people were subscribers to the old Life magazine, or Reader’s Digest, wherein matters of life and death take on, or are reduced to, the same magnitude of importance as which stars of the original Star Trek are appearing at this year’s ComicCon. It also removes from our personal control the right to decide not to pay attention. It degrades the expectation that it’s all right to accept that some person, even among your nearest and dearest sometimes, at least to you, is a crashing bore. Or worse. But allow me to take you back a step or two from this bit of corrosive editorializing.
The inherent faux sociology at work behind these hypotheses aside, let me add, as a personal rationale, that I love my friends. Truly. That’s why the visible and publicly declared number of them is so small. To call each and every one friend is to say, at least, that I willingly give them tacitly and freely the time it takes to hear them out. I may be naive in assuming, as I do, that there’s also a tacit agreement that they will not waste that time unduly, with the constant mortar fire, say, of innumerable links they have uncovered online. I end up being dubious that there is equal significance to each link, each datum, each tidbit of information, each tweak, bon mot, and epigram (classic or contrived). But I pay heed, because they are friends, all of them, after all, and like a parent with a small child, I owe them that attention, and maybe even some interest, even if at times it’s feigned. Friendship, even consanguinity, is never an excuse not to be polite and mannerly. But then, I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.
Those who are sufficiently mindful that they are well aware that they are only one of many making the same regular broadcasts, including the status of their personal state of mind, and the rise and fall of their welfare along with that of their immediate families, must always be aware what the consequence of their flow is, added to the flow from other sources (some of which we share—and sharing of friends is encouraged; the next most used word on Facebook is the qualifier, “mutual” with the strong implication that you should also be friends with your friends’ friends), flow added to flow, until there is a veritable Mississippi River at full flood running down the middle of your news feed.
Every item calls out for your attention, even for the fraction of a moment it takes to decide to ignore the details. Time spent is a drum beat, a blunt blow to your consciousness. The very action of coalescence of all that data, post by post, from myriad sources, also necessarily levels the significance of any one datum. I propose to you, reader (friend or not), that whatever your resistance to the idea, everything becomes the same when it comes to importance. For starters, there’s just too much to take in. I have only 33 friends on Facebook and it’s too much. Perhaps it’s just me, and I wouldn’t deny it, but there’s enough of the everyman in each of us that leads me to feel it’s not. Water constantly flowing, or even continuously dripping, is eroding, if not actually corrosive. Witness the Grand Canyon: we should all live so long.
First consider that in addition to the license granted by Zuckerberg and his confréres to you to pop off, spout, or declare whatever happens to be on your mind at the moment, there is also the tacit invitation by you to each and every one of those individuals you have dubbed some species of “friend” to say whatever they please in response. Hence, there’s the potentiality that attached to your post will appear a spontaneous growing appendage of commentary. Often these addenda are from those who may feel either the pressure of declaring their feelings of affection and attachment, whether deep down through fear of alienation if they don’t say something, or perhaps merely because spending any significant amount of time within the blue zone, say more than five minutes a day, induces an uncontrollable reflexive response, the expression of which is not merely enabled, but facilitated by a whole new orthography of faux-expressive verbal gestures and symbols… LOL OMG ;-D, ad nauseam. Before asking the not-so-rhetorical question, “do we really universally care–even focused upon the corral of our ‘friends’–about each and every one of these matters?,” I’ll ask another question. Can we live with accepting some limits to our sense of closeness and intimacy with loved ones–family, or certain members thereof for sure, but the extended family of people we love for no other reason than some attachment has formed that we don’t question or analyze it?
There is a simple solution of course, even within the specialized context for conduct created by a social network, the blue zone of Facebook, the Googleverse, the Twitter-sphere, the Instagramathon, the Tumblrversity. Like life itself, each of us may exercise the easiest coping mechanism of all, especially in response to what are, after all, the most innocuous of effusions of the sort everyone on earth expresses during the course of a random day. That is, we can ignore any one, or all, of them. For sure. But, I wonder if I am alone–even with my collection of carefully selected cohorts, trivial in number, that, between Facebook and Google+, still falls way short of a hundred souls–if anyone else does not feel, even briefly and sporadically, overwhelmed by the aggregate effect of receiving messages, often, if not usually, accompanied by visual stimuli in the form of original and borrowed images, from every point of the compass.
It’s a rain, an unending relentless precipitation, of the mundane, particular and peculiar in each instance to the special and unique life attached to the name of the sender, but, taken together, coalescing into a thickening layer of the stuff of which each human on earth creates a buffer, insulation against the inescapable realities of existence. We bother with these things, no matter how small and insignificant, because they keep us from thinking about the existential dilemma. And, while trying sincerely to convince you I’m not being cute, I’ll say no more about what that dilemma is than to suggest to you that if you believe, in your quietest, deepest, darkest moments suffered in solitude that you yourself don’t have one, you might consider making a call to your physician to confirm that you still, in fact, exist.
We all, we each of us, are certainly entitled, as far as I’m concerned, to seek, to find or create, and, finding or creating, embrace anything and everything that fulfills our sense that some part of us finds pleasure and meaning in being alive. Moreover, we each are entitled to seek and tenderly clutch whoever and whatever there is in life that comforts us when that other, the inescapable depredations and deprivations that impoverish our experience of being alive, seems more than we have the capacity to bear.
I worry, and have done for some time since, even long before the universal emergence of Facebook in 2007, from its laboratory of usage among a highly circumscribed privileged set of users. What I worry about is that a false sense of homogeneity permeates a significant part of the developed world, like the artificial banding of commonality and amity fostered within the enclaves of Ivy League institutions where the blue zone was first formed and incubated–a way for those of like mind and interests, at least nominally so, could bond, commune, and manage their social engagements.
Each of us posts alone. Why not? For the few seconds it takes to compose and send a message, we lose all peripheral vision. May I not presume that if it’s a singular and concentrated thought for me on the sending end, it’s the same for you receiving it. It takes work after all to realize, and retain that insight for a bit, that for you—even as for me, when you come right down to it, even with my measly list of friends—it’s a pile of singularities arriving in a stream that never ends.
I began this extended contemplation with the simplest intent: to suggest, in what I originally and foolishly imagined would be a simple, brief “status update” (well, brief for me; a paragraph is as good as an emoticon) suggesting that we need better ways to filter posts from others, to avoid very fine categories: photos of cats, let’s say, or announcements of events taking place more than 10 miles from where we live. As so often happens, the thought grew wings, and took me to a much loftier place. That original idea remains buried somewhere in this essay, which, with a certain irony, reflects precisely the phenomenon I’ve decried. One thing just leads to another, and another, and another into a great mass that may seem to you like just another reason for a grouch like me to grouse. But I think there is something worse going on.
Take it all away. Shut down the internet. Turn off the servers at Facebook. Stop every feed. And we each of us, alone and collectively, will be left once more to ourselves. What I fear is that what may be required for us to regain a sense of being in a world where there’s a chance of remaining upright even as innumerable forces, chronicled in the news and demonstrated daily on every street in every city in the world, seem to conspire to efface any sense we have of any value, beyond the material. I am sure that one of the most insidious of the effects of so-called social media is that by the very mechanisms that make it attractive and easy to use, not merely as needed, but compulsively and reflexively is the numbing of our senses. The result is a slow, almost imperceptible, paralysis, a loss of sensation in a world that remains, even as polluted and altered as it has become after so many thousands of years of so-called civilization, one that cries out to be experienced with immediacy and mindfulness. The chief allure of Facebook is the simulation of immediacy. But is it not mediated, as every transmission and exchange passes through a network of such complexity and opacity, that any instant is a lifetime and every seeming touch is robotic, or like making love in oven mitts—not a real world, nor immediate, but a simulacrum?
Is it really a place to live? Game of Farmville anyone?
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