Portland Doesn’t Cut it as One of America’s Ten Most Liberal Cities

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

The 10 Most Conservative and Liberal Cities in America

“Ceci n’est pas Portland” http://media.salon.com/2014/02/san_francisco_clouds.jpg | Not so interestingly, this is a photo of San Francisco, of course, and not Portland, but then, the person who posted the original link is from Portland, and he was lamenting a lack of approbation he felt his home city deserved. I believe this is what’s called an abundance of negative capability. Also, I like that there’s a Margrittean quality about illustrating a blog post about Portland with a stock photo of San Francisco, a city, like Portland, I mainly admire from afar. Good for food and short visits, and seeing friends I love. But not much else.

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.

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Ten Squared and counting.

Approximate 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).


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

Approximate Reading Time: 13 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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Social Media and the Erosion of Values

Approximate Reading Time: 14 minutes

Flattened Preferences and Decaying Judgment

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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