New Photo Book by Howard Dinin

Reading Time: 1 minute

I’ve just published a book of photos, called sitting, consisting of photographs in France and America and to be thought of as a meditation on the title subject. It’s a premium design: case bound with archival materials, salon quality paper and printing technology. For a limited time it’s available at the actual cost of on-demand production (each issue is printed to order), a significant discount over the retail price marked. It’s fully registered with the Library of Congress and carries an ISBN order anticipating its availability at retail.

There’s a healthy preview here, online: [For the best viewing, click on the view full-screen icon, just to the left of the “blurb” logo at the bottom of the viewer]

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Social Media and the Erosion of Values

Reading Time: 16 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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The gap

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Have you done or said or thought anything that you’re not sure you’d be ashamed of? Presumably, the way to find out, or to rid yourself of the nagging bit of your conscious mind we used to call having a conscience, is to disburden yourself of said thought, or utterance, or an account of said action by posting it on Facebook… While you’re at it, make sure you have all your personal data up to date. Fill in all those blanks on your profile page. And make sure that you have set your privacy settings for all aspects of your life to “public.”

You’ll rid yourself of all those nasty second thoughts in a very brief amount of time. The more frequently you simply let it all hang out, the more quickly you’ll eliminate any doubt, of the reflexive sort first, and then you can graduate to that status we all aspire to. Absolute certitude. Don’t you want to be sure you’re right all the time, and know it so thoroughly in every cell of your flesh and bones, in every firing neuron that, in fact, you’ll never question it or yourself again?

Facebook, in short, is the great liberator. Or so is the proposition to be pondered, at least according to one two-bit philosopher, that is, blog-writer. Must be something to it, because this particular blog is accessible on the site of the venerable “The New Yorker.” Must be worth pondering, no? I mean these are the pages in which Rick Hertzberg and Adam Gopnik disburden themselves. This is where Louis Menand gets out his epistemological yayas. Three more articulate, not to mention intellectually estimable, spokespeople for the human condition I can’t think of.

Of course in the blog entry in question, the writer, one Andrea Denhoed, chooses to apostrophize, instead, another not so deep thinker, Mark Zuckerberg, the master haberdasher of the Emperor. I am left, however with the nagging question. Does Mark himself subscribe to the theory Ms. Denhoed so economically encapsulates on his behalf:

“Mark Zuckerberg, for all of his supposed ham-handed obliviousness to the way people think and feel, is attuned to the gap we straddle between performance and secrecy. His vision of a radically transparent society built on open information sharing (on Facebook) is based on the idea that we should all just acknowledge and embrace all the disparate ways we act online, effectively eliminating the distinction between private action and performance. The way to avoid doing anything you’re ashamed of, the argument goes, is not to be ashamed of anything you do. But achieving radical transparency would require more than an overhaul of our online habits; it would require an overhaul of the human character. A radically transparent world would have to be made up of individuals so luxuriously comfortable in their own skins that they would be unbearably annoying. Privacy protects us from surveillance and coercion, and offers the basic human need to be alone with ourselves.”

The rest of the blog post is here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/01/a-fake-facebook-wedding.html

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On Gérard Depardieu’s change of citizenship…

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Poor François Hollande. He should only be glad that Depardieu didn't choose to begin a run for President. Our political heroes (and leaders) are largely voted in on the strength of their apparent personalities and popularity (notice I said "apparent"). For all we know, Hollande may be a completely decent, boring fellow, who has a problem with women, but is otherwise harmless and well-intentioned–not correct necessarily; economists who are very much smarter than we are about, well, economics can't agree on what's the right thing to do.

Depardieu has cast himself as a rogue, but a lovable one. A Shrek in the flesh. His life story is far more compelling than Hollande's, especially for the majority of people who live a life closer to the seeming original desultory destiny of the movie star (and let's not forget, he's a movie star, a very rich one) than to Hollande's. Yet Hollande, who has become rich enough, does not hold a candle to the multi-millionaires and billionaires who are threatening to decamp with all their gelt. And yet, even further yet… most people are destined to live their lives of quiet desperation, never to rise even close to the level of a Hollande, never mind a Depardieu. But millions of people live eternally in hope, the only palliative to unrelenting desperation and struggle and a sense of one's own mediocrity measured in material terms. That's how lotteries become popular (and put tons of money–a painless tax, it seems–into public coffers). They'll smoke a cheap narcotic, tobacco, and ruin their health, accepting the confiscatory taxes on it and expecting the state will take care of treating their pulmonary and cardiac disease when they get them, and will do it at no cost.

In short, everyone's values are totally screwed up.

The people will buy trickle-down economics and tax shelters for the rich, as long as they love the guy selling them. Another movie star, Ronald Reagan, was an incredible salesman (in the 50s, 30 years before he became President, he sold cigarettes for Chesterfield, part of the pitch was it's a "healthy" product… Google T-zone if you don't know what I'm talking about). If people love you for whatever reason cooked up up by your publicists and handlers, they'll buy what you're selling.

Hollande is very lucky Depardieu is leaving, and not running for the Assembly… People will still watch his movies. He'll stay superfluously rich (how much do you think his estate will be worth, when he's fought his last Visigoth?), and people will forget he welched on a 75% marginal tax rate for the few years it will be imposed. We all seem already to have forgotten the concept of the 1% and the 99%…

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A new blog

Reading Time: 2 minutes

As if Per Diem were not sufficient for a world not yet fully prepared for its dubious wisdom and antic ways with the English language, I have decided to launch (or actually re-launch) a blog devoted to the subject of art. It's called Art Long, and it was originally intended, starting some three years ago, and a bit more, to be brought to the world under somewhat other auspices and by a different hand than mine. The explanation is on the blog, if you click the "About" link.

There is also a first entry, mercifully brief, and also written by another, being a short quotation from a book, a psychobiography, about Diane Arbus the troubled brilliant photographer who took her own life in 1972 and entered the canon long since. Arguably even before she died.

I'll repeat that entry here, which I will do for a while, as I begin to populate Art Long with posts. It's a way of priming the pump, to direct some sparse traffic there. I won't wear out my arm, or any other part for sure, as I pump as, at any one time, there are barely more than about 30 reliable regular readers of these posts on Per Diem. But, as the saying goes, it's a start. Not a false one, but given the numbers, a quick one.

I hope you enjoy it. It will not be like the carnival ride here, to use one of my repeated metaphors, but it should be fun nevertheless.

Here's the URL for Art Long: http://artlong.net

And here's that quotation you'll find there:

"Art is not intrinsically therapeutic. It doesn't always allow us to rise above. Instead, it can be an immersion in products of self-expression that mirror our troubles back to us so that we see them metaphorically, but still glaringly. Then it's a matter of what we do with the information, what we make of it. We can turn away again, re-repress what we've inadvertently discovered, or try some means of assimilation."

— William Todd Schultz, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, New York, 2011. P.27

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A very brief illustrated explication of and examination into the provenance of and inspiration for my prose style

Reading Time: 8 minutes

I like to make regular and passing allusion to my tendency to write at great length about just about anything. Friends and loved ones (inevitably one and the same) obligingly and conscientiously acknowledge what is possibly a character flaw, by skirting around what might easily be interpreted by someone as thin-skinned as I can be at times as a personal injury. They point out that not many people can write, never mind spontaneously respond, as volubly, with the added ability of typing incredibly fast, faster than some people allow they are comfortable thinking about something they would then have to commit themselves to putting into words that could be repeated back to them.

Though I am mindful, somewhere in the back corridors of my mind, of the hazards of what is commonly called “popping off” or “venting” I nonetheless invariably proceed, seemingly heedlessly. In actuality I make a splint-second split-second decision, usually electing not to act at all, rather than to speak, invariably at painful length. If I decide to write something, I don’t look back. And invariably I do so, using the same, or seemingly same, convoluted, discursive, complex-structured, Latinate, digressive prose. I use every device I am at all familiar with, rhetorical or grammatical, including all the ways of setting off clauses and phrases, independent and dependent, so that sentences grow and grow, seemingly mindlessly, sometimes in a variety of directions, or with that appearance, to what looks like will be indeterminate length until they loop back and come to a conclusion, logically complete, if having all the air of a chaos demanding to be deconstructed to see if it will surrender any meaning, much like the rag-tag collection of stalwarts holding the Alamo against Santa Ana’s army of 5,000 men under arms, refusing to surrender their small redoubt even as the chapel belied a kind of vulnerability to easy assault.

Now I would never offer as a defense for the way I choose to express myself the style of much greater masters of the language than myself, or, if they prove not greater, because I prove to be none the lesser, in the long run—the run not likely to end until the regrettable day that I am no longer around to be challenged to defend myself—then at least they have proven to be more enduring, and more deserving of tolerance and dedication to the onslaughts of followers seeking to quarry sense from the deep mines of writing they have excavated, though at least, for their good sake, they don’t seem to provoke the anger and frustration that I do (from a very much smaller audience of admirers and devotees). Hence, I am mainly challenged for the length of my little exercises in rhetoric, which I humbly and modestly call essays, for that is what they are, in a great tradition, purely and simply because I do not, as the repugnant common saying goes, “getting down to cases.” I am never asked who my nobler predecessors might be, whom I, presumably, either mimic or to whom I pay homage. Surely there are none so erudite, knowledgeable and at the same time engaged in a serious way, worthy of spending their time, by my prose, to venture theories as to my possible inspirations. It would be too much to ask not only that such readers lend any of their valuable attention to my modest and undeserving efforts, but that they accord it enough seriousness of purpose, such dignity, as to embody a reflection of, dare I use the term? literary forebears.

Other than suggesting, defiantly, with a certain air of pity, that those who complain are free, in all events, not to read it, and having already acquainted themselves with the daunting task of extracting sense, if not pleasure or edification, out of my outpourings, and having persuaded themselves that whatever else they might stumble upon from me will simply be more of the same, they should altogether, henceforth ignore anything with my byline, I say nothing. Just to be safe. I abhor physical abuse.

In the earlier years of my putting my writing out there to be consumed, or having been, to be regurgitated into the metaphorical toilet, half-eaten or, more likely, merely tasted with a bite or two—notice I speak not of “digestion”— I did suggest to those who seemed even moderately literate that, clearly, they were not familiar with the work of Henry James (not that I want to make favorable comparisons between that master and my lowly self; not that my writing is remotely Jamesian, for style, not that anyone, as it turns out, is remotely knowledgeable about style and willing to engage me in conversation about it; I do have to make clear, at this point, that both conditions are absolutely necessary, as I do know people more than adequately knowledgable in the arena of style to go on, more expertly I would guess than I could) and I did that only because he was, at the time, the most recognizable of writers within the canon with a reputation for verbosity (which your garden variety reader could not see justified to any purpose, that is, to say with no appreciation for that elusive and sometimes incomprehensible quality of the written language called “style”). But there are such readers as know style and know James and at least one or two of them have done me the good grace of actually reading through an entire essay of mine. They have simply preferred not to talk about it.

It happens that, in the fullness of time, others have appeared in the literary firmament, far better illuminated, than me for certain, but also, alas for the slightly younger of the two sons of the elder Mr. William James, than Mr. Henry James, and these new constellations, for sure, studied, and usually studied assiduously, seriously, and in dedicated fashion, the subject of scholarly theses and earnest debates. A school of writing in a particular style, such as the one I have fragmentarily defined as typical of my own, has been discerned, the chief practitioner, the ascendant avatar, especially as he did his literary reputation the favor of offing himself as a very young man (48), and quite recently, which has given his canon a lift, and increased it by some multiple as his canonization (he seemed to have to endure the briefest of beatifications, but then we live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, and patience, as a concept, has been delegitimized, as there is nothing worth waiting for that can’t be had right NOW, goddamnit) is a man who, when he walked the earth, was called David Foster Wallace. There is a whole assembly of writers, essentially mainly young (let’s say under 60) males, white, and all of whom seem to go by three names, much like a whole gaggle of a new generation of female movie actresses that, by definition, excludes or stops at Ms. Natalie Portman, who apparently has eschewed her middle name. It is also typical of the current lauded sensibility, which glows around the school of style in question, like an aura, that some of the most approachable—Mr. Wallace and his works were and are not always wholly approachable, as nearly as I can figure because he was a genius, unquestionably, and could speak of philosophy and higher order mathematics with equal facility, if nearly impossible accessibility to the visitor, and it is mainly his writing in these disciplines, which apparently somewhat opaquely actually purports to be about more universal and humanistic matters, more like literature, but merely in the guise of philosophical inquiry and/or mathematical analysis—of the contemporary practitioners might as easily be recognized a nominal very ordinary combination of a singular forename and unhyphenated or compounded surname. So for every Jonathan Safran Fore, there’s a Michael Chabon, indeed, for every Brett Easton Ellis, there may be half a dozen: Jonathan Franzen, Orhan Pamuk, etc., though this begins to trespass beyond the boundaries of consideration I’ve set, which is to say, the practitioners of what has come to be called a form of postmodernism, the greatest living practitioner of which, within the parameters of gender and age I’ve set, is David Eggers. Be that as it may, let me remind the reader that I am, in fact, talking about me. It’s about me, and my style. And the exemplary practitioner of that same opaque, convoluted, discursive, digressive, every technical typographic, rhetorical, scholarly, grammatical trick in the book or whatever you like to call the vehicle as long as it is constituted of typography represented technologically upon a substrate, actual or virtual is the self-same deceased individual formerly known as David Foster Wallace.

However, not really wishing to be disruptive to the reputation of formerly living geniuses, or to cause any ripples in the time-space continuum—which seems a fitting concern for anyone who takes the notion of postmodern writing styles seriously—I nevertheless finally come to the really rather simple point I wanted to make about this still living author, with no claims to any extraordinary powers of intellect or sensibility, but who has done all right, is that there is, indeed (and who else would know, but me?), a conscious predecessor. Way precedent to Mr. Wallace, or any of his tri-named or even nominally nominal confréres, or any American writer (for the idea of America may have existed, but the nation we know as the United States was not to form for 18 years after the death of my literary exemplar and inspiration) was a man named Laurence Sterne, and, more importantly, his sadly singular novel (though he wrote other important prose works), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. It was published sequentially in slender nine volumes from 1758 to 1765, in which latter year, the Reverend Sterne died. It could have been, was intended to be, and should have been, of much greater length, especially when we consider—for those who have not read the work, as who has save for a relative handful of living souls in any one generation—that the novel opens with an account of the conception of the titular hero and subject (and narrator, off and on) and ends several hundred riotous, raucous and digressive pages later, in an aggregate volume with typographical tricks, printing devices, and tropes that have come, only lately, to be labeled “meta-” without our hero even having been born as yet. And so the story ends, for all eternity, or until the sun we know as Sol goes super nova and evaporates our little planet, whichever comes first.

I won’t belabor all the inspiring aspects of the novel, philosophically and otherwise. Save for this stylistic note, and my one gloss and point of observation is simple and rather brief: two sentences I can honestly say I chose randomly, these from Chapter 37, quite early in the novel as we have it, as it turns out. Don’t ask what these mean. They won’t make whatever sense they may unless you read the entire novel. But then, I write in similar fashion, however feeble and poor are my contrivances by comparison, for what I understand to be the same reasons. To keep the reader paying attention and thinking, and to read the whole bloody thing!

And so, here’s the quotation:

The doctrine, you see, was laid down by Erasmus, as my father wished it, with the utmost plainness ; but my father’s disappointment was, in finding nothing more from so able a pen, but the bare fact itself; without any of that speculative subtilty or ambidexterity of argumentation upon it, which heaven had bestow’d upon man on purpose to investigate truth and fight for her on all sides. —- My father pish’d and pugh’d at first most terribly, — ’tis worth something to have a good name.

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Art Life Imitation Appropriation

Reading Time: 10 minutes

This past Black Friday I wandered into the local branch of the Macy’s department store chain. It’s a small outlet in this neighborhood, in the semi-revitalized town of Ardmore on the Main Line of Philadelphia. The store is located in what has come to be called Suburban Square, a largely upscale suburban mall, built on the design I’ve come to call the Pennsylvania Model.

There are, I’ve learned since moving here permanently a little over a year ago, instances of the same shopping paradigm even in my former home state of Massachusetts, and in particular the Factory Outlet mall located in Wrentham. I won’t try my usual ploy of making like a minor league (in truth, more like a Little League) Jane Jacobs, and attempt my own half-assed version of analysis of architectural phenomena as expressions of larger social and cultural trends, currents, and indicators of the status quo of civilization as we know it here in the so-called civilized world. Suffice it to say that it’s a model for shopping, running the gamut from staples and groceries to the kind of high-end merchandise you’d expect to see—immaterial whether it’s discounted or full price, as in the spectrum from Wrentham to Ardmore, where the one serves a large swath of the dwindling middle class, and the other serves a concentrated population of consumers who can amply afford to drive the luxury marque SUV vehicles, the bigger the better, that clog the parking lot of Suburban Square for about ten hours every day. And it’s a model, it would seem, designed to inconvenience as many shoppers as possible, and increase the general pollution levels, by forcing drivers intending to shop at several stores in a session to park their vehicles serially in widely dispersed parking areas.

The larger malls of this design, which are predominant in this area of Pennsylvania, can cover vast tracts of land, sometimes across multiple criss-crossing super highways which allow transport from a widespread number of communities in all directions. Invariably, there are multitudinous anchor stores, let’s say, a Target, a Macy’s, Bed Bath and Beyond, often a hypermarket of a supermarket chain (around here it’s Giant, say, but could as easily be Whole Foods, or the truly mammoth Wegman’s), a Sears, a Best Buy… in brief running a spectrum of merchandise categories at a variety of price points. The higher end malls might even include the most prestigious of resellers, like Nordstrom or Nieman Marcus. However the latter seem to cleave to the rare mall around here that caters to much higher-income consumers in aggregate emporia built on the more centralized, atrium design villages I am used to in the upper middle class suburbs of Boston. In these, you park in one fairly accessible, central garage (they’re very often covered or underground) and you spend long periods of time shopping, knowing you will never have to brave the elements, or starve yourself, because there are better quality eateries studded throughout, or get dehydrated or thirsty for a beverage designed to slake your refined tastes, as these are served at watering holes of like distinction.

This is as opposed to the dispersed far-spread colonies of clustered storefronts of the Pennsylvania Model. In this model you see repeated endlessly a kind of mammoth strip mall looped together to form a shopping duchy or enclave, complete with its own police force, streets, lighting, etc, and all open to the weather in all seasons. If you must shop a gamut of stores, you are forced either to hike a significant distance over the fullness of time, while shlepping your purchases, or repeatedly to get in your car, cross the network of internal driveways and byways, under- and overpasses, to get to another parking ground, search for yet another empty spot and besiege the next cluster of shops. For food and drink, there are food courts in certain of these clusters, or there are free-standing outlets, of such fast-food favorites as, well, the usual suspects. Bars tend to be massive sports bars, with banks of flat screen monitors, and yards and yards of bars interspersed with high-top tables and counters, specifically designed to leave you uncomfortable enough not to want to linger past the time required to suck down a pint or two of your favorite brew, and scarf a bowl of chips and salsa, a platter of wings, or a mini-pizza or a range of equally nutritious fillers. Necessarily it can take a day just to fill the demands of a basic shopping list of needs, never mind those discretionary purchases and high-ticket items we’re hit with barrages of ads to acquire periodically.

There is, I don’t doubt, a perfectly sensible rational explanation for making the shopping experience as loathsome, costly, unhealthy and unsafe as possible. Though, with no real alternative, people are equally loathe to think about it, never mind let the thought form that there’s a perfectly good explanation as well for their normative constant state of mild vexation and frustration. My guess is that the availability of real estate across large tracts is never sufficiently timely to allow very large scale advance planning, never mind cost-effective ways of gathering titles to contiguous parcels, to allow planning on a grand centralized scale. Pennsylvania is a much larger state than Massachusetts, albeit it was settled originally at the same time. The cities are bigger, and more spread out. Where Boston is quite compact, and, because of its relatively smaller size in several dimensions, like population and land area, combined with the constraint of having been, virtually, an island until the middle of the 19th century, Philadelphia is relatively gigantic and spread out. Further, Philadelphia was always surrounded by relatively endless farmland in three directions, until quite recently, and so the population seeking to find refuge away from a decaying center is much larger and with much greater room to spread itself. But I promised not to try to be Jane Jacobs.

Having described the larger context for my highly localized observations to come, I’ve reached the beginning of the meat of my thinking. While on the impromptu shopping excursion with which I began—I was in Macy’s incidentally because I recalled having read on a corporate web site that the department store chain was an official dealer of Citizen brand watches; I was curious to see one model up close… as I expected, quite frankly, it was not an in-stock item. In store, I noticed a large display of Macy’s promotional artwork. It’s necessary to explain further, at this point, that one of the lifetime over-arching themes of the Macy’s brand is the integration of the symbol of a star, that is, a graphic representation of a star, as part of the enduring identity of the brand.

The pentangle, or five pointed star, usually in red, is festooned throughout the store, advertising, merchandising, signage, packaging, and so forth, and has done for years. The symbol is allegedly reminiscent of a star tattoo that R.H. Macy, the founder (way back when, in Haverhill, Massachusetts), had had applied to his body as a young man, working on a whaling ship. The symbol, by now emblematic, is ubiquitous. It serves as the apostrophe in the name. It is the name of the shopper rewards program. Currently it is also how Macy’s designates the designers with whom they have contracted to sell on a licensed basis exclusive merchandise in the chain’s stores and designed by those individuals.

Several individuals have famously associated their names in similar fashion with other chains. Infamously, Martha Stewart, for example, owns a brand featured at a number of chains, usually on an exclusive basis for certain categories of goods. After her felonious run-in with U.S. laws regarding conduct surrounding the trade in securities (and her subsequent prison term) the Stewart brand ran afoul for a while, especially with Kmart and its parent, Sears. Probably not coincidentally Stewart has had a prior relationship with Macy’s as well, though that specifically is not in my sights here. These are not idle associations. Stewart’s brand generates over a billion dollars a year in sales for her company. Not insignificant by any means. You might surmise, as I do, that much of this money comes out of the pocketbooks and wallets of folks somewhat less well-heeled than the 1% who have been vilified one way or another for over a year now, since some portion of the other 99% decided to target the tiny well-heeled portion of our populace for fiddling while the rest of us burn.

I guess at least part of my point is that individuals the likes of Martha Stewart are entrenched members of that 1% club by virtue of the trade they do with the great unwashed. This much larger constituency would generally include, I’m afraid, those SUV drivers in Suburban Square, or out further in the ‘burbs, and wherever they shop, Pennsylvania Model mall or the more protective and embracing confines of a more sensibly designed mall. At any time, whether interested in the goods or not, it’s a safe bet that anyone is never more than a half-hour’s ride in their vehicle from an outlet for brands styled after actual people, and not merely invented personalities. Or, I wonder, is that “merely” a false distinction.

Even as much as we may know this person or that to be a real human being, at some point in our consciousness they acquire a more mythic dimension to his or her personality or character. We already think we know who that person is, and what kind of human being they are, purely on the basis of what we can only know as a manufactured product. Either we know literally the products they have nominally designed or we know the product, the persona, that goes by the same name they do, and essentially just as consciously designed in advance and “manufactured” by means of manipulation of information about them that appears publicly. We actually know as little about Martha Stewart, for sure and for true, as we do about some anonymous soul who lives on the other side of the earth in a proverbial, clichéd teeming ghetto. The same is true of Ralph Lauren or Philippe Starck, of Kate Spade or Michael Graves.

On this particular day, that poster with the name of the Macy’s Star that caught my eye featured this photo below her name, Betsey Johnson.

Betsey_Johnson)_Merchandising_Macy's_MG_0052

I hope it’s sufficient to say, though I didn’t recognize Ms. Johnson, by sight, I did know her brand, as women within my ken are her customers by whatever remove (can we say that we are customers of an even better known brand, of far greater global reach among many consumers, namely, Apple? Of course we can). What sprang to mind, however, was a far more fictive creation, at least insofar as the gargoyle of a face with that rictus of aggressive dental work that looks to me like, to paraphrase a famous description of the Duchamp painting of “Nude Descending a Staircase,” a display in a bathroom tile showroom reminded me of anything. It was this famous image, so famous as to have attained to that ne plus ultra of hipster recognition in the zeitgeist, a universal meme.

Vendetta-guy-fawkes-mask-on-black-849146

What I found myself wondering were several connected manifold questions.

Why would someone allow herself to be so transfigured, in life, or even in a mere manipulated photograph, as to appear like a notorious caricature of an even more notorious villain (I acknowledge that to some, perhaps too many, he is still somehow a hero, a thwarted hero, but heroic for his intentions), a symbol of vengeance, if not vindictiveness? What has Betsey Johnson, the avatar of a certain standard of stylishness to do with vengeance? An inquiry into what sort of style she stands for is irrelevant to these considerations. It’s enough to consider that one of the largest retailers in the largest national consumer market on the planet has elected not only to contract for the use of her name and the resale of her merchandise, but has chosen as well, no matter what Ms. Johnson’s say may have been in the matter, to depict her in a way that I can’t help but describe as grotesque and at the same time so etiolated that it borrows conclusively and inevitably from an image that is, in addition to being global and inescapable, bound in identity with vaguely sinister, yet, we are to believe, vaguely noble causes.

It suggests that the denizens of innumerable winding and lengthy suburban driveways in their own ennoblement, sitting atop 300+-horsepower gargantuan mechanisms, each a self-contained paean to consumption, feel some kind of kinship to what is, at present, more than an avatar of pre-adolescent male fantasies of anonymous skullduggery in the larger world that otherwise renders the fantasist null and powerless, but a symbol of ultimate vindication for (literally) billions of downtrodden people who worry, not about where to spend four weeks of winter vacation in some remote corner of the globe, but worry where they will be able to seek shelter within a month, or a fortnight, or a week, or that very night. And if any of these misbegotten victims of the inequities of life in the 21st century could steal into the back or, as we charmingly call it here in the suburbs, the “way-back,” of any of these luxuriant conveyances, they would do so in an instant. And no more defense for their actions, if caught, than a grin of the same rueful force as the Old Guy himself, if not Ms. Johnson.

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Groucho’s Club [from the archives]

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The following is an essay I wrote, or began, some time in 2002 as nearly as I can tell. This blog didn’t exist then, and apparently I intended it for some other purpose. Some of the biographical information is out of date, for example, I am no longer on the board of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and have not been for years.

Like Groucho, I would not like to join a club that would have me as a member. This pertains especially to those clubs most eager to have me, because I meet the criteria. Unfortunately, their sense of affinity is not mine.
Jews would have me, but I wouldn’t have them. At least not simply because they are Jews. Some of my worst friends are Jews.

The AARP would have me. And their cutoff seems to get younger and younger. So although for six years I qualify for cheaper airfare to certain places;
Although I qualify to have my very own lobbyist in Washington;
Although my hair is white and my skin is creased;
And although, like it or not, I am treated deferentially in all the many eateries in Harvard Square that otherwise cater to the overwhelmingly predominant population of young adults;
I really can’t stand even the idea of the AARP, which seems to predicate its importance on the mere fact that they feel chauvinistic about that which they otherwise can do not a thing. Those doomed to die, unite! Join the great society of humans and other mammals, arthropods, insectivora, indeed, all vertebrates and invertebrates! Discounts on movies, and other benefits.

I think the greatest right, right there under life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is the right to be let alone, and to enjoy only that society we choose. Well, can’t help it in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but that’s a small price to pay, as a citizen, for the privilege of legally driving a motor vehicle. I am talking about something more basic. I am indeed talking about rights.

Of course, they all have the right to solicit not only my interest, but my involvement, my dues, my charity, and my attention: the Jews (though, in fact, they don’t; it’s little known that Jews are very uneasy with the idea of proselytizing and doing missionary work with the objective of creating new adherents), the rapidly aging here (and everywhere else: I don’t know, but I can imagine that AARP has designs on the creation of an international constituency — today McDonald’s, tomorrow AARP for world citizens with cardiac artery disease).
I realize I’m already well into this, and have already invited the response that I’m looking for trouble. I ain’t looking for trouble, or picking on, either the Jews or the AARP. It’s just that, through no effort of mine whatsoever, I qualify for both.

AARP has a marketing campaign, which delivers the usual communications channels — direct mail, telemarketing, and SPAM. As if that weren’t embarrassing for them enough, my friends ask quizzically what my problem is, anyway.
Which brings me to the other. The Jews do not have a marketing campaign, contrary to the opinions of some, and despite, no doubt, their ownership of all major institutions and organizations that service and control the money supply, not to mention the media. They do not need one. They have my friends, or at least some of my friends.

Like my brethren in the chamber of commerce, whose measure of the worthiness of any civic, political, or financial initiative within our venue is “Is it good for business?” — this is, indeed, often the only measure or criterion to determine support — the question of my co-religionists is, “Is it good for the Jews?” There is, to be sure, a certain historic weight to this question — a question fraught with intimations, if not direct threats upon, one’s mortality. Indeed, it is prudent to expect that there is still a certain amount of caution one must exercise as a Jew in the world, which can turn selectively, unexpectedly, and viciously upon one merely for being a son of the covenant. Beyond the innate caution that I would urge upon any citizen to exercise, however, I believe that there has been a considerable diminution of a threat purely on a basis of institutionalized and universal hatred. Anti-semitism is, for the time being, a pocket evil.

Whether it’s Babbitts on business, or a Person of the Book, chauvinism goes a long way to providing a touchstone for behavior. Indeed, there are no more codified ways of conducting oneself than in the broader realms of global business, or global religions.

Well, I will admit it right now. The first things I seek when I have stepped off the plane in another continent, or even farther afield on my native continent than my feet could take me for a day (with ample stops for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and other moments of refreshment), are not either the local board of trade or where one may go to expect a minyan will gather four times a day.

What I seek is more broadly existential. Call it what you will. Shelter from the storm. A feeling of peace, if not of sanctuary. I seek, as I say, to be let alone. And this means only one thing. If you actually are interested in me, let’s leave it at that pronoun.

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Anxiety | A Manual

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Part One

I’m coming clean with this, and right up front. I am an anxious person. I wake up most days filled, not with dread, but simple fear, behind a layer or two, a mask, of calm. It’s a kind of fraught expectancy. On the worst days, I pop a pill.

It’s probably always been this way. Not quite always. I recall, on the frontiers of early memory, being a more or less fearless child. Not reckless, but simply fearless, especially when faced with the day-to-day adventurous challenges that a little boy will face on the proverbial sidewalks of New York. I was not undersized, though decidedly underweight and, so, tall and slight at once. The housing project in which I spent the first phase of my formation was riddled with man-made, downsized, canyons and valleys. Mainly crafted of brick, the building blocks of this complex, there were precipitous drops, say from one level, usually street level, or slightly elevated, of passage between buildings to a garden level, perhaps below grade, where certain apartments let out on tiny plots of land the tenants pretended were theirs. To me, they were landing zones for my jumps, or drops. I never suffered a break, or a bad fall, never knocked out, and never discovered. Most importantly, never discovered by my otherwise ever-vigilant mother—from whom I hid nothing unless I could otherwise help it. She did suss out, in one famous incident, the time I and my gang of seven- and eight-year-olds ran riot on the gravel strewn flat tar roofs that joined all the buildings in a single city block to one another without any of the impediments one found to pass from one section of apartments to another at street level. There was a low retaining wall, high to us, who could barely peer over it on tiptoe. No vertiginous views. These were low-rise apartments, planned well before the days of realizing Corbusier’s vision of celestial cities that scraped the sooty sky. Nevertheless, any fall would have been fatal. I was not so slight that I would float down, flutteringly, like a feather. There was no thought of falling, and never an idea of seeing how it would be to scale that wall.

The roof was freedom to run, at full speed, as fast as spindly developing legs could carry us, for maybe 10 or 15 seconds. Such runs were exhilarating, not least of all, because at the time of my ultimate confession to Mommy, we, the gang, had only just discovered access to the open air atop our homes, and the spaciousness the vaguely hostile planes of the rough-grained surfaces up there offered us. I must have arrived back after one of these maiden flights to the safety of our first floor digs still somewhat flush from the exertion of running back and forth, purposeless, willy-nilly, until we split up: probably closing in on some meal time we knew intuitively approached.

My mother, long since a past mistress at asking the direct pertinent question and, as it turned out, already having received early warnings on the parental telegraph inherent in a community, tight-knit, and sharing the common fate of all inhabitants of what in rural New England would constitute a small town and yet, in the Bronx, covered a mere four city blocks, dense with full occupancy, a settlement, though no shtetl, of five thousand souls. “Where were you?” she asked, almost nonchalant. “Up on the roof.” “And were you doing that running up there Howie? With your friends? And who led you up there?” “Yeah, running.”

“Well then, Howie, come here,” she said, suddenly in deadly earnest, and not really interested in responses to those supernumerary questions. Likely she asked for effect, and to create an air of inquisition to deepen the sense of seriousness in me. “I want you to promise me something. Wait a minute,” as she headed into my big sister’s bedroom. She came back with a ponderously thick blue-covered volume, and put it down on the table next to the chair in the living room in which she sat to watch her morning soap operas on television. I knew enough to know this must be the Bible of which I had heard conversation, and somehow I knew of swearing on the Bible, and the solemnity of the oath one took in so doing.

“Put your hand here,” she said, lightly touching the cover, the back cover. I observed she had not asked me first to wash my hands, invariably grimy at that hour of the day. This was serious. I put my hand lightly on the book and she put her hand lightly on my own and pressed it down, as if to ensure contact. “I want you to promise me you will never never go up on the roof and run again. Never go up on the roof for anything. No playing up there. You promise?”

“I promise.” And I never did venture beyond the fourth floor in any of the walk-up buildings of Hillside Homes. Not ever again. Not even after a couple of years, just before we moved away, during my tenth year, when I was in the forbidden precincts of my sister’s bedroom, on some errand to retrieve something she was too lazy to get herself, and I noticed that book casually on her desk. It was a grown-up desk, as she was practically a grown-up, valedictorian of her class at the public school, K through 8, that I still attended, about to graduate and attend the Bronx High School of Science, necessitating a ride on two buses and rising at 5:30 in the morning to get there. I had already attended PS78 more than long enough to read easily the words in 36-point type on the cover of that thick blue volume: Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, Abridged Second Edition.

I was probably already a bit of the Freudian I had always been, and somehow in all of this I believe were implanted the seeds of what bore the fruit of the other tree, little spoken of in the Garden of Eden, emerging fully mature, and sprouting, as the Original Father and Mother, covering their shame, were driven away, the Tree of Anxiety, a genetic mutation perhaps of those other two growths that have gotten all the attention in the Judeo-Christian era, the ones so readily confused as to which to eat of, and which not. Anxiety, close cousin, if you like, of knowledge, and synonymous with life, which we are denied beyond a pitifully, cruelly brief share. Though of anxiety, we may share in this without bound, as there seems as well to be no limit to the products of good and evil in the world.

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Building a Base

Reading Time: 15 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be my base. You won’t regret it.

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