Saturday, January 29, 2011

Face It

In the late eighties, New York Telephone got themselves a good slogan: "We're all connected." It warmly evoked all the paradoxical longing and anxiety of the ring-and-answer dialectic. There was something a little scary in the thought. At the time, I wrote a poem to someone that conveyed the desire, and the horror too, and I think there was a line in it that went "Oh my god: we're all connected."

In a new era, now, there's something exponentially more frightening, and you use it, and I use it, and we all use it, and oh my god we're all connected by Facebook.

Frankly, it scares the wits out of me. Just as I am frighten
ed by anything big--a rogue wave, say--coming at me whose power I do not comprehend.

The feeling is a bit like that which arose before setting out for a party when I was in my twenties: Who's going to be there? Do I look all right? Maybe no one will want to talk to me. Maybe everyone there will be smarter, prettier, funnier. Maybe I will slink home without havin
g said a word.

On Facebook, all of that is indeed the case. I am paralyzed into silence by the shiny wit and compact humor and alchemical apercus, expressed in sentences as verbally layered as paratha bread, of so many of my friends: these are people who should have been stand-up comics or political speechwriters or, possibly, comic politicians. The day goes on and I think, I really should post something--hey, maybe this!--and when I log on, there are diamonds and rubies scattered across the screen. I'm not going to put my paste jewel from the dimestore up there next to the stuff from Cartier.

Yet this--as astonishing as it is to see bright flashes of intelligence flare and die, replaced by the next burst of wondrous light--is but the simple use to which Facebook is put. It's like the smokescreen: it's what they want you to do, so that behind our backs, while we are diverting each other, they can be doing their . . . what? That's what I don't know; that's the unknown that scares me.

I know this must be going on, because I watched David Fincher's masterful The Social Network. I know because Mark Zuckerberg, the fellow who thought this up, is so scary-smart his mind is literally impossible to fathom. (Not that you'd want to, necessarily.) It was an idea conceived of in anger--and conceived of as purely transactional. A sales catalog of women: See which one you want today!

Because its intention was veiled from the beginning, it remains so, though the number of veils increase daily. We don't really know what they're doing with all the information they're collecting on us. And indeed, I suspect they don't yet know everything they're going to do with it in the future: but there are some very, very canny minds working on that at this exact moment.

What Facebook is good for, for any of us plebeians, is also multivalent, if less empire-building. It can be used to torture yourself, for example: you can troll around your ex, or your ex's friends, if she's blocked you or you've blocked her, and you can see who's doing what. With whom. Where. You can see evidence of parties you weren't invited to. You can see who's the most popular kid in high school: Four thousand friends? Who has four thousand friends? You can have done to you the coldest form of door-closing ever conceived: Defriending. It happens without a word. Slam.

It also shows who doesn't have a life, or at least doesn't in these cold winter days. That's most of us, apparently. The other night I found myself simultaneously engaged in three chats; I felt as if I'd just had a bunch of balls thrown at me with the command "Juggle!" Juggle I did.

You can't hide on Facebook. Or maybe you can, and I just haven't found the secret setting that would allow me to hide. To be a voyeur, without being spied myself. Even at that, though, I would still be watched. Bits of me, cell scrapings, taken without my knowledge. At some point, rest assured, it will all become clear. When we wake up one day and belong to someone else. Someone who is not our friend.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Loving the One I'm With

Childhood leaves a memory-world intact but hiding, waiting for the trigger in the here and now. Then a sight suddenly unfurls before you; it seems touchable in its nearness, shining with the same impossible glory that made it worthy of storage all this time.

Such was a moment today, when Grandma's house at Christmas appeared suddenly in the air I walked into. I had set out for a post - ice storm hike on a favorite rail trail. I now faced a sparkly tunnel, an archway of ice-bedecked trees glittering darkly all the way to the vanishing point. That is when it was there, the baroque fairyland of sweets that made such an open-mouthed amazement of my grandmother's at the holiday. (This was the Greek grandmother, of course, not the Presbyterian one. The former believed life was just an excuse for elaborate presentations that perfumed the house with honey and nuts, oregano and garlic, butter and more butter. The latter believed food was a necessary nuisance, and if the succotash burned, it could still fulfill its purpose.) In particular, I remembered a pile of sugared grapes, refracting light into my astonished eyes. I did not even want to eat them. I wanted to stare at them, simply trying to understand how such things could exist. They looked permanent and fragile, at once.

Nelly was resolutely in the present. She ran ahead to greet the only other walker this day: a little brindle dog that appeared to be a cross between a Basenji and a small pit bull. Or something. (Ever notice how everyone who has a shelter dog doesn't have a mash-up of twelve or sixteen different breeds; their dog is an example of some extremely rare purebred, which of course it looks just like. Sort of.) The man on the other end of the leash called out, "What is your dog?" That meant he actually did have an extremely rare purebred.

"Crazy!" I replied.

"Mine is barkless."

"Ha-ho," I couldn't help but laugh. "Mine has enough bark for forty-three dogs. I wish I could give yours some of hers."

He just smiled. A little. Then he started briskly for the parking lot, explaining as he went that his dog really couldn't stand the cold, being originally from a subtropical country.

Nelly is from her own country. She can deal with just about anything--the cold; large dogs; small prey; cross-country skiers; bones as big as her head. She just can't deal with her own emotions. They are too big for her little soul, and they cause her to erupt in screams, piercing barks, screeching whines, and (when she greets someone she loves) a special concerto of cries that is indescribable. Except to say: it hurts.

People flinch; her voice has an edge that could take the five o'clock shadow right off your face. And I don't know how to stop it. Me, the amateur student of behavior. Me, the person who is supposed to be writing a book about the virtues of positive-reinforcement training.

Actually, Nelly is rock-hard proof of one of the basic principles I hope to illuminate: that behavior that is self-reinforcing--hey, it worked! The door opened; the boogie man went away; the food appeared; that made me feel better to get that out!--becomes entrenched. There is now effectively nothing I can do about it, unless I stopped everything else (tending to my child, working for a living) and devoted all my time to retraining her. After all the years I allowed her to train herself.

So she puts me in a peculiar situation: hating something she does, while loving all of her.

Because I do. I can't tell you why. Maybe because she's here. Maybe because she looks to me. And I have come to look to her. Just the old dance.

She, like anyone we chance to fall in love with, over time has shown herself to be one of a kind. This contains a lesson for me, and it is also has its weight, one as heavy as a cross to bear. I love her, which means I accept her. In the way I too would wish to be accepted: for all that I am. My flaws, you see, rather scream too, even if silently. After all these years, someone would also have a hell of a time retraining me.

We walked as far as we were able, each step in the iced-over and heavy snow requiring the effort of three in normal conditions. The vagaries of the day had to be accepted as well. Then we too turned, back through the sugary tunnel of time. Toward home, the place where we can be as we are. Nelly slept all the way, quiet, and quietly loved.

O seasons, O castles
What soul is without flaws?
--Arthur Rimbaud, "Happiness"

Friday, January 14, 2011

Hit Send

It was the sort of room in which exactly this sort of conversation would take place: genteel, old, understated, and with an oriental rug underfoot. This was the site of a memorial art exhibition at the Pen and Brush Club, in a West Village brownstone, Edith Wharton territory. Therefore we murmured. We also held glasses of prosecco
and accepted Asian-fusion hors d'oeuvres off silver trays held by semi-invisible young waiters who wished they were anywhere but here. That is when I heard something that floored me.

I had been charged, by a relative, with collecting any inside dope I could about how to get into one of New York City's most exclusive private schools. At the kindergarten level.

I found myself talking to a woman whose three children attended said school. I tried not to think of the tab--over a hundred grand, I just learned from the website--in order to gather information diligently. A crucial item, she told me, was the letter one must write after the initial school tour. She helpfully listed some things the school might like to hear, then allowed, "Of course, some people hire a ghostwriter to do this."

You could have knocked me over with a feather--one dripping borrowed ink from its quill. Jesus Christ. Hire a ghostwriter to write a letter to a school for admission to kindergarten?

Apart from my broad and general naivete about how things are done now in this world (an unknowingness that extends, on one side, to the private grooming habits of young women these days [ouch] and, on the other, to the wow of learning that Lockheed-Martin apparently wields unprecedented power over every aspect of U.S. government; in both cases, who knew?), this showed me to be a positive rube.

Ghostwritten letters had gone out, or so I thought, with the prevalent illiteracy of the last century (the last before the last, I mean: the nineteenth). Then, people who needed that one persuasive phrase, the one that might turn a head most desired, would pay a professional to craft the letter of a lifetime. For those who did command the written word, but not the ability to gather enough flowers to make a suitable literary bouquet, there existed books of templates: the thank-you, the sympathy, the employment query. There are still those books today, although the handwritten letter--on paper! in an envelope!--is going the way of the floppy disk.

I have been blessed with some extraordinary correspondents, and not just in that antediluvian time of the postbox. In fact, e-mail has allowed some incredible prose to flourish; incredibly, it has been meant for my eye alone.

The only thing the e-mailed message cannot do is what I find among the letters, every one saved, sent me by my college roommate H. They are astonishingly well-written, first. They catalog events and feelings and people otherwise forgotten, second. (Without this record, which brings them momentarily back into the present--I see things before me as I hold the unfolded note, even twenty or thirty years later. Why, they must have lived inside this shoebox of letters, feeding on these words in the dark all this time.) But third, I saved them because they are unique works of art, made for me, with collages overlayed with rubber stamps, strips of colored paper torn and pasted just so, exquisitely Japanese in their sensibility. She wrote better than she spoke, and she spoke far better than most. Letter-writing is a craft and a discovery for the reader, temporally built, like a sculpture made of words.

As I said, though, now that I no longer receive letters in the mail (except from H. occasionally, bless her; they are beautiful as ever), I am yet not bereft of greatness arriving in the mail. Something arrives that knocks me back: brilliant writing. I can do nothing but attempt to reply in kind. We will go back and forth, and I find that the smarter, the more surprising, are the letters, the better are my responses, too. I never played tennis so well as when faced with an opponent who could cream me in the first three strokes.

I hope my backup program is doing what it is supposed to be doing, and I also hope that backups themselves aren't merely talismans of mystical hope. In other words, I hope to god these virtual letters are truly saved. Although they are private, I wish some could be made public, as some of my friends have written ideas, expressions, humorous riffs, tied together in a dense and perfect whole, one that rivals anything anyone ever set down in print. Perhaps they flew so high because what they wrote was not meant to be judged; yes, I think that must be so. It was meant to convey, as a boat carries its passengers, precious cargo, to the opposite shore. The beautiful sunset glinting off the waves was just something that happened along the way.

Sometimes writing a letter confers a singular closeness between two people, writer and reader. The considered missive has a different quality than the conversation, or the dashed-off message, or the query, or the phone call. It is meant to draw together two minds, two hearts. And it does, in the hands of the best letter writer. It is something that could never be ghostwritten. Only written, just to you.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bluish Blood

Margaret Bourke-White, 1937

Let us talk for a moment about privilege.

There is the type of privilege that is simply being here, now, alive. This is the highest. Then there is the privilege of, say, owning such an amazement a dishwasher, an appliance that accepts greasy dishes and spoons and returns them new again after the mere press of a button (and the selection of a crossword puzzle's worth of interlocking processes). It also returns a bill from Central Hudson, which I guess is also something of a privilege. I try to imagine what my grandmother, with a family of five boys coming out of the Depression, might have felt having such a thing in her kitchen--either a dead faint, or the Hallelujah Chorus.

I am hugely privileged, of course, and I know it. Not only in having a dishwasher, but also, in a short list, the following: a view out my window of rough and wild mountains (only partly ruined by high-tension wires, which I'd be a sorry ass to dislike, given their gifts [such as dishwasher and bill]; trade-offs are also a form of privilege); a car in my driveway that has not failed to start every single time I have turned the key; two motorcycles in the garage that do not always do the same, but this in its own way might be considered a privilege (that of needing to engage with them fully); the dog whose happiness redoubles my own when I watch her bound ahead of me on the trail with every cell in her being on fire with exuberance; the surpassing love I feel for her in the morning, whether it's come too soon or not, Miss Bright Eyes, complicated and uncomplicated both.

It goes without saying that the privilege of having a child, healthy and smart and funny, embarking on his own path into a world of peculiar privilege entirely his own, stands as king at the head of this nation of marvelous luck.

The final privilege I wish to enumerate, though, is a little more strange: the privilege of occasionally brushing up against august privilege--that of impossible wealth and luxury. And then retreating again, to my own life of advantage. Though everything is relative, isn't it.

I have been dressed in a long gown, ready to go to a black-tie gala where I will drink champagne and eat the kind of dessert that always features thin curtains of chocolate making a cityscape on the plate, and wondered if I had enough money to pay the cabbie to get there. (Riding the subway from Brooklyn in formalwear, especially high heels, is only for the heroically brave, and I am an abject coward, apparently.) I have been to homes where I was waited on by servants--I mean, the house staff. I have partied in a home that used to be an embassy, where the walls were filled with modernist artworks that would have been in a museum had they not been bought by an individual with more money than most museums. (Imagine entering a small private library, snooping about hopefully unnoticed, and discovering that it is the Joseph Cornell room. As in, not one, but many, of his incomparable boxes. I had to pick my own jaw up from the floor.) I have been to little fetes that cost more than I earn in a year.

Then I got back into my jeans and went, once a week, to the soup kitchen at Goddard Riverside. After ladling food onto the plates of people who had parked their shopping carts containing all their worldly goods in the foyer, people who shuffled by with heads down, lost inside the private universes constructed as protection from the intrusion of the outside in lieu of four walls, I would lead them in "activities." I had no expertise--crafty I am not--but in having the privilege of all that I did, I was qualified. I proposed teaching videography. One older man who never spoke, who never joined any other group, joined mine. After a few weeks, he smiled. For the first time that anyone there ever saw. A few more weeks, and I was told by a staffer that he said he looked forward to video class. Finally, it was just him and me. And then I had to leave. To rejoin my own life of privilege, I suppose. The pain I feel on visiting this memory, of having made him briefly happy, and then leaving him alone, is nearly scorching. Twenty years later, I can still see his face in my mind: his eyes, darting up, meeting mine at last. Then dropping down. Afraid, alone, gentle. Unknowing of privilege. I could cry.

I have a friend whose worth is in the double-digit millions. I have heard her complain of things she wanted to have. But, she maintained, she didn't have enough money.

My declarable income qualifies me for food stamps, but I do not need them. I am lucky enough to buy what I like at the grocery store, and I eat out in restaurants. When it is a particularly fine one, I order the appetizer. Half the prize, but more than enough. And gaze about me at the people who get whatever they want, and only eat a bit.

The greatest privilege of my privileged life is to have been able to walk the tightrope between two galaxies, and to pretend I am home in each. But I know I am not. I am only home in mine.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Here Comes 2011

For a technophobe--not to mention an unusually negative and annoyingly stodgy person--I am loving, more and more, the immensities behind the black screen of my computer. They provide places to wander endlessly, and to sometimes find luscious prizes. You rarely go straight to them; instead, as on a great trip, you follow some road that gives a hint of promise or ask a local, standing at the gas pump, to suggest a sight, and thereby get to where you should go but had no idea you were headed. This is (perhaps not uncoincidentally) also the process of love, where "one thing leads to another." Another is the best destination of all.

So it was that I was led, through the long series of happenstance that is the internet's great contribution to life's possibilities, to something I haven't been able to stop thinking about. It is something small--infinitesimal, in all ways: a pop ditty, and not even a good example of the type, by the meagerly talented tween heartthrob Justin Bieber. But it has been made into something large, by someone who goes by the name of Shamantis. By applying a program (more unimaginable wizardry from the lands of technology beyond my ken, which is all of them) that slows and stretches sound by 800 percent, he has utterly transformed "U Smile" from the highly trivial to the deeply affecting.

Arbitrary transformations, accidental discoveries. There is not much more to ask for from life, is there?

That is what I wish for you, in the new year(s): strange finds, travels without maps, embrace of the unknown. And anything else that wants to come into your arms.