Category Archives: Facebook

On Being Out of Tune

n02Today is my birthday, and I’m looking around wondering where I’ve landed.

Everything falls into four categories for me these days: things I know, things I guess, things I know I don’t know (and may never), and things of which I’m (still, after all this time) entirely ignorant. Growing older and knowing more should quiet the other categories, but, mostly, I guess. Ignorance may not have diminished a decibel—it’s hard to say. I’m not wise. I’m out of tune.

When I walk I think, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of both. Though we’ve already experienced chilly weather in Chicago, chairs and tables remain outside restaurants, pedestrians crowd sidewalks, and people linger at windows eying what’s inside. Despite congregation, walks leave me lonely. I wouldn’t eat or drink streetside without an occasion. I recognize almost no one else. I can afford little in those stores, and most of what they sell belongs in a different life anyway.

As a younger man I anticipated future confidence and self-assurance, but, on these walks, others’ knowledge seems greater than mine. They look more comfortable and animated as they chat with companions or on their cell phones. Their strides appear purposeful. Clearly, they aren’t walking to think—as I am—but to get somewhere. They don’t guess destinations. When I try to detect our common humanity, they seldom look back, rarely make eye contact, even more rarely smile. I’m so alien I imagine myself invisible, sharing streets with the ghosts asking for money at corners.

I’d say this estrangement is an outdoor phenomenon except that I sense it no less online where, because human contact has no place, social interaction is a shadow play. I like, you like, he or she likes, but without investment or consequence. The volume of such muted and largely impersonal transactions defies recall and creates one continually washed-out present. It’s silly to be nostalgic for general stores or neighborhood pubs or small town main streets, but I think I might accept guessing in more reassuring company. At least we’d know we’re all a touch dissonant. More ordinary lives in my life might assure reality isn’t bigger than any capacity to understand it.

We’re so often outraged—intolerant of deliberation, angry… but too impatient to plan for futures more distant than the present news cycle. We continually urge a response, a decision, some action. Not to be ready is to lack initiative and leadership, to betray weakness. It won’t do to discuss, as words are just words. Musing is absolutely out. Thoughts are immaterial without practical or remunerative applications.

We ought to share more than vehemence.

One of the dog walkers on my block is especially friendly and has a loud voice. Sometimes, when my window is open, I listen in on his conversations with neighbors. They say little really. They verify last night’s roof deck party was loud and late, or they laugh over some poor pooch’s latest mishap. They gossip and make small talk. Yet, though I never participate, these exchanges do more for me than I can say. These aren’t friends meeting, exactly. They won’t settle anything. They’re humans communing, affirming what they know and guess.

At such moments, I’m grateful I have non-Facebook friends in my life, ones who hear and understand my doubts, who appreciate my desire to know more, who might touch my hand or throw an arm over my shoulder and walk with me.

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Blogging’s Faint Stamp of Approval

imagesMy wife and I sat at a picnic table, and next to us were three strangers eating in advance of the same outdoor Shakespeare performance we were attending.

One of them asked the other about a daughter who recently graduated from college, and she answered, “My daughter wants to be a writer.”

“Has she published anything?” the first said.

“No. Right now, she has a blog.”

I tried not to spy but didn’t need to look over to hear the message behind the answer—embarrassment, putting a positive face on the only response possible. She might have substituted, “No, not yet… but, you know, she’s pretending.”

That’s the trouble with blogging. Anything in magazines, journals, newspapers, books, or even commercial promotions comes with verification. Some authority says this writing deserves notice. In contrast, posts only require clicking “publish,” a faint stamp of approval that—most people assume—comes too readily. Based on this overheard conversation, the writer-daughter takes herself seriously, maybe thinks a great deal of her own work. The rest is up for grabs.

Any blogger’s vindication of blogs sounds like rationalization, further effort to gild the author’s own work. I felt for this girl’s mother. Naturally, a mom wants to believe, and, though blogging is hardly the same as appearing in The New Yorker or even the local paper, her daughter means to ply her craft, to pursue a dream, to practice by taking baby steps toward something brag-worthy. More than that, she may want to be read, and creating a blog assures a voice and audience… albeit a limited, often intimate audience. Which, she may think, isn’t so bad and certainly better than no readers. She might even like blogging and regard it as a distinct form with idiosyncratic challenges and potential.

Eavesdropping, I couldn’t help thinking about this blog as it approaches its 500th post. Am I still, after all this time, practicing for something real? Am I more proud (and appreciative) than I ought to be of my tiny audience? Am I alone in valuing my labor while real writers snicker? Have I, all along, been deluding myself to avoid actual evaluation and accomplishment? Does self-expression only count when someone else says it does?

This week a colleague posted on Facebook, “I’m writing everywhere else but on my blog, which means I’m finally working. I won’t be stopped.” In no way did he mean to direct the comment at me, but my spirit sunk nonetheless. My inner Rodney Dangerfield started muttering, “I get no respect. I get no respect at all.”

He meant, I’m sure, to say his blog has faded as more public writing projects took precedence, but the assumption seemed to be—or my defensiveness heard—you can’t be serious and simply blog. Blogging is what you do while waiting for anything better. In itself, as a writing genre (if it is), it sometimes seems the equivalent of copy printed on grocery-brand macaroni and cheese. Though cute, it hardly counts.

A fury of counterarguments rears: if you’re not a published writer does it mean more or less that people choose to read you (based necessarily on content rather than name, reputation or designation by Important People)? What sort of motive to write takes precedence when fame and remuneration are unlikely? Do readers from the Philippines, India, Botswana, and Latvia counterbalance having a small audience? What does it say when readers feel compelled to comment fresh from encountering ideas—can that be bad?

But those are framed questions, as all my questions are. They dig the hole (from which I shout) deeper. They evoke that unfortunate parent proffering her daughter’s blog as proof she’s a writer.

Perhaps there’s no satisfactory vindication or apology. As seriously and carefully as bloggers compose, the possibility lurks they have no place else to be writers and their only claim to the title is one they’ve asserted themselves.

Although, to me, these essays, stories, poems, and haiku feel quite real.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anger, Apologies, Arguments, Art, Blogging, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Essays, Facebook, Fame, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Rationalizations, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

Danse Russe

“I am lonely, lonely. haring4

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”…

 

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

 

William Carlos Williams,

“Danse Russe”

Lately, the philosophical question plaguing me is whether solitude is the natural state of humans… which says something about the state I’m lately in.

It’s July and, as a teacher, I don’t report to work. However, my wife still leaves each morning, my son lives elsewhere, and this summer my daughter has a job in the wilderness of Wisconsin. Between seven am and seven pm, email, Facebook, and the internet generally keep me company. With my sabbatical ahead, I forecast a long stretch of similarly uninterrupted solitude for the next 14 months.

Scientists believe they’ve answered my philosophical question definitively: humans are not solitary, never have been, and, in fact, experience changes in genetic expression in response to social situations. Where scientists once believed you were stuck with the genes you possessed at birth, they now recognize the environment, including the social environment, can turn on certain genes and change traits thought immutable. Research indicates people who live alone develop suppressed immune systems and manifest marked changes in genes linked to depression. Abused children with access to support outside the home, for instance, show–genetically—less sensitivity to stress and trauma. Closeted gay men fall much more rapidly to AIDS than more connected victims. Solitude, science says, is bad for you.

I’m not naturally social. In that great divide between those energized by company and those taxed by it, I’m squarely in the second group. A day of teaching runs upstream against my disposition, and, by the end of the workday, I have no talk left. As most people do, my wife looks forward to parties, guests, and visits. I try to. I remind myself how much fun I’ll have, how good it will be to reconnect with friends, how exciting meeting new people can be. Nonetheless, my apprehension grows. Almost involuntarily, I experience a kind of dread.

I’m no recluse. I love most humans and seem to function well in public. Some people, I’m always surprised to hear, say I’m interesting, even charming. Still, solitude is easier.

There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is a choice. Loneliness implies unfulfilled desire. A solitary person likes quiet, enjoys controlling his or her time, and finds productive and satisfying ways to spend what may appear to others empty hours. In contrast, a lonely person feels lost in a desert of time and wonders where the oasis is, where life-sustaining company might be, right then. Solitude evokes strength, self-sufficiency, autonomy, confidence, and completion. Loneliness stings. It never feels right and elicits resentment, bitterness at the thought of being dismissed or neglected.

I aim for solitude, but its border with loneliness wavers. I consider calling people so we can get together, then I give the idea up as weakness—they have their own lives and could certainly call me if they wished. I shouldn’t impose. I remind myself of my good fortune, the time to read, and study, and think, and write. Then, when I’m not looking, the switch flips. I feel excruciatingly bored and forgotten. The day begins with journal writing, a to-do list, an hour or so of studying a psychology text, and work on my latest creative projects. It ends with Netflix, iPad games, and anything to pass time before my wife (finally) walks in.

If I complain, she says, rightly, “Do something about it.” And I say, “I should.” Yet, the next day, I return to the same strategy of making the most of being alone. Sometime soon, I may scream. In the meantime, I structure my new solitary life like a dike to keep loneliness out. I mean to keep loneliness out.

A researcher named Steve Cole has devoted his career to studying the physical effect of social isolation and has discovered that, even more than stress, “Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”

Scientists may have answered the question of whether humans are solitary, but my own experiment continues. My days negotiate self-reliance and desire, fellowship and autonomy, productivity and yearning to hear another voice. Nothing seems so immediate and real as this battle between being myself and being part of something. Even this post is a skirmish, a surrogate for conversation, piled earthwork, more effort to occupy time.

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My Honking Lament

imgThe geese in Lincoln Park are residents. They don’t migrate, or, if their flight can be called migration, only consists of travel to the western suburbs, announcing their exercise with loud exaltation, arresting pedestrians’ attention.

I wish I were so proud. My own diffidence says little more than, “Hi, I’ve arrived” or “I’m back” or “I’ve been thinking…” or “I’m still here.”

Travel isn’t something I relish, yet I know I have to leave here sometimes. I must meet the world to be part of it—no pretending musing online is being public—and life is supposed to be about greeting folks, about expanding myself through contact with genuine others.

The electronic reality I occupy suggests otherwise. The “friends” I create through Facebook and other “social” media don’t seem to seek intimacy. They appear to desire the electronic equivalent of a honking sortie through fall or spring skies, affection without heart. Noise over communication.

I’m sorry if that’s insulting, better to be sincere even when wrong. I’m guilty too.

And no wonder I’m lonely. Maybe my inability to express my feelings is my limitation. True character would insist on recognition, demanding—seeing as normal—the spouting I lid and re-lid daily. But I don’t know what to think or whether feeling is really looked-for from me. Most men live lives of quiet desperation, but what if quiet oppresses? I hesitate to say more… except to confess obsessing over all I hide, withhold, and swallow.

It’s not anger. I’m not mad as hell and can’t take it anymore. I want company, would like to be starkly myself.

Do people sense how convincingly “acceptable” overthrows “sincere”? Do others long to meet, long to talk instead of text, long to release feeling and speak rather than perform? The niceties aren’t nice, the insults more brutal by being couched.

Taking risks sounds good in abstract. Really, it’s embarrassing, showing emotion you know others—discretely or indulgently—ignore. You imagine people laughing. Derision is the modern default. The Eliot of “J. Alfred Prufrock” knew that, the Arthur Miller of “Death of a Salesman” knew that, but we’ve learned little. We devise new modes of communication to say less, in fewer characters.

Real life still awaits us—by that I mean, of course, real life awaits me—and I travel further and further from authenticity by circling, circling, circling.

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Life in the Information Age

Newspapers taught us that something changes everyday. Radio taught us things change during the day. TV taught us things are always changing. And the internet teaches me I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on right now.

I’ve developed a habit of checking my email and other online accounts hundreds of times an hour. Five minutes seems eternity because, who knows, maybe someone has answered my urgent inquiry about reimbursal for a taxi ride two weeks ago or located my lost pen cap. Perhaps another person in a group of people has viewed my profile on LinkedIn or written something witty about my distressed status on Facebook. Those cat pictures are really funny.

Someone may have answered my comment on that blog or have visited me here and liked what I wrote.

If people don’t like me, I start to feel lost, and, when my accounts remain empty or inactive, I begin to worry—what if everyone is away reading news of a cataclysmic event… or a campaign gaffe… or some celebrity misstep? Think of everything I’m missing writing this post right now and what you’re missing by reading it. I hope you have another window open and the sound unmuted.

I read recently somewhere that finding notifications online stimulates the brain just as game stimulated early human brains. I don’t remember where I encountered that piece of information—because so very much has happened since then—but it makes sense. I look for flags and numbers in precisely the same way I’d look for rabbits were I preternaturally hungry. Shifting my gaze from warren to warren, my heart palpitates in hope of catching one pair of eyes or ears, one subtle shift in the beige-brown background signaling something there to consume.

We’re all looking, and if no game appears, we have each others’ reports of game. You can rest assured someone has seen something somewhere and will let you know. Many of the reports I receive in email tell me about information elsewhere. I click on them, and they whisk me to new vistas. Click there, and I’m transported again. It’s doubly satisfying when something changes and your email changes to alert you to that change. You can open layers of layers of curtains before you spy the stage. And, even if what you encounter is a spot-lit bean on a broken stool, at least getting there was dramatic.

Please pardon my scattered thoughts. My attention span is shot. I can’t tell distraction from devotion and vital from new. Every task deserves interruption—if you even call them interruptions. Really they are messages from another source, one of the many sources we are so very lucky to access every second of every day in this modern technological marvel of a world. We can learn anything, we can know everything (or access anything known), and, if someone will only send me a text or tweet or email me where to look, I can get on that right away.

But, actually, maybe not now. An icon is leaping like a terrier at the edge of my sight. Some program needs updating, and if I don’t do it immediately, I may lose you forever.

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Filed under Anxiety, Essays, Facebook, Laments, life, Modern Life, Satire, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

Now… What Was I Doing?

Everyone in my office has Facebook.  Everyone in my immediate family has it, as do my brother, my sisters, and all my nieces and nephews, and even my mother.  Just about everyone I know at work and in the world has Facebook.  I have Facebook too, though I’m not sure why.

My children joke that if I’m carrying my cell phone, it isn’t on, and, if it’s on, I don’t have it.  The rest of the time it is neither with me nor on. They chuckle over my glacial texting.  They say, “Are you still working on that?  Is it a novel?”  Then they shake their heads with a smirk that says, “Silly Daddy.”  To them, I’m an old dog incapable of chasing these tricky, new-fangled devices… and any modern means of communication.

Naturally, I see it differently.

Okay, I’m absent-minded and haven’t developed a habit of using a mo-bile phone, but I’m learning.  I’m not an ossified coot or a Luddite or a sand-hooded ostrich. My youngers may see me as such, a fossil from a non-digitized stone age, but I don’t pine for any good old days of phone booths and landline isolation. I simply remember we once had different modern conveniences… and felt as fortunate.  We didn’t know we might have more.

We do have more, don’t we?

The advantages of Facebook are plain to me—I’ve heard from and about people I might otherwise have lost, followed friends’ links to funny and interesting videos or articles, communicated social plans, and shared in the small and large triumphs and tragedies of friends’ lives.  I also know which Twin Peaks character I’m most like… Agent Cooper.

But pesky balance sheets pop up in my imagination—what I’ve gained that I like versus what I’ve gained that I don’t. Because convenience has no master, distraction is as convenient as productivity, and intrusion is as convenient as accessibility.  Before email, I couldn’t spend time avoiding work and calling it work.  Before Facebook, I could write three or four paragraphs in a row.

Now my breaks have breaks. I avoid projects—like doing my job or helping out around the house—by answering dubiously necessary messages. But that’s hard too, so I turn to check Facebook or another email account or an information site I just checked a few minutes ago (and which might possibly have something slightly new to share) or I look something up on Dictionary.com or Wikipedia or I Stumble for a minute (going on half an hour) or I visit my blog to see if I might have received one of my semi-weekly comments.

Then I wonder if not learning to use my phone—I AM learning—is such a bad thing.  At least my atomized attention doesn’t suffer from the additional distraction of receiving the relentless texts my kids do.

My iPod is broken, thank God.

A life of distraction makes me more distractible, and all those mental channels that used to take me from conception to execution seem to have filled with silt and cattails and become one huge undifferentiated swamp.  Perhaps people born to this world see landmarks I don’t and navigate that swamp, but I’m lost.

When I said before that everyone in my family had Facebook, I made an easy and convenient generalization. Actually, my younger brother is holding out.  Somehow he refuses to believe he’s missing something.

He’s my hero.  I hope to find the courage to quit Facebook. I want to let go of some of the electric diversions coursing through my life.

I want to tie myself to the mast and sail straight again.

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