“On This Day” or, Take My Life, Please

The author, en fuego in '09

The author, en fuego in ’09

Remember when Facebook was still new?

The novelty of being able to keep tabs on everyone, like e-mail on amphetamines, with pictures (and now, video, and all the other things we can incorporate instead of actually living life moment by moment) was, naturally, addictive.

I loved it, then, and still (mostly) love it, now, because I –and, I’m sure, you– can attest to the non-superficial ways it enables one to stay in touch: to be informed, to engage and be engaged, to eavesdrop, to laugh, “like” and mostly scroll past. I see people now I’ve not talked to in person for months, or years, and still feel like I’m up to speed on the important things: what they’re doing, how their kids are, what silly things their pets have done, what friends or relatives they’ve lost, which movies and albums and books they’re enjoying (or hating), how incredible their meals are on aesthetic levels, etc.

We’re all, also, guilty of the alternately transparent, amusing and pitiable spectacle of the ways we manufacture our reality for public consumption.

Who can blame us?

With great power comes great responsibility, right? (By power I mean the capacity, with a flick of the keyboard, to assume the mildly divine authorial license to craft our own narrative. By great responsibility I mean editing the unflattering pictures and ever-present danger of TMI.)

We probably all do –and should– process these narratives, equal parts hopeful, trusting, resentful, with more than a shovel full of salt; we know most of us are obeying the 21st Century impulse to put our best face forward, literally and figuratively. In a way, the people ostensibly leading the healthiest and most satisfying lives — the ones who’ve sucked so much marrow out of life it’s oozing onto their wrinkle-free smirks — are sadder than the handful of friends we all have who use social media as a ceaseless cri de coeur: the people who are seeking sympathy might well receive a portion of solidarity that Facebook can provide (if a paltry consolation for that human touch, a few thumbs up, shout outs and, in extreme cases, direct messages, it’s definitely better than nothing). Those golden gods and goddesses, on the other hand, likely aren’t looking for approbation so much as attempting to quell their own fears of inadequacy or unhappiness. Of course, there are also the folks who really do work hard, stay in shape, raise wonderful children, love their partners, glow with salubrity in every selfie, and generally have karmic insect repellent for all the world’s pesky problems. Fuck them. (Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which is to say, I do my best, most days, to moderate my mostly good-natured envy and use it as inspiration (sleep and procrastinate less, be kinder, care less about how much everyone cares about everything, etc.), and I try to, as the kids say, keep it real. Certainly, I’m mostly trying to respect the self-imposed social media contract by keeping the more unsavory aspects to myself, and the motivation there is both benevolent and selfish. The nitty-gritty of life’s rich pageant is best left to journals, texts and long-suffering spouses.

I think a great deal about the information overload we all attempt to navigate, and as an insatiable consumer of all-things-cultural, my issue is less with filtering out the crap and trying to keep up with the authentic and irresistible. I’m of the opinion that one can never be too informed, so the bizarre mixed-blessing of having so many intelligent and diverse friends (thanks, all) is the luxury, the exorbitance of incredible content. (One reason I still don’t subscribe to any podcasts, regardless of how much I know I’d adore some of them, is I don’t have the time; I already lament the hours I used to dedicate to reading books, writing about them and trying to write them, not to mention the endless struggle to not be fixated on a handheld device (our poor eyes) every waking second. It’s another reason I seldom surf Twitter; it’s too much. Yes, there’s a plethora of easily ignorable effluvia in those tweets, like so many digital dust mites, but it requires time and effort to scroll past them; the real issue is all the amazing links to columns, interviews, video clips (sigh) and insights that, without question, will make the lucky reader more aware and alive. The thing is, it’s too much of a good thing: keep up or die trying. And that shit will kill you.)

Perhaps the notion of info-overload is particularly top of mind as it’s the impetus (if not specific subject) of my next novel, now officially a work-in-progress. I’ve written a great deal about the uneasy intersection of technology and life (politics, art, creativity, commerce) as a poor man’s industry analyst; I’d like to explore, through autobiographical fiction, the ways these pressures and the urgent pursuit of some undefined, evanescent ecstasy are shaping our behavior, on macro and especially micro levels. In other words, the same stuff every novelist writing about the times in which they live attempts to do.

But mostly, I’m reflecting today on the unanticipated and often illuminating gift Facebook provides, via its “On This Day” back-to-the-future feature. Old posts, including the comments, pictures, and videos, are a reminder, however pleasant or painful, where we were a year, or two, or –in this case– eight years ago. Among other things, these reminders are undeniable snapshots of where (and who) we were. Have we grown, in both the good and bad ways (guilty of the latter; hopeful about the former)? Are we keeping our promises to each other, and ourselves? Are we at once the same and different in all the right ways? Is this magical online diary of our journey telling the story we want others to hear? Most importantly, is it, with its pixels and opinions and portents, corroborating the story we need to tell ourselves?

I think, and hope, the most honest answer is: To Be Continued.

Here’s what I had to say, eight years ago, when responding to the viral (“tag, you’re it”) entreaty of posting 25 “random facts” about myself. I enjoyed reading what my friends wrote, then, and I’d enjoy revisiting them, now. I’m mostly content that I’d stand by just about all of the things Murph, aged 38, had to say for himself. Not sure if they’re flattering or implicating, but they’re definitely true.

The author in '09: not a rock star then or now

The author in ’09: not a rock star then or now

1. OK: I just spent some serious time crafting my list and I felt pretty good about the way it turned out. And as I went to post it, my page “timed out” and I lost it. There has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

2. I crave time by myself, and I seldom feel alone.

3. By far the most difficult thing I’ve endured to this point is watching my mother fight–and ultimately lose–her 5 year battle with cancer. By far the most humbling, and inexplicably amazing experience was being there with her (and my family) the entire time.

4. Ever since my mom died, I’ve gotten together every Tuesday night with my old man for dinner. I call it “pops night” and with very few exceptions, we have not missed a week since 2002.

5. I haven’t been to church in many years, but I have no regrets about being raised Catholic (for one thing, it has provided ceaseless writing material) or being exposed, at an early age, to the the complicated powers of a ritual.

6. Making new friends is a great way to keep the heart and mind engaged; maintaining old relationships is all about the soul.

7. I realized, as I genuinely enjoyed seeing and reconnecting with people at my recent 20 Year High School Reunion, how fortunate I am. I understand that those formative years are difficult, even horrible for many people, and I’ll never take for granted that I was very lucky in many ways. (Incidentally, can you imagine if we’d had email or cell phones in high school? Me neither.)

8. My miniature schnauzer Leroy Brown is one of the miracles in my life, and I’m going to have a very tough time when he goes.

9. I used to spend unhealthy amounts of time agonizing over how to rank my favorite bands, or songs, or albums. Or how, say, a list of the Top 100 songs of all time would look. Unhealthy amounts of time.

10. I kept a journal, starting in 5th grade (props to Mr. Taliaferro!), through high school and after. I seldom, if ever, revisit those old spiral notebooks, but it’s good to know they are there, just in case.

11. If I never drive cross country I’ll have a hard time forgiving myself. (To his credit, Matt Gravett tried to convince me, several times, to accompany him when he made the journey. Rain check!)

12. As soon as I discovered The Beatles in 3rd grade, that was that.

13. Apparently, I’m difficult to reach on the phone.

14. Watching my friends become parents has enriched me in direct proportion to how much I’ve seen it enrich them.

15. Seeing my niece slowly turn into my sister has provided me more amusement than it should. And the teenage years have not even begun yet. Ha!

16. I viscerally detest violence, yet I always enjoy hockey fights. (Thoughts?)

17. It actually infuriates me that “True West” is not available on DVD (“True West” is a remarkable play by the brilliant Sam Shepard that was filmed for TV and shown, on PBS, in the early ’80s. It stars a young John Malkovich before he became John Malkovich and Gary Sinise before he became…whatever he became. But seriously, it’s intolerable that this masterpiece is not easily available for people to discover and fall in love with. Until I hear a better reason, I’ll remain convinced that it’s just a plot to piss me off, as I seem to be the only person who has ever seen it!)

18. Every year I tend to care less about college sports (except for GMU basketball!), and even certain pro sports. And yet, I somehow found the time to buy the Red Sox season package last year. So…if anyone needs to catch a game between April and October, holler at your boy.

19. I’ve never played a flute in my life, but I’m reasonably certain that, if provided one, I could play much of Jethro Tull’s catalog on it. In fact, the first time I saw Tull live (’89) I was convicing people all around me that I was Ian Anderson. But that might have been the mushrooms.

20. It’s certainly a cliche, but still: if everyone in the USA had to wait tables for one week (or more) before turning 21, our country would be infinitely more progressive, tolerant and equitable.

21. The recent (and ongoing) financial meltdown–and the obvious, predictable ways it unfolded–have, against all probability, made me even more steadfast in my left-leaning views. Also: while the concept of Hell has for quite some time seemed rather childish to me, I would love for it to actually exist, if for no other reason than to eternally house (among other worthy candidates for admission) the richest of the rich who actively and with impunity disenfranchise others in the sole pursuit of further enriching themselves.

22. Whoever dies with the most toys spent entirely too much time accumulating a lot of useless shit.

23. Mozart, Symphony 41. It’s all in there.

24. Having people confide in you is sustenance for your soul.

25. I’m pretty much exactly who I want to be. But I’m still working on it.



William, It Was Really Nothing or, The Faux Pi of Sarah Palin

Memo to Sarah Palin: when Lady Macbeth cries “Out, damn’d spot!” she is not talking to her dalmation.

I found Sarah Palin’s latest tearjerker invoking William Shakespeare particularly interesting on two levels (and, I say tearjerker in the sense that her indefatigable self-promotion combines with illimitable delusion to produce these types of comments, which at once induce laughter unto tears which then prompts one to weep for our future). First, it was, of course, The Bard who wrote the following lines, which demand to be quoted in full for a variety of obvious reasons:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I know, right? (This is life imitating art, super-sized.) But second, it is more than a little appropriate to consider that the other great William (Faulkner, that is) utilized this poetry for the title of one of the towering literary achievements of the last century, The Sound and the Fury. It is amusing (aside from the audacity) that Palin likens her creative license (or that of the semi-literate cadre of ghostwriters who Tweet for her) with masters of the form who on occasion changed the language. The difference, aside from the fact that they could actually speak the language with no small degree of proficiency, is that for artistic folks who innovate and advance our template for communicating or creating, one must already have mastered the fundamentals. This is demonstrably true of Slick Willy (Shakespeare) just as it is true of will.i.am (Faulkner), as it is true of Salvador Dali or Ornette Coleman. Can you dig it?

Sarah Palin is in what seems to be a historically unique position in that the more she embarrasses herself, the better it turns out to be for her career. And bank account. Sarah Palin is hated and loved in equal measure, always a good niche market. And she is popular, to a large extent, because her legion of dimwitted acolytes find, in her looks, attitudes, pronouncements and propensity for faux pas (faux pi?), a reinforcement of many things they want and need to believe. She is popular the same way boy-band pop stars are popular: she sells copy because the things that come out of her mouth are the things that a great many people want to hear. There is a formula for insipid pop music and there is a formula for pseudo-populist hucksterism.

What is different about Palin—and what makes her dangerous—is that while virtually every move she makes is calculated and carefully calibrated to resonate with the semi-literate and unreflective Americans whose bigotry is set on cruise control, she is not entirely disingenuous. Indeed, the things that most annoy the principled, learned and sentient citizens happen to be the things that are unaffected and/or unrehearsed. That is, her astonishing, almost impossible-to-properly-fathom ignorance. But that didn’t stop Ronald Reagan (whose amiable dunce routine, in fairness, looks downright Socratic after eight years of his Vice President’s son and Palin’s scorched earth ill-will tour). The problem, now, is what we have wrought as a nation with our voracious appetite for insipidity: being dumb is not only no longer an obstacle, it is a short cut. People like Reagan (and, to a lesser extent, his V.P.’s son) had to work hard to overcome their manifest intellectual shortcomings. Imagine how much time and energy is freed up (to fundraise, for instance) if you no longer have to fake it ‘til you make it. Think of how inordinately liberating it must be to celebrate—and be celebrated—for keeping it unreal on the campaign trail. Consider how much more confident one can be in one’s untested and uninhibited convictions if one never has to explain them.

I don’t blame Palin or her fans for this phenomenon. The staggeringly unenlightened have always been amongst us; mostly innocuous platforms like Facebook and Twitter have just given them more ways to connect and commiserate. No longer do misguided cretins have to conduct solitary diatribes in their attics or consult with their tinfoil hats in a dark room; now they can plug in, connect and blame the godless, the gays, the immigrants and the evil machinations of Socialist-minded social servants with one hand comfortably snuggled in the bag of Cheetos. They can incite riots and excoriate the elites without even leaving the comfort of their recliners.

But I suspect that even if social media (and, of course, the Internet) had been available two decades ago, an unabashed simpleton like Sarah Palin could never have made it out of Alaska back then. And for this I blame our disintegrating, increasingly useless mainstream media. The only thing liberal about today’s media is the appetite they have for horse races and sensational gossip over more mundane matters like what policies (take health care reform) actually contain and who they actually benefit, or making readership aware when a particular pol or pundit is straight-up lying. But we know this is treacherous ground to tread because, as Dr. Stephen Colbert established, the truth does have a liberal bias.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin’s latest crime against the English language and (more distressing) cocksure condemnation of racial and religious intolerance. No, not her own, but the ostensible hatred a certain ethnic and religious group harbors. That would be Muslims or, in Republican parlance, towel-heads. You see, because of 9/11 Muslims hate Americans, want to kill us, and their religious beliefs—and those who practice them—are violent and insidious. They also are not white or Christian, which is two strikes against them from the get-go. But this manufactured outrage over a Mosque in New York City is actually a teaching moment. In one imbecilic sentence, Palin is illuminating the misguided thinking that even allows someone to go there. Rather than attempt to disentangle the convenient (and conveniently backward and bigoted) sleight of mind that can equate Muslims with terror and a Mosque with violence, let’s try to use this insulting illogic in another scenario where Palin currently applies it. Below we have an image of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. As my perspicacious friend Tony James reminded me, Timoth McVeigh was Catholic, so clearly we need to tear down St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral (indeed, the proposed Mosque will be two blocks from Ground Zero; this church is practically across the street!). Needless to say, the average American redneck cemprehending that comparison would be as conceivable as the average Christian conceding that Jesus wasn’t, in fact, a honky.

Instead, the focus has almost entirely been on her beyond-W butchering of English syntax and no one (outside of the progressive blogosphere which, while useful and necessary, is mostly preaching to the choir) seems terribly concerned in addressing the racist and moronic reasoning that would even lead one to endorse such backwards thinking. (That said, it must be mentioned that the collective genius of humanity has rallied in a time of need, and is busy at work on Twitter making appropriate mockery of Palin’s bungle. Enjoy the hilarity @ #shakespalin.) Naturally, the emphasis has involved a “discussion” of whether she intended to make up a new word (duh) or whether we should take it seriously (DUH). Less than a little effort is made to remind anyone that everything she is saying is historically wrong, mean-spirited to the point of psychosis and flat-out racist. One could also make a case that she is persecuting another group’s religion, something Christians, for all of their whining and “War on Christmas” crapola, should be at least a tiny bit sensitive about. Of course, as we know in America the only groups who are genuinely persecuted are white fans of Jesus and billion dollar crybabies who pay too many taxes (Ha).

(Sidenote: it is either disconcerting or enticing—and possibly both—to consider what would happen if people like Palin and her ilk were really forced to sit down and actually read the bible or the Constitution (including the Bill of Rights) and understand who Jesus really was (even as a fictional character) and who the founding fathers really were (based on the things they actually believed and wrote which, unlike the authors of the bible, bear their signatures). Would heads explode? Would pre-packaged ideologies, at long last, suffocate on their own fumes? Would something approximating enlightenment ensue? Would reading lessons be necessary first?)

A prediction: There is an unforseen silver lining in all of this. Most of us have suspected for quite some time that Palin is the de facto leader of the G.O.P. brand; the only people unwilling (or understandably unable) to acknowledge this are the insiders and party elders themselves, who have so much to lose if and when she ultimately steps out of her Fox-News bunker and pre-scripted press releases (which she calls speeches). Once she puts herself in the proverbial crosshairs of even cursory (and at that point inevitable) media scrutiny, the lies will unspool and the façade will crumble and a modicum of sanity will be restored to our woeful world. And along the way the unthinkable will happen: the Republican contenders will necessarily have to go on the attack. That is when things will get very interesting indeed.

And people will write about it, we will laugh about it, and we will do everything in our power not to learn from it.


Taking It To The Streets?

In today’s NYT, Sudhir Venkatesh (author and Sociology professor at Columbia) contributes an op-ed entitled Too Down To Rise Up, In it he posits the intriguing, and depressing, theory that perhaps too many of us are too preoccupied to rise up in any real (i.e., compelling) fashion. Preoccupied, as opposed to distracted; it’s not that people are uninformed, it is, perhaps, that a great many people are too engaged. The only explanation for this seeming dichotomy is the electronic machine you are reading (and I am composing) this text on. Venkatesh points out that, between our blogging, online news surfing and (mostly) innocuous navel gazing, we are firing on all intellectual cylinders, including ones we couldn’t conceive pre-Internet, but what we are lacking is a primal, collective forum for expressing that awareness and those feelings. Despite the well-documented populist rage, albeit a white collar rage, that we’re reading about (in mostly staid reports inside mostly staid mainstream publications), most of the ire, directed outward, dissolves in the ether. Put another way, is it pretty much impossible to rage against the machine when you are plugged into the machine? Hardcore bloggers would bristle at the suggestion that their concerted efforts to absorb and disseminate information and affect change can ultimately be shrugged off as inaction. Certainly, they could correctly point to the recent election to illustrate the ways in which online organization paid undeniable dividends in terms of galvanizing and directing energy for a common cause. There are millions of other minor examples that one could accurately invoke. Nevertheless, where the Internet has radically democratized, and advanced the retrieval and dispersal of information, and it obviously serves as a powerful organizing tool, does it not, by its nature, necessarily mute and muffle a more unmitigated, more human response?

But if American anger remains corralled on the Internet, into e-mail messages to Congress and in sporadic small-group protests, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will do much to assuage the anger of taxpayers. Administration officials certainly don’t seem concerned that rage will heat up and overflow; after all, anticipating unrest would mean a broad and intensive campaign to shore up housing, food and welfare safety nets. The proposed budget contains a few such line items, but a comprehensive, coordinated program to prevent violence and defuse anger would need sustained commitments from mayors, service providers and civic leaders.

That we are too smart, or soft, or satiated for our own good is debatable, and there is probably a refreshing amount of gray straddling the extreme of either being aggressive or supine. But perhaps a more disconcerting possibility is that our collective reticence is already accounted for in the eyes (and intentions) of our politicians and the still-resurgent masters of the universe. Maybe it’s an intrinsically understood (and eagerly embraced) condition of our contemporary status quo that the people making the Big Decisions recognize that our capacity for outrage is several degrees more docile than it was a few generations ago. Oh we rant, we rage, we howl; but the sound of a million citizens tweeting is not going to shake, much less raze, the foundations of the temple.

But these days, technology separates us and makes more of our communication indirect, impersonal and emotionally flat. With headsets on and our hands busily texting, we are less aware of one another’s behavior in public space. Count the number of people with cellphones and personal entertainment devices when you walk down a street. Self-involved bloggers, readers of niche news, all of us listening to our personal playlists: we narrowly miss each other. Effective rebellions require that we sing in unison.

It would not seem especially effective, or intelligent, to make a case that what we need most is more anger, or the type of unified uprising that (invariably) results in violence. But it does seem fair to propose that in our current state of affairs, when the usually (take your pick) quaint or radical word populist has again gained cachet, it would be to our considerable detriment if we failed to harness some of this outrage in a productive way. It wasn’t until people let their voices be heard, in a tone that conveyed genuine indignation, that Obama began to acknowledge the inconsistency (or, worse, the consistency) with which the AIG bonuses had been handled. The point being: without any vocal demand for accountability, we can remain certain that our elected officials won’t feel unduly obliged to be accountable. Venkatesh’s piece today is a timely and invaluable reminder that even while our inboxes glow and our ire is evident, we may still be acting in accordance to the script that was already written for us.