Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cut and Paste Culture

If you’ve landed on this entry because of searching a particular phrase, you might want to move on and read this link instead, a thought-provoking article from 21 March New York Times, "Texts without Context" by Michiko Kakutani, as my comments, ironically, are perhaps part of the very problem. Also, ironical is that while this article is about the Internet, it was published in a major traditional newspaper, and itself incorporates the ideas of eight books on the general topic (and subtitle of the article): “The Internet Mashes Up Everything We Know About Culture.”

So, at the risk of being part of “the problem” here are some highlights from Kakutani’s article:

* intellectual property and plagiarism that have become prominent in a world in which the Internet makes copying and recycling as simple as pressing a couple of buttons

* Web 2.0 is creating a “digital forest of mediocrity” and substituting ill-informed speculation for genuine expertise

* the Web have been accelerating certain trends already percolating through our culture — including the blurring of news and entertainment

* [we’ve become] a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention.

* More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one.

* technology is also turning us into a global water-cooler culture, with millions of people sending each other (via e-mail, text messages, tweets, YouTube links) gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes and photographs they might once have shared with pals over a coffee break.

* the Internet’s nurturing of niche cultures is contributing to what Cass Sunstein calls “cyberbalkanization.” Individuals can design feeds and alerts from their favorite Web sites so that they get only the news they want, and with more and more opinion sites and specialized sites, it becomes easier and easier…for people “to avoid general-interest newspapers and magazines and to make choices that reflect their own predispositions.”

This cut and paste mentality has migrated to mass media as well, with reality TV shows replacing shows that have to be written from scratch, perfect “water cooler” fodder, and retread movies and Broadway shows becoming more prevalent. We’ve become a mass culture addicted to gossip, voyeurism, and extremist or conspiratorial views, abetted by the Internet

Ironically, the plethora of views that can be found on the Internet can lead to a self-fulfilling confirmation bias, reinforcing preconceived views and gathering momentum to the point where some need to proselytize their views. The cut and paste approach requires no thought other than to send broadcast emails to friends, and friends’ friends ad nauseum attaching, the conspiracy or the impending Armageddon theory du jour.

I have asked friends not to forward me such stuff responding to their first missive with my standard letter along the following lines: “As much as I enjoy hearing from you, I don't want my email address used for any broadcast emails, no matter what the subject or the degree of importance. On the other hand, I welcome personal emails and you know I will always respond in kind. Thanks for your understanding.” Usually, that’s it. Most such “friends” normally do not write personal emails.

Nonetheless, we have gone from a society where information was controlled by the few to the explosive democratization of information, where anyone can produce what passes for such and anyone can consume it as one wants. Beware of prophets bearing informational gifts for the self-delusional.

Spammer at Work

Monday, March 15, 2010

Joe The Barber

My sister called to tell me she had some family news: Joe the Barber died.

This takes some explaining. Although I don’t remember it, family history is that Joe gave me my very first haircut. Not only that, he was the barber for my grandfather and father and gave my older son his very first haircut as well. That’s four generations of us.

His shop was almost directly across the street from PS 90 where I spent my grammar school years from kindergarten to 8th grade, the Jamaica Avenue elevator line rumbling overhead nearby. My Uncle Phil lived in the same house where my father grew up, directly across from the school and a leisurely stroll to Joe’s shop. Joe cut Uncle Phil's hair as well.

When I was old enough to take my Schwin to school, I’d park the bike in Uncle Phil’s garage. Every few weeks or so I’d show up at Joe’s for my regular haircut, a buzz cut by the time I was biking to school.

Joe had a couple of chairs in his shop, but he was the only barber and there would usually be a wait, so I was able to get my hands on a few adult magazines while I waited and he chatted with the customer in the chair.

I looked forward to my turn as he always treated me like a kindly uncle would, knowing everyone in our family, asking me about family news, how things were in school, talking about my Dad which gave me perspective on him I would not otherwise have seen. He’d also talk about my grandfather, who by then was deceased, so Joe the Barber was an endless source of family history and gossip and advice.

Joe was Italian and proud of it. He was also a handsome man, always smiling while working, frequently humming a song, often joking that he could become the next Perry Como!

When I was in high school, preparing to go off to college, his own son was going through a rebellious stage, racing his Impala around, getting into a little trouble and naturally Joe was concerned. Unknown to Joe, I was doing the same kind of adolescent stuff and it was my turn to comfort him, telling him not to worry.

Once I went off to college and got married, I had to find my own barber in Brooklyn, although when I visited my parents in the home where I grew up, I still managed to stop in for a quick haircut with Joe the Barber in the same shop he had been in for decades.

As usual, he talked about my family and in particular about my Aunt Lillian, who would later leave her husband, Uncle Lou. After Joe’s wife died, Joe the Barber married Aunt Lillian, but even my Aunt did not refer to him as our “Uncle” Joe, signing Xmas cards, “Aunt Lillian and Joe.” But, to me, the man who just died, nearing the age of 99, was my dear Uncle Joe, who was part of the family all my life.

Here we are with my Aunt Ruth, Uncle Joe, and Aunt Lillian more than twenty years ago.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Irving Writes about Writing

In the corner of my home office is a “must read” shelf of novels and short stories, some are ones I want to reread, but most are either new titles or ones I just did not get to during my working career. While many of these I already owned, or buy used from Amazon’s affiliated vendors, I allow myself the luxury of acquiring new clothbound editions written by my favorite writers. Two such recent purchases were Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass and John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River.

When I finished my last book, given to me by my wife for Xmas, a wonderful, informative compendium, Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre; The Composers and Lyricists by Herbert Keyser, I debated about my next book, eyeing that new Tyler and Irving title, among the others I had squirreled away for the “right moment.” Impulsively I picked up the John Irving novel. Not sure exactly why, as I really ENJOY reading Anne Tyler, even if she writes about the same flaky characters in their Baltimore environs. Sometimes I feel like I am one of them, an accidental tourist on the journey of life.

Enjoyment would not be my motivation for reading Irving; rather, I would call it a COMPULSION and perhaps that is why Twisted River, once in my hands, became the choice du jour. Irving’s characters are not ones I easily identify with so I follow them somewhat dislodged from the comfort zone I am normally within Tyler’s or Richard Russo’s worlds.

And, indeed, Twisted River has a panoply of larger than life characters and Amazonian or Rubenesque women, the latter including Injun Jane, Six-Pack Pam, Carmella Del Popolo, and Lady Sky just to name a few of the colorful names. And then there are the men, who are often generically referred to as, “the cook” or “cookie” (Dominick), “the writer” (Daniel), “the riverman” or “the river driver” or the “logger” or the “woodsman from Coos County” (Ketchum), and the “constable” or the “crazy cowboy” or the “crazy cop” (Carl). In typical Irving fashion, there are scores and scores of supporting and minor characters.

Irving makes me feel as if I am entering a nightmare; so from the opening pages of Twisted River there is that sense of foreboding. His writing makes me stop here and there to figure out relationships, or potential relationships, as if I’m moving through molasses at times, but he is such a superior storyteller that you are drawn in and the story itself takes over.

He paints a portrait of three generations over the last fifty years and in a number of places, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Boston, Toronto, a twisted river of American life, Irving painting one part of the picture, jumping to another part of the canvas, temporally and geographically, circling and backfilling, bringing the story back to the beginning at the very end. It is an odyssey for the characters and for the reader. As Irving and I were born in the same year, the historical background of the novel is the one we’ve both lived at the same moment of our lives. The political history of “an empire in decline” is an omnipresent part of the novel’s subliminal setting, the arrogance of power from the folly of Vietnam to the Iraqi invasion.

Many of the usual Irving themes or symbolism are here: the bears, wrestling, New England, hands (or lack of), tattoos, accidents and fate. But, of all his novels, this may be the most illuminating about Irving himself and the craft of his writing. He even describes his Cider House Rules as another work of fiction in this novel called East of Bangor.

The main character in Twisted River is Daniel Baciagalupo a.k.a. Danny Angel, his pen name for most of the novel. Danny is Irving’s voice about writing, revealing his own tricks of the trade such as the following:

Maybe this moment of speechlessness helped to make Daniel Baciagalupo become a writer. All those moments when you know you should speak, but you can’t think of what to say – as a writer, you can never give enough attention to those moments.

All writers must know how to distance themselves, to detach themselves from this and that emotional moment, and Danny could do this – even at twelve

One day, the writer would recognize the near simultaneity of connected but dissimilar momentous events – these are what move a story forward….(He was too young to know that, in any novel, with a reasonable amount of forethought, there were no coincidences.)

Childhood, and how it forms you – moreover, how your childhood is relived in your life as an adult – that was his subject (or his obsession), the writer Danny Angel daydreamed….

I particularly appreciated Irving’s attention to Danny’s experience at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Some of my favorite writers have taught or have been taught there, luminaries such as John Cheever, Philip Roth, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut and, of course, John Irving.

One of Danny’s teachers there is Kurt Vonnegut* a kind man and a good teacher. Describing Vonnegut’s criticism of Danny’s punctuation problem gives Irving the opportunity to reveal the major influences on his (both Danny’s and Irving’s) work: Mr. Vonnegut didn’t like all the semicolons. “People will probably figure out that you went to college – you don’t have to try to prove it to them.” [B]ut semicolons came from those old-fashioned nineteenth-century novels that had made Daniel Baciagalupo want to be a writer in the first place….Danny would be at Exeter before he actually read those books, but he’d paid special attention to those authors there – Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville…And English novelist Thomas Hardy naturally appealed to [him], who – even at twenty-five – had seen his share of what looked like fate to him. Danny (and Irving), says of his former teacher: Danny like[d] Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, and he liked the man, too. Danny was lucky with teachers he had for his writing….

Ketchum (the woodsman) is an idealized alter ego of Irving, perhaps the man he sees himself as being outside the world of writing, while Danny’s father (the cook), a kindly man, protective of his son, is the idealized father who Irving never met. Irving loves these characters, and the stories of all three men are so tightly interwoven we mourn their aging in the novel as if they are one.

The reoccurring themes of Irving’s novels, the vulnerability of childhood, and the inevitable loss of innocence, Irving’s pessimistic distrust of human nature are evident here as well:

Danny Angel’s novels had much to do with what the writer feared might happen. The novels often indulged the nightmarish – namely, what every parent fears most: losing a child. There was always something or someone in a Danny Angel novel that was ominously threatening to children, or to a child. Young people were in peril – in part, because they were young!”

But what was political about [his] other five books? Dysfunctional families; damaging sexual experience; various losses of innocence, all leading to regret. These stories were small, domestic tragedies – none of them condemnations of society or government. In Danny Angel’s novels, the villain – if there was one – was more often human nature than the United States.

It is well known that Irving works from the end of a story to the beginning and so does Danny: As always, he began at the end of the story. He’d not only written what he believed was the last sentence, but Danny had a fairly evolved idea of the trajectory of the new novel.…That was just the way he’d always worked: He plotted a story from back to front; hence he conceived of the first chapter last. By the time Danny got to the first sentence – meaning to that actual moment when he wrote the first sentence down – often a couple of years or more had passed, but by then he knew the whole story. From that first sentence, the book flowed forward – or, in Danny’s case, back to where he’d begun.

And so it is with Twisted River, a work that is a mirror within a mirror as it is Danny Baciagalupo who becomes its author in the end, Irving bringing together all the themes and characters in a coda so powerful that I found myself emotionally choked as I concluded the novel, especially relating to one of Irving’s culminating thoughts: Sometimes, people fall into our lives cleanly – as if out of the sky, or as if there were a direct flight from Heaven to Earth – the same sudden way we lose people, who once seemed they would always be part of our lives. It left me bewildered as to how I could have been so unprepared for such a reaction, other than being in awe of Irving’s gifts and the knowledge that we are all bobbing along on a twisted river, a circle of life.

* In my working days we had published The Vonnegut Encyclopedia, subtitled An Authorized Compendium as it had the full cooperation of the great writer himself. I had asked Vonnegut whether he might inscribe a copy to my son who was in high school at the time and already an admirer of Vonnegut’s writings. I was both deeply moved and amused by his inscription:


Monday, March 1, 2010

Bill Gross Redux

As I’ve noted in some prior blog entries, Bill Gross, the world’s preeminent bond manager from PIMCO, also happens to be an excellent writer. I read his monthly comments as much for their style and wit, as I do for their content. His piece this month Don't Care, although primarily about the sovereign debt crisis, seques into the topic using the experience we’ve all had, the vapidity of cocktail conversation, the inherent disinterest of people in other people, coming to the conclusion that “the careful discrimination between sovereign credits is becoming more than casual cocktail conversation. A deficiency of global aggregate demand and the potential impotency of policymakers to close the gap are evolving into a life or death outcome for the weakest sovereigns, with consequences for credit and asset markets worldwide.”

But I am not going to discuss sovereign debt here (perhaps the most serious one ultimately being our own) but, instead, the experience he so eloquently and hilariously describes as the blather of the social gathering. He even incorporates a graph entitled the “Cocktail Party Empathy Chart,” the X-axis being “Seconds Into The Conversation” and the Y-axis being “How Much I Really Care About What You Are Saying.” As one might imagine, there is a diagonally dropping line from ten to zero in about ninety seconds.

Although Gross covers the five topics such conversations normally wander off to, I’ll use his general observation as my own seque into a very recent experience relating to my last entry , in which I said I was happy to see the preview performance of American Buffalo as it gave me an opportunity to form my own opinion of the production. Since then, three professionally written reviews have appeared, one in the Palm Beach Post which was positive but, I thought, could have been more enthusiastic and two unconditionally excellent reviews, one in The New Times, Broward/Palm Beach and the other from Skip Sheffield’s blog.

We were at a social gathering recently and someone asked whether anyone had seen this new production of American Buffalo so I began to glowingly describe the production and was interrupted by the comment that the Palm Beach Post didn’t seem to be overly enthusiastic. Exactly my point I began to say, and before I could expand upon that it was pretty clear to me this person was more interested in talking about something else relating to one of those five “unbearable minute-and-a-half” topics, not really wanting a thoughtful reply. On Bill Gross’ X/Y graph, I hardly lasted the 90 seconds!

But why should this be a surprise? We don’t even listen to each other on the bigger issues. Look at the recent hyped meeting on healthcare between the President and leaders of Congress, each party pushing its own agenda, preening for their constituents in the all-day televised meeting. Hey, it makes no difference whether we will bankrupt the nation, as long as I look good! Who cares what the other has to say?

But I digress. Thanks, Bill Gross, for reminding us that we need to listen to each other, although I guess he might agree it all seems pretty hopeless.