Cincinnati: Summer 1995

(This post is dedicated to and inspired by James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer 1915 which you can read here.)

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Time moved very slow when I was six years old. I have read many theories about this. Some say that because a child’s brain and body are so new, the blood and heart so fast and the cells so active, the speed at which they are moving actually causes time to slow down around them. Others say that because young minds have a shorter attention span, they become bored more easily and therefore feel time’s passage more acutely. Like staring at a clock. I don’t necessarily think these two are incompatible or contradictory. My own theory is that, being shorter, kids’ heads are closer to the earth’s gravitational pull. You know, Einstein’s Law of Relativity and all that. Like I say, I remember these long days. Especially in summer. There are echoes and images of days like this buried in my mind, like at the bottom of the well, folded in upon one another, made complicated and probably inaccurate by time and age, but with a common innocence strung together by cracked sidewalks and chain link fences and telephone wires. For instance, one strong image is of our next door neighbor’s bird bath which was always splotched with moss, and the stone it was made of looked very old like a gravestone from the Civil War. When I was finally tall enough to see over the bowl, I remember being disappointed to find that there was no water in it. And no birds either. There were only the husks of dead nuts, leaves, and twigs that had fallen from the trees above. Now, I realized why squirrels would have wrestling matches in there.

At this age my head was still pretty close to the ground but also I was growing up. This summer was a transitional one. I was learning how to ride a bike. And having just turned six years old that July, I was to begin kindergarten in mid-August. How could I have known that from here on out, after this point we all cross, I would always have somewhere to be during the day and some task expected of me, and that every summer thereafter would be an unsuccessful attempt to recreate a freedom that only exists in childhood? No, none of us really know what is coming. We are so eager to grow up.

Our street was somewhat narrow. The houses were close together, built before World War One, a type of classic American look, with thin strips of yard and thin strips of driveway and small porches, and sometimes brick and sometimes vinyl siding. There wasn’t a single rainy day on that street. Well, of course I’m sure it did rain sometimes, but if it did I don’t remember, and it’s my childhood memory, so what the hey; every day on that street was sunny. And the summers especially were hot and blue.

I was shooting basketball at our next door neighbor’s house—their whole backyard was an asphalt driveway rimmed with some dumpy looking trees—and, as I dribbled the ball around, before every shot, I thought, God, help me to be more like the Red Power Ranger.  Dear future self: please do not end up like Creulla de Vil. If I made the shot that was God telling me I would be more like the Red Power Ranger. There were many other such scenes that summer. If, for instance, I could put my head under water long enough to touch the bottom of the pool or if I went across the monkey bars all the way without letting go, I had achieved a certain type of acceptance from the universe. That was how games and dares worked.  Without the ability to distinguish between Republican or Democrat, I was working very hard and crudely on the ideas of good and bad. I can’t remember this, but I would imagine that the tenor of public life back then was still very colored by the falling of the Berlin wall and the administration of Ronald Reagan. But I was not even tempted to think about that because, as kids say, that was grownup stuff. That was for people who had shrunken down the world to an unmysterious thing they could fit inside their head.  But kids know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The idea was to be brave in real life. Like dad. He had a mustache. And when he shot a basketball he made it. At the park the other taller men looked silly when he dribbled around them and he swished three pointers. The taller men, with their hands on their knees, would say, Oh, man, he’s quick. I knew if I did everything right and brave I could one day be a man with a mustache, dribbling around taller men, shooting three pointers.

This is all very cute but I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. What we talk about when we talk about earlier times, about our childhood, is an imposed simplicity that only exists in the mind. What is truly idyllic are probably not periods of time in history but periods of time in personal history. But, what of it? Lest we prematurely jump to the wrong conclusion, we should also ask, What isn’t in the mind? And what is the real imposition? Even when our bodies get old and our blood slows down and our heads get further from the earth and we grow mundane and sober and we begin to be tempted to think that the End is Nigh, is that not also in the mind?

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Whispering into the Megaphone

In 2007 the writer George Saunders published a collection of essays entitled The Braindead Megaphone. The subject of the title essay is the description of a metaphor for how media consumption has evolved overtime to the present moment:

Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, owned businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and—surprise, pleasant surprise—being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.

Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

But he’s got that megaphone.

Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing—but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. If he continually uses the phrase, “at the end of the day,” they start using it too. If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.

I love a good metaphor.

This was written in 2007. Can you imagine? Twitter was just a year old. The first generation iPhone was released three months prior. George W. Bush was the president! Saunders was concerned primarily with cable news on TV. How quaint is that in 2017? The party has turned into something else. But Saunders was on to something that we certainly haven’t reckoned with ten years later, and continues to grow worse.

We’ve become used to Megaphone Guy and are even starting to like him, and getting cozy with his methods because, well, everybody’s doing it, man. Now, as party favors, there are little megaphones for everyone. Sure, some are larger than others. All the more reason to let your voice be heard!

But the real effect is this: what looks like everyone’s voice being heard is really the original Megaphone Guy’s voice being amplified not once but twice. Once through the original message, and then again through the echoing blasts of his supporters or detractors downstream who claim to proffer something new and different, but—whatever they may claim—they are still having to respond to an agenda set by the biggest megaphone in the room. And while it’s true that technology has made the distribution of megaphones more widespread and democratic, the quality of information has remained the same. Or gotten worse. The laws governing attention are no more based on who is “the smartest, most experienced, or most articulate” person at the party:

Imagine that the Megaphone has two dials: One controls the Intelligence of its rhetoric and the other its Volume. Ideally, the Intelligence would be set on High, and the Volume on Low—making it possible for multiple, contradictory voices to be broadcast and heard. But to the extent that the Intelligence is set on Stupid, and the Volume on Drown Out All Others, this is verging on propaganda, and we have a problem, one that works directly against the health of our democracy.

If that’s not prophecy–

I would love to be able to claim to be part of the solution to this, but I can’t. Perhaps like some of you, when I’m supposed to be doing work, I have a secret hunger for the noise and refresh my news webpages more than I need to, and I find myself doing it regardless of whether I really want to or not, like an impulse, and sometimes, like right now, when I am writing, I have to turn off the WiFi altogether or I will continually go back to the same pages to look for new developments in a day that I allow to be defined by the Megaphone guy.

But maybe we can get out of these habits if we try.

My dream for this blog would be to carve out a little section of the party for people who want to turn the Megaphone Intelligence up and the Volume down. Maybe we can even find a side room or something, throw the Megaphones out the window, and talk again. And who knows, maybe other people will come and join. Maybe the loudest only seem to win and in the end they really don’t. Maybe if we ignore Megaphone guy he will get tired and go home. There is only one way to find out. We have to start trying something different:

We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.

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State of the Blog

Recently some of you may have been wondering, Where have the blog posts gone? It seems as though a previously steady stream has slowed to but a trickle. Did the will-power tank peter out of gas? Is this another one of those countless blogs to be buried in the mass blog graveyard of forgotten dreams?

Well, hopefully, no.

Over the past few months I have been working hard on the beginnings of a novel. When I started I didn’t realize that writing a novel is a vortex of creative energy. More is required the further you get along until a kind of single-minded mania sets in. And like everybody else on the planet I have a full-time day job so in order to write I have to set aside a specific time or it doesn’t get done. Always this time has been divided between 1) fiction and 2) non-fiction (blog), but slowly, as this novel thing has ballooned into an uncontrollable mass with some actual but crude momentum, more time has been going towards trying to figure out exactly where it’s going.

This is not an epitaph but rather a new beginning! The blog posts I have been writing for the past year have largely been focused on thinking hard about what great artists and writers do and how they do it. As I learned I also became eager to put that learning into practice. So by looking at a few masters I was trying to write myself into being a better writer, and I’m glad to say I think it worked! At least I have become more patient re my own limitations. And hopefully you readers feel you benefited from a few of these reflections as well.

When I originally created this blog I wanted to keep it’s focus broad because my mind is always going down new rabbit trails and I’m not very good at boiling down my reflections into a marketable or niche-worthy form, (i.e. one of my many limitations). In the presence of a preset model, even a good model, my creativity withers and dies. If you tell me to write a story about a boy who slays a dragon, I will somehow end up with one about dragon befriending a boy, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t doing this just to spite convention. Even when I tried to impose a convention onto myself as a way to auto-produce an effect I admired, I couldn’t do it.

I don’t know exactly where this new chapter in blogging is going. All I know is I have thoughts to put down and I’d like to put them down here more regularly. You readers have been very supportive and kind in your comments and feedback. I couldn’t think of a better place to continue to explore new territory as a writer.

Stay tuned.

 

At a Small Smoky Jazz Bar in a Forgotten Corner of Heaven

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A Friendly Reminder from George Orwell: Nothing is New under the Sun

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends… What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency… But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are all powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.

– George Orwell, Diaries, March 27, 1942

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Like Food, Books are a Matter of Taste

Here’s a fourth grade word problem for you:

As of 2017, there are an estimated 134,621,533 ISBN numbers in existence. If 600,000 books are published each year, and Daniel Douglas, who is 28 years old, reads at the pace of one book every two weeks, what percentage of total books published will he have read before he reaches the average US life expectancy of 78 years?

Answer: 0.0000079%

In light of these odds, the process of actually choosing what to read is mysterious. A book is a real time investment. Most will take more than a few hours to read. Many readers   develop something of a process they can rely on to, more often than not, generate options that will be worth it. But it’s difficult to put into words exactly what this process is. A lot of it is pure luck. Sometimes you stumble on something you really love and from that there may naturally stem other, similar options.

Or sometimes you find someone like Clifford Lee Sargent of Better than Food Book Reviews, a reviewer of the highest-caliber taste, who also happens to be very entertaining to watch. The real value of his videos is that he doesn’t review books he wouldn’t recommend reading. They’re all positive reviews, which can shed light on good books to contribute to your 0.0000079%, and how best to read them.

Check out some of my favorites below:

 

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George Saunders: Manifesto

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