Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Internet of Remembering

My unfiltered photo, Trinidad Head June 30, 2016, now past, but now your present, and here to stay.
In the New Yorker this week, Casey Johnston wrote about various social media platforms that wipe away photos and text after a brief period, like 24 hours. Now you see it, now you won't. This is much prized, Johnston writes, especially by younger posters whose identity is formed in the moment, and may be obsolete and even embarrassing before long. This "satisfies a craving for immediacy and ephemerality, one that has lately grown to encompass all of social media." Johnston calls this the Internet of Forgetting.

 Well, I am not young and that is not my Internet. Time and its contents helplessly obsess me. I crave scope, so I can maybe make some sense of it. The past has a different reality now that I have more of it myself. Rediscovering elements of the past and reflecting on them, connecting and reconciling, all add something necessary to my present. Besides, these discoveries as well as re-discoveries in both their original context and in mine now, also constitute much of my entertainment. 

So fortunately for me, there is also an Internet of Remembering. There are search functions to vast data, various Wikis and especially YouTube. On YouTube I can access (as I have recently) radio broadcasts from the 1940s, particular baseball or basketball games from--well, I haven't even explored how far back. Interviews from the 50s, movies from the 30s (ever heard of the Torchy Blane series? Neither had I. It's pretty good. Besides which, it may have been an inspiration for Lois Lane.)

Reading about past events in historical context, I can find documents and publications of the time online. I can even see the faces and hear the voices, from at least FDR on. There are surprising snippets of performances by legendary actors, though unfortunately not so many whole plays. Can't find in any library an obscure treatise on ethics and psychology by one of the greatest classic science fiction authors (and least known outside the s/f community), Olaf Stapledon? Search online, and ye shall find the entire text. And so on.

A recent instance of personal memory...I remember one Saturday morning when I was 8. I was watching "Space Patrol"--an episode in which Buzz Corey and crew used their "time drive" to travel to 1956. They mentioned that they were traveling from the 30th century, when "Space Patrol" takes place.

 My mother caught some of this. She asked me if I knew what century we were living in. I don't think I did, exactly. She said it was the 20th century, and the Space Patrol people were coming from the 30th. She mentioned that she used to listen to Buck Rogers on the radio, and he had traveled to the 25th century. I probably remember this because I learned something about time.

 I recall Saturday mornings when there was one outer space show after another--"Tom Corbett, Space Cadet," "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger," "Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers" and "Space Patrol." I researched these shows on the Internet in 2010 and discovered enough to figure out that they were probably all on during only one year: 1954.

 I was writing fiction based on my childhood, and for reasons having to do with other events in the chapter, I selected a certain October Saturday to revisit these shows, and how my friends and I used them in play. Then I found a "Space Patrol" episode guide that described the show scheduled on the Saturday I had selected. From the description it seemed very likely it was the very one I remember, when my mother and I had that conversation. (I blogged about all this right here at the time.)

 Well, it's 2016 and many "Space Patrol" episodes are now on YouTube, though not always under their original titles. Also YouTube can be difficult to search systematically. But the other night, I happened upon and saw this episode--the one I last saw with my mother in our living room in 1954.

 But the Internet of remembering has more functions than revisiting personal memories. Here's another YouTube show I watched recently. I've been reading Arthur Miller lately--this latest Miller jag started when I read a roundtable discussion of contemporary playwrights, and one of them quoted Miller. I then found on the Internet the interview with Miller that contained that quote, and more along that line. That started me reading some of his nonfiction and lesser known plays, and re-reading his autobiography. So on a whim I went back and searched YouTube for television interviews.

I immediately found an interview he did with Charlie Rose in 1992. When the conversation veered to that now historical moment--the 1992 election campaign and the rise of Ross Perot, a purported billionaire businessman outsider--I got chills, especially when Miller said: "When a leadership arises in a country that believes it can lead by using the darkness in men, it's probably unstoppable at a certain point." He'd grown up watching Hitler's rise in Germany. 

Does anybody--even those who lived through it, as I did-- remember what it felt like with Ross Perot in 1992? I didn't. From 2016, Perot now looks like an early and milder version of Trump, thanks to this interview. There's precedent, a continuum of sorts perhaps. And people were worried then. (Miller thought America was too diverse to fall completely for a dictator of darkness, which of course may be our salvation now.)

 And to add to all this co-incidence (which means things happening at the same time, like the past in the present), Miller once described the function of playwriting as "remembering."

About many things, it doesn't pay to forget. The Internet of Remembering is important to our survival, as well as the lives of "the olds" as Johnston says that tech folks call anybody over 30. So in my case I guess it's "the ancients."

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Fiesta

My parents were married in August 1945. Among their wedding presents was a set of Fiestaware: cups and saucers, plates of various sizes, salt and pepper shakers, a gravy boat, a pitcher, bowls, sugar bowl and creamer, a lazy susan and possibly other items. They were the mix of colors typical of what's officially called just Fiesta, made by a West Virginia outfit and originally introduced at a pottery fair in Pittsburgh in 1936. I believe they were a gift from my mother's younger sister.

 Many of these pieces were ubiquitous in my childhood and beyond. The dishes were perhaps the "good dishes" for awhile, but some pieces in enough use that some bit the dust (the bowls, the cups and saucers.) Some pieces (the salt and pepper shakers) were in common use forty years later. The sugar bowl just quietly disappeared. But at a certain point in the 60s or 70s, they were replaced by a new, more formal looking set, and the remaining Fiestaware consigned to the back of a kitchen cabinet.

So imagine my shock when I was walking through a huge exhibit called The Machine Age in the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1985 or so, when I came upon a collection of Fiestaware that might have been taken from that cabinet, but it was in a glass case and labeled.

 When my childhood home was sold, I got most of the surviving Fiestaware, and perhaps all of it. I brought it with me out here to California. There wasn't really much of it left, and though one of the rarer pieces is in excellent condition, some of the plates are chipped. But one piece survived with only minor abrasions, all the more surprising because it was one of the most used pieces.

 That, it will come as no surprise by now, was the yellow pitcher. As a representative piece it is quite striking for the Art Deco design is most evident of all the pieces. But it also carries the memories of a lot of Kool-Aid and ice cubes on hot summer days through the 1950s and beyond.

 This past October of 2015, my niece Sarah got married. Her wedding was almost exactly 70 years after my parents wedding. So it seemed especially fitting that this Fiestaware pitcher be passed down to her on this occasion. And that's what I did. 

Though it has value on the collectors market, she is honoring its family history by using it.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

On Book Publishing


A long New Yorker piece on Amazon and books from earlier this year is disquieting to say the least.  It seems that Amazon has become the Wal-Mart of book publishing, making demands that publishers can't afford not to accept.  It's not a pretty picture.

On the other hand, at least since the 1980s, New York publishers adopted self-defeating business practices, aping inappropriate business models, in which books became "product," etc.  It bred arrogance and (among real editors and authors) disillusion, so there weren't a lot of people left to feel sorry for them.

And the condition in this quote has been going on for quite some time:

Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,” Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. “The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.”

This became obvious to me as an author more than a decade ago.

As for the book business, the article cites one example of a counter-approach, which essentially has publishing going smaller and selling direct to readers.  Whether or not this would work, I believe Andrew Wylie is largely right in his quoted statement: "The [publishing] industry thinks of itself as Procter & Gamble*. What gave publishers the idea that this was some big goddam business? It’s not—it’s a tiny little business, selling to a bunch of odd people who read.”

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Standards

I confess that among many other such thoughts, I worry that I'm slipping when I find typographical errors in my writing that I missed after reading the sentence a time or two.  Sometimes those errors find their way into my Internet posts, or in drafts meant for publication.  And sometimes I don't catch those errors in posts for a long time.

I suppose it should reassure me, or at least make me feel better, that I spot such errors in published books and especially online.  Just now I've read two articles on the New Yorker site.  I spotted two obvious errors in one, and one in the other. I recognize how they were made--a sentence is rewritten or a thought is redirected but an errant word remains, usually a small one: an "in" or an "a" or an "a the." These are byproducts of how word processing works--all this deleting and inserting.   Or a word is just misspelled--the kind of misspelling that eludes the spell-checker. Those sorts of things.

But for many year when it was a magazine and nothing else, the New Yorker was the standard for copy editing and perfectly proofread prose.  I personally never found a typo in any issue I read from the 1960s to the late 1980s, when they began appearing after the magazine changed ownership and editor.  They soon stopped, but the typos that I saw in at least a few issues seemed utterly unnatural in that distinctive New Yorker typeface.

But typos as well as bad grammar and other copy writing errors are depressingly frequent in heavily monetized online publications.  But the New Yorker?  The New Yorker!

So while I am a little reassured about myself, I am at the same time depressed by a different sign that perhaps this is no longer my time.  

II

It occurs to me there is a possible reason for these typos appearing on the New Yorker site and other sites that post writing by professional writers, besides just slipping standards or sloth, or even the usual excuse of the need to feed the beast with copy at a fast pace.

That possible reason is that the standard, or even the ethic, of online posts is that once posted, nothing in them is changed.  If changes are made, they must be indicated at the end, with a catalog of the revisions.

Apparently there is something unethical about correcting mistakes once the publish button is pushed.   I'm not sure why, except perhaps that this is just the Internet tradition.  Maybe it began with dated web logs, which also are apparently sacrosanct.

To which I say, sorry, but it seems like nonsense to me. Isn't the capability of changing what's published online a major advantage?  I'm pretty sure any of us who saw our mistakes permanently preserved in print would have appreciated the chance to correct them, then and there.  Changes in substance online (correcting facts, etc.) might merit an appended note, especially if in response to a comment or correction from outside.  But style matters?  I don't get it.  Maybe it's part of the aura?  Internet posts are supposed to be so spontaneous? And nothing provides the aura of spontaneity like sloppy writing. Maybe the lack of copy editing isn't just an economy, but an ethic.

In any case, I routinely change what I've written after I've posted it, to correct errors, to rewrite sentences and paragraphs in the effort to make things clearer or just better written.  I may do so several times until I am satisfied.  I've made revisions on this post, for example, at least six times so far.

The ethics of this seem clear to me.  If I have annoyed readers with typos and misspellings, or confused them with awkward writing, I don't see the point of continuing to annoy or confuse future readers if I can correct the errors or improve the writing.

In the end, I suppose both parts of this post refer to the same set of standards.  And that they are part of my identity as a writer, because I make corrections even when believing that it's unlikely many or any readers will know or care.  I'll know, and I care.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Super Moon Memory

It's hard to believe a lot of the Super Moon photos on the web are real.  The full moon at a time when the Earth is closest to it happened the last weekend of August. I didn't anticipate it really--it was so hazy (thin marine layer, depressing smoke from distant forest fires) during the Perseid meteor shower that I didn't dare.

Then it rained--wind, a distant rumble, then a misty rain, then real rain for some time, during the night.  This was Friday going into Saturday, I think.  Rare enough in a regular August, really strange (and welcome) in another droughtful summer.

Then in the wee hours, after the rain stopped, the clouds began to move, to break up in strange patterns.  The full Super Moon was not especially big, so high in the sky, but it was bright.  Very bright.  It illuminated large clouds of extravagant, unusual shapes and textures with feverish brightness, and bathed these scalloped, spread-tailed, slowly swimming clouds in an indescribable blue.

For awhile there were thin clouds passing over the moon, which was so bright that it appeared that the moon was passing in front of the clouds--I could see them through the surreal luminance, as if the moon were brightly transparent.

I have no camera capable of capturing this, and even if I did, I'm not sure even I would believe it.  I've never seen clouds like that, in sky like that.  I've seen the moon that bright, but the combination was unique.  Super, I guess.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Why I Don't Have a Smartphone

I don't have a smartphone.  I don't watch new television programs, seldom see new movies, though a few on DVD.  I don't know who the celebrities are that the supermarket tabloids and their internet counterparts get all exercised about.  I don't listen to new pop music.  And so on.

This fits the profile for my age, and a lot of it surely is about age. But it's not mindless.  Some of it is about exploring past music etc. I missed, or in more depth, and some about revisiting books, tv shows etc. for what they now say that's different from the first times around. Or reminding me who I was then, and maybe who I forgot I was since.

Of course, that I don't like a lot of new TV, music and movies does make it easier to ignore.

 Apart from the comfort level, there's the tendency to want to have a deeper experience and find more meaning in what flashed by in the past.  That seems like the natural work, play and purpose of being this age, and in sound enough mind to try feeling the breadth and depth of my whole life while I've got it.

 (And in fact I use some new technology in these activities.  But why should I give up the advantages of the desktop computer just because they aren't fashionable anymore? Or the stereo, the record player?  Or the physical book off the physical shelf ?)

Though I take a certain amount of elder abuse for skepticism of new technologies and so on (which, by the way, I also exhibited when younger), I have my additional reasons. There's expense v. utility, for example. As interesting or enhancing as they might be, smartphones and multimedia packages are too expensive for what I need.  Besides, nobody calls me on the home phone or the flip phone now, so why would that be different? And the screen is too small and the sound too poor for much of anything else.

 So it's partly aesthetics, too: one of the major reasons that so far I haven't been able to bring myself to do Facebook is that it is so ugly.

Bad design, inferior materials also turn me off.  Some new tech is so obviously designed for younger eyes and fingers that it's the height of effrontery to expect I'd shamefacedly accept it.

The other element that is related to age is that the smartphone and related technologies are largely about marketing and selling things, and I'm not interested in that, nor are the marketers and sellers likely to be much interested in me.  In my demographic, and especially my income level.

 But there is a larger sense in which this is a choice, and I know what I'm doing.  What I am doing is concentrating on the past and the future.  The present makes its demands anyway, I don't have to cater to it.  People in youth and middle age, people with children or even actively involved with grandchildren, have reasons to keep up with the fast-changing present.  I don't, not nearly as much.

If I don't need to, I don't want to waste the time.  I am engaged in experiencing the past in more depth, and learning from it.  I apply that to concerns about the future.  Big concerns, about the big picture future.

That's my choice, my concentration, and it's meant to be my contribution.  It may well be futile.  Still, chances are a little better on something good coming of this, than from the distractions of the smartphone.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Birthday Sentences

On and around my 69th birthday recently, I had three birthday thoughts.

 The first was on the day, when I hiked up Trinidad Head. Unless you know the Head (in Trinidad Bay, far northern California), the thought may not mean anything, so I've included some photos from a subsequent walk, on a sunnier day. On my birthday there was considerable fog blowing in from the sea. Still, I wish I'd taken my camera that day.

 The thought was simple: my birthday present was that I hiked Trinidad Head--the experience itself (I even got quite close to a young rabbit on the trail) and the fact that at 69, I could still hike up Trinidad Head. That's the best gift.


It's not a climb in any mountain-climbing sense, it doesn't require equipment or training--it's not that kind of accomplishment. It's an ordinary climb--rigorous enough especially at the start, and a workout as the trail winds up. I've been hiking it for about 19 years, though not often enough. And I still can.

 It overlooks the Pacific on one side, and Trinidad Bay on the other. It's quiet and beautiful, and for now, it's available to me.

 That was first thought. The second thought, which came the next day or so, was more complicated. It had to do with success and failure.

 "One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake," Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter. Maybe, but for an American man the basic criteria for success are pretty clear.

You're a success if in your life you make a sufficient living to raise a family, or if you produce work that receives honors and earns you a recognized place among peers as well as some more general community, or preferably both. You can be a success in your life, or a success in your work, or both. You are failure if you accomplish neither.

 I have accomplished neither. The failure is not absolute, I did accomplish something in each area. But not enough really to count me a success by these criteria.

Yet looking back, I have some satisfactions. So the second thought was: if I failed, at least I failed big. That is, the failure (however complete) was not spectacular, but my aspirations were big.

 I was remembering an acquaintance I'd once worked with who I last saw a long time ago in southern California. He showed me a script he'd written for a sitcom then on TV. I never saw him again. Though it appears he had some achievements in the movies and TV, it wasn't as a writer. There are other similar cases I know.

 I made compromises in my working life. But at least I did not try to write scripts for sad sitcoms or pathetic or loathsome movies, and failed. I failed trying to write the most ambitious works, the best works I could dream up, in whatever form. What I failed at was big.


The third thought is perhaps a corollary. If I were to describe, as simply as possible, what I did all my life, I might say, "I made sentences." (Nobody has asked me that question, nor any like it for quite awhile, but at least I have the answer ready.) I also made music, and dreamed up images, wrote dialogue and so on. But basically, in the range of work I did for love, a larger duty and for hire, I made sentences.

 John Banville began his review of books on Emerson this way:"Surely mankind's greatest invention is the sentence." Of course in addition to sentences, I made paragraphs and pages and so on. I thought about and worked at all these forms, but they are basically built with sentences. So I'll make my stand with the sentence.

 And if it is indeed humankind's greatest invention, it matters less what those sentences were about than the fact that I worked at making them the best sentences I could. While trying to lead an honorable life. It was not a bad way to use a life. So I think I'll keep doing it.