Quotes that Say Something

"Please, dad, get down and look. I think there's some kind of monster under my bed."

Life when seen in close-up often seems tragic, but in wide-angle it often seems comic. -- Charlie Chaplin

"And when the cloudbursts thunder in your ear, you shout, but no one's there to hear. And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes, I'll see you on the dark side of the moon." -- Roger Waters, "Brain Damage"

Apr 30, 2012

How Steve (Not Jobs) and TED Changed My Life

I'm really astounded by people who want to 'comprehend' the universe when it's hard enough to just find your way around Chinatown.
                                                                                                         --  Woody Allen

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

                                                                                           --  Book of Genesis: 32, 31

It almost always begins with obsessive thoughts, wicked daydreams, about fried chicken, specifically Kentucky Fried Chicken, which also is known as KFC. These thoughts are a cautionary signal. Attention please, something is wrong, perhaps deeply wrong, in you, sir. I have not drunk any alcohol for thirty-one years. I am an alcoholic. I have not taken any controlled medications that were not strictly supervised by doctors for the same length of time. I am an addict. But as things go, today is turning out fine, and it has been a pretty good experience all around. If I am still around to experience another sunrise, I have reason to believe that I will be in a sober state. But those obsessive thoughts about certain foods during rock-em sock-em periods, they just won't let go . . . 

(You're not about to tell me that certain meats or confections are going to be outlawed, are you?) And look, see? I simply don't know yet whether to write this reflection in a freewheeling and serio-comic style that would make the perpetual neurotic Richard Lewis proud, or with a voice that invites you to consider my theme with gravity. So.

When times prove tough, ordinarily it goes like this, in the KFC drive-thru lane. A dinner box of two or three pieces, dark, original please. OMG, two sides? Really? Fine. 'Hey, do I have to take the two sides? Yeah, seriously.' 'Yeah, yeah, okay, I will take that yummy hard as a hardtack homemade Southern biscuit. Lots of napkins too.'  Does this make you think, in any way, about how a deprived and dry booze merchant approaches a sparkling bottle of 100-proof magic elixir after another mythic hard day?

Awww, why so serious?
I have been feeling moribund for four days, or maybe just over-tired physically, and I can  measure this by one simple sign, the one that follows. If I fail to make it out of the restaurant parking lot, then into the flow of traffic life before I root around in the red and white box, grab a hot and slippery clump of disaster, sink my front teeth into it (the dead poultry), then I am deep in something. A big church bell tolls from above. The clouds and sky roll over to a steely and foreboding gray. It is now quarter past the time for your inventory, sir, for you must admit the psychological dry goods that you have been toting around (barely aware) like an over-limit travel case -- for which one will be charged harshly at the airline ticket counter.

This reflection triggers a memory, words I heard from someone talking, rather creepily (but the man had a salient point) on NPR, about the predictable effects of a fried food expedition by the ordinary person. Utilizing a warning, sardonic tone of voice (with none of positivity of protein-intake even mentioned) he said: prepare for a bomb to go off.  Gulp. A big bomb of addictive salt, sugar, and fat is aiming to hit the bottom of and to explode, literally explode in, your stomach. The effects will be disorienting, palpable, as if you have swigged down three ounces of bourbon. Your heart-rate will increase and you may feel flush. Your sense of energy should go up almost immediately. You might even perspire a bit. But, a payoff awaits, for an inevitable downswing of mood and energy will descend upon you surely, like a humid fog rolling in from the bay, as the effects of powerful substances, salt, sugar, fat, and the Colonel's "10 secret spices" at least will begin to wear off. Blah, blah, blah, yakety blah.

I swear to creation that this is what actually happened today: by the time I had downed two manageable bites of a hormone-goosed chicken leg, covered generously by some wrinkly brown spiced and fried flour (the first bite taken in the Colonel's red and white striped parking area, the second bite sucked in precariously while rolling thru rush hour traffic) my sugar level was rising, I was experiencing a flush of energy, my mood was lightening, the moribund pall didn't seem so serious -- and it led to a kind of feel good moment, somehow.

Hours later . . . here am I with you. The Colonel's box holds only bones, a fast food reliquary; the lessons of Morgan Spurlock have been carelessly pushed aside (again); and I wonder if I should or should not feel guilty about not consuming those two nutritious sides and the unbreakable hardtack biscuit, carved and baked into shape as per Mrs. Sanders' timeless recipe.

Morgan Spurlock has eaten my lunch

An empty yawn of discontent and deficit, with a gnawing drive to drink it or food-bomb it away, whatever its cause, is a buzzing constant in my current surroundings. Like a neutron bomb, that yawning space radiates and swells, a salty sweet chicken meal in the stomach barely digested, atomizing the human spirit (like the devilish N-Bomb) but not causing buildings to crumble, incinerate, or disappear. All alcoholics and addicts are familiar with this. Some even admit. Some live through it. Some of us do not make it that long. It's territory that's tricky to describe and rougher to find meaning in. As Woody Allen once said well: 

     I'm astounded by people who want to 'comprehend' the universe when it's hard
     enough to just find your way around Chinatown.

A famous poet once said 'the struggle itself is enough to fill a man's soul.'  Well, with confidence, I can say that that poet was not Colonel Harlan Sanders. Yep, the noble struggle and a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken, original recipe, make it, living life, seem worthwhile. But, the honest people know that real life and a rich and fatty diet engenders cavities in your teeth, dries up one's soul at times, brings on insensibly wide, yawning lonely days to mark out mere existence. As a dry drinker and planetary journeyor who has somehow escaped a for-sure death sentence (for the time being), who has drunk enough scotch and vodka to make my liver want to leap clear out of me and run for its cirrohtic life, I figure if it's not illegal or dangerous to one's self and others or against your church's hallowed teachings, give it a chance. Bite down, hold on, and try to enjoy the struggle. Like when you're getting a circular x-ray of your teeth at the dentist's office. The picture you will see when it's done is a freaking living mystery, and in any other age of humanity it would have baffled and inspired the bejesus out of the ordinary person, even driven some of them to their knees in a crush of superstition or spiritual glory. Depth-level change and meaning go just like that. Carpe seizum, as some cynics say.

A kind of strange friend from college, named Steve, and I reconnected on Facebook a while back. He started it. It was kind of interesting. What I especially remembered about him was that often he tried too hard with others (a self-esteem deficit, I suppose) and he loved to tell jokes, hear bluegrass music, and laugh at life's quirky details. He probably loved, just ate up, Richard Lewis' angst heavy comedy. After several months and sporadic contacts, Steve fell radio silent. I tried to message him but got nothing back. I did not make a lot of this. It happens. But as his abrupt disassociation got longer, I found it mildly troubling. Weeks later I got a message on FB from Steve about dawn on a Saturday morning.

To my surprise, it said:

      Hello, you are reading this because you were probably a friend of Steve ________.
      My name is Lawrence. I am sorry to have to tell you that Steve died suddenly of a
      heart attack about four weeks ago. His wife and I realize that he had a Facebook
      account and you were one of his friends. We will miss him, like you. Please join us in
      praying that his soul rests in peace and that the sun will always rise on him.

And that the sun will always rise on him? When I picked myself up off the floor, I thought for some insensible reason about Jacob and that struggle itself is enough poem. A pain began radiating outward, rolling fog again, from the core of my stomach, as if I had downed a few bites of Thai cuisine too quickly. Send not for whom the bell tolls, sir, for it tolls for thee. Some people: they're lucky enough, on some days burdened enough, to stick it out. Some people just don't have the heart for it. Explain that, somebody.

This blogpost occurred to me as I clicked on a couple of TED talks this afternoon on my PC, while was feeling especially tender from a cloudbank of resentful boredom that's been angling in from my left coast for a few days. Moribundity. So watching some TEDs?: research, I'll call it. One short piece was about innovation. One was about open-sourcing (my particular favorite of the day). One was a pioneer blogger's story. A final TED talk was about a collaborative array of ways to newly look at collaboration, a digital mindbender. Surely something stuck with me. I felt mildly inspired and like a better person, and I drove immediately to a KFC. This will lead to something, I was convinced. Like the cavity in a tooth burgeons. Like the clump of plaque inside one's carotid artery takes on new particles and congeals. Like the dull pain that radiates out and throughout, but does not blow away the body. Or maybe this experience will radiate in a different more positive vein, if you can pardon the pun.

Another high school and college friend of mine was named Tim. For several years, he was the (young!) manager of an award-winning KFC outlet. We would go out drinking each night once he got off work about 11:00 PM. I would enter in the fry room as he finished up for the day. There was free leftover original recipe to be consumed, and Tim and I had only drinking money. He would caution me about stepping about carelessly. He was afraid I would slide and fall. The flooring was so ice rink slick and slippery what with a whole day's assault of spattery cooking grease, and peppered all-around with the fried-out particles of the Colonel's secret spices, that it was hazardous. What depths of struggle one will dive into just to fill up a yawning hole in the middle.

When I think about Steve's slide into his last thoughts and feelings, I wonder what contours they took, and I wonder if he even knew that this was it. Did he appreciate that his twenty minutes for his TED talk had expired? I wonder if my thoughts will be pleasant, meaningful, ponderous, painful, irrational, perhaps scared witless when it's my time for the Big Sunset. So, here it is. With a slight limp, a bottleful of Rolaids extra, and trying to work around the slippery patches on my  life's floor, time moves on and I turn to the legendary comic Henny Youngman for the insight that only human folly and weakness can provide:

     A man walks into his doctor's office. He says, 'Doctor, help me. It hurts when I do
     that.' The doctor looks at him and says: 'Hey, don't do that.'


Apr 23, 2012

Eggland's Best (Or, Is Facebook Making Me Lonely?)

An old idiom goes like this: you've got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.  This makes sense, but as a truism it brings to mind whiffs of something sulfuric, something unappetizing. The thought of freshly-fried eggs, steaming hot from a teflon pan, in theory seems like a fairly commendable dietary idea. But I simply cannot bring myself to eat an egg knowingly. I can crack them, I can mix 'em up here and there, I can cook them, I can even present them in most attractive ways on a platter: but do not ask me, ever, to consume one. The same goes for bourbon, scotch, and other spirits.

So, surprisingly, I was not aware until now that I had been paying subsconsious (rapt?) attention to televsion commercials that featured fresh eggs. Yet, whenever a chipper, colored Eggland 's Best spot reveals itself on my television screen, and the spokeshands of some woman model  begin to crack open some of those pearly white shells, with the raw contents all slimy and translucent and mellow orange streaming down like a leak from a rusty pipe into a glass mixing bowl, making me think as well, incongruously, disturbingly of the gutting of a dead-swinging pig in a slaughterhouse, I surrender as a complete captive, I melt like something cold in that fiery pan: You got to mess with some eggs . . . .  as that time-tested saying goes.

Having left me deeply unsettled, it is as if some long submerged anti-social tendency, like an Edgar Allen Poe protagonist, is trying to express itself  to the world. Part of the story is this: I always feel sad when I step up to shelves of those hopeless, cartoned-up eggs, cracked and uncracked. I sympathize with their hapless donors: the chickens.

Walking in a Safeway or something, plucking up a carton of twelve eggs (large size, grade A quality please) that will pleasure someone else is a tricky thing -- it's a task not be entrusted to your average urban egghunter. Nearly everyone makes a predictable error. You must always peer in, with a keen eye, into the coffinesque foam holder before you place your eggs in your basket. This should be a required ritual in our egg-crazy culture, at the sparkly egg case, under the big word Dairy high on the wall above. For once you roll on up to the electronic scanner and your precious money gets laid down on the barrelhead: it's too late to turn your broken misfortune around.

It never fails. If your eyes did not swoop in properly, when making your decision at the frosty Dairy henhouse, there will turn out to be a cracked egg (perhaps  more than one) hidden away in a bent up little package mold. Then things really begin to go to hell.  Like your brain on drugs in the archetypal TV commercial:  Any questions . . . ?

Hey, you: yes, you. I asked if you have . . . any questions!

This it so happens raises the whole overly examined question of using Facebook. In my case:  I feel some days like FB use is causing me to turn me into that lonely, leaking lookalike orb of an egg in that imperfect and enviromentally undesirable carton.

Are these denizens of Digitopia feelin' lonely?
In the Atlantic Monthly current issue, the tease by a copy editor eggs us on: Social media — from Facebook to Twitter — have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity . . . we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic). And the loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill. A report on what the epidemic of loneliness is doing to our souls and our society. Cracked. Leaking. Weakening. My life force oozing out oh so slowly: like old antifreeze dripping down from the car's battery, or like fragments of skin at the cellular plane sloughing off minuscule and weightless to the floor from a computer user's forearm.

The author of the magazine piece, Stephen Marche, gamely takes a stab of what is the conundrum, or the stealthy fox as it were, in the digital denizen's hen house:

     We know intuitively that loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. Solitude can be   lovely. Crowded parties can be agony. We also know, thanks to a growing body of research on the topic, that loneliness is not a matter of external conditions; it is a psychological state. A 2005 analysis of data from a longitudinal study of Dutch twins showed that the tendency toward loneliness has roughly the same genetic component as other psychological problems such as neuroticism or anxiety. Still, loneliness is slippery, a difficult state to define or diagnose . . . various research studies have shown loneliness rising drastically over a very short period of recent history. A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans — about 60 million people — are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness. Across the Western world, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness.

Any questions?  Well I have about one or two dozen, grade A large ones. But I will not launch into them here. The words that rivet me from The Atlantic instead are narcissistically densely networked: wuff, that is an evocative mouthful.

I am convinced that I am over-networked. I am willing to take Step One to deal with this conundrum. In fact, like a compulsive consumer, I view myself sometimes as one of the dozens of eggs standing at quiet attention, with propped up assistance from foamy cartons in a chilly Dairy world. E-Mail, Facebook, Blogging, Texting. Hoarding new apps. Almost a 24/7 indulgence on my part. But I am not of a mind that my messy, lengthening life among the savage micro processors has been scrambled into powerlessness -- or sunk into the sinkhole valley of lonely laptop reboots. Like overeaters with their foodstuffs, I seek out the social media, and the consequent connectivity, with others: to this I plead guilty -- to the disembodied and embodied. Facebook and my Text-o-Matic smartphone are not stalking me.  There are no Crackberry monsters lurking low in my closet; they are just make-believe. Like most of my co-human beings, I am thinly cracked here, dented there, chipped in crucial places, as brittle as the ego of an alcoholic in denial: but the fissures and  the escaping proteins and the dripping sticky contents of my past and present are not always perceivable. These problems get more pronounced internally with each dawn, an ennui-inducing syndrome -- like my brain on drugs and in the line of fire for that slamming fry pan. But honestly, many days turn out pretty good, thank you. I believe I resist the penchant to stalk and be stalked. Is this a sad case of narcissistic nay-saying on my part? Hmm . . . Where is Dr. Freud when one really needs him?

Marche's recollection of a critical scene in the Oscar-crushing movie The Social Network, makes the recent Atlantic magazine piece a true keeper, a blue ribbon champ.

In that scene, its hot bitter sting lingering awhile after the film has finished up, the founder of Facebook sits alone in the dim glow of a computer monitor in a spare bedroom. Wealthy beyond fantasy, the piper at the lead of a gazillion online subscribers, a young man idolized by a new breed of digitized social communicators: reluctantly he, then impulsively he, presses down on the Friend Request command of his sensational software invention. One chick in a ponderous sea of creatures, Mark Zuckerbeg's former girlfriend, is the intended target of his Friend Request impulse. He sits. Stares expectantly. Does not move in the glow.  He is a hidden-away, cracked, and quietly oozing egg in a worldwide carton of  virtual lookalikes.  She does not reply. It's maddening. She does not acknowledge. He taps impatiently, tentatively, on his PC keyboard. Still, she does not answer: but then the movie ends. Zuck winds up with his stock still stare, like the depressingly warped and staring Bartleby of literary legend who, frankly, would prefer not to. Crushing, heart bumping, a feeling of emptiness settles in: who among the legions of desperately-seeking other good eggs -- in the depths of digital Dystopia -- has not felt that sense of unraveled and wireless emptiness and soulful longing, and a spritz of hope, for a timely response, any response, a proactive microporcessed surprise, that would validate this existential egg-ness? A person holding  a computer, which is a mechanized extension of himself or herself, part cyborg and part animal, peering in and through a flat screen, gets a show and tell on the microchip's schedule only, before all fades to dark.

The credits begin to roll on The Social Network. Psychodrama's over. The dark isolation of the movie is complete. It is time for everyone to get up and go. Blackberrys suddenly materialize in hands, as if conjured by unseen spirt guides. Check now for texts. Re-establish connectivity. U get my msg, dude? Swing back  into cyberland. One last lesson from The Social Network pairs inside the rotating film credits if you are not in too much of a rush to miss it:  the blues song "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" plays, the long goodbye, to lingering audience members. 'Hope my eyes don't deceive me?, 'cuz there is something going wrong around here.' Like this:

<iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/Y5BaurXMmMU" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Greatness in song. This movie's denouement is replete with meaning. It is a symbolic mirroring of a new normal, a new take on the Beatles tune "A Day in the Life." You gotta break some eggs, bunky . . . to muddle along in this identity-squelching Digitalmerican farmscape.

The fragile egg in the foam cocoon leads me to a humorous anecdote by Woody Allen in his movie  Annie Hall, a cinematic paean to the bittersweet complications of life -- especially lonely obsession -- among all us chickens.

Woody:  My brother has been seeing a psychiatrist. He's not well. But the sessions are not doing him any good. He thinks he's a chicken.

Annie:  My goodness, that's terrible. But if it's not helping, why doesn't he just quit?

Woody:  He tells me he would, but he can't, 'cuz he needs the eggs.

Do my eyes deceive me? I think there's something going on around here. So, any questions?


The magazine article that was cited:  


Apr 19, 2012

Dick Clark: The Second Act Was Not Kind

"There are no second acts in American lives."

                                               --  F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

It is a fact that Francis Scott Fitzgerald, having reveled in the spotlight of American literary fame thanks to his book about Jay Gatsby and other fictional contributions, died as an indigent of sorts at age 44 in the fantasy nightmare of old-time Hollywood. His all-consuming alcohol habit actually swallowed him up. By the Christmas season of 1940, Fitzgerald was gone. No second act. He did not live long enough for it.

You may not like this idea, but it's on my mind.

Sadly, Dick Clark who was born in 1929 (82 years ago) and became famous as a disc jockey, TV persona, and "America's oldest teenager," has now shuffled off the American stage too. Perhaps, if you are of a certain age, and if you had a handy b-&-w television in your house (or at a friend's place) during after-school hours weekdays, you remember Dick Clark making his mark in our shared pop culture with the program American Bandstand -- in this way:

Kitschy and cool it was. Dig that crazy beat, the white bucks, and the rockin' kids from Philly front and center: taking awesome star turns on the dance floor, moondoggies.

Or perhaps you remember Mr. Clark in this most regrettable way -- during his wretched second act, sporting a pained visage, hampered by a critical speech-impairment from a stroke, showing up in recent years on his wholly-owned, formerly clever, and annual New Year's Eve television extravaganza:

Not kitschy and not cool. In fact, it all reeks of a year-end countdown to soullessness. Ryan Seacrest, the heir apparent to Mr. Clark on American commercial radio and television, strains a little too hard to be hospitable and obvious, subconsciously mirroring Clark's stressful diction and demeanor. The innocent-looking Philly kids and those way cool white bucks on Fabian's famous  rockstar hooves are literally out of the picture. How did we get to this point? Not the sweet '50s teenagers but some slickened New Kids (or NKOTB for a jawbreaker of a musical acronym) are making the scene. Ke$sha -- a new but not improved "Barbie lives" project with that awful neon lipstick and dyed hair -- is close to truly speechless at the living spectacle unfolding. Looking into the face of pummelled human brokenness and suffering, even through a square TV monitor, will do that to a young person like her.

Look again. The crowd on Times Square NYC is buzzing and swaying with excitement, yet far removed, exiled, from anything and everything that's perched up on that static, outdoors ABC sound-set; and that perennial preener, Jenny McCarthy (a genuine "Jenny on the block" in this case), purloining time from her low-demand sitcom guest jobs on Two and a Half Men and other insipid shows -- kept toasty warm by her furs, blonde hair extensions, and silicone trusses -- works harder, more racously and more stridently, than even the rising idol Seacrest, as if she has something (could it be the memory of Dick Clark reading his script painfully aloud a few minutes before?) to overcome. Is that colorful logo for Toyz R Us on the backdrop building, behind them all, just a cynical product placement by that company -- or did someone in the Dick Clark Productions corps spot the chance for a spot-on, post-modern metaphor and joke?

Having suffered the awful slings and arrows of great misfortune, at least one massive stroke, yet not at all ready to shuffle off this mortal coil (look, not every run of the mill blogger can dredge up timely allusions to Shakespeare's Hamlet with such ease), Dick Clark pushed onward. And on and . . . on. I will forever recall the reaction of shock and sadness that a close friend and pop-music lover gasped out, like recoil of a rifle, on December 31, 2009, when Mr. Clark came into focus after an 'on-the-air' toss to him from the ever-buoyant, sparkly Mr. Seacrest. What a reminder that was of those cracks and fissures, and painful wrinkles, that have appeared in our cultural veneer since those hallowed afternoons listening to the saxophone swing of American Bandstand's theme and watching the apparently naive and unworldly Philly kids coupling up metaphorically there before our eyes. No, Dick Clark was not destined to have a successful second act.

Veneer. I guess that's what it was. Time rolls on, in fact it rocks and rolls on. There is no genuine turning back, as some still claim. Veneers wear away and all polished surfaces eventually tarnish, even finest woods go bad. Dick Clark, oh what a veneer he wrought from the raw material with which he was gifted. He had a great act, as did his perky audiences. To his last day, he was wildly rich $$$ materially and economically. Making money and creature comforts, and adulation from fans, were not the problems. Yet something kept him pushing on, . . . a spiritual void, a need to be seen and heard, whatever, and he chose to appear again on Rockin' Eve after Rockin' Eve.

Viewers looked on -- aghast at the symbol of what he/we have become, or maybe not, and yet sweetly sentimental for what once was and appears to be no more. Fitzgerald was right about there (in truth) being no second acts in American life. With his last breath, Dick Clark felt his heart break. Alas, even Gatsby the Great's favored existence hit some rough patches, then came apart. 

Maybe the real lesson here is to strive constantly for an authentic first act, all the way, without apologies or personal excuses. And then -- who knows what?


Apr 17, 2012

Helpful Words from WordPress -- About Blogging

This is a guest post by Kristina Chang, Evan Moore, Tony Xu, and Omer Rabin. They are students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

What makes a blog popular?

. . . . What drives page views? . . . Here are our findings, together with a few recommendations.

We hope that this provides some new information, and kudos to you in case you’ve already incorporated these tips into your blog – the data suggest that you’re on the right track. Keep it up!

Make your blog easy to follow

It almost sounds obvious, but the simplest way to build more awareness is to make it easier to do so. Make sure that you have the follow widget as visible as possible. If your readers receive a notification every time you post . . . . there is a much higher chance that they will revisit your blog.

Get Comments, Comments, Comments

The most successful blogs, we found, created and encouraged a dialogue with their readers. The best way to make people more engaged with your writing is for you to engage back and start a conversation. In your posts, encourage people to comment. Also, make sure that you reply to people’s comments and continue the dialogue. This back and forth conversation is a significant driver of page views; every additional comment can potentially drive up to 18 incremental page views! You can start by simply asking follow-up questions at the end of each post: "have you ever done X?"; "do you think Y is acceptable?". 

Post Frequently and Regularly

Your blog readers want to know that you are there for them and that you are “on it”. If you post frequently and regularly and have enabled the follow feature as we mentioned above, checking your blog could become a daily routine for your readers. Even if it’s a short post, write something new as frequently as possible, and at regular intervals.

While these three tips were shown to be the most important drivers of page views in our analysis, you might consider other parameters, which we found as having a partially significant effect: syndicating your post to Twitter and Facebook, for example, could lead to additional page views.

Happy blogging!

Apr 6, 2012

Something Savory -- Stories That Lie

Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth,
and nothing but the truth, so help you God?


Maura Kelly is an author and commentator. She has written for the New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Guardian, and in this case The Atlantic. Here she writes about a new book called The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, in which Jonathan Gotschall discusses why we humans have such a strong interest in stories, and argues that we're all storytellers — and all liars too, even if most of us don't realize it, even if most of us are lying primarily to ourselves!

Having toyed for several days with an original piece about memory and catharsis, I was really fascinated by (and learned some things from) this essay. Looking forward to reading the book.
-- Butch Ekstrom

          "Many of our memories are records of our own stories, not of events that actually
          took place."

          "When we tell (or write) stories about ourselves, they also serve another important
          (arguably higher) function: They help us to believe our lives are meaningful. The
          storytelling mind — the human mind, in other words — "is allergic to uncertainty,    
          randomness, and coincidence," Gottschall writes. It doesn't like to believe life is
          accidental; it wants to believe everything happens for a reason. Stories allow us to
          impose order on the chaos. And we all concoct stories, Gotschall notes: even those
          of us who have never commanded the attention of a room full of people while tell-
          ing a wild tale. 'Social psychologists point out that when we meet a friend, our con-
          versation mostly consists of an exchange of gossipy stories," he writes. "And every
          night, we reconvene with our loved ones . . . to share the small comedies and
          tragedies of our day."

This is Butch writing again. If someone invented a new pill called, say, Amygdalop which gave you the power to forget a painful or embarrassing memory or, perhaps, all memories (to give you a fresh start at life of sorts), would you be interested in taking that pill?


Apr 3, 2012

Making Character Judgments

Trust in others, especially when it came to business matters, did not come easily to my parents. This stemmed, I believe, from their individual, working class struggles through the Great Depression and the cultural emphasis, among such offspring of European immigrants, to save, save, save (all tangible assets available) for a future unknown.

There was one life-altering day around 1950, or so I have heard, during which my parents (as yet still childless) laid down some serious money -- serious for that burgeoning economic era -- with a guy who sold them on the dream that he possessed the next best idea. Now, when I say serious money, I mean it. If it had not been for that one successful scam, I would be very wealthy today -- like I won a big state lottery drawing kind of well-to-do.  In fact, things are pretty good for me now in material terms, all things considered. But, geez, . . .  In sum, what I possess from that con job are stark memories about how disappointed my parents were in a person they had believed and trusted.

Which brings me to this: a person's admirable (upstanding) character is something to be far more prized than a pot clogged with monetary wealth. Well, I keep reminding myself of that anyway. It is built up decision by decision, encounter by encounter, attitude by attitude. If only my mom and dad had been more fond of, i.e., trusting in financial institutions post-Depression. One's low-standing character can be created over an arcing expanse of living large or frozen into other people's perceptions through one stunner of a misanthropic moment. All I know is that I have been somewhat obssessed for years by live, electrifying versions of the song "Money" (from the Dark Side of the Moon) by the Pink Floyd.

Maybe there is something in this aspect of our family history that makes me a pretty lousy judge of character. I get about half of my snap judgements about individuals right, and I get about half or more wrong. This lends me a kind of Richard Lewis sensation of being doomed to make that one unalterable misjudgment someday, I suppose. Don't you just know there is a sensitive trapdoor out there, somewhere, ready to spring open?

Which of course leads me intuitively to consider my personal experiences at Starbucks. I go through the Starbucks drive-thru lane on most mornings. I always order the same things. The relentlessly cheerful staff -- Matt, Amy, Rob, Kaitlyn, C.J., Aaron, others -- can recognize my voice echoing out of my car (and see me on the little surveillance camera posted strategically on the outdoor order board). Often, any one of the staff members can verbally complete my order, before I do, from memory. This all started, I guess, because of my quirky straw requests. Something idiosyncratic like that just sticks, then grabs the attention of others. They smile at almost all-comers @ Starbucks -- even though, on some mornings, they simply do not want to. They talk to me when I roll up to the dispensary window when I show even mild interest in engagement, introduce themselves to me, tell me how late they were up the night before, tell me about their plans for life (briefly at least -- and isn't that just so classically young adult-like?). I admire these character traits. But if they only knew what I am really like in real life, all this employer-demand chipperness and sharing, probably, would vaporize like the coffee-scented air that rolls like a light fog out of the drive-thru portal.

Clearly, I am hoping that I am batting more than .500 when it comes to judgments about these young people. I hope they are getting it essentially right about me too, despite my obvious character defects. Maybe they are pleasant because I am like the prototypical big-spender -- I always have a traceable $$ balance on my Starbucks card, dollars that I guess could ultimately be attributed in part (like time-worn Ellis Island census records) to my parents and grandparents. Or perhaps some of them youngsters @ Starbucks inherently trust that I would take good care of their pets or plants or their cherished life plans in times of need, someone who just might lead them to unpredictable well-being.

Just the other day, at the drive-up window, I wished Aaron good luck. He is a young, enthusiastic, married midwestern guy who told me he was moving along (hooray!) to a technology-based job, and a pretty good one at that. He said, 'Wait a second.' Then he fished a piece of paper out of his green apron. It had his wife's first name and his on it, plus a cell phone number. 'Here. We should get together,' Aaron says. 'I like talking to you. I think there's a lot we could talk about.'

I thanked him and replied, 'Okay, sure, good luck again.' Then I drove away with my everyday order.

But, while driving away, taking my first drink of the morning, I figured I will actually send him a text message or give him a call soon. And, of course, I could not help but admire his character judgment.

And, yeah, I mean that to be humorous and ironic all at once.