Day 90: Eliot Peper

Novelist Eliot Peper on where to turn your attention:

Peper_Bandwidth_26026_CV_FT.jpg

Barely plausible niche ideas. The outskirts and underpasses of a megalopolis. Burgeoning self awareness. The cultural fringe. Technologies that appear to be nothing more than toys. The fractal outline of a fern frond. Marginal returns. Emotions that are just barely ineffable. Border towns. The moment just before you lean in for a first kiss. Coastal ecosystems. Flirting with irony. The lucid dreamscape halfway between sleep and wakefulness.

The ragged edges of things are always the most interesting part.

I would add any temporal, geographical, social, economic, or natural frontier; that which people are not saying; the melody barely heard; hints of color; the sound beneath silence; ghost walls; the kid in the corner; the scene opposite the picture; the wine's finish; where someone just left.

Day 88: Ellen Ullman

Read this.

Read this.

Ellen Ullman, from "The Museum of Me," written in 1998 and collected in Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology:

What had happened between 1995, when I could still think of the Internet as a private dream, and....1998 was the near-complete commercialization of the Web. And that commercialization had proceeded in a very particular and single-minded way: by attempting to isolate the individual within a sea of economic activity. Through a process known as "disintermediation," producers have worked to remove the expert intermediaries, agents, brokers, middlemen, who until now have influenced our interactions with the commercial world.

... The first task in this newly structured capitalism is to convince consumers that the services formerly performed by myriad intermediaries are useless or worse, that those commissioned brokers and agents are incompetent, out for themselves, dishonest. And the next task is to glorify the notion of self-service.

... All those who stand in the middle of a transaction, whether financial or intellectual: gone! Brokers and agents and middlemen of every description: good-bye! Travel agents, real-estate agents, insurance agents, stockbrokers, mortgage brokers, consolidators, and jobbers, all the scrappy percentniks who troll the bywaters of capitalist exchange—who needs you? All those hard striving immigrants climbing their way into the lower middle class through the penny-ante deals of capitalism, the transfer points too small for the big guys to worry about—find yourself some other way to make a living. Small retailers and store clerks, salespeople of every kind—a hindrance, idiots, not to be trusted. Even the professional handlers of intellectual goods, anyone who sifts through information, books, paintings, knowledge, selecting and summing up: librarians, book reviewers, curators, disc jockeys, teachers, editors, analysts—why trust anyone but yourself to make judgments about what is more or less interesting, valuable, authentic, or worthy of your attention? No one, no professional interloper, is supposed to come between you and your desires, which, according to this idea, are nuanced, difficult to communicate, irreducible, unique.

... The first task in this newly structured capitalism is to convince consumers that the services formerly performed by myriad intermediaries are useless or worse, that those commissioned brokers and agents are incompetent, out for themselves, dishonest. And the next task is to glorify the notion of self-service. Where companies once vied for your business by telling you about their courteous people and how well they would serve you—"Avis, We Try Harder"—their job now is to make you believe that only you can take care of yourself. The lure of personal service that was dangled before the middle classes, momentarily making us all feel almost as lucky as the rich, is being withdrawn. In the Internet age, under the pressure of globalized capitalism and its slimmed down profit margins, only the very wealthy will be served by actual human beings. The rest of us must make do with Web pages, and feel happy about it.

... In 1998, I spoke of a society becoming divided between those who receive the goods of the world at their doorsteps and those who bring the goods to them. Then the goal for the receivers was to stay at home and connect to the world digitally, while other people, those in a different and lower social classes.

... Yet this moment of the chasm between the receivers and the deliverers is just a blip on the way to the complete peonization of the working class. Amazon wants to get rid of those guys with their flimsy dollies; the company is moving to replace them with drones. Uber drivers, the ultimate symbol of the sweep and penetration of the gig economy, are on their way to be supplanted by self-driving cars. The starkest and most terrifying description of this fulcrum moment comes from the media-and-technology critic Douglas Rushkoff, who wrote: “Uber’s drivers are the R&D for Uber’s driverless future. They are spending their labor and capital investments (cars) on their own future unemployment."

As is the case with everything she writes, acutely observed and stated with clarity and force.

Day 87: An artist for a father, pt. 3

Paul Chidlaw: “Rocks and Harbor with Boat” (please click on all images)

I am just back from Cincinnati, where I grew up and where I attended a special exhibit celebrating 150 years of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. My father was a student there from 1947 to 1952, and I toured the show, taking note of the artists he encountered there: Paul Chidlaw, Charlie Harper, Noel Martin, Josef Albers, John Ruthven, Donald P. Sowell. Some were his teachers, some his classmates. Some, like him, were in art school thanks to the GI Bill of Rights.

He never talked that much about his days at the academy. I know he worked in the dishroom for spending money. He lived at a nearby YMCA, where he was a wrestler on the Y's team and where he met a big, tough veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who eventually introduced Dad to his sister—my eventual mother.

Charles Harper: “Cornprone”

I have some trouble picturing him as an art student. He would have been six feet in height, strong and tough, with a flat belly and big arms. When he was discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1945, he weighed 130 pounds. But two years of working in a cement factory and a lumber yard—and eating his mother's cooking—had built him up to about 175 pounds. His hair was already in retreat, his ears were prominent (in scale with his nose), and he had an intense gaze. He had been a boxer in the army, apparently a pretty good one; his face was unmarked when he came to Cincinnati in ’47. He probably wore white t-shirts and khaki trousers from the military, and workboots. I think he liked beer, but I doubt he ever drank too much. He was not a party guy. When he practiced wrestling at the Y, he wore grey sweats that he still had when I was a little boy. He was quiet, a loner.

My dad, in the foreground.

My father, center, doing the war; I’m not sure where.

Okay, so I can picture him as an art student. But I have trouble imagining how he was as a person, how he behaved, how his mind worked, his personality. The man I knew was practical and had little ambition as a painter, so I don't see him in late-night conversations over coffee and cigarettes about painters or new trends in art, I don't see him enjoying the company of oddball creative people. He was probably relieved to be among other GIs who had seen too much and were too old, in so many ways, to be amused by bohemians, both real and wannabe.

I do know that for five years, every day began with four hours of drawing class; the academy put a premium on draftsmanship, and that would have appealed to him because I think he was confused by any sort of non-representational art. The abstract impressionists left him cold. I remember the time he chuckled as he recalled one of his first days, when an instructor asked the class to name their favorite painter. "Everybody said Norman Rockwell," my dad said, "and the instructor said, 'He's not a painter, he's an illustrator.'"

What else? He said his teachers spent as much time teaching him how to see as how to paint. He once sold a drawing from a student show. And that's about all I can remember.

Now I wish I'd interviewed him about his art school years, or at least pressed him a little about what he did and what he was like. Too late.

From a Michigan deer hunt, around the time he was an art student.

This is the third installment of “An Artist for a Father.” Part 1 is here, Part 2 here.

Day 85: A partial list of things which are hugely popular and I don't understand why

  • Ramen
  • Karl Ove Knausgård
  • Reality television shows of any kind
  • SUVs in big cities
  • The royal family
  • Fermenting your own food, and presumably eating it
  • K-pop
  • GIFs
  • Instagram stories
  • Books on productivity
  • Productivity
  • Cell phones bigger than an NFL linebacker's hands
  • Plaid
  • 24/7 cable news
  • Video evidence of profound stupidity
  • Mixed martial arts
  • All-star games, in any sport
  • Time-outs, in any sport

Day 84: Roy Blount Jr. for Profilia

Photo originally published by  The Berkshire Eagle

Photo originally published by The Berkshire Eagle

Another profile under consideration for Profilia, the work-in-progress anthology of profiles coming later this year. I spent time some years ago with the writer Roy Blount Jr., including on tour with the writers' rock band Rock Bottom Remainders. I'm all but certain to include this one in the anthology. Here's how it opens:

Roy Blount Jr. looks none the worse for events of the last few minutes. A woman done up in this season’s finest dominatrix leatherwear just stubbed out a cigarette on his forehead, sending him to the floor where he rolled on his back and kicked his legs in the air. Friends helped him to his feet and he staggered about comically, grey hair mussed, skinny necktie askew. A few hundred people have witnessed this spectacle and now they hoot and cheer as the tough chick wielding the coffin nail, who happens to be the writer Amy Tan, finishes singing “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.”

Is this any way for one of America’s foremost writers of humorous prose to behave?

Well, yeah, sure it is. What the hell, all this had taken place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and Blount is onstage as a backup vocalist, sort of, for the Rock Bottom Remainders, and the Rock Bottom Remainders is the band that features a bunch of Blount’s writer friends, including Tan, Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Scott Turow, Ridley Pearson, and Greg Iles, authors who collectively have sold a gazillion books and now and then like to stash their laptops and pick up guitars and drive around in a bus like real rock stars and play a few gigs. Besides, the cigarette was not real and one thing you should know about Roy Blount Junior is that not only is he a seriously literary fella, he is a clown. He likes to make people laugh, always has, and the fact that he cannot sing, cannot dance, and cannot play an instrument does not prevent him from being part of an antic rock ’n’ roll show.

Which recalls something a long-time friend, poet James Seay, says about him. Seay, who teaches writing at the University of North Carolina, the big one in Chapel Hill, has known Blount more than 30 years, and annually they and four other guys go to Florida to fish for speckled trout and cobia and various trash fish. They used to go offshore for grouper and snapper, but they are getting a little old for that. Anyway, of these fishing trips, Seay observes, “In general, whether we’re fishing or whatever, we act like 12-year-olds. Actually, over the years most of us have advanced and worked on up to 13-year-old behavior, but Roy’s stuck in that juvenile, almost puerile kind of 12-year-old thing. I don’t know how we’re going to bring him along. He may just be stuck.”

This one even includes a doodle that Roy drew on my notepad. For a look at that, you'll just have to wait for the book.

Day 82: Obedience is not democratic

Scientist David Deutsch, from "Why It's Good to Be Wrong," Nautilus, Issue No. 2:

Our systems of checks and balances are steeped in traditions—such as freedom of speech and of the press, elections, and parliamentary procedures, the values behind concepts of contract and of tort—that survive not because they are deferred to but precisely because they are not: They themselves are continually criticized, and either survive criticism (which allows them to be adopted without deference) or are improved (for example, when the franchise is extended, or slavery abolished). Democracy, in this conception, is not a system for enforcing obedience to the authority of the majority. In the bigger picture, it is a mechanism for promoting the creation of consent, by creating objectively better ideas, by eliminating errors from existing ones.

Deutsch's essay is subtitled, "Nothing obstructs access to the truth like a believe in absolute truthfulness." Amen.

Day78: John Holt

In the 1974 Whole Earth Epilog, John Holt wrote:

A society of large tools cannot be democratic, egalitarian, socialistic, humane, and just. It must be hierarchical, exploitative, bureaucratic, and authoritarian. If the day comes when all of humanity’s wants can be supplied by a few giant tools, the people who tend them will rule the world.

There's an ominous dose of prescience for you.

Day 77: The exemplars

The exemplars, unordered:

  • John McPhee — For being the consumate deep reporter, for prose that is the perfect alloy of precision and grace, for devotion to craft.
  • George Orwell — For his willingness to stare down anyone with acute questions, and his commitment to saying what was true.
  • Bob Dylan — For his work ethic, and for doing what he wanted to do and fuck everyone who was unhappy about that.
  • Walter Murch — For exemplifying the inquiring mind and the amateur scholar.
  • Christopher Hitchens — For courage, and for a savage wit wielded so well.
  • Lawrence Weschler — For being the model of the polymath scribbler.
  • Annie Dillard — For being a modern transcendentalist, for her unique and dexterous mind, and the best book on writing.
  • Craig Mod — For his thinking about the future of the book.
  • Seth Godin — For his wit, his nimble mind, and his clarity. And for always raising a ruckus.
  • Austin Kleon — For one piece of advice: Show your work.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin — For her defense of genre fiction, and for her steadfast and always courteous cussedness.

Day 74: Fear the mind-killer

William Kittredge, in “Who Owns the West?”:

The deeply fearful are driven to righteousness, as we know, and they are the most fearsome fools we have.

The typical human being is smart, far smarter than commonly apparent. The typical human being is amiable and kind to at least some degree. A typical human being is tolerant and generous.

That is, until scared. In Frank Herbert's Dune, Paul Atreides, the protagonist and hero, silently recites to himself in times of danger, Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the mind-killer. In everyday like, that doesn't happen. When people are frightened, they revert to thinking with their brain stems and adrenal glands. They capitulate to prejudice, suspicion, rumor, and they become followers. People are prone to be followers in the best of times; in scary times, they are especially susceptible to demagoguery by the cynical opportunists who lurk in any society. And as Kittredge rightly observes, the most scared become righteous, which is never a good development.

Stronger minds stare down the mind-killer and grasp that most fears are baseless and distract us from the handful of things that we really ought to be frightened by. What scares me is how few stronger minds seem in evidence when we could really use them.

Day 73: Ann Finkbeiner on physicists

My friend, the superb science writer Ann Finkbeiner, was married to a physicist, hung around physicists, wrote about physicists. She had this to say about them:

Physicists as a group are off-scale intelligent, gossipy, competitive, relentlessly rational, and promiscuously curious. Their taste for pure research comes from the belief that some given truth about the real world exists and that they can find it; and when they’ve found it, sooner or later they’ll all agree it’s the truth. They are fascinated by the congruence between their theories and reality. They are famous for arrogance; because physics is the most fundamental science, physicists say, a physicist can solve any problem in any field by figuring it out from first principles, from the ground up.