May 25, 2016
The internet superhighway as predicted by Vice President Al Gore (1993-2001). Facebook was launched in 2009.
Once again, it’s time for a Facebook assessment. I remember my reluctance to enter this virtual world, and my surrender. I’ve written about finding a college friend, the pleasure we’ve found in our posts, the constancy of our responses, the shared news about our creative lives. I enjoy the photographs my niece posts of her children and her husband posts of his new encaustic paintings. Yes, he’s painting again! We are separated by a continent but can eavesdrop on one another’s activities. This makes it easier to feel connected and to reconnect when we do see each other.
I post my website blog—this blog post that I am writing today—as a “note,” and the Facebook note feeds into Twitter which enhances my online profile and keeps my classes (mostly) filled. My prospective students check me out before signing up. Who can blame them? They are spending hard-earned money—a lot of it—and want to make sure it will not be wasted. I even use their Facebook posts and photographs as writing prompts in the workshop. Who would have ever thunk it? In fact, I encourage my students to write their hearts out on Facebook and in emails, not just sound bytes but long narratives: captions for every photograph, commentary in answer to every commentary. Facebook: yet another tool to keep the writing muscle supple.
But Facebook is more than a publicity or writing tool. It’s also a bulletin board, a graffiti wall, a communal well, a listening post. I find it particularly comforting when something awful is going on in the world which, alas, is all too frequent these days. People in the US and overseas post words of comfort or insight, and all at once the isolation, despair or frustration we feel is eased; we are a community. And, maybe just maybe, a shared link or two might suggest a way out of a conundrum: the refugee migration crisis, England’s imminent EU referendum, the US election. Or, more personally, a private woe expressed fleetingly on one particular day: “Dear FB Friends,” it might say, “I am not feeling so great today.” Incoming: lots of supportive messages and suggestions. And, for me, the impulse to pick up the phone and talk.
A dear friend, someone I see in the flesh in the city, once said to me that an old high school mate, now a FB friend, is ranting on his site. For some reason he won’t “unfollow,” him though this is easy enough to do now—a new, welcome function—without the finality of “unfriending.” Don’t we pick and choose our friends in the real world? So why not insist on civility on Facebook if that is our preference? The digital culture has evolved and so have we.
I can’t imagine my life these days without Facebook and I wonder, at times, whether friends and family who “don’t do Facebook” are missing out on this inclusive, global conversation. I intuit that they are and wish they’d consider joining.
May 18, 2016
The Demagogue: his hair looks like a croissant, his mouth like Mussolini's.
“How Does a Nation Turn to Hate?” That’s a tag line on the New York Historical Society website this month. I went to see their small exhibition, “Antisemitism 1919-1939,” and took lots of notes. It was the only way I could concentrate without becoming very upset.
First of all, as many of my readers know, my parents were genocide survivors. Secondly, the Nazi propaganda displayed in the vitrines felt eerily familiar in this 2016 election year. At first, Hitler was dismissed as a fringe crank. It didn’t take him long to become Chancellor.
So I’m weighing in on the “Trump Phenomena.” His campaign is not at all funny or entertaining. It’s terrifying. Like Hitler and his cohorts, he is a master of media manipulation and inflammatory, subliminal messages, nuanced enough to avoid accusations of “hate speech" yet remain within the realm of “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. It's incendiary nonetheless. Trump is the voice of bigotry and has given bigotry a voice. And if he now claims—cynically—that he’s just a regular guy and is going to calm down, that’s even worse. The damage has been done.
In Nazi Germany, Hitler had many “willing executioners,” as Harvard scholar Daniel Goldhagen wrote in a 1995 book of that title. Men and women who were acquiescent, men and women who obeyed. The Nazi killing machine revved up incrementally. It began by endlessly repeating words and images of dirty money-grabbing Jews who were “repulsive parasites,” the cause of all Germany’s problems since the beginning of time. There were even children’s books written to reinforce these messages and a couple of them are on display at the NY Historical Society exhibition. I had never seen them before. They are shocking.
The indoctrination of ordinary citizens ended in The Nuremberg Laws—the legal foundation of Hitler’s Holocaust—and the death camps. Where will Trump’s campaign lead us as a nation? His anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim epithets deny our citizens, asylees, refugees and applicants for American citizenship, the fundamental right to live without threat of violence. His language inflames those who hate, those who may carry guns; we are a well-armed nation. Hate crimes against Muslims have spiked in recent months. And no wonder.
We have had other demagogues running for office in the past, but that fact does not make Donald Trump any less dangerous. We must stop him for the sake of our children and our democracy.
May 10, 2016
Shall we write a poem about this yellow peony? Or is the photo I snapped in the park on a spring day poem enough?
A writer/artist cousin wrote to ask: Who are your favorite poets? Oh, I had so much fun answering that question. Poetry is everywhere, as present as the clouds and the sky, or a sentence that someone throws out standing on the sidewalk chatting as the clouds roll by, or a tear for a sick friend, or the whiff of spring blossom, or the soft fur of a new puppy, or a lover’s touch, or a parent who has just died, or mortality and love in general, and so much more every day and night and through the night into the morning and the next day and the day after that.
I have created my own anthology of poetry and I try to memorize a poem now and again which I find difficult, but I do it anyway even if it takes me a long time, a line or two a day. Beyond that, I have a few poetry collections on my shelf, and I listen to Garrison Keillor recite and declaim poetry on “Writer’s Almanac,” and suddenly the poems in The New Yorker—which I read digitally—have little speaker clicks next to them and I can hear the poet (if s/he is alive) read his or her own poems. Not that poets necessarily read their own poems well. Sometimes, in fact, they are so portentous in their reading that I cannot understand what they are saying at all, I am just watching them or hearing them be portentous. If that happens, it’s on to the next one quickly as there are so many poems to enjoy. We don’t have to linger if a poem is obscure or we don’t like it. No one is grading us. We are not parsing anything as we were forced to parse in high school. And if we are at a poetry reading and the reading is boring as well as portentous (portentous is boring), we can space out or write our own poetry in a notebook which, if we are writers, we always carry with us.
I have a poetry app on my smart phone, smart enough to know that poetry is essential to daily life. I can look up any poet and find some examples of his or her work, or I can browse by subject—youth, aging, love, nature, work and play—depending on my mood. Or the poems “spin” and I can read whatever comes up like a wheel of fortune at an amusement park. The Poetry Foundation has created this app—it’s free—and I thank them.
May 3, 2016
I don’t think any writer starting out on her career believes that she’ll be expected to promote herself—endlessly—as I am doing right here, right now, on Facebook which RSS feeds into Goodreads, my Amazon Authors Page and Twitter. I have missed-out on Instagram I learned the other day at the “I Wish To Say” PEN event in Bryant Park. I was one of the readers, a professional photographer working the event was snapping pictures, and she asked if she could tag me on my Instagram account. I have opened an account but I don’t use it, I told her. Not yet anyway. And if I continue on this path of social media advertising for and of myself, which is already so time-consuming, will there be any time or inclination left to write?
Innocently, at first, we assume that others will do the work of pimping and primping for us. Pimping is the selling part of the busines, primping the copy-editing and proofing of text. I don’t want to be doing any of that. All I want to do is teach and write. That’s hard work enough. And satisfying. And although the work comes to fruition with pimping and primping, I don’t like it, nor do most writers and artists I know. Not to mention that most of us are solitary creatures, solitude required for the writing endeavor. How else can ideas, sentences and words surface in us if we aren’t quiet?
Quietude, what a quaint idea.
Once, riding shotgun in a car in Geneva with the publicist for the International Committee for the Red Cross, he told me that if I wanted to get the book I was working on about humanitarian relief work “platformed,” he could introduce me to John le Carré’s agent. Perhaps he could write a preface for the book? Le Carré was immersed in humanitarian advocacy and said yes in two minutes. The preface was written—with not a word out of place I might add. We also landed a beautiful photo for the cover by James Nachtwey, a renowned war photojournalist. Platform “favors.” And though we had to pay for them, the price stayed low. Neither Nachtwey nor le Carré wanted a lot of money.
Was I pleased? Of course I was. This was a worthy project that took two years to complete. Did I promote the book like crazy in the US and the EU? You bet I did. But it wasn’t advertisement for myself (in the solipsistic sense), it was advertisement of the work itself, which is different. I’m not sure that what I am doing here in this blog is the same. True, I concentrate on writing and the writing life, and hope that what I write has some value for writers and students, but self-promotion per se makes me queasy.