Category Archives: Letters

The humanities

Haptic Memories

Of Pixels and Voxels and nervous messes

In 1995 I was employed in exhibit development at Discovery World, a museum of science, economics and technology. My job led to my involvement in several vastly different technologies and scientific fields, from hydraulics and lasers to electricity and health. One particularly interesting piece of technology with which I became involved was a “Haptic” interface, called “The Phantom.” Haptic, from the Greek, means touch, and the Phantom was intended to provide the user with virtual sense of touch via a single finger tip.

It looked much like a miniature architect’s lamp, an arm with several degrees of freedom, terminating in a thimble-like cup at the end, which, in turn, was attached to an armature governed by priceless little motors and sensors. The entire design intended to allow the user to move their finger as freely in space as any of their other digits, until they encountered a virtual obstacle. This might be something as simple as a simulated piece of paper, or sandpaper, or perhaps something more complex, a billiard ball, or banana, a wrist, or a wrist with a pulse.

Via the thimble, the controlling computer system could convey texture, viscosity, pressure, vibrations, movement — the entire range of things we can feel with our fingers, albeit not heat nor cold nor the pin-prick of pain. But one might pluck an invisible guitar string, and feel its harmonics, or palpate the back of a virtual patient.

My group were unsure just what we would have the device simulate, nor how we would allow a visiting public to interact with it, given the inherent fragility of the device (and the largely reckless tendencies of the public). But as this was very new technology, having just been invented a year earlier by an MIT grad student, there was a scholarly conference about it, held near MIT, in suburban Boston, and I was to attend. In fact, when I received my conference credentials I was pleasantly bemused to see that I was credited, on MIT stationary, as Doctor Nic Bernstein. Doctor indeed!

Upon arrival at the conference assembly I was greeted by a curious assortment of engineers, scientists, investigators, doctors, physicists. Oh, and a three-star General from the US Army; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same people who invented the Internet. Other than myself, and a geologist from Australia, everyone else there was, in some way or another, in the pocket of this General, something I pointed out during our plenary introductions. At the next meal break, said General sought me out as a dining companion. How, he needed to know, was I not also on his payroll?

There were several obvious implementations of the Phantom being discussed, such as a medical school using them, along with surgical dummies, to help physicians learn proper technique for administering epidermal injections & draws.

The Australian geologist was working with seismic stimulators to probe for deeply buried oil & gas deposits. This being done by amassing the vast amounts of three dimensional data produced by seismic stimulation — essentially carefully calibrated “shakers” attached by outrigger arms to long, low trucks, like massive insects, which would slowly advance along a grid work, shake the ground a bit, raise, advance some more, lower, shake, etc. Once a full grid had been worked, and the data assembled into a three dimensional model, the investigator would probe through the data, feeling his or her way along veins of ore or into voids filled with gas or oil; each substance represented with a different virtual viscosity.

During a field trip to the labs of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industry corporation, a friendly scientist showed me the system they were developing to help orthopaedists feel their way around (“appreciate” in the parlance) the knee joint of a prospective surgical subject, prior to wielding an actual knife.

Here’s how it was done. The patient would receive a scan — PET, CAT, MRI, whichever technology would best image the tissues involved — and the data would be loaded into a computer model. Rather than the pixels (Picture Elements) we think of from the two dimensional world of television or video, or printing, this data were rendered into Voxels, Volumetric Elements. In addition to the X, Y, & Z coordinates of a datum, there was also information on the density of the matter, rendered to the “viewer” as viscosity or resistance. A doctor could thus feel around the back side of a kneecap, for example, to appreciate the condition of the soft tissues there (if any remained), such as cartilage or muscle, each rendered in a different haptic manner.

It was fascinating. This was 1995 remember, long before these sort of things were depicted as routine in movies and on telly.

At a remove

Lunch today, 12:45 or something like that.  Sitting at a duce and just tucking into my meal.

A young couple are seated at a four-top nearby.  She slender, Asian, angular.  He buff, scruffy, hipster-ish.  They sit and glance at their menus.

I return to my meal.

Something catches my eye, a movement or something.  I look up.

He, on my left, has his right arm outstretched.  His hand holding her lower jaw.

She, on my right, is crying, sobbing.

His hand is holding her lower jaw still, as if by doing so, this very act of agency revokes whatever guilt or role he has in whatever has induced this tremble.

Her head is rocking, oddly.  Her sobs, though dampened by his right hand’s grip on her jaw, still rack her, and constrained in one axis, her head heaves in another.  How does he feel about this?  Is he responsible?  Has he just dumped her, for example, or just what?

This goes on.  I eat a few bites, but I do not look away.  She is unaware of my gaze.  He might be, I don’t really care.  I don’t care if he knows I am watching whatever it is he is doing to her — comforting, silencing, cajoling — I am not afraid of his reaction to my involvement.  I keep watching.

A drop, a tear drop, falls from her face and I imagine I can even see the splash as it hits the table.

She, in perfect profile, is not looking at him.  She is looking up, and to her right, so her gaze escapes my own.

He, likewise in profile, is alternately staring at her, and staring at the table.

She winces.  She squints her eyes and I see the tell-tale folds in the corner of her eye.  Another drop falls.  The table seems to shake as it lands.

He looks down, drops his arm, he is disarmed.

She shrugs and says something, but I cannot hear. I don’t care to, either.  This is pantomime to me.

Just as he raises his arm to once again grasp her jaw (whatever compels this act??) the waitress approaches.  They both miraculously collect themselves and order.  She a fish fry, and shrimp bisque.  He, a sandwich with fries.

The waitress leaves.  I am willing her to offer a napkin, a tissue, something with which this young woman, Asian and angular, sad and dripping, may dab at her face.  I am willing it, but I am powerless, acting at a remove.

Piscataway Airs

It even smells different, New York. Those subtle cues you get as you enter the concourse at La Guardia; you know you’re somewhere else. There are so many little things which separate one locale from another, and it is the job of the modern airport designer to eliminate these differences to the extent possible, but New York just smells different.

Not bad, I’m not trying to say it’s a stinky place, or worse for the odors, just that it’s different is all. Like the hand soap or disinfectant concession has been granted someone who simply doesn’t trade anywhere else in the world. We don’t have this scent in Milwaukee; eau de toilette de La Guradia.

From La Guardia to Piscataway is an hour and 30 minutes of close up driving on the BQE, Staten Island Expressway and the 440. The lanes are narrower than those in the Midwest, and the roads rougher (for the most part) so every one is jostling along hoping that that truck next to us won’t jostle this way at the same time that we jostle that way. For the most part we succeed.

Work, work, and then sleep. Restless sleep, and restless awakening. Complimentary breakfast buffet (complimentary to what, one wonders) and then the pensive wait before departure.

Fog Horn Memories


Out in the bay, the fog horns are sounding, their long, low, throaty wails echo lazily off the high rise buildings of Yankee Hill.  Occasionally they are answered by a ship asea, like some love lorn animal seeking its mate.  These horns bring back such fond autumn memories for me, of my childhood growing up on Hackett Avenue.

Every fall we would build forts from the leaves, my brother, sister and I, and shoot up the neighborhood from the safety of our burrows within them.  We had few firearms.  Our parents were pacifists, as it were, and housed Students For McCarthy one election, and supported our efforts on behalf of a certain Senator four years later.  But this time of year out would come the rat-a-tat-tat mechanical plastic machine guns — M16 or AK-47, I could tell you not — and we’d dust off the old cap pistols from the cowboy and Indian sets.

Upon settling in the house on Hackett, in 1966, my father went exploring at Boerner Botanical Gardens.  The rose gardens there being modeled after Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens at Regent’s Park, London.  He loved those roses, and was determined to find some which would acquit themselves well in this climate.  He selected some Florabunas, tho he didn’t know it yet.  He wrote to the chief grounds keeper, describing the flowers he wanted, and their location within the grounds, and received back by return post the specifics and where to buy them.

The graft roots in hand, the next season he planted them along the front walk; a line of thorned sentries to guard against stray pets (and their clumsy owners).  These florid red roses would all be gone come October nights, of course, but their skeleton were perfect structural support for the siege walls of our leaf forts.  To this we would add cardboard boxes dragged from the curb, and branches felled by those city crews who waged war against the Dutch Elm Disease which was to decimate, many times over, the ranks of our formerly cathedral-esque streets.

From the safety of our forts, under a sanguine, weighty and magnificent hunter’s moon, we waged war against our foes, real and imagined.  It may be the Smirle boy from down the street, or the Clarks, two doors to the south.  Maybe the Litzaff kids would venture our way (always ill advised) but we would hold them at bay, our rat-a-tat rifles springing to life under our seasoned command, our incongruous tri-cornered hats perched on our heads.

As the years crept by, however, those accouterments were first joined then supplanted by the various bits of Vietnam war paraphernalia which found its way to our house, from the rummage sales of the veteran-students who lived amongst the families on our street.  Along with this gear came a growing realization, too, that the very thing that our earnest student house guests — and even ourselves — were protesting about, war, was what we were playing at.  Gradually, then, the games of war fell away from us.  The great piles of leaves in the front yard went back to being prospective mulch in my mother’s compost heap, and our attentions turned to the unlikely election of one Senator McGovern to the Presidency, hoping to put to an end this reckless and ridiculous war which even in our little corner of Milwaukee one saw evidence of.

There had been the marches, of course, the uprisings at the university, and as the body counts on the nightly news began to crack into our childhood consciousness we were soon in full confrontation with the weightiest of issues, and our childhood was ending just as our political lives began.  We carried on an English tradition of Guy Fawkes Day.  We kids would fashion an effigy out of newspaper, leaves, old rags and paper bags.  My father would choose the political scourge of the day from the cover of the Saturday Review, Newsweek, or the rotogravure and plaster it onto the paper-bag head of our Frankenstein Guy.

We would load the Guy into the Radio Flyer wagon and parade him around the neighborhood on November 5th (which conveniently fell near to election day) and sing our little song, “Please do remember on the fifth of November that poor old Guy Fawkes was reduced to an ember!” then our plea, “Penny for the Guy, penny for the Guy!”  For Unicef, of course — Even in such dark celebration we maintained our liberal political correctness.  When we returned home we would place the Guy on the fire grate and commit him to the pyre.

But before that, all back through our young histories in Milwaukee, living as we did by the water, were the fog horns, those stoic sentries of the water, those siren guardian whose unflinching, signal wails would guide the ships to safety and away from peril.  As a youngster my favorite nights were those with the still cloak of fog heavy in the air, that Hunter’s Moon a mere smudge in the sky, and my mother and I reading bedtime stories to each other — H.G. Wells most often, but C.S. Lewis or others, too — as the fog horns wailed in the back ground.

After the last chapter of the night, my mother would pack up the book, tousle my hair, and tuck me in with a wee peck on the cheek.  “Go to sleep now,” she’d say, “and no staying up with that flashlight!”  Such admonition was hardly necessary, though, when the fog horns were sounding.  I would burrow deep into my covers, pulling them as high up around me as I could, and imagine myself at sea, with those taciturn fog horns wailing, the waves crashing, the rocks threatening, and my own future uncertain with peril.

Much of this memory comes crashing home this year — the foggy fall, the political currents, and the timely (it would seem) death of that brave Senator from my past.  George McGovern probably never had any chance, back then in 1972, but to my young eyes and to those of my siblings, he was a hero.  My politics were forever forged in the furnace of Vietnam, the 60’s, the races riots and body counts and fair housing marches and assassinations.  But it was those childhood nights of echoing fog horns which forged my soul, in the dark, under the covers, the words of H.G. Wells still resonating inside, feeling safe under my parent’s roof and wrapped tightly in their love.

Send me a picture of something Baton Rougian

I went on a mission to find something, “Baton Rougian.” Just what that may be escaped me, but I thought the first line of attack might be to find some genuine nature to photograph. Not as easy as it sounds down here.

I asked the client. “Oh I would go Downtown, to the casino, ‘Belle of Baton Rouge.'” she said.  “There’s that place there, arbotarium…no arbortari..” “Arboretum?” I offered. “Yes, that’s it. That’s were I go when I want to take some pictures.”

A little more discussion, and she said “Yeah, I would never go outside.” “Oh, so it’s an indoor arboretum?” “Oh yes, it’s just too hot to be outdoors!”

Okay, scratch that. I’m not going to a casino to take pictures of trees under glass, and try to pass that off as Baton Rougian!

My first destination, given that all I have so far seen is highways and hotel, was the Waddill Wildlife Refuge. Wrong! Closed Sunday and Monday, so that’s out.

Next up? “BREC Frenchtown Road Conservation Area” a few miles further east. Oops! Strike two! There is a rather permanent looking sign explaining that Louisiana is closed (as far as I can tell) until further notice. You can call or visit some offices, during very proscribed hours, to request permission to visit.

Oh well. At least along the way, I found much to admire about nature in Louisiana. It is certainly hardy. Despite all the indignities mankind seems to hurl at it, it just keeps slogging along. There is an air about things here, everything seems so… verdantly disheveled.

There were plenty of interesting views along the way, but given the prevalence of signs proclaiming, “Posted!” “No Trespassing!” “No Parking!” I decided discretion is the better part of valor after all. More so than in any of my foreign travels, I feel I cannot say for sure that the locals and myself share a common idea of civil behavior and other such norms. I do not mean to impugn the Baton Rougians, but I am not really in Baton Rouge, after all, but actually out of the corporate limits, in the backwoods (in a sense) and this is their turf, after all, so I just slink off.

Now, back at the hotel, after an hour or so of searching for nature, outdoors, that’s open… I gave up. I bought a screw-top bottle of Pinot Grigio (no corkscrew) and settled down to rest and catch up on news, etc.

Moving Things

Back in 2009, Pawn saw a piece of art which was particularly moving. Days later, he brought friend L back to see it, and she, too, found it moving. Finally, on the last day of the visit, he met up with new friend A, and she convinced him to buy it. Shortly before leaving for the airport, Pawn returned one last time to the Crypt of Saint Pancras Church, and uttered the fateful sentence, “If you can figure out how to ship it to me for a reasonable price, I’ll take it.”

Short Stories in crate

It took several weeks, but the intrepid Claire Palfreyman, maker of said artwork, found a shipper worthy of the task, and Short Stories, Volume 1, was on its way across the Atlantic, safely ensconced in a custom made crate, protected from buffeting. Shortly thereafter it was installed in Pawn’s state-side offices, and he has shared an office with it ever since. Pawn LOVES this piece of art, and is proud to have it in his collection.

Short Stories, Volume One 2009

Also on that last day in London, May of 2009, was fortunate enough to meet Claire, creator of Short Stories and to have a brief chat with her. Upon returning this year, I reached out to see if she would be up for a visit, so that I could see her other work, and chat about art. Yes, and yes, and today that happened.

I hopped the train, first the tube to Paddington and then the Heathrow Connect to Hanwell, where Claire and Charlie, her Parson’s Jack Russell, met me and led me to her home. We chatted over tea in her lovely kitchen while she told me of her current craft projects, built around her We Make Here classes, “Workshops where you meet, eat and create” as her website touts. We discussed her ceramics work, of which Short Stories is but one component, and about how art moves life just as life moves art.

In her studio, Claire shared sketches of work both realised and not, as well as stories of the late, missing partner to Short Stories, and a photo of this poor, ceramic soul. I admired the maquettes of work planned but not (yet) made, and, back in the house, some beautifully realised works.

Some more chat, and a lovely stroll, with Charlie along, back to the station to wait for the train back to London. I treasure making friends abroad. Claire was an artist whose work I bought, but after an afternoon of chat and shared appreciation of the role art can play in our lives, I’d like to think she’s a friend, too.

Friendship, and thing which move us, is also at the heart of tonight’s entertainment, Port Authority, at the Southwark Playhouse Vault. If there is a theme to our shows, last night and tonight, is of hidden vaults, dank and beautiful in their decay. Last night it was Old Vic Tunnels, under Waterloo Station. Tonight it was the vaults under London Bridge Approach. Southwark Playhouse has been using this space for some time, so it is not as “fresh” as OVT, but OMG what an atmosphere!

Port Authority - Southwark Playhouse

The play, by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, is entirely constructed of long soliloquy, a McPherson trademark. It wasn’t that long ago that both X and I saw The Good Thief, presented by Theatre Gigante, with Malcolm Tulip in the sole role, making a 60 minute address to the audience seated around him in the pub, as though he were merely talking to friends and acquaintances. Tonight we watched as Dermot (Ardal O’Hanlon), Joe (John Rogan) and Kevin (Andrew Nolan) each, separately, and with no regard or even awareness for each other, told us of those with whom they were close, loved, idolized or ignored.

Kevin is a young man, telling us of his first attempt to fly the coop, and of the woman he loved, and the woman he shagged, and of the difficulty of maintaining that distinction, all whilst following his mate’s bands and drinking to blinding excess.

Joe is an old man, living in care, who has a secret, well almost a secret, with which he has lived for over 40 years. He knows he is near the end of his allotment, and he knows his God will judge him (He knows), but he has a totem now, a keepsake, which speaks to him of a road not taken.

Dermot is a likeable buffoon, a poor, pitiable man whose life takes an unexpected turn, and then doubles back to leave him just where he was. His life has been full of these types of turns, but he hasn’t even realised it until he finds his head falling, falling into…

Well then, that would be giving it all away, wouldn’t it? No, the text is too good, the acting too real, the space too perfect and the production too effing well done. Go see it yourself!

New York – Ides of April Edition, 2010

Sun shapes on stairway

“Are you an artist too man?”

The question came innocently enough. That was James, our erstwhile bartender, after learning that I once knew Carri Skoczek, yesterday at Clem’s.

“Was, I was an artist.”

“What you mean, ‘was’? You don’t just stop being an artist. Maybe you aren’t making any art, but if you’re an artist, you’re an artist.”

“I was a lighting designer,” I told him. “You can’t just pick that up and do it anywhere, you know. You need a stage, and performers, and lights, and…”

“Ooh, I get it. Yeah, you kinda need a lotta help to get that done, doncha.”

“Yeah, you need a lot of help. I make art that needs a lot of help, so I don’t make art anymore.”

“That sucks, man. Shit.”

Okay, that was yesterday, and doesn’t really belong in today’s gazette, but it’s here for a reason. To whit: today we went to the American Museum of Folk Art. This lovely little institution, tucked in next to MoMA and The Modern, hosts one of the nicest collections of naïve, folk and self-taught art around, and although they have precious little space to show it in, they do so in a loving yet erudite manner.

When I look at this kind of art, I find myself always pondering the question of motivation, drive, inspiration… This seems inadequate to my point. Let’s try this; when someone grows up and goes to art school and starts to make art and exhibit it, or perform or what have you, it seems that there is a path, a trajectory, that gets them there. The motivation and drive are clear. For the self taught, the naïve, there is no such path. These are just normal work-a-day people who feel some compulsion to, at the end of a long day laboring over a plow or a broom or a stove, they decide to pick up a paint brush, embroidery needle, or what have you, and start making art.

I never “made art” in the sense of making a durable thing – painting, print, etc. – which one could take away from the experience and hang on a wall. I made art which was of its very nature ephemeral, transient, fleeting. My art was formal, in that it sprang from formalized structures and norms, it followed rules, to some extent, and it had a place in history in so far as it was informed by those who came before me, and was crafted with the tools and instruments available to me in my time. The naïve artist, on the contrary, is working out of time. Their work is singular and apart. Or, at least to my uneducated and impressionable eyes, it seems so.

It was thus that I gazed upon the self-made personal art collection of Henry Darger, on display at AMFA, which shows over 80 pieces of this significant 20th century self-taught artist’s own works which had hung on the walls of his tiny hovel in Chicago for the 40 years he lived there. It is a departure of a show for this museum, which holds the largest collection of Darger’s work in the world. I am used to coming here and being confronted with rooms of his mural sized hallucinatory fantastical ramblings, paint and tracery works, filling the whole of one or two floors of the museum. Not today, now it is these small, 16” x 20” average, pieces. Why? I wonder. What led this man, who worked 10 hour days in Catholic hospitals, sweeping and mopping, to then return home and write 4, four, 15,000 page epics about his fantasy world, backed by thousands and thousands of paintings?

Anyway, I don’t mean to dwell on this anymore than I already have. I just wanted to share that I realize that there are many reasons people make art. I know that people will probably chide me about this post, like, “Duh? Don’t you get it man, people want to make art!?!?” Yes, I get that. It is just the scale, sometimes, which causes me to ponder this. I guess. Whatever.

I can’t make my art, or I gave up on doing so, in the face of the challenges I faced. These people, these people whose work fills AMFA, likely never even felt that challenge, they just knew they wanted to make art, and they did so. They likely would have regarded me and said, “Huh? What of it, get off yer arse and express yourself!” The thing is that I do, of course. I express myself, now, in words rather than stage paintings. I use the tools of metaphor and simile instead of lekos and fresnels. I use a word processor instead of a light palette. I still make art, I guess, but I paint my pictures in words rather than those fields of light and shadow and color and smoke.

Runaway Vampires

Pawn just read this over at the Gray Lady:

Kristen Stewart, the 19-year-old co-star of the “Twilight” blockbusters, plays a New Orleans stripper in “Welcome to the Rileys,” which also stars James Gandolfini as a damaged businessman. Mr. Cooper noted that Ms. Stewart also has a noncompetition entry: in “The Runaways,” directed by Floria Sigismondi, Ms. Stewart plays a young Joan Jett.
Sundance, With a New Leader, Hones Its Indy Edge – NYTimes.com

Pawn has a warm place in his heart for Ms Jett.  Not only for her great contributions to Rock and Roll music, but for her stand up performance back in Iowa during the 2004 Presidential campaign.  As I journaled then…

Jeneane Garofalo is in town, as is Joan Jett. They are doing a show, kind of an Iowa Perfect Storm USO show to thank and bolster the Dean faithful. Seems that just one floor up is a meeting of the Young Republican’s Caucus Organizing Committee. You have to ask yourself if the facility scheduler had thought this through or not. Anyway, once the YRs find out that the Dean people are downstairs they take a vote of the organizing committee and have a unanimous vote of seven yeas (I’m not making this up, the head of the organizing committee boasted about it on TV) to go down to the Dean rally and do what they can to disrupt it!

Jeneane Garofalo addresses the crowd (photo courtesy RedPeg.com)

This is unreal, these guys have taken compassionate conservatism to a whole new level! They head down to the rally, armed with Bush/Cheney campaign signs (so there is no doubt who to blame…) and start trying to inspire a melee. The Dean folks simply block the B/C signs with their own, not a tough task given the numbers involved. There is a large contingent of Planned Parenthood folks and “Stand Up for Choice” there as well, which further skews the balance of power.

No one is taking the bait, however, no one is rising to fight, nor do anything other than try to block the B/C signs. Then, Joan Jett starts to play the National Anthem. This is apparently too much patriotism for the YRs and much like the effect of Slim Whitman music on the Martians in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, their heads simply start to explode.

Well, okay, not exactly, but it’s almost the same thing. One of the more compassionate conservatives decides to give Ms Jett a really good shove, while she is playing. Our portly protector of family values seemed to have misjudged his target, however, as Joan (about one third this guys size, and more than twice his age) shrugs off his shove and then comes back swinging. She manages to land a few good ones before Dean people separate the two.

Joan Jett immediately after the altercation (photo courtesy RedPeg.com)

This is all captured by several TV cameras, including that of Joe Jensen, the guy who trained us on Friday. This is a lead story on all of the local news. You just can’t make this stuff up!

Okay then, the gloves are off in the Republican camp at least.

I haven’t rushed out to see the Twilight films, but I can’t wait to see Miss Stewart in The Runaways.

Losing Face{book}

Pawn recently withdrew from the social networking site Facebook following a year and a half involvement.  Friends, and “friends” will doubtless ask why (and indeed, some already have).  The answer is both simple and complex.

The simple answer is that I don’t like what the use of the site did to how I interact with people.  While “social” networking sites bring a lot of promise, they also present many pitfalls.  And these benefits and drawbacks have as much to do with you, the user, as with their own inherent dynamics.  This blog, and the mailing list which preceded it, going back five years now, is itself a sort of social network.  For while it is primarily a forum for me to express my thoughts, etc., it also permits a back and forth, a dialogue, and has even included direct, primary posts by others.  In addition to my personal rants or other writings, I have often featured links to articles and stories elsewhere which thought worthy of attention, posted photographs, music clips, etc.  In other words a lot of what one can do at Facebook, but without the large community surrounding it.

That community, however, can be a both a blessing and a curse.  Facebook, and sites like it (i.e. LinkedIn, MySpace, etc.) provide extensive tools to build community in ways we have never seen before.  This is a godsend for organizers from local grass roots up to presidential campaigns, but works equally well for fear mongers as prophets, for hate groups as for charities.  My very first girlfriend tracked me down via LinkedIn after nearly thirty years, to share memories and catch up on two lives now very separate.  So, too, former lovers have tracked me down whom I would rather not have so done.

Therein lies one of the problems with a media which is at once both public and private.  Anyone who has spent any time at all on social networking sites has seen a friend or friends mistakenly post in a public way what was intended to be a private message.  I actually made it somewhat of a personal mission to help educate people about how to use Facebook with security and privacy in mind.  Just as one can rekindle old connections, so one must cope with the ramifications of doing so, in both the public and private realms.  An old schoolmate wants to be your friend, and has become friends with many people with whom you actually have kept up with since those old days.  If you don’t become friends are you being rude?  What will your other former classmates think of your standoffishness?  It’s the old peer pressure writ large and on the Internet.

Then there is the odd dynamic of “meeting” new people, a friend of a friend or just someone with common cause, say another member of a local political group.  They share your view, or a common link, and in the anonymous and yet connected world of social networking it is perfectly natural to “friend” each other.  In a real world setting there is much more context for such a situation.  A mutual friend can offer either a direct introduction or a muted aside, encouraging or discouraging such a friendship, or in the context of a local political meeting or other event, one may infer more about the other from the goings on.

Not so in the cyber world.  I was friended by a couple of people following a comment I made on the fan page for a long-defunct local punk band.  in 1981 I had done several shows with this band, and had gotten to know some of them quite well.  Following my comment, a few recollections from that era, I received friend requests from these two, one male one female, who were fans of the band and the nightclub where I had managed back then.  Turns out they both used to come there as underage gate crashers whose youth was well hidden by the combination of fake IDs and the heavy makeup and hair dye prevalent in that crowd.  I kept them as “friends” more because they posted interesting links to artworks, but never really interacted with them.

Interaction on social networking sites is another area of potential problems.  The forum provided on such sites can often serve to magnify the tendencies already present when in a group.  Pawn, believe it or not, was a class clown in his youth.  One standout characteristic of a class clown is the tendency to speak first and consider later.  This is bad enough in real life, where the words one utters are heard by a room full of people.  Put it on the Internet, and the potential for regret or embarrassment multiplies.  This is further compounded where one cannot remove, un-say or delete ones utterances.  Just such a situation developed for me in the recent past.

In making what was intended to be a witty, sarcastic comment to an acquaintance’s post, instead I managed to offend them.  My bungled wit came across, even to my own eyes, as mean and rude — and ill considered.  There being no way to retract the comment, no way to unring that bell, it instead hung in the air.  There are examples galore of ill considered public utterances abounding on the Internet, from sites like Overheard in New York to Texts From Last Night, and new terms in the public lexicon, such as Drunk Dialing and TMI.  In the cyber world, when you screw up, it is never just a room full of people who know, or may know.

So, what happened in this situation?  The offended party “unfriended” me, a term which has no real world equivalent.  Perhaps that’s because in the real world when we no longer wish to associate with someone we simply stop doing so.  Now, true enough, anyone who has been stalked can tell you that it is not necessarily so simple (this I know), but by and large if we no longer wish to know what so-and-so is up to, we stop asking, calling, visiting, etc. and our spheres of experience will disengage.  Not so on-line, where we must actively sever the link.  What can be accomplished passively in-life requires active intervention in on-line.

In the world of Facebook, such an action is silent.  It is not like calling someone up and sayng “We’re not friends anymore!” but rather you click a button and that person silently and without their direct knowledge is no longer your friend.  They may never know that this has happened, until they try to reach out to you and find you no longer in their list.  Or they go to a, formerly, mutual friend’s page and see you appear not in the list of mutual friends, but in the list of all friends.  This quiet rebuff is all that is needed to lower the boom of disapproval.

That is how I found that I had been unfriended, and it brought home to me just how absurdly this new media (for that is what it is, ultimately, is media) has wound itself into our lives in ways that are as destructive as they are constructive.  I was temporarily crushed to see that I had lost a friend, yes, but then reflected on the fact that I have only ever met this person a few times, have no history with them, and only really knew them on-line.  The lingering feeling, however, is the shame I felt at my embarrassing comment.  Much like that I still feel for a bad joke told too loudly at a public event over twenty years ago.

But more, I had allowed my interactions with this new media become so central to how I interacted with people I truly do know, love and relate to in-life and not just on-line.  I recognize my peevishness when someone wouldn’t react on-line to things I had posted, or when they failed to keep up their on-line counterpoint to their in-life reality.  And I realized that it was just too easy to pretend that since I was present in my friends lives on-line that I was present in-life, when, in fact, I was absent there.

Thanksgiving is in two days time, and soon after I will begin to make and send my holiday greeting cards.  This, too, is an act of make-believe social interaction, this annual ritual of pretending that we are still connected to all of our aunts and uncles, old schoolmates and neighbors.  I long ago switched to printing out address labels rather than hand addressing, but I still take the time to scrawl a line or two into each card, lending an air of authenticity to this otherwise artificial intercourse.  I will make an effort, this year, to be more present in that process, to be more personal in those wishes, to be more thoughtful as I lick those stamps.

Will I ever return to Facebook?  For now I cannot say.  Every year I make my own Christmas cards, using images I compose or photograph or cull from family archives.  I post those on Facebook, as well.  I am not sure I’ll update it this year.  We’ll see.

Me and D – A Work In Progress

Harvest moon

Harvest moon

The maps of our childhood are the maps we most easily forget, or so it seems to me, looking back.

When I was a kid I ran through the gulleys and ravines of Lake Park as though it were my own back yard, which it very nearly was. My best friend D and I knew those woods like the backs of our hands and we spent almost every afternoon there after school. My home was five blocks from the park, D’s was two. The amount of trouble that two young boys could get into in that park, without their parents ever knowing, was manifest.

A full moon in October, a Hunter’s Moon, meant forts made from great mounds of fallen leaves, reinforced with strategically placed tree limbs. While our friends might be attending Hallow e’en parties to which we were not invited, we were busy devising new strategies for conquering the world, or defending our Emperor’s hold upon it.

My father raised rose bushes, right at the front of our yard, hard up by the sidewalk. In autumn the leaves from the mountain ash in the yard, along with those from the silver maple on the verge, piled high behind the windbreak that the rose bushes provided. Behind that natural Maginot line we would build our forts, year after year. They were durable affairs, reinforced with fallen branches and cardboard boxes from Diet-Rite Cola or Friskies Cat Food or what have you. We would lay in repose with our clakety-clack toy rifles and Cub Scout canteens, ready for whichever invaders may try to lay waste to our hamlet.

One year D pilfered a pair of walkie-talkies from his older brother, Dan. We talked to each other in our fort as though we were but part of legion. The rest of the platoon were just around the corner, ready to aid us at a moment’s notice. We were both pacifists, I’ll have you know, but we were too young to realize that that meant we weren’t supposed to wield weapons. You know how confused things can be at that age.

I was still trying to sort out my feelings about Alfreda Leiderböhm kissing me at Carrie’s Hallow e’en party when D and I were torn apart by the exigencies of school and family and life. As an adult I have seen films about the Nazi era in France in which families are torn asunder and they never fail to make me think of how my leaving Mr. C’s 8th grade classroom ultimately spelled the fatal turning point in D and my relationship. I went through high school in the next 3 years, while D slogged along, according to plan, and graduated high school about the same time I was dropping out of college.

Life was so simple back then. It may be a prosaic pronouncement, but it is also quite true that the world we face as 13 year old boys is nothing compared to what we will face the next time we have a chance to assess our self worth and place in the world, which may not come around until we’re 21 or 35. My epiphany came at 13, when my father passed away. D’s father took me under his wing and tried to fill a gaping hole in my life (something I didn’t realize for years) while, simultaneously, D’s parent’s marriage was falling apart.

When D ran away from home, a couple of years later, I didn’t really understand his complaint. He had two parents, after all, and they seemed nice enough to me. I lost a father to death and a mother to perpetual mourning, so what, exactly, was his beef?

Neglect, that was his beef. I only understand that now, with a wealth of history behind me.

Walk in the moonlight across empty roofs
Relish the moonlight’s embrace
sing the song of the sun to his face
fall down the drainpipe to the road
trip on the gutter
do as you’re told

Dance in the midnight, waltz in the dark
while others lay sleeping, serenade the park
have a mad affair, a tawdry rendezvous
long after twilight, a real lark
sing your song
mouth your words
pass silently abroad

We didn’t ever have words like those. We wrote, though, thoughtless little boy larks of prose which we would submit to our teachers as joint works of fiction. In fifth grade that was enough to win over our teacher. She could care less that we collaborated on our work, that she got only half as much work as we were supposed to turn in – it was of such high quality, and consistently so – that she graded us as though we had turned in two full, long assignments.