In his contribution to our Year in Reading series last year, Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, began, “Prompted by a writing assignment, I’ve been re-reading the novels and stories of Saul Bellow for the first time in years – and I’m completely smitten all over again, only more deeply.” I was curious to know what that assignment was, but my digging at the time turned nothing up. Now, however, I have an answer. The new edition, coming in November, of Bellow’s 1997 novella The Actual will include an introduction by O’Neill.
We got back late last night from Los Angeles (where we had attended the wedding of two great friends), and are now wading through stacks of boxes in our still freshly moved into apartment in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, it turns out that when you go on vacation two days after moving, you don’t return to find all of your things miraculously unpacked and where you want them to be.However, after a few days of catch up (and thanks to the resourcefulness of Mrs. Millions) we should eventually approach normalcy. As for the digital realm, I still have many emails to respond to and my Bloglines “unread items” number in the thousands, but regular posting will ramp up again here over the next couple of days.In the meantime, I noticed that Philadelphia announced its 2007 One Book, One City selection this week Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, a National Book Award winning memoir. It tells the tale of Eire’s boyhood uprooting from Cuba and the subsequent “rootlessness” of his life in the United States. The selection puts the focus on our country’s immigration issues, though the question of Cuba has been less “hot button” of late. I, for one, prefer to “One Book” programs select fiction as I think there is something more special about a whole city reading a novel together. And anyway (though I read as much non-fiction as fiction), fiction is more in need of support from our public institutions. However, some consolation can be found in the fact that Waiting for Snow in Havana is literary and not just topical.
In August, Atul Gawande published an article in The New Yorker on end of life care which referenced a 2008 study by the Coping with Cancer project that attempted to assess how the manner in which a person dies affects the mental health of the family and friends who watch him go. The study found that the survivors of cancer patients whose last days were spent in mechanized intensive care units tended to suffer post-mortem depression three times more often than the survivors of terminal patients whose last days had been spent at home under hospice care. The implication was that holding on for too long, and in the wrong ways, can disrupt the natural rhythms of grieving.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how this framework—the idea that there are better and worse ways to let someone go—might be applied to the Facebook era of human relations, in which friendships don’t really end so much as they attenuate into superficial voyeurism and token gestures. This past February, for example, I received good wishes (prompted of course by an auto-generated reminder) on my birthday from elementary school acquaintances who I had not spoken with in nearly twenty years (and I’m only 29!). Jake F., who I played Little League with but have not seen since, was one of them: “Hope it’s a good one!” he wrote on my wall.
On a gut level, I couldn’t figure out what to make of this. Was I supposed to feel happy to hear from long lost Jake? Was I supposed to write back “thanks” as though it were completely natural to be wished a happy birthday by a person whose existence is barely more real to me than a character’s in a novel? There seemed to be no categories or schema in the evolutionarily designed layout of my brain to process an encounter that bore qualities in common with a person coming back from the dead.
This feeling of interpersonal vertigo was particularly acute a few months ago when an item in my newsfeed announced that Josh W. was engaged. Josh and I had become friends in the first half of the George W. Bush era, during a year in which we taught sixth grade together in New York City. We were the same age and both liked to play basketball and by Columbus Day we were spending a lot of time together. I’d hang out in his classroom in the mornings before the kids arrived and after school we’d sometimes go play pool and drink Budweiser at an Irish bar located improbably in the midst of what by then had become a Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we never tired of talking about the students we had in common.
When that school year ended, I left teaching and New York to travel. While I was abroad, and then afterwards when I settled in Philadelphia, Josh and I kept in touch over email and occasional phone calls, and a couple times when I was back in New York I looked him up. Those encounters dwindled, though. I was sad when we began to lose touch and I missed the feeling that I associated with the easy period in my life when Josh and I had become friends. But at the same time I was all right with the idea that we weren’t going to be important parts of each other’s lives going forward. Our friendship was tied to a place and a time that had passed and it didn’t diminish how much the friendship had meant to me (or to Josh either, I hope), that we wouldn’t be calling each other up when we were 60 to shoot the shit.
But then there I was, some years after we’d last talked, staring at my computer screen and the news that Josh was going to be getting married. I saw that a few dozen people “Liked” the announcement and I clicked the thumbs-up icon, but immediately I felt a little ill, like I’d just cheapened the memory of our friendship somehow. I thought about adding a small note—”Congratulations” or “So excited to hear the news!!”—but that seemed off, too.
I could have called Josh, or written him a personal email, but I didn’t, although maybe I should have. We all trail a line of relationships behind us as we grow older, and we all have our own standards that define when and how we let go of people who were once important in our lives (and when and how we accept being let go of ourselves). I could see why it might be rewarding or interesting or comforting to know that with Facebook you never really need to put a friendship to rest completely. But to me it’s comforting and disorienting in the way of ventilators and feeding tubes that sustain a narrow definition of life long after the real thing has run its course.
Writing at home can be distracting and discouraging. It’s hard to concentrate when surrounded by all your stuff. There’s TV to watch, chores to do, people to call on the phone, a dog to walk. Days can go by without a word ever being put on the page. So writers seek refuge outside their homes to write in more conducive settings, a local coffee shop or University library, for example. Writers of a certain stature might attend a writers’ colony hoping for a stretch of forced productivity, while others will fashion their own writers’ colonies by secluding themselves in a rented office to toil away.With this in mind, two enterprising former MFAs in New York City, noting the need so many writers have for a place to write, have created Paragraph Workspace for Writers. As they describe it:Paragraph is a membership organization dedicated to providing an affordable and tranquil working environment for writers of all genres. We are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.Paragraph was created by writers for writers, with an understanding that writers work best in a quiet, comfortable space away from the hurry and obligation of urban life.For between $80 and $132 a month (depending on length of commitment and level of access) writers can use the space – a decked out 3rd floor apartment on 14th Street – as their own little writing venue. The online application for membership includes space for references, presumably to weed out the crazies. I can think of a few other reasons why this may not work – the more members the group gets, the less worthwhile the space becomes for each individual member; there are hundreds of places in New York that provide the same environment (though perhaps not the 24 hour access), starting with libraries; a writer in need of such a space is not likely to have the disposable income to spend on it – but who knows, maybe it’ll work.
Ed hones in on a favorite excuse that wannabe writers use to explain why they don’t have an agent or aren’t getting published:The point of all this is that if you’re a writer clinging to the stubborn notion that someone is out there to “steal” your work, and if you are letting this get in the way of writing, submitting, or pitching, then I ask you for the good of humanity to step out of the way.Like Ed, I have encountered a number of writers (and a couple of musicians) who insist that they would be published and even famous were it not for concerns that the moment they let anyone see or hear their work it would be snapped up by a greedy opportunist. As Ed rightfully illuminates, this is almost always a stock excuse to cover up a lack of motivation, confidence, or even the fact that their work doesn’t yet exist.
Ed Rants and his Return of the Reluctant blog – a favorite of mine – is down because, in his efforts to publicize the wrongdoings of some racist local DJs, his site was bombarded by visitors looking for the attendant mp3s of the offending DJs. It appears as though some uncharitable linking by the India Times used up all his bandwidth and then some. Here’s hoping that Ed can get things up and running some time soon.