Reader, I Muted Him: The Narrative Possibilities of Networked Life

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At the Edinburgh Festival in 2001, Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff grew so frustrated by the interruptions of cellphones and coughing that he left the stage, suggesting the audience use the break to finish making noise. A reviewer for called it, “Fantasia in C Minor with mobile phone, beeping watches and coughing and sneezing accompaniment,” which sounds like an enjoyable evening of John Cage but not, apparently, what Schiff intended.

A decade later in Presov, Slovakia, a solo viola performance by Lukas Kmit was interrupted by the ubiquitous Nokia ringtone. Kmit paused, casting a frustrated eye on the audience — toward the guilty party, presumably, who isn’t visible in this viral video of the event. But rather than stop his performance or abandon the stage, he played the ringtone back on his instrument, adding an improvisational touch and incorporating the moment into his concert in a spontaneous acknowledgement — despite the frustration and rudeness — of the human nature of live performance. The disruption of art became art.

Which isn’t to suggest Schiff was wrong to get angry. Neither were the players and listeners at a 2012 New York Philharmonic concert brought to a halt by an iPhone’s marimba ringtone, or any number of similar interruptions of music, theater, public speaking, and (I can attest) teaching in recent years. Such interruptions are by now a fact of public life, regrettable as that may be, just as the industrial and mechanized sounds of George Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique” — so shocking in 1926 that they sparked a riot among concertgoers — have faded into the background of our aural lives.

Because when wild birds, usually part of that background sound themselves, take to singing our ringtones back to us, what chance do even the most austere of classical musicians have to resist? We become like the lyrebird faithfully mimicking not only phones and car alarms but the sound of chainsaws felling the very trees where it lives. It’s hard not to hear cultural ruin, melodramatic as that may be, in every interrupting chirp and chime of a phone receiving a text or a call or blasting a video through its speakers on a packed subway train. The citizen in me, greedy for chances at quiet reflection and, frankly, to be left in peace from unwelcome noises, shudders and laments.

But the artist in me, the writer, asks a more probing question, if not necessarily more optimistic: what might I do with all this? Because whether we lament the disruption or not, Kmit’s incorporation of the ringtone into his concert acknowledges that art is made in the world as we find it, not the world as we wish it was.

Authors of literary fiction often seem to take pride in their avoidance of networked tools from cell phones to Wikipedia. In 2009, under the headline “If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone,” The New York Times shared examples of what author Matt Richtel called, “a brewing antagonism toward today’s communication gadgets,” i.e., writers lamenting the inconvenience of cell phones and other tools rendering moot (and mute) any number of familiar, time-worn storytelling devices from getting lost to missing a romantic connection. Two years later, Ann Patchett told The Washington Post,
And I just don’t know how to write a novel in which the characters can get in touch with all the other characters at any moment. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.
As Patchett acknowledges, it takes work — contrivances and contortions — to write fiction that presents itself as contemporary but avoids the inclusion of contemporary devices. Consider how long you might be able to walk down a street without spotting a smartphone, versus how many pages of characters existing in public you might be able read without seeing one mentioned. The avoidance of cell phones, in particular, gives rise to its own set of clichés, already as familiar and, perhaps, already as frayed as the ill-fated timing and last minute arrivals of older stories. And, the more we expect to always have a signal, the harder it is to conceive a convincing situation in which a character does not, as a popular supercut of horror film moments makes clear.

In literary fiction, the more popular solution seems to be relying on settings close to the present, but far enough back to avoid such inconvenience. Granted, the popularity of the 1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s as settings also owes plenty to generational shifts in literary production as people write about formative periods and the years they remember. But it also avoids any number of narrative problems and allows writers to go on telling stories in the way they are used to, rather than incorporating the present in ways that are difficult and disruptive. When I recently wondered on Twitter — one of those very disruptions — if we’ve reached the point of needing a term for this kind of setting, author Jared Yates Sexton suggested “the nostalgic present.” And while it’s easy enough to incorporate mention of that into this essay, where might a tweet fit into a novel? As dialogue, formatted like any other character’s utterance? Or embedded with timestamp and retweet count and all? What happens when our characters spend half their novel on Twitter, as so many of us spend our workdays? It’s a hard question, but not one that gets answered when writers aspire to be more like Andras Schiff than Lukas Kmit.

I don’t mean to praise disruption or dismiss the challenges of networked life, and I wouldn’t take a proscriptive stand on “what fiction should do.” I am not, frankly, an enthusiast of cell phones or even landlines, which I have been known to unplug for days at a time, to the annoyance of housemates. I find it ever more disorienting, though, to read novels set in this “nostalgic present,” ambiguously atemporal as if they could take place any time between the 1950s and early-1990s. Or, more disorienting still, set very clearly in the present but without its technological trappings. These avoidances make the art seem less vital, less able to speak to the present, and like a choice more concerned with making things easy on writers than with offering something to readers. I’ve had some surprisingly heated arguments with other writers, making me an unintentional champion of cell phones and search engines in fiction, but what it comes down to is that I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new possibilities. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters. Not the simple inclusion of emails and other “found texts” in a novel, nor casual mentions of characters owning phones and computers, but scenes in which these technologies allow writers to show something distinctly now, for better or worse, as unexpected yet instantly familiar as a ringtone played on a viola or sung by a bird.

In their article “If Romeo and Juliet Had Mobile Phones,” Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie explore not only how William Shakespeare’s young lovers would see their play’s plot devices undone by cell phones, but also how the presence of such devices would necessarily alter the characters and their world psychologically, socially, and romantically to create not a “failed” version of the story as we know it but a new story with its own possibilities. The original story would be made impossible not by the inconvenience of Romeo texting Juliet to let her know he’s only asleep, but because the ubiquity of networks would make everything different from their sense of public versus private space, the possibility for unsupervised conversation, and their identities hinging on broader social networks than only their families. That’s what undermines so much fiction set in the “nostalgic present,” an unsettling, uncanny valley-esque sense that apart from pretending cell phones don’t exist, the story is set in our time. Because the authors are writing from a networked world and seeing life through that lens whether they allow it to their characters or not. So why not embrace it? Why not make it matter, because it already does however much we doth protest?

It’s not as if cell phones and networks get rid of the loneliness and misunderstanding upon which so much fiction depends. The Pew Research Center’s report “Social Isolation and the New Technology” demonstrates that handily enough, and as Wellman and Rainie put it in their book Networked, we’re experiencing “the weakening — but not the death — of distance.” As long as there’s distance between people and places, between intention and action and understanding, there’s plenty of room to tell stories.

And not only in simple ways like rethinking plot twists, so that instead of arriving too late to spot one another, our characters arrive on time but neither looks up from their phone to notice the other. Or someone pretends to be someone else via text message or email, or steals an identity leading to a chain of dramatic events. A character might miss crucial information because she is distracted from listening to someone in front of her, physically, while more engrossed in what a second disembodied person is telling her on a screen in her hand. Or hears noises in the background while on the phone with his wife, and paranoia sets in about who she was with and to what end. Plot twists are hardly ruined by technology, merely changed, because those mechanical problems are easily solved; it’s the other possibilities that prove more interesting.

For instance, in his novel Running Away (translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith), Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s narrator is aboard a night train in China. While he rides, he talks on the phone to his partner, Marie, back in Paris on a daylight visit to the Louvre. The narrator experiences and describes his own present vividly, while also imagining or reconstructing Marie’s movement through the museum, all of which is entwined in important personal news she is sharing. It’s a scene remarked on and discussed by a number of critics, and by the author himself on KCRW’s Bookworm, because in the collapse of time, space, and physical but not, crucially, emotional distance, the moment demonstrates the potential for loneliness and separation to be deepened rather than assuaged by our devices. It is a kind of contradictory distance possible only in the present, when we have the expectation of always being in touch, but as in Jacques Lacan’s mirror, we are troubled by not touching or being touched as our full selves.

We’re also able — and our characters, too — to remain “in touch” with people no longer accessible to us. There’s a particular sadness to annual Facebook reminders of the birthday of a friend (or Friend, perhaps one we’ve never actually met and years ago accepted an anonymous request from out of an unclear sense of online politeness or blasé unwillingness to rock the social networking boat) after that person has passed away. How long do we leave them among our Friends? Do we reply with birthday wishes and memories? More awkwardly, but with so much potential for fiction, do we respond to their automated natal reminder without realizing they’re dead, as someone inevitably does on Facebook?

In Johanna Sinisalo’s novel The Blood of Angels, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers, a grieving father reads the blog of his recently dead activist son, seeing the vitriol directed at him for his politics from anonymous strangers. This isn’t the spark for a revenge story, though it could be (and has been, somewhat, in Will Ferguson’s novel 419). It’s more akin to what remains the saddest, loneliest passage I’ve ever read, a moment in Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific when the author, adrift among distant islands, dreams of one of his children writing,
Long after he died — for weeks, for months — we kept receiving postcards from Dad, because he had traveled so far and to such small and insignificant places.
It’s all the more heartbreaking now that I’m a father myself, as I wasn’t 20 years ago at first reading. And Sinisalo’s grieving father is heartbreaking, too, because not only is he reading these post-mortem political missives from his lost child, but is seeing a conversation continue around them knowing his son can’t respond despite the blog format anticipating that response inherently — to look at a blog entry is to expect another, or to be curious, perhaps pessimistically saddened, by the long time passed since the last post. Grief, of course, is familiar, and so is loss. But there’s something distinctly modern about a loss that refuses to be made final thanks to our digital ghosts.

It’s those moments, the ones that could only happen now in a networked era, that I’m most interested in as a reader and writer. And my favorite of these, a passage that sings to me as impossible to write in the past, even a few years ago, comes from Mohsin Hamid’s novel How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia
On the outskirts of the city over which this drone is today validating its performance parameters, a crowd is gathering at a graveyard. Two vehicles stand out among those parked nearby. One is a van, emblazoned with the name and phone number of a commercial spray painter, possibly even belonging to the deceased, for it is being used as a hearse to transport his white-shrouded body. The other is a luxury automobile from which emerges a pale of male figures in suits, a man in his sixties and a slender, teenage boy, perhaps his grandson. These two are conspicuously well dressed, contrasting with most of the other mourners, yet they must be closely related to the fellow who has died, since they lend their shoulders to the task of bearing his corpse to the fresh-dug pit. The elder of them now commences to sob, his torso flexing spasmodically, as though wracked by a series of coughs. He looks up to the heavens.

The drone circles a few times, its high-powered eye unblinking, and flies observantly on.
It isn’t just the novelty of the drone’s-eye view, of which this may be the first instance in literature (and if it isn’t, I’d love to know about others). It’s the juxtaposition of a deeply human moment — perhaps the most human, a funeral — with a deeply inhuman, or at least disembodied, observer. We readers only witness this moment because of a drone passing over and presumably that happens by chance as there’s no reason this particular funeral might be a priority target. And yet, who knows, because the mere presence of a drone suggests we are all possible targets, all the time, and that even in our most intimate, emotional moments of grief and loss, our experiences are consumed by and bound up in global networks of technology and power. The drone is unblinking, it flies on unaffected, but we who gaze through its eye hang onto the image of life even after whatever agency operates the craft might reject the funeral as useless data, and delete it make room for another day’s record. It’s a god’s-eye view without any god, only the eye of some pilot many miles away, implicating the reader and the states and systems we are willing or willfully blinded participants in.

I want to discover such moments more often in fiction as a reader and, if I’m able, as a writer. Not to deny the frustrations of cell phones, or because I’m any less anxious about surveillance and corporatization and the commodification of social life. Those things terrify me, obsessively so, but they also fascinate me, and as an artist I want to engage them rather than pretend they aren’t part of how we live now and — it’s hard to imagine otherwise — how we will live the rest of our lives. Pretending otherwise in our stories will only make them appear ossified and exacerbate complaints that literature has nothing left for today’s readers, never mind tomorrow’s who might someday ask how we made sense of ourselves.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

An Eye to the Edges: On Other Stories


On a recent afternoon I rode home from the subway station on a local bus as I do every workday. Looking up from my book for a moment as we passed the high school, I spotted a very old man on a very small bike — child-sized, smaller than my seven year old’s. His knees stuck out like pinched wings and the tallest point of the frame rose hardly as high as his thighs. He rode slowly and I doubt he had any choice, with the tiny bike wobbling and his own wiry frame swaying above it as he pumped himself up the steep hill of the sidewalk in the darkening winter light of near-dusk.

He was only in sight for a couple of seconds, just long enough for the bus to slide by, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever see him again or if I do, around town, I doubt he’ll again be on that bike in that spot in that particular gray cast of weather and time. I might spot him somewhere else and not know it, without that whole scene to recognize him by. It was a perfect moment, though: a whole story captured and crystallized in one glimpse, piquing my curiosity about who he could be and what brought him to being a grown man on a child’s bike in the center of town on that particular day. Was he headed to the bank, or the library, or bar? Had he fixed the bike for a grandchild and gone out to test the repair before giving it back, or was he simply taking a ride on a bike of his own?

It’s the stuff of fiction, the lives we glimpse in peripheries of our own, whether those we observe in mysterious passing or those we pull from thin air. But when we pull those lives to the center to tell their stories, what do we put in their place? Too often it seems to be nothing, making so much of the fiction I read feel claustrophobic with no sense of other lives mattering at the edges and no impression of a world deeper and wider than those parts inhabited by the central characters we’re asked to attend to. Fiction can show us an individual, idiosyncratic mind, or at least the semblance of one in the tangled, rambling, multivocal chaos of our own thoughts in lieu of the tidier, deliberate narratives we’d like to imagine our intentions and actions to be. Outside ourselves, though, there are so many others going about actions and intentions and baffling, beautiful lives of their own, riding tiny bicycles uphill and yelling hilarious non-sequiturs of half-conversation into their phones on the bus and — because those others aren’t always human — chasing each other in circles as three squirrels are doing outside my window just now. Perhaps none of those amount to much narrative potential apart from being cast as metaphors in the shadow of a more dominant plot, but I want to be reminded of those active edges when I read stories.

Or watch them, because I can’t help wondering in every action movie: what happens to the anonymous drivers whose cars smash together when the hero and villain race through in a destructive chase? Or the broken neighborhoods left behind after the hero and villain throw bombs or fireballs or whatever their weapons of choice. We never linger long enough with our camera eye to see those collateral damages tallied; we never see those drivers and their passengers — their children, their pets, their spilled cups of coffee and broken bones — emerge from crashed cars. We never learn if their insurance covers the damage and injury, or if they lose jobs and opportunities and miss weddings of favorite nieces after the crash makes them late to wherever they’re headed. It would be hard to suspend disbelief well enough to enjoy the car chasing action at all if we were reminded so many lives had been wrecked along with the anonymous vehicles. Those films wouldn’t work if we had to consider the people who clean up the mess and live with the consequences and loss in the background of the more dramatic scenes we’re meant to focus on exclusively, never mind the quagmires of denied insurance claims and downward spirals of ongoing misery the action might cause. But there’s a lot of life at those edges, too much to be simply erased by the speed with which our hero’s car races away.

I can’t say I’m a fan of Austin Powers, but that film includes two of my favorite moments in cinema. Almost includes, I suppose, because both were cut from the U.S. release and only offered as deleted scenes on the DVD. Each of them follows the violent death of one of Dr. Evil’s henchmen, the first crushed by a steamroller and the second “decapitated by an ill-tempered mutated sea bass.” Each scene shows the bad news being broken to his family or friends, revealing the wider networks those marginal characters exist in and that they were individuals rather than abstract scraps of collateral damage. The scenes are played for humor, of course, because it’s that kind of movie. But they’re inherently, unavoidably sad (maybe that’s why they were cut?) and pull the rug out from under the genre’s conceits. Or, to be more accurate, the genre being parodied, because imagine how much less enjoyable and escapist James Bond or Jason Bourne’s exploits would be if we had to think about the trail of garage and hospital and funeral bills behind them.

That kind of attention to the edges, a disruptive attention that makes the periphery no longer peripheral at all but powerfully central, is one of the qualities that puts J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence among the best novels I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. In far more earnest and poetic fashion than Austin Powers, Ledgard takes seriously all the lives in his novel, from the ostensible protagonists — a would-be couple separated by distance and circumstance — to terrorist kidnappers to deep ocean microbes. The microbes matter no less to the novel and no less to the reader (at least to this reader) than the humans do. That’s not because the human lives are devalued but because Submergence keeps us mindful of the long view of time and the broad view of life. The novel leads us to ask why we are so focused on the “love story,” or on the suffering of one or two short-lived humans, when there are millions of other living things in the world, many of which are suffering and surviving in their own ways, all of which are as deeply fascinating and rich and worthy of our attention as human politics and romance. I’ve seen Ledgard refer to his desire to write what he calls “planetary fiction,” an intention I feel most keenly in that sense of time and scale and of treating all life as significant whether at the anthropocentric center of our expectations or on the more complex margins of the story he seems to be telling.

I hoped to bring a similar kind of attention to my own novel Fram, by acknowledging the lives and stories that fall by the wayside of stereotypically macho, action-oriented genres like spy thrillers and Arctic explorers’ accounts. What’s going on elsewhere to make those exciting quests possible? What are we not being given as readers in order to keep us turning pages? Real polar explorers were supported by their partners in any number of ways, as Kari Herbert writes of in Polar Wives: The Remarkable Women behind the World’s Most Daring Explorers, either in person or from a distance. But the lives of those women were no more defined by absent men than their husbands’ were defined by pure rugged individual toil despite the presence of support staff. Those women existed — and this is so obvious it hardly bears saying — entirely in their own right, as did everyone else who allowed those explorers to be “self-made men,” the Matthew Hensons of history. Not locked away for years at a time awaiting their returning conquerors in passivity, but busy being alive. As entrenched in their own stories as the families of Dr. Evil’s henchmen or J.M. Ledgard’s microbes.

As were the indigenous locals explorers employed or exploited to steer them across the ice, or in the case of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North to play the role of “noble savage” for southern audiences unlikely to ask who “Nanook” really was as he comically gnawed on a phonograph record, an iconic scene I’ve inserted into my own story in reconstituted form. Not to replace one voice or view with another but to remember, always, that there are more stories than we can tell at one time or fit onto one page. We’re always going to leave some untold or unsatisfying as we rush past them in the pursuit of narrative tension and fulfilling plots and rapid page-turning. The least we can do is to keep a reader aware other stories aren’t being told as a consequence of the one we’ve chosen to focus on and how we’ve chosen to tell it. That a desire for action and excitement, and the tidiness that serves them so well, often results in overlooking the extended outcomes of stories for the sake of narrative satisfaction. An erasure, perhaps, that flows off the page into culture at large.

It’s frustrating sometimes, for many of us, to be reminded of the stories that matter apart from our own and that we might be complicit in pushing them out to the margins. Anyone who has followed news of Ferguson and #GamerGate and so many other painful public narratives in recent months already knows how difficult those conversations can be. But so what? The difficulty is our sign it matters and that we need to get better at it. Considering the stories we tell and how we tell them is one place to start, even if it frustrates readers or even distracts them, and perhaps there are ways for us to write that make such frustration and distraction meaningful. “Planetary fiction,” as Ledgard calls it, but we might also call it humane and attentive. We might call it mindful.

There are novels like Wide Sargasso Sea and Wicked and Mary Reilly that retell stories we know from new angles, and there are whole worlds of fanfiction letting new voices speak, as Anne Jamison’s recent book Fic demonstrates so well. But it’s the voices that speak from the edges of even those stories that interest me most, the further possibilities even retellings create, and the ways our attention might always be split between the story we’re being offered and awareness of those we are directed away from by the necessity of moving ahead. It’s not that we are somehow required to tell every possible story — though perhaps, at its best, social media is getting us closer in its banal, beautiful way — or to tell stories other than the ones we’re personally, mysteriously drawn to tell. But maybe doing better at reminding our readers and viewers there are other stories that might be told instead will encourage more people to tell them, to move the edges into the center, and encourage those in positions of influence to offer a platform without dismissing them as stories “nobody wants” while leading others still to listen to them with more attention.

Image Credit: Flickr/Dyrk.Wyst.

Monster Mashups: The Recurring Horror of Mary Poppins

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I don’t recall actually seeing Mary Poppins as a child, but I was aware of the film somehow because for a period of time (perhaps as short as a few concurrent nights, grown through the expansive memory of childhood into years) I suffered a recurring nightmare featuring that nanny extraordinaire. It always began as an ordinary dream, about baseball or swimming or driving the General Lee or whatever it was I dreamed of in those days. But at some point Mary Poppins would fly overhead on her umbrella, look toward the “camera” of the dream to deliver a cackle, then fly off, turning whatever pleasant fantasy I’d been having into terrifying chaos. Everything in the dreamworld became darker; trees died, I got lost and left behind in a grim landscape, and I fell victim to all sorts of other horrible things I’ve managed, thankfully, not to remember so clearly.

I regularly told this story to my students on the first day of a cultural studies seminar on monsters I taught for several years, because beyond the instant class bonding that came, at my expense, from laughing at such a peculiar neurosis, my history with Mary Poppins illustrates something about the power of monsters. We are all familiar with the bogey man in our closets and the clawed creatures under our beds, waiting for us to set a bare foot on the floor or to fall asleep without a night light left on for protection. My somnambulant rendition of Mary Poppins creeps from the same fissures in supposedly shared meaning that make Santa Claus terrifying to some children while beloved by others, or allows the clown to be both a figure of fun and of fright. There is, I suppose, no reliable way of predicting the things that will scare us. It was just my dumb luck that a kind-hearted and magical nanny, of all possible monsters, was the one to work her way up through the cracks in my childhood mind.

Imagine my surprise and horror, then, upon viewing for the first time Chris Rule’s “Scary Mary Poppins” mashup.

The video features an eerie, horror movie-style soundtrack with scenes from Mary Poppins recombined to create a trailer for the story of a creepy, wicked woman flying around London on an umbrella, emerging from a dark and gloomy skyline to terrorize small children. In other words, it’s my own childhood fear made larger than life, first in the diminutive window of YouTube’s viewer and later on the classroom screens where I showed it. It’s the secrets of my psyche uncovered and shown to the world in all their absurdity, turning my personal and previously private misinterpretation of a children’s film into a public spectacle, as if Rule had reached into my mind and pulled his video out. It’s easy to see how such a hybrid, piratical medium as the mashup insists on the “death of the author,” but in this case it also risked the death of the viewer from fright.

The intent of Rule’s video may not be to actually frighten instead of amuse, or to do more than demonstrate how recutting footage — like interrupting a dream — can alter its meaning or mood. To turn a cheerful children’s classic into horror is comically ironic, and for those already familiar with both the tropes of movie trailers and the story of Mary Poppins (likely a majority of American moviegoers), it probably is more funny than frightening. Even for me, reminded as I was of genuine childhood terrors long ago left behind, that comic irony wasn’t lost. What makes my nanny-fear so hilarious and humiliating is its absurdity, because I know Mary Poppins should be comforting, not frightening. I used it as an example in class for that reason, to demonstrate that monsters come from many places: from high and low culture, from shared cultural anxieties, from racial, sexual, and economic constructions of the Other, and — in my case — from some unidentifiable and ridiculous corner of the mind that perhaps, as Ebenezer Scrooge explains his own unwelcome ghosts, has eaten a bad jot of mustard.

Rule’s mashup is more than ironic humor, however, and it is more than the coincidental depiction of personal fears that gives power to this relatively new — at least in its ease of production — form of expression. After seeing King Kong in 1934, Jean Levy recalled his childhood fears of ape-men appearing at his windows, a fear he and I shared, though for me it came in the form of King Kong lifting Darth Vader to my third floor window so the evil Jedi (this was early in the series, before we knew Darth Vader’s depths) could come in and “get me.” Of his own pithecophobia Levy writes,

I saw again trait by trait a remarkable detail of my familiar nightmares, with the anguish and the atrocious malaise which accompanies it. A spectator, not very reassured, would like to leave, but one makes him ashamed of his pusillanimity and he sits down again. This spectator, it’s myself; one hundred times, in my dream.

Levy’s “familiar nightmare” was born in the subconscious social, sexual, and racial anxieties that made the giant ape Kong so potent and so sublimely terrifying, which is to say the film succeeded because it showed its audience something they were, all of them, simultaneously terrified of in a graspable, metaphorical, menacing form. It’s telling that we have a word for “fear of apes” — pithecophobia — but no word for “fear of nannies.”

The collective unconscious, or at least our shared fears and fantasies, has always been the lifeblood of cinema: audiences need to share a reaction to make the film and the experience of seeing it work. And, more pragmatically, to make such an expensive undertaking as film worth financing and troubling over at all. “Scary Mary Poppins” is something different, a low-budget, low-stakes (and likely low-profit) exercise in new media. Distributed online, produced with affordable, accessible software and tools, the mashup does not need to make its appeal as universal as a blockbuster does. In this short, public embodiment of my childhood nightmare lies all the possibility of the Web for transformative, responsive, and reflexive creative work: the potential for every viewer to be frightened in his or her own private way even if each must cut their own version of every film.

Certainly cinema (and literature, and visual art, and so on) have always been subject to individual responses and interpretations. And authors of fan fiction have long made characters and stories their own, writing in the interstices and silences, whether to critical acclaim like that found by John Gardner’s Grendel and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or to local accolades only in the archives of But there is something in the monster story, all monster stories, that makes it particularly appropriate and, in fact, vital for such reimaginings to occur again and again. They are intended to frighten, and require flexibility if they are to retain their power to do so across temporal and cultural difference, so monster stories, cinematic and otherwise, are ripe for remakes upon remakes, for an apparently endless stream of classics reproduced every year as dozens of new renditions of familiar archetypes appear on screens large and small, and on pages where Elizabeth Bennet battles the undead after centuries not troubling herself about zombies.

As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in the essay (from Monster Theory) that was the first assigned reading of my seminar,

No monster tastes of death but once. The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns. And so the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift.

The monsters are always among us, because no matter how tightly we shore up the windows and nail shut the doors, we always create some new cracks through which they can come. And sometimes those cracks are the wires and Wi-Fi waves of the Web.

Image: Canon in 2D/Flickr

“I am the turnstile”: Roaming with Tomas Tranströmer

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Learning last Thursday that Tomas Tranströmer had won the Nobel Prize for literature felt like good news about an old friend. It even came via Twitter, the medium that delivers so much of my news these days. Of course, “old friend” is a gross overstatement, and this is really good news about someone I’ve long admired who has no idea I exist. But Tranströmer is that kind of poet, the kind who has come to feel like a friend in the fifteen or so years since I picked up the Robert Hass edited Selected Poems 1954-1986 during my undergraduate work-study job shelving books in the University of Massachusetts library. On each shift I sought out a cart of books headed for the fourteenth floor, international literature, where after clearing the cart I could find something to read. I worked my way from one country or region to another with no clearer direction than what looked interesting and what was translated. The Scandinavian stacks were those I returned to most often, for Lars Gustafsson and Halldór Laxness and Tomas Tranströmer, all three of whom remain favorites.

I’m not a poet, and I can’t claim any great expertise on the canon or even a particularly adept poetically critical mind. So as thrilled as I was by Tranströmer’s recognition, there seemed little I could add to what so many others had already said: biography and context from the Washington Post, New York Times, and NPR; expert commentary from poets Paul Muldoon and from Robin Robertson, one of Transtömer’s translators; and a series of smart, engaging tweets from Teju Cole, later gathered in essay form. Beside those sharp minds, I’m a rank amateur at best, so it seemed like one of those times when it’s more fruitful to listen than to speak. But when I read the Boston Globe’s dismissal of Tranströmer as “an elderly Swedish poet virtually unknown outside his homeland,” and their claim his selection “serves only to highlight the oft-noted gap between the literary establishment and the people who actually consume literature,” it felt necessary to speak up with the voice of an amateur. Not only because, as Hass wrote in his 1987 introduction, Tranströmer “has been translated into English more regularly than any European poet of the postwar generation” so is hardly unknown, but because what I like best about his poems is their celebration of the alert, inquisitive mind — of “amateurism” in its best sense.

In a 1989 interview, Tranströmer said,
I had a dream of becoming an explorer. Our heroes were Livingston and Stanley, people like that. In my imagination I was always going to Africa and other parts of the world. But in reality I was staying in Stockholm and in summers we went to the Archipelago, to the islands, which was my paradise. After the war of course I wanted to go abroad and see the world. My mother had never been abroad in her whole life but I wanted to go.
A bit later, the interviewer suggested to Tranströmer, “I don’t get the feeling from your poems that you think of yourself as a wanderer,” and the poet agreed he is “rooted in the landscape, sights, experiences” and weather of Sweden, and in the country itself. That apparent contradiction, the desire to be an explorer and the desire to stay in one place, gives his poems an attention to place that is rare and honest and rich. Something Thoreauvian, for lack of a better word, and it’s no coincidence that Tranströmer’s first book, 1954’s 17 Poems, includes “Five Stanzas to Thoreau” which begins (in May Swenson’s translation),
One more has fled the heavy city,
its ring of starved stones. Clear and salty are
the waters that immerse all
rebels’ heads.
His poems return often to moments of quiet while the world is asleep. Sometimes it’s to meditate on the secret lives of barns and trees, and at others to pin down fleeting moments that slip away as soon they happen, as in “Track” (1954), and later in Bly’s translation of “Guard Duty” (1973):
Task: to be where I am.
Even when I’m in this solemn and absurd
role: I am still the place
where creation works on itself.
Eloquent as he is on the natural world, Tranströmer is no idealist who ignores the more mundane, manufactured landscape around him, and that — for me — is what makes these more than “nature poems.” His landscapes contain machinery and factories and rusted cars, and not for derision and contrast but because they, too, belong to the fullness of the everyday world. His attention is sweeping and fair, not selective, and it is honest as in his 1966 poem “On the Outskirts of Work,” as translated by Robin Fulton:
In the middle of work
we start longing fiercely for wild greenery,
for the Wilderness itself, penetrated only
by the thin civilization of the telephone wires.
Those wires are jarring, but familiar; this is the “wilderness” into which most of us are more likely to go. This is wild abandon in our backyards or on the edges of our neighborhoods, spaces as liminal as those between asleep and awake. Or between life and death, as in perhaps my favorite stanza of Tranströmer’s, from “Solitude” (1966). Describing the drawn out seconds of his car skidding on ice, after losing control but before the impact, he writes (via Bly’s translation),
It felt as if you could just take it easy
and loaf a bit
before the smash came.
I prefer this translation of Bly’s to Fulton’s rendition, included in Hass’ Selected Poems, in which the same stanza reads,
You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.
It’s no expert opinion, only my own idiosyncratic reading, but I suppose I enjoy the almost laughing shrug of “loaf a bit” to Fulton’s more resigned breathing out, and the immediacy of “smash” to “crushed.” I can’t say which is closer to Tranströmer’s original Swedish, only that the voice I hear in his poems has a mild, winking humor closer to Bly’s. So while Fulton’s The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems was more recently updated in 2006 and is more complete, and though Hass’ Selected Poems 1954-1986 was my introduction, I think I’ve come to prefer Bly’s The Half-Finished Heaven because of that voice. But a better bet is to read these poems across as many versions as are available, discovering moments of conversation between translators as provocative as those in-between spaces of the poems themselves. Fortunately, owing to this award, the existing books should be readily available and more should follow.

Tomas Tranströmer wanted to grow up to be an explorer, and he’s done so: he’s a surveyor of quiet frontiers, of the brief, daily border crossings between one possible life and another — the crossings we make in secret moments, perhaps just a few seconds, when we allow ourselves to imagine or to wonder or to just pay attention. Lately I’ve been reading The Secret World of Doing Nothing, a study by Swedish anthropologists Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren of “what is happening when, to all appearances, absolutely nothing is happening.” A problem that comes up again and again as they interpret strangers waiting in lines or killing time is the struggle to plumb the depths of another mind in such moments: how far afield do they wander, and where do they roam? Tranströmer’s poems offer myriad answers, a humanist bridge between the individual and the collective through moments that might seem to lead nowhere.

As I think about the poet rendered speechless and of limited mobility by a stroke during these last two decades, and as I anticipate his Nobel acceptance to come in the form of a one-handed piano recital, it’s tempting to look to the final stanza of “Morning Birds” (1966), as translated by Gunnar Harding and Frederic Will:
Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It is growing, it takes my place
It pushes me out of its way.
It throws me out of the nest.
Robin Fulton does just that in the introduction to The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. But I prefer a less dramatic image, from the final lines of “Guard Duty”:
They’re just out there:

a murmuring mass outside the barrier.
They can only slip in one by one.
They want to slip in. Why? They do
one by one. I am the turnstile.
His poetry — and perhaps the visibility this award will bring — is a turnstile allowing movement in all directions, letting us carry what we discover on one side of the border across to the other. And what we carry are moments, quick and eternal at once, epic explorations made in the small space of a few seconds. There’s a line that concludes 1973’s “Elegy,” again via Bly: “Experience, its beautiful slag.” I’ve wandered the landscape of that line for years, testing different directions without ever quite settling between reading it this way and reading it that, but always, in the process, gaining experience and piling up slag of my own. An industrial metaphor, a byproduct easy to curse and condemn, but also molten and glowing and the burning mark of something accomplished. A line like that, and not only the line but its enigma, is — for me — the reason Tranströmer is more than simple and also more than complex, more than some obscure Swedish poet and much more than the Boston Globe gives him credit for. And why I’m so pleased to see his poetry honored.

Making Room for Readers

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One recent morning, my almost four year old daughter started crying out of the blue. I asked her what was wrong, and she wailed, “I don’t have a library card!” So with a proud paternal bibliophile’s heart swollen in my chest, I strapped her into her car seat and we set off for the library in search of a library card and—at her request—in search of Tintin books like those I’d told her were my favorite stories at the library when I was young.

We went first to the branch library in our end of town, a small, round building with walls almost entirely of glass. All those windows, and the books behind them, make it look pretty inviting, and we parked our car in the lot and I held my daughter’s hand as she skipped to the door, bubbling over with excitement. Unfortunately, it was closed; I’d known municipal budget cuts had reduced the hours of all library branches, but I’d thought that only meant it was closed on Fridays. Instead, it meant this branch—and all others, apart from the main library downtown—were open only a couple of hours four afternoons through the week. No mornings, no evenings, no weekends.

My daughter’s bubbling enthusiasm turned to tears outside that locked door, so I hustled her back to the car and drove to the main library as quickly as traffic and speed limits allowed. It was open, thank goodness, and we spent a long time exploring the children’s room, learning how to find “a book about astronauts” using the signs on the stacks and numbered shelves, and choosing other stories about dinosaurs, kids in school, and a penguin. We consulted the online catalogue, but the nearest Tintin books were a few towns away and would have to be requested for later (something the computers in the children’s room didn’t seem capable of doing, for whatever reason, unlike those in the adult section upstairs).

When we’d found enough books, my daughter strutted up to the circulation desk, stood on her tiptoes, and announced to the librarian, “I need a library card!”

The librarian, who must have been through this before, sighed and her face took on the look of someone who knows she’s about to disappoint a young patron. “Well,” she said, “here’s the rule. If a child is under five—and I know it seems kind of backwards—if a child is under five, she needs to be able to print her first and last name on this form.” She slid a small blue card in front of my daughter, and pointed to a narrow space for her name.

“She can write her name,” I said, “but maybe not small enough for that line.”

“I can do it,” my daughter said, so I got her a pencil and she did a great job writing her first name, Gretchen, but unfortunately those letters took up the whole space. We should have chosen a shorter name, I thought, as she got frustrated—understandably—and tried to print her last name, which she hasn’t practiced as much, in the margins of the card and ended up with a mess. “I can’t do it,” she said, her face melting.

“We’ll practice at home and try again soon,” I told her, while sliding my own library card onto the desk. The librarian gave us a couple of blank cards to practice with, and I drove home with a crestfallen face in the rearview. And she has practiced, with tongue-peeking determination, but she still can’t quite fit her name in that space so she still can’t quite get a library card.

Later in the day, I told my wife about what had happened, and she said, “It’s just like that girl who wanted your book.” I hadn’t made the connection myself, but a few weeks earlier I’d gone to Maine for a book tour event, a sidewalk signing for which I sat outside a bookstore and hand-sold my novel to passersby. I had some great conversations and lots of fun, and even sold a few books, but it’s the one that got away I’ll remember.

A young teenager—a tween, I suppose, but that label feels infantilizing—came down the sidewalk with two older women, and the eyeball on the front of my book drew her in as her companions kept walking. Her face lit up as she read the back cover, and she said, “This sounds good. Can I buy it?” At this point, though, her escorts had realized she wasn’t with them and had backtracked to my table.

Before I could answer her question, one of the women said, “I don’t know…”

“It’s okay, I have my own money,” the girl said, but the women with her shook their heads.

“Is it appropriate for a thirteen year old?” one of them asked, and I admit, it’s a question I hadn’t been asked before.

“I think so,” I told her. “It’s not graphic or violent or anything. I don’t think there’s any swearing.” But I should have played the “I’m a parent card” to increase my credibility, because apparently I wasn’t convincing. Or perhaps I should have borrowed Mitch Hedberg’s line that, “Every book is a children’s book if the kid can read!”

“We should ask your mother,” said the second woman, a note of finality in her stern voice. “Books are so… books are tricky. That’s something your mother needs to decide.”

“But I have my own money!” insisted the girl, her face as low as my daughter’s would be at the library later. “I can buy it myself.”

At that point, I would have given it to her for free, and I would have paid for any book she wanted in the whole store, just to keep her reading, but I had a feeling that offer would make it all worse. The decision had been made, and as the two woman turned and walked away up the sidewalk, the girl (a niece, perhaps?) took a last look at the cover, then gave a sad, apologetic look to me as I gave an equally sad, apologetic to her. Then she put the book down and dragged her feet up the sidewalk.

I don’t blame those two women any more than I blame the librarian. Their responsibility as guardians, whether they were aunts or family friends or much older sisters, is to watch out for the young person in their charge. Thirteen is a liminal moment between childhood and adulthood, so who am I to say what’s appropriate for someone that age, and for this particular thirteen year old I don’t know in the slightest. And let’s face it, there are probably lots of parents who’d worry about their son or daughter (or nephew or niece) buying a novel about a hermit who spends most of his story naked from a scruffy guy like me. That’s easy enough for me to accept. As my protagonist says, “if I saw myself bursting out of the woods, I might not offer help either.”

Yet I can’t help but remember that reading—both the careful selection of books and being given enough privacy to quietly read them myself—was among the first freedoms I had. Those early choices, and being trusted to make them, seem like foundational experiences now, decades later. That’s how my brothers and I found those Tintin stories, in fact, wandering the stacks of the library unhindered until we happened upon a whole box of Hergé’s books in a cardboard box on the very bottom shelf in the very back corner of the collection. They may have been stuck there as an afterthought or an embarrassment, forbidden from mingling with “better” books, but to me they were buried treasure. And now, as a father and author, I want my daughter to find treasures of her own in the stacks, and I want a girl like the one I met in Maine to find books that are hers, only hers, and to find them all on her own. I can’t think of a better honor than to have something I’ve written be that book for someone.

It’s a mistake to rarify reading and put books out of reach. It’s a mistake to assume, as Alan Jacobs did recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education (in a passage later quoted by Shelf Awareness), that readers are, “mostly born and only a little made.” Because those discoveries in libraries and bookstores—and, yes, on my parents’ shelves, too—are what made me a reader, not some mysterious, bibliogenic accident of birth. That kind of thinking not only makes fewer readers, but might unmake the ones already forming. In an era of reduced library budgets and hours, closing bookstores, declining sales, and lost readers, discouraging anyone, of any age, from picking up a book they’re interested in seems like the last thing we should be doing. And to the thirteen year old girl I met in Maine, if you should somehow read this, any time you want it my book is yours. I’ll throw in a few others you might enjoy, too.

Image credi: pexels/Lisa Fotios.

The Importance of Unwritten Postcards

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A former student interviewed me recently for an audio journalism project about the dangers of undergraduates being online, a perennial topic for faculty, students, and administrators alike, not to mention for newspapers and cultural hand-wringers at large. Her project arose in response to recent articles about social networking being harmful to student health and emotional well-being, and her questions to me concerned the impact of Facebook and Twitter on classwork and grades. It’s an important conversation, but one that too often stops at the level of panic, so I tried to go in another direction, toward an aspect of digital culture that seems as important as bad grades and lost sleep.

When I teach, I jump from YouTube to Delicious to Google docs on the classroom screen. I allow—even encourage—my students to use laptops in class, and I don’t worry if they’ve got Facebook in one tab while the day’s assigned reading is in another. They’re the ones getting graded, so I let them own the direction and degree of their attention along with the consequences. I let them work the way I work, or find their own way of working, without pretending these tools don’t exist. So it isn’t their use of Facebook that concerns me as much who they’re using it with, and I don’t mean the predators and creeps and assorted bogeyfolk 20/20 warns us about every sweeps week. To the contrary, I worry the web might be keeping them safe but stunted, because it’s so easy to continue the relationships and conversations they had in high school and carry along to college an entrenched identity built when they were younger. As I told my student, what concerns me about her peers and herself being online is the loss of isolation, of separation, of the ability for 18 year olds to live in their heads for a while. Or at least to own their own minds.

By the end of high school I’d had enough of classrooms and sitting still, and I had no interest in college. Sure, the only thing you take with you wherever you go is yourself and all that, but I needed some distance and some time to myself. So I set out with my backpack and passport and hostel card, full of romantic if well-trod notions. I went to Ireland because I’d read The Ginger Man and thought if I hung around Dublin I’d be embraced by a community of songwriters and poets and novelists and become one of those things myself. Never mind that J.P. Donleavy’s novel was set nearly half a century before my arrival. What I found instead was loneliness, isolation, the strain of starting up conversations with strangers and of making friends without the institutionalized encouragement of being stuck in school together all day. It was sink or swim because there was no option to stay in bed: hostel wardens kicked you out from morning until late afternoon. If you’ve read David Foster Wallace’s essay about steeling himself in his cruise ship cabin before venturing out to gather data for an article he was meant to be writing, then running back to his room to recover… let’s just say I could relate when I read it a few years later.

That grinding isolation shocked me, then shock became fascination and I suppose I kept traveling to test it like a loose tooth or sprained limb: to challenge myself to be bolder. There was no Facebook then, and mobile phones were rare and as big as our backpacks. Even if I’d had an email address there would have been no one to write. I had no choice but to decide who I wanted to be, without the crutch or cross of who I’d been, of who I’d been told I was and of who I’d become in response to a small school and small town and, perhaps most of all, a small sense of myself. I spent hours alone by necessity, whether hitching on a roadside or riding a bus or wandering the streets of new cities as alien to me as I was to them. And as alien as the inside of my head, until I learned the lay of it.

In The Guardian recently, Jennifer Egan said of her own teenage backpacking experience,
There was a kind of intensity to the isolation of travel at that time that’s completely gone now. You had to wait in line at a phone place, and then there weren’t even answering machines. That feeling of waiting in line, paying for the phone and then not only having no one answer, but not being able to leave a message so that they would never know you called. It’s hard to fathom what that disconnection felt like. But I’m actually very grateful for it. Because it was extreme. And that kind of extreme isolation showed me that I wanted to be a writer.
She goes on to describe the panic attacks and fear isolation brought on, and as I read I remembered a day spent hiking in Cornwall, of hours in the forest then emerging into a village in front of a pub. There were families heads-down over maps, a cricket team warming up on the green, two old men in identical gum boots and waxed canvas coats stopped to chat; ordinary lives going on in everyday ways, in other words, and there was me, ragged and woolly and stepping out of the woods where no one knew me from the Beast of Bodmin. I could have turned around and disappeared into the trees without being noticed, like another anonymous hiker whose body had recently turned up in the moors and was all over the news.

Another time in the Australian desert, a few days after I’d been shot at by drunk hunters who mistook my companions and I for overgrown possums, it occurred to me while hiking alone in dry heat and red sand that if I died there, if something happened, it would be a very long time until my family knew. I’d read something by Paul Theroux about a recurring nightmare of his children receiving postcards long after his death, because the places he’d traveled were so far away, and it stuck with me as simultaneously bleak and liberating (though now that I’m a father myself, and past my daughter’s colicky stage, it seems mostly bleak).

Postcards went in one direction, and offered so little room to say what I’d been doing they were merely an indication I was still alive. Hostels didn’t yet offer terminals for popping online and updating your friends, and you couldn’t upload your photos as fast as you took them nor could you see what folks were doing at home. Even after lining up as Egan describes, phone calls were expensive and brief, as compressed as postcards, and sometimes there weren’t any phone booths at all. I doubt I’m making any of this sound positive, but here’s the thing: all those experiences, the good and the bad, the everyday and inexplicably strange, were mine and mine alone.

There was no one to tell about the midnight train ride to Belfast when a brick smashed through the window over my head after a group of boys had already been hauled off by armored Garda for lighting strings of firecrackers at the end of the carriage. About the nun whose body tangled with mine when the sound of “gunshots” made us dive to the floor, or my arrival in Belfast between a cab driver’s shooting and a retaliatory bomb the next morning. No one knew I’d been fired on by those Australian hunters while camped in a billabong, or had carried a stranger’s dog off a mountain in Colorado only for it to die in my arms at the bottom, within sight of the ranger station. About a party with an Australian MP that, had phones been smarter and had there been a place to post photos, would have gotten us both into trouble, and camping by a desert hot spring the night of an Aboriginal corroboree then observing (for as long as I was allowed to) an outdoor meeting with a government minister the following day. Only I knew about watching and watching and watching an enormous brown snail crawl across my ground sheet when I woke by the Tasman Sea at sunrise, and standing with a German football team on a Galway street corner, each of us holding a lead-plugged axe handle, because a group of thugs had attacked and robbed the hostel warden the night before and were amassing again up the street.

If I’d been able to share those things quickly, if I’d been able to tweet them or make them my status or even speak them to someone I knew, I might not have hung onto them. If I’d been able to upload my photo of an apparently ancient stone wall on Inishmore that contained, near the bottom and bearing weight, a rock mysteriously stenciled with a bright yellow pedestrian crossing icon, and had someone commented with a quick explanation of why it was there, I might not be thinking about it almost two decades later. Instead it became a defining question for me, a question I’ve been trying to put into words ever since, in poems and stories and my failed first attempt at a novel (and probably the second and third novels, too, in some way). I might not have felt that “extreme isolation” Egan refers to, that uncrossable gulf between “home” and “away,” between “me” and “you” and between “me now” and “me then,” for that matter. I wouldn’t have been forced by circumstance and separation to redefine myself in my own awkward terms rather than rest comfortably uncomfortable in who I’d already been before setting off to “find myself,” as awfully much as that cliché rankles and rots.

Maybe there’s something healthy in telling our stories immediately and in making experience as ephemeral as a bird’s own tweeting is, so we can move on to something else. Maybe my students are better adjusted than I ever was, more aware of themselves because they’re able to share their lives quickly and widely and constantly. Some of my own closest, most meaningful friendships have grown out of blogging and being online; my sense of myself as a writer has come from engaging that wider world the internet offers as much as from engaging the world through more embodied travel—something I haven’t often had the luxury of after taking on college debts and degrees. So perhaps I’m projecting, and as much as I want to deny it all this is one more way of complaining things were better when we were young, blah blah blah. Besides, the whole notion of leaving home at 18 is so ethnocentric, a global rarity arrogantly normalized by a relatively small, relatively affluent part of the world. It’s like the internet, that way.

I know, though, for better or worse, I wouldn’t be the writer and person I am if I’d been online earlier. There’s a guy I run into on the subway sometimes, someone I played soccer with in junior high, and twenty-five years later he still thinks I’m not me but another kid we played with. When I moved to town, there were a few weeks at the start of sixth grade when the whole team had me confused with that other kid, a few weeks in which I was not only the new kid but a different new kid, a double disorientation. And now every few months I hear this guy shouting that other kid’s name down the train car and I’m turned back into someone I haven’t been in a very long time and never was, really. So when I worry about my students being online, it’s because I imagine their moments of discovery and reinvention and risk derailed by Facebook comments from people who remember them as they weren’t and won’t let them forget it, tying them down before they lift off. That worries me more, in a way, than the possibility of drunken college hijinks preserved online haunting them as they look for jobs—something I suspect we’ll grow more forgiving of, as a culture, the more inevitable it becomes. I worry there’s less room to try on and cast off new selves, as people and artists alike, but maybe that’s only an issue for someone who always finds himself writing about isolation one way or another, and for whom the most terrifying thing ever seen on TV is that eBay ad asking, “What if nothing was ever forgotten?”

Still, even if we move home after college or never go to college at all, even if we stay close to old friends our whole lives, I can’t help but think there’s a value in removing ourselves from all that for a while and in stockpiling experiences no one else knows about. Whether those are big, dramatic experiences or small, quiet ones I doubt makes much difference; the important thing is they’re ours, only ours, and we’ll have them to return to forever—not by Googling to remind ourselves what we wrote when they happened, or by looking at photos (I lost most of those when I mailed home a box of unprocessed film that never arrived). Not by having them pass into the collective memory of the people who know us and the stories that get swapped around campfires and dining room tables for so long it stops mattering who they happened to, but by tucking them away like a tweet left untweeted, in some private corner where 140 characters of pithy distillation might grow into something much more.

Image credit: Pexels/Miray Bostancı.