Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Virtual Namedropping and Other 21st Century Sins

Ahh, Vanity, thy name is Facebook. Narcissus never would have made it out after his first log on. He'd still be snapping new profile pictures to be sure he gets the absolute best angle. But don't judge. Facebook brings out the worst in all of us. Before the advent of the blog and social networking, our temptation to self-aggrandize was only satisfied in small groups, unless that is we were lucky enough to have a weekly column, or perhaps a magazine named after ourselves. But on Facebook, it's made simple and global. Follow these steps. If you are female: Get a glam shot done to use as your profile pic. Make sure you are heavily made up and wearing something appropriately avant garde but not too revealing. If you are male: Lean into the screen and let the computer capture your best side; don't shave beforehand; be sure you are only half-smiling so as to look as enigmatic as possible. Friend some random person who actually does have some decent name-recognition -- it helps if somehow you once met this person for longer than 10 seconds, but whatever -- and is so busy he or she doesn't have time to discriminate. Suddenly you're publicly best friends with the stars, rocketed to Social Status Extraordinaire. Mention obliquely that you're visiting a person, whose name you've agreed never to disclose, at his estate in Beverly Hills. The following week post that you're in a chateau outside Cannes. Once this takes on, develop your knowledge of commonly used foreign phrases, and start using them to open your posts. Friend one person with a foreign name at least each day. If you don't know anyone from a particular hotspot, make him or her up. Easy enough to do. Create a gmail account, for example, for someone named Jean-Pierre Renaud from Marseilles, download a photo of an anonymous model, and you're good to go. To show up those drones who post inanities about the weather and the recent quizzes they completed, even on your real friends' pages, and without being censured, post a quotation from Eliot's Four Quartets. Make it an obscure one. Follow it up several days later with one from Virginia Woolf. Never fall prey to the impulse to use the smiley icon. Okay, last: Post photographs of yourself in these hotspots, with recognizable celebrities in the background. Photoshop works extremely well for this step. Now you are well established, and your friend list has grown to at least 1,000. If you do not have complete strangers friending you at this point because they want to be associated with you, I will eat this post. What I haven't told you is that your real problems are only now beginning. Suddenly long-lost feuding relatives resurface from their hiding places in Pocatello and Biloxi only to expose your childhood secrets and insult one another through comments on your high-end posts. You could defriend them. It's an option. But venturing into the Defriend is a dangerous step. There are plenty of acceptable reasons to defriend even a dear friend: poor grammar or spelling for example -- cannot have that on your wall, really. Or he or she posts links to Ann Coulter's latest commentary. Or they are wall-writers, the FB equivalent of a dog who lifts his leg on a bush to mark the territory, a guy who leaves his toothbrush and razor on your vanity, or a woman who hangs her nightie on your bedpost. Or even worse: They show up too often, "liking" your status, making sweet little offsides that show you've been stringing them along while you decide which of these new 1,000 close friends you're going to date. He or she is ruining your chances with the dozens of other men/women you've been courting online! Or worst: You can't get online without being assaulted by 10 to 20 instant messaging boxes competing for your attention. All that beautiful anonymity you've crafted! For what? And then the ultimate horror happens to you. How can that be? That hot chick or steamy devil in Amsterdam DFs you. You remember ... maybe you shouldn't have quoted The Exorcist under the photo of your high school girlfriend/boyfriend ... he/she could be sending messages directly to the hottest ones on your list ... he/she could be telling the ... no ... it can't be ... the TRUTH. Your voyeuristic pleasures are now diminishing rapidy, as you are now the one being outed globally. You feel yourself sinking into a deep depression. Damn. As the word travels through cyberspace, you're exposed for having exploited the names of people you hardly knew 20 years ago, and didn't much like even then. Karma descends. Your friend list is shrinking rapidly as your FB friends flee. Don't panic. There is still one strategy available to you: Go dark. Easy to do. Here are two options: a) Post that you're in St. Petersburg visiting Svetlana/Ivan. Don't forget to alter your voicemail greeting claims, should you have shared your number with anyone (not recommended, but it could have happened). b) Go MIA, unannounced, for several days. This behavior is guaranteed to increase your popularity. Those people still deluded about your social stature will miss you so much that when you return you'll be greeted by a flurry of comments and status likes. You can return to the original steps above and start building a new posse/harem. There are plenty of fine feathered birds in the trees. Be aware that the Surgeon General as determined that FB is hazardous to your health. Documented cases include actual accomplished professionals destroyed by insomnia and international financiers who have cancelled all important conference calls while glued to FB Chat. You may be popular online, but your life has become reduced to you and that blazing, brilliant, highly lit screen, the star of your universe, the light of your life. Your eyes glow and your pupils are permanently dilated. You start imagining you are the Count of Monte Cristo. Where can you start digging with your spoon ... One last warning. If you by any chance do look like Daniel Craig or Sandra Bullock, friending others carries a very serious responsibility. Should you pull back, or worse, defriend one of them, you will cause a descent in their human value relative to the decline in the number of your posts. That's just cruel. One benefit? It's a great way to test your friendships. One day, change your profile pic to reflect that you've just been a victim of a serious fire, and now have facial scarring that will last a lifetime. Quickly, you'll find out, one by one, if your friends actually love you for you. And copyright your posts. I have lots more to say, but I only share so much information with those who are not my FB friends.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The South

I wasn't a Yankee, being of Russian decent, despite my patriotism being as passionate as that of the "Founding Fathers," and perhaps even more so than the D.A.R., as my family is eternally grateful for being welcomed as they ran from the Bolsheviks who would have taken all that they'd worked for, even their lives. Neither male (too compassionate) nor female (too assertive) by social definition of gender, I have never fit, and never trusted those who want to. They try so hard, and lose themselves in the process. An intellectual reading Christa Wolf in the German while sitting by the side of a country club pool. A Red Sox fan in New York. A townie at Harvard. In Waltham, someone from the wrong side of the tracks -- a South Sider out to prove the rest of town that no one is defined by origin. A child living in my father's garden in a neighborhood that paved over its lawns. A cyclist and pedestrian in a world of cars. A runner, but slow. A believer in the innate goodness of Germans and all they can teach us ("Wo man Buecher brennt ..."). A middle class Caucasian advocate of African American students living in poverty. I don't attempt to assimilate anymore, unlike my father, who refused to speak Russian, but much like my aunts, I am proud of my heritage -- my difference. It's not pride in the sinful sense, but the same kind of pride that inspires Gay Pride parades. Those who don't fit distrust those who seem to, as I do the smiling faces of the South. But on my recent trip to Charlottesville, VA and Durham, NC, I found myself softening in the gentleness of even the A-est of types. At Duke, the peace was audible, tangible, soothing. No one was trying to prove anything -- the South already did, and they were defeated, just like the Wehrmacht. They were humbled, they fell to their knees; like those of us who have fallen in life, like Adam and Eve, they had to accept defeat before they could achieve heavenly peace. Duke tried to change Princeton, and failed. So he founded his own school, then invited Northerners to attend. Brilliant. This Ivy of the South has a very large number of students from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states. Also, it is neither a campus nor a wildnerness, but both. Difference there is celebrated without competition, as the great literary theorists argue is inherent in our language. And they all stand behind the Blue Devils. The Yankees were right: Working together, we can change the world. They were also wrong: It is not only by joint effort but also through trust and understanding that this peace can be born. The South There is a sweet welcome in Southern air, though Yankees resist it. The softness of the breeze in Sarah's gardens smiles like good manners. Crape myrtle seduces; the breeze, scented, intoxicates. This weather doesn't change like New England's.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


This morning heard a marvelous sermon by the minister of Second City Church in Harrisburg (Third and Verbeke, and no, it has nothing to do with Saturday Night Live, although said mininster, Jed, is often seen in sneakers while preaching). He spoke about how Paul did not thank the Phillipeans for their gift of money when he was in need. Instead, he told them they had been kind. A gift is indeed an act of kindness and generosity offered up to God (or the Universe if God is a word that frightens you) and is a gift of ourselves that expects no return. Whether it's money, something tangible, or something you offer of yourself through time or effort or even creativity, it's a gift honoring the ultimate gift that Christianity teaches us to give. Giving Reaching out by hand is a physical manifestation of affection. My children often rejected my hand to prove their independence. Extending your hand to an adult is rife with risk. It's baring your heart. It's feeling floating thickly, hovering in air. What does it mean for that kind of gift not to be taken? Is it still received? Perhaps in a way that in the moment the giver and receiver both think not possible? A daisy blossoms. A bird sings. These things are gifts. But what of poetry? Just lines of words. No roses. Just anagrams laid out upon the table. Rearranged, they are my hand reaching out again, like a blossom or a song.