Archive for January, 2010

What is J.D. Salinger to us? Catcher in the Rye was assigned reading in high school, presented by the establishment as a fine example of the antiestablishment. And we devoured it. The kids who hated literature loved Catcher. The kids who loved literature sought out more Salinger (and found very little). Moreover, Catcher as a novel and Salinger as a type of writer became cultural touchstones for generations. We remember the descriptions of Robert Ackley with his pimples and mossy teeth, the mysteriously termed throw that Holden can get for five dollars with a hotel prostitute. Most of all we remember the tone of the novel, at once funny, mean, and sad. But even today, as we are surrounded by entertainment that is arguably funnier and certainly meaner, Catcher still resonates with students. Why?

Hemingway famously stated that all modern American literature comes from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In reality, in the latter half of the 20th Century and I think still today, it would be more accurate to say that all modern American writing comes from Hemingway. Short, understated sentences composed of unsentimental, ordinary words. This is how we were taught to write, how we were taught to edit, and what we were taught to value in the writings of others.

It is in this context that we first read Salinger. And while the vulgarities got our attention, I think it is the exposed emotion of the narrator that was really the most shocking. It seemed almost as if the redacted portions of a story had been published by accident, while the approved and conventional parts were left out. When the same English instructor who taught us to write controlled, straightforward prose assigned Catcher in the Rye, the world got a little rounder. We were learning how to write for success, but Salinger reminded us of the voice inside, of the emotions behind the facts. And if we could not get away with writing like that, or of sharing aloud how we really felt about the adults around us, Salinger did it for us. With their permission, it turns out.

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Passing through the cemetery on a late December afternoon, we see a sort of silver specter in the distance ahead. A ghost would not be out of place here where old settlers of Oregon’s upper Willamette Valley rest for eternity. But this is stranger than a ghost. Less believable. And so we move closer, thinking with each step, It can’t be. It really can’t be.

Duct tape. And this was a case of repair, not vandalism. The gravestone was split almost completely through in a few places and in a general process of disassembly. When all else fails, you can hold your family history together with duct tape.

A more standard method of preservation is reliance on memory, which we call  oral history when it happens to other people. Memory is augmented by a handful of puzzling photos of people we know we should be able to identify. We look into stern eyes and rustic homes and feel a sense of pride. But also a quiet concern that we might be proud of the wrong person. Perhaps a cousin or a family friend. If you played Simon in the early 80s, or have walked into a room and wondered why you were there, or have visited an elderly parent who no longer recognized her own child, you know that the only reliable thing about memory is that it is pretty dodgy.

Go back about 150 years, and you’ll find a sturdy Norwegian fisherman stepping onto a larger boat than he is used to, leaving behind the fjord and snow-smothered fields of his youth to jounce across the Atlantic for a new country and, with luck, a new life. Risk, worry, hope, eased by the occasional sour indulgence in lutefisk and the company of his diaspora. It is a nice story if you don’t mention the wife and children left behind.

Now in South Dakota, the settler finds a new wife, Mary, and with her has children whom he names after those he has abandoned in the old country. This gives him two sons named Thor–one on each side of the Atlantic. But his second wife and his second Thor die. So he finds a third wife, with whom he can extend the family, adding a daughter named Mary (after the second wife) and a new son. The third Thor. That is how my ancestor brought the family name to America. This is the story as I remember it being told to me, and there is a reasonable chance that some part of it might even be true. But it is my memory of someone else’s memory of, most likely, someone else’s memory.

A better method of preserving family history is to write it down. That’s why I know so much more about one of my distant ancestors, William Bradford, even though he came to America 250 years before the Norwegian fisherman. Bradford the Pilgrim, holding onto a new home against the toughest odds, recorded in his now-famous diary accounts of starvation and disease, hurricane and earthquake, diplomacy and law (including a strange case that resulted in the execution of both sheep and shepherd).

But equally important stories from more recent generations are slipping away. Half-remembered rumors, conjectures, delusions. The aunt who swears she was orphaned off in her youth while her siblings insist, No, you weren’t. The uncle who mumbled obscenities through evening prayers and went quietly insane. The sister who committed suicide and was rumored to be pregnant. We bury our scandals and defeats as if their past existence could somehow weaken the family line. A history made up not so much of family, but of a name that stands for a family.

Three thousand miles east of the duct-taped Oregon grave, Boston’s famous Granary Burying Ground holds twice as many skeletons as gravestones. Immigrants and patriots began to occupy the cemetery back in the mid 1600s, lying under fantastic slate stones etched with flying skulls and images of Death dancing with Afterlife. But caretakers in later generations were not satisfied. The plots were strewn about randomly. Hard to maintain and not pleasing to later aesthetic sentiments. So the crooked dead were left in their now forgotten spaces while the stones above them were moved and arranged into neat, straight rows.

The dead are inconvenient. Their stories as crooked as the original plots at the Granary. But if past lives don’t align with how we want to see ourselves, they are still an essential part of our history. What we account for as success, after all, is transient. The homes our ancestors built are mostly gone. Farms fallowed and businesses bust. But their struggle is timeless. The struggle for money and shelter, the struggle for meaning and moments of joy, the struggle to set the next generation on its feet. This is our legacy and it is worth preserving. Even if awkward. Even with duct tape.

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I think it’s about time we had an Organically Grown certificate for Twitter accounts. As in, “This account is unadulterated by get-followers-quick schemes, pre-scheduled tweets, inspirational quotations from unknown sources, and any link leading to whiter teeth.”

Most of all, it would be nice to know that a community of followers really cared about the ideas being posted and helped shape future posts with their own contributions. Instead, many Twitter accounts today are bloated from reciprocal following, where a person (or a fake person) insincerely follows hundreds of accounts just to cull auto-follows and take advantage of the easily flattered. Like many people, I used to take advantage of auto-follow features in social media tools, thinking that following back was a nice way to thank my new friends. Before long I discovered that my account was following escort services, Southeast Asian freedom fighters, and more get-rich-working-from-home accounts than you can shake an iPhone at.

We need to focus more on constructive relationships, and less on numbers and recognition. As social media consultant Mack Collier puts it, “Social media needs fewer rockstars, and more rockstar ideas.” When I was at South-by-Southwest last year, I saw all the luminaries with their orbiting fans, and even joined a small group discussion with one of them. But I learned the most from a college student who ran a computer lab at a small Texas college, from a New York writer moonlighting at Parsons School of Design, from Ricardo Rabago, the man behind PCC Natural Market’s social media presence. They see their followers as peers engaged in a running dialog about a shared passion. They recognize that a conversation between a few people is much more valuable than a broad communication to 30,000 deaf listeners.

Now that everyone is rushing to join the Twitterverse, there is a growing panic among newcomers that they are too late to succeed. A sense of being stranded on a sinking Web 1.0 island while the social media boat sails away to tropical sunshine. Of being left behind in Backward Town with a flugelhorn in one hand while the sold-out bandwagon rolls off toward the bright city of ROI. And it’s tempting under these circumstances to obsess over getting followers quickly, to rush the growth of the community.

Which is why we need the Organically Grown certificate. To recognize those who build their community one follower at a time, who respond to questions and ideas, who recognize others in the greater social media community, and who lead us, by association, to others who speak to the same passions and do it well. The fast-growing giant gets everyone’s attention, sure, but the naturally grown community is much healthier. It’s not just common sense. It’s true.

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