Thursday, December 24, 2009

going meta

I’ve heard lots of people talk about writer’s block. Mostly they’re people who haven’t written very much. They sit down at the keyboard and discover that words never just spill out, one after the other.

“I have so many ideas,” they say. “It’s just a matter of getting them on paper.”

Sometimes they’re poor souls who’ve have set the bar too high. They’ve read Nabokov. Or Burroughs (perhaps they've gone so far as to put in a bid on his cabin on Lone Star Lake). Or even Bukowski (Bukowski made it look easy).

Possibly they’ve even taken in one too many Garfield cartoons or posted a successful series of LOLcat captions.

Writing, to them, is a hat-trick.

“I can do that,” they tell themselves. “I tell great stories. Funny stories.”

They sit at the keyboard, wiggling their fingers to loosen up. “You know, great writers say you should just type anything that comes into your head for the first 20 minutes. All of the sudden, you’ll find that you’re writing something. Something good.”

But no words come. “I have writer’s block,” they tell you the next time you run into them. As if it’s a medical condition. As if a high-fiber diet would help.

I don’t have writer’s block. Of this I’m certain. Over the past few months, I’ve written any number of first paragraphs, first pages, and anecdotes. At work, I’ve written impenetrable book chapters and conference papers, prose a reviewer will march through on a flight to O’Hare, thinking all the while, “Jesus. How long is this paper anyway? I thought there was a ten page limit. How can she fit all these words in ten pages? Are there two pages numbered 6?”

So the problem has nothing to do with words. I’m gassy with words. Gassy, I tell you. As gassy as Big Fatty.

Light a match and my word-bag will catch fire and burn for hours.

It’s not words. And it’s not ideas. I’ve had ideas. I’ve made lists. I’ve been blogging for almost 4 years now; I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.

A few weeks ago, to get a fresh start, I started a list of my ex-bosses. The winter holidays are a fine time for a bit of workplace hilarity. I wrote “Bosses” on the notepad I keep next to my computer and underlined it twice. Then I wrote:

1. Raydeen (the Hose Monster)
2. Big Bird
3. Bill
4. Kiltman
5. The Walrus

This list stopped abruptly when I reached the name of a boss who genuinely hated me (for no reason I could discern). During what turned out to be our final encounter, I gave him a presentation about my workan ordinary kind of research talk, questions I was trying to answer, results, future work—in short, nothing I could pinpoint as at all provocative. But it was. His face turned bright red and he balled his fists, accusing me afterward—with HR as his witness—of being verbally aggressive. I was baffled. Verbally aggressive? I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of that before.

A few hours later, I stood outside where the cell phone reception was good, and told Sara about the incident. It was June, warm for Seattle, and the air was soft and mild. The entire afternoon had acquired a mild hallucinatory quality and my initial reaction had evolved into a fragile sense of bemusement. The building had more or less emptied out when I spotted my boss heading for his car. He squinted at me as I stood atop a grassy berm, cell phone in hand. Then he looked away very quickly. I had the strong sense he thought I was going to shoot him.

He spent the rest of the summer trying very hard to fire me.

A misogynist, I decided. I updated my resume.

Six months later, he had accumulated (in no particular order) breasts, cheekbones, a feminine jawline, and had begun plucking his eyebrows and shaving his legs. His Adam's apple was gone. Not long afterward, he changed his first name in the corporate phone book.

That kind of pathos and irony will stop you in your tracks. I crumpled up the half-written list of ex-bosses and started a fresh first paragraph.

A couple of times I got far enough to call Mark into the room.

“Would you listen to me read something aloud?” I asked him. “Just a few paragraphs so you can tell me if they’re okay.”

Poor Mark. What’s he going to do? Richard Ford reads his daily output aloud to his wife. Nabokov did that too. The wives typed up longhand drafts, probably fixing minor problems—discontinuities in the narrative arc, for example, or inadequate character development—as they went. Fixed comma faults too. That sort of thing. Problems great and small.

Mind you: I’m not comparing myself to these literary masters, nor Mark to their wives. For one thing, Mark looks funny in a housedress, and for another, I doubt any of them ever made lists of their ex-bosses. I’m just saying, I can fall back on historical precedent when I call Mark into the room to hear me declaim the initial paragraphs of an embryonic blog post.

This time, I started off:

I don’t remember why we called him the Troutman.

I cleared my throat, arched my eyebrows (both at the same time—I don’t have the facial dexterity to lift one eyebrow, then the other), and shifted into my reading voice, the timbre of which makes Lumpy yowl in protest.

The Troutman didn’t look like a trout, nor was he very manly. He was short and pink and not in the least bit scaly.

I stumbled over the first sentence. It was supposed to be funny, but when I read it aloud, I could tell it had no resonance. Maybe the word “trout” was too far from the word “manly”; perhaps both words were too far from the initial “Troutman.” I looked up at Mark. He was doing his best to follow along. Lumpy continued to yowl.

I read on.

Nonetheless, we called him the Troutman, and the name stuck. People who didn’t even know him—people who just knew us, and hadn’t met him—referred to him as the Troutman. After awhile, he more or less lost his real name, the way people do when they have catchy nicknames. His old name might’ve been George or Jeff or perhaps Larry: it was a perfectly normal, unembarrassing name. A name anyone—any man, anyway—could wear without discomfort.

But he lost that name and became the Troutman.

I had the intention of telling a story about a particular evening’s escapade. I looked at Mark. His thumb was keeping his place in the trade paperback he was reading. I could tell he longed to return to it. Okay. I was taking too long with the setting. Noted. I started reading again.

The Troutman’s most salient characteristic was his diet. His diet was dramatic, essentially because it was entirely without drama. He didn’t like sauces, and he didn’t care for spices. Nor did he like vegetables or condiments, although he would eat a few kinds of fruit (berries, mostly) with only minor complaint.

The tone, the tone was all wrong. “Perhaps I should delete that paragraph.” I said.

“Keep reading.” Mark said.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like okra or peas. You could understand something like that. Okra has a snot-like quality that calls attention to itself. “Hey! Look at me! I’m slimy! Cut me and I’ll ooze a mucous-like substance!” Okra is only good when it’s battered and deep-fried. When it’s not, it’s like a wounded slug. And peas are just hard to eat. I get that. It’s probably why English people like them mushy. When they’re not mushy, they roll around and collide with other items on your plate, like rogue ball bearings.

Mushy peas, indeed. Trite. I couldn’t continue reading the thing to Mark. I’d stolen the troutman bit, and the rest of it was lame. The next paragraph started in on food allergies. That wouldn’t work either. Someone would comment on how peanut vapors on a Southwest Flight to Sacramento had killed an innocent sixth grader who’d been on a class trip to learn about the inner workings of state government. I’d feel like a heartless shitheel by the time the commenters were through with me.

“That’s all?” Mark asked.

“That’s all for right now.” I’d already decided to abandon the text. The evening in question had been wild for me, emotionally wild. It was while Mark was still drinking, and had involved a fracas at a Senegalese place down in the Mission popular with the hip goateed multimedia crowd. Someone had cut in front of us in line, and Mark had made a scene. It didn't work; the line-cutters kept their stolen place in line, and Mark had stalked off, angry and humiliated, while the rest of us had settled into a glum dinner at an Indian restaurant several blocks away on Valencia.

The Troutman didn’t sulk. He just said he wasn’t very hungry and ordered a bowl of plain rice. He poked at it, moving the grains around in the bowl, while the rest of us ate dinner.

The centerpiece of the blog post was to be a short list of official Troutman foodstuffs. But as I made the list, I found that by not visiting it for a few years, the list had slowly evaporated. There was the plain chicken breast. There was the pepperoni pizza. And then there were about four other things. What were they?

Were olives on or off the list? Surely they were off. Weren’t they? Would it be funnier if he ate olives?

Then there was a second Troutman incident that involved a refrigerator in Memphis that was empty except for a box of Double-Bubble chewing gum about the size and shape of an organic chemistry textbook and a case of Big Red soda. By the time of the incident, the Troutman himself was no longer in the picture. This was simply a matter of Troutman food artifacts. The refrigerator’s owner and I split a can of Big Red. It was undrinkably sweet, vile, but not particularly funny.

I think they drink Big Red in the South. They drink it unironically, and with considerable gusto.

Is it funny to only have two items in the refrigerator? Yes, I decided. Two items in the refrigerator is funny. I thought back to a man I went out with before I met Mark. The only thing he had in his refrigerator was a bottle of Almaden Chablis. Not a bottle. A jug. A jug with a handle. I’d check on it (or its successor) each time I visited his apartment in West LA.

I weighed the story. Funny? Not funny?

Where would I go with it? Into an uncharted territory of eating disorders? I pictured Nicole Richie with those spooky pug-like eyes.

The Troutman didn’t look at all like Nicole Richie. I felt a growing twinge of guilt: the Troutman was the invention—and the ex-boyfriend—of a close friend, and really seemed like hers to write about. Or if not hers, surely her daughter’s. Her daughter had once threatened to write a book, The Peculiar Eating Habits of My Mother’s Boyfriends.

Idea poaching. I was guilty of idea poaching.

Poached eggs, incidentally, were not one of the missing items on the Troutman’s list of 6 acceptable foods. Nor was mayonnaise.

Without the list—and against a murky backdrop of guilt—the verdict seemed obvious. The Troutman was not my character around which to build a narrative.

It’s odd that this business of loyalty should come up unbidden. The first post I’d started was an attempt to rationalize why I liked Twitter better than Facebook; in my last blog post, I’d even intimated that this would be the topic of my next blog post. I’d finally—with considerable hectoring—signed up for Facebook, the mother of all social media sites. I’d avoided it for several years.

“Facebook,” I’d explain to anyone who would listen, “is too literal for me.”

Then I’d realize that I’d insulted whomever I was talking to, because it seems that over the last few years, everyone has become consumed with Facebook.

It reminds me of that phase in 1990s when it was unsafe to say anything bad about anti-depressants for fear that the person you were talking to had been taking them with some measure of success.

I’d say something snarky about an antidepressant—Placebocil, say—and they’d say, “I’m taking Placebocil myself now. It really helps.” Then they’d give me a hurt look.

That’s what was happening with Facebook.

But this time it was worse, because then Twitter would enter the conversation. I’d explain that I was using Twitter instead of Facebook.

“Oh,” they’d say, “It figures that you’d like Twitter. I mean, do you even know all those people who’re following you?”

And then I’d admit that I didn’t know all of them.

They’d respond smugly, “Well, I use Facebook to keep in touch with my friends.” Meaning, of course, that I’d like Facebook better if I had any real friends. That there’s a reason that one has FOLLOWERS on Twitter and FRIENDS on Facebook.

Eventually I was worn down. I signed up for Facebook and stopped calling it MyFace.

From the start, Facebook and I didn’t mesh well. I’d tried to play along and signed up using my real name. But then it asked for my birthdate and gender. Frankly, I think that if my friends don’t know what gender I’m presenting as these days, or roughly what my age is, they’re not particularly close friends and we might as well go back to Twitter.

So I left those questions blank. No gender. No birthdate.

Facebook would not allow me to continue. It was the surly bouncer asking for my ID. You can’t just say, “For godsakes. Do I really look underage to you?”

So I checked male, and invented a new birthday: July 7, 1977. Call me superstitious, but I think all those 7s might bring me some good luck. In any event, it seems to be good luck to be 32 again.

“Why do you care if someone knows your birthday?” one of my RL friends asked me. She’s a big Facebook proponent. “I love it that I get birthday wishes from everybody.”

When I signed up for Yahoo mail (long ago), I used my real gender and birth date. The targeted advertising got worse and worse as I aged along with the service. Now every time I look at my Yahoo mail, I’m confronted with products addressing the woes of incontinence and incipient jowls, and with offers to train me to re-enter the workforce. No jet skis, hotties, or consumer electronics for me. Not even erectile dysfunction remedies.

The future—as seen through Yahoo’s targeted advertising—is so bleak that I want to shoot myself every time I open my mailbox. There is no way I’ll ever reveal my actual demographic profile again.

I must say, re-inventing my age and gender for Facebook has worked out well. I now see advertising that implies that women with impossibly large breasts—breasts so large that these women must fall forward into their keyboards—are googling my name night and day.

Sometimes I am offered credit cards with interest rates that reflect my new fast-paced lifestyle. I’m 32. Why would I worry if my credit card has a 29% interest rate? I have plenty of time to declare bankruptcy and start all over again. The targeted advertising attracted by my new age and gender is, if not practical, much cheerier and more interesting than the advertising I'd been getting with my real age and gender.

But much of the time, Facebook itself is as I'd feared: a combination high school reunion and noisy cocktail party with celery, cream cheese, and raisin hors d'oeuvres. I don’t seem to be able to follow any of these flattened out conversations, and despite Facebook’s promise of earnest personal revelations and no holds barred honesty, I don’t actually recognize these people who have friended me.

That’s not quite right. I do recognize them. We’re all using our best pictures, us at our prettiest and most physically active. It’s as if we’re on or eHarmony. Our talk has been censored, fit for anyone to read. Friends of friends, whom I genuinely don’t recognize and don’t know, are making comments on the posts too. There are countless in-jokes that I don’t understand.

People are coming and going, on their way to other continents, new lovers, and indeed, to other planets. Everyone is purposeful, efficient, and on the move.

A few of my friends have tried to spice it up. They’ve worked at adding mirth to the party. But all these juxtaposed conversations confuse me. Where do I go to have fun? There’s my wall (a seemingly anatomical concept which makes me squeamish--the word "wall" is perilously close to a medical concept), my friends’ walls (even more squeamish-making), their friends’ walls (don't look!), interest groups, fan pages, photo albums, and profiles.
Wait! I just found my brother’s sixth grade yearbook. Someone else is playing a weird game that automatically posts pictures of cute baby animals in distress.

I scan through the feed, quickly close the browser, and restore my earbuds back to my ears. I'll be listening to podcasts instead, thanks.

When I was a little kid-4 or 5-I had an imaginary friend named Pat. Because Pat was invisible (one of the many virtues of being imaginary), Pat’s gender and personality were endlessly malleable. If we were going to color in my coloring books, Pat would be a she, so she wouldn’t wreck my crayons by peeling off the paper or hiding them in her butt crack. On the other hand, if I wanted to sit on the curb and pop a roll of caps one by one with a hammer, Pat would become a he.

At the first sign of disloyalty, I’d get rid of Pat. I’d send him—or her—straight into the fireplace.

“What happened to Pat?” one of my parents would ask. I could tell they were humoring me. Or perhaps they were laughing at me. It’s rough being four.

“I put him in the fireplace,” I’d say. Case closed. It’s Southern California; there’s no fire in the fireplace, so why wouldn’t it be the perfect place to stow imaginary friends in disgrace?

When I got bored, Pat could be reanimated in a snap. Instant friend! Pat! C’mon Pat. Let’s color between the lines. C’mon Pat. Let’s play with matches in the canyon. Maybe we’ll see a rattlesnake or a bunny. C’mon Pat. Let’s mix a bunch of condiments together in the kitchen and see if they’ll turn into a cake.

Yeah, I could trot next door and look for my real flesh-and-blood friend Kathleen Phillips, a tall athletic redhead from a military family. Her father was 4-star general, and Kathleen had inherited his tendency toward command and control. Given half a chance, she’d boss me around, drink my Kool-aid, tear the paper off my crayons, and turn the channel to The Three Stooges. Pat, on the other hand, would always do my bidding with enthusiasm.

And unlike my flesh-and-blood friends, Pat didn’t play with dolls. Pat was like me: Pat was afraid of dolls. Or if not afraid, felt better if they weren’t around.

Pat offered no objection when I took my Barbie, taped her in a shoebox, and put her in the garage. Pat knew that Barbie might come to life in the night and harm both of us; Pat watched the Twilight Zone and kept track of important sources of danger like that.

Are my Facebook friends imaginary, grown up versions of Pat? Not really. Nor do they seem to switch genders willy-nilly like I do. Many are friends I would be absolutely delighted to see in Real Life.

I wouldn’t turn off all the lights and pull the shades if I heard them ring the front doorbell.

Perhaps the way they most resemble Pat is that it’s possible to unfriend them at the drop of a hat. I can stuff them in the fireplace and resuscitate our two-dimensional relationship whenever I please.

I was pondering this when I heard Geoff Nunberg’s Fresh Air piece about the words of the decade. He observed that when we use the verb ‘unfriend’, we might be getting exactly what we deserve. He said:

[Unfriending] is not a bad choice to stand in for the rise of social networks: it works the same bizarro alterations on the structure of an ordinary word that the social sites do on the structure of ordinary personal relationships.

We’re at the end of the Aughts—at the bottom of the ninth inning of the first decade of the new century—and our friendships have devolved into directed graphs. It’s hard to get beyond the fact that friending always takes a direct object: “I friended Geoff Nunberg,” which is very different than saying, “Geoff Nunberg friended me.” Being friends with someone implies reciprocity. Friending someone doesn’t.


Geoff’s very often right. If I weren’t so afraid he’d think the less of me, I’d have friended him already.

Now that I’ve told you about my three false beginnings for this post—a catalog of my ex-bosses, a poached story starring the Troutman, and a brief polemic about dipping my toes into Facebook and friending—I can reveal what I’ve decided to write about.

What’s this post actually about? It’s about the real word of the decade.

And that’s meta.

Meta. As in: I’m going meta on yo’ ass. I couldn’t have said this in 1999. But now I can.

See you in 2010.