Imagine you live in a country. It’s larger than Lichtenstein, but smaller than America, lots smaller. Maybe something like Portugal or Austria even. That’s significantly smaller than Texas. France is a bit smaller than Texas. We’re talking some country only a quarter or less of California. It’s still a country with cities and such–it would take quite a while to walk from one end to the other, especially if you stopped to talk to folks along the way.
Now suppose, in order to make it much, much easier for everyone in the country to talk to each other, all the sports fields–soccer pitches both professional and amateur, all the school yards, all of the parks–were converted into Talk Bubbles. A new technology. Inflated domes were put over these areas, shiny so you couldn’t see inside. Everyone could step inside the Bubble nearest them and talk to anyone…anyone, that is, who also had stepped inside a Bubble in their own locale. You didn’t even have to pay to walk inside your nearest Bubble; all you had to do was agree to wear a monitoring device which you were assured didn’t listen in “exactly” but parsed words it heard and relayed those words back to the folks who ran the Bubbles. Oh, and the device also relayed where you walked in the Bubble. That’s all. Easy-peasy, ever so sleazy. (woops, sorry about that).
You love it at first. Your job took you to Lisbon but look, right over there’s a handful of schoolmates from college, from that little village we loved so well (and so long ago)! And more, from your elementary school! You can just talk to them! Of course, as you walk over to them you have several persons intercept you and say things like, “Have you ever wondered about removing your ugly warts?” and “Let me tell you why you should never invest in stocks!” It’s annoying but you brush them off, basically just ignoring them and walking away.
Over time you start to wonder why the guy about the warts–or a woman; it’s not always the same person but the message is the same–keeps intercepting you no matter where you walk. You realize you once said to your friends, “Remember that song from when we were children, ‘Walter Wart, the Freaky Frog’?” (That’s a real song by the Thorndike Pickledish Choir; look it up.) Suddenly you realize you started seeing Wart Guy after you asked that question. Then you realize you’re starting to see that guy and his cohorts everywhere you walk. Even weirder, nameless folk come up to you and say things like, “Do you know Melissa Mickleberger? She’s over there.” Sometimes you do know Melissa, but sometimes Melissa is just some stranger. These interruptions occur a little more frequently now…plus your paranoia starts to grow, making it doubly annoying.
Later you find out the owners of the Bubbles actually are listening to what you say, and they’re selling that information. Never mind why, it’s too boring and scary all at the same time. What’s far more annoying to the point of effrontery seems to be occurring more and more: a contentious election approaches, and when you’re having a nice polite discussion with your friends, someone else walks up and screams “WHAT A COMPLETE IDIOT YOU ARE!”. Your friend just smiles and says, “Oh, don’t mind Roger, he just gets a little worked up is all.” Then pretty soon your friend starts saying to you, “You know, I’m not sure about that. My friend Roger says, ….” and then adds something so outlandish, you wonder what has happened to this friend of yours. If your friend and you were still in grade five, you would merely point out that Roger also wears his shirts backwards and the two of you would laugh, secure in the knowledge that you’re both still on the same friendship page, and Roger is a Very Peculiar Individual who shouldn’t be trusted to provide accurate, truthful, relevant information. Instead, when you cautiously query your friend privately, you find out she thinks Roger might be on to something. “After all, a lot of Roger’s friends are saying the same thing, and lately so are quite a few of my friends. You’re still my friend, aren’t you?”
Disturbingly, you’ve noticed your friendship now depends, at the very least, on tolerating Roger, and you can see the writing on the wall. Pretty soon you’ll have to agree with what Roger says if you want to remain friends. A friendship built on shared experience has become predicated on Belief and Opinion. You start to notice also that all of this friend’s friends say almost the exact same thing, much like a Twilight Zone episode or that Stepford Wives thing from a long time ago.
It finally comes to this: when you’re standing around as part of a circle of old high school chums–and frankly you don’t know a lot of them, but the ones you do know are all friends with the other ones, and hey, it was a big school–the topic turns political again. Strong opinions get stated, opinions you agree with. One person, though, says something not logical and all the others immediately say, “yeah! That’s right!” When you speak up to say, “well, but that’s not actually factual or logical” the group turns on you as if you were carrying typhoid or you had just molested a child or something equally reprehensible.
You walk to the Bubble’s exit. To the attendant there you state, “I am not coming back. You can take my name off of the list of approved entrants.” “Oh, no!” cries the attendant. “You can’t be serious! Are you sure you don’t want to just take a vacation from the Bubble?” You’ve taken vacations before so you say, “no, I don’t,” to which the attendant replies, sorrowfully, “well, okay, but any time you want to come back in, all you have to do is show up, say to the current attendant ‘just reactivate my Bubble Device’ and you can rejoin the Community!” The last phrase has a near-religious tone to it.
While walking the streets of Lisbon you begin to realize some things. Virtually all of those friends with whom you connected were not so important that you ever took time to look them up when you were in the home village. The few you talked to who weren’t historical friends–in other words, people you met in the Bubble–were people you only knew from limited conversation in the Bubble. You’ve had similarly engaging but shallow conversations in bars on a Thursday evening with strangers. Your friend who kept bringing Roger to the conversation had a habit of listening to and spreading outrageous gossip about teachers and students when she and you were classmates. You also realize your True Friends were those you stayed in contact with before the Bubbles. Though a few say they miss your presence in the Bubble, when they see you on the streets, you still see them, you still laugh/cry/argue with them. Nothing has changed; life still goes on outside the Bubble; the Bubble is not life or an approximation thereof.
And then it hits you: the Bubble has somehow focused, distilled, accentuated the tendencies we had before. It has connected the gossips from your early schooling with those of your university and those early co-workers. All of the people who annoyed you individually but in isolation as you grew up now have the ability to connect in the Bubble and reinforce each other’s message. They’ve grown in volume simply because they speak in unison. The promise of the Bubble–that we can connect and forge a more social and socially aware community–has produced just the opposite. People are meant to interact differently: anonymously sometimes, reservedly most of the time, and definitely more intermittently than in the Bubble. In the Bubble people seem to talk as if they are in their cars where no one can hear what they’re saying. What the Bubble has produced then are people revealing the thoughts which just ought not to be revealed. Not that individuals should repress themselves, but any psychotherapist will likely confess they hear things which should remain between the patient and the therapist for the good of society, for the individual, and for the individual’s friends and social life.
After a few weeks you notice other, rival Bubbles have sprung up which you did not know about. You see that the people entering these Bubbles do not enter your former company’s Bubble. Far from encouraging societal discourse, you realize people have been splintered into non-communicating Bubbles built, not on ideology but on the corporate interests of those launching the bubbles. Still, you try one, thinking it might offer something a bit less manipulated than the first Bubble. It does, in a limited way, but none of the people you want to talk to are here. The Bubble itself is confusing. Soon, lacking patronage, this alternate Bubble shuts down.
You go back to the Bubble nearest you operated by the original Bubble company (OBC?). When you approach the door, the attendant gets ready to admit you but you say, “No, I want you to erase me from your lists. I want you to make it so I will never enter a Bubble of yours again. I want you to delete all of the information you’ve gathered about me. I frankly never want to enter a Bubble of yours again.” The attendant huffs and makes you sign some forms where you acknowledge you will lose all of the conversations you’ve ever had in the Bubble–to which you inwardly say, “oh thank God”–and then it’s done.
You walk away with a bounce in your step, knowing you will have True and Real conversations for the rest of your life.
My mother loved the quail which started to appear in the backyard years after I had left home for good. I’ve never bothered to find out why deer and quail became so common in the past few decades. Loss of habitat as the city limits pushed further out? Seems backwards. Regardless, appear they did, more and more, until coveys could be observed daily running through the backyard, spring through fall. Smaller groups appeared in the winter. My mother just loved them. She purchased a small wooden carving of one.
My wife, Philadelphia-born and -bred, also loves quail. A city girl, any game bird interests her, but the cuteness and the comical mating calls of the males in spring really grabbed her fancy and held on.
When my mother died in the fall of 2019, and we settled out the belongings, I took a quiet satisfaction when she opted to snag the little wooden quail and place it on our mantel at home.
When the tree leaves’ colors change, when Americans ready for Thanksgiving holiday and the mad rush of a Christmas season, my thoughts always turn to a few singular brewers. These brewers produce the quality I demand on my holiday table. Brewery Ommegang is one such brewer. Although this photo is from 2012, we first discovered this brewery a few years after it opened in 1997.
Ironically, there’s a fair chance an Ommegang beer will not grace our holiday fest. Two 750ml bottles of Chimay Grande Reserve await, plus a bottle of Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde (which seems an appropriate beer for our times). Then again… (says the thirsty avaricious one)…
Inadvertently, I have discovered I’ve always been meant to essay.
Today I pulled down a dozen issues of Granta, with the intent to pluck the issue I once received which had travel writing as a theme. This I would gift to my brother with whom I share a love of good travel writing: Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Bill Bryson, et al. Because these issues were from the 1980s, I reasoned, this would be a fun backwards look at writers we now respect, writers who were but beginning to be known at the time.
For those who remain unfamiliar with Granta, its existence since 1889 as an outlet for literary exploration has been a source of refreshment to us literati (of which I am only an acolyte). Founded by students at Cambridge University, the publication fell on hard times in the 1970s. It was acquired by postgrads and their friends and relaunched in 1979 as a quarterly publication. I subscribed somewhere around 1986 or 1987 and continued through 1990.
In an oddly fortunate turn, I couldn’t find the issue I remember, “In Trouble Again” which featured a panoply of then-current travel writers. Perhaps I gave it to him already? No matter. It caused me to look through all of the issues I have, those from Spring 1987 to Spring 1990 plus an issue I think was a bonus for subscribing, volume #8 from 1983. (I believe the issue I’m looking for was also a bonus issue.) In looking through all of my issues, which I have not since the early 1990s, I realized what fantastic writing it is. I want to read these pieces again, all of them. Here is Hanif Kureishi writing “With Your Tongue Down My Throat” back when he only was known for writing plays, and not many of those. Multiple issues feature Bruce Chatwin and Bill Bryson. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Mario Vargas Llosa. Jay McInerney (Mr. “Bright Lights, Big City”). Ryszard Kapuscinski, wandering the world as a Polish communist. Salman Rushdie. And certainly I should but don’t recognize some of the other names out of the volumes I just pulled at random.
When I left off with Granta I instinctively turned to other sources of expository writing: Pushcart essay collections, books by Nicholson Baker (A Box Of Matches), Verlyn Klinkenborg (The Rural Life), Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem), Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), and Making Waves, a collection of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa. I reveled in a large book purchased for $2 from a used bookstore in Hobart, New York, (population 400-something), The Art of the Personal Essay, an anthology of essays from the classical era to the present curated by Phillip Lopate.
From when I was 13 I fancied myself a writer. As I’ve detailed in other pieces, I beat my head against the wall of You Are A Writer Of Fiction. It has always appealed to me because you invent the stories out of your head. You don’t have to go research anything, you don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to go interview people, you don’t have to do anything but be creative. I grew up, though, and learned that yes, you do need to do these things to be successful (i.e., make enough money to not starve).
Yet after I took this literary excursion I realized I have arrived where I always wanted to be. Essayists do not make special efforts to research so that they can write. They usually write out of experience, wisdom, and self-contained knowledge. They do not attempt to follow a structure to ‘hook’ the reader or create characters who will follow the inevitable crisis-obstacles-solution-redemption cycle which ‘guarantees’ success. They do not attempt to sway society through pithy and incisive novels commenting on the human condition. Essayists just write. They attempt to entertain themselves, yet write to a wider audience. They seek to illuminate an idea, a feeling, a place, a time, a memory, a person, and sometimes several of these at once. What they don’t do is attempt anything grand. In essence, they don’t “attempt” anything. They just write.
I’ve been bemused that after 15 months this site has yet to see one piece of fiction. I had thought to post short stories and micro-novellas here, but nothing has moved me to do so. I’ve just written, and what gets published has been poetry and essays. So be it. We write what we write.
Perhaps at an earlier age I would have attempted to force myself through other hoops. Practicing certain techniques, I might have become adept at it, enjoyed it, and then you would (maybe) be reading those works of fiction. It has not been thus. My entire writing life has been 99% expository writing: a journey of persuasion, reflection, explanation, instruction, and self-discovery. As Ursula Le Guinn wrote in A Wizard of Earthsea, “The truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing but does only and wholly what he must do.”
My one-draft-and-done approach to college papers, my write-on-a-deadline life as a reporter makes it such that I must hold myself back from hitting the Publish button reflexively. What might be “good enough” isn’t usually good enough. I have an exhilarating freedom, however, in writing from my heart and my experience without worrying where the chips should fall. I guess I’m an essayist. There are worse things to be.
I read a book once. I checked it out of my high school library; I was a sophomore. It was arranged like this, one concept per line, and it explained infinity. A difficult concept, so only one idea per line. It taught me that one infinity can exist inside another, therefore the second infinity's bigger. And if you add "1" to the second infinity, it's bigger than it was before. I read this book while waiting for our wrestling team to compete. I co-managed the team, and I relished being the one to watch the locker room during matches meaning I could read uninterrupted for a long time. This book both increased, and decreased, my awe for The Infinite, and it did nothing to explain how more than fifty years later I see/feel/understand what went through my head as I read this book while young men in stretchy uniforms grabbed each other's crotch.