Twitters from Brueghel

June 14, 2009 at 9:59 pm (By Amba) (, )

The landscape on Twitter today, with Iran’s opposition going down in flames while many of us watched ball games and ate and laughed, was this picture and the two poems written about it.


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Musée Des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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Twitter Guilt

June 12, 2009 at 10:40 am (By Amba) (, , , , )

I think I got into my first real Twitter jam session last night — those polyphonic volleys where you have to run and leap and snap each other’s responses out of the air like a dog playing Frisbee or an orca voguing for fish . . . where you have to track the threads of the conversation by weaving like an undercover detective through the throng of unrelated tweets, and where the elements of the exchange overlap like the parts of a fugue or canon.  And you’re trying to channel big ideas through a 140-character aperture.  It’s a distinctly new kind of mental challenge that takes about eight metaphors to surround and approximate.  If it’s most like any one thing, it’s probably playing jazz in a small combo in a noisy club, straining to hear, not knowing what your fellow musicians are going to play next, but all trying to keep the original melody at least distantly in mind.

So if I was having fun and exercising my brain, why do I feel guilty?

For one thing, I kicked off the thread by going over to Anchoress’s and starting a fight with her.  A friendly fight; we may disagree some of the time but it is (I daresay) with mutual affection and respect.  I felt that my political allergies were getting unbalanced and that I needed to go roll in some nettles on the right.  What drives me nuts on both sides is the way demonizing Bush seems to require deifying Obama, and in turn, demonizing Obama seems to require . . . well, gushing over capitalism, lately.  (And if you recoil from gushing over capitalism, it must mean you hate capitalism and side with those who want to destroy it and bring on socialism . . . no, no, NO!)  The rhetoric itself leads to paranoid black-and-white hyperbole like calling Bush, or now Obama, a “tyrant” poised to end presidential term limits and free elections, and painting an idealized, Norman Rockwell picture like this one of the glories of yeoman free enterprise that airbrushes out the megacorporate excess and fraud.  (Or, on the left, a socialist-realist wall mural depicting the Peaceable Kingdom of multiculturalism — Latina lesbians in overalls! — painted on some desolate urban underpass.)

So why do I feel guilty about such an observation? Because I realized that I am not the audience for blog posts of this sort.  They’re publicly posted, of course, the way a patriotic brass-band concert might be held in a public park, but it’s not polite to disrupt such a concert; if the oompah of Sousa sets your teeth on edge, just leave.  Criticizing such posts is as mean-spirited and irrelevant as fisking some other country’s national anthem.  People on the right (and left) write these posts for each other.  They’re hymns of agreement, they’re meant to rouse and rally and tune resolve.  They’re tuned to a pitch I cannot hear, or can’t hear without distortion.  In other words, it’s none of my business, and to go over there just to aggravate myself is rude.  Of course, that’s not what I go for; I go for goosebumps, like this and this.  I think I should keep my aggravation to myself instead of putting it on gratuitous display.

But there’s another kind of Twitter guilt I’m feeling that’s harder to define.  An intense conversation can’t be called a waste of time, so that’s not it.  What is it?  It feels reckless, irresponsible, heady, to be throwing big ideas around like that.  Too much reward for too little work?  Shame at having given in to the temptation to hold forth on things I know nothing about?  (How grandiose one can be in miniature!)  Twits rush in where angels fear to tread?  There was a kind of unearned intoxication . . .  Ah!  I know where I recognize this feeling from!

The hung-over morning after a college bull session.

UPDATE: And now I can pinpoint it a little further:  although I write about ideas a lot — in many cases, they’re all I’ve got — I’m wary of them.  I have a little bit of a “no ideas but in things” bias.  Ideas are like hot-air balloons:  they can easily get untethered from the earth and float bloatedly away.  Sometimes Twitter is like a collective balloon release.

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The Longest Day: My Excellent Adventures Offline

April 27, 2009 at 3:22 am (By Amba) (, , )

I. I don’t know exactly what made me decide to take an Internet sabbath yesterday.  I think it was Twitter that was the last straw.  Now I had a new thing to run and check every few minutes, and before each segment of my workout, and instead of vacuuming, and . . . there I was, ending a long yet too-quick day, already riddled with time online, by catching up with the whole Twitter stream and even trying to goose it along a little bit, refreshing the browser in the hope that someone would still say something . . . My disabled husband was deteriorating from neglect (and my deadline excuse ended Friday), my young Siamese cat came and stared intently cross-eyed into my eyes, touched my face with a paw to invite me to play, and I couldn’t be bothered because I was reading somebody’s damned tweet, or writing one.

I was disgusted with myself, and a little alarmed.  When I first got to New York, 21 and very shy, at some point I realized I was using a glass or two of wine to loosen up socially.  That dependency set off an alarm bell and I stopped drinking anything alcoholic for a while.  This was like that.

I didn’t have any big plans to quit — going online is not a dangerous drug, after all, it’s a semi-productive and understandably beguiling activity — just take a day off to break the insidious stranglehold it was getting on me, like some caressing, immobilizing vine.  The only way to do it was to decide that going online Sunday was simply not an option.  When at one point I needed to look up a medical item in my archived e-mail — the only time I touched the computer all day — I felt a stab of panic and hope:  how could I do that without getting today’s e-mail, and thereby getting sucked back into the vortex?  Much as I felt the sick habitual tug, I really didn’t want to go there.  Simple:  turn off AirPort.

But what if my parents try to reach me, and worry? They’ll call you, idiot.  Better yet, you call them.

II. An hour or two in — time spent doing chores with uncommon focus and dispatch — I think, I feel like a better person already.

I think about how much fun it will be to go online tomorrow and post about what a better person I was when I wasn’t online.

Notice that with chagrin.  Think, what the hell.  Might as well go online right now and write a post called “Failed Experiment,” concluding that I am a bad person.

Oh, no you don’t.  Not an option.

So then I think of writing all these thoughts down so I can make them into a funny post tomorrow.  (And I actually did:  otherwise I’d never remember all this.)  My funny post will be famous:  most e-mailed!  Most tweeted!  And then I think, what the &%@#?!  I’m not online, and I’m still online!  I’m still playing the game, still not playing with the cat, cleaning up, or working out, much less attending to my husband.

III. Every time I have a thought, even a trivial one, I feel an urge to share and/or display it — because I can.  Each thought coins itself in crisp, sharp words, almost as if already typed out.  But if I don’t actually type it out, it will quickly blur, and then dissolve and be washed away without a trace, the way most thoughts in human heads were before all this was invented.  Why did you think they were called “passing thoughts,” dolt?

The reality, though, is that even if I do type it out, it will still blur, dissolve, and be washed away.  We’re all thinking into the Intertubes the way we’re pissing into the plumbing:  the vast majority of our thoughts merely mingle as they flow through the sewer system and out to sea.

No matter.  If I’ve typed mine out in a public place, even if no one sees or remembers them, I’ve written my “Kilroy Was Here” on an underpass of the universe.

IV. I develop a grudging new respect for the people who are online to flog blogs and Twitter for commerce.  At least they’re getting something out of it besides primate jollies.  It’s mortifying to be spending so much time in what is essentially glorified grooming.

V. God, there’s a lot of time out here!

On a usual Sunday morning, the beginning of This Week overtakes me:  I look up from the computer screen and I’ve already missed the first ten minutes.  This morning I wait for ten o’clock and it dawdles and dallies toward me.  It’s 9:50! I go into the bathroom and read an old Vanity Fair for half an hour.  I come out and it’s 9:55!

This is refreshing, especially when you’ve been feeling like you were lashed to the front of a bullet train hurtling deathwards.  I feel as if I’ve suddenly stumbled on the secret of long life and it isn’t, like we joke in my family, Keep breathing! It’s Quit tweeting!

There is lots of time — more than you know what to do with — and there is also a superabundance of free attention to lavish on each thing you do, to surround it with from all sides.  Each thing you do is very three-dimensional; you have time on your hands and bandwidth in your brain to contemplate it from infinite angles, like Picasso.  You realize you’ve been living in Flatland — everything reduced to a screen.

I discover what I’ve been escaping from.  I discover the bleakness of paying steady attention to a mentally disabled companion.  I discover that it would be possible to clean house incessantly, as my mother almost does — there’s always one more thing to put away or wipe up — and what does it get you?  A clean house.

J confounds all my resolutions to dedicate myself to his revival; all he wants to do is sleep.  So I tackle my files.  I compulsively organized them once before, but then for a year or more I just threw everything into a bottom file drawer, to be sorted out “later.”  But now it’s later:  I’m going to have to do the taxes, so I tear through these piles of paper fast and furiously, throwing an enormous amount out (envelopes, fly cards, bill inserts) and organizing the rest.  Being an all-or-nothing kind of person, I save and file scrupulously by date things I know I’ll probably never need.  Unless the IRS audits me.  But I don’t feel there’s order unless there’s order down to the bone.  That’s why I let things get into such a mess, if that makes any sense at all.

It’s only when I take a break from filing that I feel a pang of the urge to spend my break online, and it’s only habit — each pang gets fainter, like fading echoes.

I do laundry.  I hand-wash my delicate shirts.  I vacuum.  Finally J wakes up and agrees to work out with me.  And he starts to come out of his decline and daze.  For the first time since before I went to Florida, he can stand up with the walker just long and strong enough for me to grab the waistband of his pants (I’m standing on the bed with one foot on the seat of the wheelchair) and swivel him into the wheelchair.  He does some vestigial stretches and karate punches sitting down, and I see the moment when he comes even more into focus.  After we work out I take him to K&W Cafeteria for supper.  We come home and I watch The Negotiator and In Treatment with him.  I get him into bed.  I play with Rainy for a good long time.

Only then do I warily circle around writing this.  I feel as if I’ve completely lost the fevered beat, and it feels good, like finally getting free of an earworm.  It’s reassuring that I can de-adapt so fast.  And it’s pleasurable, so I’ll want to do it again.

VI. I still don’t think the Internet is a bad drug.  On the contrary.  The blogosphere and the Twitterverse are places of amazing ferment:  a hive mind to which each brings a dab of nectar; a teeming sourdough starter for the next culture.  Their genius — and their jonesiness — is being at once a place to chatter and brag and play for laughs, as comes so naturally to us tribal primates, and a place of contagion and mutation, an agora where ideas cross-fertilize as fast as viruses swap genes.

It’s just that, like anything, it isn’t everything.  And when it starts to become everything, it’s time to turn off, tune out, and drop in.  Real life is the mother lode.  The more you go there, the more you’ll have to bring back.

~ amba

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