Most people ignorantly suppose that artists are the decorators of our human existence, the esthetes to whom the cultivated turn when the real business of the day is done…Far from being merely decorative, the artist’s awareness is one of the few guardians of the inherent sanity and equilibrium of the human spirit that we have.
– Robert Motherwell
A lovely and wonderful man, Stan Berger, died the day before yesterday after a long illness, and I went to sit shiva with his family and friends last night. I have been a very close friend of his daughter for 17 years now and spent a lot of time with her dad over the years, when she was living at his house after starting her new company, having Passover seder with his mother in Brooklyn, and seeing him on holidays and birthdays. He was a kind and loving man, with a brilliant mind, and a professor at Berkeley. His love for his daughters is what I remember most about him. His love was enormous, and unconditional. He celebrated them every time they met, with new joy. He held them during times of sadness, protected them when they felt threatened. He sustained them through the bad boyfriends, the pierced noses, the regrets and mistakes. He was in awe of their intelligence, their accomplishments, their beauty, their social lives, their boyfriends. Some of the love he had for his daughters was reflected on their friends too, and I was one who basked in his loving glow. “He was so proud of you,” Maya said, out of the blue. As if he were my own dad. I loved him too.
We sat shiva, and celebrated his life. Telling stories, remembering, and correcting others memories (“Let me tell you what his brother had hidden in the bedroom of their apartment!” “What! You applied to Oxford? I didn’t know that…” “He was the one who hired me into the department at Berkeley!” “He supported the student movement, but didn’t participate. He was a new, young professor. Back then it was like this…”). Sharing memories all night long.
Today I ran across an article referring to research done around transactive memory, a fancy way of saying that we share our memories with our spouses and partners, colleagues, children, parents and friends, that they are part of us by virtue of their memories of shared experiences. It was an idea developed by psychologist Daniel Wegner, who died in July of this year. The making of memories, keeping them, and telling the stories over and over is the very material of our lives. Our memories are jogged, amended and embellished by the memories of others, and this shared memory is one of the greatest benefits of long-term relationships. After a death, or a divorce, or a division, part of you is lost, because the shared memories are lost. “What was that story he used to tell me at bedtime when I was small?” After he dies, you can’t ask him anymore, and it is so much loss.
We’re sad, and we celebrate. We celebrate the memories we have, and the memories we made. Goodbye, Stanley Berger, Goodbye.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
– Robert Frost
Last year I met a man who did catastrophe analysis for the Federal government. He spent his days thinking about what disasters were possible, calculating their probability and doing estimates of their cost in human life, as percentages of GDP, and as breaches of national security. What a way to spend your days! As I listened to him talk my imagination was blooming with a thousand mushroom clouds, and a thousand dystopian scenarios. It was fascinating.
I just found the notes I jotted down later, which tell a story of the world ending in a thousand ways. Here they are:
- Access to water
- Population growth
Caldera under Wyoming, the Yellowstone Bulge (See Yellowstone is rising on swollen “Supervolcano”. )
- North Korea
- The rapidly declining population of Russia
- Power Grid
- Air Traffic Control
For Total Destruction, 80% of GDP:ASTEROID
I recently had occasion to look up this essay by Dave Eggers on selling out, which I loved when I first read it in 2000 or so, and which I love still. It was appended to a response to a critic who had been writing about his first book “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”. Here it is again, if you’ve forgotten it, or if you’ve never seen it before:
You actually asked me the question: “Are you taking any steps to keep shit real?” I want you always to look back on this time as being a time when those words came out of your mouth.
Now, there was a time when such a question – albeit probably without the colloquial spin – would have originated from my own brain. Since I was thirteen, sitting in my orange-carpeted bedroom in ostensibly cutting-edge Lake Forest, Illinois, subscribing to the Village Voice and reading the earliest issues of Spin, I thought I had my ear to the railroad tracks of avant garde America. (Laurie Anderson, for example, had grown up only miles away!) I was always monitoring, with the most sensitive and well-calibrated apparatus, the degree of selloutitude exemplified by any given artist – musical, visual, theatrical, whatever. I was vigilant and merciless and knew it was my job to be so.
I bought R.E.M.’s first EP, Chronic Town, when it came out and thought I had found God. I loved Murmur, Reckoning, but then watched, with greater and greater dismay, as this obscure little band’s audience grew, grew beyond obsessed people like myself, grew to encompass casual fans, people who had heard a song on the radio and picked up Green and listened for the hits. Old people liked them, and stupid people, and my moron neighbor who had sex with truck drivers. I wanted these phony R.E.M.-lovers dead.
But it was the band’s fault, too. They played on Letterman. They switched record labels. Even their album covers seemed progressively more commercial. And when everyone I knew began liking them, I stopped. Had they changed, had their commitment to making art with integrity changed? I didn’t care, because for me, any sort of popularity had an inverse relationship with what you term the keeping ‘real’ of ‘shit.’ When the Smiths became slightly popular they were sellouts. Bob Dylan appeared on MTV and of course was a sellout. Recently, just at dinner tonight, after a huge, sold-out reading by David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell (both sellouts), I was sitting next to an acquaintance, a very smart acquaintance married to the singer-songwriter of a very well-known band. I mentioned that I had seen the Flaming Lips the night before. She rolled her eyes. “Oh I really liked them on 90210,” she sneered, assuming that this would put me and the band in our respective places.
Was she aware that The Flaming Lips had composed an album requiring the simultaneous playing of four separate discs, on four separate CD players? Was she aware that the band had once, for a show at Lincoln Center, handed out to audience members something like 100 portable tape players, with 100 different tapes, and had them all played at the same time, creating a symphonic sort of effect, one which completely devastated everyone in attendance? I went on and on to her about the band’s accomplishments, their experiments. Was she convinced that they were more than their one appearance with Jason Priestly? She was.
Now, at that concert the night before, Wayne Coyne, the lead singer, had himself addressed this issue, and to great effect. After playing much of their new album, the band paused and he spoke to the audience. I will paraphrase what he said:
“Hi. Well, some people get all bitter when some song of theirs gets popular, and they refuse to play it. But we’re not like that. We’re happy that people like this song. So here it goes.”
Then they played the song. (You know the song.) “She Don’t Use Jelly” is the song, and it is a silly song, and it was their most popular song. But to highlight their enthusiasm for playing the song, the band released, from the stage and from the balconies, about 200 balloons. (Some of the balloons, it should be noted, were released by two grown men in bunny suits.) Then while playing the song, Wayne sang with a puppet on his hand, who also sang into the microphone. It was fun. It was good.
But was it a sellout? Probably. By some standards, yes. Can a good band play their hit song? Should we hate them for this? Probably, probably. First 90210, now they go playing the song every stupid night. Everyone knows that 90210 is not cutting edge, and that a cutting edge alternarock band should not appear on such a show. That rule is clearly stated in the obligatory engrained computer-chip sellout manual that we were all given when we hit adolescence.
But this sellout manual serves only the lazy and small. Those who bestow sellouthood upon their former heroes are driven to do so by, first and foremost, the unshakable need to reduce. The average one of us – a taker-in of various and constant media, is absolutely overwhelmed – as he or she should be – with the sheer volume of artistic output in every conceivable medium given to the world every day – it is simply too much to begin to process or comprehend – and so we are forced to try to sort, to reduce. We designate, we label, we diminish, we create hierarchies and categories.
Through largely received wisdom, we rule out Tom Waits’s new album because it’s the same old same old, and we save $15. U2 has lost it, Radiohead is too popular. Country music is bad, Puff Daddy is bad, the last Wallace book was bad because that one reviewer said so. We decide that TV is bad unless it’s the Sopranos. We liked Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem and Jeffrey Eugenides until they allowed their books to become movies. And on and on. The point is that we do this and to a certain extent we must do this. We must create categories, and to an extent, hierarchies.
But you know what is easiest of all? When we dismiss.
Oh how gloriously comforting, to be able to write someone off. Thus, in the overcrowded pantheon of alternarock bands, at a certain juncture, it became necessary for a certain brand of person to write off The Flaming Lips, despite the fact that everyone knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that their music was superb and groundbreaking and real. We could write them off because they shared a few minutes with Jason Priestley and that terrifying Tori Spelling person. Or we could write them off because too many magazines have talked about them. Or because it looked like the bassist was wearing too much gel in his hair.
One less thing to think about. Now, how to kill off the rest of our heroes, to better make room for new ones?
We liked Guided by Voices until they let Ric Ocasek produce their latest album, and everyone knows Ocasek is a sellout, having written those mushy Cars songs in the late 80s, and then – gasp! – produced Weezer’s album, and of course Weezer’s no good, because that Sweater song was on the radio, right, and dorky teenage girls were singing it and we cannot have that and so Weezer is bad and Ocasek is bad and Guided by Voices are bad, even if Spike Jonze did direct that one Weezer video, and we like Spike Jonze, don’t we?
Oh. No. We don’t. We don’t like him anymore because he’s married to Sofia Coppola, and she is not cool. Not cool. So bad in Godfather 3, such nepotism. So let’s check off Spike Jonze – leaving room in our brains for… who??
The only thing worse than this sort of activity is when people, students and teachers alike, run around college campuses calling each other racists and anti-Semites. It’s born of boredom, lassitude. Too cowardly to address problems of substance where such problems actually are, we claw at those close to us. We point to our neighbor, in the khakis and sweater, and cry foul. It’s ridiculous. We find enemies among our peers because we know them better, and their proximity and familiarity means we don’t have to get off the couch to dismantle them.
And now, I am also a sellout. Here are my sins, many of which you may know about already:
First, I was a sellout because Might magazine took ads.
Then I was a sellout because our pages were color, and not stapled together at the Kinko’s.
Then I was a sellout because I went to work for Esquire.
Now I’m a sellout because my book has sold many copies.
And because I have done many interviews.
And because I have let people take my picture.
And because my goddamn picture has been in just about every fucking magazine and newspaper printed in America.
And now, as far as McSweeney’s is concerned, The Advocate interviewer wants to know if we’re losing also our edge, if the magazine is selling out, hitting the mainstream, if we’re still committed to publishing unknowns, and pieces killed by other magazines.
And the fact is, I don’t give a fuck. When we did the last issue, this was my thought process: I saw a box. So I decided we’d do a box. We were given stories by some of our favorite writers – George Saunders, Rick Moody (who is uncool, uncool!), Haruki Murakami, Lydia Davis, others – and so we published them. Did I wonder if people would think we were selling out, that we were not fulfilling the mission they had assumed we had committed ourselves to?
No. I did not. Nor will I ever. We just don’t care. We care about doing what we want to do creatively. We want to be interested in it. We want it to challenge us. We want it to be difficult. We want to reinvent the stupid thing every time. Would I ever think, before I did something, of how those with sellout monitors would respond to this or that move? I would not. The second I sense a thought like that trickling into my brain, I will put my head under the tires of a bus.
You want to know how big a sellout I am?
A few months ago I wrote an article for Time magazine and was paid $12,000 for it I am about to write something, 1,000 words, 3 pages or so, for something called Forbes ASAP, and for that I will be paid $6,000 For two years, until five months ago, I was on the payroll of ESPN magazine, as a consultant and sometime contributor. I was paid handsomely for doing very little. Same with my stint at Esquire. One year I spent there, with little to no duties. I wore khakis every day. Another Might editor and I, for almost a year, contributed to Details magazine, under pseudonyms, and were paid $2000 each for what never amounted to more than 10 minutes work – honestly never more than that. People from Hollywood want to make my book into a movie, and I am probably going to let them do so, and they will likely pay me a great deal of money for the privilege.
Do I care about this money? I do. Will I keep this money? Very little of it. Within the year I will have given away almost a million dollars to about 100 charities and individuals, benefiting everything from hospice care to an artist who makes sculptures from Burger King bags. And the rest will be going into publishing books through McSweeney’s. Would I have been able to publish McSweeney’s if I had not worked at Esquire? Probably not. Where is the $6000 from Forbes going? To a guy named Joe Polevy, who wants to write a book about the effects of radiator noise on children in New England.
Now, what if I were keeping all the money? What if I were buying property in St. Kitt’s or blew it all on live-in prostitutes? What if, for example, I was, a few nights ago, sitting at a table in SoHo with a bunch of Hollywood slash celebrity acquaintances, one of whom I went to high school with, and one of whom was Puff Daddy? Would that make me a sellout? Would that mean I was a force of evil?
What if a few nights before that I was at the home of Julian Schnabel, at a party featuring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, and at which Schnabel said we should get together to talk about him possibly directing my movie? And what if I said sure, let’s?
Would all that make me a sellout? Would I be uncool? Would it have been more cool to not go to this party, or to not have written that book, or done that interview, or to have refused millions from Hollywood?
The thing is, I really like saying yes. I like new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something, even when it’s corny or stupid. I am not good at saying no. And I do not get along with people who say no. When you die, and it really could be this afternoon, under the same bus wheels I’ll stick my head if need be, you will not be happy about having said no. You will be kicking your ass about all the no’s you’ve said. No to that opportunity, or no to that trip to Nova Scotia or no to that night out, or no to that project or no to that person who wants to be naked with you but you worry about what your friends will say.
No is for wimps. No is for pussies. No is to live small and embittered, cherishing the opportunities you missed because they might have sent the wrong message.
There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out. One worries whether or not wearing a certain shirt means that they are behind the curve or ahead of it, or that having certain music in one’s collection means that they are impressive, or unimpressive.
Thankfully, for some, this all passes. I am here to tell you that I have, a few years ago, found my way out of that thicket of comparison and relentless suspicion and judgment. And it is a nice feeling. Because, in the end, no one will ever give a shit who has kept shit ‘real’ except the two or three people, sitting in their apartments, bitter and self-devouring, who take it upon themselves to wonder about such things. The keeping real of shit matters to some people, but it does not matter to me. It’s fashion, and I don’t like fashion, because fashion does not matter.
What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’s new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.
I say yes, and Wayne Coyne says yes, and if that makes us the enemy, then good, good, good. We are evil people because we want to live and do things. We are on the wrong side because we should be home, calculating which move would be the least damaging to our downtown reputations. But I say yes because I am curious. I want to see things. I say yes when my high school friend tells me to come out because he’s hanging with Puffy. A real story, that. I say yes when Hollywood says they’ll give me enough money to publish a hundred different books, or send twenty kids through college. Saying no is so fucking boring.
And if anyone wants to hurt me for that, or dismiss me for that, for saying yes, I say Oh do it, do it you motherfuckers, finally, finally, finally.
The internet is full of strangers, generous strangers who want to help you for no reason at all. Strangers post poetry and discographies and advice and essays and photos and art and diatribes. None of them are known to you, in the old-fashioned sense. But they give the internet its life and meaning.
I first got online in the late 80s, when I was an eccentric teenager in suburban New Jersey, in a town mostly interested in sports, popularity and clothes. I was a reader, into Jorge Luis Borges, and I found, connected to and delighted in a group of Borges scholars from Aarhus, Denmark that I met online. It was early days, the days before COPA (now COPPA), chat rooms and a/s/l, when the level of discourse was high, and the number of scoundrels was low. The lonely “no one understands me” use case for online communities is one of the strongest ones. How many people, different from those around them, have finally found a home among strangers on the internet?
I learned most of what I knew about online communities on The Well, and it was a good place to learn. The group of people in Sausalito and Bolinas who’d gotten the Whole Earth Catalog off the ground — a bunch of boomer hippies, intellectuals and nerds — established the “Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”, and showed us what online communities were. They taught us how to create a civilized space, to speak in our own voices, use our real names, fan the flames of friendliness, to boot and ban trolls. They showed us how to mediate flame wars, start and end conversations, tease out contributions from the shy and lurking, engage in healthy debate. The mantra of the place was “You Own Your Own Words”, a phrase coined by Stewart Brand, one of the Well’s founders, meaning you not only have the right to say your piece, but also that you have to take responsibility for the consequences of those words.
Maybe I just found all the great places to hang out online, but the communities I found were most often characterized by their incredible generosity. On Metafilter, a group of strangers worked together to rescue two women from villains who appeared to be sex traffickers. The nephew of a man with Downs Syndrome who was suffering from cancer posted that his uncle loved to receive mail, and received hundreds of letters from complete strangers. Amit Gupta announced that he had been diagnosed with leukemia and needed to find a matching bone marrow transplant, but it was difficult to find matches for Southeast Asians, who are underrepresented in donor databases. Countless conversations, tweets and blog posts conspired to help him — and subsequently other underrepresented groups — find a donor. The outbursts of care and kindness happen every day to my continual astonishment.
And then came the sunset of the Golden Age. The Dot Com era began, and things got serious. Online community became the hyped new thing that every new web site had to have. While motor oil, laundry detergent and pantyhose don’t seem like natural foci for gathering and sociality, attempts were made — repeatedly and laughably — to form communities around such products. And forums and chat spaces, which I’d seen as a merry places for interesting people, became, often enough, shady places for iffy people. Because for every gay teenager living in a remote, conservative, homophobic town who finally connected with his people, a white supremacist found another. A cannibal found someone who was interested in being eaten. Trolling, hating and spamming became a surge, then a flood.
“Communities are defined by what they tolerate,” says Heather Champ, who worked with me at Flickr guiding and cultivating the community there. Flickr’s community was something we cultivated in a hands-on, very engaged way, greeting, welcoming and befriending the first 20,000 users. And, famously, in the Flickr community list of dos and don’ts, Heather wrote this beautiful, concise guideline :
Don’t be creepy.
You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.
Community management is an art, not a science. It requires an iron fist in a velvet glove, and Heather is a mandarin. She’ll endlessly fight for the disenfranchised to have their space, for artists to practice their art, for peaceful coexistence and tolerance, for people’s right to privacy — while ruthlessly squashing trolls and silencing the hate.
Now I am building Findery, a new community built around places, with a team that includes Heather. A lot of things have changed since the days of Flickr. Facebook has concentrated the sociality of the internet within its blue borders, like a Walmart siphoning off the mom-and-pop shops that formerly comprised the internet’s gathering places. Communication, in the age of mobile dominance, has become, of necessity, shorter and snack-sized. Gone are the long debates on The Well. Gone are the Olden Dayes of the Independent Web. But never gone is the miraculousness of connecting with people remote from our houses, but close to our hearts.
Each online community decides what it is going to be, and in the end, reflects the people that participate in it. The internet is made of people. Like Anne Frank, I believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, people are good at heart. And always, on the internet, I am astounded by people’s insistence on being generous, compassionate and kind.
A version of this post appeared in Wired last year
Some amazing stories about Mandela, his law firm, his children’s umbilical cords, the prison:
- Pop-Up Magazine is an amazing “live” magazine that started here in San Francisco, and consists talks, performances, demos and slide shows in front of a live audience. It is a live event that only happens once, and is unrecorded, a rarity in these days of constant recording and archiving. It is almost impossible to get tickets — they go on sale at noon, and the entire Davis Symphony Hall — thousands of seats — is usually sold out by 12:05. Somehow we got tickets off the waiting list and were able to go on Monday night. The theme of the night was music, and framed by Beck’s collection of sheet music, performed by various artists — some were amazing, some were average. Stories about music, stories, songs. The ephemeral is so rare.
- Today is Commencement ceremonies for The New School at Jacob Javits, where I am to receive an Honorary Doctorate. This will be the first graduation since Junior High School for Joi Ito, who is also receiving a degree. He wasn’t sure what the protocol was for robes and such, and we told him it was traditional to go naked beneath your robes. We’ll see what he shows up in.
- While out here, I visited Donald at Findery East, and interviewed him for the blog about using Findery for his road trip. Williamsburg is so expensive these days!
- We ate last night at Chez Sardine, where the music was too loud, and the service slow (though kind, and accommodating), but the food was excellent.
- Apartamento, a magazine out of Spain, but written in English, is one of my favorite magazines. The latest issue just arrived in the mail today and I am happily listening to YLE and leafing through it.
- I was in NY last week for an Etsy board meeting — I love that company! — and a bunch of other meetings.
- There is some amazing digital media at The New York Public Library, which I got to see too (after a lovely lunch at Szechuan Gourmet), and some beautiful maps. Hopefully some of the amazingness will be coming to Findery soon.
- I’m sure there was some amazing art at the Frieze Art Fair, but I wasn’t able to find it. However, found some friends there, which was even better. And the boat to and from was lovely.
- Mookie is an exceptional Westie that lives in the West Village. We walked him.
- The wall at Le Philosophe is covered with French philosophers, and supposedly, if you are able to name all of them, they will pay for your meal. I was only able to identify Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Descartes and, I think, Foucault. And, I think, Luce Irigaray. The food was amazing, and I was happy to pay for it. Or, rather, to have it paid for on my behalf. Duck, hear? And the snails to start, which were as unlike any snails I’d had before as it was possible to be. Delicious.
- Later, after a close call, we headed to Marie’s Crisis Cafe, a singalong piano bar specializing in show tunes. We managed some Summer Lovin, from Grease, and Let The Sun Shine In, from Aquarius, while managing our Tom Collinses.
What I fault newspapers for is that day after day they draw our attention to insignificant things whereas only three or four times in our lives do we read a book in which there is something really essential. Since we tear the band off the newspaper so feverishly every morning, they ought to change things and put into the paper, oh, I don’t know, perhaps…Pascal’s Pensees! …and then, in a gilt-edged volume that we open only once in ten years…we would read that the Queen if Greece has gone to Cannes or that the Princesses de Leon has given a costume ball. This way the proper proportions would be te established.
- Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time