Virgina Woolf, Literature and The Body

Leslie Jamison writes about the body in The Atlantic, and in the article this quote from Virginia Woolf’s Essay “On Being Ill:

Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night, the body intervenes…

Isolation and the Homestead Act

I had never understood why the farmlands of the US had been settled in such a sparse and isolated way, whereas the farming communities in Europe seemed closer, more convivial, centered around village life. It turns out it was mostly due to the Homestead Act, passed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, which granted land to homesteaders, 160 acres each, from unappropriated federal land.

I’ve been reading the autobiography of Loren Eiseley, “All the Strange Hours”, and found the explanation. In it he wrote:

The medical observers of the early century had a good deal to say about the life of women in soddies, on lonely homesteads, and what it could do to them. Americans made a mistake they have been paying for ever since. In response to the Homestead Act they have been strung out at nighttime into a vast solitude rather than linked to the old-world village with its adjoining plots.

Sod House

A Milton, North Dakota, photographer took this picture of John and Marget Bakken and their two children, Tilda and Eddie, in front of their sod house in Milton in 1898. John Bakken was the son of Norwegian immigrants, who homesteaded and built a sod house in Milton in 1896. This sod house was used as the basis for the design of the Homestead Act Commemorative Stamp in 1962.

Most people ign…

Quote

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

Sitting Shiva for Stan, and Shared Memories

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.

How the World will End: Possibilities

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:

Societal collapse

  • Access to water
  • Population growth
  • Inequality

Climate Change
Caldera under Wyoming, the Yellowstone Bulge (See Yellowstone is rising on swollen “Supervolcano”. )
Undersea Range
Ocean acidification
Nuclear Strike

  • North Korea
  • China
  • The rapidly declining population of Russia

Cyber Attack

  • Power Grid
  • Air Traffic Control
  • Military

Pandemic
For Total Destruction, 80% of GDP:ASTEROID

Online communities

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

Pop-Up Magazine & Commencement

  • 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.

Scrapbook

  • 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.
    Mookie

  • 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.