Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Problem with Facebook

In trying to advertise my wife, Lynn's, books on Amazon Kindle, I am told by all those who know to use Facebook, which I have long resisted, to get the word out: network and connect, I am told.

Having had my email hacked three times and my credit card number stolen more than once, I am very cautious about releasing any more information than necessary about my life, such as my photo and my friends, to the waiting world. I have no need to share the details of what I ate today or where I shopped or even what I read with strangers.

Facebook's stated purpose, apparently, is to provide the world with access to me, my life, my appearance, and my friends, who probably don't want to be bothered being connected to me via the internet and more than I want to be automatically connected with them--unless I write to them.

So I was interested today to read that a class-action lawsuit has been filed against Facebook, with 60,000 co-signers (so far).  This came in a piece by Phoebe M. Bory on the issue of parental overshare--a new term to me but one immediately made clear: an open discussion in print or online about one's parents or children and their private problems. At issue is a father writing in the Atlantic about his young son's exposure to porn on the internet. 

Does everything in our lives have to be shared with everyone else? This is only one of the questions Bory raises:  how would the child feel at a later time in her or his life about parents going public about such a problem?What authority does anyone, including a parent, have to share intimate details about another's life?

Even when names are changed, readers are put in the awkward, voyeuristic position of learning about what should remain in the family, and the children involved are at risk.

The line between private and public in this era of social networking has to be more firmly drawn.

As for me, I now have a more substantive reason for avoiding any involvement with Facebook.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Problem with Maureen Dowd

I've sometimes wondered why the New York Times maintains Maureen Dowd as a regular opinion columnist. But then I realize that she attracts readers, like me, with her brand of acerbic wit and gossipy sarcasm.

No one takes her too seriously, and I trust she knows this. Today's column, for example, about Mr. Obama is another predictable iteration of her stereotyped view of the President: he is an aloof loner, who seems bored, like a bird in a gilded cage. She has played this tune for at least five years.

As with everyone who reduces complex issues to simplistic formulas, Dowd likes to skewer and satirize Obama, just as she stereotyped his predecessor, whom she called "W," and Mr. Clinton before him. And she has an attitude toward Hilary that has already been reworked many times. Attitude always replaces ideas for Dowd.

This is not to say that her criticism of Obama is without foundation.

As an intellectual who too often shuns wheeling and dealing a la LBJ, Obama is probably a political failure in a key area: negotiating with Congress. But he has been so reviled by members of the GOP, so resolutely opposed on nearly every issue, that he is given little respect as chief executive and even less leeway to get laws enacted.  And as a man of integrity who provides steady leadership, Obama deserves better treatment.

Rather than bored and detached, Mr. Obama seems to me to be exhausted; and who wouldn't be, given the problems he faces?

Like his predecessors in modern times, he has an impossible job and, as a person, is too complex to be reduced to the stereotypes that Dowd thrives on.

For eight years or more, she played, over and over, one theme with George W. Bush: his imagined rivalry with his father. It was all about the Bushes. Ideas about what went wrong in that presidency according to Dowd were replaced by snide attitude and the gathering of Washington gossip.

So readers find her columns often entertaining in that they provide supposedly the inside scoop on pols. What they don't find are original ideas or political analysis or suggested solutions to world problems.  What they are given is slick, superficial, and shallow.

Dowd has turned political writing into show biz.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The value of silliness

At a time when I have been overwhelmed by sad news--from the depression and suicide of Robin Williams to the racial turmoil in St. Louis to the major crises in the Mideast--I was glad yesterday to have lunch with a friend who reminded me of the importance of comedy and laughter, even silliness.

My friend likes puns and the Three Stooges more than I do.  He shares my enthusiasm for silly cat videos and felines dressed up in ridiculous outfits on birthday cards.  He shares my interest in funny names of real people, which I collect as an exercise in trivia. And he joins me in presenting programs in our community that involve humor.

One of these, going back to 2005, is Historical Humor and Wit, in which we quote notable people saying ridiculous or witty things, from Mark Twain and Winston Churchill to more recent American politicians. Our theme: history is never dull since it is the story of people who often say wacky things.

The other program I have created is called Fractured English, indebted to people like Richard Lederer, who collect the blunders and bloopers of students, sign makers, editors of church bulletins, among others. The unintentional misuse of our language is a constant delight, and even more valuable for us is hearing a crowded room ripple with laughter when my friend and I take turns reciting some of the many funny or silly things we have unearthed.

My most recent research has been into church-related humor, where the sacred and serious context of religion makes the blooper especially funny. One example from a church bulletin: "The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of all kinds and can be seen in the church basement."

The use of a simple hyphen between 'cast' and 'off' would prevent the misreading, but I am grateful to the person who left it out.  Things like this, even cat-related stories, bring a needed smile to my face, reduce tension, and provide some distance from the tragic news of the week.

Human nature cannot bear too much reality, T. S. Eliot wrote. He was thinking of reality in a different context, but the basic idea fits here: we need as much silliness and childish humor as we can handle. Thank God for the people who send me cartoons and jokes via email--and for the puns and other bits of humor, however silly, that feed the soul by keeping us in balance.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Boundless Curiosity: A Great Travel Writer

To be a great travel writer, you need, first of all, great material. Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose life of adventure made him one of the major travel writers of the 20th century, found such material on the road, where he discovered his career almost by accident.

Fleeing an unhappy life in England at the age of 18, he set out in 1933 for a walking tour of Europe, from Holland through Germany, into the Balkans and Greece, ending in Istanbul.  Along with way, he became a self-taught master of several languages and a self-educated cultural historian who saw that his unique experiences could provide material for books. So he created his own literary career.

Paddy Fermor, as he was known to everyone, was a romantic adventurer who was curious about everything, incapable of being bored, as he repaid his many hosts along his youthful journey with songs and stories, talking long into the night.  Some people eventually found him a bit of a show-off, Artemis Cooper says in her superb biography of Fermor, but the ladies loved this handsome, talented fellow who charmed shepherds and gypsies as well as Eastern European nobility, who opened their castles to him.

A  vagabond, he often slept in barns or monasteries or in open fields, weather permitting, but he was the type of guy who always made his way to the  top in any society, despite his ragged clothes.  With letters of introduction, he found his way into Mount Athos as well as into a ball at the British embassy in Athens, where he met a Romanian princess, with whom he lived for several years.

One reviewer (Barnaby Rogerson) says that Paddy was a consummate freeloader who paid for the chance to stay with counts and barons in their hunting lodges with his great energy and talent for song, dance, poetry, talk, and other men's wives. But Paddy was a great reader, too. He mastered French, Romanian, and Greek along the way and ended up living in Greece; during the Second World War, he became famous as the leader of a the group that abducted a Nazi General on Crete and spirited him away to Egypt.

I was fascinated by Fermor's account of Germany in 1933, when people even in the smaller cities he visited were clicking heels and giving Nazi salutes within months of Hitler's take-over of the country.   Although sometimes taking a train or boat, he mainly walked from place to hilly place, finding refuge where he could. His hosts generally found him a charismatic talker who saw conversation as an art, and he remained friends with many of the people he met along the way. 

His journey goes from isolation and poverty--he lived on practically nothing and had no money to repay anyone--to luxurious accommodations. Once, after an isolated spell in the Carpathian mountains, he meets a rabbi who speaks only Yiddish, then spends the night with a man who owns a dancing bear that he holds onto all night as they try to sleep.

In Vienna, he resorts to selling pencil sketches door to door to earn a few shillings; in Hungary, he meets a Count who reads Proust; and so it goes, with nubile girls, noblemen and swineherds as companions. He recites Shakespeare in German, memorizes Latin, Greek and French poetry, which he recites at the end of long dinner parties.

Above all, he notices the details of things and describes them memorably. based on his notes, Fermor later writes A Time of Gifts, A Time to Keep Silence, The Broken Road, and ten other books of memoirs and letters, recounted in what is at times a formal style that favors Latinisms ("penumbra" is a favorite word) that today's readers might find quaint. Of course, the world he describes is long gone--all the more reason his work is so fascinating and valuable.

The energy and curiosity of Paddy Fermor is boundless, as is his love of people and language. He is one of those born storytellers I would love to have met: he made his life into a work of art.