Category - commentary

Acerbic observations on the state of the world, art, politics, and culture.

Dispatches from the Outskirts of Facebookistan – October 23 Edition:
How To Self-Deport From Toxic Town

Facebook, meet MySpace.  Only… how do you say that in Russian? 

I’d like to be able to say I started something, or at least that I’m  an early un-adopter.

Then along comes this item from ReCode to tell me that maybe I’m just part of a growing trend:

How to quit Facebook (if the time suck, Russian ads or political noise has become too much)

There are many valid reasons you might want to quit Facebook. Maybe you spend too much time there. Maybe you’re tired of its cluttered app. Maybe you’re unnerved by all the Russia stuff.

I was an avid Facebook user for more than a decade. But due to a combination of the reasons above, I’ve almost completely quit Facebook over the past three weeks. No surprise, I have been much happier for it.

I haven’t actually taken any of the steps recommended above, but I have managed to reduce my visits to nearly nil.  I’m not really missing it.

I did stick my head through the portal this morning, and saw pretty much what I’ve been seeing for the past two or three years –  the same handful of people saying pretty much the same things.

And expecting different results?

And that’s definition of…. oh yeah… right.

I rest my case.

 

Dispatches from the Outskirts of Facebookistan – October 16 Edition

I have often referred to Facebook as the Internet’s “infinite random trivia generator” – a notion largely derived from the mind-numbing habit of staring at the display – laptop, desktop, or hand-held – and scrolling on, forever thinking that the next post will be something genuinely interesting or profound. OK, maybe the next one. Or the one after that. Or the one… you get the picture.

I have refrained from posting anything on Facebook (OK, maybe a comment here or there…) for the past week.

I suppose you could say that by trying to avoid Facebook I’m actually more fixated on Facebook than if I was just interacting with it normally. Maybe the problem is I just don’t know what ‘normally’ means anymore. But two weeks in to this self-imposed quarantine, I think I can safely say I’m not missing it all that much.

Anyway, here’s what you missed:

*

From Monday October 9:

There’s been a lot said both pro and con re: TN Senator – MY Senator – Bob Corker offering some choice observations about the Moron in Chief in the past few days. I tend to fall into “where was he when we needed him?” camp, for reasons that are alluded to in this delectable bit of diatribe from Wonkette– my go-to site for caustic and profane commentary on current affairs:

GOP Sen. Bob Corker Has Only Just Begun To Talk Shit About Donald Trump

The money quote:

It’s true that Corker has done a lot of fucked up things. The race-baiting ads he ran against Harold Ford Jr. in his first campaign come to mind! He is not a hero. But he is doing something important right at this moment. We feel like both of those things can be true at the same time, no?

*

OK, so Harvey Weinstein is fat and ugly. Couldn’t he at least shave? #UglyStubble

– – – – – –

Thursday, October 12:

Why do men still wear buns in their hair? You would think with all the ridicule and scorn that has been cast upon man buns that by now they would know better. #NoThatDoesNotLookHip

*

Now on to the really important stuff:

It’s discouraging to think that the Cleveland Indians could finish the regular season with the best record in baseball, and then lose three consecutive games to the New York Yankees and be knocked out of the playoffs.

The whole wildcard system sucks. The Yankees could’t even win their division, and yet they get to compete in the ALCS. Did I mention that the whole wildcard scheme sucks? That’s why.

Maybe I just feel that way because I grew up in a time when one team won each league and then went to the World Series. You won the season, you got to go the World Series.  There was no “Post Season.”  There was just the World Series.  Which was played in early October.  And during the day. That made a whole lot more sense than than this idea that a second-place team can be the “World Champions” – after playing all the games in the cold nights of late October.  Jeezus.

I still think of the Houston Astros as a National League team, so I don’t understand why they’re playing in the American League Championship Series, but at this point, at least they won their division, and they’ve never won a World Series. So I might start rooting for them.

The Astros were originally the Houston Colt 45s, and became the Astros when they started playing in that dreadful Houston Astrodome. For that alone they should be condemned to baseball purgatory, but I’m going to overlook that now that they’re playing in a modern new park – with a retractable roof so they can play outdoors when the weather and Houston humidity permit.

The Astros / Colt 45’s were among the first “expansion teams” in 1962 – the same year the Mets were formed – and the Mets won their first World Series a mere seven years later in 1969. So maybe it’s the Astros’ turn this time.

Anyway, I bought a Cleveland Indians hat and was gonna root for them in the playoffs this year.

Because I really don’t have a personal favorite team any more. I grew up with the Yankees, became a “closet Dodger fan” after I read a biography of Roy Campanella (nobody ever mentions the second black man to play in the Major Leagues…) in the fourth grade, and was a Braves fan for a long time after moving to Hawaii in the 80s (TBS was the only “live” national television station in the Islands for a long time).

But over the last decade or so, my interest in baseball has waned considerably – thanks to the interminable post-season games and the endlessly repeating commercials. Since I got TiVo in 2001, I just can’t sit through commercials anymore. So I don’t really have a favorite team any more and I have no idea who any of the players are.

So when it comes to the post-season and it’s time to try to care a little, I go by the theory of “root for the team that has gone the longest without” winning the World Series. Last year that was the Cubs. who hadn’t won a World Series since 1908 – even though they were playing the Indians, who haven’t won a World Series since 1948.

Now that the Cubs have won a World Series, I figured it’s the Indian’s turn. I bought a cap and was gonna root for ‘em. I got to wear the hat for exactly ONE game before the second-place-in-the regular-season (in other words losers!) Yankees knocked ‘em out of the stupid “Divison Series.”

I think I’m just going to keep wearing my Indians cap in mourning, but root for the Cubs in the National League and the Astros in the American League (that still sounds weird). But I’m not gonna buy another hat.

*

Famous questions from the Apple Store: “Do you have a thing that can get the boogers out?” (of an iPhone’s Lightning connector socket).

– – – – – –

Friday, October 13

I keep hearing about a news service called “Axios.” The references treat it likes it’s a credible news service that’s been around for a long time, but I swear I never heard of it until about a month ago. Whathefuck is “Axios” and why is its suddenly getting all this attention?

*

Here is my definition of an asshole: somebody who will stand in the middle of an audience, and not even look around to see if he’s standing in front of somebody. Hey, asshole… down in front!

– – – – – –

Saturday October 14:

More baseball: Is it really necessary to a emblazon all the uniforms and caps with a “Post Season” logo? I know it’s the post-season. I don’t have to keep being reminded every time I look at one of the players. #CrappyMarketing

– – – – – –

Sunday October 15:

This is “the Facebook effect” : In the one instant that I look at Fucking Facebook, I see something that somebody I know is photographing Jason is bell at the Ryman. I immediately feel terrible if that’s not me. Fuck you, Facebook.

*

I’m pretty tired of hearing people complain about the USB-C ports on the new MacBook Pros. It’s the port of the future. You need adapters to connect to the gizmos of the past. Get used to it and shut the fuck up.

*

Well, there ya go.  1200 words worth of witty and profound.

See ya next week.

 

#TMITM: Resistance is Futile
We Have All Been Assimilated

If you’re still using Facebook, here is your required reading for the day:

The many Facebook experiments add up. The company believes that it has unlocked social psychology and acquired a deeper understanding of its users than they possess of themselves. Facebook can predict users’ race, sexual orientation, relationship status and drug use on the basis of their “likes” alone. It’s Zuckerberg’s fantasy that this data might be analysed to uncover the mother of all revelations, “a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about…”

Sounds like the “Unified Field Theory” of Human Behavior.  Einstein couldn’t find one for physics, so it’s doubtful that Zuckerberg will find one for humans (Humanity: it’d be a great idea if it wasn’t for all the fucking humans…) but he can sure fuck up a lot of stuff trying.  And we are all the hamsters in his cage…

And speaking to the point re: the Internet’s effect on our ability to sustain a coherent thought, this article appears in a section of The Guardian called “Long Reads.”  But if it’s too long for you, there’s a podcast edition.

 

Dispatches from the Outskirts of Facebookistan – Day 8

As a few friends and followers (fans?) have observed, for the past week I’ve been making a concerted effort to avoid Facebook.

This divergence from my usual routine (a word I use loosely) started last Monday, when I awoke to the news of the massacre in Las Vegas and immediately – impulsively – went to gauge the public reaction on Facebook. I pretty much knew what to expect once I got there: the same righteous indignation I found after the last such event – and the one before that and the one before that etc. etc. ad infinitum ad nauseaum.

But this time my reaction surprised me. This time, it wasn’t the triggering event that repulsed me so much as the boilerplate reactions that scrolled by on in my “news” feed. This time, something about the futility of the whole experience – not just the event but the predictable responses to it – resonated in a way that was vaguely unfamiliar. I’d seen it all before, but this time I really found myself wondering what was the point of seeing it all again?

That’s when I started “pushing in the stops.” I resolved to get some kind of handle on this digital beast, this virtual narcotic that I puff on like I used to smoke pot all day (from 1969 to 1987).

I started by removing the permanent “pin tab” for Facebook in my laptop browser, then I deleted the Facebook app from my phone.

Removing the pinned browser tab means that Facebook is not lurking in a tab at the top of my browser window when I am trying to do other things on my computer (which is pretty much where I do everything). Removing the permanently pinned tab means that an effort is now required to open Facebook on my laptop. Yes, it’s a minor effort, but it’s more of an effort than simply clicking a tab. Now I actually have to open a new tab and type. But – no surprise here – as soon as I type the letter “f”, the browser auto-fills with “facebook.com” and off I go into the oblivion of the Infinite Random Trivia Generator.

The bigger change was deleting the Facebook app altogether from my iPhone. I had come in recent weeks to be painfully aware of the extent that I would punch the blue “f” icon on my iPhone and then just vacantly scroll through whatever the display had to offer. The only way to stop that was to remove the app.

That was Monday. The following Friday was the first day I woke up and did not feel the impulse to start my day perusing Facebook.

*

One thing that these behavior patterns seem to be telling me is that I am at a vacant place in my life right now. I seem to be seeking some kind of solace and gratification from the other side of this digital mirror.

I know that these habits are not mine alone. As this recent item from Wired observes,

“It’s a dirty digital habit, and it doesn’t make me happy. Maybe you can relate. Studies have repeatedly found that while social media connects us to one another, it also makes us feel bad. And yet, we do it anyway. We do it because we can’t stop.”

Or, from another item in Wired: 

43% of smartphone users check their phone within five minutes of waking up.

That presumably includes a very high percentage of Facebook checkers.

Count me in that number.

I suspect the pattern is fairly common: I post something or comment on something somebody else has posted. Then it’s only a couple of minutes – maybe less! – before I return to see if anybody has noticed how witty and profound (or just profane) I have been.

That is a habit not unlike taking a hit of pot, or a swig of whisky – getting the buzz, and then needing another one within minutes. Where alcohol and drugs are concerned, habits like that have finally come to be recognized as symptomatic of a disease. How is it any different with a “virtual drug” like Facebook? Indeed, I have too-often compared the “Facebook Habit” to “the way I felt about Scotch and Vodka in the months before I finally quit drinking…”.

I hope last Monday was the day I finally put the pipe down.

*

As well as I can tell from inside my own damn head, I’m facing two issues: obsession and dissipation.

The obsession is with the medium itself.  I am referring here to that nagging impulse to scroll. To punch an icon and and scroll scroll scroll until… what?  Like there is some pot at the end of the rainbow or a rabbit at the bottom of the hole?  There is something primal going on here: the relentless need to fill some kind of vacuum, to fill an inner void, like rats in a digital cage poking for pellets. My life feels hollow, let me see if I can fill it up with… Facebook??

The notion is absurd on its face but nevertheless obsessively present. It grabs me all day long. Like when I’m driving, and I come to a stop light. I’ve got a minute, why don’t I punch the phone (which is mounted on my dashboard) and scroll Facebook? Look! Notifications! That will surely give me something that will fill this momentary pause in my info-continuum.

I listen to a lot of podcasts and books when I’m in the car. That might be the best-spent hour of every day (an hour to and from my job). But even with all that meaningful input, when the car comes to a stop, I am instantly possessed with the need to do something else, to find another form of input. To punch and scroll.

Perhaps more important than that finger-to-screen obsession, I think the constant posting and commenting and replying on Facebook has dissipated my creative energy.  Instead of thinking my way through to something substantive, I scatter my seed.  The Facebook Habit leads to the loss of concentration. The inability to focus. And I don’t think it’s just because my brain is in its seventh decade of continuous operation.

To the contrary, I think the Internet has destroyed my brain. I’ve been online since 1979, but almost constantly since wireless broadband was introduced at the start of this century. That’s 20 years of jumping from one thing to another all day long. As Nicholas Carr wrote in “The Shallows,” the medium has rewired my brain.

So instead of posting pithy links (#TMITM!) and snarky comments on Facebook, I’ve started using a new app called “Day One” – a journaling app suggested by friend Mike Lovett. Mike suggested “keep Day One open on one half of your screen, and when you see something on the web that you want to post on Facebook, or a post on Facebook that you want to comment on, put those links and comments in Day One. At the end of the day (or week), round up the most pertinent and worthy stuff and put it all in a post on your own website.”

Which is exactly what I’ve done here. Much of what I’ve just posted was gathered through the week. Some of it by dictating short snippets to Day One via the app on my Apple Watch – boy, that’s a real game changer!

Once I’ve assembled a post for CohesionArts.com (like this one), my WordPress installation automatically posts a link to my Facebook Profile and Page. Hence the notion of “lobbing it over the wall into Facebookistan.  

Otherwise, during uring the day, I have made a concerted effort to limit myself to the occasional “guerrilla strike” into the forbidden zone. Like this afternoon – while I was in a parking lot –  I got an email notifying me that my sister had mentioned me in a comment. So I opened Facebook on my iPad to see what the comment was. I clicked “like” on the comment. Then I went to the grocery store.

I don’t think that I can escape Facebookistan altogether, any more than I  expect that I will ever get my “old brain” back. But I do think that I have to make a concerted effort to figure out how this “new brain” works for me, and I’m not going to do that by impulsively, relentlessly, scrolling through the Infinite Random Trivia Generator.

In the meantime, old habits die hard.

Now then…. any notifications??

 

 

Notes from Quarantine – Day 5

Here’s all the stuff I didn’t post on Facebook today: 

I have been trying for some time now to surmise why just the fact of the Internet / Digital Media / Facebook is making us individually and collectively nutz.

We’re kinda like that scene in “A Clockwork Orange” – the one where Malcolm McDowell’s eyes are held open with calipers and he’s forced to watch something on a movie screen  that is supposed to “reeducate” him .

And so it seems we have become with Facebook: Our eyes are forced open, but we’re forcing them open ourselves. And we scroll and stare and stare and scroll, and then post and comment and reply – all under the delusion that millions, or thousands, or maybe even dozens, are seeing what we post. When it’s probably the same five or six or a dozen people…

*

Repeat after me: I am powerless over Facebook, and my life has become unmanageable.

At the very least, as I have been saying for some time now, I feel about Facebook the way I felt about scotch and vodka in the months before I finally quite drinking (late November, 1987).

The trouble with recovery from Facebook/Internet addiction is that is much more like an eating disorder than alcoholism. The antidote for alcoholism is (relatively speaking) pretty simple: you quit drinking. Once the “cure” kicks in, you don’t need alcohol or drugs to navigate through the vagaries of life. But you do need food. So while you don’t have to drink, you do need to eat.

One of the precepts of the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (with which I an quite familiar, nearing 30 years of sobriety around Thanksgiving 2017) is that “half measures availed us nothing.” Meaning: If we’ve got the gene for addiction, then trying to manage our intake is going to be an exercise in futility. Sooner or later we’re going to lose the ability to “moderate” and drive when we really shouldn’t ought to.  Or wake up in a gutter.  Or just cut to the chase and not wake up at all.

An eating disorder is different, because that has to be managed in a way that alcoholism cannot be managed. You could starve yourself, I suppose, but that would just produce the same result as drinking yourself to death.

And so it appears to be with Facebook. And I don’t mean “websites like Facebook.” Facebook is it’s own unique, globe-encompassing, time-sucking phenomenon. You can try to avoid it, but at best you’re ultimately going to have to manage it. Otherwise, you may as well be… well… dead.

*

2,000 years of “civilization” and it’s still hard to find a pedestal table in a coffee shop that doesn’t wobble.

*

Now we learn that one of the most prominent and successful movie producers of all time turns out to be a lecherous old man. And we are surprised because…? Oh. That’s right. We’re not surprised.

*

There is quite possibly nothing uglier than a pretty girl smoking a cigarette. Or rolling her jaws around with chewing gum. A ring in the nose – the kind that hangs down between the nostrils – is a close second. Sorry, my millennial fans. I guess this is just coming from a lecherous old man.

*

Jason Isbell is headlining six hard-to-get-tickets-for nights at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville next week.

Fortunately, I’ve got tickets for Monday night. Unfortunately, they’re downstairs, under the ‘lid’ of “The Confederate Gallery” (I never get tired of saying that) but at least they’re “in the arena.” I much prefer the upper deck, but like I say, getting any tickets at all for these shows was a daunting task. And did I mention, “Fuck you, Ticketmaster. And the “verified fan” gimmick you rode in on.

Anyway, in anticipation of the six-night-stand, The Nashville scene has created an article “Considering Jason Isbell’s Best Songs: A critical look at 10 key tracks from the artist’s solo albums before his six-night Ryman run.”

Each of the listed tracks is accompanied by a YouTube video, which is nice, but I can never understand how somebody can go to all that effort and not bother to put together an actual playlist. So that, you know, you can hear all the tracks sequentially. One after the other. Without having to stop and click after every track.

So I went in and created a Spotify Playlist for y’all. Jason Isbell’s “10 best songs” plus one I also like a lot (“24 Frames”).

You’re welcome.

*

So, those are the random thoughts that I might have posted to Facebook if I hadn’t quarantined myself at the start of the week.

I rather like gathering my thoughts through the day and posting them here, all at once – rather than ‘scattering my seed’ all day long with posts and comments and replies – and then “lobbing them over the wall” via the plugin that sends my posts from here to Facebookistan.

That seems somehow consistent with the ‘can’t drink, but gotta eat’ theory.

If you actually followed the link, thanks for stopping by. If you care to add anything too the above, please use the comments here.  Let me know if you have any trouble with that.

Because, really, I’m trying to avoid Facebook.  Like I avoid scotch and vodka.

Have a swell weekend.

–PS

Welcome to Facebookistan

The largest country on the planet.  Also the largest religion.  Belief is optional.  Also, you can check out any time you want but you can never leave.

Does Even Mark Zuckerberg Know What Facebook Is?

“There are real consequences to our inability to understand what Facebook is. Not even President-Pope-Viceroy Zuckerberg himself seemed prepared for the role Facebook has played in global politics this past year. In which case, how can we be assured that Facebook is really safeguarding democracy for us and that it’s not us who need to be safeguarding democracy against Facebook?”

. . .

“Maybe he’s doing research and development, reverse-­engineering social bonds to understand how Facebook might better facilitate them. Maybe Facebook is a church and Zuckerberg is offering his benedictions. Maybe Facebook is a state within a state and Zuckerberg is inspecting its boundaries. Maybe Facebook is an emerging political community and Zuckerberg is cultivating his constituents. Maybe Facebook is a surveillance state and Zuckerberg a dictator undertaking a propaganda tour. Maybe Facebook is a dual power — a network overlaid across the U.S., parallel to and in competition with the government to fulfill civic functions — and Zuckerberg is securing his command. Maybe Facebook is border control between the analog and the digital and Zuckerberg is inspecting one side for holes. Maybe Facebook is a fleet of alien spaceships that have colonized the globe and Zuckerberg is the viceroy trying to win over his new subjects.”

October 2, 2017: The Day
Facebook Became Insufferable

I’ve been trying to avoid the news today. But just a moment ago I took a one-minute scroll through Facebook and learned that Tom Petty is dead, or near enough. “Full cardiac arrest, no brain activity, DNR” etc etc.

He was 66.

For a moment, that news provided a diversion from the day’s dominant story: yet another mass shooting event, this time in Las Vegas. 50+ killed and hundreds injured (mostly probably from the ensuing stampede) when somebody opened fire from a 30th floor hotel window onto an open field filled with a crowd for a country music festival, headliner Jason Aldean running from the stage once he figured out what was going on.

And so once again all the typical responses… the meaningless “thoughts and prayers,” the relentless outrage, the exhortations to talk about gun control -v- the exhortations to not talk about gun control “so soon” after so many people have been senselessly slaughtered by the kinds of weapons that nobody should have access to, at least not legal access, but then you know how that works, if guns are outlawed yada yada yada…

So this morning when I started to do my typical mindless scrolling… I just realized, “today is the day that Facebook became insufferable.”

And then I had to resist the temptation to actually put that thought on Facebook. I’m sure it would have offended a lot of people who felt righteously, grievously offended that so many people they never knew had been killed, because that’s what we’re all conditioned to do now when this happens again and again and again and again etc ad infinitum ad nauseam…

Later in the day, I thought of something that I read or heard about Hugh Hefner after he had his last wank last week at age 91. Somebody pointed out that Hefner had made his fortune largely “on masturbation.”

Now, I would say, that Mark Zuckerberg is the contemporary equivalent, though not strictly in the literal sense.

It is almost ironic that Facebook doesn’t permit anything that is even slightly, obliquely pornographic (i.e. “no female nipples” – regardless of their “artistic” merit), because arguably all of the content on Facebook is some form of mental masturbation.

It is a billion people a month (many several or even dozens of times a day) “getting off” on their own expressions of moral outrage, or gentle metaphysical platitudes, or pictures of their babies, or whatever the fuck floats their boat.

With a user base measured in the billions, Facebook creates the illusion of an audience of thousands when in most cases – i.e. those that are not already celebrities and thus have a large “social media following” (George Takei comes to mind, and remember he got his start being a spaceman on TeeVee 50 years ago) our posts only show up on a few dozen other users feeds. It’s somewhere between an echo chamber and a masturbatorium – a word I had never heard before the actor Brian Cox used it in a scene from the movie “Running With Scissors” : “You can’t go in that room, that’s my masturbatorium”.

Facebook is a masturbatorium that we let everybody in to.

Anyway, when I looked at Facebook this morning, it just seemed like a relentless rerun of years of self indignation. With every post I felt like “where have I seen this before?” Oh yeah, right here on Facebook the last time. And the time before that. And the time…

So… fuck it.

One of the things that got me hooked on Facebook years ago was when web browsers started to offer the “pin tab” feature – where you always had a small tab conveniently situated on the edge of your browser window for websites that your return to often.

Once THAT feature was enabled, I basically had Facebook at my disposal all the time. It was just one click away. It was like when I discovered “one hit pot” back in 1969. I’ve been stoned on Facebook ever since.

And that (I think) was before it all went mobile, and Facebook became the thing that I went to almost impulsively on my phone. Wait, who am I kidding? “Almost impulsively?” No, it was definitely impulsive. Like a rat in a cage, pushing the button for another endorphin pellet. Dozens of times a day.  I supply the content, Zuckerberg gets the money.  Who are we kidding.

And don’t even start me on the fucking Russians.

Lately I’ve been saying “I feel about Facebook the way I felt about scotch and vodka just before I quit drinking (almost 30 years ago).

And today, I dunno, something just finally snapped.

I closed all “pin tabs” on my browsers.

And I deleted the Facebook app on my phone. I replaced it (in the dock on the bottom of the home screen) with the podcast app. Maybe I’ll listen to more podcasts.

But I did go back to Facebook for a minute, just to confirm my suspicions. But instead of gun-violence induced righteous indignation, I got the news that Tom Petty had a heart attack and died at age 66.

Well, fuck me, I’m 66, too.

Or, wait… maybe he’s not dead?

Oh, fuck it.  Ya just can’t believe anything any more.

*

Update 171005: Yes, I violated my own quarantine and posted a link to this from my Facebook page.  Save one comment re: Scott Kozicki needing a haircut, I have not posted anything to the Infinite Random Trivia Generator all week.  If you care to comment on what I have written/posted above, please share those sentiments in the comments section here.   The boycott now resumes…,

Harvey and the Lionel Trains

I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth
I think I’m returning to those days
When I was young enough to know the truth
Now there are no games to only pass the time
No more electric trains, no more trees to climb
Thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win

–– Carol King

Trains1955-op_8abelhj6h120

Harvey, Arthur, and the 736 Berkshire

For Christmas in 1955, my father bought, set up and gave to my older brother an elaborate set of Lionel trains, tracks, and accessories.  

In our family photo albums, there is  just one photo of Harvey operating the trains, my brother Arthur looking on in gleeful fascination as the cast iron 736 Berkshire electric locomotive “steams” by; Just out of the frame,  circles of chemical-pellet induced smoke are puffing out of its little smokestack.

In the 1950s, Lionel trains were the quintessential under-the-tree expression of America’s post-war prosperity.   The Lionel Corporation had found a way to flourish during the war, by retooling their assembly lines to manufacture servo motors for military equipment instead of electric motors for toy trains. Once the war ended, the company repurposed those servo motors in the first post-war generation of its marquee product.

Our family was sufficiently prosperous (the family business produced ceramic household tile at a plant in Keyport, New Jersey) that our parents could afford to give their kids the very best: that Berkshire locomotive with its smoke puffing stack and whistling coal car was top-of-the-line, but that was just the start of the layout. Arrayed within the circle of tracks were equally high-end accessories:

– A cattle loader with a vibrating surface that propelled little rubber “cattle” into a plastic cattle car;

– A milk car with a solenoid-powered mechanism that ejected little metal milk cans onto a little metal platform.  The milk cans were cleverly made with a tiny magnet underneath so that they would stick to the metal platform when they came flying out of the milk car and not fall over;

– The log loader that carried wooden dowels up a conveyor belt and dumped them on to the waiting “log car” below;

– A light tower with a red-and-blue beacon that rotated just from the heat rising from the little lightbulb within;

There were several crossing gates and switch tracks to reroute the train from one circuit to another.  It was all very elegant – lavish, even – and no doubt very costly, but the Schatzkin family could easily afford it.

All of this mid-century amusement was mounted atop an 8×8 foot table that was actually two standard 4×8 plywood sheets to which my father – an amateur carpenter of sorts who kept an extensive wood shop in our basement – had added a strip of smooth molding around the edges and then clipped the two sheets together with brass hooks.  The whole assembly lay atop two folding aluminum tables which were also de-riguer household items in the 50s.

Trains1955-op_8abelhj6h146

Engineer Arthur at the throttle

For that Christmas, the trains were set up in a (more typical 50s) wood-paneled room behind the living room that was called “the playroom.”  There is only one other photo of the trains in our family albums;  In it you can see 7-year-old Arthur gingerly pushing the throttle forward on the state-of-the-art transformer.  You can also see some of the accessories that came with the trains.

After Christmas, the trains were taken down and reassembled in the basement.  I honestly don’t remember a whole lot about them after that.  What do you want from me, I was only five years old and this was all more than 60 years ago…

But I do remember that one morning in 1956 or ’57, the whole set up just disappeared.

*

In later years, our mother would occasionally tell the story of what happened to the electric trains.

One night, the story goes, my parents went to a dinner party at the home of the Connie and George Selby (their their actual name was Seligman but  at some point in the 50s they Anglicized it to “Selby” – my parents suspected they wanted a name that didn’t sound so… well… Jewish).

George Sr. went by the nickname of “Dink,” so – dumb as it sounds – we’ll just call him that.  Dink and Connie had a son, George Jr., who was Arthur’s age.  They also had an elaborate Lionel train set in their basement.  I have some vague memories of seeing the Seligman/Selby’s trains, and of being envious of how much more intricate their layout was compared to ours.  There were multiple trains navigating through realistic scenery, the tracks rising and falling through multiple levels on plastic trestles. Maybe this is how the Jews kept up with the Joneses in mid-50s surbubia – with dueling Lionel train sets; the gentile neighbors who lived on either side of our house all had Lionel trains, too.

The way my mother told the story, they were George Jr.’s trains but… Dink didn’t really let his son play with them.  Dink ran the show and George Jr. was pretty much relegated to watching the trains go by.

The spectacle of a 30-something-year-old man commandeering his nine year old son’s electric trains was enough to send my father into a fit of pique.

And so, the story goes, my father came home that night so incensed that he went straight into the basement and dismantled the entire Lionel layout that he had set up for Arthur, and stuffed everything – the locomotive, the coal car, the milk car, the cattle car, the transformer and all the accessories – into a cabinet. The next morning he announced that  “if you want to play with the trains, you’ll have to put them back together yourself…”

Which my brother never did.

The Lionels stayed dismantled and stashed in the cabinet in the basement where my father put them for several years.

They still hadn’t come out of those cabinets when Harvey died in the fall of 1958.  He was 37.  Arthur was 10.  I was 7.  Our little sister was 4-1/2.

Fast forward with me now,  all the way to 1959:

ca. 1960, photo by Monroe Edelstein

ca. 1960, photo by Monroe Edelstein

I’m in the third grade and for some reason that I will never recall I went down to the basement and  got my father’s Lionel trains out of the cabinet where he had left them. Without any instruction or coaching I put the tracks together and connected all the wires and for the first time in years the Monmouth Avenue Railroad was running again.  Hey, look, there’ the old 736 Berkshire, and the milk car and the cattle car and the log loader, and the crossing gates, and the little blue plastic man popping out of his miniature green-and-red gate house, swinging his little plastic lantern…

After that, the trains became “my thing” until we moved from Rumson to Maplewood in the spring of 1962.  Before that move, my mother hired a noted photographer to come to our house to make portraits of the family. The photographer asked what I was interested in and I showed him the trains in the basement.  He posed me with that cast iron locomotive.

*

I told my therapist parts of this story last week.

We talk a lot about my father.

More than anything my father longed for a creative life.  Like me, he was a writer and a photographer, but he spent his (short) career making tile for kitchens and bathrooms.  He was never published – unless you count the time that a letter he wrote to Macy’s was used for an ad in the New York Herald Tribune – but I’ve got a trove of his comic short stories in my basement that are still funny.

Almost 60 years after he departed from this planet, I still wonder how my life might have been different if he’d stuck around – at least long enough to see that <I> was the one who was destined to play with his electric trains.

I think he would have approved.  And we would have had something to bond over, at least for a few years.

My mother often said of my father that “you were just getting to an age where he could do things with you…” when cancer dispatched his 37-year-old soul.  I have only a handful of actual memories of him.   One, in particular:

It’s October, 1955.  I’m four, not quite five years old. The Russians have just beaten the US into space with the launch of Sputnik, Earth’s first man-made moon.  One cold autumn night, my father took me – just me – out to the nearby high school football field to see if we could spot Sputnik wandering among the stars.  We  never did see the satellite, but the moment left an impression that remains vivid to this day.  Now every time I look up at the stars… I’m back on that football field with my father.

I wish he could have been around for the moon landing in 1969.  I think we might have watched it together. Oh, sure, there was a lot of other stuff going on at the time; I shudder to think what he, a World War II veteran, would have thought of his sons’ resistance to the draft and the war in Vietnam.  And then I think: Maybe it is fitting that only the good die young. That way we never have pictures of them as angry, bitter old men yelling at us from the other side of the “generation gap.”

And I remember when I showed my mother my first personal computer in 1979.  As I showed her how I could enter text and then wipe it off the screen with a single press of the “delete” key,  she said, “your father would have loved this…”   Really.  He was what we now call a gadget freak.  From Lionel trains to computers… we would have had that much in common.

*

I have been struggling of late with the whole idea of… approval.  Of claiming and manifesting my creative instincts.  And trying to not feel undeservedly pretentious about saying even that.

Creative types.  We’re wired differently.  And we go through life seeking validation and approval from – ironically – the more conventionally wired.  I have spent my entire life doubting my creative instincts, even when they are clearly manifest.  Like every writer (?) I finish one thing and wonder if there’s anything left.  It hasn’t helped that my greatest success as a writer was followed by my most disappointing failure.  Is it any wonder that infinite doubt ensues?

There was an odd little series on Netflix this year called “The OA”  that, among other things, addressed the theme of the “invisible self.” In an early episode, the principle character, a young woman named Prairie, cautions a companion to be gentle with his own inner forces:

“You don’t want to go there,” Prairie cautions, “until your invisible self is more developed anyway. You know, your longing, things you tell no one else about?”

All this business about my father and his electric trains came up when I was telling my therapist that lately I, too have been feeling… invisible.  It seems at times that I am just unwilling or unable to inhabit my own soul.   Like there is some creature inside me that I am the only one who can see – and not altogether clearly at that.  And that the people around me – even the people closest to me – want to reflect back on me… not my invisible self, but theirs.

giant_of_the_rails02And the soul recedes.

I realize it’s mostly pointless at this point in my life, but still I can’t help but wonder: If my father had been around to see me set up and run those electric trains…. would he have approved? Would he have seen a reflection of himself, and in that reflection beamed back a glimpse of the invisible me?  Maybe that glimpse, however brief and fleeting, might have provided enough recognition and approval that I wouldn’t still be longing for it 60 years later.  His validation in that moment could have left a lasting impression, much like that cold night when a young father and his little boy scanned the heavens for a dot of light drifting among the stars.

*

When my family moved in the spring of 1962, the trains were dismantled again and packed into a box. Never mind that I didn’t get to pack the box; I was at summer camp when the family moved – but hat’s whole other story.

Once I arrived at the new house, I don’t think I ever took the trains out of the box.  By then my interests had shifted: I wanted slot cars,  and my parents – that would be my mother and her new husband, aka my stepfather – told me I couldn’t have both.  We sold the Lionels to a family from Newark for all of $75.

I’m sorry, Daddy.  I don’t have your Lionels any more.  But I still wish you had been around when I started playing with them.

*

What I Am Not Going To Say
At My AA Meeting Today

I’m going to go to my AA “Home Group” this morning. This is what I probably will not “share” with the meeting:

Hi, I’m Paul and I’m an alcoholic.

I feel compelled to  say something today that’s going to sound like AA heresy. But I feel like I have to speak my truth here even if it means becoming the first person to ever be excommunicated from AA…

I don’t really know but one or two of you here, so most of you have know way of knowing what a tough time I’ve been having over the past year. My wife decided last – well, it’s been almost a year now – that she needs to live in Portland Oregon, where her two adult sons and her now  one-and-a-half year old granddaughter live.  And as you can see, I am not in Portland, Oregon. I have been to Portland at least a dozen times since ‘the kids’ moved there in the early ‘aughts, but I’ve never felt like I’ve wanted to live there. After more than two decades, I’m rooted here.

Welcome to Portland!

Welcome to Portland!

And as a recovering alcoholic myself, it’s hard to fathom how I am going to live in a city that greets you getting off the plane with a huge sign that says “Give In To Beer.”

Thursday night, I learned that a dear friend had died this week, most likely from complications of alcoholism. He was only a year older than I am. I think that news kinda put me over the edge…

Which brings me to yesterday. Yesterday was a day off from a new job that I got last summer which has absolutely been my salvation over the past 6 months. I like the work, it truly takes me out of myself and makes me a better person than I am when when I’m by myself. But sometimes the days off are challenging because, well, there’s nobody to talk to.

Yesterday, I felt knots in my stomach, that spinning wheel of loneliness and sadness, fear and despair. As I said later to my sponsor, I was having a tough day…

In the middle of the day, I made some calls and sent out some texts, to see if there was somebody in my orbit who could meet me for lunch or coffee. All those overtures came up empty. People are busy.

At one point, I was driving around town and started thinking, “maybe what I need is a meeting…” I had no idea where there was one in the middle of the day on a Friday. I was in town, driving around, and thought about going over to ‘202,’ but… I just couldn’t quite convince myself to do that, either. It wasn’t until later in the day that I fully realized why.

I didn’t go to 202 for the same reason that I don’t go to more AA meetings like this one: because I really dislike the whole format and structure of these gatherings.

A couple of years ago I ran across a TED talk by a Scandinavian counselor named Johann Hari that talked about the antidote to addiction being not just abstinence but connection.

Connection. That is what I was longing for  yesterday. And sadly it is not what I get at these meetings. I don’t really get a meaningful level of connection and engagement from sitting through an hour of extemporaneous  3 minute monologues. And I really don’t like the unstated pressure to be witty and profound if and when I take my own turn to ‘“share.”

So mostly I come to these meetings, sit in silence, and hope I get to hold a girl’s hand when when we all stand up to recite the Lord’s Prayer (which I usually don’t actually recite.  It’s a Jesus prayer and I’m a Jew.).

I know that the whole “no cross talk” structure of these meetings is essential to their decorum. But jeezus, sometimes what you really need is to actually talk to somebody.  The absence of dialog defeats my whole purpose of being here.  It actually makes me feel more isolated when what I need is something… not superficial. When I need the give and take of an actual conversation.

In the realm of recovery, I know that I’m one of the very lucky ones. The compulsion to drink or smoke or sniff (my primary drug of choice for nearly 20 years was pot; thank god I never got in to heroin or crack…) completely left me after, I dunno, somewhere between 30 and 60 days. That was back in 1987 – 29+ years ago – so I don’t really remember. I just know that there are a lot of recovering alcoholic types who struggle with the compulsion every day. That’s why the program insists that recovery is “One Day At A Time.” So I know that I am among the most fortunate of recovering ‘polyholics.’

What I’m trying to say here is: when I’m feeling isolated and alone – the very conditions that might spark a round of drinking if my sobriety was not as strong as it is – the last thing I need in the world is to sit in a hard chair feeling like a lame loser because I’m not to going to be as entertaining as the guy who “shared” before me or the woman who will share after me.  But that’s the structure. And I sometimes I just fucking hate it.

I come to these meetings because they give me the opportunity to at least experience and be grateful for – if not actually “share” – my sobriety, and the fact that I because I quit sipping, sniffing and puffing nearly 30 years ago, I am still living – even it that presently means struggling with some of the most difficult choices I have ever had to face.

I have an “altar” of sorts in my home on which rest photographs of my ancestors, and also the photographs of several friends whose lives were cut short by their addictions. I have another photo to add to that collection now.

But jeezus, sometimes you just want to talk to somebody. Sometimes you just need a hug.

Don’t get me wrong.  I know damn well that I would not be alive today had I not started going to AA meetings back in 1987.   And I come to meetings so that I don’t take that gift of sobriety for granted.

But yesterday, I needed something else.

OK, I guess my three minutes are up.

Thanks for listening.

RobinWilliams