According to Google Ngram, use of the word reassessment peaks around 1990, a climb beginning in the 20s, rarely used prior to 1900. We suspect what’s driving that curve are real estate markets. But to reassess is still relevant to publications, which is to say, books will go out of print, magazines fold, newspapers disappear – and folks will leave Twitter or abandon once again their high school acquaintances or second cousins found on Facebook. Clicking on a blog one has not visited for some time may turn up: This account does not exist: try another search.
So too, does one reassess one’s involvement in both writing and reading: annually, quarterly, monthly, daily, or with each post or page. What am I doing here? Who is reading this? Will anyone like? Do I like? Who, what, when, why, where, and how – how to write, and why? How to read, and why?
When we read a book, we turn the page, back and forth, if you read like me, up and down. So called social media sites generally all work upward: we page up, but as we page up, what’s down continues falling and disappears through some virtual cutting room floor. Usually, only the most recent posts, comments, tweets, pics – whatever – get any attention. Form is in the driver’s seat. And the form of social media sites requires constant replenishment (Google Ngram shows constant and regular use of the word replenish from 1800 past 2000). But the social media publications get replenished even though the stock is still full, even if nothing has been depleted.
The social media cup is neither half empty nor half full; it’s always full, as this post no doubt attests. Full of what, might make material for a different post.
Photo: The Teacups ride at Disneyland, exiting the park at closing time, Joe Linker, around mid-90s.
We start arguments when we say something and we know someone will disagree. Happens all the time. We are never safe from disagreement. If you say, “The sun rises in the east,” you might think you’d be safe from argument. But an astrophysicist listening in might say the sun does not actually rise. The earth spins in orbit around the sun, and so on and so forth. A rebuttal around what you said about where the sun rises might productively explain the importance of point of view and perspective, presuppositions and assumptions, audience and expectations, proof and fallacy. Or it might be met with an eclipse of the eyes.
Most of the above, in one form or another, you can find in books on rhetoric, and most of those have as their ultimate source of reference, Aristotle. When “The Coming of the Toads” started out, on December 27, 2007, the first post was about argument. Since then, the Toads has posted 866 arguments. Not that frequency or redundancy leads to persuasiveness. Some readers will no doubt argue that’s 866 arguments too many.
Artists enjoy argument. A poet might say, for example, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the sun rose in the west for a change?” Buckminster Fuller suggested we replace the words “sunrise” and “sunset” with sunsight and sunclipse. Fuller, a scientist and inventor, was arguing that language both informs and betrays how we see and understand things. Both physicists and philosophers might ask, “Why does the sun rise?” Their answers will be arguments. Advertisers can’t afford arguments, so they cleverly disguise saying anything someone might disagree with. An advertiser might suggest sunopen and sunclosed.
Silence, too, is often met with disagreement. “You should speak up,” someone says. “Say something.” Or your silence alone might be understood as disagreement, particularly if your arms are folded tightly across your chest. Advertisers never fold their arms or cross their legs.
Aristotle saw that arguments happen everywhere and all the time. But listening closely, he also saw that some people were better at argument than others. Some people always seemed to be right, no matter what they said. And Aristotle thought that if he studied how those people argued, he might be able to explain the tools of argument.
The proper use of those tools is the subject of another argument.
A diarist keeps a daily record of everyday experience, regardless of relevance or importance to the outside world. The prototype might be Pepys. One of the characteristics of a diary is that it is usually meant to be private, and it might become more interesting the farther it gets from its time of origin. In that sense, a diary might be that letter to the world that never wrote to you, because it was unable, that world being a future after your time. A diary is not a blog.
“Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)” was a John Cage project that went on for 16 years. And Cage made it a public project. A diary need not have rules. It doesn’t even need to be written. It might make use of photographs, or drawings, or quilting or needlepoint. A diary might be impressionistic, or some other artistic or technical expression. Or it might be cut and dry and matter of fact and as unambiguous as possible. But of course what readers can’t know is what the diary has left out.
Out, for a morning walk up to the park, my thoughts distracted by a sign at the outset: “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.” I thought of the days I was busy with rhetoric, argument. That sign was an argument of proposal. The appeal is logical but also of pathos, for it causes us to think of our own kids. But what if we have no kids? Or, we do, but we are not particularly safe with them, either? Another assumption the sign makes is that children are in harm’s way. No doubt. But if you care about your children, shouldn’t you keep them out of harm’s way? And what of old people? Should we not also drive as if our grandparents live here? Maybe a more effective sign would read: Drive as if you love your neighbor like yourself. But note that assumes one love’s oneself. I’ve never quite understood that biblical proposal, having known so many people whose behavior, full of bad habits, suggested they did not love themselves. Maybe an even more effective sign might read: Drive Like You Are The Child.
By the time I got up to the park, my thoughts had cleared of argument, and I was in among the trees, and I continued as if they were my trees.
We should probably be wary of statements beginning with the pronouncement, “Never before, in the history of the world….”
Nevertheless, given our current world predicament, we might find ourselves in need of some relaxation – seemingly, like never before.
In his little book titled “How to Relax,” the monk Thich Nhat Hanh begins:
“You don’t need to set aside special time for resting and relaxing. You don’t need a special pillow or any fancy equipment. You don’t need a whole hour. In fact, now is a very good time to relax” (page 6, “How to Relax,” Parallax Press, 2015).
The same might be said for writing. You don’t need a fancy machine, a special desk or pen, or even a purpose. What you need – is a bell.
“There is tranquility, peace, and joy within us, but we have to call them forth so they can manifest. Inviting a bell to sound is one way to call forth the joy and tranquility within” (page 100).
Thich Nhat Hanh gives us a poem to remind us of the bell we want to listen for, to hear, to send out to others:
“Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness, I send my heart along with the sound of this bell. May all the hearers awaken from forgetfulness, and transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow” (page 100).
And we don’t need a fancy blog template or website to write. Again, nevertheless, here at The Coming of the Toads, I’ve experimented with a few of the WordPress templates over time. But what did I want, if not simply to write? This isn’t the only place, the only way, I write. I keep a pocket notebook in the left rear pocket of my pants (detail for readers in need), unlined because I like to doodle and wander. I keep a spiral notebook in a desk drawer. I started The Coming of the Toads, after a few hesitant starts, in December of 2007, and have posted something at least monthly since. Why then, lately, have I been having thoughts of ending it?
I wasn’t “inviting the bell.” Not Poe’s “the tintinabulation of the bells,” nor his “anger of the bells,” nor his “moaning and the groaning of the bells.” But the bell of the muse. I like this etymological note from Oxford: “Middle English: from Old French muser ‘meditate, waste time’, perhaps from medieval Latin musum ‘muzzle’.” Writing involves a good amount of self-muzzle, or should. First, we might want to relax. Invite the bell. Then take up the pen and notebook, or open the blog.
This is the third piece in a series on bells at The Coming of the Toads.
A perspicacious reader asked why I haven’t posted any pics from the road trip. I’m working on moving toward a new kind of blog, more like the one I started, back in December of 2007, which contained no pics, just short bursts of writing pleasure. I had in mind the kind of posts the venerable E. B. White wrote in the early New Yorker.
“From 1925 to 1976 he crafted more than eighteen hundred pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That form was the magazine’s Comment essay—a personal essay that was, in White’s hands, light in style yet often weighty in substance. As White noted in a 1969 Paris Review interview, > I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
“Eighty-Five from the Archive: E. B. White,” by Erin Overbey, The New Yorker, June 7, 2010.
Not that I ever achieved anything everyone might call, “not lousy.” In any case, I drifted away, or off, and into a kind of academic stream, where I imagined I might augment my adjunct work at the time. And I tried to bring some attention to the books I was working on, both reading and writing. Then I began to work-in more slant, though never totally “false,” and found the proverbial bottom of the barrel when I started putting up some poetry. And I recently considered retiring The Coming of the Toads, leaving it to sink to the bottom of the archive abyss of the Internet, where some future crab scuttling along might find a few morsels to criticize.
E. B. White’s idea of the short, personal essay (note the importance of that comma) has been replaced in many blogs by the personal pic essay, with and without words, the latter like Beckett’s short play, “Act Without Words.” And I suspect more reading is done on phones these days than when I started The Coming of the Toads on a desktop computer back in ’07, and the phone and other smaller size formats encourage changes in aspect ratios of screen, pics, and writing. And thinking about that, I decided to remove this blog’s header pic, begin writing with a minimum of pics altogether, returning to the short, personal note or comment type essay. I even thought of a new tagline for the title space: The Coming of the Toads: No links, No likes, No comments. I know that sounds a bit anti-social, but what I’m aiming for is clarity, simplicity – a clean, well-lighted blog.
Besides, I don’t get many comments or likes, and many that I do get appear to be from spam and bots, and I lost all the pics I took on our recent trip, mistakenly thinking I had backed up my phone photos to Google Photos when I had not, in the meantime deleting all the photos from my phone, then crashing my Instagram account trying to retrieve what I had at least saved there. Seems poetic justice for an anti-social attitude.
Having at this point already exceeded my target word limit, not to mention having probably lost my target audience, those interested in hearing more about the Road Trip, I give you this portfolio of road trip pics, all taken by my sister Barbara and Susan as I was trying on the lighthouse keeper’s uniform jacket at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, north of Newport, trying to strike poses I imagined a lighthouse keeper might have aimed at were he the subject of a live, on the job photo shoot:
How does one create a sense of intimacy with a blog? The very word, blog, heavy and lugubrious, suggests something one may not want to get too close to. Does intimacy imply a kind of secrecy, like the sharing of handwritten letters over time between two persons who have never met in propria persona? The Latin mass seemed intimate, and when, following Vatican II, local masses were said in the vernacular, I felt a loss of intimacy. The words in English had lost their secrecy. The mystery of the mass was no longer much of a mystery, no longer a magic show. The priest talked just like everybody else. This should have led to a greater degree of intimacy, but it did not.
One characteristic of the Internet is its ubiquitous presence, McLuhan’s “global village” realized, but for anyone who’s ever lived in a small town, the Internet might seem its opposite, an absurdly large, strange village, more like something Kafka might have dreamed rather than Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” But the paradox of “Winesburg” is found in the irony that one feels intimacy most when one feels most lonely. It is the loss of intimacy when one feels the value of the familiar, of something made known especially for you. But “over the Internet” intimacy is spread as thin as Emily’s gossamer gown.
One blog I follow that seems to have created a sense of intimacy for or with its readers is Spitafields Life. Does follow suggest intimacy? But what if one is followed by a multitude? That would seem hardly the suggestion of intimacy. Yet the Spitafields blog is written by “The Gentle Author,” whose actual name we don’t know. Note the note of secrecy that seems to draw the normally distant intimacy near. The Gentle Author offers a course on how to write a blog. The next one is advertised at Spitafields for May. Maybe I should cross the pond and attend, buy a copy of one of The Gentle Author’s signed books, find out if The Gentle Author is male or female, not that it matters – would that knowledge increase or diminish a sense of intimacy?
Blogs come in many disguises and intents, purposes vary. The lifespan of the average blog is probably not very long, could be as short as a day or two, indeed, an hour or two. One might quickly discover the blogger’s life contains the secret of a crushing intimacy, more sad and forlorn than a single tweet could ever hope for. The sound of the whippoorwill.
So it came as some surprise to see the comment of one distant but familiar reader who found the new format I’m working on for The Coming of the Toads, “less intimate.” The folks who started the Internet, huddled over their code, as anonymous as a telephone pole on a country road, surely must have been among the least intimate of the ones to whom one might want to write. Or I just might have that backwards. IDK. The bloggers among us who prefer writing with words rather than with CSM must rely on canned templates to fulfill our visions! Admittedly though, I’m not even sure what CSM is, but I think it has something to do with the difference between visual and HTML. And so I leave you, no doubt, gentle reader, about as far from intimacy as I can get in this particular post.
Past posts drop farther and farther down the vertical ramp of the blog, disappearing like sidewalk chalk drawings. One critic walks around the drawing, viewing it carefully, as if visiting a gallery or museum, another walks over it, disgusted with art. The sidewalk artist moves up to a clear space of concrete, or draws over yesterday’s washed out drawing, unconcerned that masterpiece is today jettisoned artwork.
During the day, the drawing grows hot, an illuminated manuscript. The artist takes a break, asks for an ice-cycle stick, kicks back on the grass, considers the remaining supply of chalk, eyes the blank concrete spaces up the block.
At night, the drawing cools off. The artist tells a story of a child with a blue cat on concrete.
“I see you and Joe finished that book on mistakes. Was it good?”
“Joe posted some notes to his blog.”
“Did anyone read that post? I noticed he got no likes or comments.”
“To be a blogger is to go unread as no author dare go unread.”
“So what are you reading now?”
“I’m thinking of picking up The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
“Sounds like an unnecessary error. I just read for fun.”
“What is fun?”
“Psychosomatic foghorn earborn earworms!”
“Please don’t say that again.”
“So did you help Joe with that post?”
“I put forth a few views.”
“Phew! Thinko agin!”
“Agenbite of widget.”
“Let’s go outside and have some fun!”
“I recall a moment, long ago, that may have been fun.”
“That’s the spirit! Let’s go!”
…from the 4th chapter of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” as Bloom prepares breakfast, his cat lingering by:
Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like
her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off
the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat,
its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry. The cat walked
stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.
–O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.
The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the
table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writingtable. Prr. Scratch my
Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see:
the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her
tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his
–Milk for the pussens, he said.
–Mrkgnao! the cat cried.
They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we
understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too.
Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it. Wonder
what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.
–Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the
chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.
Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it.
–Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.
She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively
and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. He watched the dark eyeslits
narrowing with greed till her eyes were green stones. Then he went to
the dresser, took the jug Hanlon’s milkman had just filled for him,
poured warmbubbled milk on a saucer and set it slowly on the floor.
Is there any expression more ephemeral than the tweet? Tweets are like mosquitoes, they bite and you have to scratch, and they fly about in swarms. Of course, you don’t have to go out into the twittering evening. There are many species of tweets but all have a short life cycle. Tweets are tiny. Large tweets are called blogs.
Of the many species of tweets, the wry with a twist is perhaps one of the most coveted. The topic hardly matters, but the more mundane the subject often the better to surprise with the wry. It’s as if to say, I could go on about this, but your attention warrants only my slightest swat. But when these fail, the tweets about brushing one’s teeth with a tube of diaper rash ointment because you couldn’t find your reading glasses, for example, or the photo of the morning bagel with cream cheese, and you were sure the baker was trying to send you some covert message, the wry is treated like a bad pun, noses in the air.
I have nothing to tweet, and I am tweeting it, and that is Twitter, as I need it, to do damage to John Cage‘s “Lecture on Nothing,” but it does seem appropriate to some twitterers. If one truly has nothing to say, who will listen? But if we begin with the admission, perhaps something of interest will follow. For having nothing to say, and saying it, is having something to say, after all.
Speaking of follow, Twitter’s format permits a kind of democratized social media, where one can follow without fear of being followed or be followed without fear of having to follow back. Is this freedom? One can lock one’s tweets, as Emily Dickinson did. But the mass of Twitterers follow more than are followed. There’s a crossover point, somewhere, a kind of demarcation separating the pro twitterer from the amateur, the popular from the wallflower, but which can occur at any level.
But what’s got us all atwitter this morning? Just this, an article followed from a tweet, “Librarians of the Twitterverse,” by James Gleick, in a post at the NYR Blog. To whit: probably (at this point) over 200 billion tweets have been imported into the Library of Congress, where the hope is to create a file that can trackback every mosquito in the swarm, and their every bite, an everyone’s Diary of Samuel Pepys.
But where to begin, now, if not then, letting the future worry about them and then. What do we look for in a tweet, in a blog post? Most of what we see is a kind of cat twitter. But that’s ok. Like Buckminster Fuller said, or might have said, if he knew about Twitter, 1,000 people should tweet, and one will come up with a tweet good enough to retweet, but you never know which one.
So, who to follow, whose tweets or whose blog posts. Here at the Toads we’re always on the lookout for something clear and concise, purposeful and meaningful and reflective, though we also enjoy the quixotic and the chaotic, the wry with the sad, the happy with the bubbly. It’s seldom so much what’s being said, but it’s always about how it’s being said. I’m always adding and subtracting from my blog feed subscriptions, somewhat capriciously, a fickle reader, yet there are a number of blogs I follow regularly, and when I see there’s been an update, a new post, I go directly to it. What is it about these blogs that keeps me going back to them?
This morning I want to pass along a blog I discovered recently that surpasses the average for its lucid and honest prose and lovely style. It’s called “Small Fires.” I hope you check it out. Reading the posts, I get the feeling here is a writer, someone who seems at ease with words, though not always with the subject, for some subjects are not easy, but whose ease puts the reader at ease. How does she do this? I don’t know.
But to close on the quixotic and the chaotic, another cat cartoon:
Do some blog-brains have a pronounced proclivity propelling profuse postings, and can the inclination be felt in the shape of their skulls? A blogger has fallen from grace with the blogging sea. I’ve been meaning to post on the phenom, and even though it’s old news in today’s Blogger Ocean, where tides rise and fall every few minutes instead of twice a day, here goes.
Phrenology was taken for a serious science in the late 1800s, and occupied thinkers from all occupations. I first learned about phrenology back at CSUDH, reading “Moby Dick” in an American Lit. class taught by Abe Ravitz. The idea behind phrenology was that a person’s predilections, proclivities, and personality could be read by feeling the shapes of the person’s head, its bumps and curves and slopes. The person doing the feeling was the phrenologist. There may be some basis for comparing the phrenology of the 19th Century to the neuroscience of the 21st.
Can a blogger post too much? Frequent blogging appears to be an acceptable practice as long as the blogger does not repeat posts, but there are rules within rules, so it is okay to repeat a post as long as the previous post is properly cited, even if the post is one’s own. A post of one’s own should not (recent criticism makes clear) with a change of venue be presented as a new post. So, what bump within the neuroscience journalist Jonah Lehrer’s head provoked the young but already venerable writer and speaker from doing just that? What pressures build in the brain from the habit of frequent posting?
I’ve been reading Jonah’s blog, The Frontal Cortex, for some time. The first time I mentioned it in the Toads, I hasten to cite, was on November 21, 2009, in a post titled “This Is Your Brain on Books.” Your brain on posts, apparently, looks and feels differently. I still like Jonah’s work, and find much of the recent criticism following his reposting old posts and ideas previously sounded elsewhere to his blog following a change of venue to The New Yorker somewhat opportunistic (taking advantage of the breaking news to call out Jonah on issues having nothing to do with the current topic), exaggerated (sounding like the Queen in “Alice”), and off point.
The electronic world never sleeps. Surely, the brain feels this, and posting can be addictive, and so can the attention a writer might crave. Over at Twitter, we find writers whose followers number in the thousands. One simply can’t “follow back” that many tweeters, certainly not at the frequency many tweeters are known for. This is seen in blogs also. Does the blogger really want to write the blog everyone follows? In blogs begin responsibilities (follow link, and see Delmore Schwartz).
The best critical review of the Jonah Lehrer self-plagiarism issue I found at Slate, in an article by Josh Levin titled “Why Did Jonah Lehrer Plagiarize Himself? Because he stopped being a writer and became an idea man.” Levin says, in the last paragraph of his article: “A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight.” This is true of the daily blog, the hourly post, or every minute the blogger is awake blog. But Levin is even more brutally honest: “Most of us journalists have one great idea every few months….” But there are so many different kinds of blogs, dedicated to so many pursuits. But maybe all blogs break down to two basic kinds, the serious (series, < Latin, promotions; ex ordine, no break) and the not so serious (enough posting for today; want to do some yard work). And where will the Toads go, adrift on the Blogger Ocean?