Last Year

I found it very difficult to talk about what was going in my life last year and even harder to write about it. But I did manage to produce a piece for Souciant about looking back through the documentary evidence of my year on Facebook and the two memory cards I shot with my "real" camera. Many of you are already acquainted with the former, though it can be difficult to piece together a coherent story for anyone there, because the algorithm for what is shown in a particular user's feed is unpredictable. And even if you did see most of what I shared, it's not like I'll ever win an award for Directness in Social Media. The photos from the latter, as I explain in the piece, I didn't really show to anyone.

A number of my favorite images dated from croneitude's welcome visits to Tucson, including this one of cloud shadows taken on the day I drove her around looking for Monsoon thrills:

Cloud shadows in Cochise County - August 2014

Today she wrote me something interesting about it that I wanted to share:
It isn't just the lack of humans in the frame. I love how there is this vast landscape, with equally vast details that are just hinted at in the image: The distant mountains, the cumulus clouds at the edge of the frame. Even the bushes that are in shadow. We know there is so much more under and beyond, which reflects the Facebook experience, in a sense.
Although my piece is all about "shadows" that fall over the selves we choose to present through social media and although I explicitly commented on my family's practice of excluding evidence of the human from what we framed with the camera, I hadn't consciously chosen this photo to reinforce visually what I was trying to communicate in words. But I also know that something in me chose it from a great many possibilities.

August 20th, 2006

Trying to remember fragments of my dream. We were in San Francisco, but not exactly. It was like San Francisco merged with some steep-hilled European city. Skylar was pushing Smokey in a baby carriage. No, maybe she was on her bike. I remember pink. At one point, she started down an especially steep hill and Kim was concerned. I was running to keep up, telling her to use her breaks the whole way down.

Later, we had gotten down to a flat area near the water and had crossed a large, curvy road, more European than Market St. or the Embarcadero and had sat down on a large grassy area, almost a median. My parents were there too, all of a sudden. I was trying to get Kim to put the harness on Smokey so she'd be safe. Kim was giving me the, "You're too into rules and regulations," argument or somerthink akin to it. It got heated. She was appealing to my parents to support her and they sort of went along with the force of her will. Even Skylar was agreeing with Kim. I started getting really upset.

Eventually, I gave in. And then Smokey ran out into the big street after seeing some cat-attracting movement. I ran out after her. She was in a small concrete median with a big, black rabbit. I scooped her up. When I brought her back to the family, though, Kim was still giving me grief about the harness. I don't recall exactly, but I think Smokey got away a few more times before Kim finally helped me to put on the harness.

Then the dream shifted. There was like a giant movie preview in the sky. It started out with one of those, "From the director of," spiels. The movie was called Raffi. I don't remember much, but the images started with a man and a woman flying in that Chinese Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon way against a pretty obviously artificial cityscape of vaguely Middle Eastern-Mediterranean design. I'm not sure what happened in the rest of the preview, but I recall a lot of globe-trotting. It was definitely in that magic realism vein, a la the new Michel Gondry film with Gabriel Garcia Bernal, The Science of Sleep. I do recall, though, that it was set in the Middle East and therefore was engaging, as I was thinking while watching it in my dream, with the Iraq War etc. in interesting ways.

Transparency For Whom?

It had been quite a while since I wrote anything to be published under my byline, both for the reasons enumerated in my last entry and because many of the "hot-button" topics circulating right now are not ones I feel comfortable making public statements about. But I did finally manage to get a piece done for Souciant and, what is more, one that is pertinent to a subject that I have typically avoided like the plague, thanks to a number of very unpleasant experiences over the years.

I'm not sure whether "People in Glass Houses" ends up doing what I'd hoped, but am pleased that readers have had a number of different takes on it, since I was striving for as much open-endedness as possible. Since I have been torn between the compulsion to write about my mom and the difficulty of tackling such a huge subject right now, I was also glad to have a way to do so indirectly. If nothing else, the finished product does have a certain symmetry, since it manages to deal obliquely with my reflections both on being her son and on Israel.

I want to share a portion of the piece here in order to frame something I just read with interest. This passage comes towards the beginning:
It wasn’t until I was five that I learned how wrong I had been about the idiom. My mother was listening to coverage of the Yom Kippur War on the radio one afternoon — she didn’t watch much television news — when she suddenly blurted out, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Since I could barely comprehend what was happening in literal terms — 1973 was a difficult year for five-year-olds, with confusing stories about the Vietnam War and peace process, the Pattie Hearst kidnapping, the OPEC oil embargo etc. — this statement turned my world upside down. Although I immediately realized that the participants in the conflict couldn’t all live in glass houses, I had no idea whom my mother meant to admonish with what I now understood to be an idiom with potentially broad application.

I distinctly remember how disorienting it felt having to revise my conception of the world on the fly. Because I was the sort of child who tended to construct entire worlds from a single discovery, I had a lot invested, by this time, in my literal interpretation of “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Indeed, it had evolved into an antipathy towards any building with too many windows. No matter how compelling such a structure might be, that didn’t justify putting its occupants at risk.

This prospect of total transparency was both thrilling and scary to me. Although I was not a stone thrower by disposition — compared to most boys, I was easy for my parents to handle — I still liked the idea of being able to take aim at the world from what military strategists deem a secure position. And the alternative, frankly, was alarming. What if someone could see the silly games my friend Mark and I played in the private reaches of our old farmstead, inside the crumbling rooms of the old red barn or out in the strange walled “garden” only accessible through its back door?

Although it seems strange to me now that I was troubled by such concerns, they were fully in keeping with the times. I was in pre-school from 1971 through 1973, when the anti-establishment paranoia of the late 1960s was matched step for step by the reactionary paranoia that fueled the backlash against counter-cultural excess. When you think back on that era, it’s a wonder that anyone was surprised by Watergate. Everybody had something to hide and everyone else was desperate to reveal it.
Forgive me for quoting at such length, but it's necessary in this case.

Anyway, I was taking a break from helping Skylar with her Spanish -- or, to be more precise, from trying to revive my Spanish enough so that I can help her -- when I picked up a recent issue of Monocle magazine, which has long both disturbed and fascinated me, for reasons I explained in a Souciant piece from a couple years ago. In one of the publication's reports, titled "Model Factories", I came across this intriguing passage:
It wouldn't do to have any secrets at Snow Peak, the Japanese outdoor brand. To describe the company's rural HQ and factory as transparent would be an understatement. Apart from the bathrooms, every room in the award-winning building is glazed for maximum visibility: the open-plan office, the meeting rooms, the shop, the factory floor and even the president's office. The conference "room" doesn't have any walls at all and has a clear view of what everyone in the company is up to. Everywhere there are views of the mountains that surround this unique set-up, which was designed by Taisei Construction. "We wanted a headquarters that really connected to nature, that related to what we do as a company," says president Tohru Yamai, whose father, a mountaineer, started the business back in 1958.

When Yamai moved the Niigata-based company from urban quarters in nearby Sanjo city to 165,000 sq m of open space in the hills two years ago, it sparked a revolution in the way the company was organised: no more individual offices, no more closed doors and no more colonising of desk space. Yamai is an admirably laid-back leader, whose one rule is that nobody sits in the same place two days running. Accountants, product designers and sales managers are all mixed in together in one workroom and the factory is just along the corridor. "This office not only looks different," says Yamai. "It has changed the way we operate too." Departments didn't always see eye-to-eye in the more conventional set-up but this way, "we're all in it together."
My first response to this description was very much like it would have been as the five-year-old I describe in my Souciant piece from yesterday, simultaneously excited and disturbed. Even if the bathrooms are exempt from the mandate to be as transparent as possible, the idea that secrets have been shunted aside by architecture still sits uneasily with me.

Part of this has to do with the anxieties perpetually in circulation about social media these days. And a large part, to get more specific, has to do with the fact that I've taught Dave Eggers' novel The Circle to my Critical Thinking About New Media course the past two semesters, pairing it with the "Panopticism" chapter from Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish and other academic articles about surveillance and privacy in the modern and now increasingly digital world. Routed through a revisiting of the discussions we held earlier in the semester about Immanuel Kant's essay "What Is Enlightenment?", these classes on The Circle were favorites of mine from a pedagogical standpoint, but also quite alarming.

I can't tease out everything that came to mind when reading about the Snow Peak HQ and factory's extreme transparency right now -- I need to get back to Spanish, for one thing -- but do want to flag some of the issues it brings up. Obviously, the idea that making what had been secreted away as visible possible is not a new one. It was part and parcel of the Enlightenment, conceptually, and in also seamlessly interwoven with the logic of Modernist architecture I touch on in yesterday's Souciant piece. So the initial thrill I felt reading about this place and what is was constructed to achieve feels a little misplaced, somehow, since it is only innovative relative to the backsliding that has left the project of Enlightenment unfinished. And yet, the ideal of transparency still has great power to compel us, as the opening pages of The Circle deftly attest.

Although I am willing to believe that Snow Peak president Tohru Yamai believes what he is saying in the Monocle article, I can't help but wonder how hierarchy fits into his "daring" business model. Everybody can see what everybody else is doing, yes, but not from a position of equality. The factory worker who is under constant observation from his fellow workers and his supervisors presumably has a different response to this enforced transparency than the managers who, despite having two-way glass walls to contend with, still have the authority to manage. But I should probably do some research on Snow Peak -- this is their American website -- before speculating further. For now, I just want to register how perfectly this account of the company's approach dovetails with what I was thinking about as I reflected on the idiom "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

Pared Down To a Nub

Sometimes the burden of explaining what has been happening feels too big to shoulder. And sometimes I'm too tired to even worry about that burden. Frequently, in fact.

I have managed to maintain what they call a "social media presence" on Facebook, thanks, in large measure, to its phone-friendliness. But what one shares there is rarely what one really needs to share. Or, even if it is what one needs to share, one rarely shares enough of it.

Still, that sort of interaction has its uses. When my invalid mother suddenly declined in April, knowing that I could turn to Facebook for words of support, however superficial, lifted my spirits. Besides, what else can one do hour after hour in a hospital or hospice besides distract oneself with technology? Having that window on an outside world made the waiting a lot easier to bear.

That said, for all of the solace I took in this semi-illusory "community", getting a condolence card in the mail from people like quuf felt a lot more meaningful than electronic "hugs". It reminded me of what I liked best about Live Journal, the fact that the connections it facilitated were deeper and stranger than the streamlined sort that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram promote.

But I stayed away from here, at least publicly -- sometimes I would compose private entries to order my thoughts -- because I realized that I didn't have the emotional and physical resources to cope with another front in my technologically mediated social engagement. I didn't want to make the same mistake as Napoleon and Hitler, if you get my drift.

Also, it's hard to report on one's doings when so many of them involve unpleasant or difficult circumstances. Simply put, the past eighteen months have been brutal for me and my family. Those of you who are friends with Kim will know what I'm talking about. Come to think of it, very few of the people who still participate semi-regularly on Live Journal are not "dual-friended".

Anyway, the point is, I just haven't had much time to do anything other than patching holes in a ship that seems perpetually on the verge of sinking. Some things are better now. Our daughter is definitely more together than she was six months ago. At the same time, the number of traumatic experiences we've dealt with since the beginning of 2013 has me always wondering what can go wrong next.

Right now, I'm wondering where the summer I was supposed to use to recover has gone. High school here resumes, perversely, on August 7th, so I only have two more weeks before the madness commences full force. And I have literally accomplished none of the goals I had set for myself in May.

Much of the blame for that, however, has to do with the fact that the aforementioned daughter has been completing ninth grade online, a pursuit that has required a lot of attentiveness from Kim and I. I was "point parent" for the second semester of Honors English, which was extremely time-consuming and enormously frustrating and am now playing that role for Spanish, which is not inspiring a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of the student in question.

She actually just called me, advising me to stay at Starbucks a while longer so that she can continue jumping on her trampoline to favorite songs -- an activity for which her parents are no longer permitted to be within earshot -- and delightedly sharing the news that Benedict Cumberbatch is slated to play Brian Epstein in a biopic. Considering that her two biggest obsessions in 2014 have been the BBC Sherlock series and The Beatles, this qualifies as earth-shattering information.

What else? I have been trying to keep my dad company, knowing how difficult the transition into widower-hood can be. I either make or bring him dinner almost every night and usually eat with him as well. Luckily, he married late and had already developed interests -- baseball and opera, principally -- that were independent of anyone else and to which he has returned with increased vigor now that the emotionally grueling aspects of caring for and about my mom are no longer draining him.

The week before last, I made the long drive with him from Tucson to Mendocino to meet up with my sister and her family in order to scatter some of my mother's ashes at one of her favorite places on earth. He didn't want to fly, since he is largely confined to a wheelchair now and was anxious about airplane restrooms. So I volunteered to take him by car, a decision, as I wrote on Facebook, that I will one day be glad for having made but which I often regretted in the moment.

I will try to write about the trip at greater length. For now, it will suffice to say that the actual "ceremony" felt meaningful to me, but was strangely anti-climatic, given how little energy everyone else invested in making it seem ceremonial. The family time we had was really nice, though. And I was able to steal away for a couple hours to drive up my favorite stretch of Highway 1 and take photographs, an activity that did a lot to restore my sanity at the time and which is continuing to sustain me in retrospect as I contemplate the vastness of my to-do list.

Although I am sure that some of the exhaustion I've been dealing with constitutes a form of depression -- it's hard to imagine not being depressed, under the circumstances -- more of it derives from the fact that I haven't been getting enough sleep for quite a while. When your teenager takes advantage of her not having to go to regular school to indulge her night-owl tendencies and her other parent turns into something frightening past midnight, you may find yourself getting to bed at 3 or 4 in the morning.

Well, it's time to return to the most pressing task at hand. I do still stop in and read your journals now and then, though I haven't felt qualified to comment. It's nice to know that you are out there. I do sincerely hope that I can be more present in the months ahead than I've been able to be recently.