Squirrels In Trees

20 11 2008

There we were, drunk and giddy in the fast-fading remnants of the night, and a few guitars came out, spawning some sputtering discussion and head-nodding, the most our minds and terribly Caucasian notions of rhythm could muster at that hour. It was about 3 a.m. the night Daylight Savings Time ended, and we were upstairs at a house party and a kid intervenes in the conversation.

The discussion had veered toward the topic of classical music (somehow), and he interjects with a rant about how Pachelbel’s Canon (linked here – forward to 1:50, you’ll recognize it) has no musical validity and all and how it’s just ‘garbage pop.’ He argued that it was just a product of the music around it, that it didn’t influence anything at all – it was merely a pleasant and unusually resilient cultural blip, a polished version of music that had once been pioneering and was now entrenched. It was like saying that Pachelbel’s Canon sucked because it didn’t invent the F chord.

And I got to thinking about this nasty condition we have.

Of all the things that pin our generation to indecision and inertia, the rush to criticize, to provide an unsolicited and incomplete critique, should embarrass us most. We have become a nation of amateur critics, of hacks who seek not to enable and encourage, but to maim. Worst of all, that harsh critique we turn on the world turns into crushing self-awareness, of a form so bad that it keeps us from creating, from leaving any proof of our lives except for the airy nothingness of judgment passed.

First, a defense of criticism: We do need it. All of us. Just in doses. Criticism is the scalpel, the sandpaper, the extra touch of paint or the hallowed and underused delete key. Criticism, ingested correctly, only refines our work, whether that work be words or, hell, breakfast quiche. Everything can tolerate a little tinkering, some things more than others. In the proper amounts, and with an altruistic, compassionate mind at the center, criticism makes life better.

On a personality-formation and personality-maintenance level, mental critique is essential and natural. We form the notion of Who We Are as much from what we enjoy and align ourselves with as we do with what we find objectionable, what we rally against. We imitate the good, work against the bad. In high school, the notions of nerds and jocks exist, theoretically, as much because they’re smart/athletic as because they’re not the other. (Yes, yes, they can blend, but you get the idea)

That said, back to the need for a compassionate core. Here’s where we must alter our kindergarten idiom that, unless we have something nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all to something along the lines of unless we have something constructive to say, we shouldn’t say anything. Criticism, ideally communicated, should always seek to improve, not to demean.

We need to apply it with an eye toward bettering this race, toward polishing our worlds of art, thought, justice – toward making everything better, instead of just tearing everything down compulsively. We’re in this together, all of us. And if this vision sounds hopelessly corny (it does) it’s better than the reality of what we have right now.

What we have on our hands is a generation of wannabe iconoclasts, unyielding throngs of snarky snipers who throw barbs from afar. It’s the height of cowardice. It’s no longer that those who cannot do, teach. It’s that those who cannot do, criticize.

And why? Has it always been this way? Almost definitely: Keats was rumored to have died because of the stress and despair of his bad reviews. But has criticism always been this loud and this omnipresent? Certainly not.

On a basic level, people react in two ways to their peers standing out. They cheer or they boo, loudly or to themselves. That has, as far I know, been pretty much the case ever since the Romans were going crazy for Russell Crowe (and even earlier, some say!).

People want to be heard. They want to feel strong, even superior. And when others assert themselves, the act of chipping away at the edifice of courage and inspiration needed to create, to lead, to stand out is an easier task – especially when millions of others are willing to lend a hand – than building up the requisite courage and inspiration to push one’s self higher. To tear down means to not have to require more from one’s own life because, without the foil character of the ambitious, confident counterpart, there’s nothing to pale in comparison to.

All around us now, we have a new breed of entitled, enabled critics, bred from parental insistence of uniqueness, by the American party line that Everyone Is Special, not the former line of You’re Only Special If You Prove It method that drove some of our greatest figures to, well, prove it. Andrew Carnegie’s dad didn’t bring him to self-esteem camp.

This kind of new teaching gives rise to a generation bent on admiring its own brilliance and set on revealing the flaws in others. Confidence in one’s abilities can certainly be a good thing, but only if the brilliance is cultured. The problem is, so strong is the message that You’re So Special that cultivation doesn’t happen; leave that to the pedestrians. Nothing is produced, only consumed.

And now, armchair critics have a forum that allows them to spray as much vitriol as they can muster up. Which is, as we’ve seen, a hell of a lot. The Internet has given us capability to condemn without accountability, repercussion or thought.

You can write a post calling a book that took seven years for the author write an unreadable piece of shit, veiled by anonymity, and then head over to check the lines for that night’s NBA action. Thoughtful critique cannot breathe in this environment, choked off by a cloud of simple, Twitteresque comments that do nothing but feed the famished egos of the critics.

The greatest tragedy in all of this is the harshness with which we judge our own work, a condition that stems from this culture of criticism. Instead of diving headlong into a project, we over-analyze. Then frustration sets in, and so does mental paralysis. The work is, sadly, dead at birth.

The last story in Dave Eggers’ short story collection How We Are Hungry is called ‘After I Fell In The River And Before I Drowned.’ In it, he writes about this dog, this bullet of a creature that loves running, loves the way that the trees blur and the muscles twitch and the wind rips at his cheeks as he and his friends race through the woods every day, a race that culminates in a leap over a ravine, one that ultimately results in his death but until his death is the center of his world, the height of life. But while these dogs are racing, squirrels chirp from the trees, scattering insults, quick ones like ‘That was not very good’ or ‘that is very ugly.’ The dogs sometimes catch a squirrel and kill it, squeezing it between their jaws as the squirrel still chirps with its dying breath. But the squirrels’ numbers never dwindle. More and more squirrels show up, saying the same things. Just louder. And louder.

That leap is the leap that every person who wants to create must make. The willingness to make that leap after racing through the woods, instead of sitting in trees and jeering, is a form of victory in itself. But not making it, not even coming down from the trees, is nothing but a lifetime of deaths, the thousands of deaths that await cowards before their ultimate demise, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

When my late professor, Jack Falla, was in the finishing stages of his novel, he and I sat down for a catch-up lunch at a Chinese place on Beacon Street. He seemed nervous. After thousands of stories, a few nonfiction/memoir books, thousands more hours of interviewing, teaching and generally making everyone love him, he was afraid of how the novel would be received once it was out of his hands.

“Scheity,” he said, looking straight down at his plate. “I just don’t know if I’m gonna be able to take the reviews.”

He decided, as the great ones do, to just point to the scoreboard.

But how many, because of criticism both external and internal, never get up the courage to try to put one up on the board?


Mutually Assured Destruction

26 10 2007

I walk home from work every day through a metal and glass canopy in downtown Manhattan, the falling sun’s beams crashing onto the buildings’ beams and splaying across the pollutant-rich sky — which creates a strikingly synthetic blend of orange, pink and lime green.

Near the end of this walk, I come to the New York Stock Exchange, where a dozen men in black flak suits lean against the cement wall or prop themselves up against the low, black and thick iron fence that creates a 50-foot perimeter around the building. Against their bodies they clutch thick black automatic rifles, guns that could cut down a front line, let alone a rogue, strapped subversive.

It’s somehow comforting, this destructive potential. And little else could be quite so disconcerting.

Over the past six years, amplified by Michael Moore’s declaration of it to the public in Fahrenheit 9/11, Americans have lived with a duality of fear and might. Instead of what perhaps came before, which I assume was something like a gradient from fear to confidence, we have supplanted an internal assuredness with external force.

Guns are our pillows, armor our blankets. We have entrusted our safety in the hands of those whose hands hold things that signify something far less than safety.

America has become a land of mutually assured destruction. We feel secure when we know that we have more firepower than our enemies, whoever they might be. But if we want to get back to America, the pre-9/11 variety (if that’s possible), we’ll need a more internal variety. Guns are great, guts are better.

Students Today

17 10 2007

This video has achieved, according to The Onion AV Club, quite a following.

What we can glean from this montage is something truly harrowing, although not altogether shocking. It’s not that students are lazy and anonymous, unimpressed by the people who stand in front of lecture halls and spout wisdom. It’s not that students are feeling alienated and pigeonholed. It’s not that they’re feeling like all the promise of the mid-20th century cracked and disintegrated in the final stretch.

It’s that our generation wants so badly to make its alleged plight — which is, of course, the plight of being whiny — known. It’s that these people don’t realize that American students have been this way pretty much since the 60s.

It’s that these people are just so, so terribly lame. They’re the people who go to anti-war rallies and confuse the peace sign with the Mercedes sign, the ones who hold up signs to protest things they can’t really define for reasons unknown, the ones who have killed activism.

Journalism or something like it

6 09 2007

The Times ran this story a few days ago:


The next question isn’t about the expiration date of 9/11 tributes. It’s about whether, really, that this is even a question. Did people start questioning such a thing before a New York Times reporter started asking them about it? Certainly, it’s a possibility. But is this a story?

This is where we get our truths, through trend stories mined from empty fields: a story like this is the equivalent of fool’s gold. It glistens like something real, but under inspection, its blemishes overwhelm the sheen. But newswriting, trend writing specifically, inheres a bit of lay magic — the ability and willingness to create, from nothing, something.

Such spontaneous generation requires the assistance of props. Writers exonerate themselves from responsibility with the employ of words like ‘many’ or ‘some,’ fatally vague quantifiers that don’t actually, really, mean anything. Of course ‘some’ people are tired of 9/11 ceremonies. Some people are also tired of hearing the Beatles or eating buffalo wings. ‘Many’ people don’t like to shower. But these collective words are cop-outs. They rely on the generosity of language to turn what is merely a writer’s preconception into a story with whispers of fact.

The crafting of trend stories requires asking just the right questions to elicit responses that, ostensibly, support the claim.  And if not the right questions, then the correct editing to condense long, multi-textured quotes into vignettes that contort the intended message.

But, then again, would that be a story at all? Or just a collection of nebulously connected points? A story is, after all, a line of best fit. And that’s the beauty of it: every instance, every moment involves myriad possibilities for a story. When we only had a few news sources, we were restricted to a few. Now, however, the democratization of media has given us access to more — perhaps infinite — angles. And that’s a pretty cool thing.