Missing Community

I’ve just finished delving into one of those works that is a collection of correspondence between a writer and others in the intellectual community.  Who the writer is isn’t really important because what really struck me is how we’ve lost this type of cross-pollination between people who share a common interest.

We have Internet forums, social media, and thousands of ways to connect, but I don’t see the type of interchange of ideas taking place anymore.  Books were discussed, professional advice exchanged, people introduced to other like-minded people.  We use the word “community” pretty loosely now, but the letters I read between various writers and artists showed how effective and interesting a social network could be that consisted of nothing more than a #2 envelope and some stamps.

I’d love to have a similar group of friends across the globe, intelligently discussing things, learning about others, and sharing books, manuscripts and artwork.  And we certainly have tried to use technology to make this happen.  Occasionally it does – I’ve always been appreciative when someone has taken the time to send me a link to some new info, or left a thoughtful comment.

But the thing we seem to lack is the “culture”, for lack of a better term.  And what I mean by culture is the ability to slow down, process our thoughts, and be able to engage, disagree, and learn without people’s feelings getting hurt, or competing against each other.

To build and elevate whatever your particular “thing” is.  By contributing our own unique piece to something that becomes part of a shared work, whatever form that takes.

Our blogs should certainly facilitate this type of exchange, but just responding with a quick comment isn’t really the same as writing a well-thought out page.  I know I’ve touched upon this subject in previous posts, but reading this particular piece made me think again about how our ability to exchange masses of data and information isn’t the same as being able to communicate a feeling or thought.

Most Internet forums I’ve become familiar with seem to last until the inevitable flame war breaks out, and everyone who has blogged has run into the commenter who’s only purpose is to be anonymously nasty.

When reading blogs, I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to just posting a quick, usually congratulatory comment on someone’s blog or post I like.  We justify this by saying time is short and there is just not time to adequately respond, so, just this quick note…….

And speaking of time, I’ve not posted here as often as I’d like to, the common downfall of bloggers everywhere.  So perhaps it’s time I apply my own advice and devote time to what I think is important.

And sharing ideas and experiences is the most important thing there is.  Take that away, and what is left of life but the daily maintenance of it?




Ray Bradbury

I see this morning that Ray Bradbury has left us.  I always wanted to meet Ray, not so much as a fan of his stories – to be honest, I haven’t read much of his sci-fi beyond what was required in high school – but I wanted to meet him just to say I did.

Most of the people who are “required reading” in our school English classes are as dead to us as Millard Fillmore.  Hemingway shot himself a year before I was born.  Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and others all wrote and lived in a dusty past that is long gone even to my generation, and I’m no spring chicken.

When I lived in the L.A. area a few years back, Ray Bradbury was still showing up at libraries and book get-togethers around the Southern California region.  I just thought it would be cool to meet someone who is iconic enough to have made it into our English curriculum.  Kind of like a kid learning about the Civil War in history class and then finding out Abraham Lincoln was holding a Q & A session at the local branch library.

Most of the people we get exposed to in school are of the distant past, or public figures who aren’t accessible to us.  But there was Ray, who lived in the future but didn’t drive a car and didn’t fly in a plane until he was forced to in middle age, still out there talking about writing and imagination and creativity to anyone who was interested.

He was in love with what he did, and even if it’s not my particular “thing”, I still enjoyed reading some of his other essays and interviews, like Zen in the Art of Writing.

I came close a few times but unfortunately never had a chance to actually see Ray Bradbury.  For some reason it was one of those things we think we’ll always be able to do later, but never seems to happen.

When Ray was about 12, he went to a fair and saw a performer called “Mr. Electrico” who shot sparks out his fingertips.  He pointed at Ray and shot him with a bolt, saying “LIVE FOREVER!”.

I think Ray Bradbury will indeed live forever.



There’s A Reason We Had Gatekeepers

I’ve been steeping myself in the land of self-publishing lore lately, and it’s both exciting and terrifying (and I don’t mean in an exhilarating way).

There are a lot of talented people out there, launching blogs, ebooks, podcasts, and social campaigns, all with the idea of driving traffic to their particular product.  I’ve learned a lot about how Amazon works (or doesn’t work) as well as how many genres exist that I didn’t even know about (Apocalypse fiction, anyone?)

But in watching videos, listening to podcasts, and reading blogs, one thing is strikingly clear:  Amateurism reigns supreme.  Maybe some people find that refreshing, but I mostly find it somewhat annoying.

Because let’s face it…..some people, especially writers, don’t belong on video.  There’s a reason we see mostly good-looking, relatively glib people on TV.  That’s because it makes it easier to watch.

There’s also a reason we’ve gotten accustomed to listening to well-spoken people on the radio who know how to stay on topic and modulate their voice so we don’t get bored to death.

But on the Net, amateur efforts reign supreme.  It’s pretty hard for me to buy into what you are selling, especially if the product is communications-related, when your best shot resembles an episode of “Wayne’s World” done in someone’s basement.

There’s more to being good at something than saying you are.  And some people are excellent – I’ve also been very impressed with a lot of the content out there.  But that seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.

I don’t have anything on Youtube, or a podcast……and there’s a reason for that.  Even if you are beauty-contest material, it takes a certain energy to come across well on camera.  Not everyone has “it”.   And nobody is going to listen to my flat, Great Lakes-accented delivery without being reminded of the movie “Fargo”, or a character on A Prairie Home Companion.

I guess it’s a way for people to live out their inner talk-show-host fantasies, but just because we have an abundance of tools available doesn’t mean they are all going to work for anyone who can fire up a webcam and mike.



Be Like Bernie

Fascinating things happen all around us, and the more ordinary their source, the more fascinating I find them.

Take, for example, the story of Bernie Pietenpol of Cherry Grove, Minnesota.

Like a lot of other young people coming up in the Great Depression (the first one, that is!) he was only able to make it as far as the 8th grade.  He worked in a cabinet shop and as a mechanic.

But his eyes were on the skies.  He wanted to fly, and have his own airplane.  But there wasn’t exactly an easy path to that dream for someone in a rural Midwestern town with no money.

So Bernie decided he would just build his own plane, designed out of what he had available to him.  So using hardware store parts, an engine from a Model A Ford, and carving his own propeller out of a piece of black walnut, he did just that.  And then taught himself how to fly it.

And then he built another.  He read an article in Popular Mechanics magazine that said an auto engine wouldn’t be enough to power an aircraft.  He wrote to the editor that he had not just one, but two airplanes he had powered with auto engines.  The editor said that if he would fly one over to show him, he’d believe it.

So Bernie did.  The editor was so impressed he said if Bernie would give him the plans he would sell them through the magazine.  So a friend was pressed into doing the drawings and they sent them off.

And they sold.  6,000 sets sold before WWII alone!  It seems Bernie had tapped into a common dream of making flight available to anyone with the desire and ability to figure things out for themselves when financial resources were lacking.

Over 400 of these Pietenpol “Air Camper” planes are still flying today, safely and successfully, all over the world, and they are still being built in garages and sheds.

People like Bernie Pietenpol are my heroes, because they demonstrate what can happen if we just get up and start something.  I find many people, myself included, spend all our time “beginning to begin” on our dreams and we never actually do anything.

We think we need more education, or a certain background, or something else that we think we lack, when all we need to do is figure out what we can do with what we have.

So the lesson is, just start.  Now.  You’ll figure it out as you go along, and starting things has it’s own magnetism that will draw the resources you need to you when you need them.

And someday you’ll be flying, too.



Treasure From The Trash Heap

I went to my local library’s book sale yesterday.   I can’t seem to stay away from these things, even though my bookshelves groan under the load of all the books I’ve managed to pick up over the years.

I really didn’t intend to pick up more than one or two books if I found something interesting, but am armload of books later I was on my way home.  One of the books I picked up was called The Art of Thinking by someone named Ernest Dimnet.  It was from the now-defunct Fawcett Publishing, part of a series called their “World Books” program, released in 1969.  The book had been written in the 1920’s, I believe.

I’ve never heard of Dimnet, or this book, but once I sat down with it I was entranced.  Dimnet’s Old World literary style (he was French), with his frequent references to authors long forgotten, show just how well read he was.  It combines some techniques that would be at home in any self-help book today such as visualization, as well as pinches of philosophy and advice on how to access your authentic voice as an artist.

All delivered in a prose that is from a century ago, but still understandable and capable of transmitting it’s most important ideas.  Dimnet was obviously a very well-traveled person, and one who knew quite a few of the literary lights of his day.  Upon researching a little bit about him online, I was surprised to find out he was a priest – his writing about very sensitive and ethereal subjects stays grounded in the secular.

It is a perfect example of how good writing holds up.  It made me realize what we’ve lost in communication since we don’t really put much effort into things anymore.  Dimnet and his generation took books seriously, and didn’t just read them, they thought about them and digested their ideas, using that as fuel for their own self-expression.

And nearly 100 years after it was written, it still holds up.  I doubt our blogs and Tweets will do the same.  It kind of makes you long for the heft of a hardcover book and the smell of musty paper.

Internet Disconnect

As demographics break down, I am too over the hill to be considered a “digital native” – somebody who has had the Internet and cell phones available to them from an early age.  I went through my youth and early adulthood in analog mode.

I enjoy technology and all the cool stuff it provides, but I find I don’t have certain digital “needs” that others do.

I don’t have the constant need to be connected to anyone, so my cell phone minutes last a looooong time.   I can make a trip of several thousand miles to a place I’ve never been without the aid of satellites, GPS, and Onstar. Just the occasional glance at the Auto Club map.

I also live my life somewhat spontaneously.  I don’t need to read Yelp reviews to see if a restaurant is good.  I’ll go in and just try it.  And if it isn’t any good, oh well…I really don’t need to write a review.  The sooner forgotten the better.

I have photo albums full of faded, yellowed pictures.  I don’t need Instagram to create them.

I feel this disconnect because I like to spend my time living my life, not documenting if for people who I don’t know and probably don’t care.

I took up blogging with a message-in-a-bottle theme.  Throw a message out there, and see if anyone finds it.  It’s fun to meet new people who somehow stumble across things, rather than having them be the focus of an intense marketing campaign.

I “get” technology….it’s fun to feel connected to someone via Twitter, or form a network on Facebook or LinkedIn.  I get the appeal, I just don’t seem to be driven to jump in.

I sometimes feel like a member of a primitive tribe, plucked out of the bush and plunked down in the middle of a modern city.  While a lot of the improvements such as heat, light, and clean running water will be embraced immediately, there won’t be a real need to worry if the curtains and the carpet clash or if the place settings go with the overall decor.

It’s just not that important in the overall scheme of things.



The other day I chanced to overhear a phone conversation from one of my relatives.  It’s the type of relative who stays in touch over the years, but only so they can crow about their end of the family and satisfy their morbid curiosity about your end.

The asked if I was doing OK, and when they received the response that I was, they moved on to extol the exploits of their children, grandchildren, and impending great-grandchildren.  I guess since I wasn’t incarcerated, destitute, or hadn’t met an untimely end for them to revel over I wasn’t newsworthy.

It reminded me that about 90% of the people who live in our heads – old friends, teachers, relatives, etc.- aren’t really concerned with us until we become newsworthy in some manner.  Yet we sometimes listen to these voices from our past when judging ourselves and reflecting on our lives.

We wonder what people would think if we did A or Plan B, when in fact most of them aren’t going to think of us at all.  I don’t mean to say that from a whiny, “nobody cares about me” stance, but from a liberating “who cares!” point of view.

I think all of us have this internal jury from our past that we use against ourselves.  They seem to be the people who need to be impressed by us, they seem to judge us in an almost unconscious manner.

They are the people we imagine shaking their heads at us when we try something that doesn’t work out, or didn’t go as we planned.  Maybe these internal critics are just the faces and names we paste our own fears and insecurities on.

But they don’t really exist.  Or have any power over us.  If we succeed wildly, they’ll just downplay our success to make themselves feel better.  And if we fail, they’ll just gloat.

So ignore them….they don’t matter, they don’t care, and the electrical impulses firing in your neurons could be put to better use making the one person happy that really matters.