Saturday, March 24, 2018

Zuck: Be a Hero. Destroy the Ring.

Photo: Matt G. Borowick,

Dear Zuck,
Like two million others, I watched UK Channel 4’s video of the Cambridge Analytics (CA) sting, where digital marketers brag about how well they manipulate people online to sell elections to the highest bidder. This was, in part, how Trump got elected. CA worked with Facebook partners, bought the profile data of 87 million users, and then aimed fine-tuned “material” — fake news in its purest form — to change those users’ votes and online behavior without anyone knowing. They bragged they could help buy other democracies, too.
Then I wondered: Why are people surprised CA’s subcontractors can legally purchase their data from Facebook? Everyone sells user data, right? Search engines, news sites, shopping sites, your phone and Internet provider, your favorite nonprofits, your appliances  —  we users allow all of these to store, copy, share, and sell data about our identity and everything we digitally do. But you know that better than anyone. You know It’s always watching us.
I remember seeing you onstage at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco in 2009, when you were in your early twenties. It was the morning plenary, and up-close, on those new LED stadium monitors, it was clear you were uncomfortable as you walked through your deck. This was back before you got the gray t-shirt uniform; you were in a sports jacket and sneakers, with earbuds like W. had worn in his campaign “debates.” There were thousands of there, watching silently in the dark, and you seemed to feel that, sweating a little and moving awkwardly. However, you were also super focused on delivering the Facebook message, and you did it. You were genuine. Earnest.
That’s why I still believe you feel the weight of It.
Even though you’re now one of the wealthiest guys on earth (and the youngest and most technically skilled of that cohort), and even though you control the most responsive, ubiquitous, addictive, and unassuming propaganda machine in history  —  a system where multimedia ads and entertainment look like reality, and vice versa  —  I still believed you when, after the CA leak, you said “I promise you we’ll work through this.” You can instantly command the eyes, ears, and attention of millions  — more amplification than anyone in history  —  and you know it. It must be a struggle sometimes. You also must know how quickly It can turn on you.
So I’m not here to add to all the finger-pointing. We can’t blame Facebook, Twitter, and all the other data-sucks we opt-in to for the fact that tricksy, international plutocrats now use them to manipulate democracies with greater success than ever, secretly molding our distracted, collective will. Those are the bad guys. They’re the guys who want to take as much as they can, leaving our kids behind in a parched, gray non-wilderness where the most visible hope appears on a screen. I don’t think you’re one of them. Not yet.
Because, when I hear your voice in the official statements, I still hear sincerity. Sure, I did laugh out loud at the posturing photos your people put out last spring, showing you with American Folk, riding on their tractors, standing in beams of light in their church pews, and eating weenies at their kitchen table. That was obviously a campaign. But in the big picture? I think you’re still carrying the burden. You’re not running away and hiding from what’s going on here. You have a real address, a real wife and kids and privacy. Your public announcement that you’ll give most of your money away in your lifetime suggests that you’re wise enough (and at a younger age than your competitors) to know when enough is enough, and also to understand the PR-value of keeping on the side of “the people” by showing yourself to be someone who knows good from bad. And when you respond — as you do, quickly — to the abject horrors that Facebook sometimes enables, like live-streamed suicides and gang rapes and torture and infanticide, and you say you’re sorry, it sounds like there’s real thinking there about how to make things better —  about how to fix “the system” and create better “social infrastructure.” You don’t need to struggle like that, and you probably know it wouldn’t matter to most people if you didn’t, because most people are too busied to stop using Facebook and all the other things that watch them. In fact, such horrors prove that lots of people actually want to be watched. Your reacting so earnestly shows you’re still safe: the burden hasn’t gotten to you. But you must know it will only get worse.
Last spring, once these horrors got attention in the non-social media, you stepped up and published “Building Global Community.” That manifesto frankly discussed the awesome power Facebook wields, and the problems that result. It also acknowledged how liable you and your company are, and will increasingly be, for what users do inside the Facebook “system.”
After your message went out, in seconds, to your one billion users, many reporters marveled at its length (6,000 words), but I was particularly struck me by how well-crafted it was. It takes a lot of skill to stay so on-message while acting with urgency, and I felt you must have been really troubled by the stories out there, troubled enough to buy the best communications expertise to work fast and say the most appropriate things. When you said Facebook wanted to “help people” and “give” them “the power” to build “long-term social infrastructure,” it again showed signs of struggle  —  your honest attempt to make sense of something ugly. And seeing someone like you, with so much instant power, trying so earnestly to make this right? It made me feel something.
Not that I agreed with the manifesto. For example, the hope that the current Facebook could give the world a new “social infrastructure” is absurd. We already have a social infrastructure: it’s called “civil society,” and it’s been through centuries of user-testing. It takes time and work for governments, laws, courts, schools, utilities, roads, and other no-profit-making essentials to evolve. We still have a free press when we care to look at it, places where we can talk freely, and airports, rails, and sidewalks to help us reach each other. None of these require any sort of corporate-owned mediation like Facebook to come between us. Civil society does not need data to be collected from our every interaction. Nor do we need any part of our experience to be owned by others, and shared for strangers’ profit. In the old days, you’d need to pay a private investigator to learn about someone else’s every visit, call, conversation, trip, purchase, book-borrow, movie watch, and so on. Would we allow wiretapping and then fight over who has ownership of the resulting “material”? Why should that be legal now? Who says we need it?
I don’t think you do. Which brings me back to what I wanted to tell you about this #DeleteFacebook moment, and your more recent, appropriately fraught statements about why a Facebook partner was allowed to download the profile data of 87 million users and sell it to the digital marketers at CA who, in turn, manipulated our once-free elections so that we now have the single most unpopular president in history in-office, where he could easily divert us with war in order to throw a cloud over his soon-to-be exposed sordid, venal little crimes, taking our beautiful democracy, and the global climate and economy, down with him. I’m saying: You’re closer to the fires now than ever before, but you don’t need to carry the burden forever. And you shouldn’t feel you created this crisis by yourself. You can take quick comfort in the fact that if you hadn’t invented Facebook, someone else would have. People are always discovering new ways to spy on others. So take a quick breath there; that’s not all your fault.
However, the same smart, shrewd young man I saw speaking so stiffly before thousands of spectators at a conference years ago is the same guy I see being called to the table today by the world’s leaders. You can be sure they want to make a great public show of forcing you to be accountable for all the nastiness that’s coming out — nastiness engineered by the very plutocrats who’ve propped up many of those at the judgment table themselves, and made possible by each of us who’ve witlessly clicked past long user-agreements to allow our data to be duplicated ad nauseum. You well know that when people get mad they want a scapegoat, someone to put the hurt in, and how they might turn on you, because you’re richer, younger, cleaner, and more powerful than most of them, controlling the attention of one billion worldwide. You could undo any politician’s reputation with a few clicks. They know it, you know it.
And that’s the one ring that binds them all. And even if those next to you in the Facebook office seem to want to help, you know you carry the weight alone.
You do have the power to put an end to this ugliness, however. It’ll be epic, if you succeed. Free yourself, and save the world; throw the ring back at the fires where it was forged: the people. The people are the power; they made all the content and interactions, they’ve produced all the data, and they’re the One watching. So throw it back.
Here’s how:
  1. Disable data collection. Stop gathering users’ data on the more than 100 collection points now in Facebook. Be the first, and you will be the single most bad-ass disrupter in history. Digital marketers and your board and advisors may tell you this will render Facebook unprofitable, but paid advertising made TV and radio highly lucrative, for decades, without anyone spying on viewers and listeners. And Facebook usership will soar. Just ask the people: none of them say they’re in Facebook for the targeted ads and content. What they like is the easy real-time, multimedia connection with people they know, near and far. If Facebook were to regularly, publicly prove that no data is being collected from users, you’ll have recreated the free space for “balanced, nuanced opinions” that your manifesto calls for.
  2. Use your billions to create publicly-owned, free, secure broadband nation-wide. Everyone else has dropped that ball, and half the reason the 2016 digital voting manipulation occurred was because, while there is still no affordable wifi in much of rural America, there are hundreds of cheap cell plans from providers who filter news and other data (legally). And we’ve all witnessed what real-sounding tweets from a presidential hopeful can do; it could get worse. If you created free access to free information for all Americans, you’d be creating the social infrastructure you said you wanted. It would rival the Carnegie libraries.
  3. Consider making Facebook a publicly owned utility. But before you do, write the rules for how that would best work. You’ve carried this so long, you know better than anyone what governance is needed to ensure it can never again be used for evil. Maybe a governing committee with representation from every sector, class, race, and age. Put some kids on it — maybe one of your own. Membership could be revised automatically each year, by algorithm, to reflect actual usership. Maybe pull in some of your soon-to-be-former competitors.
  4. Build some strong law behind it. Standards for online behavior can and should be enforced just like any other behavior; inflicting pain and suffering on anyone online is pain and suffering in a real person, and once mediated, online life becomes public, and is no longer corporate-owned, such behavior will be easier to punish in real life. Let the governing committee figure out how to legislate around the public’s content — you no longer need to do that — and then let our other regulatory agencies, peace officers, and courts do the job they do best. This is also your chance to infuse more digital expertise into government. This governing committee might even liberate the corporate-owned FCC. You even demand that in exchange for all that you’re giving.
You can do all this and still take the money you’d planned to hold. You’ll still have the clean global persona you struggle to keep now. You’ll have cashed out at the right time after ensuring the world’s a freer place than if someone else had beat you to it.
You’ll be a hero, forever. You’ll have done something no one has done before, on a scale that will take years for history to fathom: You’ll have liberated interpersonal communication worldwide from corporate ownership and manipulation. Tricksy plutocrats will reel, powerless to manipulate the public, because the public will have a free, safe place to meet and share and grow, just as you envisaged.
Perhaps, best of all: You will be a free man again. You will never again need to look twice into the eyes nearest you to guess if they, too, are It. You can roam the globe with unparalleled resources to address the problems that most threaten humanity, and the world our kids will inherit. You’ll feel lighter, your courage proven once and for all, with all the time you want to amplify the good you’ve done. You’ll never need to do another marketing presentation again. You’ll be able to deliver public statements without a gang-edit in advance. You’ll never again need to strike a fake pose on a tractor. Let your critics and competitors withdraw to their titanium-gate islands, or let them follow your example, as you and your wife raise your beautiful kids in the real beautiful world you helped make.
No longer will you be most known for being lucky and shrewd, but rather, for possessing the wisdom, foresight, courage, generosity and nearly super-human discipline to have made a change that saved the world from great evil.
Then we’ll all be your true, grateful friends.

Monday, May 1, 2017

This May Day, “Je Me Souviens”

On this of May Day of Action, many of my family and friends of French-Canadian descent remember this:

At the turn of last century, our ancestors were part of a huge migration into the United States, with Canada losing a near-third of its population in the process. (Our branch of Pothiers came from the Trois-Rivières area in Quebec.) And when we poured into the pulp, textile, shoe, and other manufacturing mill-towns of New England (Chicopee, Mass., in our case), the established citizens were none-too-welcoming, due in part to our loyalty to church, language, and family. Cheap labor, everybody likes; but our growing numbers and différence were soon seen as just another threat to the existing order.

The New York Times published a piece to this effect on July 5, 1889, including the following:

“…In those New-England States that adjoin Lower Canada, the influx of French-Canadians … tempted by a more genial climate than their own and a higher rate of wages, have swarmed the factories and taken up the farms abandoned by the natives as unprofitable. They are so much more prolific than their neighbors that the proportion of them to the whole community, whenever they have established themselves, tends to increase with surprising rapidity…

“Whether this immigration is a good thing or bad thing for the country is a question the answer to which depends upon the same considerations that determine the character of any other immigration. It may be summed up in the general statement that immigration is a source of strength to the country insofar as it is capable of being readily assimilated and Americanized… Tried by this standard, it must be owned that the French-Canadians do not give promise of incorporating themselves into the body politic…

“The French-Canadians mean to retain in this country, as for two centuries they have succeeded in retaining in Canada, the religions and language of their ancestors, as distinctive badges of their separation from their neighbors. Comparatively few of them become citizens at all, and those who do rate their citizenship so low and understand its duties so little that the power of voting renders them much less acceptable members of the community than they would without it…”

That public alarm mushroomed a few years later in another New York Times editorial (June 6, 1892), after recent statistics showed that 400,000 of our ancestors were affecting the “balance of power”in New England’s “principal cities.” They weren’t assimilating as well as the editors might hope, due to “Notre religion, notre langue, et nos moeurs” (“Our religion, our language, and our mores” was the motto of the more organized). That editorial goes on to say:

“Mr. Francis Parkman has ably pointed out their singular tenacity as a race and their extreme devotion to their religion… It is next to impossible to penetrate this mass of protected and secluded humanity with modern ideas or to induce them to interest themselves in democratic institutions and methods of government… No other people… is so persistent in repeating themselves… Where they halt and stay, they multiply and cover the earth… the migration of these people is part of a priestly scheme now fervently fostered in Canada for the purpose of bringing New-England under the control of the Roman Catholic faith….

“It has been hoped heretofore that the free pressure of American life upon our foreign populations was sufficient to change all new-comers, not matter what might have been their previous affiliations, into interested and enthusiastic Americans in the course of one or two generations, but when an immigration like that of the French-Canadians in New-England takes possession of the centers of population and has the power to crowd out the less productive race in the struggle for the survival of the fittest, the free action of American institutions is not strong enough to counteract these designs, and it is only by national legislation that the difficulty can be reached.”

That phrase — the “free pressure of American life” — makes the old “melting pot” sound downright homey by comparison. To be sure, editorials such as these two from the New York Times, a century ago, were part of that pressure-cooker. But, thankfully, today’s marchers are too.

Vive la difference!

(I am grateful to the writer Clark Blaise, whose excellent I Had a Father: A Post-Modern Autobiography taught me a great deal about my own parentage. These clips are some of his research.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Skimming Walden Pond

What agitated me so in Kathryn Schulz's New Yorker essay about the "hypocrite" Henry David Thoreau ("Pond Scum," October 19, 2015) that it kept me up late, trying to reduce my own digs down to essential facts? To see, in other words, if the piece said something trenchant or if, instead, I was simply hurt?

Because I love Thoreau. And because, despite Schulz's belief that the book is "not well known" or even "seriously read," I actually have gotten through Walden, at least twice, cover-to-distant-cover, and I've reread many chapters several times more, studying and writing about and discussing them with others so often that I can — and often do — quote that "fanatical" old curmudgeon, even with phrases well beyond the "quote-a-day" quips that Schulz credits for our (who are "we?") having made him our "national conscience." And, on top of that, not only did I grow up in a tiny, rural town in New England (roughly 75 miles northwest of Prospect Park), but in the early 1970s my parents tried to actually live the ideal: they sold our all-electric house and moved deep into the woods to a self-sufficient farmstead without plumbing and power. Yes — I pooped in an outhouse while in high-school. Sure, our house wasn't as Spartan as Thoreau's, and my Dad did fix the place up eventually, and even though I certainly had no real say in how we would live, and what for — I mean, this wasn't me driving my "life into a corner" — and even though my folks were trying that experiment as much out of financial necessity as they were acting on convictions, the point is: I have Been There (sort of). Genuine farmhouse. I've read the book (twice, at least). Studied and quoted it. Pooped outside on frosty mornings. Learned from experience.

Like Schulz (I think), I was first introduced to Thoreau by my high school English teacher: a very passionate, civic-minded, chain-smoking lover of literature and nature who claimed to reread the book each summer at her camp on the St. Lawrence River. She also knew, the year she taught us, that she was dying of cancer. So she'd given it her all — teaching was how she'd chosen to live her final year. Her passion and commitment inadvertently changed my life. I'd been applying to art schools only at the time, and often I skipped her class to go to the river with friends on "sketch trips" (read everything into that), but she would always corner me afterwards and make me write essays about, say, why drawing was more important than reading Thoreau.

Such self-correcting exercises I could endure, but the North Country winter changed everything — nasty cold, bruised-skies, short days. Wood-stoves. By Christmas break, I'd sketched every dried piece of fruit and gnarled firewood in the house twice, so I eventually turned to the assigned Walden, the longest book I'd ever opened. I read at speech-rate, back then; I heard each word of his spoken aloud in my head, and perhaps for that reason I took everything to heart, until slowly, like a winter thaw, "the Judge" (as they'd called him at Harvard) became one of my closest friends during the longest winter of my life. He was, and is, excellent company, ever-ready to talk about what to live for —which (as Schulz rightly notes) most adolescents do, as do truth-seekers of all ages, particularly in extremity. It sure beat hanging with the local kids that year, inhaling aerosols in the snow-bank behind the hockey rink.

So that's one reason reading Schulz's "Pond Scum" stirred me up: I felt called to defend my loyal, courageous companion. Because when I read the italicized teaser at bottom of the New Yorker page — "Why, given his hypocrisy, sanctimony, and misanthropy, has Thoreau been so cherished?" — I was just sucked in, as intended, fully expecting the piece to be a bit of retro-1980s canon-bashing. Which, to some extent, it might be. But I couldn't find any clear ideology beneath it — just anger. Schulz seemed so pissed, listing several of the myriad inconsistencies anyone can find by skimming Walden, calling Thoreau a hypocrite for such small stuff as writing of his "year in the woods" when in fact it's "widely acknowledged" that he'd actually lived 26 months at the pond. He says as much himself, in the "Where I Lived" chapter, explaining that he put "the experience of two years into one" for "convenience"! Elsewhere, Schulz is upset that Thoreau interrupted his "sham retreat" to occasionally walk to his mother's, nearby, for cookies.

Pulling ostensibly damning bits like this from the chapter on "Economy" — which Schulz finds to be "dry, sententious, condescending" and "more than eighty pages long" — seems outright silly. For example, when cataloging all of the appetites from which Thoreau hypocritically abstained, Schulz misreads his line about the sometimes-over-stimulating effect of coffee to prove that he shuns even Our Beloved Bean! I honestly shared Schulz's shock, but then found Appendix VI of The Maine Woods, where the ever-thorough Thoreau details an "Outfit for an Excursion," measuring out the supplies needed for a 12-days' journey for three people, and he says you must pack three pounds of coffee! That's three jacked backpackers! 

But you see my point. I doubt any writer of Schulz's chops (her recent piece on the Cascadia fault is a mind-blower) would seriously leverage such small, copious contradictions as proof of any writer's being a "jarring" fake. Thoreau walked his talk. Walden is no life-hacking experiment, like The 4-Hour Workweek (to which Schulz alludes), written solely for financial gain and a bit of celebrity. Anyone reading Thoreau, in his day, also would have known that Walden Pond was a mere skipping-trip's distance from Concord, that he worked seven years revising his account of his "year" there, and that he was a melancholic grump, as "ugly as sin" (according to Hawthorne), who generally worked for only as long as was needed to fund a life of study, writing, and travel (by foot). We was also a well-known and outspoken Underground Railroad abolitionist, and an acutely-principled citizen who was imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes — more "Occupy" than Ayn Rand — in order to protest aspects of a government he disapproved of and wanted to improve. He rooted and tended his beliefs by living them, and Walden is just one product. No one would read Walden as a blueprint for life anymore than, say, one might watch Survivor reruns to learn how to last 40 days of the Australian Outback in swimwear. I doubt any serious reader would slap shut the covers of Walden and say: Bullshit! The dude ate cookies!

Still, I got stuck on Schulz's insistence that Thoreau didn't engage with "eminently human experiences," despite such chapters as "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For." If this were true, what had I been reading in so many pages of Walden? And so, confident the New Yorker is no product of "the modern, cheap and fertile press" (you've got to love lines like that?), I jumped back into "Pond Scum."

Perhaps it was the introduction, which evokes the Syrian refugee crisis to grab our interest? There, by the very means Schulz accuses Thoreau of using in his book, Cape Cod, the essay opens with a dramatic retelling of a shipwreck, in which immigrants wash up on the shore of their promised land. Schulz's claim that Thoreau "found himself unmoved" by the sight of the drowned, bloated children he described lying in makeshift coffins sounded unfair to me, until I read him quoted as saying: "On the whole, it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected." That's ugly. As was Schulz's accusation that he "saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain." Of course it's understandable that we pluck quotes from one context to plant in ours, but this was so startling I had to go back to the original. My suspicion, or perhaps my hope, was that his extremely polished and deliberate style — what makes him so vital a chronicler of his times — could be seen as an attempt to make such a horror into something that could withstand a rereading. Something literary.

So, thanks to Schulz, I took a side-trip and read the first chapter of Cape Cod. And what I found there was gruesome indeed — a scene which Thoreau describes with the dispassion of a journalist trying to convey the truth. Because such horrors truly are incomprehensible. I don't think it reflects too poorly on Thoreau that he went out of his way on a walking tour of the Cape to witness this scene — far worse to avoid it entirely — and to interview the locals and truthfully convey the shock of everyone around, perhaps mirroring their tone. "This shipwreck had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society," he says, and of one of the farmers he spoke with, he wrote, "these bodies were to him but other weeds which the tide cast up, but which were of no use to him." That's cold, but believable, seeing how little our own refugees have disturbed the marketplace.

How one directs the narrative eye of any piece of writing is a deliberate choice, and we can be sure that's all the more true for Mister Only-That-Day-Dawns-To-Which-We-Are-Awake. Should we choose to give Thoreau the close reading Schulz says we don't, we might here also see the transparent eye of someone who's published (at personal expense) the full political, social, and economic resonances of a scene that would otherwise have been no more than a footnote in local history. Yes, he professes to take his ultimate solace from the perfection of Nature (with a capital "N", the Spirit of the Transcendentalists, and somewhat grander than our term today). The scene's longevity is all the more impressive for his having memorialized it without photos or other media. As journalism, it compares well to our press around today's refugees. To say he wrote it purely for "aesthetic gain" may itself be a "myopic" observation.

Anyway, so opens "Pond Scum." I soon got Schulz's main point: that "we" —  and who "we" are is never clear — have made a "convenient national hero" of one of the most abject misanthropes to have ever set booted heel on this fair land. Schulz is not timid when describing, in deliberately inflammatory terms, the author of Walden ("cabin porn") as "self-obsessed," "fanatical about self-control," someone who suffered an "inward fixation" that flowed from an "unsettling… social and political vision." (And all that's from just one sentence.) Schulz does curb each side of the essay's argument with a jarringly-soft acquiescence that Thoreau was "an excellent naturalist" and such stuff, but I still couldn't stop feeling peevish about all the bullying until I realized that this might be, in part, a key point? Perhaps Schulz wanted to make a bit of a splash? I can totally get that! These days, with all the surface noise that drowns us — and about which, we all know, Thoreau has much to say — how the hell else are we going to get anyone to stop and read six near-picture-free pages about some heady old curmudgeon that (Schulz says) no one even knows? That makes sense to me.

Thus strengthened, I dove in to reduce "Pond Scum" to its essentials. But I could not find much else. Beneath the sour layer of outrage — Hypocrite! Misanthrope! — I found little in the crater left behind. In the drained pond-bed, if you will. I use that image deliberately, because the way we clean our fake ponds out here in Golden Gate Park (we call them "lakes", to feel bigger) is to pull the plug, drain them dry, bulldoze the shit off the bottom, and then refill them. Unfortunately, they just get scummy all over again — that's the problem with shallow water. But you can't just leave the hole empty, either. So, I thought, what will Schulz refill this one with?

I found the first person used but once in "Pond Scum," and that in connection with the above-mentioned, misread quote about coffee. It's actually one of Schulz's best lines — "I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee" — and it had me laughing in agreement, the first time. But that's tongue-in-cheek, and so, not positing much. There were some other stand-alone declarations, but they were slippery upon inspection. For example: "No feature of the natural landscape is more humble than a pond." Huh? "We" didn't say that, did we? Elsewhere, I did feel comfortable making an inference, from the note that Elisha Kane was a best-selling author — supporting the idea that Walden, having sold less, is of lesser value — to imply that, for Schulz, sales might connote literary value. So there's that. But elsewhere, where Schulz says Thoreau "wanted to try what we would today call subsistence living, a condition attractive chiefly to those not obliged to endure it": Really? Sure, I already know from experience that pooping outdoors is no fun, but that's still a mighty big lot to clear with one swing of an axe (if you will). For example, you could read The Mother Earth News or visit Southern Oregon or the Maine Woods or do some interviews or research, if you're really interested in this stuff.

But I am not, overmuch — my firewood-splitting days are through — and thus, for me, there had to be other reasons why "Pond Scum" engaged me more, perhaps, than any article I've read all year. Schulz gave me occasion to reestablish my admiration for a brilliant writer who, freak-though-he-be, did absolutely nothing but good to anyone. That is true. I, too, took my turn, in days past, poking fun at him and all the other off-the-grid end-timers I've known close-hand, but when Schulz says stuff like, "the physical realities of being human appalled him," I had to stop again, and: Really? Because when you try to grow your own food, or build your own shelter, or deliberately experience the seasons with all of your senses, or even walk one whole long mile to eat your mom's cookies — well, that all sounds pretty in-the-body to me. Thoreau's descriptions of so much of his life on the pond are almost embarrassingly sensual. And that, in fact, was part of the literary experiment that he and his friends had taken on, back then: trying to reclaim language, re-connect it to Nature, articulate this new American voice, and to do it all while wide-eyed and wary lest we fall back and become yet another nation of imperialist wannabes. That doesn't really make him a "thorough-going misanthrope," who hates people, government, the Flesh, food, and coffee.

Schulz outlines a few salient bits from his biography, and begrudgingly acknowledges his professional successes, in very few sentences. He was good enough a teacher to have Emerson send him to his brother's family as tutor, and he was caring enough to lose another teaching job for refusing to cane the kids as ordered by his boss. When his beloved brother died of lockjaw, in his arms, he suffered sympathetic psychosomatic symptoms for weeks. He supported his mother and sister once his father died; he invented a better pencil (but was too hapless to secure the patent); and he also worked, as necessary, as a surveyor, house-painter, lecturer, handyman, and journalist. He was deeply engaged with the highest intellects he had access to, attending the Concord Lyceum, Quaker meetings, and Abolitionist rallies as possible, and maintaining bumpy relationships with Emerson and the Transcendentalists, all without ever making more than a few bucks from the best of his intellectual pursuits. In fact, part of the reason for living in the cabin was to buy time to finish A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Yes, he was also a mediocre student at Harvard and a "rigid" teacher and probably not-so-much-fun around the cider bowl. He was perhaps most odd for having devoted seven of his 44 years to a literary exercise called Walden. It is saying too much, however, as Schulz's "Scum Pond" implies, that Thoreau was the prototype of the American loner — our Declaration of Independence and "self-evident truths" are probably more responsible for that. There is no reason to expect anyone experimenting with deliberate solitude to offer up model social behavior. I can't imagine dropping by the cabin for a good time, but I might visit to see if he were real, and to see and hear the woods he describes so movingly in the book I love, and which Schulz calls "an unnavigable thicket of contradictions and caprice." Sometimes what you find what you seek.

Thoreau was no hypocrite. His pond is bottomless. He had strong beliefs and he tested them with his own days. As his mentor Emerson had once exhorted a graduating class at Harvard Divinity, Thoreau spoke from a "life passed through the fire of thought." He shared what he'd learned with whoever might listen, then or now, largely at his own expense, and he made every effort to do so as beautifully as he could. And it is what's truthful and beautiful in his work — much of which I see Schulz turning away from, if not bypassing altogether — that's made him grow in renown, after his death, as so often happens in American letters. When I went back to Walden, after reading "Pond Scum," what most kept me reading was Thoreau's voice. It is honest, rooted, deep, excusably grandiose in places if you're patient, and gently, thoroughly critical of nearly everything that can be questioned or observed in life — in the woods, or among people.  It is one voice of many, of course, but it is gloriously American. And it's never a voice I hear telling me how to think or what to do, just that I should do both together.

In the end, I went away from "Pond Scum" not with a broader understanding of Walden, Thoreau, or America, but rather an aftertaste of one individual's bitterness projecting itself upon another — some Schulz's, and some mine. Where does the former come from? One possible clue is in Schulz's line, quoted above, about coffee: "I cannot idolize…."  Force is implied. Schulz sounds as if someone or something has compelled us to make Thoreau our "national conscience," and I sense it's something bigger and badder than my high school English teacher. But I don't agree that we have, nor can I find the bogeyman.

Another clue waits at the end of this quick read of Thoreau, where Schulz says that "[u]ltimately, it is impossible to not feel sorry for the author of Walden." "Poor Thoreau," she writes. Pity him.

"We" can easily imagine what corner Thoreau would have us drive our pity into, and it wouldn't affect his legacy in the least, because "we" did not "make a classic" of Walden. Rather, the book has longevity in its very nature, growing as it has from a gifted mind engaged in close dialogue between individual and society. Something we three can value and, to be fair, something which "Pond Scum" has to some extent nurtured. Schulz claims Thoreau forsook that dialogue, for himself. I say he put more down into it than either of us.

Is "Pond Scum" one for the ages? Not likely. But there is one more thing to note, and which I enjoyed at the meta-level of the essay, where Schulz takes pleasure in a description of Thoreau's paddling after a loon that bobs underwater upon approach only to pop up elsewhere, unexpectedly: "It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon." We have done the same, and there is some entertainment in that. And if you get a little attention or cash out of it, all the better. But it's nothing to live for, methinks.

— The End —

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog: Mark Pothier's Guide to Books

Join me on The Next Best Book Blog Guide to Books' "Books & Booze" Series

"You might think, gazing at the cover of The First Light of Evening, with its empty wineglass and someone's smoke seductively wrapping around it, that this story of a middle-aged man left by his wife to reflect on his self-reflections involves some drinking. And you would be right. Our hero, Jim Finley, starts talking to us, or himself, over cocktails. He describes how he's dealing with his wife's departure, his grown kids, his growing coziness with the possibility he'll never be a writer, and how he loves sitting on the back porch by his books, watching the sunset, quoting Wallace Stevens, listening to jazz, and drinking… gin. No wonder Jim's son, home for the summer from college, never stays past supper..." [Get more!]