Please Click on This Deliverable, Nonbranded Content

Though I write for a living, the demotion of “writing” to “content” snuck up on me. The change was well under way by the time I first noticed it seeping into my assignments. First, the term “branded content” began appearing regularly in job descriptions for work that had nothing to do with pharmaceuticals or products being promoted, which I naively thought went hand-in-hand with  branding. Branding, in fact, began to be applied to everything, because a “brand” could even be something an individual, much less a company, could have or want to protect or develop, the way Oprah Winfrey or Kim Kardashian have.

My Unbranded Space

I  was clueless about the change because at the time I first noticed “branded content,” around 2010, I still inhabited what I now understand was an unbranded space, writing for unbranded channels and assets, writing medical information for healthcare professionals and patients–material that had no real promotional element. But when I started working on a new, quasi-educational project about a serious health condition that was being treated by a recently approved drug, I was introduced to the concept of branded and unbranded content.  I had to look up the terms “branded” and “assets” when the editor used them while describing the project. At the time, I imagined it would be unusual to see these terms with any frequency because I rarely did work for agencies and I didn’t write for promotional projects.

So it came as a shock when I began to realize that the only time I would be working on “unbranded” material was the now-rare occasion I was asked to write about studies or health conditions just for informational purposes. I’m very late to the realization that marketing has penetrated every form of writing and editing, even work that is not done within or for agencies, and that technology and marketing together have driven and forever altered media.

The word “content” replaced “writing.” There are academic papers and entire courses—somewhat ironically called Writing Studies— that describe what content is and explain how to properly create content so that content management systems can properly digest it and disgorge it for online consumption, how to optimize it for search engines to bring it to the attention of a maximum number of eyeballs. Writing studies professor Lisa Dush begins her 2015 writing studies essay, “When Writing Becomes Content” thus:

“To work with writing today means to work with writing as content. If, for example, you’ve composed in a content management system such as WordPress, you understand good writing practice to involve both crafting well-written posts and optimizing these posts as transportable, findable, content, by applying categories, tags, and SEO (search engine optimization) metadata.”

Unclickable

Recently this email/spam landed in my inbox:

Hello, I noticed that your On-Page SEO is missing a few factors, for one you do not use all three H tags in your post, also I notice that you are not using bold or italics properly in your SEO optimization. On-Page SEO means more now than ever since the new Google update: Panda. No longer are backlinks and simply pinging or sending out a RSS feed the key to getting Google PageRank or Alexa Rankings, You now NEED On-Page SEO. So what is good On-Page SEO?First your keyword must appear in the title.Then it must appear in the URL.You have to optimize your keyword and make sure that it has a nice keyword density of 3-5% in your article with relevant LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing). Then you should spread all H1,H2,H3 tags in your article.Your Keyword should appear in your first paragraph and in the last sentence of the page. You should have relevant usage of Bold and italics of your keyword. There should be one internal link to a page on your blog and you should have one image with an alt tag that has your keyword….Now what if i told you there was a simple WordPress plugin that does all the On-Page SEO, and automatically for you?

After marketing stomped all over writing, tech took its turn, and writing was turned into content created to suit “cross-platform repositories” (some of which were once called publications). As a result, writers and editors (now called content professionals) are creating content and “deliverables,” and managing that content in a “space” for “properties” that were once journals, magazines, and perhaps even books, for the “industry” of publishing—once the most unindustrial lines of work imaginable. A recent job advertisement I saw listed photography as an industry. The photography industry?

As the essayist Tim Kreider wrote in his 2013 New York Times article, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite,” delivering content suggests that words, writing, and art are mere filler to be delivered and placed between ads: “The first time I ever heard the word ‘content’ used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, ‘content providers’ — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called ‘art’ — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.”

I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s (Content) Farm 

It’s gotten hard to distinguish so-called “sponsored content” from ordinary content, which is the logical extension of what happens when writing is grown on “content farms” and subjected to content audits and search engine optimization (SEO). When I use the word “content,” I don’t wonder about its authorship– who wrote, filmed, or photographed the content. The individual imprint of the content’s creator matters less than where the content is residing and “iterating,” and you want to increase the clicks, the views, the traffic, no matter what it is or how well it was written. HubSpot just put out a report called, “What Kind of Headlines Make People Not Click?” The report is supposed to answer the question of what has negative effects on the CTR (click-through rate).  Might it be bad writing, like the title of the report?

Content is valued more for its dissemination than its quality. The quality of content has become binary: it’s clickworthy or it’s not. A major design website intones, “Content on the Web is always temporary.” I get it, I get it. The content of the content is secondary to the medium that carries it.

This excerpt from a recent job listing sums it up:

“… seeking a creative, energetic, and data-driven editor to work closely with team members in the daily creation of content. … play a key role in scheduling daily content for your assigned channels, …and developing on-brand articles. …producing content and headlines that drive traffic…should be comfortable monitoring, reporting, and exceeding traffic goals, and identifying business growth opportunities …”

What is a data-driven editor? I envisioned an editor in a room full of content consumers reading screens as their CTR is measured and analyzed. It’s an endless loop: first there’s audience research to find out which topics website visitors are likely to be interested in; this prompts the website to hire content creators for their content farm, addressing those particular topics. The website sets up these “articles” with targeted ads that are also based on audience research. Everyone’s happy. The eyeballs are pleased because the site gives them what they think they want; sponsors love it too. Happy, happy, happy. An endless feedback loop of giving the customer what he or she wants. The effect of the giving-the-customer-what-she-wants mentality is that it limits readers to only those things they already know or believe, never to stumble over something surprising or mind expanding. The goal is to drive traffic.

…conceiving and assigning clicky, well-researched, and highly engaging articles, many of which are image-driven…Creating analytics reports on your channels to help us monitor, reach, and exceed traffic goals. Experience working at a content studio is a plus.

And here it comes……straight out of an episode of Silicon Valley: having a passion for  creating self-important content with the power to improve lives! You too can write yet another article on the Top 10 Reasons To Exercise.

…seeking an experienced, passionate freelance health editor who shares our brand mission to create health and medical content with the power to improve lives. The ideal candidate will have strong digital experience creating content for a consumer audience, including sponsored packages and a proven record of creating health condition and lifestyle content in various digital formats.

I wonder how hard it is to find an experienced (but, oh, God, not old!!) content professional who shares a passion about the brand mission to create “health condition and lifestyle content” that improve lives using sponsored packages of pretested and optimized content.

The Human Touch

One of the scarier implications of a content-creation mindset is that we are moving to a place where humans need not be the ones creating content. A 2011 article by Steven Lohr in The New York Times reported on a news brief that covered a college football game, which was produced within 60 seconds of the end of the game’s third quarter and was “written” by a computer using software produced by Narrative Science. According to Lohr, the Big Ten Network began using Narrative Science for updates of football and basketball games in 2010, and it was said to help drive a surge of referrals to the Web site from Google’s search algorithm, and was responsible for driving the network’s Web traffic for football games 40% higher than the year before. So the computer-generated content was getting the eyeballs better than, and for less money than, the human content creators. The same software is used by a trade publisher to provide monthly reports on more than 350 local housing markets for the construction trade. It had become too costly to hire people to write the articles for the trade website, but it’s less than $10 for each 500-word article created by Narrative Science software. No need to worry about those pesky humans and their need to be paid!

One of the effects of the transformation from writing to content is that writing is devalued. Since it’s devalued, it’s no longer worthy of being paid for.  Unique and unexpected topics are too risky to run when you’ve got to worry about the CTR. Anyone who expects to be paid a living wage for their writing can forget about it because they’re competing with entities who are happy to give things away for free, because the free content is just there as a delivery device to get the eyeballs to click on the revenue-generating stuff. And we don’t really need editors anymore, because content can be crowd-edited if needed on its next iteration and refreshment.

Back to Tim Kreider’s article: “Not long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money… People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.” Apparently, writers are supposed to be paid in the currency of “exposure,” all those eyeballs. “’Artist Dies of Exposure,’ goes the rueful joke,” Kreider notes.

My Internship

It feels like a permanent internship. Last week, a company that I have been working with for about five years—and which is growing by leaps and bounds–changed its policies on freelancers and said that if I wanted to continue working for them I would have to write the same-length articles for half of what I had been making, with the additional tasks of pitching the subject matter and getting the needed sources. When I tell editors I can’t accept a fee that is the same or less than what I was being paid in 1980, the year I graduated from college, I am not saying that for effect. It is true.

Writer or Content Creator?

Remember that email I got? It ended with: “Your Keyword should appear in your first paragraph and in the last sentence of the page.” Ok, I’m going to take that advice. My keyword must be content, so here goes.

No one would call John Steinbeck a great “content creator”–at least I don’t think that’s happened yet. In all likelihood, however, the days are numbered even for fiction’s currently unbranded space. In the not-too-distant future, kids may tell their parents, “When I grow up I  want to be a content creator.”

“You can’t judge a book by its content.”

[Cartoon, by Bruce Eric Kaplan, used with permission of The New Yorker]

Fight Night


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“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”– Mike Tyson

My nephew, Laszlo, cited this quote in his official fight bio explaining why he undertook the challenge of participating in this year’s Wharton versus Law Fight Night charity fund-raising extravaganza at the Palestra in Philadelphia. Each year Wharton business school students train to fight University of Pennsylvania law students, or other Penn graduate students foolish enough to want to stand in the ring, face-to-face, mano a mano with a soon-to-be Wharton grad.

Laszlo’s fight bio continued: “Boxing teaches you how to move intuitively so you can keep going when everything falls apart. You can’t win a fight by being a good bullshitter or relying on your credentials. You have to work constantly, and once you’re in the ring, every round, every exchange, every moment is a new test. Most importantly, boxing teaches you to confront yourself, to look yourself in the eye and know that you—and not whoever you may find yourself in the ring with–are the only true opponent.”

The idea that boxers are fighting themselves was something I had never considered. Boxing had always seemed to be an epic fight between two men, a hypermasculine endeavor worthy of Norman Mailer’s attention. But in her book, “On Boxing,” Joyce Carol Oates agrees with the concept of self as opponent. “You and your opponent are so evenly matched it’s impossible not to see that your opponent is you.” She goes on, “The boxer meets an opponent who is a dream-distortion of himself in the sense that his weaknesses, his capacity to fail and to be seriously hurt, his intellectual miscalculations–all can be interpreted as strengths belonging to the Other.”

When we met Laszlo for dinner a few weeks before the bout, we were aware that he was going through some things in his personal life that had knocked him for a loop, but we didn’t know that he’d been training intensively for this boxing match as both a challenge and a way to immerse himself in something very much outside of his normal life. We were happy to accept the invitation, especially because Fight Night fell on the very day of his 30th birthday.

We didn’t fully realize how much work he’d put into training or what an extravaganza of the Philadelphia variety this was going to be. (All of you who have ever lived in and loved Philadelphia will know what I’m talking about. Philly has an earnestness that is a welcome contrast to New York’s cool. Halftime events at city sporting events feel almost Midwestern in their guilelessness.) I didn’t consider myself a boxing fan. I had covered my eyes during most of the fight scenes in Raging Bull. But an invitation to Fight Night from your nephew, who is boxing in it on his 30th birthday, is not something you can turn down.

The next time I called my brother, I asked him if he knew about Fight Night. He did, and was worried about Laszlo being hurt, especially the possibility of a concussion or eye injuries. I commiserated with him. My brother was happy to hear that at least we’d be at Fight Night, because he’d be at home that night in California worrying and waiting to hear if Laszlo was OK when it was over.

Detailed plans for Fight Night were emailed to us and all of Laszlo’s friends who were planning to attend the event, many from New York. The email laid out Laszlo’s plans to host a pre-party get-together at a pub near the Palestra; following the fight there was a big Wharton/Penn after-party, complete with a lot of alcohol and a rapper’s performance. After looking at the official Fight Night website, which had video of some of last year’s fights, we realized that this event was way more of a big deal than we expected. For one thing, the invitation said the event was black tie and David doesn’t have a tuxedo (“don’t worry, just look snazzy,” Laszlo said), and a big crowd attended. After we excused ourselves from the after-party extravaganza, Laszlo insisted that we go to the pre-party at the New Deck Tavern pub with his friends, from which he would be largely absent since he was preparing for the fight.

The pub on Sansom Street where the pre-party was held was a cute converted row house with flowers in window boxes and tables out front. Just as we got there, a taxi arrived and let out a beautiful young couple, he in a tux and she in a beautiful, floor-length slinky gown. David and I glanced at each other. “Must be the right place,” I said. Once inside the pub, a Maitre D asked us if we wanted a table, but we told him we were looking for Laszlo’s private party. He immediately directed us downstairs to the basement room. “Laszlo’s party is downstairs. Everyone looks really nice,” he said, and we hoped he wasn’t implying that we didn’t look so nice, because we were dressed in what was basically pretty boring middle-aged office-appropriate attire: David in a dark suit and blue button-down shirt and me in a sensible knee-length black knit dress with little shape, one-inch heels, and, in an attempt at a more dressy visage, fake diamond earrings.

Descending the narrow staircase into the packed, warm room with low ceilings, we saw a large group of young men and women, all very well dressed. They were at once bold and unsure, and strikingly beautiful. It is old fashioned to say “beautiful.” Everyone I overheard complimenting women that night said they looked “hot.” There are websites where you can find out if you’re “hot or not.” Hot outfits are different from ones that you look beautiful in, but I am forcing myself to put aside my outdated ideas about what one wears to events, to work, to weddings, or funerals, and am getting used to the fact that leaving anything to the imagination is an ideal from the past. Sparkles on breasts, super-deep cleavage, side boobs, major “back,” and dresses so short you can’t sit down are the rule. It’s the guys who are now the ones dressed with an eye toward elegance, smooth lines, eye-catching, colorful hand-tied silk bowties, and pastel-colored shirts.

The close quarters in the basement room instantly set off a hot flash, which ensured that I was no longer snazzy, now rather sweaty and flushed. David remained cool and collected. In short order the questions began: “Are you Laszlo’s mom?” “Are you related to Laszlo?” Must have been (question 1) that we were the only people in the room over the age of 30, and (question 2) the shared Jewish genetics that tipped them off. One young man asked if I was “The Aunt,” at which point I suspected that they had been warned and one of them might be assigned to look after us. Upon hearing I was the sister of Laszlo’s dad, one young man said, very slowly, “Oh, wow, I am a big fan of Mitchell Syrop,” my brother.

Outside the Palestra, the lines were long to get into Fight Night. Many young women tottered on sky-high heels and shivered as the suddenly cold wind blew on bare backs, shoulders, and legs. I threw fashion to the wind and wore the wool coat I’d brought along. (Being middle aged, cold is far more of an enemy than fashion blunders.) A guard scanned my ticket and searched my bag before waving me in. The hallway was filled with people moving in all directions. Just a few moments after stepping onto the bleachers, my suspicion that Laszlo had covertly assigned a particular couple to watch out for us seemed to be confirmed, as we found ourselves guided downstairs by the same elegant couple we’d seen get out of the taxi and with whom we’d chatted at the pub. Chris and Sarah had a pass to seats at ground level that had a great view of the ring. They kindly sat with us for nearly the entire event, even insisting on buying the old folks drinks. From our vantage point, we were in a perfect position to see the entire spectacle with the ring at its center on the floor of the Palestra. Crowds were gathered at linen-covered tables set up on the floor surrounding the ring. The din was already at a low roar.

The Penn campus, where David and I met in February 1977, is a very different place today. While we miss seeing places we frequented–like Troy’s dollar-for-breakfast combination greasy spoon diner and package goods store on 39th Street (home of the “Eggel”) or the Laundromat on 40th and Spruce, which featured pinball machines (Sinbad was my favorite) at which one could while away the time spent waiting for clothes to dry (or, alternatively, find a gun quickly abandoned in a washing machine)–all of which Penn has sanitized away through one land grab after another, it is gratifying to see other changes. The young people filling the Palestra for Fight Night, representing Wharton and all the various Penn graduate schools, would have seemed unimaginably diverse in the late 1970s and early 1980s when we lived there. Penn no longer has that fortress feeling it did back in 1976 when I arrived there.

While I was anxious about Laszlo’s match and whether he’d be hurt (specifically, I was focused on the nose and brain), I found myself oddly drawn to the matches leading up to his fight, which was the fifth one. It turns out that I don’t hate boxing, actually, at least not this relatively controlled boxing match. Fight Night bouts have only three rounds (professional fights can have up to 12), each 2 minutes long. Still, that can feel achingly slow. As in pro-boxing, for Fight Night there is no hitting below the belt, no hitting kidneys, and no hitting the back of the head or back of the neck. At Fight Night, no one wants an actual knockout. Winners are determined by judges’ decision. Throughout each fight an experienced referee was in the ring with the boxers, following every move, ensuring all goes well. The only matchup that made me uneasy was the sole women’s match, and it was only because the two fighters were so poorly matched in terms of body type and preparation that it was a rout, with the skinny physics PhD student looking very much worse for wear by the end.

After watching a number of matches, I suddenly understood how remarkable it was that boxers are hit repeatedly yet continue to come back for more, rather than running out of the ring in an act of desperate self-preservation. Oates writes, “The boxer must somehow learn…to inhibit his own instinct for survival; he must learn to exert his ‘will’ over his merely human and animal impulses, not only to flee pain but to flee the unknown.”

I didn’t know any fighters in any of the matches besides Laszlo, so I didn’t know the fighters’ stories or about any personal drama that might be motivating anyone involved to box and remain in the ring while being pounded. Oates says that each boxing match is a story–a unique and highly condensed drama without words. “Boxers are there to establish an absolute experience, a public accounting of the outermost limits of their beings,” Oates explains. “They will know, as few of us can know of ourselves, what physical and psychic power they possess–of how much, or how little, they are capable. To enter the ring near-naked and to risk one’s life is to make of one’s audience voyeurs of a kind: boxing is so intimate.”

Watching boxing isn’t like watching another one-on-one sport such as tennis. I’ve watched many tennis matches in which famous, phenomenal players lose in heartbreakingly close Grand-Slam level matches. Their public loss and ability to hold back their emotions long enough to make a speech and congratulate the winner can be painful and touching to watch, but witnessing the process of a loss in the boxing ring is much worse, with the opponent landing actual punches, and seeing blood pour out of places, feels very intimate indeed.

Finally it came time for Laszlo’s match against a Penn Dental School student who looked well matched in size and build with Laszlo. We positioned ourselves so that David could video the whole thing while I cheered with the fighter’s friends, “LAZ-LOW, LAZ-LOW, LAZ-LOW” and we stomped our feet in the stands. Each contender brings a “posse” of his friends from the back of the Palestra and they strut onto the stage as a self-made “promotional” video of their training plays above. The posse circles around the ring as the boxer takes off his jacket, straps on the head gear, and gets advice from the ring coaches. Laszlo’s posse of friends, dressed in black with ties, sunglasses, and leather (one of them in a faux-leather-policeman-in-shorts outfit), circle around the ring, drumming up the crowd spirit, before they exit.

It’s time for the fight. The Emcee announces the fighters in a very loud but smooth growl. The Ring babes in skimpy black outfits and high heels sashay around the ring, holding up the ROUND 1 signs. The bell goes off. The match begins. About 20 seconds in, David, suddenly a boxing expert, says, “Laszlo will win. He’s much better than the dentist.” During the first round, the fighters are nimble and quick, really showing their stuff. Laszlo has better footwork and lands more punches. I’m screaming and stomping in the bleachers. “LAZ-LOW! LAZ-LOW!” and thinking, “Watch the nose! Watch the nose! Watch your head! Watch your brains!” Then Round 1 is over, the boxers retire to their corners and have their noses wiped and water squirted into their mouths. The babes with the Round 2 signs do their circuit, and the action begins again, slower than Round 1 but still energetic. After Round 2, the boxers are back to the corners, now looking wild-eyed with exhaustion, breathing so hard it is scary. Laszlo sits with his arms stretched out sideways, crucifixion style, while being attended to. The babes with the Round 3 signs did their shimmy and strut, and it is the home stretch at last. Both boxers are visibly tired; it feels like a very long round for them, and their movements are more dance-like, clinching each other at times. Finally the buzzer sounds, and it’s over. As the two boxers stand with the referee between them, the announcer says Laszlo won the match. The referee raises Laszlo’s arm in victory, the boxers shake hands, and leave the ring.

 

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We wait for Laszlo outside the dressing room door. There he is, soaked in sweat, with a bloody nose, but triumphant and glowing. He hugs me, says he is fine and will be out after he cleans up. I text my brother, sitting at home in Los Angeles, waiting for word:

–“He won. He’s fine. He’ll call you.”

–“Thank you,” comes the reply. “Your relieved brother.”

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Author’s Note: Many thanks to Bob Moncrief for his advice and for sending me to the library to read Joyce Carol Oates.

Cat, Lost and Found


UntitledRecently, my son’s cat went missing. Dmitri is my favorite of Joe’s cats, a skinny, friendly little guy who I bonded with during my occasional cat-feeding duties. Dmitri is the cat that will nuzzle your face and pay attention to you beyond his desire to be fed. So when Joe called one Sunday night in October to say that Dmitri had gotten loose and not returned home, I promised to help in any way I could.

Joe emailed me a Lost Cat poster with a picture of Dmitri. I went to Staples and printed out about 50 copies. We met  at Joe’s house and walked methodically around his neighborhood with a staple gun, and put the poster on every telephone pole for several blocks in all directions. A few neighbors who saw us at work with the staple gun commiserated and said they’d keep their eyes open and call if Dmitri turned up in their yard. Several people pointed out where homeowners were known to feed stray cats, and suggested we look around their yards.

At one point a car pulled up and two young women said they were certain that Dmitri had been meowing loudly on their back porch the night before, but when they went outside, he ran away. The good news was that they lived only two streets away from Joe’s house. Well, we reasoned, Dmitri was sweet, but he wasn’t the brightest bulb. He could get lost that close to home. But at least there was hope he was still nearby.

Joe had to go to work so I continued stapling posters until all of them were up. As I was finishing stapling the remaining posters, I spoke with a nurse coming home from a night shift, a man raking leaves, a young woman getting high in her car, and one of the homeowners who fed stray cats. All were concerned and promised to keep their eyes open for Dmitri. It was hard to believe that people who don’t know Joe, or his lost cat, ungrudgingly spent 10 minutes outside in the cold talking to us about this small personal tragedy, rather than running inside to get warm.

For two more nights Dmitri was out on the street somewhere. The temperatures plunged into the 30s and it was windy and damp. I had trouble sleeping, thinking about Dmitri being cold and wet, hungry, and scared, or worse. Joe said, “I hope if something terrible happens, it happens quickly and he doesn’t suffer.”

In the late afternoon on the sixth day after Dmitri went missing, a man called Joe to say he thought Dmitri was in his yard hiding under a tarp. A short time later, Joe got Dmitri –lost only two blocks away from home. He was skinnier, dirtier, and hungry, but seemed OK.

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The next day I went back to Joe’s neighborhood and took down all the lost cat posters so people would stop worrying about Dmitri. A number of people who saw me pulling them down asked if I’d found the cat, and seemed genuinely happy to hear we had.

The whole series of events around Dmitri getting lost, and then found, were a rare occurrence in my life these days–an arc of events that from inception of the problem to its resolution took less than a week to play out. Problem identified, steps taken to address the problem, problem resolved. I can’t think of any other problem or challenge facing me over the last 5 or 6 years that has had such a satisfyingly brief resolution, and it isn’t because the problem of a lost cat may not be on the scale of other things I worry about. For weeks after the Lost Cat arc was completed, I kept thinking about it. I realized just how much I hungered for an arc that resolved so cleanly and happily in any other part of my life. An arc in which my efforts could actually have a positive effect. A problem that posters, staple guns, and telephones could solve.

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Why Does It Take a Lifetime?

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For the last year the words on the sign in this picture have been like constant background music. The expression sums up many feelings I have as a parent, watching my children make their way.  I try to be more detached as they’ve become young adults, but in reality, I am anything but. I’m so invested in my children that I can barely stand “watching” them. A few weeks ago I read an article in New Scientist that began, “Mothers always have their children in the back of their minds – now it seems that this is quite literally true.” It seems that scientists found fetal DNA in mothers’ brains many decades after their sons’ births. They hypothesized that because fetal cells escape the placenta, they entered the mother’s brains and remained there literally for decades–discovered when the women were autopsied. Is this why I never stop worrying, feeling their pain? Judith Shulevitz recently wrote that “sociologists sometimes call the management of familial duties ‘worry work,’ and the person who does it the “designated worrier,” because you need large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of it all. Maybe I am not as dispassionate as I need to be. Maybe one of my friends was right when he more than hinted that I was complicit, a drama junkie.

But I keep thinking, at least with the younger generation, they’re on a path with many years ahead to figure things out.  And, as conventional wisdom has it, as you get older you learn from the bumps in the road, and sometimes they help you in ways you don’t expect. “It takes a lifetime” can be a comforting thought as long as you think there’s hope for an upward trajectory.

But after a recent call from my father, I told my brother that I’d been reconsidering. “You know that question, ‘Why does it take a lifetime?’ I’ve been thinking. A lifetime, it turns out, is not actually enough time to figure things out.” Great age does not, “ipso facto,” as my father used to like to say, get packaged with deep understanding despite a lifetime’s worth of experience. The 84-year-old Warren Buffett may still be on top of his game, and  The New York Times periodically runs articles featuring amazingly active, marathon-running elderly folks who are still, in their late 80s and into their 90s, happily hiking, painting, writing, and playing drums. Articles about these amazing elderly people usually search for clues to how the “old masters,” as one article called them, got to be so old but still so good–the subtle implication being that we too can be old masters, if we just do things right. And we will be among the blessed old but good, right? Eat right, exercise, stay fit, do crossword puzzles, and think positively!

Well, my mother was pretty much the picture of the active, very healthy, happy, serene, old lady, who loved her life and was proud of her life’s work as an elementary school teacher. Four years ago, my mother was still swimming far enough out in the lake that my father felt he had to follow her in a rowboat. Only she got Alzheimer’s disease two years ago and is pretty much unlearning everything she knew. This quite simply has unraveled my dad, a lifelong planner and anxious person, who is unprepared and unable to fathom the situation he now finds himself in. “I feel like I’m riding in a speeding car without a steering wheel,” he told me. Our discussions are painful and often a reversal of roles. I’d like to believe I’m going to be one of those old masters too, but in reality we are all driving without a steering wheel, whether we admit it or not. My generation is particularly lousy at imagining, much less admitting, that there are things not in our control, and I lose patience when yet another study or well-meaning person tells me what things I should be doing to increase the chance that I’ll have a serene and healthy old age.

The elderly people in my life aren’t hiking or writing books or showing up for work every day in a suit. For a variety of reasons, both externally and internally driven, they have little agency and an overwhelming, crippling amount of fear. Fear rules their entire world, and when fear rules, it crowds everything else out because nothing else has room to breathe. This is why FOX News and the Weather channel have so successfully owned the older generation, prompting a friend to ask, “Can we just have only one channel allowed for everyone over age 80–the Happy Channel? Only good news and good weather reports?”

I recently came upon the following passage from a speech by Andrew Solomon, and I am keeping his words in mind as I navigate the two sides of the generational ridge I find myself standing on top of.

“While all old people have been young, no young people have been old, and this troubling fact engenders the frustration of all parents and elders, which is that while you can describe your experience you cannot confer it. It’s tempting, nonetheless, to pose as an expert—and in another way it’s tempting to say, ‘I know nothing that you don’t already know.’ Neither of those postures is right. Every stage of life longs for others. When one is young and eager, one aspires to maturity, and everyone older would like nothing better than to be young. We have equal things to teach each other.”

This ridge is a hard place to inhabit. No longer young, not yet old; young enough to still have a hard time imagining I’ll ever be like my parents, but old enough to know it may be no better when I get there. It may not be possible in a lifetime to come even close to learning what you need to, but right now I just have to get better at walking this tightrope.

In Memory of Mr. Spock (and Leonard Nimoy)

 

Live long and prosper.
Live long and prosper.

In the days before cable TV, the Internet–VHS and DVDs, for that matter–I couldn’t miss the weekly hour on network TV with Mr. Spock and the crew of the starship Enterprise for fear that once gone, the loss would be irretrievable. My parents restricted our TV time to 30 minutes on weeknights, so my brother and I pooled our time and watched the 1-hour Star Trek together.

It’s hard to explain to people what the original Star Trek and the character of Mr. Spock meant to me when I was a kid. I didn’t have onerous challenges to surmount –I was a middle-class white kid with well-educated parents and much love. No, what made me feel like an outsider was pretty much being Jewish in Yonkers, NY, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with parents who gave me piano and violin lessons and as many books as I wanted to read. It was a time when (and few people believe me when I say this) each Wednesday afternoon, the entire public elementary school I attended was released from school to attend “religious instruction” at a nearby church. I should amend that statement to, “the entire public school except for 3 kids (2 Jewish girls and one Chinese-American girl), who remained behind to clap erasers together, clean the desks, and wash the chalkboards with the teachers. The next day when the kids came back to school, they’d sometimes talk about what they learned in “Religion” and it was certainly a source of wonder for me to ponder, or decode, the puzzling imagery their words produced: crosses, ascension to Heaven. The downside to what they learned “in Religion” was the occasional remark about Jews killing Jesus Christ or the called-out chorus of “Jew! Jew!” during cafeteria food fights. This was likely the beginning of a life-long predisposition toward alienation from larger groups I might have otherwise been part of.

So Mr. Spock and the multicultural/multigender crew of the USS Enterprise was a revelation to me. I’m not the first one to say that, obviously. The actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhuru, tells of being contacted by Martin Luther King, who begged her not to leave the show because her prominent presence on the crew (albeit as a glorified telephone operator) meant so much to the African American community, who rarely saw an African American actor who was not playing a maid or slave. No one said it, but Mr. Spock was obviously a Jew as far as I was concerned. The big ears were instead of a big nose (yes, a stereotype but…), his heart being in the wrong place, his blood being a different chemistry, these were ways to codify Spock in fact being “OTHER”: Jewish, bookish and intellectual (“logical”) in the less-than-brainy environment I found myself growing up in.

Years later Mr. Spock’s Judaism was confirmed for me when I read that Leonard Nimoy had himself added the now-famous V-shaped hand signal he made when saying, “Live long and prosper!” Apparently, when he was a small boy he had seen the rabbi gesticulate this way with both hands toward turned backs of the assembled synagogue congregation while he blessed the Torahs in the arc behind him. And what about Mr. Spock’s parents–one Vulcan, the other an Earthling–the two cultures at war within him, making it hard for him to feel fully identified with either half (which is how I felt). If one needed any further evidence that Spock was a Jew, it was easily found in the episode called “Amok Time,” when Spock returns to his home planet for a mating ritual that is presided over by the matriarch T’Pau, who is perhaps best described as the world’s biggest-ever Jewish Bubbe (grandma).

Nowadays kids like me would “find community” on the Internet, would discover like-minded people in far flung places who could be united online because they have common interests, concerns, beliefs, and shared weirdness. We didn’t have that in 1968 or 1970. We had to find community in some really bizarre ways. My way was Mr. Spock.

When Leonard Nimoy died today, my son sent me a tweet from a woman my age who said she carried Spock’s picture around in her notebook when she was a kid. “Helped me a lot as I was a kid not like the others,” she tweeted. “I remember knocking on a neighbor’s door one evening when our TV wasn’t working. It was SO important to me.”

Farewell, Mr. Spock, and Leonard Nimoy. You did live long, prosper, and make a lot of people feel less weird and alone.

 

 

 

The Web

The latest entry on Pilcrow is written by Robert Nortrup. Robert is an engineer and stone sculptor who lives in Frenchtown, NJ. He wrote “The Web”  some weeks ago after visiting his sister, Helen, then in hospice. Helen died last week. Robert kindly gave me permission to publish this.

The Web

by Robert Nortrup

She’s tired, and has rolled over to take a nap–which can be fifteen minutes or fifteen hours. But in hospice, you’re free to do whatever. When we were young, occasionally my mother would tell me, “Go wake your sister, you’re going to be late for school,”… argh, maybe with a catcher’s mask in case she threw the clock (admittedly, this is much more family lore than truth, but still, it warms me to tell it). But now, for Helen, napping is her right, her day.

Last week, when I was leaving to go home from a visit with Helen, I went out to my car and found a perfectly formed spider web between the car antenna, the window, and the trunk. I have a VW Passat sedan, where the antenna is at the back of the roof just before the back window, and slanting up and back about a foot and a half. She had climbed up there, as high as she could go, and weaved magic in the air while I was inside. And now, I imagined, she was looking at me, wondering–what was next, from this giant shadow of a being, paused before her work. But all I could say was good luck, and hold on.

She tells me her short-term memory is gone, as her gaze wanders off into space, searching for an answer–lost somewhere between the extraction of the tumor in her brain, the follow-up radiation to the head, and the chemo. They tell me that the radiation stopped the growth of the tumors in the brain, and the chemo stopped the tumors in the abdomen and lungs. But nothing seems to have affected the cancer in the liver. When I mention to my friends that it’s in her liver, they just get quiet.

When I get home, after hours of driving, I look, and in the moonlight I see her, huddled down at the base of the antenna. She’s a big one, the web long ago blown away by the long drive. But she’ll find a good home here in Frenchtown, a small New England-ish town nestled on the banks of the Delaware River, an idyllic corner of an otherwise overly abused state, sandwiched between two great cities but possessing neither. The bridge
over the river, with its lights and endless swirling bugs, is spider heaven.

She’s lost all her hair, of course, again–the first time had been during the chemo following the breast cancer surgery. But that time, her hair grew back all fresh and curly. She called it her chemo-hair, and she loved it. But this time, her head is as bare as her arms and feet, cast against the deep blue of her hospital pajamas and the white of her bed linens—with the hum and exhausting huffs from the oxygen machine, the only sounds.

In the morning, Saturday, I walk out to the car for some morning errands, and there she is, sitting at the center of another perfect web, staring back at me, both of us recalling the last time we stood, gazing at each other. This ride wouldn’t be as long as the last, but my first stop was the carwash. I love a clean car, the tires all shiny. It was another beautiful day, with a strikingly blue September sky. She had worked all the cool night through, and if I had risen earlier, would likely have been treated to a dew-adorned web, all fresh and glistening, with her as a waiting star center. But now, I imagined she knew what was coming, there waiting patiently.

They tell me it could be three days, or three months. No telling how long the liver will last, as the cancer inevitably grows. I still see my sister in there, staring back at me, half here, and half there, with both of us knowing. But I can still crack on her, with a joke, as if we had all the time in the world. When she still reaches out to smack me on the arm, now just a hint of a motion, but both still feeling the contact – the smile hanging alive for a moment in her eyes, frozen in my memory from so many years. I’m filled with who she is.

Halfway to the carwash I think of her, out there, hanging on, her web blown away again. And I pull over next to a farmer’s field, and get out. This time she’s way out on the end, as if imagining her exit; we stare one last time. I unscrew the antenna and carry it over to the field, bending down and sweeping her into the grass, and she’s gone, so quickly out of sight–as if she where never there.

She’s still sleeping, the machine still huffing and humming.

Oral History 2: Leaving Germany, 1940, as told by Norbert Freedman

On November 30, 2011, my father-in-law, Norbert (Bert) Freedman, passed away at the age of 88. He was an inspiration to all who knew him–a man who lived life more fully than anyone I’ve known. Despite the many difficulties he encountered in his life, including fleeing Germany in 1940 at age 17, becoming blind, and losing his first wife to cancer when his children were very young, Bert forged ahead and never complained. He married my mother-in-law, Joyce, more than 30 years ago, and was working as a practicing psychoanalyst up until the last days of his life. The moving eulogies at his funeral from both family and colleagues were testaments to the lasting effect Bert had on so many.

Bert lived large before that term was even used. He loved to eat, drink good wine, use too much salt, tell jokes, schmooze, and entertain. His apartment was sometimes a hotel for European visitors. Although he was blind, he commuted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn on the subway to his office at Downstate for decades. He embraced technology in a way few people his age did, even those who were sighted. A few weeks before he died, he was getting ready to consult the “Geniuses” at the Manhattan Apple Store to find out if the latest  iPhone with the talking assistant Siri could make his life easier. He was a force.

In December 2008, Bert recorded the story of his experiences as a young man in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1930s, and how his family had to leave Germany because of the rise of the Nazis and the growing anti-Semitism they faced. In the recording, Bert tells of his family’s painful realization that they had to leave their homeland. His was a highly assimilated Jewish family that was not religious, and they felt as German as any other citizens. But beginning in 1932, Bert’s world changed when he first encountered anti-Semitism from his soccer teammates, who became violent towards him when he scored a goal. Between 1932 and 1939 his parents took a series of steps to prepare for the family’s exodus from Germany. They learned other trades and improved their foreign language skills in order to be able to make a living in what they hoped would be the United States. They had to travel separately and by different routes to reach the United States. In 1940 Bert and his mother left Hamburg, finally traveling on the Trans-Siberia railway to Yokohama, Japan, and then across the Pacific to Seattle, Washington.

The posted audio file of Bert’s story is long (53 minutes) but it is well worth the time spent listening to it. Thank you, Sam, for  turning a narration from a hand-held dictaphone into an MP3 file and posting it for me!