Author Archive

For Sure

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

I was talking recently with a friend who said he was amazed at all the memories I have, memories of driving around with my father, of conversations with my mother, of playing with my friends, of growing up in a small town in the Northeast. The memories are very specific, and usually include both audio and video. I can play back, if asked, what my neighbor answered on a summer afternoon when I was eight and hollered “Hey, wait up!” as I tugged my go-kart up the street that ran east-west in front of our corner house.

My friend said he had, at most, three or four vivid memories from childhood. I told him I was surprised to hear that not everyone is haunted—quite literally—by the past.

For instance: A week ago, I was looking in on a neighbor’s cats and saw on a shelf a six-pack of Ensure. It was like a madeleine in a can.

The last time I thought about Ensure was in a parking lot near Heritage Village. My mother was dying of cancer. Cigarettes and the subsequent surgery and radiation had claimed her throat, but she was thirsty and hungry. So I went into a store and bought two cans of Ensure, which we drank in the car before heading for home. It was one of the last times I saw her upright and out of a hospital bed.

Ensure for me now is synonymous with a time when I was mostly a caretaker, and the sight of it conjures up the whole spectacle of impermanence.

Is this really so unusual?

Lying Down on the Couch In Public

Sunday, September 10th, 2006

The Situation and the Story is an incisive meditation by Vivian Gornick about the peculiar demands and rewards of personal narrative.

“To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing. A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly—inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires—but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. Here the writer must identify openly with those same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public—and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often simply doesn’t work. Think of how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself, but without all the whining and complaining, the self-hatred and the self-justification that make the analysand a bore to all the world but the analyst. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of interest to the disinterested reader.”

Interestingly, Gornick has caught a bit of flak for her admission that nonfiction memoirs (her own included) don’t necessarily have to consist of facts and nothing but. Here is her elaboration on what she meant.

Which way does the SMITH audience lean on the question of truth and truthiness?

Getting the Signal

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

37signals is a smart Web site. And by that, of course, I mean that the people behind it are smart and have valuable things to share. In their own words, 37signals is “a privately-held Chicago-based company committed to building the best web-based software products possible with the least number of features necessary.” (The online apps, by the way, are great. And no, we’re not affiliated with them in any way.)

The site (again, the gang behind it) also publishes Signal vs. Noise, which just blogged a SMITH-relevant item about the importance of the question in eliciting the compelling response. Pointing first to this article in the American Journalism Review, the 37signals piece summarizes the advice nicely:

“Bland personalities get spicier information … Don’t hog the mic … Try to learn, not validate your own opinion … etc.”

The post also has lots of great links to advice about interviewing techniques designed to make people not just willing but eager to tell their stories.

It’s a must read for the SMITH crowd.

Time-Lapse Storytelling

Saturday, August 26th, 2006

The patterns we make as we get on with our lives reveal a lot about us, often inadvertently. This was certainly true for the AOL users whose search histories were made public recently.

Occasionally, if we look at these patterns from the right angle, a kind of beauty emerges alongside (or maybe deep within) the information.

One of the most striking examples I’ve seen of this recently is a work by Aaron Koblin, an MFA graduate of the Department of Design|Media Arts at UCLA, called Flight Patterns. It’s a hypnotically gorgeous visualization of air traffic over the U.S., based on data from the FAA.

To see it in action, click on the image below.

Flight Patterns

Wally World

Friday, August 18th, 2006

The discussion here on SMITH about whether or not to talk about your own life gets me thinking about the value of community in this regard, and that in turn gets me thinking about this wonderful stanza by Wallace Stevens, from the poem “Of the Surface of Things”:

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.

Which to me says that participation in the world, as in conversation, is a great way to find perspective.

User 711391

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

By now you’ve no doubt heard that AOL, hoping the data would be of help to academic researchers, recently released a vast collection of search strings entered by hundreds of thousands of users over the course of several months. The company soon made the data inaccessible again—but not before several nimble-fingererd surfers captured and republished it.

AOL issued an apology for the release, and tried to reassure its subscribers that the queries were identified only by number and not by the searchers’ real names. In other words, the company said, it wouldn’t be possible to match an actual person—perhaps even someone you know—to an apparent interest in, say, “dirty tricks for chicks,” “how to say goodbye hurtfully,” or “free angry stuff to send to an ex lover.” (Thanks to Declan McCullagh and User 2708 for those.)

But as reported yesterday in The New York Times, Thelma “4417749″ Arnold might beg to differ. Anyone who read the paper now knows that Ms. Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Georgia, is the owner of a “dog that urinates on everything.”

Not surprisingly, given the voyeuristic potential of the material and the points begging to be made about security issues, several sites—including and AOL Log Search—have posted the data behind browser front ends that make it easily searchable.

Which is where the SMITH-iness of all this comes in. Look up the search trail of User 711391 on AOL Log Search, and a sadly strange, almost surreal personal narrative emerges:

“cannot sleep with snoring husband … god will fulfill your hearts desires … online friendships can be very special … people are not always how they seem over the internet … gay churches in houston tx … who is crystal bernard romantically linked with … is crystal bernard bisexual … men need encouragement … how many online romances lead to sex … how many online romances lead to sex in person … the bible says be kind to one another … i cant stand dr. phil or his wife … is george clooney gay … how can i be a good example to an unsaved friend … farting preacher … who’s the hottest porn star … devotions for women … hillary swanke nude … best nude scenes of 1999 … how to take your body measurements … jake gyllenhaal is hot … bleached pubes … oprah gained weight lately … star jones hubby is a flaming homosexual … how to make a good first impression … accepting your body … why do i weigh so much though i am in shape … the lord’s table bible study … how can i tell if spouse is spying on me while i’m online … tempted to have an affair … extra maritial affairs are not the answer … staying calm while meeting an online friend … guilt cheating spouses feel … bryce howard nude … what the bible says about worry … female pirate costumes … symptoms of bladder infection … god will show you future events … symptoms of herpes of the tongue … i don’t want my ex back … why do christian men cheat … don’t contact an ex if you want to get over them … christian men that feel guilty about cheating on their wives … if you are upset can it cause bad dreams … and after you have suffered a little while god will make you stronger than ever … kelly ripa is so annoying … how to forgive yourself … how to recover from internet affairs … denise richards is a bitch … reason for constant bad dreams … having an affair is a waste of time … how to make a man want you …”

Brawn and Brawnier

Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

Call me a sucker. Call me a sap. Call me a Kool-Aid-drinking idealist. But I once believed in the Web’s potential.


Tonight, I saw something that made me doubt. And that something was Brawny Academy, an online reality serial about … well, about paper towels. It tells the story of several men who are gradually educated in the finer points of paper-towel use.

There’s an entry link for low-bandwidth users. There’s an entry link for high-bandwidth users (”For full-screen video and extra features”). There’s an RSS feed. On a site about paper towels.


Maybe the most disturbing thing about it, though, is how much the interface reminds me of Myst.

Plot Twists

Monday, August 7th, 2006

We talk to ourselves constantly, and most of the time what we’re doing is dictating the story of our lives: “I was that. I am this. I will be what I imagine for myself.” It’s a nice place to inhabit, as it gives us a comforting sense of continuity and hope and narrative flow. It’s as if the same faculty that lets us frame the past has given us the power to understand the present and the means to shape the future.

But as we get older the odds change, and the likelihood of surprise grows larger. The unexpected interrupts our story: unforeseen deaths, unwanted diagnoses, inexplicable failures — setbacks, however major or minor.

The most unsettling of these, perhaps, is when our story begins to be inhabited by someone else, by a stranger wearing the costume of someone we once knew or thought we knew.

Abigail Lewis’s wrenching story in the Sunday NYT tells of an accident, on an otherwise innocent night, when her husband, out walking the dog, was struck by a car and suffered irreversible brain damage.

Here she is taking him back to a residential care facility:

How do I live with myself? What kind of woman am I that I can leave my husband in this place? What about my wedding vows? Who am I that keeping hold of my own life is more important than taking care of my husband? But I can’t take care of him. The truth is that no single person, no two people could take care of a man in Rich’s condition.

Some of the residents are in the big dining room watching a movie starring Goldie Hawn, but I take Rich to his room, where I tell myself he will be comfortable. His single bed is neatly made, some of his clothes are folded on top — underwear, two sweatshirts. I gesture toward the chair. “Why don’t you sit down for a minute,” I suggest. “I will be back soon. I’m going to run a couple of errands.” I try not to register his bewildered expression. “I will be back soon.” I notice the plants need watering but I’ll do it next time.

You can read the painful rest here.

Military Cam Pain

Saturday, July 29th, 2006

The BBC’s website today published a report that the Pentagon is paying close attention to the content of any videos posted online by military personnel. Though there’s no specific policy forbidding such posts, the report says, there is some concern among the top brass that graphic images of carnage and destruction might send the, um, wrong message.

The BBC has not been able to confirm that contractors are scouring the internet for inappropriate material from the military.

But US Central Command — which is responsible for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — does have a team reading blogs and responding to what they consider inaccuracies about the so-called war on terror.

And a longstanding military public affairs officer in Iraq said the Pentagon is also worried about some of the images that are appearing online.

“There’s continuing concern about the use of these videos and stills being used by our enemies to propagate the false notion that our military members are barbaric, warmongers — which is unequivocally not the case.”

Glad that’s settled. Can somebody let Jimmy Burns know?

Sic Transit Gloria MySpace

Friday, July 28th, 2006

OK, maybe gloria is overstating things a bit. But a few days ago, The Hollywood Reporter ran a report by Diane Mermigas that outlined plans for the coming hyper-commodification of MySpace.

Fox Interactive Media is in the midst of a massive push to harness the power of MySpace and its other Web-based businesses to redefine online advertising and marketing, e-commerce, digital video-on-demand, blogging, instant messaging, classified advertising and other interactive services in a user-friendly way that is poised to add hundreds of millions of dollars to News Corp.’s revenue base by the end of next year.

“It’s so not about social networking anymore. It’s about what is next,” [FIM president Ross] Levinsohn said in an interview at the FIM think tank located near the 20th Century Fox studio lot.

What’s next for FIM is leveraging MySpace’s online community and communication into a peer recommendations framework for leads on everything and anything: the best children’s playgrounds in Los Angeles to the best concert seats in Madison Square Garden to the best steakhouse in Dallas. Such peer recommendations provide a gentle [segue] into targeted, fine-tuned behavioral marketing for national and local advertisers wanting to reach MySpace’s 15- to 34-year-old core user.

As Jeff Spiccoli might say, it’s no longer MySpace or YourSpace, Mr. Hand. It’s OurSpace, and we’re sharing it with marketers who will data-mine our self-expression to see what we’re most apt to buy. Read it and weep here.

SMITH Magazine

SMITH Magazine is a home for storytelling.
We believe everyone has a story, and everyone
should have a place to tell it.
We're the creators and home of the
Six-Word Memoir® project.