Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: July 2009

My Last BlogHer09 Post

I see most of you as writers.   Good writers.   But few of you are as good as Tolstoy.  The main difference between you and Tolstoy is that Tolstoy would not dance with me at a party, or even return my email.   Blogging is writing + the addition of you returning my email.   I lose interest in blogs where I don’t have some sort of interaction with the author at least once a year.   BlogHer was special to me because it gave me an opportunity to do regular shit with other writers:  talk, drink, make fun of people, gossip — as well as discuss common writing and blogging issues.   For one weekend, you get the opportunity to break bread and eat Ragu-sponsored spaghetti with people you have never met in real life, but know so much about, from their marital issues, children’s quirks, and what type of vibrator they enjoy.

I was pretty impressed with the conference.  The organizers work their asses off trying to make this chaos work.  Every year, there are new dramas.  If you do some searching, you’ll find a lot of commentary about all the infamous swag bags and Nikon hating babies of BlogHer09. You’ll also see a lot of finger-pointing.   The influential PR bloggers will blame the greedy mommybloggers.   The mommybloggers will blame the party organizers.  The feminists will blame the homeschoolers.  Badges will now go up announcing a blogger’s integrity and kindness and allegiance.  None of this is surprising to me.  Everyone wants to transform the organization into their own image, like God did with Adam.

Can you see the real problem?  There is no one “woman blogger.”  Some are college professors.  Some are truckdrivers.  How do you get them all to feel happy at the same table?  It is impossible.

My friend became a rabbi after college.  He was always into spirituality.  He is now a rabbi at a synagogue in New Hampshire.  He tells me that his job deals less with religion than personal politics.  He has to please the Board of Directors who run the ship.  He has to juggle which wedding to attend when two congregants have an event on the same day.  He has to say nice things at the funeral of the town jerk.  If a congregation of 300 Jews have 300 views at one synagogue, imagine how hard it is to please so many women, black and white, rich and poor, at BlogHer.

If politics is an inevitable part of any organization, with different “tribes” fighting for their role at the table, I would like to push the writer-types to speak up a little more.  You shouldn’t let the others steal the blogging thunder away from your blogging world.  Writers should be center stage at a blogger’s conference, not those using blogging to sell things, or for self-promotion.   Creative female writers should try to force the organization to fit their own image… just like everyone else.   The personal is political.

Amy and I enjoyed doing our Storytelling Session (link to live-blogging of session), but I was surprised that the bulk of the sessions had little to do with writing.   Where is the writing at BlogHer?   Isn’t that what blogging is all about?  Writing?

Imagine a conference on the television industry.  All the writers and producers of all the network shows come together, from Judge Judy to The Simpsons to Entourage, to meet, network, and learn from each other.  Now imagine that 90% of the discussion is about the COMMERCIALS!  Advertisers are walking around, trying to interest you in product placement.  The most popular sessions are about getting corporate sponsors for you TV show.  When there are sessions about the TV shows, it is usually of the practical matter — “How will this show affect the children?”  “Should I include my real name on the credits or should I use a pseudonym?”

These are all interesting subjects, but this stuff should be the sideshow.  The WRITING should NOT be the sideshow at a blogging conference.  That’s why the community keynote is always the highlight of the event.  It is about the CONTENT… the bloggers…. the writing… about the reason we are blogging.

The other aspects of blogging are important, but they should accept their place as second class citizens in a writer’s medium.  Once you let the sponsors run the show, you get crappy TV shows.  That’s why we all watch HBO.

I’m not really complaining.  I had a great time.  I was honored to be allowed to do a room with Amy.  It was fun.   But when I read the fingerpointing about the swag bags and the greed and the sponsors, I shake my head and laugh, because no one seems to be looking at the big picture.  You get the conference you deserve.   If all the conference talk is about PR and marketing, or how to sell your book, etc. then that is what the conference is going to be about — PR and marketing.   Even the blog business cards were out of control.   The parties were too loud and focused on selling something.   I love commercials on TV, but I’m not sure that is what I want to talk about when I go to a television conference.  I want to talk about the creative content with the creative people.

And to do some dancing.

I hope this post doesn’t scare anyone off from going.  This weekend was one of the most interesting in my blogging career.  I would definitely go again.  In fact, I insist that all of you go to some sort of blogging conference at least once while blogging, just to jar you from the comfort of your living room.

I did a lot of running around, following people here and there, and I was exhausted by the end.  Next time, I would take things a little slower, trying to make more time with certain people, and creating an experience that is more suitable for my personality.  I was too much of a “Citizen of the Month” on my first trip, following all the rules, going to all the sessions and parties, and forgetting to make my own agenda.

Thanks for a great time.   It makes me want to eventually meet all of my blogging friends.

BlogHer09 Recap (With Photos!)

fashion
FASHION

comraderie
COMRADERIE

anxiety
ANXIETY

sightseeing
SIGHTSEEING

anger
ANGER

ego boosting
EGO BOOSTING

tears
TEARS

truthtelling
TRUTH-TELLING

troublemakers
TROUBLE-MAKING

drinking
DRINKING

cliques
CLIQUES

support
SUPPORT

The Baby Photo

I hadn’t seen my cousin Ronald in quite in few years, since the last big family wedding.  Last weekend, he was doing a lecture on math at Columbia, and called me up.  I met him at a university parking structure.  We were going to take the #1 Train downtown to see a Broadway show.  As we walked together past Low Library, he handed me a baby photo of myself.  His mother had found it in her home in Connecticut and thought I might like it.  I had seen this photo before.  It was a typical baby photo — one your parents might take at the “photo studio” inside Macy’s.   My mother had the exact same photo in the house, but she had stored it in a cheap-o photo album back in the 1980’s (WITH SCOTCH TAPE!), and the photo had become ragged and yellow.

Ronald’s mother apparently knew how to store a photo.  My baby picture was pristine, mint condition, as if she had never opened the envelope my mother sent to her with the photo so many years ago.

“Here you go,” he said, as he put my baby picture in my hand.

Ron and I walked down the steps and into the hot and sticky subway.  The moment gave me pause.  For decades, my baby photo had survived the elements, locked away in some closet in suburban Connecticut.  Because of this hermetic life, I had remained a smiling, naive, innocent baby for years, only knowing my mother’s breast.   Now, here I was, like any great hero, being forced into a journey he was unprepared for — into the hot, dangerous hell of the 116th Street station.

What was I supposed to do with this photo?  I couldn’t just walk around, gripping it my hand the entire night, protecting it from muggers, theieves, and tourists.  I thought about giving it back to Ronald for safe protection, but one glance at his dishelved, math genius, academic exterior completely changed my mind.

“Where the hell is that Metro Pass I bought today?”  he said, as he fumbled into the pockets of his tan, way too short, Dockers.

I wish we had taken his car downtown and paid for a garage on Times Square.  I could have kept the photo in the glove compartment.  It was my dumb idea to take the subway.

I decided to put the photo in the wallet in my back pocket.

During the subway ride, we talked about family (and Twitter!), but I was distracted.  I was thinking about my baby photo in my wallet.  Sometimes, I get a business card and I stick it into my wallet.  Later on, when I go to look at it, the card is bent due to the pressure from my friendly behind.  Was my behind finally having it’s revenge for getting slapped at childbirth by creasing my pristine photo?  I opened my wallet.  Yes, it was.  As we departed the subway train, I noticed an indentation in the middle of the photo, and the cardboard stock had taken on an arc-shaped curve.

It is a cliche to say that a child grows up fast, but in one fifteen minute subway ride, my baby photo had gone from perfection to a lived in child, dirty from the playground.  Another cliche is that you can’t go home again.  I was hoping this little photo would be a connection to my perfect past – the time was anything and everything was possible, until the elements, such as being stuck and folded into a leather wallet from Target, roughed you up a bit.  But these days of innocence don’t last long when you leave the comforts of home.  My new photo, my perfect baby photo, had a crease.  And the night was not over yet.

We still had an hour before the show, so we stopped into a pizzeria for slices.  I placed the baby photo on the table, as far as way from the dripping spaghetti sauce as possible.  I placed a napkin over the photo and the salt and pepper shakers on top, hoping that the weight of the seasoning will increase the photo.  It didn’t work.  Even worse, as we left the restaurant, I noticed something sticky on the back of the photo.  Somehow, a piece of mozzarella cheese had adhered itself to the back of the photo.  I was able to peel it off, but it left a slight stain on the white back, where my mother had written the words “Neil.”  I considered this humiliation of the cheese on the photo the equivalent of my baby photo now entering junior high school, where no one leaves without scars.

And then it started to pour outside. A thunderstorm like in a horror movie.  I know this sounds fictional, but this is all true.  I put the photo in the chest pocket of my button-down shirt for safety.  I had brought an umbrella along with me because the forecast was for rain, but I had to share the umbrella with Ronald.  As I walked, trying to keep all three of us dry, I held my hand to my heart, like Napoleon, in a vain attempt to protect my “baby” from the dangers of the world.  I finally understood what it was like to be a parent, where you care more for the other than yourself, but in this case, the baby was ME, an image of purity from a day long gone.

It will be interesting going to BlogHer this weekend and meeting so many other bloggers.  Like many of us, I’ve probably presented an image of myself on this blog through the prism of my own mind.  We want others to see us in the best light.  We want to see ourselves in a certain way.  We remember how everyone doted on us as a perfect-looking baby, before we get all our creases, stains, and watermarks.  Perhaps we spend most of our lives trying to recapture that feeling.  Growing up is learning to love yourself despite these imperfections you picked up along the way.

Here is the baby photo.   It now has a crease, a stain, and a watermark.  But it is still me.

me

Storytelling and Branding

Some think writers are crazy, idealistic fools with no sense of the real world. I completely disagree. Just look at the above video of a well-known storytelling guru. Amy and I hope to exhibit as much passion as Nicholas the Storyteller in our BlogHer session.

On the same day that I was taking some notes on “storytelling,” from Nicholas, I had an interesting chat on the phone with a PR professional attending the conference in Chicago.  She is very interested in the concept of “branding” online, both for companies and individuals. I asked her some questions about branding, because I see the word used frequently online, but never completely understood it.

When I thought about it, these terms — storytelling and branding — have a lot in common.  They are both about using words, and sometimes pictures and music, to create a narrative which entertains or persuades.  The main difference is that “branding” is about control, fine-tuning a message so others will see you or your company in exactly the way you want it to be presented.  You do not want any holes in your story.  For branding to be effective, you want to focus on the truth — but only a certain slice of it.  The other elements must be swept under the rug.  Currently, the Jackson family is attempting to “brand” the Michael Jackson story, focusing on his talent and inspiration, hoping that his legacy will be positive, and not that of a pedophile.  Have you ever been to the Nixon Library in Orange County? It is a educational place, but the curators do some history re-writing in order to make the former President seem more like a towering historical figure than a creepy guy.  Branding is important because it puts our best face in front, like the photoshopped avatar in Twitter.  Branding is an oil company putting on a “green” logo on their brochure because they know it sells.  When it doesn’t sell, they will brand themselves as something else.

Don’t get me wrong.  Storytelling also hopes to manipulate you.  Stephen King wants you to jump out of your seat at the right moment.  A comedian knows from experience when you are going to laugh at a punchline.  The better the story, the more the writer controls your every thought.  But the heart of a good story is less about placing a barrier between the real soul of the writer and the audience, then about digging deeper, so that the one dimensional becomes three dimensional.  The writer is communicating, but also searching for his own meaning. The lone cowboy is a one-dimensional image.  It is the Marlboro Man in a famous cigarette advertisement.  The cowboy who likes his cowboy friend and checks out his ass while lassoing the steer is a character in Brokeback Mountain, and that wins the Oscar.

Writing a blog is a combination of branding and storytelling.  At times, I do present a one-dimensional side of myself because it makes it easier for me to relate to you, and for you to “get me.”  If I were to start my blog over again, I might spend more time “branding” myself.  I am jealous of all the mommy and daddy bloggers, the dating and tech bloggers, who are able to focus their energies on a certain aspect of their lives.  Maybe I should have restructured this blog as a marriage/separation story, focusing on my relationship with Sophia, and then writing a book about it.  Instead, this blog is all over the place.

Do you see the difference between branding and storytelling? If I was “branding” myself, I would try to be clear in focus, so you would be able to quickly identify me, like you can on my Twitter avatar where I wear a fedora like a 1940’s detective. In this almost five year story of my life on my blog, I spend most of my time searching for this “brand,” this clear-cut identity or vision. Once I achieve it, there will be no more reason for a blog. Once I am my own brand, then I have nothing else to explore. That’s when I just market t-shirts with my name on it.

Do you get a clear sense of who I am?  Probably not.  I don’t. I’m nice and friendly and sometimes a jerk.  I flirt with women and tell sexist jokes, but I’m very politically correct.  Probably the biggest misrepresentation of my self relates to the sex posts. Now that I am less than two weeks away from meeting so many women, I am a little concerned about my reputation. Does anyone going to BlogHer really worry that I might hit on them in the bathroom, saying, “Let me see those tits, baby!” I’m never going to say that.  I probably wouldn’t even think it.  I mostly think of those things when I am at home, writing blog posts by myself.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not dangerous.  Oh, the neilochka brand is dangerous all right.  What you REALLY have to worry about is me during the keynote address, when I run onstage, grab the microphone from whoever and point to some well-dressed woman in the fifth row and say, “MomBlogWoman, I can’t keep it in any longer.  I’m in love with you.  I know I only met you ten minutes ago, but the way you were slurring and spilling your drink all over yourself last night when you were sloshed was so beautiful, and the way you put that business card in my hand, so our fingers touched ever so slightly, and the fact that you skipped The Bloggess’ comedy session to come to ours instead — I just know that you were the one, and that I must have you as my own.  I know you are married with three children, but I just received these engagement rings in the mail in exchange for putting a link from this jewelry company on my blog, and I would like to get on my knees like the guys do on “The Bachelor” and, in front of 1500 of these wise women, and ask you, MomBlogWoman, will you…”

Anyway, you see.  I’m not going to feel you up.  That’s not me.  That is all “branding.”  My story is more complicated and intense.  I want to be in love!  Love!  Do you hear me?  And then we will dance the night away on a riverboat as we sail between the famous buildings of the Chicago Skyline, fireworks in the sky from the special event going on in Wrigley Field, Bat Day and Fireworks Day and Love Day, all rolled into one.  Sigh.

Yeah, avoid me.

Then again, I’m not sure how true this is either.  Maybe I do just want to feel you up.   Maybe I should call Sophia and see how she’s doing.

Chase Manhattan

chase

I’m back in New York.    Wow.    Blank page.    Wait, I didn’t mean that as a metaphor for my life.   I meant an actual blank page that I am writing on.  You see, I’m not ready yet to write anything.   But a great man once said, “Just start writing something and the rest will flow.”  He was an asshole, but others accepted his thought as wisdom, so why not? — I am putting on my writer’s cloak, made in the finest shop in London, and will attempt to write something.

My lack of focus with this post is amusing because earlier today, I was on the phone with Amy about our storytelling session at BlogHer, discussing the agenda, particularly what makes a “good” story.  After typing out an outline about  the  fundamental, engraved-in-stone rules of an effective narrative, handed down by storytelling gurus from campfire to campfire, Irish bar to Irish bar, I now sit down and write this piece of crap, which follows none of the precepts of storytelling.  “Where is the drama?” I ask you.   Or you should be asking me.  You’re the dumb one reading this.

The drama is here, of course, but it is internal.   It is locked away in a safety deposit box, behind a steel gate, in the main branch of the Chase Manhattan of my mind.  You’ll notice how I just wrote, “Chase Manhattan.”  That bank is now gone.  It is now repackaged as “Chase,” and it is a conglomerate of several banks that went under during the past year.    Is there anyone who hasn’t had their bank change hands at least three times in the last ten years?

Even though the marketers have renamed the bank Chase, I still call it Chase Manhattan, because I am used to it, and I am stubborn.  It is comforting to grab onto something from the past and keep it from leaving your consciousness, even if it is a struggle at times, like the tugging of the rope to prevents a colorful hot air balloon from taking off from you backyard, while travelers are inside the basket, hoping to make a journey over the Napa Valley, cursing at you and throwing apples and baguettes from their picnic baskets at your head for delaying their trip, thinking you the most selfish individual in the universe.

You want, you need, to keep the status quo, your history, from flying away.  You yearn for it so badly that you ignore the pain, the feeling of the muscles in your biceps ripping apart as you reach for an unobtainable victory in this one-sided  tug-of-war with the elements.  The future is pushing forward, the balloon is taking off, the heat and fire are burning you scalp, but you want one more taste of the past, a cookie that your mother baked, some comfort food.

Chase Manhattan may be long gone, but fuck it; you’re still going to use the old name, just to be spiteful.  Screw you, name changing bitches and harlots of the world.  And you know what, suckers? — even after Pic-N-Save became Big Lots, I still called it Pic-N-Save.  Until this day, I still say Pic-N-Save, whenever I go into the store to buy cheap energy saving light bulbs to brighten my office with off-color light, stubbornly holding onto a disappearing world like the elderly Brooklyn Dodger fan still blabbing about Ebbets Field.  I hate the name Big Lots.  It sounds repulsive.    Like huge pieces of shit.  “I just made a couple of big lots!”  What kind of name is that for a store?  Pic-N-Save was pure elegance!

I know I am sounding like a grouch, but I don’t care.  At some point, every man has to stomp his sneaker onto the ground and say, that’s enough.  Some things are not going to change, and if they are for everyone else, I will just follow my own army into battle, even if it is a useless, bloody war.

But don’t worry about me.  All of my emotions are locked up in the safe in Chase Manhattan.  I’m mellow as yellow, well-read and well-fed.    These dangerous feelings, unsteady emotions with no place to go, will not come out like a stumbling, hungry Yeti to bother you.  They are in a box, behind a metal gate.

Because I Know

I’m getting a real kick from reading tweets and blog posts about BlogHer.  So many women are anxious about the conference!   Women are worrying about looking fat.   Women worrying about being ignored.   Women worrying about cliques.   Women worrying about standing by themselves while everyone else squeals with joy and dances in a conga line.

What a relief.    I don’t have to worry AT ALL.   I’ve been blogging for almost five years.   I know tons of people in this personal blogging arena.   I am a man at a woman’s conference.   People like me.   They like my blog.   I have been invited to parties.   My biggest problem will be finding the time to talk to all the bloggers who seem to think I am the cat’s meow!    I am feeling so confident and sexy about this event that I laugh at the anxiety at the others.   How silly you are!   What worrywarts!   It’s a stupid blogging conference.   Grow up.

But the laugh is a nervous one.   Because I know.

God help me if I was a blogging newbie.   A Mack truck could not drag me to a blogging conference.   I wouldn’t know what to do there.   I would either bite my tongue or chatter endlessly like my mother does when she gets nervous.   I would latch onto one person and spend the whole weekend talking to that person.    Or, more likely, I would retire to my room early and watch TV.   I would then mock you as a bunch of assholes.

Over the years, I have wimped out of attending many real-life parties and events out of fear of being exposed as unimportant or a loser or not successful enough.   I didn’t go to my high school prom. I was afraid of asking the girl.    I didn’t go to a networking event just LAST WEEK because I was insecure about meeting someone from school who just got a big movie deal.   I am not a brave person.

Of course, I do not want to show you that part of my personality.  I want you to think of me as confident.   And — I’m excited about going to Chicago.   Things will be different there.   Beautiful women, popular women, extremely intelligent women all want to meet ME!   Some newbie is going to ask a friend, “Who is that?” and her friend is going to answer, “That’s Neilochka! I would go say hello to him but he probably doesn’t want to talk to someone like me when Redneck Mommy is practically bowing at his feet like a Canadian Geisha girl.”

I am looking forward to that.

BlogHer is going to be a breeze for me.   Blogging has been good for me because it lets me write my way into your consciousness, allowing me to use my creativity to get into your pants.   This assertive part of me is becoming more and more a part of my real life, but change is slow.    I’d still rather chat on Twitter than go to a bar by myself.

I have never been to an event before where I will be known by so many people — even before I walk into the room.   While I won’t exactly be Tom Hanks of the blogging world, I will at least be the Richard Simmons of the blogosphere, known by name by at least 168 people.   It does not require any bravery on my part to attend BlogHer.   I am way more impressed by the new blogger who walks into this viper’s den without knowing one single person.   You are a better man (or woman) than me.

Good luck to you nervous newbie! Maybe we will get to talk together.   Maybe not.   But I will tell you one thing.   If I see you standing by yourself, biting your nails, drinking a beer and making believe you are enjoying yourself when you aren’t, I suggest that you… well, I don’t know what to suggest.   Do something crazy?   Expose yourself?   Throw a drink in someone’s face?   Whatever.   I know that I won’t be looking down on you and your anxiety.

Because I know.

Scheherazade

scherazarde

I know I will hear cries of bullshit from the mob, but the name of one of the baristas at my local coffee shop is Scheherazade. She is Persian. When I heard her friends call her by that name, my eyes lit up. Scheherazade is one of my favorite literary characters, the legendary Persian queen and the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights.

The famous story goes that every day the Persian King would marry a new virgin, and every day he would send yesterday’s wife to be beheaded. This was done in anger, having found out that his first wife was betraying him. He had killed three thousand such women by the time he was introduced to Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter.

According to Wikipedia, Scheherazade was described by in Sir Richard F. Burton’s translation this way:

“[She] had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of by gone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.”

Against her father’s protestations, Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with the King. Once in the King’s chambers, she started to tell a story to the King, and The King liked it so much, he asked for another, but Scheherazade said there was not time as dawn was breaking, and much like a network promo, insisted that the next story was even more exciting.

And so the King kept Scheherazade alive as he eagerly anticipated each new story, until, one thousand and one adventurous nights, and three sons later, Scheherazade who became his Queen.

Scheherazade is the ultimate storyteller. Can you imagine how good a blog she would have? There would be no writer’s block for her. She would have to come up with one amazing tale after another, or DIE. Of course, the King HAD to fall in love with her because of her amazing talent. She wouldn’t have time or energy to waste her time on the 140 character Twitter, avoiding the challenge of having to come up with a beginning, middle, and end.

Sometimes people ask me why I started blogging, and I never have a clear answer. I’m not trying to make money, help anyone “learn” anything, or even hone my writing skills. I just have fun writing stories, sometimes stupid and sometimes serious. I like to be honest and I also enjoy stretching my personality so a different part of my id shows up. I love that my mother reads my blog and it makes her laugh. I love the comments of long-time readers who know when I’m lying. I once got an email from a reader who told me she played with herself after reading one of my sexually-oriented posts. I cried after saving that email. That was worth more to me than four years of BlogHer ads. Sure, I want attention, like everyone, but the fact that I am communicating to you with my direct words, saying things that I would not in polite company makes me feel like I am floating in the air while fucking the angels in heaven.

I don’t get that feeling online anywhere else than on my blog.

When I heard the barista’s name called out on that day in the coffee shop, I immediately went up to her and asked excitedly, “Your name is Scheherazade?!”

She was taken aback. She was a pretty girl, no more that twenty-three, and probably got hit on by customers all the time, and I must have seemed like some sleazy guy using some opening line.

“Yes,” she said. Or just “Sherry.”

“Sherry! Oh no, Scheherazade is an amazing name. I’ve never met anyone named it before. You HAVE to use the full name.”

At this point, she looked like she was about to call the manager to tell him to throw me out of the establishment.

“Do you know who Scheherazade was?”

She said that it meant something, like a fruit or flower, in Farsi. Who knows? Maybe it does, but clearly she was ignorant about the important meaning.

“Scheherazade was the beautiful AMAZING woman who told the 1001 Tales in the Arabian Nights!”

“Excuse me,” she said. “I have another customer.”

She dashed away to make a cappuccino, eager to leave the aging pervert with the graying hair. She had no interest at all in me or my story. Or even the story of her own name!

But luckily, YOU do. And I see this as a sign. Even Scheherazade, the ultimate storyteller, is not interesting until there is a story built around her. So I finally dragged myself off Twitter and Facebook because I had to write a story about Scherazarde, the barista in the Redondo Beach Coffee Company.

On, Saturday, July 25, at 3PM — Amy of Doobleh-vah and I will be offering a Room of Your Own at BlogHer called Blogging as Storytelling. It is for those who care about Schehrazade more than giveaways. It will be so good that you will have to return to your hotel room afterwards to play with yourself.