Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: August 2010

Are Blog Commenters “Real” Writers?

A few weeks ago, there was a raucous argument online over the unimportant question of the day — are bloggers “real” writers?

I have my own thoughts about this, but I’m all about spreading the love, so for all practical purposes, I edge towards saying “yes.”  If you write, you’re a “real” writer, whatever that means.  A “professional” writer might be a better writer, but then again, there are a lot of shitty books published about cats.

The problem is the word “writing,” which like “blogging” is too broad and meaningless.  A doctor is a doctor, but you don’t want a pediatrician doing your heart surgery.  Blogging is a new art, and a singular discipline.  A good blogger might write a boring book.  On the other hand, I have read blogs written by novelists that bore me to tears.  These professionals  just don’t “get” the community aspect of blogging, or the soap opera-ish, episodic nature of a personal blog.   No writer can write anything.  Screenwriters are considered the low end of the writing totem pole, but both Hemingway and Fitzgerald took stabs at screenwriting, with awful results.  Every art form is different.  A play is performed live.  A movie uses editing.  Blogging is writing.  But writing isn’t blogging.  And really — who cares?  The whole conversation reeks of insecurity.   I’m not ashamed to say I am a blogger.  I’m ashamed to say I make NO MONEY blogging.   But I am proud to blog.   I love it!

When we talk about “real” writers, I’m assuming we are all thinking about someone like Jonathan Franzen, a guy who writes BOOKS you can buy in a store.   Of course, I only mention him because other bloggers are talking about him, which just proves that blogging is all about immediacy.

Yeah, I hear you.  Blogging is exactly like writing.  For every person who says that blogging is real writing, I wonder how many times you have gone into my archives to read my “writing,” as if my blog was a collection of short stories.   Never!    Gotcha!

In some ways, bloggers are not “real writers,” in that blogging is just plain different.  Bloggers use links.  Links are as revolutionary as editing in a movie, and completely unique to the online experience.  You never see links in a traditional novel.  Imagine a novelist describing Doctor Zhivago’s house, and then including a link to a photo in Flickr.  Bloggers play off of one another, like improv players.  Someone writes an angry post.  Two hours later, someone writes another post responding.  Blogging tends to be topical and immediate, like my name-dropping of Jonathan Franzen.  “Real writers” write in isolation, their beards growing gray as they toil over their masterpiece for ten years in an abandoned cabin in the woods.  And here is the real big difference, at least according to me:  most bloggers allow COMMENTS!  Not too many “real writers” allow comments on their novel, unless you are one of those crazy readers who scribble notes to the author on the side of the page.

“WTF?!  Are you saying that his wife is his OWN SISTER?! You are a perv!”

If you want to feel like a “real” writer, shut down your comments and let your beard grow.  If you want comments, and enjoy the adoration, you are a blogger.  Be happy.

Of course, as times change, so will our ideas about “writing.”  In ten years, all books might have “links” embedded, as we read them on our Kindles.

Which brings me to the real point of this post — blog comments.  If you are one of those people who shook your fist and shouted “Bloggers can be REAL WRITERS!,” I have a another question for you.  “Do you consider commenting to be real writing, and if no, why not?”

I do.  I consider my comments an integral part of my post.  The comments on one of my posts can be more interesting than my post.  They are very important in humor blogging.  Have you ever read the comments on The Bloggess?  They are hilarious.  Her blog would not be half as fun without her comments.  Jenny and her commenters FEED off of each other.  In fact, their relationship is so strong, I think she should SHARE all of her advertising dollars with her commenters.

I see many bloggers complaining about a lack of comments.  They usually blame Twitter and Facebook.  I say, it is your own fault.  You don’t respect comments as “real” writing.  You consider stupid one-liners on Twitter as “writing,” but the comments on your blog as an appendage to YOUR brilliant post.  Is it any wonder that there has been a brain-drain from the comment section to the Twitter stream?   There has already been a book on Twitter Wit?  Can you imagine a book of blog comments?  Can you imagine anyone getting a sitcom deal or book deal from a blog comment?  Of course not.  No one really respects the blog comment.

The first lesson I learned at film school is that the auteur theory of film-making was hogwash, created to fulfill the need for critics to analyze a movie in the same way that they would a book — written by one author.

We tend to view our blogs under this same “auteur” theory, dissing the community aspect of the medium.    Of course, this doesn’t stop us from pimping our blog posts on Twitter, or constantly networking.  Blogging is not only writing.  It is part circus, part Borg.

I write my blog.  It is my words.  But during my five year writing journey, I have been guided by YOU as much as by my own life.  YOU have been part of my experience.  We all have been part of each other’s blogging life.  This is what we mean when we talk about this “community.”  If we all just want to write on our own and think of ourselves as “writers,” then let’s drop blogging and write our books.  But if we are going to blog, we should embrace “blogging.”

I am not a good commenter.  I am more comfortable talking about my own life, than reflecting on yours.  I consider this a fault.

Commenting is a skill.  It is real writing.  I greatly appreciate smart comments.  For the longest time, I have wanted to come up with some sort of blog award, solely for comments, something that would undercut the typical “Best Blog of All Time” idea, a concept that would embrace the community, not just the individual blogger making believe she writes in complete isolation.  Perhaps by enobling the comment as an art form, as “real” writing, we can energize commenting again.  Wouldn’t it be great to see a session at a conference where the speakers doesn’t suggest ways to “get MORE COMMENTS” but instead — “how to write more meaningful comments on the blogs of your friends?” — taught by some of the best commenters amongst us.

If I actually started a Commenting Award, my personal nominee would be Headbang8.  When he comments on one of my posts, he takes my topic to another level.   This is, despite the fact that I rarely comment on HIS blog, mostly because he lives in Europe and isn’t in my usual circle of friends.  I can tell that this isn’t a reader who has zoomed though 100 blog posts in one morning.   He has actually thought about the subject, and when he writes a comment, I consider him to be a collaborator on the post.

And just to show how much he means to me, I will now share all of my advertising dollars with him.

Here is one of his recent comments on my post about my “big ears.”

Americans are plastic people. Often, in the best sense of the word.

Live your dream. You want to be an astronaut? Sure! A doctor? A scientist? A millionaire? Anybody can be anything they want to be. I was born in a log cabin but grew up to be president. I was once a football player and now I’m an actor. I was once a cheerleader and now I’m a movie star. I was a Catholic, now I’m a Buddhist. Live your dream. If you don’t, you have only yourself to blame. You didn’t try hard enough.

That sort of thinking spreads to your body. If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde. You can shape your body. If you’re fat, it’s your own fault.

I once worked on the advertising account of a product that had to do with teeth. My god, what baggage teeth carry! If your teeth are bad, it’s a marker of poor discipline (did you brush right as a child?) or social class (could your parents afford braces?) or old age (yellow = old and decrepit). People around the world shake their heads in amazement about an American’s obsession with his smile.

Amidst all this obsession about be-the-best-you-can-be, it comes as a comfort, from time to time, simply to say “I am what I am”.

That’s what your tribe is for. The people amongst whom you feel comfortable. Who know your experience. The people with whom you can let your hair down.

Generally, we are born into a tribe. Few of us change ourselves to be part of a tribe to which we don’t naturally belong. We see or find people like ourselves. And discover that though we may differ, the thing we have in common makes those other differences unimportant. That’s a source of great serenity, self-confidence and strength.

The big-eared. It may seem slight to build a tribe around. But it was enough to make you feel bad about yourself growing up. It had an effect on you.

These wing-nuts, these head-kites, these flesh-made Flying Nuns, these Basset Humans, these Dumbos are your people, Neil. Embrace them. Love them. May you never have to grow your hair long, ever again.

Now THAT is “real” writing. In a comment.

Farewell, Apartment 202

Sophia and I have finally moved everything out of my in-laws’ Los Angeles apartment, and Sophia closed the lease.   Fanya and Vartan lived in this one-bedroom apartment since 1984.   Sophia was very strong during the whole ordeal, but as we were about to leave the apartment for the last time, Sophia burst into tears because there was such finality to the moment.

++++

From “Our House” by Crosby, Still, Nash and Young

Come to me now
And rest your head for just five minutes
Everything is good
Such a cozy room
The windows are illuminated
By the sunshine through them
Fiery gems for you
Only for you

Our house is a very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy
‘Cause of you

I Like Big Ears

One of my biggest complaints about going to any sort of conference or networking function is that there are always cliques, and you feel a bit isolated if you don’t have a “tribe” to call your own.  At BlogHer, these tight-knit groups were isolated around a common blog or project (MamaPop, Aiming Low, Kirtsy) or subject matter (photography, parenting).  I returned home feeling that I don’t “belong.”  What is my tribe?

Most religious people believe that God works in mysterious ways, and maybe it is true.  The day after I returned to Los Angeles, I received an email requesting me to become a member of a unique group of like-minded individuals.  I was finally being accepted by my peers.  I was asked to join a “Big Ears” forum.

At first, I thought it was a joke, or some gag at my expense, perhaps from someone I ignored in New York, or from a mommyblogger who caught me tossing out her business card in the trash bin at the Hilton Starbucks.  But this forum truly exists, and there are many members from around the world.  Apparently, in 2007, I wrote a blog post about how as a teenager, I wore my hair long-ish because I was self-conscious about my bigger ears.  This blog post, a throwaway at the time, had inadvertently become the Bible for the Big Ears Forum, the Holy Grail of Big Ear Posts.

Although my big ears bothered me for several years, it isn’t a subject I thought about for a long time.  At some point in my life, my head grew in size and my ears became better coordinated in size and shape with the rest of my body.  I even began to be proud of their larger size.  During my bar-hopping days after college, I tried to woo women into the bedroom by specifically mentioning my unique attributes.  “I have really big ears, don’t I?”  I might say, with a wink.  “Just imagine what my…”

Just for the record, the line never worked.

Currently, the size of my ears is the least of my daily worries.  For instance, today I mostly fretted about —

1)  Money
2)  Marriage
3)  Gray hair
4)  Sophia joining Twitter.
5)  Carelessly packing my car keys into one of the twenty-five boxes at my in-laws house destined to Goodwill, forcing me into a day of extra work unsuccessfully searching for the keys, misery and headaches, and 70 dollar parking tickets!

I ignored the request to be part of the big ears forum.

But people with big ears tend to have big personalities, and my lack of a response didn’t stop one of the faithful members of the forum from emailing me personally.  It seems that my personal experience really turn me into a guru to my big-eared followers, a Gandhi to my peers with Dumbo sized hearing apparatuses.

Hallo, Mr. Kramer,

I am a member of the forum for those with big ears when I came across your blog post.  As a kid with big ears. I got the impression that you were also that kid. I am kind of worried about my ears, they seem to be sticking out too much. The question is, if you were that boy, how did you manage to “fix” your problem. I will be happy to hear your answer!

George

Wow.  I am stumped.  George, if you are reading this — jeez, I’m not sure how to answer this.  All I can say is, when you get older, don’t use that “My ears are so big, so…” because it doesn’t work.

However, women tend to say that their boyfriends and husbands never listen to them.  I have used that to my advantage.  When I meet a women that I’m interested in, I tell her that my bigger ears help me to “hear better.”

And that line DOES seem to work.

So, don’t fix anything.  My advice is to always take an obstacle, and turn it into an asset.  Good luck, George, from my mouth to your enormous ears!

— Neil

Stuff

The hardest part of packing up my in-law’s apartment is “the stuff.”  We always hear that “stuff” — material objects — is meaningless.  Yesterday, on Oprah, there was discussion about women who give up the trappings of the real world to become nuns.  They were happy to trade in their “stuff” for a meaningful relationship with Jesus.

I wish I could tell you that my “stuff” means nothing, but I’m not a nun, or a Buddhist. My “stuff” speaks to me.  They are the props to the stories of my life.  I have saved baseball cards, stamps, matchboxes from my honeymoon, sentimental objects that would have no meaning to you at all, but are more important to me than my $30,000 car.  I realize that the energy of this stuff is really in my head, my memories, and that these objects are inherently meaningless on their own, but life would be a lesser place if we didn’t create myths about our “stuff,” from national flags to Bibles to the old toys in Toy Story.

I made three piles of Vartan and Fanya’s stuff — to throw out, to give to Goodwill, and to take home.  But no one left behind a directory, or a glossary, telling me which object was important.  How is anyone supposed to know the stories behind the “stuff?”  I know  enough from watching Antique Roadshow on PBS to take the crystal vase home, but what about the cheapo Made-in-Japan glass bird sitting on the nightstand?  Was it a gift?  A shared moment between husband and wife?  A impulse buy during a vacation?  Did it have any specific meaning?  Why was it sitting so close to the bed?  Was it the object itself that was special or the image of the bird flying?  Was it an expression of Fanya’s need to escape something or somewhere?  To recapture youth?  Was in Vartan’s love for birds?  A childhood memory of the birds of Russia?

I just don’t know.   I put the bird in the pile for Goodwill.  Perhaps someone new, a young woman perhaps, shopping in Goodwill with her friends, will find meaning in it, buy it, and place it on her nightstand.  It will then be her “stuff.”

I found a lot of photos.    Here’s one of Sophia from when she was in school.  For some reason, it made me chuckle.

I found some of Vartan’s old medical equipment.

By the second day, I was becoming more ruthless in what I was giving away.   I decided that it was better that someone uses the items rather than it sitting in our garage.

I donated most of Vartan’s books.   I kept his copy of War and Peace.  It was a gift from one of his patients.  Sophia told me that doctors in the Soviet Union didn’t make any more money than day laborers, so many took bribes.  Vartan refused to take bribes, but he did accept books as gifts.

Inside the book was this inscription.

Sophia translated it for me.

Dear Doctor Vartan Ambartzumovich,

Thank you for so expertly performing surgery on our beloved mother. We hope that thanks to your light hand, our mom’s life shall be extended. We’re wishing you solid health and much success in your noble daily work.

Igor Matyushin, Sergey Matyushin, Tatyana Matyushina.
City of Odessa. 06.02.1976

Now, this was good “stuff” to take home.

BlogHer ’10

Jesus, I’m popular!  Newbies wanted to meet me at BlogHer.  Bloggers wanted to take their photograph with me, sometimes even asking me to hold their blog mascot on my lap.  I’m on a first name basis with Jenny, the Bloggess.  Even the snooty MamaPop writers came up to me to shake MY hand!  I’m not bragging or anything.  I’m just stating a fact.  Bloggers love me!

After the parties on Saturday night, I wandered the streets of Manhattan by myself until Sunday morning.  More later.

++++

Like everyone else writing BlogHer recaps today, I have a list of my favorite moments.  The speakers at the keynote session.  Showing SweetSalty Kate how to use an American ATM machine.  Watching the dry-witted Marinka throw a party sponsored by a vacuum cleaner.  Talking medications with Aurelia Cotta.  Gossiping with Lizriz.  Telling the Bloggess how much I love… The Redneck Mommy.  Meeting the talented Two Busy at the Sparklecom party.  Hiding my eyes from the cleavage of pure as snow Maggie Dammit in her sexy party dress.  Kind words about my father-in-law from Her Bad Mother.  Seeing Bernthis rock her humor panel.  Resolving issues with Kelly.  Telling Sarah (Slouchy) that I would have dated her in college.  Dinner with Debbie and Gwen.

But I’ll be honest.  I wasn’t truly into the festivities this year.  I never went to the Expo.  I never danced with anyone.  I gave away all my drink tickets.  As much as I tried to avoid it, there was no forgetting that I had just attended a funeral two days earlier.  Last year, in Chicago, it was hilarious to meet Mr. Potato Head walking around the hotel.  This year, it just seemed… depressing.  I think I would have been happier flying to see V-Grrrl and sitting on her patio with her kids.

It was all too much.

BlogHer is well run.  Congratulations to another success.  My only complaint this year involves the logistics.  The organizers tried hard to diminish the chaos of last year by insisting that the private parties be held off-site.  This had the unfortunate side-effect of creating a fractured conference.  There wasn’t a central meeting place (the Hilton lobby didn’t have much of a lounge), and everyone seemed to be running somewhere else.  Rather than the average attendee gossiping about the sessions, I heard more excitement about New York sightseeing and parties and meeting Martha Stewart!  When the host city and the parties become more important to a majority of the attendees than attending the keynote of their peers, you know there is a problem.

++++

Oh, about my night wandering the city.  My decision to attend BlogHer was a last minute one.  On Friday, I stayed at my mother’s place in Queens.  I had a tentative plan for Saturday — if I got drunk, I would sleep on the floor of a blogger friend.  At the last minute, she decided it was a bad idea, seeing that she was married with children (wimp!) and apparently, I am irresistible.

It was 2AM. The parties were over.  I left the Hilton.  As I walked through the revolving doors, I remembered that I left my knapsack — with my house keys — in the coat check room.  I had two problems I needed to overcome.

1)  After midnight, you needed to show a hotel pass to return to the hotel.  And I didn’t have one.

2)  The coat check room was closed.

I sat outside the Hilton waiting for one of beloved Twitter followers to pass by — I’m not sure why or what I would do.  Would I plead for shelter?   BlogHer was officially over, and no one was wearing name tags anymore.  I didn’t recognize anyone.

I thought about calling Schmutzie and Palinode, who I assumed were fast asleep inside the hotel.  I looked at my iphone.  It was dead.  The plug was in my knapsack in the coat check room.

I thought of climbing the outside wall of the Hilton until I reached the window of the “Serenity Suite” on the 32nd Floor, but I left my Spiderman suit at home.

Next idea.  I have a childhood friend who lives in the Upper East Side.  He would have no problem with me showing up at his door, but I could only imagine the angry stares of his wife if I rang the doorbell at 4AM, waking up the baby.  For his sake, I nixed the idea.

The most logical step was to go home to Queens.  Surely, my own mother would answer the door, even at 4AM.  But I didn’t feel like going to Queens.  I would just have to wake up in a few hours and return to pick up my knapsack.

I decided to get a hotel room.  Not at the Hilton, but at the nearby Sheraton.  But would it pay to spend $250 to sleep in a hotel for three hours?  I decided it was a dumb idea.  (and I’m cheap)

At 4AM, I found myself getting hungry.  Across the street from the Hilton is a popular halal food cart selling shish-ka-bobs.  Even at 4AM, the line was snaking around the corner.  Was the food that good?  I decided to try it.  Who were all these people coming for these shish-ka-bobs and where were they coming from?  The crowd was mostly Pakistani, and I talked with these two dark-skinned women from Brooklyn.  I sat around on the edge of a non-working public fountain, eating my food.  After a while, I felt self-conscious, thinking I might look like a homeless guy, out on the street, while the rest of the blogging world was resting comfortably in the luxury rooms of the Hilton directly above my line of sight.

I walked.  And walked.  NYC.  4:30AM.  All the way up to 110th Street and Broadway, to a 24 hour Greek-owned coffee shop I used to go to in college.  I went inside, ordered a cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie. There were others in the coffee shop.  A grad student?  A cop?  I like that New York is a 24-hour city.  With no iPhone to play with, I thought about BlogHer.  Why do I feel so close to some of these people who I see once a year, and talk to for ten minutes?  Do people really like me so much?  Why?  Surely someone hates me.  Why doesn’t anyone ever tell me that they hate me?  What is blogging doing for me?  Should this be my last BlogHer?  Should I be more cliquey?  Do I talk more to women who dress sexier?  Why do I get along with one person better than another?  Would I really shell out thirty bucks to buy this guy’s memoir?  Why did Schmutzie, Kate, Maggie, and Palinode go out for lunch without me?  Should I write a book?  What is the real reason Redneck Mommy didn’t show up this year?  Should I ask X why she unfollowed me on Twitter, or just forget it?

A few days earlier was Vartan’s funeral.  There was only a small turn-out, maybe under twenty mourners.  During the service, one of Vartan’s long-time friends went to the podium.  He made note of the small crowd, and and wanted others to know that this had no bearing on how much he was beloved by his friends.  Many of his close friends and colleagues had already passed on.  He was one of the last of his generation.

“If this funeral was taking place in Odessa twenty-five years ago, there would be a thousand people waiting outside.  Not only all his friends and family, but all of the women he saved (he was an oncology cancer surgeon in Russia).”

Vartan was buried in a quiet ceremony in Los Angeles, next to his wife.

While I was in this coffee shop by Columbia University (the same one they used to go in Seinfeld), I toasted Vartan’s memory with my coffee cup.  He would have liked the cherry pie.

I stayed at the coffee shop until 6AM.  I took a half hour nap on a bench outside.  And then I walked back to the Hilton to say good-bye to my blogging friends.   It was a weird night, but somehow I needed it.  I arrived back at the Hilton Starbucks around 7:30 AM.  When Lisa of the blog “Smacksy” asked me where I slept last night, I lied and said “a friend’s home.”

It was nice being so popular for one weekend.  Thanks for the fun and camaraderie.  Now, I’m back home.  Tomorrow, Sophia and I are going to start clearing out her parents’ apartment.

Vartan’s Passing

I only took a carry-on with me to LAX yesterday because going to BlogHer was a last minute decision.  The health of my father-in-law, Vartan, was still shaky.  He had just started with hospice.   I got my boarding pass from the Virgin America machine and went through security.  I was about to put my shoes back on, post security, when Sophia called me on the phone.  She was crying.  Vartan had passed away.   Sophia, who had dropped me off at the airport no longer than ten minutes ago, returned to pick me up. We drove to her parents’ home.   The hospice nurse came to pronounce Vartan dead.   The nurse was a very caring Filipino who hugged everyone he met.   Soon after, the same sober-looking, deep-voiced guy from the funeral home who came to pick up Sophia’s mother just a month and a half ago, now came for Vartan.

The caregiver, who only knew him a short time, was in tears.

Vartan was an uber-impressive man.  A cancer surgeon in Russia, a chess player, a cook, a cabinet maker; a devoted and patient husband to Fanya.  I bonded with Vartan in ways I didn’t with Fanya — we both had to deal with “dramatic women,” as wives, and we frequently gave each other knowing glances.

The last seven months have been a slow and painful decline for Vartan.  He and Fanya aged 20 years each in less than a year.  It was so very sad to watch.  I’ve seen and done things I would not have expected to encounter just a year ago.  In some ways, I think it is better now that Vartan is in a happier place, with his beloved Fanya.   Today is the funeral.  Vartan and Fanya will be buried in the same plot of land.

Sophia has now lost both parents in a short amount of time. The hospice MD sent Sophia this SMS: Tried to call you.  I’m sorry and my condolences.  God’s peace & comfort w u.  You are truly a wonderful person and one of the most caring I ever met.”

This has been one hard year for Sophia.  If you want her address or email, contact me at neilochka at yahoo dot com or @neilochka on Twitter.