Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: February 2011

The Hole in the Ground

When you are stuck underground for a long time, in the darkness, under the grass and dirt and flowers, not dead but fully alive, all vital signs working except for your sense of reality, your first sighting of a pinhole-sized ray of light coming from a point above will not be a celebratory event.  It will be a message of fear.  Some ONE or some THING is telling you that there is a way out.  But you don’t want a way out.  You wouldn’t be sitting flat on your back in the cold dark dirt if you wanted a way out, right?

But a hole has opened.  And every day, this uneven circle will grow larger, the light will burn stronger and more focused, and the heat of the sun will create thirst and emotion in your still-alive body, forcing you to climb out of the black hole onto firm land and fresh air.  You will have no choice.  Better to do it now.

Once outside, in the slight breeze, you may recognize your surroundings, and you may not.  You have been under the earth for a long time, and your head will be dizzy.  You will not know for how long you were lying in the dirt, watching the ants as they paraded in front of you, like little soldiers.

Don’t move.  Just stand there, next to your hole — and wait.   Someone will pass by, seeing you naked and dirty, your knees bloody and scraped, and offer you some help.  It will be a nice older man, or better yet, a young woman carrying a bucket of well water, and she will offer you a drink.

“Why were you in that hole in the ground?” she will ask you.

“I dunno.” you will answer.

Good.  Be honest.  There is no reason for you to lie or weave dramatic stories.  You are a man who just clawed his way out from inside a hole in the the ground.  Why bother with tall tales?

“It must have been very uncomfortable and painful to be stuck in there,” she will whisper sympathetically, pouring the water into your cupped hands.

At that moment, you will feel the pain.  Her mere mention of the anguish will unleash the burning knife in your spine, your head, and your heart. Language has that terrible effect.  The agony will be acute because this is the first time you have felt that long-forgotten pain, the shivering that caused you to bury yourself in that hole in the ground on that fateful day.

What happened on that day?  Why did you hide yourself away from the goodness of Life?  You will not remember, but now you have returned.  You are standing on your own feet, upright.   That is a start.  It is time to live with the pain.

Drink the healing well water and then, using the bucket, wash yourself clean.

The One Essential Writing Question

There are so many blogging and writing conferences nowadays, that it is getting a little crazy.  And what good are they?  They take us away from our families and cost too much money.  Wouldn’t it be nice if one of us would just whittle down all our concerns about writing into one succinct question — a single query that explains it all.

I have done that for you.

Here is it  –the ONE essential question about personal writing that you must ask yourself, and once answered, will save you time, energy, stress, and gray hair, as well as bring you to incredibly success and fulfillment —

“How do I continue to be honest and open about my life, exposing my weaknesses, neuroses, fears, and failures, expressing my battered mind, broken heart, and timid soul with authentic words and emotions during the day, and still convince others that I am normal enough to have sex with at night?”

Happy Birthday, Sophia!

One of the guilty pleasures of TV watching when I was with Sophia, besides All My Children, The Bachelor, and Professional Figure Skating, was “Poker After Dark,” a nightly show of high stakes No Limit Texas Hold ’em mini-tournaments, featuring a rotating cast of six top poker professionals.  While neither Sophia or I could name a single player on the Los Angeles Dodgers, we could easy chat about the playing styles of Gus Hansen or Phil “The Brat” Hellmuth at the breakfast table.  We didn’t actually play much poker, other than “Heads-Up” against each other, and I would usually win.   Sophia, always on the lookout for a new money-making scheme, had this idea that I would make a great professional poker player.

“You’re patient and you can keep a straight face.”

While this doesn’t make a good poker player, these qualities put me at an advantage over Sophia in our “Heads-Up” games.   She found it difficult to sit for long stretches of time, and her facial expressions and gestures were way too emotional.  When she would get a good hand, she could hardly contain herself.  When she was bluffing, I just KNEW IT.

++++

Our splitting up, with she in LA and me currently in NY, has been good for us, but it has been lonely, too.  After so many years of having someone sleeping next you, being alone feels like driving a truck with only three wheels.

I have used the internet to connect with others, for better or for worse.  I tried to convince Sophia that she can get the same thrill from “social media.”

I remember the first day that Sophia joined Twitter.  I made a big joke about it, saying that my online life was “now ruined.”  Many online friends quickly “followed” her, thinking it would be fun to see us both chatting online together.    Sophia was on Twitter for about… two days.

“How come I never see you on Twitter?” I asked.

“What do you DO there?”

“You talk to people.”

“About what?”

“About anything.”

“Seems like a waste of time.”

“Because it takes a while.  You build up friendships.”

“Eh.  Boring.  I’d rather go out.”

Sophia and social media — bad match.  But she did find a new hobby — Texas Hold ‘Em.    Or rather she started playing what she used to only watch on TV.

She discovered some weekly game on Meetup.com, and started attending the beginners’ games in Los Angeles.  Gradually, she started winning the weekly games, and joined another group as well.  In the last couple of weeks she won $700.   Her secret weapon — she has balls.  She is not afraid to “go all in” with a pair of deuces.   One semi-professional player got angry at her for pushing him out of the tournament with such a “sh*tty hand.”

So far, Sophia’s playing is more for fun than “gambling.”   And she has met some new friends.

Today is Sophia’s birthday.  She is travelling to Las Vegas with two women she plays poker with, to have fun and play in some poker tournaments.  It is her birthday gift to herself. Good luck!

The last year has not been a good one for Sophia.  She lost both of her parents in 2010.  In poker terms, she was handed a very bad hand last year, and no amount of bluffing could change that.

As you enter this new year, I wish you only aces!

UPDATE SATURDAY:  Sophia took down a tournament at Caesars and won $1000!

Memoirs

There was a recent outcry amongst writers online in reaction to an article in the New York Times Book Review by Neil Genzlinger, which savaged the art of the memoir.

The piece started with fighting words —

“A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.  There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

Now, I’m not immune to a good memoir-writing joke.  It seems as if every other blogger I know has the dream of expanding their story of getting beaten up by Joey McCallister in third grade as a book proposal.  But, in reality, my views on the importance of memoirs is quite different than those of Mr. Genzlinger’s.

I love the personal.  And I think it is the personal that ends up being passed down from generation to generation.  It is the personal that touches us and has the most impact.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about how he uses social media.  He was trained as a journalist, and while not as extreme as Mr. Genzlinger, is not a fan of the incessant personal chatter on blogs and Twitter where women write about their “cats.”   In his eyes, the personal is junk food.  Discussion of news and politics is the real meal.

I disagree with him.   I follow a lot of “media” people on Twitter, and while I love their opinions on current events, I see THEM as the “fast food” — tasty at first, but with no lasting nutritional value.”

Consider the recent revolution in Egypt.  For several days, my Twitter stream was filled with tweets talking about the students and the activists.   It was a historic event.  But like most news stories, it played more like entertainment for us.  Once Mubarak resigned, we all moved on to talking about the Grammy Awards.

Have you noticed that every day there seems to be a new “trend” on Twitter.  I think, for many of us, myself included, we feel obligated to mention, or at least understand these trends, so as to seem as if we aren’t asleep at the wheel, or irrelevant in our media-obsessed society.

How many of you immediately Googled “Mumford and Sons” during the Grammy Awards, just so you didn’t feel like your pop musical history peaked with Duran Duran?

Most of these news and pop culture references are not very important.  It isn’t that the events aren’t important in themselves, but our mention of them is for our own purposes, not for the sake of history.  We are sending the message to the others that we are not stupid and went to college.  We are reminding the others that we have an opinion on what is going on in Egypt and who won the Grammy Awards, so you don’t have to worry about inviting us to a cocktail party and embarrassing you in front of your friends.  After we get that across, the topic is not relevant anymore, so the subject is quickly dropped.  Very few people are talking about the uprisings in Bahrain or Iran… or even Egypt anymore!   Of course, we WILL do that when it starts trending again.

Perhaps this post is not about social media, politics, or even writing.  Maybe it is about getting older, and memory.

The older you get, the more historic events and personalities you can remember, so you begin to notice the repetive nature of the news cycle.  Justin Bieber is the David Cassidy is the Bobby Darren of the previous generation.  Remember that Billy Joel song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” where he spits out one historic event after another, important events that are hardly remembered by the next generation.  Of course Watergate and the Cuban Missile Crisis and Monica Lewinsky were big events of that time, something we all talked about, but do we remember any of those conversations?  Can you remember any of the tweets with the #Egypt hashtag from last week?  Most of the tweets were re-tweets or recaps of Breaking News from TV.  We write about these events for the same personal reasons we write about our lunch — we want to put our stamp on the event, to say “we were there,” even if we are home sitting in our living rooms in Ohio.

While political tweets are deemed important, most are forgotten the next day.  Because it is just talk.  But I remember writing of a personal nature.  Because that was lived.  When I meet a blogger in person, I can quote her post about her mother dying, or when she lost a child.  Or the funny story when she finally cleaned the kitchen!  I relate to those stories.   Those moments are so universal, and so specific to the individual, that the imagery becomes the most lasting.  We can get more from reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” than a Pulitzer-Prize winning history of Nazi Germany.  This is how our brains work.

Perhaps this is why a critic like Neil Genzlinger seems so scared of personal memoirs.  He is a trained writer with a job talking about important “stuff.”   Maybe the memoir is considered too feminine, in a patriarchal world, where a person’s importance is tied to their impact on history.  What does a SAHM have to offer the world in a memoir?

Actually, a lot.

In the year 2211, the next generation is going to care more about how the typical person lived their daily life, and how it reflected on the times, than on anyone’s opinion of the long-forgotten news story of the day.

Your Fashion Questions Answered

Have you ever noticed that whenever there is fashion advice given in a woman’s magazine, it is always written by… a woman?  I find this discriminatory, as if 50% of the population had no opinion on the matter.

In honor of New York Fashion Week, I asked YOU, some of my female readers, to ask me — a straight male — some of your pressing fashion questions.


Your Fashion Expert

Question: Are there any cute alternatives to skinny jeans this season? — Mary C, Phoenix, Arizona

I wouldn’t wear skinny jeans because I’m not THAT skinny anymore, considering my love for bagels and pizza, so why would I ask you to wear pants that squeezes your ass together like a tight package of kosher salami?  I’m not cruel.  Women should just wear more short skirts to show off their legs.

Question: What the heck should I wear on a first date with a nice guy from the office? – Beth M, New Rochelle, New York

Show cleavage.  Or wear a tight sweater.  While I do not recommend skinny jeans or tight pants because I believe in a woman’s comfort from the waist down, I make an exception for the tight sweater in the upper half of the body.  Buy a good bra.  And comb your hair.  If you have long hair, it is always good to have some of it drape onto your shoulder, seductively, like Lana Turner did in that old black and white movie, the name of which I don’t remember, but is always playing on Turner Classic Movies at three in the morning.  Also, if you are going sleeveless, have a little bit of bra strap showing as a tease.  But not TOO much.  Don’t have your boobs hanging out if he is such a nice guy.  He will be intimidated.

Question: I need a new going-out bag, on the cheap.  Help! — Latrissa W, Miami, Florida

Seriously.  No one cares ONE IOTA what type of bag you carry.   No one even notices it.  Why should anyone care what type of bag you carry, unless we know that there is a kinky sex toy inside, or a lot of cash and you’re paying for our dinner, or a stash of cocaine in the side pocket, which means you are either a drug dealer, which is a little exciting and dangerous, but ultimately scary and off-putting, or a drug user, and we know that type of relationship never ends well.  So, my recommendation is to just pick up any cheapo bag at Target or from an illegal street vendor, and stop wasting your time worrying over useless stuff like your BAG.  Or, for that matter, your nails.  No man has ever said, “Check out her newly-colored nails!”  Instead, spend time thinking about how you are going to show  a little bit of your bra strap on the shoulder.  That’s way more important, in a fashion sense.

Hope that helped.  Keep on sending those questions, so I can serve up some more closet advice!  Ciao!

Note:  I am currently available for writing assignments at Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines.

Not Self-Esteem, But Arrogance

I’m the last person in the world to be giving anyone any self-help advice, and I don’t trust those who usually do in blog posts, but I’ve been feeling braver and confident in certain aspects of my life lately, which is surprising even me, and I think a large part of this is because I had one of those “a-ha!” moments recently that spur you on to change. I have no idea whether this paradigm shift in my head is real or delusional, but I thought I would share it with you and see if anyone can relate or add anything to it.

For the longest time, I have been operating under the assumption that I have low self-esteem. I’m not sure where it came from, probably my father, but it made sense to me. When I looked at those around me, I considered them “more important” than myself. If I was walking into my apartment building in Queens and saw someone carrying a few bundles, and he turned to me and asked, “Could you help me a second?” I would answer, “Sure.” That is being considerate.

But if I was struggling with packages, I would not ask some stranger, or even a neighbor, for help. While this seems like a minor reaction, the same attitude would exist if I was asking for a promotion from a boss or a dance from an attractive woman at a friend’s wedding. I don’t like “asking” others for anything because I am under the assumption that I am too weak to handle the rejection. Low self-esteem. I would be crushed. Others are more important than little ol’ me. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy. By constantly seeing myself as “smaller” than the next guy, my self-esteem weakened to the point where I didn’t want to bother a waiter to refill my coffee cup in a diner.

“I’m sure he is busy with other customers,” I might think. “He’ll get around to it eventually. I can be patient.”

I’ve thought about this self-esteem issue for a while, and I can never seem to get a handle on it. It slides through my fingers like sand. I understand my self-diagnosis intellectually, but I don’t feel it in my gut. After all, I don’t walk around seeing myself as a lesser person. Not at all. It’s not how I perceive myself, even when I don’t ask the neighbor for help or the boss for a promotion. If anything, at the moment of indecision, I probably see myself as BETTER than they are — more noble and considerate, as if niceness was a badge of honor.

And this was the a-ha moment. What is holding me back is not lack of self-esteem, seeing myself as smaller than others, but ARROGANCE, viewing myself as morally superior and kinder than the rest of humanity.

Why don’t I ask the guy to open the apartment door for me? Because I am acting under the assumption that this guy is, at heart, a self-absorbed twit who will say no. The boss is not going to give me the promotion because he is an incompetent businessman waiting to give the promotion to his nephew. The woman at the wedding won’t want to dance with me because she just wants a one-night stand with the drunken married guy at the next table.

What a horrible way to view other people!

Now, before you dispute my theory, let me say that I understand that this is about issues of self-esteem. I’m just saying that constantly thinking of myself as having low self esteem is counter-productive. What if I viewed it the other way, where I AM THE ASSHOLE?

In this new scenario, the neighbor, the waiter, the boss, and the woman at the wedding are all lovely, wonderful people. They want to help me, give me a promotion, and dance with me. Why wouldn’t they? They are nice people. Why assume that these individuals are lesser than I am, wanting to reject me for their evil pleasure? Why do I see myself as super nice and others as complete idiots? I’m the IDIOT.

Why wouldn’t the guy hold the door for me? Why wouldn’t the woman dance with me? And they wouldn’t be doing it FOR ME. They would be doing it for themselves. I know I get a kick when I hold the door open for someone. Why not give someone else the opportunity to feel good?

Because I’ve been a arrogant jerk more interesting in feeling morally superior than dealing with real people. I WANT you to say no, so then I can say to myself, “I wouldn’t say no. Look how much better I am than those people!”

That’s been the problem all along.

Please hold the door for me as you leave. Thank you.

That’s My Brand

I have this running dialogue going on with Bon of “Crib Chronicles,” who besides being a wonderful writer, is doing post-graduate work on digital identity and cyborgology (!), which are fancy words for investigating social media in more academic terms.  I like to argue with her because she writes a lot about “branding,” even though she herself admits that she doesn’t like the word.

In the past, Bon has tried to explain branding like this —

branding is what is read on to you, how you are perceived, what you signify in the eyes of everybody else. it is not you, but a version of you. it is an act, and a group act, one that does not exist without a network of some sort to reflect and amplify it. it is ephemeral, a wisp on the wind. it is not about content or truth. it is about image and perceived capacity.

(own it, cribchronicles.com, June 8th, 2010)

This is interesting, but to me the concept of branding is over-hyped.  It is like reading a novel and focusing on the color of the character’s hat.  When I write a story, I worry less about the perception of others than the character’s interior life.  What is he thinking?  Why is he acting that way?  I am talking about that old-fashioned actor’s mantra of “motivation.”

I realize that I brand myself online all the time.  Some love me.  Others have unfollowed me a long time ago.  My blogging “success” or “failure” may be related to this “brand,” but who cares?  None of this is getting to the heart of who I am.  What makes me tick?  What is my motivation? That’s the interesting stuff.  I never take any of your “brands” at face value.

I like to analyze my motivations, just like I would with a character in a book.  It is a good exercise, and sometimes you can obtain surprising answers.

For example, tonight I am thinking about my last post.  Have you read it?  In it, I suggested this one day writing retreat on the day before BlogHer.

What the hell was I thinking about?  Why do I even suggest this?

Right off the back, you’ll notice that I said this “retreat” would be free.  Talk about a terrible business concept!  Clearly, this is not being done for the money.

OK, then maybe I am hungry for power or attention, molding this retreat in my own image, in an attempt to brand myself as a writing guru?

I don’t think so.  Dealing with bloggers is a pain in the ass.  I have no interests in running retreats.  I have had enough experience with you cranky people just putting on that holiday concert every year.  There’s very little glory in it.

I guess I could use this as a building blog, starting small, and then slowly making myself less available to the mob as I monetize my access to “the weak ties,” as discussed by Julian Smith, co-author with Chris Brogan’s of “Trust Agents:  Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust.”

I wish I could tell you that was true.  I’d like to have such a clear-headed business mind.  My motivation is honestly so lame that I guarantee you that I will get trolls on this post because of it.

I didn’t like BlogHer last year.  It was too crowded and everyone was running all over the place.  I only got to speak to some of my favorite people for five minutes before they sped off again to some private party.  I’m not even sure I want to go to San Diego this year, but if I do go, I’ll ONLY do it if a few bloggers that I know come a day earlier, so I can have some quality time with them, talking about writing and blogging.

That was my motivation for the retreat idea.  I was too shy to ask others for what I really wanted in person.  Instead, I constructed an entire “retreat” as an excuse to get someone like my friend Schmutzie to arrive in San Diego a day early.

That’s my brand.

A Mini Writing and Blogging Retreat Idea Before BlogHer

This is an idea for a mini writing and blogging retreat that I had yesterday, and I think it could work on the day before BlogHer, since so many bloggers are converging on San Diego anyway.    This is just an idea.   It is not happening… as of yet.   But like everything else, I like to float ideas to see what others think.  The aim here is not to make money or sell anything, but to come up with an idea to make these yearly conferences more constructive creatively.

The mini-writing/blogging “retreat” in San Diego would take place on Thursday, August 4, 2011 — the day before BlogHer officially begins.  It would meet at a cheaper San Diego hotel, like a Hampton Inn, to make it reasonable for the participants to stay on Wednesday night, if they so choose.

There would be NO COST for this retreat — yes, NO COST — other than your hotel room if you need one.  This is a completely grassroots event.  It is up to the participants who choose to do it to make it work.  My role is to create a few groundrules, make sure the groups are on schedule, and then be a participant myself.   The hotel itself would hardly be involved.

Participants would come to the Hampton Inn, for example, on Wednesday night, August 3rd, or just show up on Thursday morning, August 4th at 9AM.  The event would run from 9AM to 5PM, giving you enough time to change for the People’s Party at the San Diego Marriot, the traditional beginning of BlogHer.

The mini-retreat would offer people an opportunity for some real brainstorming and workshopping of whatever project they were dreaming about BEFORE the chaos of the big conference.  This would be a full day — 8 hours — of workshopping your ideas, writing it out, and presenting it to the others.

Here’s how it would work —

Make believe 50 people sign up for the mini-retreat. I would create TEN groups of FIVE people each.  One in each group will be considered the MODERATOR.  The moderator is a participant as well, with no special credentials or awards. Her only role is to make sure everyone gets an equal chance to talk about their project.

I will choose all the moderators and create all the groups in order to avoid conflict.

Each group meets from 9AM to 5PM.  You decide where you want to meet, whether in a hotel room, the hotel lounge, an adjacent Starbucks, or a combination of them all.

Everyone must commit to a full day at the mini-retreat, because the others are depending on you.  You will be working all day, pitching a website, a book, or a blog re-branding — a project that you have been struggling with on your own.  The others will help guide you, giving feedback and honest critiques.

The moderator’s main responsibility is to keep things organized.  In the afternoon, everyone will write up a short outline based on the suggestions of the others, and later on, discuss it with the other members of the group.  Since there is no salary for the moderator, you can thank her by chipping in for her lunch.

If, by chance, your group sucks and it falls apart, or if there are other issues, such as hurt feelings over a critique, and there WILL be, tough luck.  We’re all adults, and you can handle it on your own.  You didn’t pay for the retreat other than a one night hotel room, and besides, you were coming to San Diego anyway, so you didn’t lose much.

I think it can work.

Anyone see any holes in this scenario?  Does it seem realistic or worthwhile?

“Make Your Own Super Bowl Commercial” Day

One Week

I’m going to take another week off from blogging next week, in order to nurture some friendships both offline and online, and to do some work on another project.  There’s also something about the endless crowds of people online that has made me feel lately… lonely, maybe less of a physical loneliness than a spiritual one.  That’s a little embarrassing to admit, because I know it sounds a bit loserville, but I don’t really see it that way.  It’s just life and circumstances.  I’m working on it.  I need to connect to the world again — and this is not the first time I have done this in the last year — and have more one to one conversations.  I’ll be a better writer for it.

Do you feel that you’ve made real friends online, or merely acquaintances?  I bet those who go to a lot of conferences will be much more connected, not because of the sessions, but because of the eating lunch at the same table.  I’m especially grateful for V-Grrrl, who I know I can call anytime of the day.  She alone has made almost six years of blogging worthwhile.   I wish I could be one of those bloggers that say that the reason I blog is “just to showcase my writing.”  It would make me feel more self-sufficient, like you are a mere audience for my wisdom, so go put up my blog badge on your sidebar.  Because then I would be lying.  My connections have always been my monetization.

See you in another week.