Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: September 2013

Paris Journal – Prologue #2

“Thanks for driving me to the airport,” said Jonathan.

“No problem,” replied his friend, Bobby. “It’s too bad that you’re going on this business trip to Paris alone.  I hear it’s a romantic place.”

“Oh, I’m not going alone.”

“You’re not.”

“Physically, maybe, But mentally, I’m going on a tour bus filled with the women in my life.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, first, there’s my wife.  She’s mad at me because she’s stuck home dealing with Junior’s soccer schedule while I’m going to France.”

“OK, I can see that.”

“There’s also my ex-wife who called me last week, pissed that we never went to Paris during our marriage, and only honeymooned in Napa.  “Maybe things could have been different if I wasn’t so cheap back then,” she said.””

“That’s cold.”

“And then there’s Natalie.”

“You’re girlfriend from the office?”

“Yeah.  She won’t sext with me anymore because I’ve ruined her ultimate fantasy of the two of us walking by the Seine at night, side by side, as the voice of Edith Piaf surrounds us like a warm Givenchy coat.”

“Surely she can understand that this is a business trip.”

“And now there is Ellie.”

“Who’s Ellie?”

“She’s my next door neighbor.  Divorced.   She put a note under my windshield wiper last night saying that if I brought her along to Paris and took her to this five star Michelin-rated restaurant she read about in the New York Times she would give me the best blowjob of my life.”

“That would be an expensive blowjob.  Is she worth it?”

“Uh… probably.   But I’m there for BUSINESS, not pleasure.”

“Damn, this is getting to be one crowded tour bus.”

“There’s more.   At six o’clock this morning, my mother called, reminding me to bring a hat, because she checked the temperature in France online, and it’s suppose to be brisk when I go up the Eiffel Tower.”

“Yeah. Apparently you aren’t going alone.”

“Paris seems to have some sort of meaning for women.   I don’t quite get it.  I’m just excited to go there and see where they chopped off the head of Robespierre.”

“Exactly!   So jealous!”

Paris Journal – Prologue #1

I approach the beginning of this Paris travel journal in a fog of self-doubt. After all, on my Facebook stream today, there are FIVE other online friends visiting Paris right now.  How can I approach MY trip as “special” when international travel is as common today as a bunch of high school kids from New Jersey driving into “the city” to party on a Saturday night.

Is there anything new that I can offer to you, the reader? A fresh vision of an ancient city? Probably not.  My instagram feed will be filled with the usual shots of cute-looking cafes and cliched views of the Eiffel Tower.

Who am I  to write about a city that has already been glorified and praised by countless poets, artists, and philosophers?  I’m a nobody.   This week’s top box office movie, Warner Brother’s Prisoners, grossed $11,270,000.   My blog’s first month profits from the banner ad in my sidebar — $2.16.

But what I lack in self-confident, I gain in self-delusion. Reality holds little sway in my universe.  I don’t need to worry about the Paris of Hemingway, Voltaire, or my online friends already there on holiday.   I can only tell the story that I can see, and in my tale, the city of Paris is already the least interesting character.

Paris will be beautiful, exhausting, fun, frustrating, and disappointing.  But Paris is only a backdrop.   It could just as easily be Boise.   First and foremost, a story needs characters.  That’s what is interesting to me.

And so we begin.   The flight is Friday.   Tomorrow I will start to pack.  The plot — three characters, unlikely travel mates, each hurting emotionally and spiritually, looking for answers, but don’t yet know the questions.

Purses, Knapsacks, and Bags

An old Jewish woman crosses 83rd Street, a brown bag shlumped over her weak shoulder.

A businessman, a grey-haired fox in a tailored suit, carries documents in a black leather briefcase.

A school teacher, frantic in her step, wears her purse cross-body, tightly pulling against her chest.  Unmarried and alone, she wonders if she will ever feel a baby sucking at her breast.

Horns are honking.

“I hate New York,” thinks Mary Ellen Polanksi, a struggling media artist crossing over from the other side of the street, her arm attached to the organic tote bag she purchased in Portland.

A fat man stumbles by, his groceries bouncing in a plastic supermarket bag.  Mary Ellen Polanski gives him a look of disgust, and blames him for the world’s global warming.

A young man with long black hair and no chin, leaves Starbucks, lugging his Timbuk2 laptop bag. He knows his novel will never sell.

An Indian woman, dressed in traditional garb, holds a mustard-colored handbag which contains a packet of gum, a vibrator she used earlier this morning, and a 9mm handgun.

I sit on a bench on 83rd Street with my knapsack at my side, an old friend now ragged from years of use.  Inside is a notebook, a sweater, a letter never sent, a key to a house in New Zealand, a book I’ll never read, and a photo of her.

We all carry our own unique baggage.

 

Who is My Audience?

In July, I received an email from an online editor asking me if she could include one of my NYC Instagram photos in a post about “the best Instagram shots of the month.”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

A few days later, I received another email rescinding the offer. The editor politely explained that the full title of the post was “The Best Instagram Shots of the Month Taken by Parents,” and as a non-parent, I was ineligible.

I suppose you expect me to be outraged.  Nah.  Maybe if this happened a few years ago when I was obsessed about the community of the blogosphere.   But now I’m older and wiser, and I just shrug.  It was nothing personal.   There is no community.   Or more accurately, there are many and many communities.  It is all about each person connecting with an audience.   The editor of this blog, like most network, film, and publishing executives today, understood the importance of reaching a targeted demographic. A parenting blog wants to connect with other parents, in the same way that a Jewish magazine wants Jewish writers to connect with a Jewish audience, or a LGBT website asks a gay novelist to share his experiences with a gay readership.

From the Ladders blog —

The starting point for all communication is becoming aware of the intended audience and approaching them on an appropriate level…

To ensure successful written communication, first think about the people who will read it. By putting yourself in their shoes, you will gain insight into what they want to know and how they want to be addressed. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece has an inscription that cautions each person to “know yourself.” Improving communications encourages people to know thy audience.

Knowing your audience is not an easy task.

Earlier this week,  I wrote on Facebook:

I seem to have an ongoing struggle with my writing voice in relation to the audience. I write for myself, challenging myself to find some inner truth worth discussing, as if I’m in a therapist’s office. I write for a select group of long-time friends like Veronica and Schmutzie, because our entire friendship is based on our blogging, and it feels as if there is an obligation, almost a duty, to continue our online pen-pal relationship by writing. I write for a general audience of bloggers who might discover me through social media. And sometimes I think about writing for a complete outsider, maybe someone influential, like an editor, who will give me money to do something. And I don’t feel any of these audiences are the same, or expect the same voice. I’m not going to talk to myself, Veronica, the general blogosphere, or some editor in New York exactly the same.

But then, today, after much reading and thinking, I wrote another update —

Aha! It’s suddenly so clear. I was so blind. It isn’t about knowing who you are. We all know who we are. It’s about knowing who you’re talking to.

The audience.  You NEED to know your audience.   Or else you’re flailing.

Some of you misinterpreted my update.

From Danny Miller

Yes, but demographics are mostly used to make crazy-ass stupid decisions. “OK, we’ve got to reach 18-24 year-old males, so we’ll make these God-awful shitty movies because that’s what they want.” Sure, being able to “read the room” is a very helpful skill in life, but don’t start changing your message or presentation in any kind of artificial way because of some perceived notion of who your “audience” is. It’ll never work and you’ll end up as clueless as a network executive.

But I think Michele Kosboth said it best, in her comment.

I think you are totally spot on. Knowing who you are talking to makes that feeling of detachment, of talking into the wind go away.

Michele understood that I wasn’t talking about changing myself or my writing style to cater to a demographic.  I was looking for a way to escape the loneliness of “talking into the wind.”  I wanted to know who I was addressing.

Part of creating community is inclusion AND exclusion. We can’t just talk to everyone.   You make the decision to either talk to other writers or established journalists or other celebrities or other parents or other Jews, etc.  I assume that if you are reading this right now that you are an upper-middle class, married, 35-55, (probably a woman), liberal-oriented, and a college graduate who understands insider jokes about Twitter, watches HBO, and has a creative streak.   While I try to connect with as many people as possible, I also exclude 99% of the world population just with that one statement.

Some of you are under 35 or over 70, or a man, or have never watched Breaking Bad, and that’s OK (I haven’t watched it myself), but at least I know that you — most of my imagined readers — ARE watching it.

Why is this important to me?   It all depends on what type of community you want to build.  It’s difficult building an audience that completely revolves around your personal life.    Why should anyone care?   Asking the question, “Who am I?” has never resulted in any concrete answers.   Maybe it is time to ask a different question.  By discovering you, I will be better able to understand myself.

Of course, no one has one audience.   I find that I’m able to connect with a very different audience on Instagram than say, Facebook.  On Instagram I am “artistic product.”  On Facebook I am “personal.”   I know quite a few people who like my photos as creative work on Instagram, but cannot endure my endless kvetching on Facebook about my life.  I have blogging friends who never interact with me on Twitter.   It’s taken me a long time to figure this out.   Each location is a different community with different rules and hierarchies.  You cannot be the same person everywhere.

The typical question I get asked by friends of friends is “What is your blog about?”   An equally tough question, one that I am asking myself right now, is”Who is this blog for?”

French Lesson One

After reading in a tour book that waiters in Paris spit in your food if you don’t know at least a few French phrases, I decided to sit down with my mother and practice the basics of the language together, such as hello, good-bye, please, thank you, etc.    We found a French YouTube video tutorial that taught us the proper protocol when meeting friends in a cafe, even showing us the mandatory French method of kissing of the cheeks.

After we nailed the first lesson, I had an idea for the most gimmicky blog post ever created — what if WE made our own YouTube video teaching French to the other mothers and sons out there visiting Paris together?

The only problem was my mother refused to be in my video.

Neil:  “C’mon, Mom, it will be fun!”

Neil’s Mom:  “No.  If you want to embarrass yourself online, that’s your business.”

Neil:  “Didn’t you once tell me you always want to be an actress?”

Neil’s Mom:  “Yes, but in a Hollywood movie with a young Paul Newman.  Not in some movie you’re shooting with your iPhone.”

That’s cold, right?   Can you see why I have anxiety issues?  But just like I did as an only child growing up with a working mother, I found a way to have fun on my own.

By using a lamp as my co-star.

Two Rosh Hashanah Services

tallis

Over Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I attended two services at two very different synagogues, each with a completely different orientation towards Judaism.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I went to a “secular” Jewish service in lower Manhattan with a congregation that focuses on the social justice tradition of Judaism rather than the religious aspect.  The Torah wasn’t read during the service and the term “God” was used sparingly, and only with quotes around His name.   The prayer book was self-published, and included a mixture of traditional prayers, songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and passages by Nelson Mandela and President Obama.

In the middle of the service, the spiritual leader, an attractive woman with fiery red hair, asked the members of the congregation to share their successes from the past year.  How did they made the world a better place?

One by one, the congregants stood up, telling stories of their commitment to the outside world.  One young man, dressed casually, and sporting a tattoo on his neck, spoke of volunteering at a homeless shelter.  A well-heeled couple said they quit their corporate jobs to start a charity to help sick children in Africa.   An older woman mentioned her work at the Central Park Conservancy, planting trees.  At the end of the service, the congregation left the temple with a concrete message — there are good people out there, role models, who inspire us to do better things with our lives.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I attended a Modern Orthodox temple in the Upper West Side.  The members all seemed to be professionals — doctors, lawyers, and students at Columbia University — individuals comfortable in the modern world, but still attracted to the traditions of the Orthodox world.   A cloth barrier in the middle of the room separated the men and the women, right and left.   Since this was a forward-looking group, there were attempts to modernize the ways of the Orthodox movement.  While the rabbi read from the Torah on the men’s side of the barrier, it was a female spiritual leader who made the traditional Rosh Hashanah sermon from the woman’s side.

The main difference between the secular service and the Modern Orthodox service was that here — God was everywhere.   His name was repeated over and over, his power lauded and praised.  The Jewish New Year was a serious business of repenting and asking for forgiveness for our sins, in preparation for the holiest of the Jewish holidays – Yom Kippur.

One of the central High Holy Day prayers is a recitation of all of the possible sins that happened during the year, from small to large, spoken out loud, simultaneously, as a group. Everyone asks for forgiveness for all the sins, some as serious as murder, even if the individual is not directly responsible, as if the entire community is held accountable for the break in the fabric of society.

Day one, at the secular service:  There is no God.  Each individual aims to become a role model to inspire the others.

Day two, at the Orthodox service:  There is a God.  Until the world is perfect, we are all responsible for the sins of man.  We look within to see our our failings, and share it with the larger community.

Which of these is a better way of viewing the world?  In many ways, it is a question I ask myself every day when I write on my blog.  Do I want to appeal to your aspirations, positioning myself as a teacher or authority figure out to inspire you with my thoughts and good actions (I donated to the Red Cross; you should too!), or do I want to share with you my failings, letting you feel comfortable with your own imperfections (I am fearful; are you?)

Swimming Past the Sharks

up

In case someone reads this post two years from now and doesn’t remember the name Diana Nyad — she is an American endurance swimmer, and today, at age 64, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark tank.

It was Nyad’s fifth try to complete the approximately 110-mile swim. She tried three times in 2011 and 2012. She had also tried in 1978.

Her last attempt was cut short amid boat trouble, storms, unfavorable currents and jellyfish stings that left her face puffy and swollen.

“I am about to swim my last 2 miles in the ocean,” Nyad told her 35-member team from the water, according to her website. “This is a lifelong dream of mine and I’m very very glad to be with you.”

I learned about her success on Facebook. My timeline was filled with supportive responses to her amazing feat.

“Diana Nyad is my hero.”

“This just proves what I tell my children. If you try hard enough, you can succeed in anything.”

“I hope to be like her when I get older — accomplishing greatness in MY sixties!”

++++

“What do you think of the woman who swam from Cuba to Florida?” I asked my mother at lunch.

My mother wasn’t following the story. She was watching a Labor Day Perry Mason marathon on the Hallmark Channel.

“What woman? I haven’t been following it.”

“Her name is Diana Nyad. And she’s sixty four years old!”

“That’s great. Amazing. Was she trying to escape?”

“Escape? Escape from what?”

“Escape from Cuba for asylum? Is that why she was swimming to Florida?”

“No. She wasn’t swimming to escape. She was swimming because she is a long distance swimmer and this was her lifelong dream! She never gave up.”

“Her lifelong dream was to swim from Cuba to Florida?”

“Yes.”

“That’s crazy. Couldn’t she just take a boat?”

++++

3PM, Labor Day

I’m in my bed. Thinking about swimming from Cuba to Florida. There are vibrations going up and down my body, as if a thousand electric toothbrushes are powered up and pressing against my skin at once, shaking my nerves.

There is something about Diana Nyad’s accomplishment — the fact that she never gave up, even for a goal that my own mother saw as rather unnecessary — that has brought me close to a nervous breakdown.

++++

3:30PM, Labor Day

Maybe I was being a little over dramatic before. I’m fine. I can be a bit of a drama queen. Everything’s fine.

++++

4:00PM, Labor Day

I’m sitting at my laptop. I’m feeling better. Not sure what happened before. But let me tell you — during the last couple of weeks, I have been acting very strangely, more so than usual. It’s as if my body is sending my brain a message. Or more likely, the other way around.

++++

4:30PM, Labor Day

In the 1960s, there was a popular therapy technique called “flooding.” It was used on patients with various phobias. A woman scared of elevators, for instance, would be forced into a closed elevator to confront her darkest fears until she would pass out from hypertension, but then, miraculously, from that day on, she would be able to take elevators without a problem. While the method seems primitive and cruel today, it was also quite effective.

During the last two weeks, I have been flooding myself, almost as if I want to fix every leaky valve in my brain before the start of Rosh Hashanah. While none of my personal little goals have been as dramatic as swimming a shark-infested ocean, they have been dangerous to me in that they forced me to swim into the dark waters of myself.

Two weeks ago, I submitted a screenplay that I had been working on for three years.

My thoughts at the time: (Is it any good? What if it isn’t any good? What if he doesn’t like it? What if it was better in that draft from two months ago? Why did I take that friend’s stupid advice of changing the “priest” character when it was way better before? Why am I so weak and compromise so easily?)

Last week, I placed a banner ad in my sidebar of my blog.

My thoughts at the time: (Am I being a hypocrite after everything I’ve ever said against monetization? Is it even worth if for such little money? How will my readers take it? Will they see me as too needy? Did I lose face with myself? Why do I feel nausea when I see the ad on my personal blog? Should I tell everyone to use an ad blocker so they don’t have to see the ad when the read my blog? Why WOULD I tell everyone to use an ad blocker so they don’t see the ad — isn’t that the point?!)

This weekend, while most of my friends enjoyed the last weekend of the summer swimming in lakes or hiking mountains, I stayed home, with an eye on a new prize — putting a few of my instagram photos for sale on my blog as prints.

My thoughts at the time — and now: (How much should I charge? Will I look like I am extorting friends? What if I charge too little and my real photographer friends feel like I am degrading the art of photography? Do I deserve to even make any money on an iphone photo? Who am I fooling? What if someone feels obligated to buy one, and they don’t really want to? What if someone buys one and then in a month they start a Kickstarter campaign for their own project, and I feel obligated to donate to it?)

Today, as a sixty-four year old woman finished achieved greatness in the water, my body, as a reaction to my own thought process over the last two weeks — gave up.

“This is not normal,” I told myself while lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling. “You have anxiety.”

I can hear some of my friends laughing.

“Dude, I could have told you this YEARS ago.”

I hate when people call me “dude.”

Why am I suddenly so obsessed with this idea of “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Why am I pushing myself? What am I trying to push myself to do? Would anyone care about Diana Nyad if she failed again, and decided it was time to give up? Why is she a hero? What did she do? Is she a nice person? What do I need to prove to others? To myself? Do I want to be the second person to swim from Cuba to Florida? Wouldn’t it better to just take a boat?

I exhaust myself.

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