Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: identity

Identity

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal yesteday about Csanad Szegedi, a Hungarian politican with the extreme far-right Jobbik party, and known for his hate speech, who was forced to resign from his party position when it was discovered that his grandmother was Jewish.

Mr. Szegedi said his grandparents, who both survived Nazi terror in World War II, had chosen to remain silent about their Jewish heritage and he had only found out about his family’s religious background in December 2011.

Szegedi came to prominence as a founding member of the anti-Semitic Hungarian Guard, an organization that wore black uniforms similar to the Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi party which governed Hungary at the end of World War II and killed thousands of Jews.

Now, Szegedi is apologetic about his former anti-Semitism.

“Had I made any comments in the past years that offended the Jewish community, I ask for forgiveness,” Mr. Szegedi told Rabbi Slomo Koves, according to Nepszabadsag. “Now that I have been faced with my Jewish roots, that I do not regret at all, keeping in touch with the leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community has become especially important for me,” he said.

A few commenters viewed this news story as a postitive story of a man’s redemption and change. I find the story depressing.

Does understanding and compassion only come into play when our own identity is directly involved? Wouldn’t Szegedi have remained an anti-Semite if the information about his grandmother didn’t go public?  This incident begs the question, does our identity come from someplace within, or is it forced on us from the outside, by our heritage and birth?

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(note:  the following section has 0% truth quotient)  —

A few months ago, I had lunch with my mother.

“I have something serious to discuss with you,” she said. “Do you remember your Grandma Ida?”

“Of course I do,” I said, even though she passed away when I was young.  I have fond memories of this gentle woman’s  love for “prune compote” and the way her apartment always smelled like home-made Gefilte fish.”

“Well, Grandma Ida wasn’t Jewish. She was a Navajo Indian.”

“A Navajo Indian? That’s crazy. She had a completely Eastern European accent!”

“Oh, she was just faking it to fit in with the rest of her friends in the Bronx. She was born on a reservation in New Mexico.”

I was shocked, and intrigued by this news. If my grandmother was Navajo, that made me part Navajo. And I knew absolutely nothing about my heritage.

I went to the New York Public Library to begin my journey into my new heritage. I read about my history, my food, my storytelling. I took a trip to Colorado in order to experience my land. I learned to fish and hunt, and to make beautiful traditional jewelry and clay pottery.

Yesterday, I was having breakfast. I was wearing a breechcloths made of woven yucca fiber, moccassins, and a cloak of rabbit fur, my latest attempt to embrace my identity.

“I have something serious to discuss with you,” said my mother.

“What now?” I asked.

“I wasn’t wearing my glasses on that day I read Grandma Ida’s birth certificate. She wasn’t a Navajo Indian. She was a Nairobian Tribeswoman.”

I was shocked, and intrigued. I alway wanted to be black.

“Screw the Navajos,” I yelled, as tossed my itchy rabbit fur cloak onto the floor. After breakfast, I went to the New York Public Library to research my new heritage.

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Who are we? Do our identities come from within or without? And do we get trapped in our identities, receiving our cues on behavior from the groups we join, or from those in which we are excluded?

I am a straight man.  How much of my behavior is part of my DNA and how much is it cultural?

I am an American. Yay, America. Why was I rooting for America during the Olympics? Do I really care that we received more medals than China?

I am Jewish. What does that mean? I know plenty of Hindus who like bagels.

I feel it necessary to be part of something. To associate with others.   A community.   The city I live in.   Other writers.   People who like coffee.   It helps me create my own identity.

We talk about fluidity in identity, within gender.  We want each generation to have less restriction than the one before, less trapped in their gender roles.

But how far do we want to go?  We applaud little girls who throw away their Barbies and playing with trucks, but how many parents are overjoyed when their young son expresses an interest in wearing mommy’s dress?

At the London Olympics opening ceremony, viewers cried when a youth choir sang a touching rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

But in reality, do we honestly wish for this type of faceless society where there are no countries or religions?  I think we prefer many of the restrictions and rules that separation and division creates.   We want differences in men and women.   We want differences in  countries and cultures.   How would we know who we are without these differences? Twitter rankings, perhaps? Blogging niches?

I’m actually surprised that the blogging world has become so niche-oriented.   If anything, the internet could have been the world that John Lennon visualized.   The potential was there — a world where your religion and country didn’t matter.   Friendships were based on one thing alone — the quality of your cat photos!  The internet was created to be the great equalizer.  But I think we like to retreat to those who are most like ourselves.

It’s taken me several years to feel comfortable with my identity online, simply because I am not a parent, and 98% of my online friends are parentbloggers.   Every time I read a post on a parenting blog, I feel a bit as if I am an outsider, like a Jew taking at a Catholic Mass. I might find the sermon fascinating, but I’m never quite sure if the others want me to stay for coffee and cake.

Of course, parentbloggers have the opposite problem.  Their identity online is defined by their parenting.   What do they do when their kids grow up?  What do they write about?  Do they have an identity — a brand online — outside of the parenting fold?

It is all about Identity.

Are we defined by our jobs?  Our POV?  Our marital status?  Our parenting status?  What we say?   What we do? And what if our perception of self are different than how others see us?  Should we always reveal our true identity, or is it better to create a branded version of it?  And what if we start to believe our own false identity?

Identity is also political.  The outing of the Hungarian politician was based on politics.  The Republican effort to name President Obama as a Muslim during the last campaign was purely political.

In America, sexual orientation is frequently a political statement. When someone “comes out,” the person is announcing that he is not fearful of his true “identity.”   But do we have the right to force people to be authentic in their identity?  Would you go on Twitter and write “Sally Jones said in her last post she lives in Dayton, but I know she really lives in Cleveland!”  Would you confront someone who has “fake Twitter followers?”

Recently, the actress Rashida Jones had to go on Twitter to apologize for an interview in which she discussed John Travolta.

She said: “Like John Travolta? Come out! Come on. How many masseurs have to come forward? Let’s do this.”

She later said it was John Travolta’s personal life was none of her business.

We will always struggle with our concept of identity.  Yes, it is personal, but it is also public.  Think about how much data about ourselves we put out into the world.   Why does the government need to know our marital status or age?    And do these pieces of data define us?  I know they define us according to marketers.  I was completely invisible when I walked through the Expo at BlogHer, because I was not part of the demographic that the advertisers were looking for at a woman’s conference.   But should we allow marketers — or pundits — determine how we view ourselves or live our lives?  Who says a “real mom” has to breastfeed has a child, or a mature woman can’t wear a mini-skirt, or a man can’t take up knitting?  Can we create our own identities?

We will join groups and leave groups, looking to find ourselves.  John Lennon’s world will never exits.   We like our differences too much.  The best we can do is create a world where no one is afraid of differences, or their expression of them.  We should hope for a world where the differences are inclusive, not exclusive; where our identities can be fluid, without pressure from those outside or inside our community.

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Yesterday, I changed my Facebook relationship status to “single.” I was slightly embarrassed by this, berating myself for my obsessive need to over share. But t occurred to me that my motivation was not simply oversharing, or need for attention.  It’s not like I haven’t written about my marriage, separation, and divorce.  No, I felt the compulsion to press the button and see words “single” written in print. Not “divorced,” but “single,” as if it was time to embrace the reality, and see myself — identify with — my new status.   My identity.

Three Attempts at Writing the About Page

I’ve been blogging since 2005 without an “about page.” I was advised by a close friend that I NEED ONE before BlogHer.

“It is even more important that having pretty business cards and comfortable shoes,” she said.

I’m terrible at writing about myself.

My right brain tells me that “I am superior to most of humanity.”

My left brain says, “You’re the same as everyone else.  No better, no worse… OK, probably worse.”

My solution to this dilemma — get someone else to write my “about page.”   I know that I could hire someone to do it, but yes, I’m too cheap.   Instead, I asked a family member and two close friends to write it for me.

Which “about page” would best entice new readers to come to this blog, or interest corporate sponsorship?

1)

Neil Kramer
About Page
(written by Neil’s mother)

Neil was a frequent “citizen of the month” throughout grade school. He continues that fine tradition today by always helping the elderly across the street and rarely using filthy language in public discourse.  He believes in diversity,  liberal ideology, and he befriends all, no matter what the race, religion, or class.  He respects women.  He loves his mother. He’s a real mensch.  If you are on Twitter, you should follow him.  If you are a big company which offers good medical insurance, you should hire him.  If you a nice girl, you should date him.  Jewish preferred.  He is a good writer.  I still have the robot story he wrote in eight grade!

2)

Neil Kramer
About Page
(written by Rhonda, VP, Anderson Public Relations, Santa Monica)

Neil is a brilliant writer and iphoneographer. He went to TWO prestigious and very expensive private universities and has worked at some pretty cool media-oriented companies that will make you go, “Whoa, he is someone worth knowing on Twitter”  He has written for television, and frequently jets back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, like a bigshot.  He is the blogosphere’s equivalent of Mr. Big.  His world-famous blog is immensely popular, and is visited by some of the most influential people online.  At BlogHer 2011, The Pioneer Woman came up and said hello TO HIM, not the other way around, and he then told her, “I’ve never read your blog.  What’s the link?” Now that’s cool!  What confidence!   Neil is six feet tall, still has his hair, and was once told by someone online that he gives “the best sext on Gtalk EVER.”

3)

Neil Kramer
About Page
(written by Jennifer, PhD Candidate, Feminist Theory and Media Studies, McGill University)

Neil is a heterosexual white male who owes all of his accomplishments to his excessive privilege, the only true hardship he ever encountered being his barbaric circumcision. As an only child, his parents pampered him and paid for his education, his sole financial contribution during college being a work/study job as a stockboy at the university library, where he goofed off in the stacks and read political science books, taking the position away from marginalized students of color who truly needed it. Most of his future jobs were attained either through nepotism or connections within the “old-boy” power structure.  Blind to his own sexism and racism, his frequent use of the obsessive “male gaze” in his iphoneography adds fuel to our society’s repression and violence towards women.  Despite his frequent calls for diversity in the blogosphere, his blogroll does not contain a single link to a transgender writer, nor has he ever dated one.  Neil’s yearly presence at a conference geared for the advancement of women signals a continued need for male domination and female subordination in the cultural realm of creativity and intellectualism.  He has been heard, more than once, arrogantly calling American’s Native Americans as “Indians.”

My Own Worst Character

Is there any worse feeling online than being dropped from someone’s blogroll, unfriended on Facebook, or unfollowed on Twitter, and you have no idea why this has occurred and you are not sure if you said something wrong, or if you are now officially “dead to this person,” and you don’t know if it is proper etiquette to ask the person why or just leave it alone?

I sometimes get unfollowed on Twitter for saying something stupid about mommybloggers or the “hotness” of a woman’s avatar.  I know this information now because I downloaded this iphone app called “Birdbrain,” which alerts me when I am unfollowed.  It is a mean-spirited and relentlessly annoying iphone app.  Opening this app each day is akin to dragging yourself through the city square in 18th Century Paris for a beheading.

Since I am a humorous type of guy, I wrote this comment on Twitter today, “The next person who unfollows me, will get a stern phone call… from my mother!”

I received this witty response from another blogger, “I’m almost tempted to unfollow you today just so I can chat with your mother.  Your mother is so sassy!”

This reply gave me pause.  This woman on Twitter was being nice and complimenting me on my mother but how does she know — or even assume — that my mother is SASSY?

Of course, the answer is that I have portrayed my mother as sassy in my blog and tweets.  This made me angry at myself, and my own failure as a writer.  After so many posts about my mother, is this what my artistry has produced? — that she is sassy?  Have I used my mother to create a character from “The Golden Girls?”   The insides of my stomach tightened and I had to turn off my laptop.   I was upset not because I might have characterized her incorrectly, but because I can do better.

It is so easy to forget the power of our words.  My writing may not have the ability to bring the Maytag Company to her knees, like Dooce’s, but I have the ability to create images in your mind about others  Is my mother sassy?  Well, maybe to YOU she might be, particularly if you have a prim and proper matriarch as a Mom, but that is not the first word that would come out of my mouth in describing her.  I see “sassy” as closer to Esther Rolle in Good Times.

Is there anything more difficult than capturing the personality of someone close to you — in words?  When it is a fictional characters, cliches can often be enough.  But your own mother?   She is sassy.  She is shy.  She is efficient.  She is an  unorganized mess.  She is too complicated to make into a clear-cut fictional character.  I can only give you a “taste” of her.

I have done an equally poor job in conveying the personality of Sophia.   Probably my least developed online character is “myself.”   The job of the writer is to focus on the narrative and delete unessential elements  in order to tell a story.  I am  envious of all those who are writing memoirs about their lives, and are able to focus on a specific chapter of their life — overcoming a divorce, raising a child, or a road trip across the country.   I get so lost in my own head, that I am not even sure how to describe my true character.  I can be funny, and serious.  I am neurotic, and confident. How am I supposed to tell you who I am, when I am full  of contradictions to myself?

My biggest frustration with online life is the way it is both so extremely intimate, and at the same time, superficial in how we present ourselves, and interact with each other.

I met quite a few bloggers at BlogHer.  Most bloggers were exactly as I pictured them from reading their blog.  Others were different, as if the blog persona was in the deep recesses of the brain and only came out during the writing, like a Devil taking over the body.  Some never said a word to me, and I didn’t speak to them.  Most clearly emphasized only one element of their persona online — their parenting or their business side — and it was difficult to understand the real person behind the monitor.

However you view me, or my mother, or anyone I write about, you would be completely right.  And wrong.  And that is a frustrating thought.    In the future, I am going to try harder to capture my real world and my own character on paper.   Or is it ultimately impossible to bring the reality — in all its three-dimensional glory — into words?

Searching for My Identity in a Queens McDonald’s

I’ve written about my local Queens McDonald’s before.  It is across the street from my mother’s apartment building.   It is also the worst run McDonald’s in the country.  The managers are so chintzy here that you have to ask for napkins.  They have removed all the napkin dispensers.   And God help you if you ask for another packet of ketchup.

Every morning, I go downstairs to this McDonald’s.  Why?  Don’t I live in New York City now, the home of hip coffeeshops, where your latte is served by some slender beauty from NYU and all the customers are reading David Sedaris?   Well, remember – I’m living in Flushing.   There is no Starbucks by my home.  There is a Dominican diner and a bagel shop, both terrific, but these are tiny Mom-and-Pop operations that do not want me taking up their space while I read blogs for an hour  — at least not for the price of a cup of coffee.  At McDonald’s, I can buy a cup of coffee and then write on my laptop until the battery runs out.

Sidenote:  I probably could write a haf-decent decent blog and never walk more than half a block from my apartment building.   On Monday and Wednesday I can write about the Pathmark supermarket downstairs where cars smash into things like in a senior citizen NASCAR race.  On Tuesday and Thursday, I can write about the crappy McDonald’s across the street.  On Friday, I can write about my mother.  And on the weekend, I can let my Penis guest post or I can write about blogging or kiss the ass of some popular blogger.  For some odd reason, I think this would be a more successful formula than the one I have now.

OK, back to McDonald’s.  Last week, there was a bit of drama over my ordering the Egg McMuffin without the meat.   Usually, I don’t order breakfast at McDonald’s.  I buy a cup of coffee and do some writing.  But despite my eating my Cheerios on that day, I found myself hungry.  I decided to order an Egg McMuffin.  I am not a fan of those greasy sausage patties, so I asked for a sandwich without the meat.  They charged me the same price.

“Shouldn’t the sandwich be cheaper because I’m not getting the meat?” I asked.

“No, said the bored cashier with that ‘I don’t give a shit attitude’.  “It is the same price.”

This bugged the hell out of me.  Clearly the meat portion is the most expensive part of the sandwich.  Shouldn’t they at least offer me a tomato as a replacement?

I mentioned this experience on Twitter later in the day, thinking I was the first person to ever notice this phenomenon.   I was not.  Vegetarians said this happens all the time.  They always pay the same price as the regular sandwich.

I am a nice, gentle soul.  Normally.  But when I see the “little man” wronged, especially when it is done by a mighty corporation, I MUST take action.  Consider me the Obama of the Blogosphere.  The next day, I strapped on my new belt that I bought at Rite-Aid for five bucks (as I was walking the day earlier, my belt buckle broke, and my pants starting slipping down, so I snuck into the drug store, was surprised that they sold belts, and got myself a nice bargain that looks pretty good), and swaggered down to McDonald’s.  I ordered an Egg McMuffin without meat, was charged the regular price — but before I handed over a penny, I demanded to see the manager.  A seventeen year with a Kanye West cap approached. 

“The manager is out.  I am the ASSISTANT manager.” he said.

I explained my problem.  He said that my cause was hopeless, because this was corporate policy. 

Some people say you can’t fight City Hall.  Maybe they are right.  Oh, by the way, I am still waiting for that phone call about my free flight from Dockers/JCPenney.

Yeah, let’s see how much Obama really “changes things” in Washington.  Hah!

Anyway —

I am in McDonald’s RIGHT NOW.  I usually write while I am here, but today I am mostly reading some blogs ($2.95 for two hours of wi-fi at McDonald’s).

I am also in an introspective mood.  I am thinking about my identity — both online and off.  Who am I?  What am I doing with my life?  Can my life be as “rich, bold, and robust” as they say about the coffee on the McDonald’s cofffee cup? 

Recently, I changed my Facebook network to “New York” from “Los Angeles” and ten people wondered if I had permanently moved.  It means nothing really.  I just did it, in the hope that some blogger that lives in New York might notice and invite me to a wild party with loose women while I am in town.

I am slow to change.  It wasn’t easy changing my network on Facebook.  I still don’t know what I want with Sophia.  Or where to live.  Or which new shows to watch in the new TV season.  If you look on my sidebar, you’ll see that I added some new widgets as an experiment.  This template is so old (2005), that I have to hand code half the gizmos.  I “designed” my header on a rainy afternoon way back March of 2005.  What does it mean?  Who is that kid?  I have no idea who that is, but it has been my “icon” since I began this blog.  Is this how I really want to be “branded?”

Last week, Maggie Dammit got her blog re-designed by the talented Sam of Temporarily Me.   Last night, I must have chatted online for a half an hour with new friend Jennifer from Thursday Drive about how jealous I was of this header because it captured this blogger’s identity so successfully.   My semiotic “blog header” analysis was worthy of Roland Barthes.  Look how much information we we get from this photo.  There is a picture of Maggie.  She is cute and likeable.  She has a quirky expression on her face, so we know that she is approachable, like Meg Ryan.  No on would ever say this person is a “bitch” or she would “stab you in the back.”   Look at all those books she has!   She is not a dummy.  But she is NOT a lonely, bookish hermit.  She is using a MAC!   And she is confident.  She has her arms up, like those women in those Sure deodorant commercials.  She is a hot, but approachable, literary, but trendy, confident, but caring.  Hell, I don’t just want to read her blog.   I want to marry this woman!   Now that is good branding.   She clearly knows who she is. 

Do you know who I am?  I doubt it.  Do I know who I am?

Let me go back to talking about McDonald’s.  Every morning, on schedule, a tiny old Chinese woman enters the store, carrying a plastic supermarket shopping bag.  She comes to every table:

“DVDs?  DVDs?  Good DVDS!”

Her business is pushing bootleg DVDs.  I have never seen a customer buy anything from her, or even look at what she has to offer.  The McDonald’s staff seem to have a “deal” with her.  She is allowed to sell her wares, but only if she gives each table one pass, and then she quickly leaves.

She just made her rounds a few moments ago, just as I was writing this.  She always comes to me first, because she see my laptop, so she figures that I am in the market for bootleg DVDs.

I always say, “Thank you.  No.”

Something changed in me today.  Maybe it was curiosity.  Maybe it was introspective mood, my thinking about my identity.  Maybe I just felt like doing things differently.  I have been changing lately.  Didn’t I almost have email sex with a stranger?  Didn’t I act assertively when I confronted the McDonald’s assistant manager about the unfairness of the no-meat Egg mcMuffin?

“OK, let me see what you have.” I told the Chinese lady.

She immediately sat across from me, grasping her plastic bag, ready for her sell.

“I know you like this –”

She reached into her bag and pulled out a group of DVDs wrapped in two large rubber bands.  They were all macho-type B-movies that I had never heard of, with titles like “The Killing Machine” and “Fists of Blood.” 

“You LIKE these!”  she insisted.

She was wrong.  I thought about Maggie’s header.  It was so clear “who she was.”  I found it amusing that this DVD saleswoman was completely off track.  Who does she see?  She sees “MAN.”  Her first assumption is that I want to watch this mindless violent shit. 

“No, no…” I told the DVD lady.

“Ah, I KNOW what you like,” she said, pulling out another collection of DVDs wrapped in rubber bands.  She was persistent.

This collection of DVDs came closer to my identity.  They were DVDs of Hollywood movies out in theaters RIGHT NOW.  I assumed that these are created by someone shooting a video in the theater as the movie was playing.  You can find stuff like this on chinese YouTube. 

“How much?”  I asked.

“Four dollars.” she said.

I was tempted for a second, just to buy something, but her collection consisted mostly of the most lame-brained comedy and action films out today.  These were movies I wouldn’t even watch for free on Chinese YouTube.  While I might see “Pineapple Express” because it is the only thing playing on a Saurday night, do I really need an illegal DVD of the movie?   Don’t they ever make any bootleg videos of good films or art films, or at least Woody Allen films?  Still, her choice of mainstream Hollywood movies came a lot closer to my true identity.

“I’m sorry,” I told my new friend.  I was wondering if I should buy her a cup of coffee while we sat together.

But she certainly wasn’t leaving… just yet.

“Ah, so this is WHAT YOU LIKE…”

She pulled out a final collection of DVD’s from her bag, wrapped, as usual, in rubber bands.  This was her “special” collection.  She smiled knowingly because she was confident that she had finally figured me out —

The DVD all had buxom, naked women on the covers, some blond and some Asian.  The films had titles such as “In and Out” and “My Favorite Geisha.”

“These you REALLY REALLY LIKE… huh?!”

The saleswoman was clever.  She had come very close to figuring out “who I was.”  But a person’s identity is a complex thing.  It cannot be isolated into just one characteristic.  Like many men, I am interested in naked women who want to be my geisha girl.  But that is not WHO I am.  She did not understand me at all.   If I don’t truly understand me, how can she understand me?  She was so confident in her sales ability, that she could manipulate my inner desires to sell me something, that she completely overlooked a even MORE important aspect of my identity —

— I am way too cheap to spend four bucks buying a porno DVD in McDonald’s!

I am finding out who I am a little more each day.

Her Real Name

woman2.jpg

I was IMing with — let’s call her BlogGirl. We were talking about nothing in particular.

“Blogging… Crocs… my husband snores… Sophia… blah blah blah.”

“OK, I’m going to sleep, BlogGirl,” I said. “Or is it Vivian?” I added as I looked at the profile name on her blog.

“Actually, my real name is Beth.”

“Oh… hi, Beth. Nice to meet you.”

In the past year, I’ve emailed and IMed with bloggers around the world. I’ve discussed topics as diverse as death and dildos. But this was the single-most intimate moment with another blogger that I’ve ever had.

I had been blogging with BlogGirl for a year and I didn’t know her name.

Does anyone else want to tell me their real name?   If you email me it, I promise to delete it immediately and completely forget it by tomorrow.

Oh, and my real name is Neil.

 

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month: Hip and Unhip Cartoon Icons

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