Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Gran Torino

Guys, I was shocked at how bad this movie was.

I mean…it’s terrible.

Why’d we watch it?

Well, I’d heard about it for years. Clint Eastwood…raw, honest portrayal of an old racist guy, unlikely friendship, redemption…..

I mean, my vague impression was of a film that was rough in language, yes, but had enough redemptive qualities that made it worthy of being recommended by Pop Culture Catholics-in-the-Know.

And it was on (yes, we still have it) Netflix. And it was under two hours. Most of the movies on our current list are over two hours, and people have to get up to work, and have been up since 7 am because of work and have boxing boot camp either in the evening or at 5:30 AM, so 2.5 hour long movies are not in our wheelhouse right now.

I almost felt an obligation to watch it, after all the praise I’d heard of it.

But….as I said. I was shocked. It’s a very bad movie. It’s hysterically awful.

I mean, the ultimate message is okay and I liked (sort of) the Eastwood character’s final gesture and way of solving the problem, even though, I guess it’s suicidal? So I shouldn’t? But that’s about…it.

Eastwood himself was a parody. At one point I felt as if the entire movie was created just because some Great Brain said, “We need to see Geezer Clint f——— Eastwood say ‘GET OFF MY LAWN!'”

I mean, no one has ever given Eastwood awards for acting (have they?) but this was just sad. It basically showed why his best characters are those that don’t…talk very much.

And in this situation, he did talk, but more than that…he growled. Very bizarre.

The script was strained, the directing and editing was amateurish. Sorry, Clint. Over-the-top racial insults to an degree and with a velocity that is just stupid. And then there’s this baby-faced priest, hardly ever in clerics, who keeps showing up and saying, “Your dead wife told me to get you to go to to confession.” Like, every ten minutes, there he is, being annoying.

Go. Home.

It wasn’t subtle, artistic or evocative. It was in-yo-face, jarring, and risible.

Sorry if it changed your life or something.

Good God, it was awful.

Monday

Writing on a day remembering Martin Luther King, Jr, and writing from the city of Birmingham, well of course.

If you are ever down – or up – or over – this way, be sure to go to the Civil Rights Institute, located right across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church. It’s an excellent, moving museum, with, indeed, the door of the jail cell from which King wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

That wasn’t the only area location in which King was jailed. In the Bessemer Hall of History, which we visited a few years ago, you can another door from another jail cell.

Why was King in jail in Bessemer? Interestingly enough, that arrest was King’s last, in 1967. The pre-arranged arrest was a fulfillment of punishments for charges related to the 1963 arrest (when “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” was composed):

After King’s release from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, he fought charges that he and several others protested without the proper permits. He appealed several courts’ rulings until in 1967 a Supreme Court judge upheld his conviction and ordered him to serve the remaining three days of his four-day sentence.

The fanfare surrounding his arrival in Birmingham prompted officials to reroute him to Bessemer to escape the overwhelming attention from the media and the public. 

And now, to digest:

Reading: Still on Don Quixote, which I will be for a while. Rereading Uncle Tom’s Cabin for school. Decided to be more intentional in my non-fiction reading, seeking out works that, while not being in my normal wheelhouse of exploration of obscure historical oddities, will hopefully work to help me sort out the current events, political, ecclesiastical and culture – which are threatening to drive me mad.

Beginning with known alt-right agitator Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

Listening: Still a little fixated on Mendelssohn and Gypsy Jazz at the moment. As well as various sounds emanating from various rooms housing musical instruments.

Cooking: As I said last week, people’s schedules are bringing them home at mealtime…not so often. I’m going to do a Penne with Vodka Sauce tonight, and that will be it, I think, until Thursday. Made pizza dough on Saturday night, so that was dinner last night and the rest will be a substantial lunch for Working People one of the next two days. This is my preferred recipe, in case you are interested. I’ve mentioned before that it’s at its best at least two days after mixing.

Watching: Still on Mad Men. But we did squeeze in a movie last week – Out of the Past , which I wrote about here. The other night, I watched Fellini’s I Vitelloni – here’s my son’s take from some time back:

I occasionally wonder why some foreign titles get translated and others don’t. I Vitelloni, the word, is a slang in the Italian dialect around Pescara, Italy that indicates young men who don’t really do anything. They don’t contribute, they just consume. Derived from the Italian word for intestine, the idea was that they just waited to digest, providing nothing else of value. Other times the word is translated to “the guys”. I cannot imagine referring to this movie as The Guys. It’s too off from the point of the original word which, when translated, provides a very pointed indication of what the movie is about that “the guys” simply misses completely. There’s no real word in the English language (“loafers” comes relatively close) that means the same thing, so I Vitelloni is probably the best title for it to have outside of Italy

It’s Fellini, so it goes without saying that the shot composition, mood and work with actors is incomparable. Filmed off and on, ad hoc, when the actors had time off from other jobs, it is marvelously coherent and accomplished for a young director. Clearly expressive of Fellini’s inner life and themes that would recur: the terrible man who seemingly can’t or won’t help himself, the religious imagery, the temptations, the carnival, and the sad, puzzling, but inevitable emptiness of the day after the carnival.

What is refreshing – in the present day, overwhelmed by both politicization and formulaic commercialization of art – is the willingness of Fellini to just see and show us what he sees. Yes there is a point of view, but in this film at least, Fellini, it seems to be strikes the perfect balance of a worldview still informed, in some way, faintly, by a moral sensibility, but in which sinners, a few saints, and mostly ordinary folk, are offered without a speck of judgment.

To take in a piece art without feeling bullied or overtly manipulated to clap for an agenda of one sort or another or, come to think of it, pandered to and flattered , to be left with something to talk about – is, yes…refreshing.

Yes it’s Sunday, but still. January 17: St. Anthony of the Desert, or St. Anthony of Egypt, the father of Christian monasticism. 

Around the year 270, two great burdens came upon Anthony simultaneously: the deaths of both his parents, and his inheritance of their possessions and property. These simultaneous occurrences prompted Anthony to reevaluate his entire life in light of the principles of the Gospel– which proposed both the redemptive possibilities of his personal loss, and the spiritual danger of his financial gains.
 
Attending church one day, he heard –as if for the first time– Jesus’ exhortation to another rich young man in the Biblical narrative: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Anthony told his disciples in later years, that it was as though Christ has spoken those words to him directly.

He duly followed the advice of selling everything he owned and donating the proceeds, setting aside a portion to provide for his sister. Although organized monasticism did not yet exist, it was not unknown for Christians to abstain from marriage, divest themselves of possessions to some extent, and live a life focused on prayer and fasting. Anthony’s sister would eventually join a group of consecrated virgins.
 
Anthony himself, however, sought a more comprehensive vision of Christian asceticism. He found it among the hermits of the Egyptian desert, individuals who chose to withdraw physically and culturally from the surrounding society in order to devote themselves more fully to God. But these individuals’ radical way of life had not yet become an organized movement.

St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony

As an extra, I found this piece on St. Anthony and reading – he was illiterate, almost, you might say, by choice – quite thought provoking. 

The seeds of Anthony’s disdain for letters, his obedience to his parents, his attentiveness to the scripture readings in the Lord’s house, and keeping what is good in his heart, come to fruition near the end of St. Athanasius’ account and indicate the true end of spiritual reading: the attainment of the wisdom of God.

St. Athanasius reports that “Antony was also extremely wise.”  St. Anthony was visited by many Greek philosophers seeking him out in the desert to ridicule him. When they came to mock him on the account that he had not learned his letters, he asked them:

“‘Which is first- mind or letters? And which is the cause of which- the mind of the letters, or the letters of the mind?’ After their reply that the mind is first and an inventor of the letters, Anthony said, ‘Now you see that in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters.’”

These and many others departed in amazement that an untrained man living in the wilderness could possess such understanding. He was “gracious and civil, and his speech was seasoned with divine salt, so that no one resented him.”

St. Anthony draws our attention away from the current obsession with material literacy and towards the true nature of literacy that sees that the real ends are the sane mind and sound heart. Though reading is of real instrumental value, the act of reading is a means to an end, not the end itself. The ends remain the proper consumption of spiritual food and hearing words is closer to the source than reading words. In spiritual reading, the written word is accompanied by extra but similar work to hearing the spoken word: the words have to be translated into a form that is audible and intelligible to the human heart.

In Mathew 4:4, when the Devil tempts Christ to turn stones into bread, our Lord responds by declaring that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Just like we need bread for material existence, the words that proceed from the mouth of God are spiritual food, exponentially more important than bodily food and the objective of spiritual reading is to feed our souls by the bread that “proceeds from the mouth of God.” Spiritual reading is feeding our souls. St. Anthony didn’t abandon the feast of spiritual reading; he attuned his ear to revelation, his soul to the Holy Spirit, and his heart to the will of the Father so effectively that the written word was an unnecessary mediation. We will benefit far more from an attuned ear and willing heart than a sharp eye and keen mind.

Food for thought in the Information Age.  I often consider how in the present glut, I know a lot more than I might have in a previous era, but I am certainly no wiser.

St. Anthony in the wilderness- except that the pot of gold originally in the painting has, for some reason, been scraped out of the painting. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Call and Response

We’re back in Ordinary Time – which means that our first Mass reading today brings us into that moment, after the Baptism, in which the ministry of Jesus begins – the calling of his disciples.

From The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories. 

First and last pages of the pertinent entry shared so you can see how it’s structured – with a retelling of the narrative, then ending with reflection questions and a prayer.

And then the first reading for today, Sunday, is the call of the boy Samuel. The first page from that entry is below.

amy welborn

If you’ve never read 1 Samuel beginning to end – why not start today? If you don’t have a Bible on hand, just pop online and find one. It just might be my favorite book of the Bible  – perhaps because it reads like a novel. But it also looms large to me – and I enjoyed teaching it – because there is not hiding anyone’s flaws. The individuals are fully human, beginning to end, absolutely recognizable. They experience the unexpected and unmerited, they sacrifice,  they have great hopes, they stumble and fall, they live with mental and emotional turmoil,  they sin, repent and sin again.  The humanity and flaws of the earliest leaders of Israel, laid out for all to see, not papered over, has always been a great argument for the fundamental historicity of these narratives to me. If they were making up stories about their first king – Saul – would they fabricate a figure who was clearly troubled, who defied God and, enabled his own death? Followed by a second, even more revered king who had another man killed so he could have that man’s wife?

So, no, you don’t really need any fake-frazzled Instagram Influencer to share the Amazing Revelation  that hey – Life! Is! Messy!  If you’d paid a few seconds of attention to the narratives we’re surrounded with in Scripture and tradition – this would not be news to you. At all.

I’m about 300 pages into a first read of Don Quixote, and look here – today (1/16) is the anniversary of its publication.

From the Public Domain Review, an essay published a few years ago, on the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death, featuring various illustrations from different editions of the novel, and exploring how these images express the changing and shifting views of the main character and the purpose of the story. (The essay is by the author of a book on the same topic.)

Whatever Cervantes’ initial idea, in the course of the last four hundred years, Don Quixote has embarked on a journey in the world imagination that has taken the literary character far beyond its original conception. The book illustrations of Cervantes’ Don Quixote would play a decisive role in this — not only transforming the image of Don Quixote and his loyal servant Sancho Panza but also giving life to the image of Cervantes himself.

I won’t say much about Don Quixote until I’ve finished it. And I’ll tell you that honestly, while I knew a bit about it from pop culture references and just one a general would-be-know-it-all thinks she should know, I really didn’t know much at all about it coming into it. I understand there is a true tragic dimension in the second part of the book, which gives one other reason to wait.

I will say, however, that the whole idea of a person whose consumption of culture has warped his sense of reality….is not something I find dated …at all.

In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind. His fantasy filled with everything he had read in his books, enchantments as well as combats, battles, challenges, wounds, courtings, loves, torments, and other impossible foolishness, and he became so convinced in his imagination of the truth of all the countless grandiloquent and false inventions he read that for him no history in the world was truer.

7 Quick Takes

Well, that’s strange. In my rush to publish this on Thursday night/Friday morning, I guess I published it for last Friday (the 8th). Huh. Those of you who subscribe to direct links saw it, but those who just show up to look at the front page…probably didn’t. So here it is again….

— 1 —

Yes, yes, I have more to say about social media and the internet and such, but I got a bit tired of saying it, so we can all wait a bit more. God knows, the landscape will probably undergo another avalanche and earthquake before we’re even close, so there’s no hurry. Ever.

If you want to check out what I’ve been gabbing about, just click backward.

The rest of this will be ridiculously random. Apologies in advance. I’m in a strange mood tonight.

— 2 —

With Ordinary Time, we’re in year B – which means the focus of the Sunday Gospels is Mark.

Consider this book – The Memoirs of St. Peter as an apt accompaniment to this year. I am! I’ve had the book for a while, read chunks of it, but will be keeping it at hand as a reference and spiritual companion to the Mass readings.

— 3 —

I have been reading about St. Margaret of Scotland the past couple of days. If you’d like to read the biography of her written by Turgot, her spiritual advisor and confessor, you can access it through the Internet Archive here.

St. Margaret of Scotland

I do have a work purpose in studying up on her, which means I am reading about her, searching for lessons and finding teachable moments.

What have I found? What I often find: Sanctity begins when we find ourselves in a certain moment and pray, not that God will help us “be happy” or “find our true selves” – but when we pray, instead, for God to work through us to serve the people he’s put in our lives, especially the poor.

— 4 —

To go from saints to sinners, but really, who has the right to proclaim the difference except for God, from the Public Domain Review – quickly becoming a favorite site – pages from the first published collection of mug shots.

Image

Not a bad looking crew for horse thieves, barn burners and pickpockets….

Quite thought-provoking.

— 5 —

Really, really interesting piece on a 1939 attempt to present a jazz, mostly Black version of A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

When Swingin’ the Dream opened on Broadway on 29 November 1939, the creators of this jazz version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream had every expectation of a smash hit. The music alone seemed worth the price of admission. Among the hits were Ain’t Misbehavin’, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Jeepers Creepers, and

If you go down to the woods … Butterfly McQueen as Puck, Maxine Sullivan as Titania and Louis Armstrong as Bottom/Pyramus.

Darn That Dream. All this was intermingled with swing renditions of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, from his 1842 Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music was performed by some of the biggest names around: Bud Freeman’s band played on one side of the stage, Benny Goodman’s inter-racial group on the other, and in the centre Donald Voorhees conducted an orchestra of 50.

The Shakespeare musical had a 150-strong cast, featuring many of America’s most popular black artists, including Maxine Sullivan as Titania, Juano Hernandez as Oberon and none other than Louis Armstrong as Bottom. The trumpeter reportedly turned down a part in another Broadway-bound jazz show, Young Man With a Horn, to star in it. Butterfly McQueen (AKA Prissy in Gone With the Wind) played Puck. Agnes de Mille, who a year later would break new ground in her Black Ritual for the newly formed Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre, oversaw the choreography.

The dancers included the great tap star Bill Bailey, the three Dandridge sisters (who played Titania’s pixie attendants), as well as 13 tireless jitterbugging couples. With set designs based on Walt Disney cartoons, it looked great, too. Sullivan’s Titania entered enthroned in a “World of Tomorrow” electric wheelchair, microphones appeared in the shape of snakes and caterpillars, while a pull-down bed hung from a tree.


It seemed destined to a be a hit, and a startlingly original one. But Swingin’ the Dream closed after only 13 performances – and lost its investors a staggering $100,000, the equivalent to about $2m today. Critics continue to debate what went wrong, hampered by the fact that no script for the show, other than a few pages from the Pyramus and Thisbe scene, has ever been found, despite extensive searches.

More

— 6 —

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been reading Hemingway stories. I must say that “An Alpine Idyll” is one of the strangest stories I’ve ever read. Not in a necessarily bad way – just…..strange.

I wonder if it’s based on something he heard about that really happened?

— 7 —

Anyway. Speaking of Gospels, today’s Gospel from the Mass readings is the healing of the paralytic from (of course) Mark. Here’s the first page of my retelling from the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

The following is part of B16’s General Audience series on the Fathers of the Church. Remember, I have a study guide to these talks, available for download here. Excerpts at the end of the post.

Banished to Phrygia in present-day Turkey, Hilary found himself in contact with a religious context totally dominated by Arianism. Here too, his concern as a Pastor impelled him to work strenuously to re-establish the unity of the Church on the basis of right faith as formulated by the Council of Nicea. To this end he began to draft his own best-known and most important dogmatic work:De Trinitate (On the Trinity). Hilary explained in it his personal journey towards knowledge of God and took pains to show that not only in the New Testament but also in many Old Testament passages, in which Christ’s mystery already appears, Scripture clearly testifies to the divinity of the Son and his equality with the Father. To the Arians he insisted on the truth of the names of Father and Son, and developed his entire Trinitarian theology based on the formula of Baptism given to us by the Lord himself: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

The Father and the Son are of the same nature. And although several passages in the New Testament might make one think that the Son was inferior to the Father, Hilary offers precise rules to avoid misleading interpretations: some Scriptural texts speak of Jesus as God, others highlight instead his humanity. Some refer to him in his pre-existence with the Father; others take into consideration his state of emptying of self (kenosis), his descent to death; others, finally, contemplate him in the glory of the Resurrection. In the years of his exile, Hilary also wrote the Book of Synods in which, for his brother Bishops of Gaul, he reproduced confessions of faith and commented on them and on other documents of synods which met in the East in about the middle of the fourth century. Ever adamant in opposing the radical Arians, St Hilary showed a conciliatory spirit to those who agreed to confess that the Son was essentially similar to the Father, seeking of course to lead them to the true faith, according to which there is not only a likeness but a true equality of the Father and of the Son in divinity. This too seems to me to be characteristic: the spirit of reconciliation that seeks to understand those who have not yet arrived and helps them with great theological intelligence to reach full faith in the true divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Out of the Past

“No one can be all bad.”

“She comes the closest.”

A quick break from Luddism to reflect a bit on last night’s film: Out of the Past.

WEIRDLAND: Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in "Out of the past" video

BTW, it’s the only movie we will be able to watch together for about a ten-day period, considering work and other activity schedules. So yes, it was Mom’s pick.

Out of the Past is one of the earlier, and certainly formative American film noirs. Starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer, it’s a typically dark story of bad judgment, passion and deceit. Quick summary:

The narrative features a combination of linear and flashback storytelling, and introduces the character of Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator who fled from New York after falling in love with Kathie, a girl he was hired to track down by an influential businessman called Whit. The businessman claimed the woman shot him and stole his money, but our protagonist simply stopped caring about the issue of her obvious guilt, completely bedazzled by her charms. The two of them run away together but get separated. Jeff now lives in a small town managing a gas pump and trying to start over with Ann, a really decent, good-hearted and innocent girl who knows nothing of his dark past and cares about him endlessly. The past, as it always does, comes to haunt him when one of the businessman’s henchmen arrives to town and insists Jeff goes to see his unpredictable employer, the man he betrayed and double-crossed. On their way to Whit, Jeff starts telling Ann his complete story, with the film ending up back in the present for its sad but necessary resolution.

Of course, the performances are crackerjack – Mitchum his laconic self, Douglas snappy and subtly fierce, Greer appropriately sultry and mysterious. One of the things I appreciated about this film was that the women – Greer and good girl Virginia Huston – were far less mannered in their performances than is typical for women in the period. Incidentally, about forty years ago, I knew an old priest who claimed to have dated Jane Greer as a young man. t was the only thing I knew about her until I saw this movie last night.

Anyway, as is usual with these films, besides everything else, one of the aspects of viewing I enjoy is just taking in another time – from what’s in the kitchens to the details of street scenes, to, for example in Out of the Past a short, but telling scene in a Black nightclub. It’s all a part of the history lesson for me, even if it’s only the movies.

Iconic cinematography, great shots (death by fly fishing, anyone?), fantastic dialogue, of course, hard to replicate here, because the power of much of it is tied to situations and imagery, as well as delivery. Mitchum’s I don’t care is a great example.

Two more excerpts – as someone entitled this clip, Mitchum demonstrating “how to be cool.”

Good stuff between Mitchum and Douglas here – I can’t embed this one. It’s good.

So what happens?

A fellow is trying to escape his past – but because of his own desires, he doesn’t. I won’t say he “can’t” – because in this world, you always have a choice. The battle is subtle though, because of Mitchum’s cool exterior – another actor might have been more demonstrative with the tension, but Mitchum is so inexpressive, it’s hard to tell whether he’s really falling for this dame again and all her obvious lies, or if he’s playing her to get what he wants- which is the point, I suppose.

As with this genre in general, at the center we have a guy struggling to deal with the consequences of past choices – but unsuccessfully, as he makes more and more bad ones. It seems to me that so much of noir, both print and in film, is about that tragic tension, in highly stylized terms.

Throughout the movie, Mitchum’s character is aware he’s being set up – he’s being framed. I think I’m in a frame…I don’t know. All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.

And what does it take to actually step out of the past and move on? It takes distance, it takes the ability to resist pretty intense temptation, it takes a kind of courage. And sometimes, as the end of this movie indicates, it takes a sad but almost necessary little white lie from a deaf-mute garage attendant who can set you on your way with just a nod…

Live and in Person

I’m making progress!

I had declared that I would be deleting Facebook posts and stripping down my “friends” list, and so I am. I don’t want to deactivate the whole thing yet without going through the archives, as it were, and I for sure don’t need to download 11 years of links to blog posts. So I’m going through it, deleting 95% and keeping that 5%, which is mostly photos that I don’t have elsewhere and a few random thoughts I posted there but not here that are marginally worth keeping.

I’m up to (or back to) 2015! Only a few more years to go. As I recall, I only really starting using Facebook after Mike died, mostly as a more personal way of updating folks in a smaller circle as to how we were doing.

So that’s good. Tackling Instagram, if I get to that point, won’t be that bad since most of those photos are those I already have stored in some way. Twitter? I’ve been following the lead of some other folks on Twitter for some time, and not ever keeping a big backlog of tweets up – not that I do much on Twitter, again, except for posting links here and giving a digital thumbs-up to other folks.

The question many of us face in making decisions about our digital presence is all about letting go. It seems to be about three things, maybe four if you’re into how-do-you-say “content creation.”

  • I have so much material on there – text and photos – it’s such a big job to retrieve it and it’s such a convenient way to store it.
  • I like the connections I’ve made!
  • Traditional news sources, including those online, are untrustworthy and annoying. This is how I get my news now.
  • And, if you’re a “Content creator” – I need to maintain a presence, I need to get the word out about my work…

All legitimate concerns. I’ll just briefly share where I’ve come to with all of that.

First – the material. As I said before, I haven’t relied on social media as a primary repository for either text or photos. I don’t host long discussion threads on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter that are worth saving, I don’t generally participate in many, either. Photos? I have them digitally stored and I actually really print most of them out…eventually.

Connections: Important! Two of my favorite people – Ann Engelhart and Dorian Speed – are people I met only because of the Internet (although not social media – Ann reached out to me because of my blog, and Back In the Day, Dorian was a fellow Catholic Blogger in the South With an Interest in Education.) My life would be far less interesting without them!

On another level, somewhat lower than actual friendship – there are loads of folks I’ve “met” online and kept up with through their social media whom I appreciate, admire and would certainly enjoy knowing in real life. I’m glad I know them.

But – and here’s the hard part to say – if the Internet didn’t exist…..I would know other, interesting people, too. It’s a big world. I live on one street and have a set of neighbors whom I know to varying degrees, like and find interesting. If I lived two streets over, I wouldn’t know these people. I’d know other people, and I’d probably feel the same about my neighbors over there.

It might be hard and a little sad to move away from that crew you’ve been following and interacting with for a while – even years – I mean, I’ve followed the lives of couples who were engaged when I first “knew” them and now they have teen children!

But again – I’ve lived in several places as an adult. I’ve had pretty good friends in all of those places – and at this point, I only keep up with and sometimes see one of them.

I’ve often told my daughter, who was the first of my kids to really grow up in a digital world, even though she didn’t have her own phone until she was maybe a senior? Maybe the summer after? I don’t remember – this digital world is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you can keep up with folks more easily – and it’s a curse because….you can keep up with folks more easily.

There is value in stability and there is value in acknowledging the value and the good, and letting go and moving on.

I moved a lot when I was young. Let’s see – Born in Bloomington, then a year in DC, then to Lubbock for a few years, then a year in Arlington/DC, then DeKalb, then Lawrence, the Knoxville – settling there at 13. I made friends along the way, wrote for years to one of them I made in Lawrence, then finally lost touch.

It’s okay. It’s okay to be able to stop worrying about all those various ties you’ve made over decades of life. Some you absolutely don’t want to let go of, if at all possible, but sometimes those ties prove toxic and destructive – which was the point of my conversation with my daughter – and I’m telling you, wouldn’t it be a blessing to move away from a situation – and not have it haunting you on social media, to not be tempted to check in…just this one time…to not have to fend of friend requests from people who hurt you, to not even have the capability of revisiting that pain again and again?

I’ve often thought, over the past few years, both in regard to the persistence of the digital world and the constant culling I’ve had to do of dead people’s things, of the life of the pioneer setting out west, or the immigrant heading to America, with a bit of envy. To have no choice? To have to pack up your life in a trunk or a wagon and just…go?

Sounds pretty nice.

Of course, actually in that situation, wouldn’t I yearn for what I’d left behind and not been able to take?

Probably.

What’s my point? If we really want to leave social media behind, or lessen its importance in our lives, we have to accept the fact that we’ll be saying goodbye, not just a space, but to people.

It’s okay. There are more people. No, they’re not interchangeable, but remember what I said about neighbors up there.

Yes, there are more people. Even, I might add – your actual, real neighbors.

Third -the news. Yeah, I don’t know what to do about that one. At a loss myself. I gather my news from a variety of sources – blogs, online journals and yes, Twitter, but oddly, never ever Facebook. I suspect that is because I have so little control over what I see on Facebook and it’s so bloody annoying, I just don’t bother – and I have a small, curated list of follows on Twitter that link me to news and analysis from a variety of perspectives, left to right. Twitter is a cesspool, but I have to admit, I find it valuable for that. It would/will be hard for me to leave Twitter just for that reason, and no other.

Fourth – the dilemma of the content creator. Well, I have more to say on that. I’ve spent enough time on this post. I think that will be a good focus for tomorrow.

In sum!

As I have written before, many times – for example, here (related to religious writing) and here (related to Church) – life online is certainly real life, but it also offers deep temptations. Yes, real life connections are made, real-life discussions happen, real-life information is learned and real-life inspiration is found. Where would we be without Humans of New York and what it has inspired?

But – I maintain, even with that, that the great temptation of online life, whether that come in the form of social media, discussion boards, games or even just scrolling – is the temptation to avoid engagement with the concrete, flesh-and-blood life around you. No it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not inevitable. Some balance it all beautifully and fruitfully. And as an introvert, I understand this temptation very, very well. Which is why I’m fixated on it – I know my own temptation, and I know I’m not alone.

It can take any number of forms:

(And note this list, doesn’t even include the worst, most pervasive temptation to disconnect from our actual lives – and you know what that is. Enough said.)

  • I know all about people and families living across the country through FB, Instagram, YouTube – follow their milestones, congratulate them, enjoy their family photos…..do I know and interact with the people on my street, in my apartment complex?
  • I spend hours following national politics and have deep discussions about a Senate race in another part of the country to which I have no connection – do I know who represents me in my local and state government? Do I know the most pressing issues facing my own community in which I live?
  • I’m an expert on the current papacy and keep a scorecard of the accomplishments and views of a number of bishops across the country and the world. Am I involved in my own parish? At all? Do I spend as much time in prayer and the Works of Mercy as I do exploring and fighting about Church news online?

Yes, it is a relief to find a tribe. I know this well. It’s what “gathered” alot of us online two decades ago – Catholics who didn’t feel as if anything goes, but also weren’t going to wear veils to Mass or even fight about it, and also wanted to be informed about the outrages of Church corruption with as little ideological bias as possible – hard to suss that out in your local parish, true. It can be said for any number of interests and slants – to find, I don’t know – other libertarians, progressives if you live in in a red area, conservatives if you’re surrounded by blue, parents who homeschool, traditionally minded families who don’t homeschool and have no interest….or sometimes just someone to talk to.

Of course!

But in the end, I keep coming back to the conclusion that the ease of finding the like-minded and settling one’s life in that world …is a trap.

It’s a trap for a lot of reasons, one of which is that this thing which we believed could unite us actually serves to divide as the places we settle always end up being with the like-minded, in comfortable bubbles, while real unity is found in meeting folks face-to-face every day who are different from you, who think differently, who believe differently and with them, actually building a real world – of neighborhoods and communities and parishes, and yes families with all the discomfort, awkwardness and outright conflict that can bring.

It’s a tool, and a good one. Use it. Just maybe don’t live in it….

Medium, Message, etc.

Over the past half-decade or so, blogs – which along with discussion boards of various types, had long provided the main venues for conversation and expression on the Internet – have been thoroughly usurped by social media: Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, primarily. And probably others my aged self isn’t aware of.

I use three of those, but minimally. I’ve had TikTok on my phone a couple of times, but deleted it. I know that my younger two sons (19 and 16) and their crowd pretty much only use Snapchat to communicate – rather than texting, even.

I generally don’t engage in “discussion” on any of them, unless it’s on a post by someone I actually, really know in some sense. And I don’t stay long. And I haven’t accepted new Facebook friends in years.

From the beginning of their rise – among my middle-age set, that is – I’ve maintained a distance, in terms of time and energy, from these platforms. I had an intuition from the beginning that there was something about them that didn’t serve my purpose in being online, and really, in the end, primarily served the owners of the platforms themselves.

And here’s what I eventually concluded. It’s rather challenging for me to put into words. Let’s see how I do. I’m going to focus on Instagram and Facebook because as problematic as Twitter is, it doesn’t share quite the same issues, and I think most of the “self-expression” energy these days is on those platforms, as well as TikTok, which I am not as familiar with. And guess what, Instagram is now owned by Facebook, so surprise – they have the same limitations.

First off, I want to acknowledge the given – that all of these platforms exploit the human desire to argue, score points and have the last word. These platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter have made themselves essential in spreading news and information. I mean – how did you arrive here anyway? Yeah.

They exploit our aspirations and our desires and our need for community and our attention-seeking instincts. They are deliberately addictive. Those are problems, but they are not the problems I’m going to explore here. This isn’t about sharing family photos. It’s about producing content that you hope will impact people and that you believe is meaningful beyond the present moment.

Let’s be concrete. Say I want to write a microblog on Instagram, a couple hundred heartfelt words attached to a pretty picture. Great. People will read it…

If they follow me…

If it happens to come on their feed by way of the platform’s current algorithm.

Sure, people can read it, but what if it strikes them as something worth keeping and sharing? They can easily share it with folks within the platform, who might take two seconds to read it and then…scroll on. Share with someone not on Instagram or Facebook? A little more challenging. Save it? less easily with those outside. They can archive it – within the app. Or I guess they can send themselves a link to share. Do you want to find a post on a certain topic? No luck unless the poster has hashtagged it with the specific hashtag you’re looking for.

And Facebook? Same. With the complication that my experience in Facebook is that posts – even your own posts that you want to revisit – are incredibly difficult to find. The search features on both apps are almost useless and are subject to change.

And of course, this is no accident.

There is a reason these platforms make it difficult to search and share posts beyond their system. They want to keep you inside, in that loop.

They make it super easy to create. You don’t have to know any code, you don’t have to think about design. You just type in the blank that’s provided for you, and the platform handles the rest.

And – I might add – it’s free. There is no financial cost to use it. It’s free.

What a deal!

But of course your space on these platforms is not actually your space, in any sense. Your posts can be removed for any reason. The rules governing your presence and content are not made by you – they’re made by the platform, and change all the time. Your ability to share what you create is directed in ways the platform determines, and to me, this has always been the feature of these platforms that’s given me pause, even more than the possibility of removal.

We’ve all seen it. For example, on my Facebook feed, no matter how I fiddle with the settings, I always see posts from the same people, few of whom I’ve ever interacted with, and hardly ever see posts coming through from people I actually know. Plus ads. Lots and lots of ads. I’m guessing Instagram is the same way, but I’ve long stepped away from any general perusal of Instagram – there are a few people – family and real-life friends – whose posts I see because I purposely seek them out – and that’s it.

What’s the most frequent complaint about these platforms from users? Besides trying to find ways to do paragraphs in Instagram, of course? It’s all about the feed – They’re not letting me see what I’m really interested in.

Oh.

Then maybe, go find what you’re interested in….somewhere else.

And further, the platforms – all of them – are designed to exploit your ego and desire for attention. They make it seemingly easy to get attention because of the ease of posting. Then the closed nature of the systems – which are presented as if they are for the sake of your safety and privacy –  move the user to prioritize churning out posts that get more attention from other users, always, always fighting that algorithm.

In short: these platforms get us in by making creating and sharing within the platform easy and free. But what you post speeds by the reader, is difficult to hold on to, is designed to be most easily shared within the platform, therefore bringing in new users.

 They’re for brand establishing, attention gathering and impression making. They’re really not for thoughtfulness, for nuance, for exploring. You don’t sit with these posts and save them and come back to them. You note them, maybe comment, nod and scroll on.

The content is, moreover, going to be shaped by the platform. Not in the sense of outright censorship or shadowbanning or restrictions, but, well, simply because as the Man said, the medium is the message.

If Facebook is the place you want to see and be seen, you’ll shape your content to what Facebook privileges and with what the Facebook audience values. Same with any of the platforms, just as with all media.

I wrote 800-word faith-n-life columns for years, and the shape and rhythm of those columns became second nature: incident – tension – hopeful and inspiring, perhaps self-deprecating resolution.  I thought in 800-word chunks and in daily life, was keenly aware, always on the lookout for the inspirational moment.

These platforms are no different from any other medium in that regard – columns, traditional news stories, essays – the medium is the message.

Which is fine. But given the transitory nature of these platforms – the ease of posting, but then the difficulties of finding and keeping, not to speak of the privacy and data issues – is it worth my time?  

Maybe it’s worth yours. Maybe you’re trying to do what I suggested above – establish a brand, get attention and make an impression. Go for it. Spend your time on it. I’m questioning the means, and yes, I’m questioning the message, too.

All digital media is ephemeral, including this space. No doubt about that. It can all be gone tomorrow. The systems could go down, the servers melt, or whatever they might do. Censorship and deplatforming exists everywhere from WordPress to Blogger to Reddit. No illusions there.

But the unique thing about social media platforms that has discouraged me from engaging to much on them is the clear sense that those spaces are not mine and that I’m a servant of the platform. We, as we’ve been told over and over again, are the product. My Instagram account exists the way it exists not to benefit me or even those who might read me there, but to benefit Instagram. The space doesn’t encourage staying, keeping or maintaining or searching. It privileges the present moment and then scrolling on. It also privileges making connections and placing information in them – that make it very hard to let go. All my memories are on Facebook! I can’t quit!

I know that some people have what they see as meaningful presences on these platforms. I’m always glad to see a wry Dorian Speed post or Ann Engelhart teaching me about watercolor. It’s become, annoyingly, the way I keep up with local businesses – is  Paramount or Rougaroux open today? Just check the Gram. When I’m about to go on a trip and want to double check the weather conditions, I often do a search for recent posts from that location to see what it looks like over there and what folks are wearing. So no, I’m not immune.

Communication. We have to do it. We want to do it. We’re called to do it.

Information is to be shared, discussed and acted upon.

But on whose terms? Who is really shaping the content and reach of the message I think I want to send?

The whole thing is ephemeral. All of it. Not just on our screens, either.

I’ve written dozens, if not hundreds of columns. I didn’t keep them. I doubt anyone did. They were written, read, made their impact, such as it was, and are gone. I’ve written books, some of which still sell decently, some of which are out of print. I hate to think of how many blog posts I’ve written. Again – typed out, published, and probably forgotten, even by me. None of it was written in total freedom, either. There were editors and audiences and publishing needs that determined what I wrote and was finally published under my name. And no question that publishers have, from time immemorial, profited from writers’ work in a skewed, unjust way. So in a sense, this is more of the same. But is it? That’s what I’m trying to work out here.

The world is fleeting. Our words, our thoughts are as dust. But ironically, that doesn’t make them pointless. What is the best use of these fleeting limited signs and symbols that we use to express our deepest yearnings and truest selves? How shall we use them in a way that actually does communicate our value and their significance, even as we acknowledge that they – and we – are like straw?

For the ephemeral nature of social media, and its use of us and our experiences as the product, enthusiastically offered just so we can be seen and heard, seems different to me. It seems to put into question the time spent on it, both creating and scrolling.

In that world, we only matter to the extent that we fill in the blanks, and what we put in those blanks is only seen if we work hard to learn the rules the Powers have established (today), shape our content to satisfy, not only their rules, but their intentions and priorities that they’ve figured out will get us coming back again and again…for now.

%d bloggers like this: