“Only Connect”

6 Feb

Earlier this week, I was standing at a bus stop in busy downtown Berkeley, waiting to ride home after work. An email came in on my smart phone from one of my students who had a question regarding an essay he was writing about E.M. Forster’s speculative 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops.”

E.M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

E.M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

I looked up from my phone and briefly locked eyes with a gaunt, ragged-looking man who was walking past. He had all the markers of the hardcore homeless who, sadly, are all too familiar in Berkeley:  matted hair, torn clothing, dirt covering him from head to toe. Given his appearance, I assumed he was likely drug-addicted or schizophrenic, or both.

An extended gaze exchanged with someone like this rarely goes well; I looked back down at my phone to consider my student’s email.

Suddenly, a grimy palm was thrust between me and the phone, inches from my face. A faint scent of decaying garbage.

I recoiled, and there the man was, almost shoulder to shoulder with me as I leaned against a brick wall. The wild eyes seeing me, or not. He was muttering. I waited.  

“Can I tell you something?” he finally asked in a faint voice.


He muttered again, almost as if praying. What I could hear sounded like gibberish. I waited.

Then, with a violent motion, he chopped his hand against my phone and sent it clattering to the sidewalk.

“Turn it off!” he shouted, and then continued in unintelligible fashion, only now more loudly and inches from my face.

“OK, OK,” I said as calmly as I could, then bent to pick up my phone and started walking up the street away from the bus stop. Away from him.

“You will be executed!” he offered as benediction and then stalked off.

I circled back to the bus stop, wondering how many of the people there had watched and heard this exchange. It was hard to tell:  none of them looked at me. Most of them were looking at their phones.

Kuno Comes to Berkeley

In “The Machine Stops,” Forster’s narrator tells of a futuristic world in which the people are willingly in the grip of an all-controlling Machine that was created by humankind generations before. Each person now lives alone underground in windowless rooms that are honeycombed together “like the cell[s] of a bee.” Physical touch between people is considered repellent, in-person meetings rare. People are entirely disconnected from Nature and from each other, communicating via screens, delivering empty lectures, having things brought to them by the Machine, their minds and muscles atrophying. When the main character, Vashti, is first introduced to us, it is not as a woman but as a “swaddled lump of flesh…with a face as white as a fungus.”

My students frequently make connections to movies like Wall-E and The Matrix, and it’s also an easy leap to see the way Forster imagined us all a century later Skyping and Facebooking and You Tubing and ordering packages from Amazon by drone, as in this description of Vashti’s small room:

“Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”

The only one in the story who resists The Machine and its dictates is Vashti’s son, Kuno. He begs his mother to journey across the earth to see him so he can speak to her and see her face-to-face and “not through the wearisome Machine.” He thinks and asks questions. He longs to visit the forbidden surface of the Earth and to exercise his body and to look at the sky and wonder at the stars, all of which he does before The Machine violently tugs him back beneath the ground. Kuno is the only one who foresees The Machine society’s cataclysmic end.

Kuno is the voice of reason in the story, the only one to resist the absurdity and tyranny of The Machine. Kuno’s is Forster’s voice, and ours.

And for this, Kuno and his like–the rational, the physical, the emotional, the sensual, the non-mechanical people, the ones who can see the truth–are outcasts in the society of The Machine, flung to the surface of the Earth to die, and assigned the status most feared by Vashti and her “friends”:


I boarded the bus for home and looked down at my phone, its screen streaked with oil from the man’s hand, from mine. I wondered if I had dared not to avert my eyes from him to look at my phone but instead had held his gaze and smiled or given a friendly nod whether his response would have been different. Or perhaps he would have raved at me regardless.

How many people must shun this man, minute by minute, every single day of his life? Imagine the cumulative effect of that loneliness and that rejection by one’s fellow human beings.

In his own way, whatever the biochemistry of his brain was doing to thwart his efforts, the man was looking to make contact, and I had instead responded in a way that was perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable in polite society (“perfectly mechanical,” Vashti would say), and instead had turned to my phone. I had, as the characters in the story do, “isolated” myself.

His enraged madman’s response to me was, in the end, perfectly rational. It’s a less-polite version of the same lament so many of us regularly have about others and, if we’re being honest, about ourselves, even as we can’t resist the pull of the flashing notifications, the desire to see what the web, Forster’s evolved Machine, has delivered to us.

Indeed, the man’s screaming was a crazed echo of another of Forster’s creations, Margaret Schlegel of Howard’s End who wants to implore the rigid, unemotional Henry Wilcox with one of Forster’s most famous entreaties, one that rings down the decades, louder and more urgently now than ever, if we’ll stop long enough to hear it:

“Only connect!”


Monument to E.M. Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.

Monument to E.M. Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.






“The Grinning Boy”

29 Jan

The IRA, the Boston Irish mob wars, a bully, and a boy caught between a series of bad choices:  my new short story, “The Grinning Boy,” appears in the current issue of The Missouri View.  Gorgeous issue, with lots of great reading.  Check the Table of Contents here.

The Missouri Review, Winter 2014

The Missouri Review, Winter 2014

Students going multimodal

15 Dec

In my first-year reading and composition course at UC Berkeley this semester (“Writing in Public:  Identity and the Digital You”), my students read a series of pieces that asked them to think about digital technologies and the ways they are affecting our lives.

Among the things they read and wrote about: 

*It’s Complicated:  The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by danah boyd

*The PBS Frontline documentary, “Generation Like”

*Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think:  How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

*Philip K. Dick’s famous futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

They wrote in the traditional modes of freshman composition–rhetorical and literary analyses, persuasive papers and summaries, reader responses and the like. Then, after they read Thompson’s descriptions of students who had experienced the beneficial effects of writing online for an audience of more than one (the teacher), I asked them at the end of the term to write a short, multimodal essay and to post it online so that anyone–possibly you–could see it.

The class issued a collective gulp.

Exhausted after a long semester but game for the challenge of writing in a way almost none of them had tried before, they wrote and shared their essays via WordPress, Tumblr, and Prezi. I’ve linked below to some of them, organized loosely into two categories. I hope you’ll take the time to explore a few of them.

Social media and its (dis?) contents

Starting with a little historical context, Inger draws comparisons between Facebook profiles and illuminated texts from the Middle Ages.

Alex argues social media might help us bridge the gaps between our intrinsic and perceived identities, and Sierra tells us about how social media provides her with a “second home” as she moves from Korea to Canada to the Philippines and then on to the U.S. 

Exposing part of social media’s less savory side, one student looks at how it pressures people to change their appearance, while another, Chantelle, explores in particular the way this affects girls’ and women’s sense of what counts as beautiful.

Perhaps Shelby’s examination of why people tend to present only their ideal selves online accounts for some of how those pressures create a vicious cycle of self-presentation.  Maybe this is part of why people behave so aggressively online, a subject that Justin explores.

Much of the pressure comes from the prominent place of the visual in online spaces.  Katie discusses the rise of digital photography, and another student asks her friends to describe why they use Instagram the way they do.

Speaking of photography, Keshlee clearly enjoys taking selfies, and she’s glad to tell you how to up your selfie game.

Who Am I Online (and Off)?

This student asks whether it’s possible for people, including himself, to be authentic on social media. Dorothee feels like one of her favorite musicians, Ben Howard, can. (Especially if one mostly ignores social media and simply listens to his music.)  

Meanwhile, Austen finds expression by flying high above our heads. Want to learn how to do so yourself? There’s a De-Cal for that.

Lily–lover of food, reading, and golf–asks whether she’s the same person online and off, as does Stephane, who may one day win Wimbledon or improve your eyesight, or both.

This student, employing the evocative metaphor of the silhouette, debates whether we are knowable online, and demonstrates why some, including herself, often choose to represent themselves with avatars.

Kevin wonders whether he’s just being a lemming by joining social media (he says, with good cheer, that the answer is pretty much yes), while Kim lays out the virtues of the most popular networks, and Jocelyne considers the ways in which people interact on Tumblr.

Vanessa makes clear that it’s all about the audience for her, even if the audience–paradoxically for social media–is sometimes just herself, while Danxin reminds us that in the global reach of the Internet era, one’s audience (and one’s online self) can sometimes shift as it crosses borders.

My thanks to my students. (That wasn’t so painful, was it?) I hope you, the public audience, enjoyed their pieces as much as I did.

Postscript:  As I posted these essays here, I sent out the following tweet with a link to this page, and soon thereafter got the following responses from one member of the broader public audience.  

If the students above had even a fraction of Clive Thompson’s 25,000+ Twitter followers take a look at their essays, that will be an audience that is considerably larger and more public than the one they’re used to. Nice to have one of the authors we read cement the point for us.

A Public Audience 1

A Public Audience 2

A compendium of selfie reflections (for my students)

20 Oct
Rembrandt selfie by LoopyDave

Rembrandt selfie by LoopyDave

The modern-day selfie is beyond its cultural oversaturation point.  It’s ubiquitous.  It’s been folded into markers of the elite as the OED’s word of the year for 2013; it’s been turned into a mainstream network sit com that looks like a candidate for quick cancellation this fall; and it’s been spun into a pop music confection that offers a giggle and then disappears like a mouthful of cotton candy:

This ubiquity has resulted in repeated charges that selfie takers (particularly the young) are narcissists who are so self-involved that even when they encounter celebrities they’d rather snap a selfie than have a chat and make a personal connection with the likes of, say, Kirsten Dunst.

Outside the U.S., Muslims taking selfies during the hajj earlier this month were condemned by some as acting in ways that were disrespectful and inappropriate.  Here at home there have been heartfelt warnings, such as this one from rapper Prince Ea, to stop regarding ourselves so much and to start regarding each other.

Yet we keep taking selfies, and keep scolding ourselves for taking selfies.

Megan Garber of The Atlantic argues that we’re in a “Plateau of Productivity” now:  the hype cycle of the selfie is at its end.  We’re getting sick of them even as we continue to snap them, she notes, and this is just the point at which they become interesting to study.  I think she’s right.  (And so does the university where I work.)

The selfie isn’t new; the technology with which we create them is.  As others have noted, Rembrandt painted selfies, as did many other painters, well-known and not, and as have lots of other artists up to the modern day.

(There are also artists, it should be noted, who eschew the practice of self-portraiture.)

The pre-smartphone selfie, then, has a long history, through the ages of painting and the dawn of photography on down to our era of the camera that can be turned on oneself at whim.  We’re further encouraged these days by trying to emulate the positive attention that celebrities get for their own selfies.

So have we always been narcissists at base, just waiting for the right technology to draw it out of us en masse?

The selfie is of a piece with our natural human impulse to declare ourselves, to make our presence known in the world (“Kilroy was here!”), to figure out and express who we are, and as I’ve written elsewhere in this essay from 2007 about the use of “I” in writing, it is in knowing ourselves that we might come to better understand and regard others.

And lest we think this is a uniquely Western phenomenon, we should consider the revelation published in Science earlier this month of the earliest known human selfies to date:  a set of hands stenciled onto a cave wall in Indonesia that are believed to be at least forty thousand years old.

At least some of what’s going on here in America with reactions to selfies is probably a reflection of what de Tocqueville noticed about us during his visits to the U.S. in the 1830s:  the tension that was evident between the populism that gave birth to our democracy and the elitism that we’d supposedly rejected in splitting from aristocratic England.

Alexis de Tocqueville Source:  en.wikipedia.org

Alexis de Tocqueville (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

We still have the elitist’s desire to distinguish ourselves from the rest (“Look at me.  Aren’t I good looking?”) while also condemning anyone who thinks they’re better than the rest (“Enough with the selfies, you narcissist!”)  And in the critiques, it runs the other way as well:  the self-restraining elitist condemns the masses who take selfies, and the masses keep taking them (while also frowning upon others who do so).

Context matters, of course, including the frequency with which one is inclined to take selfies.  Kim Kardashian endlessly photographing herself is not the same as people wanting to take a selfie with the guy who caught Travis Ishikawa’s pennant-winning home run is not the same as prehistoric human beings blowing paint over their hands, leaving stenciled traces for their descendants to find 40 millennia later.

We quickly read each selfie and judge for ourselves whether we’ve got a narcissist, a braggart, an artist, or a human being making their mark, maybe having some fun.  Maybe all of those at the same time.  We have to take each selfie as it comes, including some delightful new plays on the word, such as shelfie.

So let me conclude by looking at one of mine.  This is one I took on Father’s Day this year and then shared with friends on Facebook.  I called it a “chestie.” 


What have we got here?  A series of messages that my friends might have read into the picture:

Check out this cool t-shirt my daughter gave me.

Aren’t I clever calling this photo a “chestie”?

A shout out to my fellow A’s fans.

Much love to Oakland.

How modest I am to not include my face.

Aren’t I a great and lucky dad to have received this present?  And aren’t you jealous of my good fortune?

I was here on this day, at this time, doing this.

Did I think of all these at the time I took and posted the photo?  No.  Very happy with the gift, I put on the t-shirt, soon after saw people posting Father’s Day photos–some of them selfies–and decided to join in.  I was conscious of the decision to call it a “chestie” and to celebrate the A’s (who were doing so so SO much better at the time), but that was about it.  Snapped the selfie, posted it, and forgot it.  Up until now.

What does my selfie mean?  You be the judge.

And now I will finish this compendium by burying the lede:

I wrote this post partly for myself, out of a desire to personally bookmark some of the public discussions of the selfie that have been taking place of late, and partly for you, in case you’re interested, but mostly I wrote this for my current students, who will be embarking on writing some digital, multimodal essays about online identity in the coming month.  

I offer this brief essay as an example to them, and I’m hoping to encourage them to let me share some of their work publicly here.  Given their facility with technology, I’m sure they can do much more interesting things with digital tools than I’ve managed to do in this blog post.  (Oh, look at that textual selfie he just took–so humble!)


How do we dance? After Ferguson for the privileged vacationer

24 Aug

Early on the morning of Saturday, August 9, the sun was high, the sky was clear, and my family and I were at last ready for our long-anticipated summer vacation when my wife made one last stop for a hot tea in Berkeley before we set off.  When she returned to the car, she told me about a brief encounter she’d had in the coffee shop that would prove more striking in light of what would come to pass later that day in Missouri.

After getting her tea, she went to the nearby counter to doctor it with milk and honey.  There was a very large man there who was in the way in the cramped space.  He moved to one side to make room for her just as she moved in the same direction.  Neither could get around.  Then they both moved simultaneously in the opposite direction to make way.  My wife smiled and said, “It looks like we’re dancing.”  It was at this point that the man, who had seemed stiff and uncomfortable, a neutral expression on his face, laughed and broke into a wide grin, and his whole body relaxed.  His smile, she said, was winning and beautiful.

My wife is a petite woman who looks to the outsider, perhaps, vaguely Jewish—dark hair, pale skin.  Most would call her white.  (She’s half-English, half-Mexican, all American.)  The man with whom she was dancing at the coffee bar was tall, heavyset, and black.  When the man smiled at her and laughed, my wife said it was like she could see the man’s armor come down, the armor he probably has to carry in spaces like these—filled mostly with white people—offering a glimpse of the human being beneath.

“Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day,” he said, as they each sugared their drinks.

“It does, doesn’t it?” she replied, and then wished him a great Saturday.

For a little while in the car afterward we talked about the carapace that so many people of color have to wear in situations like this, and that so many black men in particular, and especially large black men, have to wear.  We talked about the ways in which most white folks (ourselves included) really don’t have a clue about the de-humanizing psychological effects this must have on a person.  We talked about why it was so hard for most white folks to acknowledge the kinds of microaggressions that people of color are subjected to constantly, the microagressions that lead one to develop that requisite armor.  We agreed that this was a tragedy, and that acknowledging the humanity of others—offering a simple smile or a dance—was so important, and a place to begin.

Then a couple of hours later, in the wake of the most macro and final of aggressions, Michael Brown was left dead on the street for four hours, and Ferguson, Missouri exploded.

* * *

We continued on our long car drive to the Pacific Northwest, completely oblivious.  The places we were staying had no televisions or newspapers, and we turned off all the notifications on our smart phones.  We wanted to unplug for a while and enjoy ourselves.  We were totally clueless about what was happening in the outside world.

About a week into our trip, I finally peeked at my news feeds, and began seeing #Ferguson Ferguson FERGUSON!! everywhere.  Something about a black man being killed by a (probably white) police officer.  The same awful, too familiar story, except that this one was obviously different.  News reports coming fast and furious.  Friends posting their outrage—at the police, at the media—friends calling for understanding, friends saying look at this, look at this, look at this!!

It was too much to take in.  This was supposed to be a much-needed vacation.  A vacation unplugged.  I felt vaguely ill, and I had to work hard to forget it for a few more days.  The pretty scenery helped:



Fern CoveClearwox Lake

This is what we Americans are often good at:  forgetting.  And when it’s white (“white”?) Americans thinking about race, and especially white people thinking about black people, we are very good at forgetting.  We—the privileged we—take vacations of the mind all the time.

* * *

When we returned home after almost two weeks away, it was still too much, but I tried to sort through the broad outlines and the specifics, trying to make sense not only of the sequence of events, but also of how to put it all in context, and, finally, of what to do about it.

There have been many incisive things written and said about the matter, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of them, but among those things, I’ll offer five here.  This is as much, or more, a marker for me as it is for you, the reader, who has probably seen these already. 

But if not, these five are more than worth your while, each of them offering concrete steps we can take–as parents, as citizens, and as a government–to avoid tragedies like those that befell Michael Brown, and to help redress such tragedies that, sadly, are sure to happen again:

First, this post, “A Mother’s White Privilege,” by Elizabeth Broadbent.  What mothers of white children do, and don’t, have to worry about.

Next, “Dear White Moms,” an impassioned plea from Keesha Beckford that all people, and white folks especially, should heed.

Then there is this much-shared piece by Air Force veteran Michael Bell, in which he describes what he discovered about what happens when police investigate a shooting by one of their officers.  (The answer is what you’d expect:  pretty much nothing.)  The first paragraph runs as follows:

“After police in Kenosha, Wis., shot my 21-year-old son to death outside his house ten years ago — and then immediately cleared themselves of all wrongdoing — an African-American man approached me and said:  ‘If they can shoot a white boy like a dog, imagine what we’ve been going through.'”


And then this commentary from John Oliver, who is fast establishing himself as a go-to man for putting complex political situations into an accessible, and often hilarious, context:


Finally, though I hope you look at all of the above links, if you read only one of them, make it this one:  “Reparations for Ferguson, a commentary by Ta-Nehisi Coates, correspondent from The Atlantic and another go-to man for cultural and political commentary.

His earlier May 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations,” was so well done and thought provoking that I went out and bought a print copy of the magazine so I could digest his writing more fully.  Upon closer inspection, the article proved to be even more impressive, such that I immediately subscribed to The Atlantic in print for three years.

In “Reparations for Ferguson,” Coates extends and further specifies the arguments of his original piece in a way that is all the more powerful in the wake of Ferguson.  His article serves as a reminder (for those of us who need the reminding) that many more Fergusons are in our future if we don’t take steps—individually and as a country—to address them.  Now.


So much depends…

15 Jul


an inserted

scribbled in black

amidst the white

 The Kindly Rejection


Though in light of the TriQuarterly submissions controversy last week, and T.A. Noonan’s cogent responses to same (both anonymous and by-lined), the cynic says, “Oh, I bet you say that to everyone.”


Postscript:  The story referenced in the above note has since been accepted elsewhere.


Life imitates art–a little “whoa” moment

11 Jun

I’ve written before about the way my writing has sometimes anticipated, in odd ways, people or events in my life.  Yesterday, I had another of those moments.

Earlier this year, as I was finishing up a class discussion of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” in a creative writing class I co-teach at UC Berkeley, one of my students suddenly went into a massive seizure.

The student has suffered these seizures repeatedly since he was a young child, and he is confined to a wheelchair so he won’t hurt himself if he seizes and falls down.  His lovely mother–a shoo-in candidate for mother of the year–is his constant companion, shuttling him from class to class and everywhere else her son needs to go.

I had known beforehand that his seizing was a possibility.  However, it was still a shock when, as I began to prompt the class to begin a writing exercise, my student began convulsing in his chair.  I rushed over, and with his mother’s help and guidance, eased him out of his chair and onto the floor, supporting his head and neck as his seizure continued.  Several of my other students, reacting quickly, called 911.  The student’s body eventually calmed and he fell into a kind of sleep.  The Berkeley Fire Department arrived with impressive speed, and the student was taken to the hospital, where he recovered quickly.

An upsetting event for all concerned–my student’s mother especially–but I was proud of my other students for their take charge and compassionate responses.  They warmly welcomed their classmate back to class the next week, and he continued to the end of the semester with impressive perseverance and his customary good cheer.

And then yesterday, I was working over a long manuscript of fiction–cutting and cutting and cutting–when I came across a short passage I’d forgotten.  I’d first written the scene 5 or 6 years ago, before I’d begun teaching creative writing at Cal, and not having witnessed a grand mal seizure since middle school when a classmate of mine suffered one.

In the scene, a fiction writer is out to dinner with colleagues when one of their party suddenly collapses.  The other people leap into action, attending to the person who has passed out and fallen to the floor.  Meanwhile, the fiction writer sits paralyzed, doing nothing but watching the others.  After describing that initial action, I wrote this:

He was reminded of his shame when a few years earlier a student had gone into an epileptic seizure in one of his creative writing classes and how he’d stood in place the entire time, saying not a word as a series of future take-charge types in the guise of hooded freshmen who couldn’t write had kept the poor boy from biting off his tongue and thereby exposed their instructor as a man not to be counted on in a crisis.  He’d barely been able to return their gazes for the rest of the semester; everyone in the class had gotten an A.

I’m glad that my actual self responded better than the fictional character did (probably thanks to my student’s mother).  And my actual students were much better writers than the fictional ones, although, sadly, not everyone earned an A.

Still, it was a mini “Whoa” moment.  And I think I’ll keep that scene in the manuscript.

(Source:  hansol, Flickr)

(Source: hansol, Flickr)