Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Honor among rogues"?

“To say that a man is your friend, means commonly no more than this, that he is not your enemy. Most contemplate only what would be the accidental and trifling advantages of friendship, as that the friend can assist in time of need, by his substance, or his influence, or his counsel; but he who foresees such advantages in this relation proves himself blind to its real advantage, or indeed wholly inexperienced in the relation itself…. What is commonly called Friendship is only a little more honor among rogues. But sometimes we are said to love another, that is, to stand in a true relation to him, so that we give the best to, and receive the best from, him. Between whom there is hearty truth there is love; and in proportion to our truthfulness and confidence in one another our lives are divine and miraculous, and answer to our ideal. There are passages of affection in our intercourse with mortal men and women, such as no prophecy had taught us to expect, which transcend our earthly life, and anticipate heaven for us.”
- Henry David Thoreau, On the Concord River

I long have been fascinated by friendship. The concept, that is. What makes for friendship between two people, why some friendships sour and why others endure. My curiosity stems from my personal experience. At various times in the course of one's youth, alliances are formed and shifted. Bonds are forged, hurts are felt, and it all seems like a blur of speed dating or an awkward square dance until the music stops, you are 45 years old, and you wonder where your old friends went and where your new friends came from.

When I was an adolescent, I was one of a core group of four friends, memorialized in my one-act play of the same name. We had other friends as well, but we four I guess you could say had more intense adventures together, we took ourselves further to the boundaries of experience. Among other friends, it was a laugh, when the four of us were together, we were serious about what we were doing, whether it was listening to music, trespassing on a golf course at night with a case of beer and other substances, talking into the wee hours, or dreaming about forming a band. We seemed a very tight-knit group.

Yet whenever there was some kind of an issue about which there was no unanimity, our quartet would split into two dyads. And always the same two. Later, awkwardly, two of us, one from each dyad, had a major falling out, and then it became two separate trios. Actually, three, since one of us was a year older and went away to college before us. The next year, two more of us went away to college, one never did. The three in college went to the same college, but wouldn't you know only two of us, from an older dyad, stayed close. After college, nothing was quite the same. The one who stayed home found a new group of friends and the rest of us never really gelled with them.

Within a few years, we were completely splintered and then one of us died. Two who had been estranged became reacquainted. But the remaining three seem to have little left in common. We are friendly, but can we be said to be friends?

The unraveling of this group has intrigued me for a long time. I dare say it has troubled me. We seemed to have so much in common once. Had we all changed so much? Were the bonds we had shared in the past no longer valid? Had they ever been?

Aside from my play, I have tried writing about friendship over time in other stories. Until I figure it out, I'm not sure I can complete any of them. My current hypothesis is that what poses as commonality is really largely just proximity. I was friends with my friends because they were geographically close to me. We all lived just a few blocks from each other; I and my dyad-mate, in fact, were next door neighbors. We had other similarities, of course, some of them quasi-cosmic: three of us were Aquarians, the other a Pisces; the three Aquarians all had the same middle name, Mark, and the Piscean's first name was Marc. We were all Jewish, we went to the same school, and we all basically liked the same music. Personality-wise, we were far from identical, but it didn't seem to matter then.

Now it seems to matter a great deal. I won't describe us because it will only sound as though I was normal and the rest less than. Suffice to say, I don't always find their personalities so ignorable anymore. Why is that so? Again, I think part of has to do with proximity, or lack of it. We all went in separate directions professionally, we all live in different areas. I am more religious than the others and so am more connected to Jewish ritual and community. My musical tastes are broad and challenging. I am a writer, hopelessly nostalgic, yearning and dreaming of realizing my creative vision.

Of the other two, one is a Deadhead/Phishhead type who owns a small service business, and the other is a wealthy attorney. We three are very much like the archetypes outlined in a concept album by my favorite progressive rock group, Gentle Giant, in their 1972 album, Three Friends. In that album, three friends who are very close in school drift apart as they enter the working world. One is working class ("Working All Day"), one is an artist ("Peel the Paint"), one is rich ("Mister Class and Quality?").

By being part of different worlds, different communities, we have each been broadened in different ways. Further, we are all part of multiple worlds, multiple communities. We have our home domain, our work domain, as well as cultural and avocational domains. Because we lack proximity to each other, we can't stoke the core elements that once drew us together, and they become further suffused by the layers of new contacts, qualities, skills, interests, and friends that we accumulate every day. When we get together, we almost don't know each other anymore. We default to the shorthand and inside jokes that were relevant 25, 30 years ago, but those things aren't how we define ourselves today and we find it difficult to get reacquainted to who we all are now.

Maybe if we spent a week in a cabin in the woods, we would learn better who we are now. Maybe we would find even more conclusively that we are not simpatico anymore. Maybe it's better simply to sustain the tenuous thread that keeps us connected, and try neither to strengthen it nor take scissors to it. After all, it's not wrong that we grew, that we changed. Nor is it wrong that we grew and changed in different ways. Proximity served its purpose then; the lack of it also serves a purpose today. It allows us to evolve without the constraining expectations of childhood alliances.

Interestingly, I find that I have more interesting interactions with my second tier of friends, those outside the four with whom we were always friendly yet in a more general social way. I had lost touch with them as well, yet I find today that not only do we still retain meaningful bonds and values from the old days, but we are also able to successfully integrate the lives and qualities we possess now. I'm not sure why that it. Maybe my quartet was too intense, maybe we applied too much pressure to maintaining the integrity of our small group, maybe we inadvertently kept each other from doing the self-exploration that is so necessary in adolescence and early adulthood.

I look at my current friends and I don't have one with whom I share the kind of closeness I knew as a child, when two people seem to be one. I have music friends, sports friends, Jewish friends, work friends, neighborhood friends, 117 Facebook friends (several of whom I barely know)...I don't have anyone who spans the entirety of my experience. Maybe I never did. Maybe that's why I feel a certain void in my life that keeps me looking back, trying to reclaim something I thought existed.

Maybe it's not a friendship I lost that intrigues me, maybe it's a friendship I never had. If indeed it has eluded me all these years, why do I feel I need it now? And would I know if it were to come to me? And if I did, would it fulfill me?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

If a post enters the blogosphere and no one comments on it, does it have any impact?

Heavy question for a long holiday weekend. But it's been on my mind, since I'm still relatively new to the blogging thing and I guess maybe I still need to be convinced that there's a point to it beyond being a purely egocentric forum for whatever it is about me that I want to broadcast to the anonymous masses who come here - mostly quite accidentally - and scan the offerings.

The days when I check my blog and see a comment are extremely gratifying - and rare. I've enjoyed learning how people found my blog and what of value they found in whatever post it was that they commented on. It's endlessly fascinating how connections work in this (n)etherland. I've "met" people who share my interest in family history, who have a loved one afflicted with the same disease that claimed my mother, and who want me to pursue one of my future projects. It is in these moments that Tim Berners-Lee's vision of the World Wide Web becomes real to me - that there is something in these links and pages of user-generated content that can not only connect but potentially heal humanity.

What I wonder about it why so many people from so many countries (at least a dozen, according to my site counter) come here, look around briefly, and leave without making their mark. Maybe they took a quick scan and didn't find anything worthwhile here. I can understand that. Different strokes for different folks. I can't get too upset if someone I don't know doesn't take interest in my personal life and work. But I sense that people (other than a certain colleague who lets me know in personal, analog terms that she has read and enjoyed my posts) are actually reading the content and then clicking away for someone else's two cents. To them I say, "Hey, at least leave a calling card so I can thank you for the visit."

For a writer, particularly, feedback is a critical part of the creative process. Yes, there's a certain sense of "I need to put this on paper regardless if anyone reads it" but the obverse of this is "If no one reads what I write, why then am I writing?" A song never heard by an audience may have an intrinsic value, but the lack of extrinsic interest and acceptance renders it largely moot. It calls to mind the famous quote by Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" To put it another way, if I choose to write that others may learn from and/or enjoy my writing, is there an audience willing to consume it? And should I choose to write to feed my soul rather than my family, how does that change my sense of role, of identity, both in and of myself and in the eyes of others?

And if not know, when? Well, therein lies the rub and the root of my inquiry. If you read something here and do not comment on it immediately, will you ever? And if the time to do so it now, will you do so? If not, why not? I am putting myself out here for your consumption. Will you not do the same? Is it coincidence that most of the comments I have received are from other bloggers? Who knows what lurks in the hearts of lurkers? If they don't comment, we'll never know.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Close but no cigar

On July 8, 2008, I posted a piece called "In the presence of genius," in which I spoke about some of the brilliant people I have had the opportunity to meet and interview in my job. Two of the folks were from MIT: Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web; and Robert Langer, a chemical engineer who has developed remarkable nanotechnologies for biomedical applications.

Recently, I was asked to edit an article about the fact that of the three winners to date of Finland's Millennium Technology Prize - a prestigious global award with a purse of $1.4 million for people who develop innovative technologies that aid humanity - two have been MIT engineers. Yes, you guessed it: Berners-Lee and Langer. Anyway, the first draft of the article needed a lot of work so I rewrote it, to the client's delight.

Then last week, our client came to our office to tell us that there was a chance the article may have to be rewritten again. It appears that both Berners-Lee and Langer were finalists for Nobel prizes, announced this past week. Langer was up for the Nobel for Medicine, Berners-Lee for the Peace Prize. As it turns out, neither got the nod, and my own opportunity for further bragging rights also evaporated.

Had Langer won, he would have become the first engineer to win the award for Medicine. It would seem that his time is coming, however, as the Nobel is pretty much the only major award he hasn't received yet. The man is a true superstar in his field, and royalty at MIT, where his last name is uttered in reverent tones.

As for Berners-Lee, the very notion that a technologist who invented a computing concept and a programming language could be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize is indicative of just how monumental the World Wide Web is. The Nobel committee may never come to terms with giving an engineer a Peace Prize, but what would the world be like today minus his fingerprints?

Anyway, the article doesn't need to be rewritten now.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Past Projects III: Radio scripts

When I worked at WGBH years ago, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Ellen Kushner, an extremely smart, gifted, and funny writer and radio host. Recurring readers will recall that my novel-in-waiting, The Grave and the Gay, was stylistically inspired by her wonderful work, Thomas the Rhymer. Suffice to say, she has been a friend and inspiration from that moment hence (and I recommend her Green Marinade highly).

Anyway, Ellen was host and principal writer for a marvelous public radio series called Sound & Spirit, a co-production of WGBH and Public Radio International. S&S treated the human experience with wonder and reverence, with text and with song. Each hour-long program was almost a meditation unto itself, a listening experience that somehow engaged all your senses and left you with a decided optimism about humanity.

One day after I had left WGBH for greener (as in $) and meaner pastures, I received an email from Ellen. She was working on a program called "Fathers and Sons" that was intended for Rosh Hashanah, using as its core narrative and thematic springboard the Genesis story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Ellen was asking me and others included in the email for song suggestions. One of mine, Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" (Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"/Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"/God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"/God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but/The next time you see me comin' you better run"/Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"/God says, "Out on Highway 61.") was selected and she gave me on-air credit for helping out.

My appetite for stardom thus whetted, I asked Ellen if I might try my hand at writing a script for S&S. She knew my writing ability from WGBH and invited me to come in and meet the team. They asked if I had any ideas for a show. My mother had died not long before and I had become fascinated with the logic and beauty of Jewish mourning rituals, so I suggested something about mourning. They liked the idea and told me to cover a range of cultural and religious traditions. Just conducting the research was a fascinating experience. You really get an appreciation for the breadth of beliefs and customs in the world.

In addition to the narrative development, there was the music. The S&S team would scan through the WGBH CD library for material and I would be able to suggest music as well. The typical S&S musical cut was in the classical, ethnic, or folk realm. Arvo Pärt seemed to work his way into a lot of shows. I asked an online jazz community I participate in for suggestions, and someone alerted me to a stunning solo piano piece by Bill Evans from the album Bill Evans At Town Hall, called "In Memory of His Father." Evans' father had died just a week or two before the concert and rather than cancel he decided he would improvise a tribute to him. One enthusiastic listener wrote a letter to the station applauding the inclusion of Bill Evans' music in the program! At the end of her narration, Ellen noted that the program, titled "Mourning and Loss," was written by me and was dedicated to the memory of my mother.

The second script I did was called "Prayer." The third and last one I did, which was particularly challenging yet fun, had the happy-go-lucky title, "The End of the World." That program explored how various cultures think about and even plan for the end of days. Pretty heavy stuff.

I had more ideas, but due to budget issues they weren't making a lot of new shows after that and it was faster, easier, and more cost-effective for Ellen to churn them out herself. Ellen is now in New York City being brilliant so I'm not even sure the series is anything but reruns these days. That said, every program is a jewel, so you should check out the Sound & Spirit website for information on where and when it may be playing near you. You can also view a list of all the programs (including mine), view the playlists, and order transcripts.

Writing for Sound & Spirit was extremely gratifying, but writing scripts for strictly timed programs is very difficult and requires a certain touch and an ear and sensitivity for much content a person can hear and ingest when interspersed with excerpts of music. I learned a lot and though I don't think I'll ever write for radio again, I'm very proud of my credits and grateful to Ellen for the opportunity.