Arthur S. Brisbane, the public editor of The New York Times, turned his attention this week to the newsroom's use of Twitter. He quoted from an e-mail interview with me, which I am posting in full here, with a few tweaks and links. The Public Editor: I’m working on a column about how Times staffers use Twitter: the journalistic benefits, the marketing benefits and any other benefits – as well as the costs, whatever they might be. I am, I confess, a newcomer to using Twitter and wonder whether it is a boon or a waste of time.

@palafo: Is talking to people a waste of time? Sometimes it is, I guess. Twitter is a conversation. You get what you put into it. I don’t think talking to our readers is ever a waste of time.

That’s the short answer. Here’s the long one.

I view my Twitter account @palafo as part of my identity. It does not belong to The Times any more than my name does.

But The Times is part of my identity, too, because I am an editor here. For that reason, I behave on Twitter as I do in the newsroom or on a public panel. I try not to say anything on Twitter that I wouldn’t say in front of a live microphone with cameras rolling.

Background: I joined Twitter in 2007 when few people in the newsroom knew what Twitter was, and I didn’t hide my Times employment, but I didn’t advertise it at first, either. At the time, I was on the Metro desk, where I was editor of the City Room blog. We were always looking for ways to engage online with New Yorkers. The blog had an automated Twitter feed, but it had fewer followers than my account (still true, alas). It turns out that a personal touch on Twitter was more successful than spitting out headlines. So I identified myself on Twitter as the blog’s editor and started interacting with readers through it.

In my current job, editor for news presentation, I oversee copy editing and production for print and Web, and I continue to experiment with all the social media tools, including Twitter. I have a responsibility to understand the digital media innovations transforming journalism and the news business.

But I admit it: I love this stuff. I’ve been on the Internet since it was the Arpanet, when I was a teenager in the 1970s. Twitter reminds me of the computer bulletin boards, Usenet newsgroups and other online forums of the early days. The rest of the world has finally caught up.

Now, to your specific questions...

The Public Editor:What are the benefits to you of tweeting and what kind of content do you tweet?

I follow about 1,100 news organizations and blogs, competitors, Times colleagues and other journalists, people who follow the news closely, media critics, tech experts, some friends and acquaintances and anyone or anything anything else that catches my interest. I try to pare the list back from time to time. It was easier to follow when it was closer to 500. I also have a number of Twitter lists with even more accounts that I consult from time to time. I have a list that shows how Twitter looks to me.

These Twitter users “curate” the Web for me, which means they find, analyze and comment on useful links that interest me far more quickly than I could ever do for myself. If they link to something that grabs my attention, I will generally look at it or save it for later. I don’t read everything. I dip into Twitter when I have time. The analogy is a cocktail party. You can’t join every conversation, but you drift through the crowd and stop now and then. Important or significant news gets repeated, and it sometimes shows up in the trending topics.

Often I learn about news from Twitter. Your predecessor, Clark Hoyt, wrote about Twitter’s role in a big story in 2009 that was an aha moment for me and the newsroom, when a jetliner landed in the Hudson River.

But Twitter is more than a tip sheet or a place to find sources. It is important to remember the “social” part of social media.

Since the people on Twitter share so much useful information with me, I try to give back to them by interacting there. I don’t write about my lunch, or anything too personal. Mostly, I share links. The links are generally to news articles, blog posts, interesting uses of digital media, pictures, video, you name it. I follow our newsroom policies for personal Web writing, which permit journalism reflections, and lively commentary on one’s avocations like music and food, but forbid taking stands on divisive public issues.

I am not a Times spokesman or a marketer. I share a lot of our journalism on Twitter, because it is excellent. I don’t feel obligated to do so, and I don’t share everything. The article has to interest me personally as a reader and be something that I think my Twitter followers will like. People can tell when you are just randomly pumping your own stuff or your employer’s offerings. Luckily, Times journalism — I am biased about this -- is almost always of a high caliber.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter is asynchronous, so I am followed by about 10 times more people than I follow back. Sometimes they want to talk to me. So I read all “mentions” directed at me on Twitter. People know I’m busy, so they don’t abuse the opportunity. I ignore anonymous gripes, but people who use their real identities are generally polite even if they are upset about something The Times has done. If someone like that has a question, a correction, or a criticism, or a technical problem, I try to answer it or find someone who can.

The Public Editor: Do readers benefit and, if so, how? Does The Times benefit and how?

As everybody knows, over the last several years Twitter and social media have grown at a great rate, and many news sites, including The Times, now receive a growing amount of traffic from referrals on Twitter and other social media sites. Having our journalists on Twitter also translates into credibility with readers who live their lives online. It shows we understand the digital world and how it works.

More important, The Times and its readers benefit from a newsroom that understands digital culture and is familiar with the conversations about the news on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, blogs and similar sites.

The news report and readers also benefit from the news-gathering power of tools like Twitter. Brian Stelter has used Twitter to develop ideas that have turned into articles.Rob Mackey of The Lede blog (@thelede) has shown how news events from earthquakes to political revolutions have played out on Twitter, YouTube and other social platforms.

In general, sites like Twitter have accelerated news competition. Not all of the effects of high-speed social media have been positive. Rumors and bad information spread faster — but they are also debunked faster. The pressure to compete in real time, and the transparency and immediate feedback from readers can be nerve-racking and destabilizing. But competition is good for everyone. We are closer to our audience, and they are closer to us. That results in a better news report.

The Public Editor: Are there any costs to you, or the Times, of using Twitter as a tool? Surely, it takes time. Does that time subtract from the time available to do your job? Any other costs?

It doesn’t take away from the job. If anything, the job probably eats into many more hours of my personal time than it should. Or so my wife tells me.

Part of my job is to read The Times and its competitors, a task that could fill every hour of my day if I let it. Twitter is a useful tool for figuring out priorities for my attention. It doesn’t take that much time. At work, I use an iPhone app, and there’s always down time, walking down the hall, waiting for stragglers at a meeting, riding the elevator, while I’m grabbing a bite to eat. It only takes an extra second to save a link or share it. At home, I’ll look at Web sites and Twitter on my laptop, phone or iPad while I’m watching TV or listening to music, a podcast or an audiobook. I am busiest on Twitter at night and on weekends. The Web and Twitter have definitely cut into time I used to spend reading books.

Another cost is the occasional irritation of family and friends, although e-mail is a worse cause of inattention and wasted time. I’ve been trying harder lately to turn off devices and get off the grid away from work. It’s not easy. The people I know are like me: They talk about the news a lot, and they want to know the latest news, too.

###

Addendum:As I mentioned on Twitter, I might have chosen a different metaphor had I known the headline was going to be "A Cocktail Party With Readers." The analogy is as old as Twitter, and useful for newbies, but it doesn't capture everything:

Other analogies for Twitter: Cafe. Neighborhood. Village square. Crowded public meeting. Parade ground. War zone.Sun Mar 13 15:41:30 via webPatrick LaForge

palafo

@palafo Classroom back row. Street corner. Water cooler. Kindergarten. TED.Sun Mar 13 15:48:12 via EchofonMiss Scorpio

gemini_scorpio

@palafo Real-time peer-review; collaborative footnotes and bibliography.Sun Mar 13 16:07:31 via webJenny K

jenny_flaneuse

@palafo Roman bath house with hash tags. #TwitterSun Mar 13 15:44:18 via EchofonDavid Herrold

davidherrold

@palafo I thought analogy worked well to convey level of involvement in conversations, but i'd prefer cafe for a.m., maybe mosh pit for p.m.Sun Mar 13 15:55:36 via webSasha Koren

SashaK

It's still syncing. While I prepare myself for the inevitable post-purchase depression and "why can't I do that, Mr. Jobs" revelations, here are some unboxing pictures and a video from my Posterous page.

At some point I'll list the pros and cons. But I'm done with the posting and tweeting today. I doubt there's much new that I could say about it.

Technology isn't my beat, so I'll leave the iPad news and reviews to my colleagues at Bits. (Here's an earlier post about how I made the purchase decision.)

For me, the iPad is first and foremost a book and media reader. My Kindle died a while back. I expect to make heavy use of not only the native iBooks reader but the Kindle for iPad reader [iTunes download], and a variety of customized apps from newspapers, magazines and comic companies, including this new app from The New York Times [free iTunes download].

I also expect this device to be good for casual gaming and for watching movies and TV, as well as casual Web surfing. It doesn't seem like a work device to me. It's more of a toy.

And if you wonder why I need a book reader, just look at this picture below. I have six more like that in our tiny Manhattan apartment. I do not want to be a latter-day Collyer brother.

Time for some more plugs. My wife, Jane Rosenberg LaForge, will be joining New York University professors and students at the Liberal Studies Program's Fall Faculty/Student Reading from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, at the Telephone Bar and Grill, 149 Second Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets) in the East Village. Also, Jane's "After Voices" poetry chapbook -- published last month by Burning River of Cleveland -- is now available at the McNally Jackson Book Store in SoHo, one of the few remaining interesting indie bookstores left in Manhattan.

IMG_0185Updated, Nov. 15. Time for a plug. I'm pleased to announce that "After Voices," a poetry chapbook by my wife, Jane Rosenberg LaForge, was released last week by Burning River of Cleveland. Jane has been laboring over these poems for a couple of years. Some people have asked, what is a chapbook? One definition: a short booklet containing poems, ballads or stories. Jane's chapbook includes 12 poems and an essay arranged around the theme of her father's deafness. (He is already disputing some of the facts. Fun times!) Jane plans to read some of the poems at a New York University faculty-student reading in the East Village in December.

A hard copy of the chapbook can be ordered online for $6 a copy from Burning River. A PDF version can be downloaded for free (it includes a bonus poem not in the print edition). It will eventually be available as a digital book in epub format from Project Gutenberg. You can also buy a copy at Visible Voice Books in Cleveland, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in SoHo, and the McNally-Jackson Bookstore, also in SoHo. I'll update this post if it becomes available anywhere else. Jane's working on that. Poets have to be their own distributors sometimes. It's a tough field, without a sustainable business model.

On the weekend of Oct. 17, the chapbook was released in conjunction with readings at the Morgan Conservatory of Papermaking and Visible Voice. Jane read several of the poems, including my favorites, "Lemons" and "Highway 5 Stockyard," as well as some of her unpublished poetry.

IMG_0186

Some poems in the chapbook were previously published in some form or another in La Petite Zine, Burnside Review, Bateau, Makeout Creek, Ottawa Arts Review and Noun Versus Verb. She has also had work published by the Tipton Poetry Journal and Adirondack Review.

I'm happy to report that I finally finished the 900+ page "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson, just four months (!) after starting it. I have to admit that I took breaks to read a few other things. I previously posted about the difficult, otherworldly vocabulary that Stephenson made up for this book. (For example, the "Reticulum" is similar to what we call the Web or the Internet, though you have to figure that out based on the description of a narrator who is basically a cloistered monk who never uses technology. "Jeejahs" are smart phones or mobile devices of some sort. Videos are "speelies" recorded with "speelycaptors." Those are some of the neologisms that feel apt. Not all of them do.)

Others have weighed in about the lexicon, and the book's need for editing, especially in the early chapters (here's an example from Slashdot, the bulletin board for geeks). And there's the question of the title, which looks like a typo and calls to mind Ayn Rand's completely unrelated polemical novel "Anthem," which Stephenson says he has never read (see video below). As Dave Itzkoff observed in The Times, "Anathem" is a thought experiment. It also benefits from a leisurely read. In the end, I found it to be a more satisfying novel than some of Stephenson's other enjoyable fictions. For example, his novel "Cryptonomicon," about the early roots of information technology and code-breaking during World War II, simply fell apart at the end (as Stephenson seems to acknowledge in the video below). I was dreading something similar would happen in this one.

The ending of this one is a bit confusing, for sure, what with contradictory action in the parallel worlds and the need to have a bit of a grasp of uncertainty and quantum physics and string theory, but it does hang together. Stephenson takes some of these modern physics theories to their logical limits and suggests that our conscious brains are time machines that are also able to span multiple "world tracks." He is completely serious about all of this, as you find if you consult the acknowledgments on his Web site. It would be interesting to hear him in conversation with somebody like Bob Thurman, the Columbia professor of Buddhism, who has described Bodhisattvas in precisely those terms.

The main world in the book, Arbre, seems like a nerd planet at first. The sorts of people who get caught up in very literal and geeky discussions of ideas, engineering and philosophy have been herded up and segregated in monastery-like mixed-sex "concents" -- concentration camps, essentially, surrounded by concentric walls that open only periodically.

Isolated from the ebb and flow of society outside, and barred from using its technology, they get by on pure theoretical thought, from generation to generation, for thousands of years. These communities are not religious; they dispensed with that long, long, ago. The length of time is important, because Stephenson has an obsession with long periods of time, which was part of the inspiration for this book. And it takes a long time -- at least 300 pages -- for Stephenson to build a word picture of this life, step by step. There's way too much about the forms of songs and chanting, rituals of punishment, and the social organization. Here is where he could have used better editing.

Things pick up once the narrator, Erasmus, finds himself outside in a modern world similar to our own, on a mission to help the "saecular government" (which is, actually, controlled by religious "deolators" -- believers), which is confronted with the arrival of a spaceship full of aliens. The aliens actually turn out to be from our own Earth and other parallel worlds. They are searching for a more ideal version of their own reality -- a better earth. They have a form of government remarkably similar to that aboard the Battlestar Galactica. Yes, there's an admiral.

The way the monastic thinkers come together on the outside to solve the thought experiment of alien contact is quite entertaining, as are Erasmus's adventures in a world of stupidity and conflict that is far more familiar to us than it is to his character. It is a place with all the modern ills, where illiterate people work dead-end jobs and occupy themselves staring at speelies and jeejahs all day, amid a cycle of booms, busts, wars and environmental calamities, where the Reticulum is both a tool of surveillance and revelation, enslavement and freedom. The online network is used to both rewrite history and to reveal it live everywhere in ways that the powers in control of the society cannot deny, as when Erasmus and his friends make a video of an alien crash landing as the military rushes to cover it up. The saecular power uses the Reticulum to rewrite the past. The aliens use it to learn how to conquer and infiltrate Arbre.

The obsessive and somewhat socially dysfunctional thought processes of the monastic nerds and geeks are described at length and will be familiar to anyone who has spend a lot of time among engineers, software developers, comic book collectors and the like.

In that respect, Stephenson has used fiction to write a far better nerd book than the nonfiction book "American Nerd" (which I read on a break from this one). You suspect that Stephenson might enjoy living in a concent, especially when you watch the video below. But he does reject the stifling rules that came along with herding all the nerds and geeks into one place, and Arbre ends up a freer place for them.

Most likely, if you have read this far, you would be a candidate to live there too, especially if you actually go going to his Web site to read explanations like this, and enjoy them:

The work is relevant to Roger Penrose, and has influenced, Anathem in at least five ways: Penrose posits, in The Emperor’s New Mind (ISBN 978-0192861986) and Shadows of the Mind (ISBN 978-0195106466), that the human brain takes advantage of quantum effects to do what it does. This has been so controversial that I have found it impossible to have a dispassionate conversation about it with any learned person. The dispute can be broken apart into a number of different sub-controversies, some of which are more interesting than others. The science-fictional premise of Anathem is based on the relatively weak and modest assumption that natural selection has found some way to construct brains that, despite being warm and wet, are capable of exploiting the benefits of quantum computation. Readers who are uncomfortable with the specific mechanism posited by Penrose...

In this world and on Arbre, there are two kinds of people: The kind who roll their eyes at that passage ("in at least five ways"), and the kind who have already clicked away from this blog to read the other four.

Stephenson also mentions Edmund Husserl, the founder of the Buddhist-like western philosophy of phenomenology, whose works briefly blew my mind in college, and the mathematician Kurt Gödel, somebody I hadn't really thought about since reading "Gödel, Escher, Bach" with my fellow geeks in the dorm back in 1981. I still have my dog-eared copy around here somewhere, and remember some interesting things about recursion and record players. That and the feeling that my head might explode. After reading "Anathem," your head might feel that way. And if you enjoy that, go read Stephenson's account of Gödel's work on time travel, which explains the theory behind novel's alien rocket ship and the hidden knowledge of consciousness developed over centuries by a group of monastics in the book called the lineage.

But, while Stephenson does a great job making these ideas accessible and understandable to a liberal arts brain, I think some reviewers have sold it short as a novel. There is suspense. There is politics. There is conflict. There is a satisfying resolution.

Last fall, Stephenson gave a lecture at Google, which is not only a company but a concent of sorts, with a staff of highly credentialed intellectuals who spend much of their time thinking and living within the same walls. There's an important difference: They are allowed to use our versions of speelycaptors, jeeejahs and the Reticulum. Indeed, it's their way of life.

Because I am fascinated by geek and nerd culture, I was struck by a few quotes from the video (you can watch the whole thing below):

I'm interested in the geekification of knowledge... Fifty years ago the repositories of knowledge were paper books and the brains of people who were basically paid to be university professors and researchers, and that was where you would go to get stuff you needed to know. And all of that is still there, but there's kind of this new phenomenon of networks of geeks on the Internet who are geeks of a particular topic that they are interested in. Sometimes it can be very academic sorts of topics. But it can also be blue-collar stuff. I saw some instructions lately on how to make your own springs. You have to temper the steel in a particular way....

I swing back and forth between being depressed about the way that traditional knowledge-carrying institutions are kind of falling apart and not doing their job right and being fascinated about how their work is being taken over by these networks of geeks. And i think within those networks of geeks that quality of the knowledge that they're exchanging is probably higher, because the Wikipedia page is a static thing and unless you're deliberately watching that page it can be changed without your knowing, whereas if it's an active conversation and it's live and you say something and it's wrong, people are going to jump down your throat and start writing you emails in all capital letters telling you how wrong you are...

That's all true. Here's the speely.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnq-2BJwatE&hl=en&fs=1]

I jumped into an esoteric debate Wednesday evening: What is the most effective way mainstream media can use social media like Twitter? Should they never post RSS feeds automatically? Must every tweet be crafted by human hands? Notice that I don't say "old media," because I happen to think that term is bull. Plenty of supposedly "old media" outlets have been on the Web since the earliest days and produce innovative multimedia content that is as good as or better than anything found elsewhere in the "new media." But that doesn't make for a good story. (Yes, plenty of old media practitioners still have their heads in the sand. And I don't claim to have figured it all out -- my point is, nobody has figured it out. The Web is 20 minutes old. Nobody knows anything.)

Anyway, the first thing I re-learned was how hard it is to have an extended discussion on Twitter. My Tweets are in one place, under my updates. The other person's replies are somewhere else, and I can't even link to them easily on Twitter. I have to use this search tool. Messages are limited to 140 characters. We're surrounded by a cloud of unrelated tweets by others, in varying degrees of engagement, who also might get annoyed if you're posting every 30 seconds. There is no threading, and Twitter lacks other tools we expect in messaging/commenting software. (Direct messages on Twitter are even worse, as Robert Scoble notes.)

So for the sake of preserving this record, here's the discussion I had with somebody Twittering for the MediaTricks blog about media organizations that put up RSS feeds using services like Twitterfeed.

NYT is a culprit, with many automatic headline feeds, including one for the City Room blog, where humans also tweet sometimes. I follow MediaTricks on Twitter (they return the favor), and butted into a conversation about Twitterfeed. I have, with some labor, turned the tweets into a conversation:

[@mediatricks to] @baltimoresun: Congrats on turning off Twitterfeed. Thanks for the mention, too. Turning it off has been a winning formula for media so far.

[@palafo (me)] to @mediatricks: What's the argument against using Twitterfeed?

@mediatricks This is our argument: [MediaTricks blog link] Twitter is not a push medium. On Twitter, do you prefer following RSS over following people?

@palafo I follow both RSS and people on Twitter. I find it useful to have them in the same place. No need for rules; market decides.

@mediatricks Not rules, just advice based on our experience. We think media misses out on the "social" part of social media w/RSS via Twitter.

@palafo Really? Then why do 14,000-plus people follow CNN and NYT rss feeds? They're getting something out of it.

@mediatricks Check out @news8Austin or @kvue (RSS) vs. @kxan_news (human) to see apples-to-apples. Same market, same size operations.

@palafo Will do. I have posted a longer comment on your post, because Twitter is simply not a useful tool for an extended chat.

@mediatricks Followers are not getting social interaction still. People follow them b/c they're large & established. They're the exceptions.

@palafo Hm. It's not just media. There are power Twitter users who get personal but follow few people themselves. It's not that social.

It's possible there was some cross-talk here. The conversation continued over on the Old Media New Tricks blog. (The comments there are in reverse-chronological order, yet threaded, which I find a little jarring, personally.)

Here's my take. As I mentioned in my tweets, I use my personal Twitter account to talk to real people and to follow RSS feeds of selected news organizations and blogs. It is handy to have them all in one place.

Patrick LaForge: Twitter is too young for its users to start making up rules on how it should be used. Nobody knows until different approaches are tried. Let the market decide. CNN has about 14,000 followers for its feed. Someone gets value from that. Nobody's making them follow. Likewise, NYT has a variety of feeds for its sections and blogs that people follow, or don't. There are also many individuals who work there who have personal Twitter accounts (like me) who dive into the social interaction.

What I prefer is truth in labeling. If you are an individual on Twitter, use an individual's name or handle, and we can chat. Don't call yourself "IndyStar" or "MediaTricks." I expect an institutional name like that to be an RSS feed with only occasional human updates, and I don't really want it pestering me for feedback or crowdsourcing or sharing the views of an unnamed person who is paid to "keep it real" under the outlet's name.

Twitter is still a very small audience, not worth a lot of staffing resources for a large media organizaiton. It is also a flawed tool. No threading, poor archiving, inadequate search. I am posting on your blog because 140 characters was simply too limiting and bound to get lost in the flood of Tweets, not from RSS feeds, which are predictable, but from the umpteenth individual telling me what's for dinner tonight. (Don't get me wrong, I do get a kick out of that stuff.)

Robert Quigley: Thanks, Patrick, for the comment. I our defense of @mediatricks, our real names are listed in the bio. There's no hiding our identities.

We have found Twitter to be worth staffing, despite its flaws. It doesn't take that much to staff, and the feedback we've received is overwhelmingly positive.

You're right - the market can decide. I personally unfollowed @NYTimes (despite loving the paper) because it's an RSS feed, which I get from Google Reader. People can unfollow our account because they WANT an RSS feed. It's just our experience that people prefer a human-staffed account, therefore it's our advice. The NYT, WSJ, CNN are exceptions because they're mammoth national outlets.

You may call social interaction "pestering," but our followers (of @statesman and @ColonelTribune) haven't complained. Check out some the feedback from @statesman's followers. It's as much about brand-building (or more) than it is about getting people to click our links.

Twitter is still a small audience, but it is a social media tool. I don't think anyone doubts that. If your paper is going to use social media (Twitter or elsewhere), our advice (just our advice, not a rule) is to use it for *social* media.

Patrick LaForge: ... I don't think Twitter is all that social. Even the individuals on it are broadcasting their likes/dislikes, links, blog posts, what they had for dinner. There's a little back and forth but not a lot of tolerance for an ongoing conversation. It's not that social. There are big names on Twitter who are definitely humans posting, but they only follow a few people and have very little social interaction. The tool itself creates this asynchronous community, with very little to encourage more than passing interaction. It's not THAT social.

Quigley: Sure, it is what you want it to be. We happen to get quite a bit of useful social interaction out of it (beyond what you're eating). It has its limitations, but we don't think it should be dismissed because of them. And news organizations CAN benefit from that social exchange.

LaForge: Individuals within a news organization can benefit. I really don't see any value in WKRP pretending to Twitter like a live person. Because the examples you've sent me just look like a slightly more sophisticated version of a feed, maintained by a low level producer or assistant. It would be better for the on-air personalities and reporters to all get their own Twitter accounts and be themselves. And keep a feed out there, why not. That's my advice, based on my experience.

The only thing I would add here is that many people have no idea what Twitter is. Compared to Facebook or blogs or plain old Web sites, it is a niche Internet service with a small number of users. Even fewer people could tell you what an RSS feed is. So this debate is really esoteric nerdstuff.

There are other comments worth reading over there, probably more enlightening than my own unedited ramblings. I commend them to you, and the ether. Some day someone will make sense of it all, I'm sure. And someone else will pop up to disagree, in 140 characters or less, in a streaming video blast from his or her Mark V brain plug.

img_7720One notable aspect of the 21st Annual Indie & Small Press Book Fair this weekend is the location, the members-only library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, at 20 West 44th Street in Manhattan, which is also home to the New York Center for Independent Publishing. The free book fair (donations accepted, in exchange for homemade baked goods on each floor), which lasts through Sunday, is a great excuse to wander up and down the floors and halls of this fascinating building on one of the more interesting blocks of Midtown. The Algonquin Hotel, another literary landmark, is across the street. (Times have certainly changed: The hotel now lends Amazon Kindles to its guests.) It was busy with people skimming books, talking about books and buying books. Who said print is dead? We strolled about for a couple of hours, and I came home with a bag of promising oddities, including a few entries in the Continuum Books series on significant pop albums (Radiohead's "O.K. Computer" and Neutral Milk's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," for example) and some gifts for others that I can't list now.

The books at the tables are from small literary presses -- offbeat novels, noir story collections, journals, poetry and alternative comics that don't get promoted with big ad budgets or displays at corporate bookstores. I picked up a few that piqued my curiosity, including Dzanc Books' "Best of the Web 2008," a collection billed as the year's best writing from online literary sites. It is an interesting idea, curating all those millions of online words into something manageable.

Many of the tables at the show are staffed by the editors or publishers themselves, and sometimes the authors. You can sometimes sense waves of eagerness and anxiety as you peruse their wares, which are mostly labors of love not likely to grace best-seller lists. It was hard not to muse on the technological and economic changes faces print publishers and creators. (Notably, one of the fair's sponsors was Sony, which had a table promoting the latest model of its digital book reader.)

These small publishers will probably fare a lot better than the big ones in the webby future. Even so, the digital revolution and the country's economic problems are a subtext of the book fair's lectures, readings and other presentations on topics like memoir writing, getting an agent, comics and "the next digital age."

One of Sunday's main events is a 1 p.m. "debate" between Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone and the cartoonist David Rees ("Get Your War On") . The topic: "How Doomed Is America?"

That is to be followed at 2 p.m. by a panel on the future of independent publishing. The description reads:

As new technologies once again turn the publishing world on its ear, small presses are surviving -- and thriving -- by embracing alternative publishing models, from limited editions that treat books as collectible objects, to innovative multimedia that make digital books more fluid, interactive and open source.

The final event of the day is a 4 p.m. trivia smackdown pitting representatives of PEN versus a team of literary bloggers, billed jokingly (I think) as "a showdown between new media and the old guard."

img_04741 The Post Office has become the department of print spam, an agency that delivers trash for us to recycle. I pay most of my bills online, and do most of my reading digitally (computer, iPhone or Kindle); I subscribe to fewer and fewer print magazines and have no use for catalogs. So it's great when the mail includes something I want to read. Last week, that was the 200-page issue No. 7 of N+1, entitled "Correction." A few years ago, Tony Scott wrote an essay about the earnest young New York writers who started N+1. On a whim, I bought a lifetime subscription. (They still sell them for $200.) It seemed like a good deal, even for a journal with an uncertain publication schedule, now described as twice a year. The cover price is $11.95 per issue, so I have yet to break even. (The founders went on to write first novels -- both enjoyable but slight -- or become literary fixtures, and they have tangled with the gossip blogs now and then).

N+1 feels right in print. Despite the promise of "Web only" content once or twice a week, I rarely visit its Web site, which is odd behavior for me, given that most of my news is filtered through blogs or social media like Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed and Delicious. (There is some good stuff there, like this article about being a student of David Foster Wallace). An infrequently published print journal of incoherent aims is an anachronism, to be sure, but an enjoyable one -- the news writ slow. I devour it in a way I do not devour The New Yorker, which tends to pile up into a tall stack that taunts me until at last, weeks behind, I skim wildly, looking for the articles people went out of their way to mention. "Did you see in The New Yorker..." Well, yes, I saw it.

This issue of N+1 was not a disappointment. It was perfect like hot coffee on a cold November morning. Here's how it went down:

  • The Intellectual Situation The front of the book is usually engaging, and this issue does not disappoint, with a humorous series of "ironic" corrections. Other items include a discussion of the next president as an American Gorbachev ("The America our new president inherits bears an uncanny resemblance to our old enemy, the Soviet Union -- right before it went under"), an overview of the new Jewish magazines, an argument for literary incoherence and a few other odds and ends.
  • Politics/Blood Sausage The highlight of this section is the continuation of the series of enlightening interviews with an anonymous hedge fund manager as the economy collapsed this fall. It is insightful and the best article in the issue. I won't be surprised if N+1 relocates from New York to a squat in an abandoned Florida McMansion. The onetime blogger A.S. Hamrah (Suck.com -- now that takes me back) delivers an interesting overview of films released during the Iraq War, from "Pearl Harbor" to "The Dark Knight." Then we have three poems by the cult poet of dogshit and ball gags, Frederick Seidel. The rhymes seem cheap, but he's won some big awards, so what do I know? ("The homeless are popping like pimples," he writes. Sure they are.) Mark Greif delivers an entertaining but slightly hard to follow high-concept essay, "On Food." (Greif, incidentally, doesn't care for the show "Mad Men," but he wrote the best essay about it anywhere, for the London Review of books.) I wasn't in the mood for the play that followed, something about Nazis, so I skipped it.
  • Home and Away And so we find ourselves in the middle of the book, with a story "The Family Friend" by Ceridwen Dovey, the author of the novel "Blood Kin." It's like one of those New Yorker stories I never read. That doesn't mean it's not good. It just means I didn't finish it. This is followed by a Benjamin Kunkel essay about anonymity and identity on the Internet, with charts. I like anything with charts, but I think Greif has won this issue's high-concept contest (there is nothing in the issue under the byline of co-founder Keith Gessen, though perhaps he wrote this). This is followed by Elif Batuman's "Summer in Samarkand," and Jace Clayton's "Confessions of a DJ," neither of which I read. Sorry! Maybe I'll get back to them.
  • Reviews Wesley Yang writes about the rise of the sleazy "seduction community," young men who practice a form of sexual manipulation, which started out before the Web on Usenet and found its way to best-selling books ("The Game" by Neil Strauss) and TV shows ("The Pickup Artist," starring Mystery), with concepts like the "neg" and the "wingman." Then Molly Young -- also a contributor here -- reviews Adderall, the much-abused ADHD drug (My advice: Stick to espresso.) A version of this article was first published as "Web only" content on N+1 in January when it drew some attention. Maybe it's not real until it sees print.
  • img_0440I recently skimmed a galley proof of "What Would Google Do?" by Jeff Jarvis. The book, available from HarperCollins in January, is structured as a series of rules or aphorisms about how Google does business, with some anecdotes from Jarvis about things he has observed in his groundbreaking work as a blogger and media consultant. The book reads like an expanded version of a PowerPoint presentation on the conventional wisdom of Web 2.0. Transparency. Learning from your customers. Simplicity in design. Always being in beta. The importance of links and search engine optimization. The information wants to be free business model. The let-it-all-hang-out-in-public lifestyle of Twitter and Facebook and blogs. (Jarvis gave an overview of his thesis in the Guardian on Monday.) None of this will sound new to anyone paying attention to the Web in 2008. But for those who feel like the digital world is quickly leaving them behind, or who regard the new trends and tools with bafflement, Jarvis's book will be a good tutorial, even if some of the lines sound like Tom Peters-style excellence-speak ("Your worst customer is your best friend"), or call to mind burning Vietnamese villages ("we have to kill books to save them").

    Jarvis offers a lot of Google-style advice for traditional media and other businesses facing a paradigm shift. His point in the section on books is that authors and publishers should turn their works into living texts online, as he promises to do with W.W.G.D. on his blog Buzzmachine. Smart plan. Books in this genre have a short shelf life, often measured in months not years.

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    When my daughter was 2, she loved the moon. She still loves the moon. "Luna!" she used to call it, after the character on "Bear in the Big Blue House." I helped her to love the moon, by talking about it and playing music about it and buying her certain books and reading them over and over. She used to love Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon" and Eric Carle's "Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me" in which a little girl's daddy uses a very long ladder to climb into the sky to bring the moon down to earth. (Later she moved on to Tintin and his moon explorations, drawn by Hergé long before the real moonshots.) We live in New York City, so it is often hard to see the moon. There are a lot of lights and a lot of buildings in the way, and while some people keep their toddlers up late in this city we used to put ours to bed before the sun even went down. But one day back in 2002 my wife was pushing her in the stroller to the library and our daughter was craning her neck at the sky and pointing, very excited. It was broad daylight. My wife looked up. The moon was out. Weird. But not so weird. It happens all the time. My daughter, who is now 8, still spots Luna, peeking around the side of a skyscraper, when I'm looking at the traffic or the sidewalk.

    There's something magical about the moon. We humans have always felt an affinity for it, that light in the sky. It has kept us company for centuries on lonely dark nights. Maybe we don't think about it so much anymore in this country, now that we have electric lights and good roofs over our heads most of the time. But when I was a kid, it seemed like people talked about the moon all the time. I remember watching the first moon walks in a grainy black and white image. You'll remember this for the rest of your life, my father told me. And now I can watch it on YouTube, too, whenever I want, which is kind of amazing.

    It's hard to convey how astonishing this walking-on-the-moon business was to everybody then. We've had a few decades to get used to it. The closest emotional truth I've seen is a headline in "Our Dumb Century" by the humorists of The Onion, not for the eyes of 8-year-olds.

    But that headline is about right. That's what it felt like.

    This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon. President Richard M. Nixon Dec. 14, 1972

    Whether that turned out to be true or not, it was an inappropriate statement for the President of the United States to make. Harrison Schmitt, second-to-last man and only scientist to walk on the moon, and one-term U.S. senator (R-N.M.), in 1992

    Everyone knows the name of the first man to walk on the moon and what he said when he got there. (Or, at least, what they thought he said: Turns out we missed a word.) Not as much is known about the 11 other men who walked on the moon in the last century. Fewer people could name the last man to walk there, 36 years ago this December. He is still alive. He can't believe he was the last. He wishes he wasn't. That final mission, Apollo 17, was actually one of the most productive. They thought it was a new beginning. In fact, it was the end.

    Quite a while ago, I heard something interesting about the last man on the moon. He had a daughter, too. She was 9 in 1972, the year of the last mission, Apollo 17. (I turned 10 that year.) She wanted him to bring her a moonbeam. He didn't bring her a moonbeam, but he did something almost as cool. (The story and other details about the Apollo program can be found, among other places, at this nearly 10-year-old PBS site about a two-hour Nova special, "To The Moon." The Apollo missions have inspired art and poetry.)

    Standing on the moon I'm feeling so alone and blue I see the Gulf of Mexico As tiny as a tear The coast of California Must be somewhere over here

    Standing on the moon I see the battle rage below Standing on the moon I see the soldiers come and go There's a metal flag beside me Someone planted long ago Old Glory standing stiffly Crimson, white and indigo Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia (1984)

    It's an incredible view, to be sure.

    Some people hope we'll be going back to the moon one of these days, although there doesn't seem to be a lot of scientific or economic interest in making the trip. We went to the moon for all the wrong reasons in the first place. It was about the cold war; science was a secondary matter. The United States had been humiliated in 1957 when the Soviet Union astonished the world by putting a satellite, Sputnik I, into Earth orbit. NASA was created in 1958. In 1961, after a Russian cosmonaut became the first man to orbit the earth in space, President Kennedy called for a man on the moon by decade's end. And by a man, he meant: An American.

    There were martyrs: the first Apollo mission ended in a ghastly triple death on the launch pad. The Apollo 13 mission nearly ended in disaster, too. But you've probably seen that movie. Or the HBO miniseries about the Apollo program.

    Of course, some people think the whole thing was a hoax. One guy says it was all a movie, directed by none other than Stanley Kubrick. Again, I prefer the Onion version.

    The biggest problem with the manned missions was always the expense. It costs a lot of money to keep a human alive in that environment. Many scientists thought unmanned probes were the most cost effective and safest way to explore the moon and planets. The European space agency is planning some missions that will use high-tech scanning to take the first good look at the moon in 30 years.

    Still, there's just something romantic about a human being standing and looking at earth.

    Let's get this mother out of here. Capt. Eugene Cernan, Dec. 14, 1972

    Captain Cernan left the last bootprint on the moon, and those were the last words spoken there. Granted, they do not have the same poetry as the first. Captain Cernan said them as he got in the capsule and became what he did not expect to be, the last man to walk on the moon in that century. Many years later, he wrote a book that had a bit more poetry in it, and there are excerpts and other materials at the Nova site.

    Cernan is not exactly a household name, but he pops up in the news from time to time. He's 74 now, in 2008. He started as a fighter pilot, getting picked to be an astronaut in 1963. In 1966, he was the pilot of Gemini 9. While he was outside the ship testing a piece of equipment, his helmet fogged up and froze over. Blinded, he found his way back after a then-record spacewalk of 2 hours, 9 minutes.

    Captain Cernan describes the walk in his book, "The Last Man on the Moon" (1999):

    When the hatch stood open, I climbed out. Half my body stuck out of Gemini 9, and I rode along like a sightseeing bum on a boxcar. This was like sitting on God's front porch. We crossed the coast of California in the full flare of the morning sun, and in a single glance I could see from San Francisco to halfway across Mexico.

    (There are more excerpts at the Nova site.)

    By the time he got to the moon, though, a lot of the romance was gone. The media had lost interest, and NASA had to fight for coverage. We had beaten the Russians, meeting a political goal. The science fell by the wayside. It's too bad. By many accounts, Apollo 17 was one of the most productive and memorable missions. Cernan and Schmitt spent three days on the moon -- a record -- and took three seven-hour excursions in the moon buggy. They brought back 240 pounds of rocks and dust, adding to the total 843 pounds that became part of a strange story of theft and government ineptitude that continues.

    In his book, Cernan is prone to some of the hokey poetic spiritualism that seems to affect people who have been off the planet. It must be a remarkable experience, one I'll never have, so I can't blame astronauts for waxing lyrical.

    He writes:

    The power of the situation was simply overwhelming. One result of space travel was that I had become much more philosophical, at times unable even to focus on minor problems back on Earth because they just seemed so small in comparison to what I had experienced and the places I had been. My fellow astronauts who went to the moon encountered varying degrees of the same disease; we broke the familiar matrix of life and couldn't repair it.

    For instance, looking back at Earth, I saw only a distant blue-and-white star. There were oceans down there, deep and wide, but I could see completely across them now and they seemed so small. However deep,however wide, the sea has a shore and a bottom. Out where I was dashing through space, I was wrapped in infinity. Even the word "infinity" lost meaning, because I couldn't measure it, and without sunsets and sunrises, time meant nothing more than performing some checklist function at a specific point in the mission.

    He describes stepping on the surface:

    No fear, no apprehension, but a tremendous sense of satisfaction and accomplishment welled within me. My size-10-1/2 boot was poised just inches above the surface of this almost mythical land that mankind had watched so closely for uncounted eons and to which we had assigned properties ranging from religious icon and symbol of romance to maker of werewolves and clock for the harvest. Every night of my life it had been up there, patiently waiting for my visit. I lowered my left foot and the thin crust gave way. Soft contact. There, it was done. A Cernan bootprint was on the moon.

    He was standing on a place where no human had ever been before, feet planted in the dirt and dust of a celestial body different from his place of birth.

    On the last day, he did the cool thing for his daughter, Tracy.

    He stopped, knelt and used a single finger to scratch her initials in the lunar dust: T D C.

    There is no wind on the moon. He knew her initials would remain there undisturbed for "more years than anyone could imagine." (He later kicked himself for not writing her full name somewhere.)

    I like to imagine her, a woman about my age, looking up there thinking about those letters every now and then. Her dad couldn't bring her a moonbeam, but he gave her that.

    For E.C.L. First draft, February 2003. Revised, November 2008. Moon photo at top is public domain, courtesy of PDPhoto.org. This moon obsession runs in the family: read a chapter from my wife's novel, "Sending Mommy to the Moon," published in The Adirondack Review. And thanks to my brother Mike, who has been peppering me with corrective details. My daughter still points with wonder at the moon.

     

    I was walking barelegged across a desert-like blue and red plain with sparse vegetation and rocks. There was a sudden sharp pain in my leg. I turned around and saw something out of the corner of my eye. Then it happened again. What was that? Somebody standing off to the side, out of my line of vision, but a friend, called out, "watch out! there's more of them!" And it happened again.

    And this time I saw it, a spider about the size of one of those little yap-yap dogs. I gave it a kick and it scuttled away under a rock. But then as I turned around there were three more of them. They were everywhere, for miles. They were fast. And where was my friend? Gone. Aieee! Help! So I realized I was in a dream, and I forced myself to wake up. Sometimes I am able to control what happens in my "lucid dreams," but in this case no immediate solution presented itself (a flood? a helicopter rescue?). I was distracted. Spiders were biting me!

    It took me two hours to get back to sleep. (I listened to some more podcasts and updated this post.) This lucid dream reminded me that one of my favorite movies is Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" (2001), which touches on lucid dreaming, so I spent a few minutes this morning looking at The Lucidity Institute and this how-to wiki.

    Some people don't remember their dreams (I usually do, for a while), and some can't influence them (I can, sometimes). To remember them, write them down as soon as you wake up. To influence them, try writing down some ideas before you go to sleep. To control them, the first step is to be aware you are dreaming. If you are in a weird situation and you think it might be a dream, try to read some writing or look at a clock. If you can't make out the symbols, you're probably dreaming and with practice you can learn to change the situation.

    But let me reiterate: This is hard to do if a) you are in a desert without clocks or books around, and b) you are getting bitten by giant spiders.

    Happy dreams.

    Good news for my wife, Jane: The second issue of the literary journal Makeout Creek has just been published, including her poem, "Allenwood." The poem itself is not online, but you can buy a print copy. We're still waiting for ours. (You can still find her poem "Lemons" online in the Burnside Review, published over the summer, and a chapter from her novel, published in The Adirondack Review.)

    Posted
    AuthorPatrick LaForge
    CategoriesPaper & Ink
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    When the news of the day seems particularly big, I wonder what my parents would think about it all. They're dead, and gone with them are all the stories and family lore that I only half-listened to when I was younger. Rattling around in my head are half-remembered snippets of conversations about their childhoods in the Great Depression, long-ago presidents and wars, those scary Beatles with their rock and roll, pulp fiction and radio dramas. They lived through World War II, the atom bomb, the invention of television, Vietnam, hippies, Watergate, pet rocks, disco and the bad old 70's, the Cold War, the Iranian hostage crisis, recessions and more. They never saw my journalism career leap beyond the small-town stage. They never met their granddaughter. Then again, they haven't had to live through the worry of my blood-clot scares nor their other son's repeated deployments to wartime Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I wish they had kept journals, or blogged, so I could show what they wrote to my daughter. But they didn't keep diaries, and there were no blogs then, and I can only make out every other word in my mother's cursive script in letters that she wrote. She had me late in life, and she died in 1986, when I was 24, just starting out. Leukemia, after she beat colon cancer.

    My father, Ed, or Eddie, depending on who was talking, lived about 11 years longer than my mother, Kay, a surprise to him, considering his fondness for booze, cigarettes and red meat, and her abstention from most vices. He was a man of the old school, reserved when it came to affection, but often loud, angry, not always kind to her, or any of us. Before he retired, he worked as a bureaucrat for the national security state, and the cold war defined his adult life, as the war in the Pacific had defined his youth. He flew to then-exotic places like California and Florida when jet travel was still in its golden age, returning with stories of the Magic Castle, the Playboy Club, and beaches in January. He was a wit, sometimes the life of the party, always ready with a joke, the center of attention. My brother and I were his TV channel changers, his butlers. "Get your old man a beer out of the fridge." Indeed.

    My old man kicked the bucket from lung cancer complications in 1997, and my uncle was the executor of his estate.

    Long after the paperwork was done, my uncle mailed me a package of documents -- Army records from my father's Philippines tour, various vital documents, security clearance forms for the job with the Defense Department, a weathered brown wallet with a Playboy Club card, a stopped watch. And there was a spiral notebook, too, of some jottings, from mid-1986, not long after Ma died, leaving him rattling around alone in that big old house up in the frozen wastes in that rural air force town that he thought would be a great place for us to grow up (it was) and maybe even stick around (boring and in decline, so we didn't). They had lived for several years in the vicinity of New York City, but I know little about those years, apart from left-over photos (like the $1.25 souvenir shot above from Nick's in Greenwich Village, a jazz joint) and stories of living in Shanks Village, an outpost of former barracks turned into housing for veterans in Rockland County.

    Ed was never a good investor, lost his shirt in mutual funds once, but stuck with the old standbys of passbook savings, mortgages, pensions, certificates of deposit, a federal pension. In the end he ran up a lot of credit card debt, and nursing home expenses, and my uncle sold off the house to pay off the bills. But creditors can't touch life insurance, and it isn't taxed, and that nest egg got me seriously started as an investor.

    He wanted to be a writer once, so maybe I got that bug from him. He used to write wonderful jeremiads against banks and utility companies and, after he retired, politicians and the like. When he was young, he wrote some short stories. One was about a World War II veteran who was suffering from what today we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome. The guy blew his head off at the end, sort of an obvious ending, and Salinger did the same thing better, but his prose was just fine.

    After he quit the fiction game for a salaryman's life of paperwork, my old man spent the rest of his life reading impossible stacks of books and magazines (Gourmet, Playboy, Esquire), with the TV on most of the time, from the moment he walked in the door until he went to bed. His other hobbies were outdoor activities without a lot of talking -- golf, fly-fishing and ice-fishing, hunting with bow, rifle and shotgun. If there was a gutted deer hanging in the garage in the fall, it was a good year.

    He was the one who told me to learn about computers, there's money in it, and he logged me onto the Arpanet back in the 1970's with a terminal from work. It didn't have a screen -- it had a roll of paper. It connected through couplers that you screwed onto the telephone handset. The only people on the pre-Internet were military types and academics, sharing research and occasionally furtively playing text-based games and chatting. I caught the bug then. Networking. Talking. BBS's and Usenet newsgroups, eventually the Web when it was just a handful of sites. People looked at me funny when I talked about how it was going to change the world. Yeah, right.

    But then came the 90s, and the Web explosion, and I put my money in tech before it was a bubble. And when I got out, it was partly dumb luck and partly the old man's voice telling me this was a little crazy, slow down, they'll skin you if they can. He knew about hardship. When he was growing up in the Great Depression, his parents shipped some of the kids off to an aunt because there wasn't enough food for all of them at home.

    When I want to remember his voice, I read the few words he ever bothered to set down in his later life, mailed to me in that envelope from my uncle, painstakingly printed by hand, a blog before there were such things:

    4-28-86

    +Four weeks yesterday (27 April 86). Still seems unreal. Mass cards/ letters are trickling after the initial flood.

    +My feelings are more in check except when answering a letter or note from a close friend. Better than letting it build up destructively, I guess. Still having trouble concentrating on the job, or the so-called important things (ie. income tax, bills, refinancing the house.)

    +Worked in the garden yesterday for a while -- too hot. Planted some broccoli. Nabbed the boy next door to cut the grass -- explained the do's and don'ts. Trying to civilize this barbarian was probably one of my better ideas -- he won't kill the golden goose. Maybe!

    +My favorite fishing rod and reel (the ultra lite) has disappeared -- no idea where to! Must replace!

    +Got to get things sorted out.

    12 May 86

    +I never said this was a diary. It's a way of me communicating with myself, I guess. Mr. Y--- of C--- and Sons and I have struck a bargain of sorts. The head stone should be ready in about 6 weeks ($875). That, plus the funeral, took about $5,000, which is what I had figured. Another 20 years, it will be triple!

    +I planted some Impatiens on the plot on Mother's day -- she always loved them -- it would be nice if someone could do it every year.

    +I scared the shit out of E---- the other night, I suppose. I told her and B-- if it wasn't for you guys, the obvious solution to my grief, at first, was the obvious one. I think I meant it but when you're in deep distress, what the hell do you really know. I still cry every day! Oh God, how I miss her.

    13 July 86

    +All it takes sometimes is a little thing; a song that reminds me or a phrase in an old movie (e.g. "Chapter 2" when James Caan says "How dare she die -- I'd never do that to her"). Jesus!

    It ends there. I am impressed by the economy of language. He had a need to say something, write it down, and he did for a while. Then he moved on.

    But he kept on living, for years, in that old house, giving up fishing and hunting eventually, slowly losing his lungs to emphysema, driving down to his favorite Italian restaurant with an oxygen tank on a little wheeled cart, breaking his hips a couple of times, calling me with me updates on the upstate weather (136 inches of snow!). When I showed him the early Web, he was impressed, but he waved off my offers of a computer. By then, it was too complicated to learn something new. He spent most of his spare time gardening and running VCRs in every room to tape all his shows. He would have loved TiVo.

    My parents' relatively early deaths, their setbacks, their stories of growing up when everyone was poor, the 1970s with their cultural chaos -- all these experiences have made me skeptical of progress, not quite believing the balance in my 401K or that the good jobs would last, that my health would hold out, that anything awaits any of us at the end of the line besides a shrinking circle of pain. It's the kind of outlook that leads my father, a proud atheist married to a daily church-going woman, to let a priest mumble by his deathbed, I suppose.

    It was a few years ago that I got this stuff in the mail. My daughter was young, and I was inspired to write down some thoughts on my laptop:

    I spent part of this night sitting up with a toddler who had been throwing up periodically for hours. She will never know her grandparents, though she has her grandfather's eyebrows, as do I, and a little of her grandmother's smile.

    After she finally fell asleep, I sat for a while on my little bench in the darkness, listening to her breath, listening to mine, then to hers, then to mine, hers, mine, inhale, exhale, our mortal bodies sharing certain pieces of code, strands of DNA, mixed up and handed down through the generations, destined one day for cold stillness.

    But not yet