Thursday, March 31, 2011

On the Barber's Mind

A few days ago I drove in to town, and while I was there I stopped off at the barbershop for a long overdue and much needed haircut. Usually the place is full of greying good old boys, and as the barber cuts my hair he pretty much ignores me while carrying on an animated conversation with "the boys," on pickup trucks or hunting or the woes of life or pretty much any topic you might hear made mention of in a country music song.

But this time I was the only customer in the shop. So I had the novel experience of carrying on a conversation with the barber solo. It was a very different experience. With no appearances to keep up, we got off into a conversation about... the Canadian playwright and novelist Robertson Davies. Yeah, the writer who wove archetypes and Jungian psychology and whatnot into his novels.

Yes, the barber can conduct a conversation about a high-falutin' novelist nobody who wears a seed corn cap has ever heard of. Of course hunting did come into it-- when the barber goes hunting in Canada, he likes to stay in a town in the wilds of Ontario which figures in one of Davies' novels-- but, you know, he has conversation in him like you'd never hear in a piece of country music, and you'd never hear it out of him when his regular clientele is within earshot, either.

There are appearances to be kept up, after all. Mustn't let 'em think you're out of their league. Mustn't let 'em hear you get off into topics that couldn't be discussed in the cab of a pickup. I grew up in a small town very much like this one, and I understand.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

An Abundance of Talent

One lesson the Internet has taught is that talent is far more abundant among the rank and file of the human race than we might have thought. Back in the print era a limited number of novels were published every year, and one might have imagined there were not so very many more talented writers in existence than eventually found their way into print.

Oh, some might still be struggling unknowns, some might be marginal talents, and some through sad circumstance might miss the boat altogether despite their talents; but back in 1850 or 1950 it was not so hard to imagine that the talent that found its way into print was a substantial portion of the sum total of publication-quality talent that was out there.

The Internet has dynamited this illusion, by way of copious counter-examples. Embarrassingly copious counter-examples. Look around out there online, and you will find self-published and self-produced novels, short stories, essays, music, artwork, and videos whose quality easily equals or exceeds most of what is professionally produced and published. Professionally published works which made it past the gatekeepers turn out to be but the tip of the iceberg. The Great American Novel squirreled away in a desk drawer unpublished turns out to be for real, and it can be exampled online thousands of times over.

This is not to deny that the overwhelming majority of creative efforts online are abysmal dreck; but as the proverb puts it, "93% of everything is crap." Sift through what's available, discard the mountains of garbage, and you're still left with an Everest of self-produced, self-posted "amateur" novels and stories and songs which are as good as anything else that's seen the light of day.

I find this troubling. It implies that for every Dickens or Steinbeck or O. Henry or Brahms or Klee or Jagger or Lennon who's come to public attention, there are hundreds if not thousands of others of comparable talent who lived and died as complete unknowns, simply because they didn't know the right person, or weren't in the right place at the right time, or didn't get the right breaks. Unknowns died, and their writing or music or artwork died with them. Every passing year of the print era, the era of gatekeepers, was like a mini-sack of the Library of Alexandria.

Monday, March 21, 2011

"One Of"

The other day, as always happens this time of year, I received a notice in the mail regarding my life insurance premium which will be due in June. Cost of living went up slightly this past year, hence the cost of living rider in my policy hiked the value of the policy proportionately.

Anyhow, what caught my eye was their boilerplate remark that "the cost of living rider is one of the most valuable features of your policy."

Oh really? "One of"?! I mean, just how many "features" does my policy have, anyhow? Two? Three? Four?

So what sense does it make, in a policy which has only a few features, to call one of them "one of the most valuable features"?

I've noticed this before, the use of "one of" as a way of waffling. Someone will say of a TV show that has only a few regular characters, that so-and-so was "one of" their favorite characters on the show. Really? With only four characters on the show, what does it mean to say that a particular character was "one of" your favorites on that show? Do you mean they were in the top 50%? Or that at least they weren't at the very bottom of the list?

Waffling. Don't want to come right out and say that so-and-so was your favorite, or that the cost of living rider is "the most valuable" feature of your policy. Because maybe it ain't. And at any rate, don't want to run down the other characters on the show, or the other features of the policy-- all two or three of them-- by comparison.

So instead we waffle. Every character on the show is "one of" our favorites. Every feature of the policy is "one of" its most valuable features. Thereby putting us more than halfway toward the world of Lake Wobegone, where all the children are above average.

Friday, March 18, 2011

White Middle Class Atheists

This blog post on white middle class atheists had me laughing until the tears were rolling down my cheeks. It captures to a tee a certain kind of rigid angry parochial self-blind atheism I've encountered all too often.

The sort I call "storefront atheism," because these atheists are like members of some shabby narrow isolated blinkered little storefront church. You know, the sort of atheists who can't for the life of them imagine that there's ever been any form of belief (or nonbelief) on earth that wasn't shaped and formed in the image of white American middle class fundamentalism.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Must be a sign I'm getting older: I always view with pleasure the prospect of lying down and taking a nap. And I find I sleep more and more. I sleep soundly all night long. And then, even after that, bring me into the afternoon after lunch and few things would please me more than stretching out and napping.