Salinger: Famous for Not Wanting to be Famous

Moments ago came word that J. D. Salinger is dead at 91, which will bring from thousands that old, sad comment: “I thought he was already dead.”

They can be forgiven. No famous person  ever fought against the celebrity culture more vigorously and more successfully than the author of The Catcher in the Rye, with its irresistible opening lines:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

He sure  didn’t, and he never did.

I suppose Catcher will live on as long as English classes survive, but for anyone who never read it, I mean, you gotta be wondering about the title, you know, I mean what the hell’s up with that? Well, if you just gotta know, here’s the whole thing in a nutshell from Chapter 22:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Okay, so that’s how you get to be the catcher in the rye, preserving innocence and all that crap. And you know what? I guess there are worse things to be.


Will the iPad Save or Kill Print Culture?

The release of the Apple iPad yesterday, or word of its coming, has kicked off a tsunami of speculation on a topic much bruited (now there’s a word you seldom see) about here: The impending death of print culture, which seemed to impend even closer with the unexpected popularity of Amazon’s Kindle reader. I’ve noodled and nattered on the subject several times, as in this radio commentary.

Like opposing attorneys drawing different conclusions from the same evidence,  Print-Deathers and Print-Lifers both find validation in the iPad, as seen in this NY Times recapper.

Preferring to work in small experience-based steps rather than grand theory, I’ll offer two recent stories  of a guy with a foot in the print world and another in the digiverse:

1. I’ve subscribed to the Atlantic Monthly for most of 25 years and I’ve generally been happy with their excellent work.  However, the Atlantic is a prime example of what’s killing the old print-journalism business model. The complete issue is available online to anyone for free, and they promote it so vigorously, sending out updates constantly, that by the time the print edition arrives in the mailbox, I’ve read just about everything I care about. I think the sub price is about $14.95, which I guess I’ll continue to pay as a small homage to the great Age of Print. But, as mothers used to say to their daughters before “Jersey Shore” and “The Girls Next Door” set the cultural tone, why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?

(Needless to say, the Atlantic is run by a large nonprofit foundation, meaning they don’t absolutely have to balance the books each month or show a p-r-o-f-i-t. If they did, they’d have folded ages ago.)

2. My experience with Esquire mag also gives a glimpse of the future. I had dropped my sub a few years ago because I just never read the thing. Issues stacked up and up unread. Then, two years back, they cajoled me to return with a $9.95 sub price–less than a buck an issue. I figured, hey, great old mag aflutter with the ghosts of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Styron and Mailer–surely I can help out.

But a year came and went and the issues went largely unread. So when it came time to re-up, I said no to the five letters and seven emails and five phone calls they sent my way in an effort to retain my $9.95. Finally, I got a robo-call asking me if I would re-up for $6 a year--or fifty cents an issue.  Unbelievable. How could I say no to that? So I said yes, and more unread mags are piling up. I know they make most of their bucks off advertising, and they want to boast the biggest circulation possible, but still. . . something’s radically askew here.

As Readers Slip Away, AWOL Blogger Apologizes Yet Again

Yes, again.  I apologized a few days before Christmas for my inconsistent blogging performance, made all the more inexplicable by my repeated and fulsome praise for those who stay with their plans and projects despite all obstacles and distractions. I promised to do better, to become again the plucky li’l blogger who in two years put up 900 posts.

And yet. . . and yet. . . it’s mea culpa time again. I’m just in over my head with four work projects and my Second Life in acting, with a play now headed into heavy “tech week” rehearsals. (There’s more to playing a Catholic priest than I’d thought.)  Just back from New York working on a magazine article, and you know what happens when you leave town:  you return to a foot of mail, 650 e-mails,  to-do lists bulging, oil change past due,  etc.

So to my dozens of faithful readers: Please keep checking back from time to time. This too shall pass, and when it does, I’ll be back. I’m also thinking about some new approaches to the blog, scouring around for structure/format ideas I may boldly swipe from interesting blogs like this and this and this. Same bracing, intriguing wine, but poured into some new bottles, perhaps.

Muse Machine: The 900th Post

Please cue the fireworks as MM celebrates another improbable milestone.

When I started this blog in April of 2007, who, just who, woulda thunk MM would still be dishing wry observations, alternating between wistful regret and joyful surprise,  ringing the changes on that eternal theme, The Gradual Drifting Away of All We Once Held Essential, somehow finding something to say about something again and again and again?

And so, defying the oddsmakers since 2007, it’s on to 1,000!

10,000 Hours to Mastery

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers has been out a few months now, but I’m still struck by the widespread consensus about one of his revelations: That it takes roughly 10,000 hours of working at anything to achieve mastery of it: cooking, archery, pottery, fishing, writing, etc.

“Ten thousand hours. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, “this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Bending the Curve Into the Weeds and Under the Bus

So there I was in the Apple store a few days before Christmas, upgrading an already absurdly expensive status-device, when a bi-earringed goatee-bearer behind the counter looked over at me and said, “How’s that Corner Market working out for you?”

Huh? Had he seen me at some market? Did he think I owned stock in the company? Then I remembered I was holding a cup of coffee from. . . Corner Market. And I had just heard my 135th rendition of  one of this era’s  ubiquitous buzz-phrases, “How’s __________ working out for you?”

If I’d been really on my toes and in tune with the linguistic zeitgeist, I’d have shot back with a “Not so much.” Or, given four or five minutes to string several Buzz Phrases together, I might have said: “I wanted to double down with a game-changer, dude.  At the end of the day, I  got a lotta pushback from the suits. But it’s all good.”

Or something. But I just wasn’t thinking outside the box that day, and, yes, I know that one is soooo 2002, and, yes, I know that “sooooo 2002″ bought the farm some time ago. Or maybe it went toes up. I dunno.

Anyway,net-net,  going forward, if you want to drill down and  make your own list of annoying Buzz Phrases to throw under the bus, start by working up some anger here.

Good News on New Year’s Resolutions?

It’s part of our national lore that few if any people keep New Year’s resolutions past about Jan. 15, their frail dreams of change crashing on the unforgiving reefs of habit, sloth, and over-resolving–i.e., pledging to run a marathon and bench-press 500 pounds by Ground Hog Day.

But here’s a challenge to that conventional wisdom.

A Wall Street Journal-Harris Interactive Poll reports that a surprisingly large number of people actually do make progress with their resolutions. Here are some of the numbers:

Eat healthier/eat less………………………………..68% succeed

Exercise more frequently………………………….54% succeed

Do stress-relief activities such as yoga…………51% succeed

Drink less alcohol……………………………………..71 % succeed

Lose weight………………………………………………52% succeed

The only standout failure in the list? Only 31% of those who vow to get more sleep actually manage to boost the zzzzzz’s.

Granted, these are self-reported numbers, but so were the earlier numbers that spoke of almost universal failure to change.  And we don’t know what actual benchmarks the respondents used; “eat less” might mean downing a  quart of Cherry Garcia a night rather than two quarts. But, still, food for thought.  Perhaps  we’re not the helpless puppets we thought we were?