Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Ah Bartleby, ah humanity

One of the books I use in the Core Capstone is Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.  Turkle, an MIT professor, has long been interested in how human beings use and are shaped by technology.  An early advocate of our "always-connected" digital society, she has increasingly become more measured in her views.

In Reclaiming Conversation, she argues that all of our texts, tweets, posts, emails, instant messages, and snapchats have diminished the amount of time we spend in face-to-face conversations and this has produced some unfortunate side effects.  Conversation, she argues, is “the most human thing we do.”   Listening to each other, taking each other in and noticing a tone of voice, a body posture and the little "tells" that accompany our physical being are how we learn to read, understand and empathize with one another.  This skill atrophies when we spend less and less time actually doing it.

It makes sense. Developing empathy requires us to hear other people's stories and make the crucial imaginative leap into another perspective. Increasingly, however, we spend most of our time with fractured attention or zipping in and out of conversations to look at this screen or this latest "just in" text (and faculty are just as bad about this as students.  Just look around any meeting).

Turkle makes a second and perhaps more disturbing point about the consequences of  diminished face-to-face conversations.  She says we like it.  Live conversation, after all, is filled with awkward lulls.  It doesn't allow us to carefully edit or curate how we come across.  Conversation means effort and it makes us vulnerable to a messy performance of self.  When we discuss Turkle's idea in class, my students often agree.  They would rather text than talk to people.  Talking is work.

Along these lines, I had something of a first this semester.  After two weeks of class, one of my students asked me if I would please not call on her in class.  She said that speaking in class makes her feel uncomfortable and she would really prefer not to do it.  In 25 years of teaching, I've never had a student request this kind of accommodation.  I'm not sure if this was a 'one-off' or a portent of the things to come, but I do know we handled the entire exchange on this matter in a couple of emails.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Cavendish and Navy Shag

One of the part-time jobs I had when I was going to college was working in a tobacconist's shop.  I worked nights and weekends and sold brier and meerschaums, hand-mixed tobaccos and the occasional box of cigars.  I don't smoke, but to this day I still enjoy going into a good tobacconists shop--that is when you can find one.

There are very few shops left that are devoted primarily to pipe smoking, which--unlike the retro chic of the hipster beard--has never come back into fashion. Only old men smoke pipes these days and, of course, the habit does have the unfortunate side effect of undoing its practitioners.

Pity.  The customers I knew while working in the shop were interesting men.  One had been a reporter in Chicago in the 30s.  He had known Al Capone and once interviewed Jesse Owens.  Another had been among the first Americans to cross the Rhine at Remagen during the Second World War.  Still another had been a diamond cutter in Amsterdam.  One long rainy afternoon he explained to me how shady the diamond business was.  As with old time barber shops, the pipe shop was a place where people--mostly old men--lingered and talked.   Very few such public spaces are left.

In the 90s, cigars became a bigger part of the business.  Prices quadrupled when they became a yuppie accessory.  Brands that I sold for a buck were suddenly selling for $12 a single.  Cigars just became a statement, a way of flaunting yourself, your power, your status.  Cigars were Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover Cigar Aficionado flashing a horse-choking Rolex and curling a big meaty finger around a Cohiba Esplendido.  In the 90s, a lot of the old pipe shops were updated into sleek cigar lounges replete with modernist chrome, black leather chairs and flat screen TVs. 

The old shops I liked were dressed like theatrical sets. You came in and the bell on the shop door rang.  The clerk glanced up, nodded and then left you alone to look around.  And there was a lot to look at.  The shops were dark, cluttered, paneled in wood and positively 19th century and vaguely English in design.  They gave you the impression that much of the display stock had been sitting in the same place for nearly 30 years.  And everything (including the clerk) was suffused by the aroma of Burley, Cavendish and Latakia.

You tended to measure the quality of the shop by how dusty, haphazard and careworn it seemed.  Indeed, the inefficiency of how things were displayed fed into your expectation that there was something worthwhile to be found.  You might, for example, go deep into the recesses of the humidor and find a tin of Dunhill's Three-Year Old Matured Virginian that had been there since the Truman administration.  You might get the clerk to pull out hidden tray after silk-lined tray of smoking pipes in all shapes and sizes: Bulldogs, Billiards, Canadians Churchwardens, Acorns and Apples.  And if you were lucky you would find just the one you wanted.

There are still a few shops around like this:  J. Dengler's outside of St. Louis, Iwan Ries in Chicago, Uhle's in Milwaukee, a handful of others to be found here and there.  Mostly all the old shops, like all the old men who frequented them, are gone.  I recently ran across an Ezra Pound send up of Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."  Pound replaces Yeats' fantasy cabin by the lake with the dream of owning a tobacconist's shop.

The Lake Isle

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxes
piled up neatly upon the shelves
And the loose fragment cavendish
and the shag,
And the bright Virginia
loose under the bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales
not too greasy,
And the votailles dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
or install me in any profession
Save this damn'd profession of writing,
where one needs one's brains all the time.

A good pipe shop does seem a dream these days.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...