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Downtime Googling

God it’s such a drag when you’re living in the past – Petty

I received an email from my buddy Denis Munro last week, commenting on a piece I’d written some time ago. Denis had a long and successful career as head of city planning in Perth, Scotland, and now keeps his feet wet with consulting work several days a week. It was from this office that he’d written, confessing apologetically that he was reading my stuff within the context of downtime googling. He was going through my entire site systematically and comprehensively, reading each post date by date. While I’m not entirely devoid of self-promotional instinct, this seemed an act of penance better suited for the Lockerbie Bomber. He also commented on the pressures that might arise trying to write regularly to “meet reader expectations.” I didn’t bother to explain that those expectations could be easily assuaged with a CC’d email to four; the other part of his point was relevant. I hadn’t felt much like writing lately.

Why write, after all? This question came up yesterday while on the phone with my other buddy Scott (Coleman) Miller, who now lives in Chicago. He’d been out with friends recently, and one woman told him that he needed to write a book. “Your stories are so great,” she reasoned. I asked which stories she was referencing and he mentioned one he’d told her about serving jury duty in San Francisco. One of the attorneys was questioning him as a potential juror and asked if he’d ever been mugged. When Miller answered in the affirmative the guy asked when the incident had taken place. “I’m not sure of the exact date,” he told him, “but it was the night Redd Foxx died.” I had to agree that this was book-worthy material, but it’s so much easier delivered as cocktail party banter, and particularly if you’re a guy like Scott. His ability to interject during tepid conversation and boost the volume from three to eight is unrivaled. Why bother with sitting down at the keyboard and coming up with a clever Sanford and Son intro when you can just spit it out? And, in a nutshell, this covers my frequent aversion to writing – too much pretense and assumption when a conversational volume boost could render it over and done with.

So it was I’d skipped over several writing ideas recently for lack of motivational oomph. I thought of piecing something together about the Tom Petty show I’d seen at Madison Square Garden; how his new CD is better than anything he’s done in years and has been largely misinterpreted. I was going to write something about more “sophisticated” music fans who have dissed Petty over the years because his commercial success and ability to craft intelligent but infectiously catchy singles offends their priggish David Byrne sensibilities. But I refrained, and probably wisely. At another juncture, walking through Manhattan, I saw the large, two-story inflatable rat that NYC labor unions erect in front of non-complying businesses. I considered some opening sentences for a post on when one actually becomes a New Yorker – the subtle psychological shifts and transitions from novel to familiar. But my brain soon tired and I let go of the idea, letting things settle while staring up at the giant, 15-foot rodent balloon.

A few days on I was in my Brooklyn hood getting some keys made for my landlord who is renting her place back from me this month. This was probably my fourth visit to this particular locksmith – the landlord has returned on several occasions and tends to lose the keys after each visit. I joked with the guy that it was good business for him and he corrected me. “Actually, I don’t pay the rent cutting keys.” This led to an extended conversation as he carved away at the blanks about how, exactly, he did pay the rent. His bread and butter is house calls, but it turns out that even his business is being usurped by the digital age and house keys are going the way of car keys and an electronic swipe. The machinery necessary to replace these new devices is licensed at an exorbitant rate and requires a shop owner to buy “tokens” with each use – a practice this guy said would put him out of business. I sympathized, explaining that my family was in the film business and digital technology had greatly affected our customer base and the way we invested.

He finished the last key and told me it would be eight dollars and forty-five cents. “My customer base is largely gone,” he said, making change. “When people lock themselves out now, they use one of these things to find a locksmith ..” He mimed gripping an iPhone and flicking through the Internet choices with his finger. “Guess we’re getting old,” I told him, mostly because it seemed like the kind of thing I was supposed to say at that point in the conversation. He smiled knowingly, apparently pleased, and I left the shop. My own smartphone was arriving Fed Ex that afternoon.

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One Comment

  1. Denis Munro wrote:

    Now I’m famous. And I liked it. A related dilemma falls on me everytime my sister asks, in genuine puzzlement, why anyone would spend time doing an email or text : “It’s so much easier and more enjoyable to pick up the phone.” I try to put the case in different and better ways each time but I can tell from the long silence when I stop talking that I’ve failed again. I have tried explanations based on the satisfaction of distilling one’s thoughts and expressing them more clearly than one can in speech;the thoughtfulness of laying out an opinion, fact or query for the recipient to pick up when it suits;to enjoy the same convenience with the reply; to make a point without interruption or to express an emotion, or criticism, which one could only do badly or not at all in conversation. All of these go right over her head. But I’ll keep making the case for the written word – and so should you

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

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