Monday, December 31, 2018

Something to Say

There's nothing that annoys me more than when a writer has nothing to say.

I'm thinking particularly about songwriters here. One can tell when a writer is bursting with things to say and just happens to be writing a song or when he's bursting to write a song and just happens to be saying something.

And no part of a song reflects whether a writer actually has something to say better than the bridge.

If a writer's words are vapid, it will be even all the more obvious in the bridge. On the other hand, of course, if a writer does have lyrics with substance, we will usually be treated to a good bridge, where we will then learn another part of the "story," get an additional and vital piece of it.

I don't think it would be very nice to give an example of an artist who doesn't have much to say in a song. Instead, I'll just give you an example of a fantastic bridge.

In Link Park's "Somewhere I Belong," Mike Shinoda and Chester alternate singing parts, with Shinoda singing the main part of the verses.  Chester sings the chorus. But look at the bridge, which Chester also sings. Look how good the bridge of this song is, how much it adds to the story.

Below, I'm going to use colors to help you identify the parts of the song. After reading the lyrics, have a close look at the text in green; that's the bridge. Enjoy.

"Somewhere I Belong"

When this began,
I had nothing to say 
And I'd get lost in the nothingness inside of me (I was confused)
And I let it all out to find that I'm not the only person with these things in mind (inside of me)
But all the vacancy the words revealed
Is the only real thing that I got left to feel (nothing to lose)
Just stuck, hollow and alone
And the fault is my own,
And the fault is my own
I want to heal, I want to feel,
What I thought was never real
I want to let go of the pain I felt so long (erase all the pain 'til it's gone)
I want to heal, I want to feel
Like I'm close to something real
I want to find something I've wanted all along
Somewhere I belong
And I've got nothing to say
I can't believe I didn't fall right down on my face (I was confused) 
Looking everywhere only to find that it's not the way I had imagined it all in my mind (so what am I?)
What do I have but negativity?
'Cause I can't justify the way everyone is looking at me (nothing to lose)
Nothing to gain, hollow and alone
And the fault is my own,
And the fault is my own
I want to heal, I want to feel,
What I thought was never real
I want to let go of the pain I've held so long (erase all the pain 'till it's gone)
I want to heal, I want to feel
Like I'm close to something real
I want to find something I've wanted all along
Somewhere I belong
I will never know myself until I do this on my own
And I will never feel,
Anything else until my wounds are healed
I will never be
Anything 'til I break away from me
And I will break away, and find myself today
I want to heal, I want to feel
What I thought was never real
I want to let go of the pain I felt so long (erase all the pain til it's gone)
I want to heal, I want to feel,
Like I'm close to something real
I want to find something I've wanted all along
Somewhere I belong
I want to heal I want to feel like I'm,
Somewhere I belong,
I want to heal I want to feel like I'm somewhere I belong
Somewhere I belong

Saturday, December 29, 2018

A Little Light

Today something happened that brought some light into my day.

I was walking my dog near the Alster, this beautiful lake right in the center of Hamburg, and had decided to take a break at a bench.

While I was sitting there, my dog went over to the shore, got a stick and brought it back. She wanted me to play fetch with her, but I didn’t want to do that.

All I wanted to do was just sit there for a moment and take in the scene: the mallard ducks bobbing on the water and the seagulls flying above.

After a few minutes, though, I started to feel ennui. I think this was because I realized then and there that I didn’t really have any plans for the day.

So there I was just sitting on the bench, zoning out and feeling slightly blue, when a group of people walked up alongside me. They were a jovial bunch and had wanted to take a picture in front of the Alster. There must have been, like, seven or eight people in this group, but what jumped out to me was that a few of them were speaking what sounded like American English.

After they took a few pictures, one of the members of the group, the guy who had taken the picture of all the others, asked me in German if I could take a picture of the entire group, himself included.

I said sure, answering in German. He then joined the others and I stepped back with his iPhone in my hand to take the picture. I noticed, though, that these people seemed to be having a lot of fun as they were getting ready to take the picture. So I started clandestinely snapping away with the camera. (I had once seen a professional photographer do this in a group-photo situation and had thought that the idea was brilliant.)

I was already pleased with the secret pictures I had taken of the people, but of course wanted to give them the kind of photo they had asked for, and maybe a little more, so when they finally were ready to take the picture, I said, in perfect English, “OK, guys, ready? Say cheese!"

By revealing in that very moment that I wasn't a native German, I was trying to spice things up, get these people a little excited, which I thought might lead to a better picture, and it did.

But then the magic really happened. My dog, which up until that point had been playing with her stick by the water, walked into the frame, dropped the stick, stood perfectly erect alongside these people and looked straight into the camera, almost as if she were posing along with them. I mean, the way it all looked...it could have been a commercial...it was that perfect.

While I was taking the last shots, I couldn't help but start laughing. I told these nice people that I hoped they liked my dog because she was now featured conspicuously in several of their photos. We all laughed at that.

As I was getting ready to go, one of the group members asked me where I was from. I told him, and then we all had a nice, small chat. (It turned out that those accents were actually Canadian.) But the real cool thing was was that after I had finally taken my leave from these people, I noticed that I was in a much better mood than I had been before they came along. What I really felt was light. Like, "turn on the light" light. I felt that this group of very happy people and the interaction I had had with them had brought a little light into my day.

So there you have it.


Friday, December 28, 2018

Book Review: "Hitler's Collaborators"


Here is a book review of mine of Philip Morgan's "Hitler's Collaborators: Choosing Between Bad and Worse in Nazi-Occupied Western Europe." Originally, the piece was supposed to be published on aish.com, but at the last moment, that deal fell through. I'm proud of this review and hope you enjoy it. 

*******

By Chad Smith

In the preface to “Hitler’s Collaborators: Choosing Between Bad and Worse in Nazi Occupied Western Europe,” the author of the book, Philip Morgan, senior fellow at the University of Hull, says that when he was teaching the course on which the book is based, his students never “got,” or understood, the officials of the occupied countries who collaborated with the Nazis.

The students, Hull writes, were only able to think in black and white: either one was a servant of evil -- that is, a follower of the Nazis -- or one was a "good guy" and was against them. But the truth was far more complex, and in service of that truth, Morgan says, he wrote "Hitler's Collaborators."

But make no mistake; the book he has written is not easy. It is a dense, nearly forensic examination of political collaboration and wartime economy.  Still, what keeps the reader turning pages is the unparalleled account Morgan gives of the civil servants, both noble and morally corrupt, who tried to keep their countries together under the ruthless demands of the occupying power.

In order to better understand why the countries examined in this book -- Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Denmark -- collaborated with the Nazis, we must first become familiar with the circumstances that the countries found themselves in at the time.

When the Nazis invaded Western Europe in 1940, they threw the power structures of the countries they occupied into disarray. Because most of the governments of the invaded countries had gone into exile during the blitzkrieg, nearly overnight the responsibility of making sure that these countries continued to function fell on the shoulders of the countries’ secretaries general, magistrates, economic ministers, police commissioners and other officials who had been ordered to stay behind.

The Nazis, for their part, didn’t actually want to rule the invaded countries directly, as this would have slowed them down in their efforts to achieve more “important” goals of the Reich. Instead, the Nazis wanted to work through the officials of the occupied countries to achieve order, leverage the countries’ resources in service of the war effort and root out their enemies, namely Jews and communists.

Still, it’s important to mention, as Morgan does, that none of the occupied countries of Western Europe wanted to collaborate with the Nazis.

France, which wound up being the Western European country that collaborated with the Nazis in the most notorious way, actually fought the hardest against them during the Blitz; Belgium still felt ill will toward Germany from WWI; the Netherlands had a population that very much supported the country’s Jewish community and even held a major protest for it; Norway’s minority fascist party, which was propped up by the Nazis, was so unpopular it was never seen as legitimate; and Denmark had long prized its democratic principles.

Nevertheless, the pervading belief among the occupied countries after capitulation was that they were cornered. Some, like Belgium, Morgan writes, even believed that if they didn’t cooperate, they could be “wiped off the map.” At very least, the officials in the countries thought that it was better to have some hand in the governing process rather than none, and they certainly didn’t want to empower the minority fascist parties in their countries by resigning.

So they collaborated, and the main thrust of that collaboration, at least at first, was economic. The occupied countries agreed to work with the Nazis on large-scale public works projects, undertakings that would get the citizens of the occupied countries back to work. After all, the countries of Western Europe hadn’t fully recovered from the effects of the Great Depression, and both the Nazis and the officials had a shared interest in ending rampant unemployment.

However, as time went on, more and more of economic collaboration went to servicing the German war effort. Though the companies in the occupied countries did not do such work gladly, they ultimately took on projects and engaged in practices that were highly dubious.

For example, Morgan writes, vehicle makers in the occupied lands wouldn’t make armored cars or tanks for the Germans, but they would make military ambulances. Ship builders wouldn’t make destroyers, but they did agree to repair German U-boats and other fighting vessels. Some companies in the occupied lands would refuse to fulfill certain orders if they came from the German military, but, absurdly, would accept the very same orders if they came from a German civilian outfit. As for the manufacturing of weapons components, the practice in the occupied lands was “generally justified on the grounds that finished weapons were being assembled elsewhere.”

And yet, as eye-opening as the rundowns that Morgan gives of the shady dealings that the businesses in the occupied lands had with the Nazis, even more illuminating are the accounts he provides of the occupied countries’ civil servants, as their stories give us the most insight into why the countries collaborated and what their deepest motives were.

For example, around the middle of the book, we are introduced to a man named Alexandre Galopin. At the time of the occupation, Galopin was the head of Belgium’s most important business concern, Société Générale, and was one of the top officials who stayed behind to help run the country after the Belgian government went into exile.

Galopin, it’s important to know, did not like the Nazis; however, he knew that if Belgium didn’t do business with them, it would spell disaster, as the Belgian people’s refusal to work for the Germans when the Germans occupied Belgium during the First World War had resulted in the utter devastation of the Belgian economy.

And so after we, the reader, learn about Galopin’s dilemma and then see how relieved he is when the Belgian government in exile, after much hand wringing, gives him the green light to begin economic collaboration with the Germans, we begin to understand how desperate the situation must have been for Belgium and why it might have acted as it did.

And then there’s the case of Max Hirschfield, who was the Dutch secretary general of the Netherlands’ economic ministries -- and was Jewish. Surely his story adds nuance to our understanding of “collaboration.”

In August 1940, a top Reich official in the Netherlands said he wanted all Jews fired from public service. When Hirschfield and the other secretaries general met to discuss this demand, the majority of them wanted not only to reject it, but also to renege on an agreement they had made only a few days prior with the Germans to stop appointing Jews to civil service posts.

However, the person who stepped in and persuaded the rest of the secretaries general to adopt maybe a more “measured” response was Hirschfield, the Jew. He said that if the secretaries general rejected this demand of the Germans’, it would surely throw all of collaboration into jeopardy. Besides, Hirschfield argued, if the secretaries general refused, the Germans would simply dismiss them or force them to resign and that would just result in “general chaos in all areas.” Much better of an idea, Hirschfeld thought, would be to stay in place, because in office the men “could still exercise some power and protect individual targets of the purge by requesting exemptions.” His idea was that if collaborating officials could not avert disaster, “they could draw things back to not being a complete disaster.” 

In the end, the other secretaries general were persuaded by Hirschfield and felt he really had the Dutch people’s best interest in mind, so they gave the Nazis what they wanted and dismissed all Jews from public service, but let it be known in writing that doing so was “repugnant” to them “as Dutchmen.”

*

After learning so much about such officials and their ordeals, one is certainly a little more sympathetic toward them. The same, however, cannot be said for the officials of the Vichy government in France.

The Vichy government, which formed around the former World War I hero Philippe Pétain after much of the French government of the Third Republic fled to England, was different from other occupied countries’ governments in that it cooperated more willingly and more treacherously with the Germans.

Whereas other occupied countries more or less sought only to survive the war, Vichy’s goal was to restore France to its former glory and to secure a spot for itself in Germany’s “New World Order” after the war was over. To try and expedite the achievement of these “goals,” many of Vichy France’s officials made unscrupulous decisions, chief among them treating their Jewish population, or rather, the Jews who had been living in France but were stateless or had only recently become French citizens, as pawns. After all, Jews were something the Nazis “wanted,” and Vichy had them.

So, with all that in mind, when we read how a top Vichy police official named René Bousque happily agreed to help the Nazis round up and deport 52,000 Jews, 10,000 of whom were living in territory in France that Vichy didn’t even control, that had actually been controlled by the Nazis, we know that Bousque’s actions weren’t some aberration, but a calculated move to increase the power of Vichy’s police force and to “extend and exercise Vichy’s sovereignty in France.”

*

Ironically, very few concessions that the collaborating officials made to the Nazis ever bore much fruit for them or their countries. In fact, the Nazis usually acted just as unilaterally and ruthlessly after their demands were met.  Plus, in the last years of the war, the Nazis “repaid” the collaborating countries by forcing hundreds of thousands of their citizens to work in Germany for the war effort. So much for a partnership.

As for describing the reckoning that occurred in the collaborating countries after the war was finally over, Morgan does a good, but imperfect, job. At issue are the figures he provides to us about justice in the wake of collaboration: it’s hard to tell which figures are the most relevant. Should we focus, for instance, on the number of people prosecuted for their involvement in collaboration (thousands upon thousands), the number of people who were investigated for their possible roles in collaboration (hundreds of thousands), the number of people who lost their civic rights, like the right to vote or their retirement funds, due to their wartime activity?

One figure that does help shed light on what the punishment situation was like on the ground at war’s end was this one: After the Allied victory, 10,000 people in France were said to have been lynched by their fellow Frenchmen for having supported the Nazis or the Vichy regime. Another helpful figure was one that relates to the number of prison terms that the post-war purge commissions handed out to wartime collaborators.

Using statics compiled by the late historian Peter Novick, Morgan tells us, for example, that immediately after World War II in Norway, 19,623 people went to prison for their role in collaboration; in the Netherlands, 38,631 people did time; in Belgium that number was 49,700; in Denmark, 15,128; and in France, 37,280. Though these may look like significant numbers, the number of collaborators punished in each country after the war never exceeded 1 percent of the given country’s population.

As for who was punished and on what exact criteria, only high-ranking officials, more or less, received severe sentences. As a tidy illustration of this fact, Morgan tells us that after the war, the “Dutch rank-and-file policemen who had actually knocked on the doors of Jewish families to arrest them were not held responsible for their actions and were not investigated ... Their officers, however, were.” As for official executions, the Vichy military police, or Milice, didn’t fair well, and only the top officials who rolled out the red carpet for the Nazis, like Pierre Laval, the one-time prime minister of Vichy France, and Vidkun Quisling, a military leader in Norway, faced the firing squad.

According to Morgan, more people probably should have been punished, but he also explains that after the war the collaborating countries had been in shambles and, though it sounds awful in hindsight, it just wasn’t “practical” to punish everyone. By way of example, Morgan cites the case of SNCF, France’s state railway, which helped transport thousands of Jews to their deaths. Of the 500,000 employees who had worked for the company during World War II, only about 1 percent of them were punished after the war, a slim number that, Morgan says, can probably be attributed to the fact that there had been a serious need “to get the railway’s operating system going again.”

And, yet, even though countless people probably went unpunished, the truth is a complicated thing. Surely there were also vast numbers of people in the collaborating countries who detested the Nazis or who helped Jews in ways that may never have even been registered. And surely for some collaborators -- not all, but some -- we might find it in our hearts to think on the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” when we ponder their actions.

What’s more difficult, though, is finding sympathy for people who were not able to own up to their wartime behavior or just tried to hide it. After all, once a clear victor had been determined, it was easy to say that you had been part of the resistance, and many collaborating officials “remembered” events quite differently when they were on trial or writing their memoires.

Such untruths and falsehoods, such fabricated stories, of course, do serve a purpose and have their place, which Morgan understands. After all, in discussing the kind of amnesiac atmosphere that existed in Europe for many years after WWII, he quotes a former head of state television in France, who, in explaining why a ground-breaking 1971 French film about the Holocaust, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” was not allowed to be shown on French state TV until 1981, said, “Certain myths are necessary for a people’s well-being and tranquility.”

Fortunately, times change, and fortunately we have scholars like Morgan, who in writing this book has created a piece of work that is not in any way concerned with maintaining people’s well-being or their tranquility. In fact, this work of his feels stuffed to the gills with a quality that often disturbs people’s well-being and tranquility the most. And that quality is the truth.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Topic Sentence

Sometimes we say things and after we say them, we're like, "Yeah...yeah, that's right. That's exactly what I meant." We're happy with the point we got across.

Such was the case today. I had been tutoring a girl, and I was trying to show her how to write a more cohesive paragraph. As part of this exercise, I would write a topic sentence -- just a lone topic sentence -- then make her flesh out the idea in a paragraph.

Even though I thought that this exercise was pretty easy, she was stumbling a little bit. I mean, I'd say she was, like, 75 percent there, but every time she'd put pen to paper, she'd start to wander a bit with the supporting details, sort of go off course.

So I gave her the following piece of advice, and it was only as I was saying it that I realized that it was a tiny little gem. I told her, "When you write a topic sentence, you make a promise. You must fulfil that promise in the rest of your paragraph." 

I thought that that was pretty cool.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Criticism

It can be difficult when people we care about are our toughest critics. Enter my girlfriend. She’s great, but sometimes when I show her a piece of my writing, she says things like: “What’s up with all these ‘howevers’? You keep writing, ‘however’ this and ‘however’ that, and when you’re not using ‘however,’ you’re writing ‘though.’ ‘Though though though.’”

Um...OK, sweetie. What she doesn’t see is that for the story she is criticizing, I had to get up two times at 4 a.m. just to go speak with people who didn’t want to speak with me, to write an article they didn’t want written.

But OK, she’s not looking at that; she’s looking at mechanics.

What I usually wind up doing when she criticizes my work, I ask her what kind of writing she likes. Her response: writing that is pure, that flows seamlessly from one sentence to the next, from one paragraph to the next, without the help of transition words.

Yeah, well, we all like that kind of writing, but it’s super hard to achieve there, sweetpea.

Anyway, the other night she and I had been thinking of going to a horror movie called “Dark Web.” Actually, it was more like I was trying to convince her to go. She had been on the phone with me, and had asked me to read the synopsis of the film to her to help her make a decision. Half way through my reading she stopped me and said: “Yes, let’s go. It sounds awesome, and I love the way it [the synopsis] is written.”

Well, OK, then. She loves the writing...She hardly ever says she loves any writing. Very interesting.

So. Below is Exhibit A, the synopsis she had been so fond of.  Let’s have a look at it to see why she might have liked it so much.
Dark Web R 2018 ‧ Thriller/Horror ‧ 1h 34m
After finding a laptop, a young man goes online to play a game with five of his good friends. He shows them a mysterious folder that plays disturbing videos of people who appear to be in danger. They then receive an anonymous message that tells them they will all die if they disconnect or call the police. The planned night of fun quickly turns deadly as each user becomes the target of something sinister while the others watch helplessly in terror.
OK, yes, I see exactly what’s going on. First of all, every single sentence is in subject-verb-object order, which they say is often the clearest. Then, each sentence flows into the next without any transition words. Instead, pronouns (he, she, it, etc.) with clear antecedents (the actual noun the pronoun is referring to) do the connecting. Also, each sentence is fewer than 25 words, and that's the kind of length you want to shoot for if you're going for punchiness and clarity.

So, OK, darling, I guess you’re right, or at least I see where you're coming from. But just in case you're reading this post, I want to close with this: However however however however though though though though though though though!

Monday, December 24, 2018

"Welfare Check"

Since it’s Christmas Eve, I thought I’d tell a story about a time when my cynicism was proved wrong.

When I worked as a reporter for the Pocono Record, we always had the police scanner on, so we would be the first to know if an accident or anything else had happened.

One call that I would always hear over the dispatch was for a “welfare check.” Whenever I would hear this call, I would think this: That the welfare check had arrived in the mail and now relatives or whoever it might be were fighting over the cash.

That may sound crazy, but that is what I thought: that the US Department of Health and Human Services had sent the monthly allotment of money and now the people who received it were quarrelling fiercely over it, so fiercely that the police needed to be called.

This made sense to me, as people in difficult situations tend to fight intensely about money.

Well, after I left the Pocono Record – maybe like a year or two after – I learned – don’t ask me how – what a “welfare check” in this context actually meant.

It meant that one person was worried about another person’s well being and had called the police to have that person checked on. Hence, welfare check: to check on someone’s welfare.

The calls that I had been hearing over the dispatch centered around compassion and caring, not money.

I was humbled when I learned that.

Merry Christmas, ya’ll.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Joyce Maynard


All of us were born with gifts. I think one of mine is being able to touch people, in a sense, with my writing.

I hadn’t always known I had this gift. I think I started to realize that I had something good going for me, though, in 1997 or so.

That’s when I sent a poem that I had written about John Lennon to Yoko Ono, at the Dakota. The poem was called “The Night” and it was about the tragedy of John Lennon’s death.

A few months after having sent the poem, Yoko wrote back. On a postcard of her strolling with John through Gibraltar on their wedding day, she wrote, “Dear Chad, Love Yoko.”

OK, I thought. That's something. I mean, I wouldn’t discover that I loved writing for another six years, but OK. 

Skip ahead to today. Now, because I have been reading “The Catcher in the Rye” with two of my students, I have had it on the brain and decided, therefore, to google "J.D. Salinger" during lunch today.

One of the results that I got after punching in the name was a link to a New York Times Op-Ed written by the writer Joyce Maynard.

Some backstory: In 1972, Maynard [pronounced MAY-nard], who had been attending Yale, published an essay in the New York Times called "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life." A photo of her was published along with the essay.  Apparently, J.D. Salinger, who was 53 at the time, read her piece, wrote her a letter and the two began corresponding.  Ultimately, the 18-year-old Maynard dropped out of Yale and went to go live with Salinger, in New Hampshire, becoming his girlfriend and muse.

Naturally, the the relationship made headlines. However, the two broke up after only seven months, with Salinger basically telling Maynard to pack up all her stuff and hit the road.

About 25 years over the breakup, Maynard, now fully aware of her naivety, wrote a memoir in which she mentioned aspects of her and Salinger's love life and painted Salinger as an unfavourable character in many respects.

And the press skewered her for it. She was called every name in the book, and the memoir was panned.

And in a sense, one can understand why. I mean, J.D. Salinger was the guy who wrote everyone’s favorite book and valued his privacy over all else, and here he was being dragged through the mud, in a sense.

Anyway, the Maynard piece I read over lunch today was written much more recently, in September of 2018, and in it, Maynard, who went on to have a very successful writing career, questions why no one ever really reached out to her when the #MeToo movement began. Why, after all these years, she wondered, had her story -- naive 18-year-old girl drops everything to live with a much older, powerful man only to get maltreated -- not struck a chord.

The piece was great. So good, in fact, that a few minutes after I read it, I went to Maynard's homepage and, through it, wrote her a tiny little note:

Hi Joyce,  
I just read your September piece in the New York Times about Salinger and about "predators" and "prey." I just wanted to let you know that I found the piece incredibly compelling and so very interesting. Also, your prose was so clear and forceful, I almost felt you were talking straight to me.

  
I wish you all the best.  


Sincerely, 

 
Chad

And would you know, not two minutes later -- literally, two minutes -- she had already written back:

Thank you, Chad.  Although I have published hundreds of essays -- probably thousands, that one meant a great deal to me. 
Joyce Maynard

I told you I had a knack.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

One for the Books



OK, so let me quickly give you the background to the very amusing stuff you're about to read.

For many years, the International Herald Tribune, which is now known as the International New York Times, ran a column called "Meanwhile." "Meanwhile" was awesome. It was just, like, this little space in the Opinion pages for amorphous-like think-pieces. I had always wanted to write a "Meanwhile" column, and in 2014 finally got an idea for one. However, when I went to pitch the piece I had written, I found out that the "Meanwhile" column had been scrapped. (The decision to end the column had been made when the "International Herald Tribune" was rebranded as the  "International New York Times.")

OK, I thought at the time, that's quite the setback. However, I still wanted to get the piece published. After all, the topic that I had written about was universal: my piece was about cell phones and all the things we miss out on in real life when we're staring down at our screens. It was good stuff. So I figured I'd try a different tack. I thought I'd try pitching the piece as an Op-Ed. Granted, the piece wasn't perfect as an Op-Ed -- it was perfect as a "Meanhile"! -- but I tried.

And I didn't succeed. After being turned down by, like, Op-Ed editors from, like, 40 newspapers, I reached out in a personal email to an editor for the New York Times' Op-Ed pages, writing her something of an impassioned pitch letter. Never got a response. But, hey, Hail Mary passes usually aren't successful, either.  

Anyway, below is the impassioned letter than I wrote to this Times editor, Trish Hall. (Trish, if you're reading this: Why? Why, Trish? Why didn't you ever write back? I'm joking.) But this letter I wrote her is quite "interesting," and all the more so now that a lot of time has passed since my originally having penned it. The actual manuscript that I was pitching is below the letter. Enjoy.

****

Dear Ms. Hall, 

Hang on -- I'm going for broke. 

Though I would usually just tip my hat and be on my way after submitting a manuscript to opinion@nytimes.com and receiving no response, the piece I recently turned in is so in line with the type of content that you said the Times’s Op-Ed editors search for, I had to give it one final shot. 

So here’s the pitch:

You have a smartphone, right? So do I. After all these years, I recently got my first one. And I was a quick convert. I enjoyed the ability to look up words, write emails or check Twitter from wherever I was.

But after a few weeks, I noticed that when I was using the device, I was missing out on things, both large and small, occurring in the immediate present: making eyes with a pretty girl on the subway, the sound of children laughing in the park, a crane flying over a pond -- an oncoming car!

Was I the only one missing out on so much, I wondered? I surveyed many of my friends and acquaintances to find out. And guess what? Nearly all of them also said that their smartphones seriously made them miss out on the here and now. And the specific examples they cited were eye-opening. 

So I decided to write an opinion piece (roughly 1,200 words) on just what it is that we smartphone users are missing out on when our eyes are glued to those little screens. (Much, it seems. One survey participant told me she feels that her phone preoccupation often makes her miss out on connecting with her 2-year-old child.) 

And what lends a greater sense of urgency to my piece is the fact that in late September, about 10 passengers in a San Francisco municipal tramcar were so absorbed in their smartphones and other gadgets that they failed to notice that a man in their midst, a fellow passenger, had brazenly brought a .45-caliber pistol into open view about five times. The man wound up shooting to death one of those passengers seconds after that passenger and he disembarked. Police say the act was random. This story is referenced in my piece. 

Ms. Hall, we’ve heard about the dangers of texting while driving and how rude it is to check your email at the dinner table. But what about *all* that we’re missing out on when we’re absorbed in our smartphones?

In your piece demystifying the Op-Ed process, I noted that you said that the opinion pages editors want to hear “personal perspectives on universal maters,” that they want to hear “things that no one else seems to be saying.” 

Here’s one. I think it works. Whaddaya say? 

All my best, 

Chad Smith

P.S. Some info about me: I’m a freelance reporter with a master’s degree in journalism from N.Y.U. My work has appeared in, among other publications, the New York Daily News and the New York Times (“A Closer Look at the Art, Until ‘Beep!’” July 9, 2010, N.Y. / Region). I recently moved to Germany, but prior to that, I worked for two and a half years as a general assignment reporter at a small -- yet bustling -- daily newspaper in Pennsylvania called the Pocono Record.

****

So I finally did it. I finally got a smartphone. After all those years of holding out. After my 71-year-old mother got one and my friend’s 7-year-old son did, too. After all those years of people saying to me, “But you’re a journalist. Isn’t a smartphone a crucial tool for a journalist?”

I had held tight to the belief during those smartphone-less years that the devices eroded meaningful relationships. And besides, mostly everything available on a smartphone was available to me anyway -- on a desktop computer.

But then things happen. Plans change; people change. In my case, I moved. And when it came time to buy a new mobile phone, it actually paid for me to get the smartphone.

And it was very interesting at first. I must say I was a quick convert. I live in Germany; my family lives in the United States. So this newfound ability to send my relatives a “selfie” from the Hamburg port or write an email to my American friends as I waited for the U-Bahn was great. As was my being able to look up foreign words on the spot or read the news as a friend shopped for clothes. How about scrolling through breathtaking pics of the Grand Canyon that my mom took in Arizona as I waited in line to buy groceries. It was incredible.

But then, a few weeks into owning the phone, I started to notice something. I was in the subway waiting for a train and I had shared a nice glance with a young lady standing next to me on the platform. She chose to enter the car I entered. Once seated, though, I immediately began looking at my phone. When I looked up a few minutes later and glanced in her direction, she pursed her lips and quickly looked away from me. She didn’t even look my way when she exited the train. Had I just missed out on an opportunity to flirt -- surely one of life’s greatest joys -- because I was pecking away at my keypad? What else was I missing out on? I learned several days later when I was walking in a fashionable Hamburg neighborhood scrolling my Twitter feed and failed to notice that a member of perhaps Germany’s most famous rock group, Die Aerzte, had just strolled by me.

There were even some points when paying attention to the smartphone jeopardized my safety, like when I was sitting in a car cropping a photo on the device and neglected to notice that the driver of the car, who was distracted by another passenger, was swerving as he was entering an autobahn at 70 mph. Mostly, though, I noticed that my smartphone was leading to my missing out on important instances and events in my real life. And so I thought, "Is it just me who’s feeling this way?" I decided to take an informal survey of my 20- and 30-something-year-old friends and acquaintances in the U.S. and Europe to see if they felt the same way. Turns out, they do.

Amelie Krueger, 27, a tax consultant from Hamburg, for example, says she listens to music on her iPhone almost everywhere she travels. Thus, she says, “I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on the sounds outside. I’m not hearing people laugh, children, birds....”

Toby Sabatine, 36, a healthcare worker from Pennsylvania, said that even though he is an avid hiker, he often finds himself in the woods “Facebooking instead of enjoying nature.” 

Advertising agent Dawn Friedman, 28, of Virginia, said that "at least half of the people" at a Nine Inch Nails Concert she recently attended "were viewing the show through their phones because they couldn’t just watch it; they had to record it, too!”  

And certainly the consequences of being perpetually wrapped up in the ever-pinging, ever-vibrating, all-purpose devices can run much deeper. 

Vivian Martinez, 32, a nurse from New York, said that the separation she and her fiance recently underwent was due largely in part to smartphones. “We were so glued to our phones -- whether we were on email, Facebook or any other social networking site -- that the intimacy we once shared was compromised.”

Beth Cenci, 31, a social worker from New York, said that constantly having her smartphone by her side “can sometimes lead to me missing out on connecting with my 2-year-old son, Nicholas. Sometimes, when I am tired or bored or just not fully there, I pull out the phone to mindlessly scroll Facebook and look at things that I just don't really care about, things that have no real meaning in my life. The problem is, the thing I care about most is sitting right in front of me and definitely needs my attention more than the phone. I do not neglect or ignore him...but maybe instead of looking at Facebook or playing Words with Friends, I could ask him to get another book or help him build the block tower he is working on.”

Understandably, there is often some guilt associated with one’s allowing oneself to be stolen from the present by a nifty little gadget. (I personally feel bad when I’m at a party and I stay a few minutes longer in the bathroom to read my Twitter feed.) But there are clear reasons why these high-tech devices are so good at capturing our complete attention. 

“It's not like reading a book or reading a magazine or even watching television," Los Angeles-based behavioral health expert Rob Weiss, who studies the effect of technology on society, was recently quoted saying. "Today's devices require a constant stream of interaction, and that requires much more brainpower than passive watching or listening.”

And nowhere is the point that smartphones are deeply hampering our ability to enjoy and even function in the present better illustrated than in a piece of news, which came out of San Francisco on Sept. 23. 

Authorities say that riders of a municipal tram were so engrossed in their smartphones and tablets that they failed to notice that a male passenger in their midst was brazenly brandishing a .45-caliber pistol. The armed passenger actually brought his weapon into open view three or four times during the tram ride, but no one noticed -- not even when he pointed the weapon across the aisle or when he wiped his nose with it. Only after he shot dead a 20-year-old man who had also been riding in the same car just after both men disembarked did anyone notice a problem. Police say the killing was random. 

And so, I guess it’s fair to ask now, what does this all mean? That smartphones are “going to be the end of us,” as one participant in my survey told me? Are we all going to turn into zombies, living in uber digitized societies where no real social cohesion or allegiance exists? I don't think so. Traditional human connections are still strong. 

But I must say, I now think twice before answering a ping on my phone. Sure, I may be missing out on something. But I also may be missing out on something. 

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Mike Shinoda, Writer


I just wanted to give a shoutout real quick to Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, because I think his writing on grief in the last few years has been really fresh.

Just take the song "One More Light," the title track from Linkin Park's final album. In 2015, an executive for Warner Brothers Records who had helped Linkin Park out in the early days died. As a tribute to her, Shinoda co-wrote "One More Light." However, in the song he doesn't blather on about how amazing this woman was or how much she is missed; instead, he talks about the sense of defiance he feels at the hackneyed things people often say about death.

Specifically, Shinoda takes aim at people who, after someone dies, say things akin to, Who cares if just one person dies when there are so many billions of people in the world ("Who cares if one more light goes out in the sky of a million stars") or, Should we really spend time worrying about one person when a human being's lifespan is just a flash in the pan? ("Who cares if someone's time runs out if a moment is all we are.")

We know that these people's ideas on death don't resonate with Shinoda because he answers that central question, "Who cares if one more light goes out?" in the song: "I do," he says.

Wow. What a fresh take on grieving and what a way to give concrete form to a deeply personal idea.

The next song of Shinoda’s that I think shows the freshness of his writing on grief is “Over Again.” This tune, of course, is about Chester Bennington. But what makes it great is, just like with “One More Light,” Shinoda manages to attack the matter from a completely new angle.

Mike Shinoda at the Reading Festival in 2018. 

To great effect, Shinoda zeroes in on the idea that when someone dies, that person is often still so present, and we still need them so dearly, that we keep remembering them, reliving them and, of course, saying goodbye to them. It’s almost like when that wave of grief hits, we are right there again at the graveside.

The message Shinoda is trying to convey is driven home even more with the repetition of the word “over" at the end of the last verse: “And all I wanted was to get a little bit of closure/And every step I took, I looked and wasn’t any closer/Cause sometimes when you say goodbye/Yeah, you say it over and over and over and over...”

So, yes, in each song Shinoda is talking about a specific person, but the tracks, I think, have found such a wide audience because they discuss the complex nature of grief and the ideas ultimately expressed in the music are, God knows, universal.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

"Stan"



I love this WhatsApp message I sent to one of my students today. Good times.

12/6/18, 12:55 PM - Chad: Ok, one last thing on Eminem. Here is what is thought to be Eminem's very best song. It's called "Stan" and it's about an obsessed fan who takes Eminem's songs too literally.

This song is very special because unlike "The Way I Am," there's not one superfluous word in it; each word, more or less, tells something, is integral. Also the song is written in the style of a letter. So, the first three fourths of the song is written by an obsessed fan named Stan writing to Eminem -- even though it's just Eminem himself singing -- and the last verse is Eminem replying to this "obsessed fan."

Just for technical purposes, in case you're interested, "Stan" is what's known as an "epistolary" song -- meaning, it uses a series of letters rather than narration to tell a story.

This is actually very sophisticated stuff, Marina, right up there, in my opinion, with the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," another very literary minded song.

https://open.spotify.com/album/6t7956yu5zYf5A829XRiHC