Reclaiming the Art of Conversation

Lindsey Carranza, Conversation, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’m reading Sherry Turkle’s book, Reclaiming Conversation. Plucked it off the shelf serendipitously, while retreiving The Empowerment Manual, by Starhawk, which was recommended to me by @care_save for co-op study. And since I’m reporting on current reading, I’ll also share that I’ve lately found myself entranced by Octavia Butler’s Dawn (Xenogenesis, Bk. 1), which is about a woman who wakes up after WW3, finding herself in the care of an alien society that has rescued the (few) surviving humans to harvest them for genetic purposes. They call themselves traders. These aliens, the Oankali, travel throughout the universe finding species with whom to exchange DNA. They draw from vast libraries of genetic information to evolve and adapt themselves to new worlds. They perform all these transactions using their own bodies, through an advanced form of sexuality.

Turkle’s book has me thinking, though, about the relation between online and face-to-face communication, which is not as unrelated to the exchange of alien DNA as it might seem. Her thesis is that the way people communicate these days—via text, social media, etc.—accelerates what she calls a flight from conversation, and that this is a problem, because actual conversations do something (or makes us something) that texting, tweeting, social status updating, and so on, do not. Moreover, she argues, the ubiquitous and incessant presence of modern digital technologies, whether or not we’re actively using a device at any given moment, itself inhibits conversation. For example, the mere presence a phone when two people are talking will diminish the measured empathy and reported satisfaction of the encounter (according to participants in Turkle’s research).

Nothing can replace the experiential depth and richness of face-to-face conversation, Turkle argues. So, we must learn how to use our technologies (and redesign them) to facilitate (or at least stay out of the way) of real conversations again. Turkle is particularly concerned with family, education and business contexts, but her arguments also apply on a fundamental level to what it means to be a person. We are less than fully human if we do not have real conversations.

Naturally, this has got me thinking: if Turkle is right (I think her research confirms what we already know, but don’t act on), this means that it’s impossible, at least with current technology, to be fully human online. Moreover, it means that the more comprehensively the online digital world colonizes the offline lifeworld (the more pervasive—and biologically invasive—the technology becomes), the less fully human we will be, online and offline. It’s a losing battle.

Obviously, personal responsibility and discipline is a defense. Our technologies are enchanting—glazed in magical auras—they tempt us away from ourselves. But we can resist, create safe non-digital spaces; we can practice analog austerities, such as meditation and reading actual books (made of dead trees) and having phone-free sex and walking alone in the woods; we can be party-poopers, raining urine on the cyberspace parade. I can watch how an impulse arises, a flicker of muscle memory near my thumb, the twitch of thought as an urge to check my phone bubbles up in my brain. I can witness the nervous cluster gather energy, twist into a ligament twinge; I can inhale and exhale. And, if I merely observe, I can let the micro-desire dissipate, while interrogating my intent.

But who wants to being doing that all the time? There are limits to willpower.

The smarter thing would be to redesign our technologies, and retrain our use of them, to be human-centric—i.e., built and coded with the intention of enhancing human depth, at the same time as expanding connectivity and access. But we mustn’t confuse or conflate breadth and depth, connectivity and communion. The depth dimension, which is an intensification of interiority, is what is implied by “conversation.” We go into the “depths” and discover that there is life down there. Strange bioluminescent creatures. Bizarro mineral formations. Underwater volcanos.

Yet a conversation can also go high. Conversation can spawn flights of thought, “brain storms” of the imagination, a play of minds that dance in freedom. Conversation is the dojo of reason. It can be “on the level,” keeping it real. Genuine conversation is multidimensional, non-linear. It’s risky; it can be death-defying. We must listen, to ourselves as much as others, to know what we really think, and who thinks what, and how it feels and what it means. Conversation is pretty much the only way, as far as I can tell, to transmute violent feelings into understanding.

I also know this: Connection does not equal conversation. Sharing, commenting on, or even “discussing” some topic (e.g., in a Facebook group or forum) is not the same as conversation. Even video chat (ultrawild Google hangout party, anyone?) does not (and cannot) accomplish what face-to-face dialogue does. The problem is that many of the people I want to talk to can only be found online. They’re not in my hometown. We don’t see each other face to face. We might never.

Must I resign myself to online experience always being a pale—fragmented, distracting, stimulating and yet not equally nourishing—abstraction from real life? Must I re-prioritze the local over the non-local? The analog over the digital? Or is there some synthesis, some elegant integration, possible?

One thing I’ve noticed is that space matters—on the screen and off. (In other words, the layout of elements on a page, but also the surrounding space we’re in). As well, time matters. How we structure space and time (aka “user experience”) affects the quality of the discourse. The interface must be spacious, and time must be allowed for thoughts to propagate. A conversation breathes. There is an inhale/exhale cadence, as with listening and speaking in person, or reading and writing in private. The underlying logic of our media must allow for natural rhythms. When we feel ourselves hyperventilating, rushed and scattershot, unable to take it all in, split between multiple overcharged threads, it’s a symptom that our thought-processes (via attention) have been hijacked.

Incentives also matter. What do our technologies want from us? What do they want us to do, and why, and for whose benefit? Underlying logics aren’t neutral. Agendas are alway coded in, whether it’s an advertising-oriented algorithm, or an addictive interface. Can we incentivize for depth? For intelligence? For novelty?

Language matters too. We must become good writers—and readers—to converse online. Because so much of online interaction is text-based, the more vivid, imaginative, thought-provoking, and coherent writers we are—and the better our reading-comprehenion and intimacy with each others’ “texts” (as well as cultural sub-texts)—the more authentic and substantial our conversations will be, because we are conveying and sharing a deeper interiority.

The question I have, then (for those who want and hunger for real conversations, as I do), is how can we have these conversations online? Even if our digital discourse can never replace face-to-face communication, how can it at least be better? Much better? How we optimize for the human in digital life? At the same time, how can online spaces enable (or enhance) conversations in real life?

I can see there is some way the three books I’m reading all interrelate. There is a sense in we could see ourselves as analogues of the Oaknali, traders of cultural genetics through our discourse…and some way we might need’s Starhawk’s methods of social empowerment via organization, to do this well…and a way we need to “reclaim conversation”—to reclaim our social souls—as Turkle suggests. Can we reclaim the art of conversation in the digital age?

Cracking this nut is a bit of life goal for me. I would love to hear your thoughts…


A few months ago I observed two young people, male and female, early twenties, on the train. He introduced himself to her, told where he lived, talked about his job. He started to describe his boss but stopped. He pulled out his device and showed a video of his boss at work. The woman watched and they made a few grunts. The rest of the conversation was more or less like this. Showing pictures, video and making grunts and guffaws. No narrative developed.

This scene disturbed me. I recall a few decades ago in my late twenties listening to younger people, talk about art, history, Freud and Jung, at cafes and lounges around the city. I live in NYC, the East Village, near NYU, which was at that time a hot bed of leftist politics and artistic experiment. There was conflict and lots of it and demonstrations and vigils and groups to join and raise hell with. There were late night talks until the crack of dawn, most of us slept till noon in those days. No one thought work was a good idea. We did as little of it as we could, rents were cheap. I had an apartment and a loft space in Tribeca, which I paid for with a part time waiter job. We were poor but we were creative and had time to rehearse. It was a different world for sure, and talk was at the center of it, lots of talk. Action plans emerged out of the art of many moving conversations. Communication was important. Now kids are gazing at each other on their devices, and the adults are as cut off as the kids from real time.

There are still cafes and concerts and things to do but it is so expensive, and time is no where to be found. Young people work harder, for less money, in a much more expensive place, and the creativity is there, but with less leisure, and no expectations of a viable future, I see the young, the middle aged and the elderly being cut off from sharing direct experiences that turns into lived knowledge. Cut off from the show and tell kinds of events that were everywhere, the street theater, the sense of being alive and in each others face was visceral and frightening and exhilarating. The old polish ladies, the ethnic restaurants, the all night diners are gone. I take care of the elderly, who are often cognitively impaired, but I have to admit I find them more socially adept than most of the so called highly cognitive driven culture we are currently living in. Many of these very elderly person have a charm and a personal power that has been earned. How are we to earn our beauty, as Ursula la Quinn earned hers?

We have lots of good things happening but it is all very expensive, high end, over produced. Knowledge is being lost, the kind of knowledge that was common on the streets, until a decade ago.As one hooker said to me back in the nineties " The heat from the street is gone"

Forgive this off the cuff rant. I am sure I have been very unfair. I just have to grieve for the future that none of us is going to have. We will come up with some alternative perhaps and that might be a great adventure, but I am hugely saddened by what we have so rapidly lost. And what dear friends are we to write about in a world of FB and Tweets? What new kind of art forms are to rise from the ashes? I am open to believe it is possible and certainly desirable. And no doubt that is why I am so drawn to elegy. I hate to be a downer but I am.

You raise some pressing concerns Marco and I support your efforts to transform our discourse. Some of the best conversations I have had of late have been with you. God bless us all and may we wake each other up in what ever medium we can develop.


I love your honesty, Johnny. This isn’t a rant but soul truth to me. I lived a short while in Brooklyn, pre-Guliani, a time when Times Square still had some seediness to it. Long time ago. I’m 47 now, so I completely get what you mean in your words. I share your skepticism of social media and all these shiny and slick looking platforms. We can show lots of neat stuff to each other and by so doing can easily grow lazy, being excused from digging deep and finding our own words. I recall the days of handwriting my letters to family and friends, and physically waiting for letters in response. The pace and rhythm back then was different, deeper and richer, more conducive to a sense of time and place, the whole process having about it something more tactile and real. A couple months ago my Mom let me read letters she has saved between her parents, my Grandparents John and Lillian Paukstis, when they were a young couple in the 1940s. My Grandpa was in the army, and at one point in the letters, he’s headed for Japan - just before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those atomic bombs are dropped, and we know the story. The ship my Grandpa was on turned around and headed home. But the writing between he and my Grandma during that time is simple but genuine, being rooted in actual time and place, that somehow more humanity comes through.

Last week I watched a documentary entitled The Blank Generation which has short interviews in it of Amos Poe, Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Blondie, James Chance, John Waters and others, about their dirt poor days in New York City in the 70s, and the "No Wave” movement and scene they all inadvertently and spontaneously created D.Y.I. They didn’t set out to realize any set plan or shared vision, they weren’t trying to become famous, or to go “viral” (I’ve grown to despise that phrase), but they really struggled day to day to get by, surviving through thrift and grit, and a community spawned in the midst of it. Many of them had no real talent. But something in the spirit shared spoke to possibilities of self-expression. Some discussion comes up, Johnny, of the loss or selling out of the original spirit when individuals began to be recognized and reach a wider audience. But not to wax nostalgic.

I love your honesty, and I love your writing too, Johnny. You should write an elegy. There should be a section where you rant away, unfettered and free, and blast much deserved targets!


Little correction: Blank City (2010) is the documentary I watched.

Thanks John for your very kind words about my own offerings, meanderings, and passionate rambling. I so much enjoy your explorations as well, John, and appreciate your conversational artistry.

You bring back touching memories of sharing correspondence with lovers and family. Email is not the same and I so agree that we seem to know what everyone else thinks about everything and we have grown lazy and frantic at the same time. We feel the stress more than ever of our inadequate response to the terrible times we live in.

Of course the 70s sucked too and many of the conversations we had then were pretty dumb. But even if the guy on the barstool next to me was a jerk I had a chance to learn something, sense his energy, smell his after shave, notice his fashion choices, etc. And we did talk about ideas, had fierce debates, and let fly a few punches on occasion. Anarchy was the norm. I find a bland suburban conformity seems to have over taken us, the shopping mall has triumphed. I miss the old Times Square squalor, the urban decay. It was sublime.

I want to check out the film you mention. I recall how effective we were in many ways, dealing with emergencies effectively, under constant pressure in the Reagan/ Thatcher era. I was a gay activist, a member of the underground, dealing with the New Age excess, channeling, drugs, AIDS, and there was nonsense and much profound wisdom that comes out of pain. I worry that we have lost our resilience, and are waiting for someone to tell us what to do. Perhaps as I embrace this impasse I can invoke the ancestors, stabilize those qualities from the transpersonal worlds we seemed to inhabit instinctively in those difficult times.

I so appreciate the quality of our discourse here and wish to get off the ground some projects that may be of use to those of us who are looking for the next wave. Deep bows to everyone here.


Hi Johnny:

I should also mention the Cockettes of the 60s. There’s an excellent documentary about them which came out in 2002. (Pre John Waters - one might say the Cockettes are the gold-glittery pubic hair-curtained womb out of which sprang in full drag the fabulous Divine!) There’s a small theatre here in SF called the Hypnodrome which carries on some of its spirit, though not with the same ecstatic heights. But the campy fun subversiveness and gender-bending is still there, the sheer joy and celebration of freakiness. High-strung loner that I am, I went nervously to see a performance there of Pearls Over Shanghai with my gay friend Steve Susoyev and ended up having a hoot. Steve knew all the words to the songs and was singing along. Steve wrote a book called People Farm, which is a powerful autobiographical account of when as a young man he got deeply involved in a cult. You may be interested in this, Marco. Cults and gurus - the attraction of emotionally vulnerable and psychologically unstable individuals to a smart-talking charismatic figure, the power relations which develop, and how it all plays out, eventually falling apart in unspeakably ugly ways with real abuses suffered (usually rationalized in pretty terms, or intellectualized by the leader to make it all seem like good medicine). Steve is a gifted writer, and in his book he delves vividly and with unflinching honesty into his experience of the cult, what drew him in, what kept him in, and some of the truly crazy and disturbing things that transpired.

I’m not sure how active it is now, but in 2003 Steve started his own little independent publishing outfit called Moving Finger Press (great name!) Along with People Farm and some other books, there’s a book he put out on Moving Finger entitled “Return to the Cafe Cinno”. A couple blurbs about it:

“A collection of 22 plays originally produced at the legendary Greenwich Village coffeehouse during the 1960s, where Off-Off Broadway theatre was born.”

“In place of a traditional introduction, readers find memoir-style essays by 40 pioneers including Edward Albee, Marshall Mason, Lucy Silvay, Robert Patrick, William M. Hoffman, Magie Dominic and Phoebe Wray, plus interviews and dozens of archival photographs”

It says this on the back cover: “This Ground Zero of the 1960s was a coffee house, a theatre, a brothel, a temple, a flophouse, a dope-ring, a launching-pad, an insane asylum, a safe-house, and a sleeper cell for the unnamed revolution…” Robert Patrick, author of Kennedy’s Children from his introductory memoir

“Joe Cino opened his coffeehouse in Greenwich Village in 1958. The theatre world was outraged by the audacity and inspired by the originality of the work performed, between raids by the police (for the place had no theatre license), on Joe’s eight-by-eight foot stage.”

When Steve and I were chatting once (a great guy to converse with, very intelligent and animated, sensitive and engaged, a good listener, and a sense of humor which doesn’t blush and pretty much can go anywhere), Steve picked a copy of this book off a pile of books and gave it to me for free. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t yet read it, but it came to mind thinking of you, Johnny, there in NYC.

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This is a good intro to Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village in NYC, started in 1958 and lasting through most of the 60s, its rise and fall. Inspiring and liberating at its zenith but tragic how it came to an end. Regardless, a lasting influence, opening doors and possibilities. I think Joe Cino had something in his idea, Marco, which resonates with your vision for this co-op.

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Thanks, John, for the cultural history! I like that you have tracked your own experience and also shared a link ( very charming video) and this is what our technology offers us. We can in the twinkling of an eye, download archives, videos, etc, and deliver it to another person on the other end of the country, who shares similar interests. This kind of acceleration of a social/educational process, which may have taken decades of study in previous times, is dizzying.

When I first got a computer I visited the website of a Buddhist teacher who had a fondness for Rilke and St John of the Cross. He had translations and vocal performance of the poems ( in English and translation) and with his own commentary on the poetry and the mystical experiences the poetry came out of.

For a person like myself who had been raised in book culture this was like a quick fix. I went into ecstatic union with the learning that the technology made available. Instead of going through stacks at the library for years, I was in the presence of all of these materials made available for free and without any hard work. This is of course the researcher’s dream, and it has also become the researcher’s nightmare. Why bother studying anything in depth when there is so much easily available without the hard work of gathering books and articles? You can just watch a video and assume ( falsely I believe ) that you have got it.

We have got a lot of undigested, unintegrated, information, that is not lived or deeply shared, as is knowledge that comes out of first person and adequate third person accounts. I feel we are in the undertow of a couple of decades of high living, coming down with a crash, as we wake up to how superficial our culture has become, ( Trump vs Hillary) and how bad the maps have become, how impoverished the relationships to a shared territory.

Having said that I also accept responsibility and turn off the technology especially before bed and turn to a book. Currently I am studying Shakespeare’s sonnets. I read a sonnet, memorize a few more lines, and go to sleep. My dreams are very freaky, I dream of rhyme schemes and enter into literary zones that are unimaginably rich. I hear a male voice sounding Chaucer and going into middle English and very ancient Anglo Saxon and I know nothing about this, I am just open to the rythyms.I am persuaded that our planet is a highly experimental literary consciousness’s co-evolving with a rather slow technology. Slow in the sense that it relies on chopping up the senses into a grid like affair while the dream space is multi-sensory and synesthetic, an open ended, overlapping Venn diagram, each dreamer, making it up in ways that is marvelous to behold. Many of us are paying attention to these in between liminal zones. More power to us.

I believe we are dreaming in different ways, and could of course dream in radically different ways due to our immersion in the new technology and we should expect horrific nightmares as well. My own brain has been fried by the intensity of New York and now that intensity has subsided as more and more people live in fewer and fewer relationships in real time and no longer try to form alliances in that real time experience. What is the quality of attention that is shared when we leave the face to face, knee to knee, intimacy we get in a café or bar and enter the group think of the robotic FB social media? Over a generation we are re-wired and stuck in a rigid materialist grid when humanity has just started to evolve what I would call transphysical senses.

Of course I know this because I am in contact with those few people on the planet who are investigating this. We are friends on FB and can email each other. It is very cool but I believe there is much to worry about. The amplification of our distortions is entirely probable unless we have grounded ourselves in the profoundly ordinary face to face exchanges, the banality of which becomes in the eye and ear of a sensitive writer or poet the raw stuff that can become story, narrative, play. I’m afraid that with the increase of so much noise, the noise has become the signal. How can you craft a narrative in a world that doesn’t listen anymore to anything unless it is very loud!!!

I used to wear ear plugs, and I still have no smart phone. I resist and I accuse! Forgive the rant. There I go again.


If I lived near you, Johnny, I’d come over and give you my copies of Steve Susoyev’s books People Farm and Return to the Cafe Cino. People Farm is incredible, gripping and engrossing, and totally fascinating psychologically. I read it a couple years ago and scenes in it are still vivid in my mind.

Have to run shortly, so can only reply in brief. I read this you wrote and had this vision of your harder, sharper thinking (you with earplugs in to shut out the noise) operating like a jackhammer in the concrete jungle, finally breaking through the cold and gray concrete: then fresh water bubbling up. Then an explosion of water high into the air, a wonderful nourishing fountain, sun shining through the mist - and a rainbow appearing.:sun_with_face:

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If we lived near each other John I’m sure most of the problems of our technology would be solved. I have had the good luck to meet in person some of the conversational partners I have met on line. Marco and I for example have had a real time café conversation which greatly enhances what is happening on line. I wonder if anyone has studied these kinds of real time cyber time kind of encounters? I wonder if such communities interact and get mobilized?

What was happening in Café Cino is a lot like what I imagine Marco wants to do through this space. Producing plays requires close proximity-all performance does. even lectures often translate poorly unless face to face. Dance looks bad on video if first performed in a theater. No depth. The screen can do some wonderful things with human faces-I recently saw Moonlight-a simply stunning interplay of voice, face, eyes, up close and intimate-so I am in awe and wonder at such potentials for soul expression coming through the big screen.

I am just worried that the in-between-seminal zones require a shared attentional space, sometime good writing can takes us into another world, so it is how we use that language I suppose. Shakespeare is dead and gone but he lives still if you recite his lines, using the human breath. lips, tounge, and you get a feel for the Mind of the Master.

But to make this kind of entry you have to have some basic skills and that starts with a high touch, high context set up which I don’t think most people are getting much of and so when we turn to the technology there is little ground under the feet, and we become air, thin air, without a pulse, and so how to entrain with the rhythms of the great Other in prose or verse? Maybe for the very few.

This film, Moonlight, has generated lots of conversation and I has gone deep into that undiscovered country that Shakespeare knew a lot about. Could this film I wonder ( based on an unpublished play) have been produced without the experiments that were navigated at Café Cino? There might be a relationship, a distant one, but great movies, plays are about community, the search for community. This film is a great step for humanity I believe, one of the great love stories of our time. I hope to write about becoming queer. This film is central to my social research.

Moonlight | Official Trailer HD | A24 - YouTube

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Thanks Johnny. You are wonderfully eloquent. You capture in words and confirm much of what I myself think. It would be commendable, brave, educational, encouraging and inspiring if you wrote your own account of growing up queer and your experience of being so. I instinctively shared Steve S’s People Farm with you, because that’s exactly what that is. Steve’s accomplishment is great because it’s not only about his struggle with his homosexuality, embodying the flesh and soul and spirit of it and coming to terms with it, but it also transcends it, giving insight into human nature in a larger sense, exposing shocking and ugly sides to it, the heaven of good intentions turning to hell. Other issues come to light. It has a great deal of humanity in it. Steve in person has all kinds of friends, male and female and trans, old and young, gay and straight (I myself am straight by the way, living presently more like a monk to be honest, struggling like St. Anthony - deeply repressed actually - ha ha - but know sexuality to be highly individual and complex). Steve, like myself, is a humanist who tries his best to take each individual as they come, to resist easy abstracting and categorizing for dismissal or power-tripping. Stereotyping only leads back into the vicious circle of abuse and victimhood. In the Caffe Cino video clip I’m impressed by the part at the beginning where it’s mentioned that anyone, no matter what orientation, was welcome and could feel at home, and later it’s mentioned that the tone of the place wasn’t doctrinaire and didn’t have an agenda. It was a space for free and open creative activity and self-discovery.

Your worship of Shakespeare appears to have transformed itself into a personal ritual. I wonder if you set up a sacred space and dress up for your recitation to soak up the high music, transporting yourself into other realms. Whatever means you are engaged in to internalize those words, driving them down even into muscle memory, I think it could only help improve your own word-craft and eloquence. I hope it results in the creation of your own art.

I watched the trailer for the movie Moonlight you shared. Looks like a powerfully emotional movie, where a violent storm of homophobia is endured. Have you ever seen any films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder?

If anything supersedes or transcends the media we use, allowing human connectivity even despite it, it’s personal content injected into it, personal disclosure, personal sensibility. Of course the internet is loaded with trolls, or individuals who do quite the opposite, hiding behind pseudonyms and fucking with people, getting their petty little kicks that way. Most of it is fear and cowardice. One thing I know you know, Johnny, the more personal content one injects into something, the more confidence in own’s own voice one gets, the more able one becomes to tell an authentic voice from a bullshitter. Yet we must admit some are really expert at playing chameleon, and stringing one along, in an attempt to make one look foolish and humiliate one. It’s happened to me. To some extent I’m naturally trusting and have my share of naïveté.

Running late - gotta run again - Warmest regards to you, Johnny :smiley:

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Hi Johnny D:

Presently I’m in a mindspace where I’m definitely more into making visual art. All this scribbling in writing begins to wear on me, words and more words becoming like a plague of locusts, swarming and from which I seek shelter, so I don’t plan in engaging much more in these comment boards, at least for the time being. But I really want to share this with you while it’s still fresh in my mind.

A couple weeks ago my friend Steve Susoyev sent to me the following link to a review he wrote for a book which just came out entitled “Insomniac City”, by Billy Hayes, who was the lover of the late, great Oliver Sacks during the last years of his life. (Who doesn’t love Oliver Sacks?) The book is also I’d say just as much about Billy’s love of New York City.

About a week and a half ago Steve went to Berkeley and listened to Billy give a reading from his book, and of course introduced himself to him. Steve was kind enough to loan his autographed copy to me. I just finished reading it a couple days ago and returned it to Steve yesterday. We had a pleasant chat about it, mutually admiring parts of the book. It’s an easy read, I breezed right through it, but it’s quite wonderful and refreshing. It’s food for the heart.

Best to you -

P. S. This entry by Maria Popova in Brain Pickings yesterday mentions Bill Hayes and his book Insomniac City:

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Thanks, John, I’ll check it out. I have no memory of Sacks ever mentioning anything about being gay. I did love his work, a really good writer.

Hi Johnny:

I hadn’t really thought of Sacks as gay before either. He doesn’t really give off the gay vibe. He did a good job concealing it through the years. His long period alone is remarkable when he delved completely into his work, devoting himself to it body and soul. There is something monastic about the spirit of his whole endeavor up into his elder years, as devout and good-natured as it is, but that very spirit also provided him I think an intensified objective focus and clarity. I think a double-edged sword is at work there. The headline of the short Washington Post piece I attach here, “The tragic story of Oliver Sacks’s celibacy” is perhaps too drastic. There appear to be paradoxes in his story. When I think of Sacks, I’m moved in the deepest way by that wonderful mix of analytical detachment and childlike curiosity and wonder in his mentality, and his tremendous capacity for empathy. This I think is generally why so many love him. He strikes universal chords. In all that, however, it does get lost what his more intimate personal story is, which includes his sexual orientation and love life. It’s one of those curious things about doctors and scientists and all those who become looked up to as teachers, mentors and guides. Faced with their remarkable and even intimidating accomplishments, one can easily forget they’re human too, with basic needs and desires.

Reading Insomniac City, I was sincerely glad, my heart warmed, to discover that Oliver Sacks later in life finally found total and fully reciprocated love with Bill Hayes. Both of them were ready for it, one might say were prepared for it by their previous experiences. They found each other at the right time.

I find it interesting to reflect on how the soil in two individuals, earlier in life, isn’t ready or prepared enough yet to receive seeds which will grow deep roots, develop sturdy stems, and finally blossom into something truly beautiful. As we know, so many seeds fall into young people, promising much, and actually coming to nothing.

Reflecting on Oliver Sacks as neurologist and scientist, Hans Holbein’s little woodcut “Death and the Physician” from his “Dance of Death” series (1538) came to mind. The skeleton, or Death, taunts: “Physician, Heal Thyself”.


“I wish you had never been born.”

My father said the same thing to me. And it is amazing how that curse, said by a parent, gets stuck in the system for decades, if not a life time. I had a rich and complex love life, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Only recently, many years after his death, have I had a chance to clear my aura of his abuse and cruelty. Alas such curses when couple with widespread bigotry is a double whammy. I do sense though after Moonlight won Best Picture that a new wave of queer arts and letters is in the making.

Oliver sounds like he was more traumatized in some ways than I was by his mother’s curse. His sexuality appears to have shut down. I saw this photo of him when he was young and going to the gym, What a hunk, he looks very Tom of Finland. I certainly miss his erudition and curiosity about everything. He seems to have found love at last.

What would our devices look humanised with depth? I’ve been swishing that idea around in my head for ages and I just don’t know. It’s curious how difficult it is to formulate alternatives imaginatively. Why is that? Is it something to do with the magicalness of these devices that has us bewitched and kind of frozen in place? Is it the enchantment combined with the anxiety what freezes us to their current configuration?

I watched Horace and Pete last year and it left a profound impression. The way it was shot in long sweeping pans or, alternatively, the 10 minute close-up of a middle-aged woman’s face, it was an antidote to the cooking show im currently addicted to. It was humanising, though everyone in it is miserable and it is ultimately a tragedy. It is shot with love, and it made me realise that Louis CK is something more than the wonderful I already knew he was.


Sue let loose a goose from the stands in left field. The game has stopped, and all the players stand around watching. Thing’s flappin’ all over and honkin’. A couple of security officers storm the field and can’t catch the thing, tripping and falling after repeated attempts to reach out and grab it, and the crowd begins howlin’.

I never watched Horace and Pete before, but I looked it up and see Steve Buscemi acts one of the parts. Interestingly, earlier in this thread I mentioned the Documentary “Blank City”, and Buscemi is in it. As a youngster he was part of that scene, and got his start from it.

Indeed, Johnny, after seeing that photo of Sacks as a young man, I definitely need to modify my statement. I’ve seen Tom of Finland’s work before. I think also of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and of Kenneth Anger’s short film Scorpio Rising. Anger taps into that homo-eroticism and fetishism of leather and machine. I know there’s a whole world of symbolism there.

(Note that it says “Johnny” on Brando’s leather jacket.)

A still from Kenneth Anger’s "Scorpio Rising"

What a damnable thing for any parent to say to their child they wish he or she had never been born. I wonder how the trajectory of Sacks’s life might have differed if he was totally accepted by his mother, she loved him for who he was, and he moved into social life without any shame of his actual nature and orientation. He already had a brilliant mind.

It’s interesting to consider all those components which play into the development of empathy in a person. The trauma and suffering one actually experiences in life heightens and increases awareness and sensitivity toward the trauma and suffering in others. If one doesn’t take flight into reactionary states, losing oneself, but stays clear, one becomes attuned to the secret hurts and wounds in others. One wonders how much Sacks’s personal trauma and suffering, the curse of his mother which he carried around inside himself and quietly gnawed at him, actually figured into heightening and increasing his awareness and sensitivity toward others stigmatized for being odd or different. It seems to have played some part in driving him into what became his field of expertise.


We are in mysterious territory, John, when we fathom hardship and trauma and the repeated insults that cultural held bias blesses and add to that the parent who is ashamed of the kid and who stands up for the system instead of the kid and throws rocks with the rest of the village. Of course, if you have been thrown out of the village, as I was, you may reject the village and live with the outcasts and refugees. Or you can try to get back into the village and go undercover and find interesting work to do as you suppress what you know to be true. Academia in the fifties, was the Petri dish to breed the culture of don’t ask, don’t tell, which often created the circumstances for the genius in the closet, like Alan Turing, who broke the Nazi code, and saved the Brits and to then become a martyr.

Sacks had a different turn of events, and he didn’t take the risk of coming out, neither by the way did Susan Sontag, or many of that generation, who carved out a niche for themselves, even as other gay writers and thinkers stood out on a limb and sometimes they succeeded brilliantly inspite of the risk to reputation to create a persona. It is to those who took the risks that I pay great homage and am saddened by those who didn’t . We shall never really know what the mix is in a person which gets them to take risks and fly high or crash and those who travel down low.

We have a different game to play now that ‘coming out’ has become a national theme and grandmothers talk openly about their love for their transgendered grandkids, etc. The underground as awful as it was in many ways was more creative than all of this boring assimilation. So we can get married. Big fucking deal.

Oh well, we need to re-arrange our wardrobes, take off the makeup, and the motorcycle jackets for we are a threat to no one and welcome to the suburbs and the brightly lit shopping malls. What I loved about Moonlight, was how it immersed the viewer in the lights and shadows of a young boy who is trying to live in the hood. A masterpiece! It is to this kind of art that I turn when I’m in doubt about our future. It is better than it was but not over. America still requires scapegoats to function.

Those who have no identity problems are not the ones who need the protections of identity politics. I see the left betraying itself once again.

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@sue: to give the flapping, quacking, loosey goosey bird some love before the S.W.A.T. team is called in, in their militarized, carbon-fiber exoskeletons, to vaporize the poor, confused animal—which will likely be accomplished by a bomb-disarming robot or weaponized drone—I’ll just thank you for the substance of your question.

I have a feeling there is nothing inherent in the design of a device itself that humanizes it. Nor do I subscribe the school that the technology itself is neutral, and it all comes down to how we use it.

These are very powerful devices which channel fundamental energies and properties of matter to affect consciousness. Think of how much time our brain and eyeballs spend interfacing with streams of highly configured and directed electronic light.

This is an extremely new experience for the species, which only first occurred less than 100 years ago, on an evolutionary time-scale spanning millions of years, where all light came only from the sun or fire or bioluminescence…or inner vision. These days the average first-world human spends upwards of 10 hours a day gazing at the electronic apparitions on a screen.

Can this be called “human” behavior anymore? Can we remain human for long the more we mediate our consciousness through electronic light? Are we destined for some inevitable form of post-humanity? I don’t have an answer at the moment, but I am disturbed by these questions.


I think Sue was referring to a comment I made a month or so ago about an anecdote, where two kids, strangers on a train, introduce themselves through the media on their devices. I was rather chilled by this display as there was no shaking of hands or idle small talk, no talk at all really, no story conveyed, just grunts and chortles around the glow of their devices. And a few days later there was mention of ‘narrative collapse’ and I worried vaguely about what future fiction, if any, would emerge, and tried to put two and two together and got five and then we end up talking about Oliver Sack’s absence of a love live-and I think this search for themes in a long thread, how they get lost and reappear, may test us, as we get more and more asynchronous. I view the artificial light gleaming in the red eyes of more and more zombies, dressed up and acting like people-sort of-, rushing off to the next meet up kind of interesting. Life is for me, after a decade of heavy Internet exposure an increasingly ephemeral experience .I’m not sure how to evaluate all of this, what would our standard be? Where is Marshall McLuhan when you really need him?

If our evolution revolved around face to face encounters and shared attention in a really real place then we have in a short amount of time broken away from that. Does that mean we are post human? I have to research that more but I feel some of us could imagine a variety of post or trans humans emerging out of these electric screens. I prefer though Chekov with those long silences between people, where there was a sub-text, and a kind of resonance that was hard to capture in words. There is no effort it seems in a post literate society to put anything into words, the short attention span, inhibits awkward silences, and tiny meangful gestures. Its all car chases, explosions and fast sex-