Sunday, June 20, 2004

Better To Die On My Feet Than To Live "In the Barrel"

Today let’s think about wireless computer access and spontaneity and their influence on Dr. Strangethink, or How I Am Learning to Love the Life of Publish or Perish.

Shall we begin by defining terms? No woman was ever seduced by defining terms, which is why an unabridged dictionary will never be a pillow book but….

I believe I was defining terms. When I was doing my dissertation on Lord Byron, I came across “sprezzatura,” a lovely Italian word that more or less means a style of doing something casually, even carelessly, as if you did not care about the outcome, as if you were an amateur at play, not a professional at hard labor. This approach to life is common among a certain kind of aristocrat who works very hard but does not wish to seen as working very hard. I would not carry the comparison too far, but there’s something of sprezzatura in the attitude of the working journalist, since most journalists are generalists and skeptics (and more than a few are cynics). It is what I would call feigned indifference captured in the lines from Lord Byron’s Don Juan, “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘t is that I may not weep.”

For journalists, it can be a pose and/or a psychological defense, and it’s not universal -- plenty of journalists are at the other extreme, just so damn grim about the weight of the world and glad to display the sweat and strain of bearing it, though it’s not their job to bear it, only to ask the right questions of those who do.

Either approach works. It’s the product that matters, not the attitude in which it’s done, if the attitude does not leach into the work.

Not to give myself airs, but I liked that part of being a journalist that involved playing at being a journalist. I liked sitting in bars and talking to other journalists about the things we knew that never made it into print for reasons of law or corporate timidity. We shrugged and we moved on. That was what I took from the journalistic Oversoul. Don’t seem to take anything too seriously, and one way not to seem to take things too seriously is actually not to take them too seriously. (Yeats again: How do we tell the dancer from the dance when the dancer can’t tell himself from the dance after he has chosen to dance it?) When I crawled up the wall into the academy, some of this attitude persisted, and it is not a useful attitude for a scholar.

Beavering away at triviality is a rather ungenerous way of describing scholarship -- but what can you expect coming from someone who once had an article rejected by a scholarly journal because “this writer seems to be laboring under the misapprehension he should be entertaining.” The world and its progress need some hundreds of thousands of very bright people lavishing their time on the impenetrably obscure or the glaringly obvious. Most of the time I understand that for natural selection to work, it must have much to work upon. I understand that no one can say which experiment on matter, or only on idea, will be the one that changes the paradigm; thus, we must let a hundred flowers bud though only one may blossom. I believe in scholarship, particularly when it’s produced at a place like USF where our primary job is teaching, and the undergraduates we teach are intellectually unformed, and the intellectual stimulation of our research (whatever else it does) keeps us from burning out and dying in the classroom. (You think someone from your university may stumble on your blog! Admit it! You are AFRAID. – Eds.)

Having qualified my point until it’s a handful of dust on the floor, I will now say: I have had a hard time finding an area of inquiry into which I can whole-heartedly invest hours and days and months, which investment of time is such an expression of longing. Part of me wants to be seen as knocking the scholarship out casually and off-handedly. And all of me does not want to have been seen spending the time and the passion and producing crap.

Sigh. But there’s good news tonight. I now have a wireless card in my laptop and a router connected to my cable modem so, as I sit in my Corbu lounge sipping my morning coffee, my laptop sits beside me, and it is ON. When I get an idea that involves a quick email, it is so easy. How odd it is that the effort differential between reaching for the laptop and getting out of the lounge, going upstairs, turning on the big computer and writing and emailing is just enough to make me believe that the email I sent out a hour or two ago might never have been written because the getting up and trudging forth and so on and so on would have lacked…


Here’s that off-hand email.

Dear Fantasy baseball pals and assorted friends:

I will probably live to regret this, given the fact this league is fueled by irony and insult -- though my relationship with my friends is a little more sincere -- but I have a serious question. I am doing an article on newspaper column writing, and one aspect of that is the degree to which columnists understand their audience and thus do not have to spell everything out. Ten minutes ago I read Ray Ratto's Chron column for today (Sunday) in which he wrote this about ex-Lakers coach Phil Jackson: "after more than a decade in the barrel..." referring to his time in LA. Here's the question: Are you familiar with the "in the barrel" joke he's referring to? I am -- and I am surveying you to see how many of you do. It's not scientific, but I am a social scientist and can get away with anything. You are now what is called a convenience sample.

Thanking you, I am,

J.Michael Robertson
Crack Cottage

Bonus link to definition of:


1 comment:

G Pabst said...


What a nice piece of serendipity to find this in this morning's stocking.

Gene Shepherd - one of my literary heroes - wrote frequently about the sprezzaturi that walk among us. To paraphrase rather closely:

"There are some amonst us who are of another class entirely. When faced with utter disaster, they're able to slip on a pair of designer sunglasses, light a cigar and and amble gracefully down the street seemingly unencumbered by the inconveniences that plague mere mortals."

Shepherd, while of Brokaw's Greatest Generation, had much in common with Garrison Keillor. He wrote ironic nostalgia, published a few books, was very good on the radio and had a fan base that seemed centered among consumers of Public Broadcasting.

And in old age made - I hope - a pile of money on the movie "A Christmes Story," cobbled together from several of his short stories, and which he also narrated and appeared in a cameo role.

One of the characters he voiced in his many stories - the omniscient narrator - was cast as rolling in sprezzatura. And the irony came largely from the fact that he was narrating stories of himself as a kid (who he named Ralphie Parker) and who, like most kids, was absolutely tone-deaf, sprezzatura-wise.

In other words, tales that help us believe that the shlubby ducklings dangerously close to drowning which we once were are now (or at least have potential to be) social swans swimming graceful circles in the pond of adulthood.

New term minted and defined:
Sprezzatourist (n), individuals who prefer to spend leisure being pampered at elegant resorts in exotic places while simultaneously attracting and eschewing paprazzi. Syn. Onassis.

'nother good one today. Especially like references to Gabriel Heatter!
Or was it John Charles Daly?

Wait, I'll be right back.

It was G.H. Love that Google!