Sunday, January 9, 2011

Eating Barnes & Noble

You have to start somewhere — the middle seems best.

I was sitting recently in Barnes and Noble scanning some magazines, drinking coffee, but mostly thinking about how there may be only six degrees of separation between me and Angelina Jolie. Think about it: I know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone else, who knows someone else who actually knows someone else who knows — and can contact, that’s important — Angelina Jolie. Just six steps to heaven. That isn’t much distance to cover, and yet, here in Barnes and Noble, I don’t feel quite so connected to Ms. Jolie as this little formula seems to imply. Moreover, I am impressed at how quickly following this six degrees of separation plunges me into utter ignorance.

I, of course, know the first person of the five between Angie and me, but there’s a better than even chance that I don’t know the next, or second, person in the chain. The chances are really slim that I know any of the remaining links. I probably have never heard of these people and will likely never even know of them unless some freakish incident starts a traceable chain reaction leading me to Africa and Angelina. I remember reading somewhere an article that calculated the decreasing odds of knowing the friend of a friend of a friend and so on. I could google the article to provide you the reference, but I’m too depressed. The sweet honey of elation is turning to bile in my mouth. Six degrees, it seems, is sufficient for removing most everyone on Earth from the reach of this little light of mine.

I begin to wonder if this principle holds for most everything else, and the bile rises again. A few examples will suffice, I think.

I am sitting at a table-for-two in a Barnes and Noble in Macon, Georgia, in early 2011. The table has a round top made of some burnt orange, synthetic material mounted to a metal post, itself mounted into a thick, heavy, round metal foot. I can recognize this as a table, and I can use the technology to hold my coffee, my laptop, my magazines, my elbows, and my thoughts about six degrees of separation. If anyone were with me, I could use the table to create a conversational space and to mediate the interaction between myself and the other. I know tables fairly well, having used them all my life. With only one degree of separation between this table and me, I know it much like a friend, even though this particular table and I have only just met.

However, as soon as I introduce a second degree of separation, then my knowledge coarsens. Where did this table originate? Who made it? How did they make it? How did the table get here? I have basic concepts of how a factory might build tables and what that factory might look like and who might work there, I understand how the shipping industry in general works, I understand that corporations bid and buy great quantities of furnishings and other supplies, but these are general concepts which lack the tactile specificity of my knowledge of this particular round, red table. The factory that made this table is, in my mind, a stylized box with stick figure people. Place holders, really, for the reality of organization, production, and materials that I know must lie just behind this table.

If I move one more degree of separation with questions such as where did the raw materials used by the factory come from, then my knowledge becomes even coarser and details vanish altogether. What do I know of oil and steel? I have seen oil wells and petrochemical plants in south Texas and Louisiana, and I once spent a few weeks on a pipe-laying platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil comes out of the ground. That must sound stupid to a petrochemical engineer (someone with a formal education comparable to my own), and it must sound incredibly stupid to an oil derrick worker (usually someone with far less formal education than I have), but it's about the best I can do with oil. I think I once saw a steel mill outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, and one summer after high school, I worked in a plant that produced cooking oil. It was my job to puncture the caps and empty the bottles that quality control had deemed unfit to sell. I never learned to distinguish the good bottles from the bad, and anyway, I don’t think this is the right kind of oil for producing business furniture.

See? Just two degrees of separation, and I am in almost total darkness. I am reduced to mumbling to hide my ignorance.

But, I think, perhaps the problem is with tables and manufacturing. After all, I have no great experience, expertise, or training in that field. What about literature? I'm in Barnes & Noble, surrounded by great, less great, and not great literature, and I have worked and trained in this field for a long time.

From my table, I can see the mural above the coffee shop in the corner of this Barnes & Noble. The mural is a stylized scene of a quasi-Parisian café populated with great writers, mostly of the Twentieth-century: Nabokov, Parker, Hemingway, Singer, Faulkner, Miller, Capote, and Williams.

As with my round, red table, I begin on rather solid ground, in a clean, well-lighted place. I know all these authors' first names: Vladimir, Dorothy, Ernest, Isaac, William, Henry (or perhaps Arthur?), Truman, and Tennessee (or perhaps William Carlos?). I have read all of these people — some deeply, some superficially, but all of them and others besides. I have actually met only one of them, however: Isaac Bashevis Singer. I took a couple of creative writing classes with Prof. Singer at the University of Miami in 1981 and 82 when I was working on my doctorate. He has passed away now, but I remember a kindly grandfather figure who could clearly see beyond more than two degrees of separation. He had that genius, that strong a light. I don't seem to have that.

But I did not meet any of the other writers except through their poems and stories and through the countless things written about them, so I lack that tactile specificity that I have even with this round, red table. I have a better sense of their writings. I know well the spare elegance of Hemingway's prose and the labyrinthine elegance of Faulkner's, or the joy of a heart beating against a forest floor and the obsessive, deadly passion of a spinster for her poisoned lover. I have richer understanding in this space, but everywhere I look, I see more shadows than light. I have more questions than I have answers.

I am an old man sitting in a clean, well-lighted place, but the light does not extend far. Or rather, it extends just far enough to let me know how much darkness is out there.

You have to stop somewhere — the middle seems best.
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