The freedom of the blogger

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In his farewell in the New York Times on November 15th Roger Cohen, one of my favorite columnists, had this to say about his work:

“I have tried to say not only what I think but also to reveal who I am…. Nobody ever told me what subject to choose or what to say about it. ‘You write and you are free,’ a Saudi friend said…. Free and solitary like a runner on the beach in the early morning at low tide. Such freedom is rare.”

I don’t presume to compare my modest blogging to the polished work of pros like Roger Cohen, but there’s a lot in what he says in this quote that rings true about what this has felt like for me. I can go him one better on the freedom front by adding that the blogger has no boss to whom he is accountable, no paycheck to protect and no pressure to produce anything apart from what his own superego dictates, often a formidable boss in its own right.

The only time I’ve approached this Nirvana of freedom in a more controlled institutional setting was the period of fifteen years or so when I was the Young Adult book reviewer for the Houston Chronicle. Every month my wonderful and trusting editor would send me a carton of recently arrived books, some still in their unfinished “galley” form, from which I could choose the subject of my next monthly column, no questions asked. The books that I wasn’t going to write about were designated for distribution to various school libraries.

Fiction writers and poets face the blank page when they sit down to write. Both Roger Cohen and the book reviewer have a head start since their subject matter is, to a certain extent, predetermined. If you’re dispatched to Kosovo in war time as Cohen was, the expectation is that you will be writing about some aspect of that experience. Similarly, the books to be reviewed dictate the content of your view.

In contrast, the blogger, like the fiction writer, has to cast a wide net, stretching from his gut to the galaxy, to capture the subject of his next entry. Sometimes he finds it in his own past, as I did with my series of entries about my education from elementary school through graduate school. At other times, the focus emerges from professional interests, like my pieces about the impact of the pandemic on student testing or on the all-important building and nurturing of teacher/student relations and currently, entries that speak to our perilous political situation while we skate around the rim of an authoritarian abyss.

The existential questions of life and death, love and disappointment, are always available for examination. But what’s a poor blogger to do who is living a very narrow life in relative isolation? Apart from a rare BLM protest visible from our back window, there are no lives shattered by mortar shells to write about. So, every week you extend your antennae a bit further to pick up signals from regions beyond Planet Marv. I have to confess that with the third wave of peaking Covid deaths and the extension of the political clown show which refuses to exit the stage, I’m finding those signals weaker and weaker to decipher. What is new beyond missing my family terribly, rehashing the delights of travel, now beyond reach, obsessing about which will end first, my mortality or the pandemic and the bread and circuses diversions of The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit. Is there anything new to be said about any of these subjects that’s worthy of a single new key stroke?

And what does it signify that I, on the cusp of Blogging Year #2, yelled at my wife last night, over a completely inconsequential piece of business? We do our share of bickering, but yelling and anger have never been welcome guests in our house. It was a product of the ennui that has been spawned by all of the factors mentioned above, plus some additional stresses I’ll write about another time.

I will not allow today’s entry to end there. I awoke with all the necessary and appropriate apologies, determined to demonstrate that we are all better than our most stressed selves. I will reflect on the light that the new vaccines shine into the darkness. I will look forward to a Zoom visit with my granddaughter this afternoon and to the approach of warmer days later this week that will encourage an outing. I hope that the balance of this year’s writings will tend in the direction of positivity, not toward the newest use of this word to mean the spread of dreaded infection.

PS. Yesterday was November 22nd. I can’t let that date slip by without comment. Here is the opening paragraph of an essay I wrote a while back about the importance of dates fraught with significance, either public or private, in our lives:

December 7th, June 6th, August 6th, April 4th, November 22nd, September 11th. Depending on your age, these are dates that carry collective meaning. When you encounter them on the calendar, in a newspaper or on your computer screen, they immediately conjure up historical and personal associations. For example, on Friday, November 22, 1963 my wife and I were walking near our apartment in Brookline, Mass. when a car pulled up and the driver shouted out the window, “The president’s been shot, the president’s been shot.” Most Americans alive that day can recall where they were when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. If you’re too young to connect with some of the other dates on my list, try Googling them to understand what they conjure up for so many of us.

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Marv Hoffman

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