Quiescent Note:
Advice Reconsidered
16 September 2019

The other day, I received an online invitation: M le Neveu is getting married next month. Kathleen and I have not seen much of him in recent years, but we did meet his fiancée, and we felt at once that they make a very good couple. So we shall attend their wedding dinner with pleasure.

M le Neveu has been in and out of our lives for about eighteen years. He arrived, in 2001, fresh out of college. He is now a tenured assistant professor, and (as you can figure out for yourself) roughly twice as old as he was then. (At our first meeting, though, he was a baby only weeks old, whom I was holding in my arms, standing on a lovely summer day by the banks of the Connecticut River. His metamorphosis into a tall, sometimes bearded man still surprises me.) If the timing seems rich, it’s because I had already made up my mind to wind up, once and for all, this blog, which never would have existed without his insistence. 

In those days, when he was a graduate student at Columbia, and my Web site, Portico, was still fairly new, M le Neveu came to dinner most Sundays, and not an evening went by without his quoting Daily Kos, which he would have been following, while I was in the kitchen, on my computer. 

“You need a blog!” he would declare over dessert. It did seem to me that I needed something more interactive than a Web site. Comments! Permalinks! Portico just sat there, no more inviting to respond to than any old book. I was in my mid-fifties, still keen in my way on keeping up with things. After more than a year of hearing M le Neveu’s elemental advice, I decide to journey into the future. I didn’t see that I was like someone packing for a journey to a fabled, exotic region who, upon arrival, would lodge immovably in the nicest hotel in the capital instead of exploring the countryside — or, if I did, I wanted to hope that, this time, things were going to be different. But how would they ever be different? On the one hand, I would never write the exciting copy that inspires quick responses and kicks off a conversation among commenters. On the other, I would not specialize in an esoteric topic that would attract thirsty simpatici. I would write, as I had always written, about the unfamiliarity of the very familiar: about hearing new tunes in a well-known piece of music; about making connections between books that I read thirty years ago and the same books, which I was re-reading now; about growing up in a strange place that looked better than TV. 

It would take a while to recognize that the interactions that my online activity would occasion would take place quite outside the blogging platform. Instead of comments — it would surprise me, today, to learn that I have received, on any of my sites, as many as twenty-five comments in all the fifteen years — there would be e-mail, or what I still call “letters.” And there would be personal meetings, not so much with readers of my blog as with the writers of other blogs. There would really not be very much interaction of any kind.

So the blog appears, now that I am wrapping it up, to have been an objective failure and a subjective success. The success owes to a conviction, which I held from the start, that the reader who had bookmarked my site must be entitled to expect new writing every day. That turned out to be a constructive discipline, forcing me to spend a lot of time on the expression of my ideas, instead of merely basking, as we all do, in the pleasant fragrance of merely having them. I had always believed, as an adult, that we cannot think what we cannot say, but only now, writing for a few hours every day, did I experience and habituate myself to the formidable difficulty of transforming a mental notion into a cogent statement.

I did not need a blog after all, and I’m looking forward to retiring to a site. 

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