Thursday, October 29, 2015

on the dangers of metaphor

Former U. S. Congressmember Barney Frank takes on metaphor:
As a civil libertarian, I would make few exceptions to the right to free speech. But I admit I’d be tempted to ban the use of metaphors in the discussion of public policy. Metaphors more often distort discussion than improve it. For example, countries are not dominoes; they do not lurch into their neighbors and knock them over if their regime changes. The Reaganite claim that a “rising tide lifts all boats” was also very harmful. People are not boats, and increases in GDP are not a tide that rises uniformly. To fight the metaphor on its own simplistic terms, if you are too poor to afford a boat and are standing on tiptoes in the water, the rising tide can go up your nose. Or, in real terms, the fact that some — even most — people become wealthier may have adverse consequences on those who do not share in the prosperity. In the case of housing, the economic advances that made downtowns more desirable places to live threatened to submerge the existing residents, not float them. It took the government to ensure that good news in the private sector — sharply improved property values — did not become very bad news for low-income people who would have been driven out of their homes.

Metaphors are dangerous. They seem to be basic to the way people think. Yet, as Barney Frank illustrates, metaphors “often distort” reality.

Fighting back against a metaphor can be tricky. You don’t want to do what people do reflexively — you don’t want to argue on the metaphor’s own terms. Barney Frank knows this but can’t help himself. He is clever enough to be able to turn the “rising tide” metaphor from one of benign floating to the danger of drowning. This sort of turn can win an argument. But if you find yourself arguing over metaphor, you are leaving reality behind. That’s not good. And I say that as a poet. Who loves metaphor, especially outrageous metaphor.

“Countries are not dominoes.” We are not talking about boats and tides; we are talking about people and whether they have enough to survive.

It is neither possible (nor desirable) to ban metaphor. But watch out for it, and when you see it, be ready to cut it off at the knees.

source: Frank: a life in politics from the Great Society to same-sex marriage by Barney Frank
2015. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

“all this straight support”

In the 1970s Barney Frank was a closeted state legislator in Massachusetts. He knew he was gay; he’d sought political office knowing he was gay and knowing he would hide it. But, even if he didn’t feel he could be elected as an out gay man, Barney Frank resolved not only never to do anything to harm gay people but to be a forthright advocate once in office.

Says Barney Frank:
I was delighted when the activist Steve Endean was elected to the board of one of the leading liberal organizations in the country, Americans for Democratic Action, as its first openly gay member in 1974. … [When I] confide[d] to him that I was also gay — one of the very first times I admitted this to anyone[, h]is reaction at first disappointed me … ‘Shit,’ he said, ‘you’re the third sponsor of a state gay rights bill to come out to me this year. Here I’ve been bragging about all this straight support we have, but it turns out to be mostly from closet cases!’”

Most hets don’t really think about gays. To them the treatment of gay people doesn’t much matter. Not until the gay rights movement did most hets even realize they counted gay people among their acquaintances. This is not to say the average het isn’t deeply complicit in the policing of gender norms nor the expectation that the people around them behave in a manner that doesn’t challenge what they’ve been led to take for granted.

But the people with passion for a subject usually have a stake in it. The most egregious homophobes are typically battling their own proclivities, demanding society help them to suppress the behavior (even the thoughts) they are sure are unacceptable, sinful, horrifying. The most passionate seekers of justice want to be able to take advantage of the freedoms they see their peers flaunting.

It is certainly true that people without same sex attraction can advocate for equal treatment or demand what they see as immoral be punished accordingly. But it’s exceedingly rare to find people fighting with real passion merely out of principle. This is a truism. Everybody knows it. There are always going to be exceptions. But the person passionately advocating for or against something knows everyone else will, with good reason, at least suspect them of a more than academic interest. It’s long been known among gay people that the most excitable homophobes are queer inside. This assumption has only recently, however, become more general in the body public. Used to be shouting as the nastiest hater was great camouflage. Used to be nobody would think the biggest opponent to fairness would be crying out for that unfairness to be applied to self. That seems so weird.

It’s long been assumed that those most committed to gay freedom want that freedom for themselves, of course. Only natural. That’s why it took courage to push for a good thing that most people considered bad.

One of the unexpected advantages of the gay movement has been this disengagement by the majority. It’s been easy for the majority to agree to keep the gays down because it’s always been so, why change, things are okay as they are, who cares. Yet once gay people started pushing, change came quickly. Het legislators listened to reasonable arguments and figured, well, no skin off my nose, why not, and the first gay rights legislation was enacted.

Change ran into the roadblock of the hulking closets of those who had invested huge amounts of resources in self-denial and hiding. You don’t just abandon bad investments. You defend them, you put more energy into them. Thus the gay movement has, in a sense, been an internal battle. Convention has long favored the status quo and pushback to change was easily mounted.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled for marriage equality the undoing of that decision will take more work, it seems, than there is passion for. Convention hasn’t overturned completely. Justice is never assured. But the complacency of the majority, the indifference of most hets to gay matters, can be an advantage. Who cares, no skin off my nose. why change, things are okay as they are.

source: Frank: a life in politics from the Great Society to same-sex marriage by Barney Frank
2015. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

“the door is open a crack”

Every night Mike would go swimming in a lake. Some nights he swam out as far as he could. “I kept going. It got colder and colder. And I’d just lie in the lake. And I was trying, it’s really clear now, I was trying to drown. … Ever since, I’ve never felt as tethered to this place as other people do. Everything seems like a long, improbable afterlife.

“What happened on that lake showed me that there’s a door,” he said. “And the door is open a crack. And you can feel it. You can just die. You see? Once you accept that, it brings clarity. You want to do something in the world? Be willing to throw your life away.”

This sort of narrative, the one where the speaker has a new insight into mortality, is common to survivors of dangerous diseases and almost-fatal accidents. You feel immortal, you never seriously consider that you’re going to die, until something beyond your control seizes your attention and turns it toward what, after all, will happen to all of us.

There you are staring into the deathly unknown. You achieve perspective. I’m alive now, you say. If there are things I want to do, people I want to be with, I have to get to it while I’m alive because Death.

Suicide doesn’t lead to this narrative. Not usually. Unlike accident and disease, the killer is not an other, not a foreign agent on the attack. Suicide is a decision we make for ourselves. Suicides are often reviled or, at least, pitied, so piping up about how failing at your suicide made you a more courageous person is, yes, a difficult story to get people to listen to. You face skepticism. You really had to go that far? Didn’t you think what it would do to your loved ones? Arguments. Not the nodding agreement the cancer survivor sees, not the relieved sympathy given the person pulled from the wreck of the flaming mini van.

When one looks at Depression as an often-fatal illness (suicide being Depression’s conclusion), rather than as a character flaw (cowardice! indifference to the suffering of others!), then one will be more open to the insight narrative. Depression itself might be seen as the foreign agent, a medical version of demonic possession, something one can lose a battle to. But does Depression have a hand that can loosen a lid on a bottle of barbiturates? Can Depression buy a gun at a gun show and bullets and load the gun’s chambers?

What are we doing when we know what we’re doing?

The quote’s concluding sentence reminds me of another narrative, a narrative about principle, about sacrifice. In order to live an authentic life, there has to be something for which you are willing to die. Give me liberty or give me death — that sort of thing. Or maybe, I would give my life to save hers. This has been called “altruistic suicide” and has been seen as utterly different from the suicide Mike talks about. The soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies is devoted to life not death, right?

Is Mike entitled to use the narrative of the altruistic suicide? You want to do something in the world? Don’t kill yourself. Unless that’s what gets it done.

source: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
2015. Riverhead Books / Penguin, New York.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

“We couldn’t. It was too hard.”

In an interview with music magazine Mojo Bernard Sumner, guitarist for Joy Division and lead singer for New Order, is asked about his recently released autobiography and how Sumner felt about “revisiting your memories of Joy Division and Ian [Curtis, JD lead singer]?”

What was different about us was that we really didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to write songs, therefore we wrote songs in different ways. Most bands learned by copying other bands’ records. We couldn’t. It was too hard. So we learned to play by not being able to play.

A common bit of advice for novice artists (painters, musicians, poets, etc.) is how you’re first to get down the received forms, copy the masters, right? Once you can make a competent sonnet or can produce a life-like drawing, you are free to (allowed to?) go off in experimental, strange, abstract, incompetent-seeming directions. But first you need that base in the conventional.

The Sumner quote reminds me of something similar I read about Gertrude Stein. Supposedly Stein tried to write conventionally, failed at it, then went off in those strange, abstract, incompetent-seeming directions for which she became famous, and sometimes even read.

There are a lot of ways to go about it, really. The Bad Thing is to prescribe the One Right Way and believe what you’re saying is Good.

source: Mojo issue 262, September 2015

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

phrase of the day: Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess

In Bernard Cooper’s novel, A Year of Rhymes, the young narrator has an aunt who occasionally lets out a Yiddish word or phrase. I am familiar with Yiddish only in the most banal sort of way — oy vey, say, or mensch.

When I came across Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess I didn’t know what to do with it.

Here’s the context: The young teen narrator has a brother almost ten years his elder and this brother is dating a young woman of whom the family doesn’t quite approve. Marion and Bob step out to the patio thinking they are having a private argument but, of course, everybody in the house overhears. Aunt Ida, disgusted by the scene, prods the younger brother to retreat to his bedroom:

”Say good night,” she commanded.


“Because,” said Ida, “the sun has sunk.” … Ida stomped through the dining room, dragging me behind her. … All the way down the hall, Ida spat Yiddish invective. She shut the door to my bedroom behind us, leaned against it, and glared toward God. “Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess.

This is Yiddish invective? I tried Googling the whole phrase but got nothing. I tried Google Translate and got — nothing. I approached my husband for ideas. He suggested trying just the phrase “toyten bahkess, as he thought it might be the most important part.

I did get something then. Maybe my lack of result earlier had to do with Cooper’s nonstandard spelling — if there is a standard. The best explanation I found for the phrase spells it rather differently: ES VET HELFN VI A TOYTN BANKES. That’s so close to Cooper’s phrase that I figure it must be the same thing. Right?

Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe translates it: "It will help like blood-cupping a corpse; it's absolutely hopeless; wasted effort; useless.”

Blood-cupping. This is what Wikipedia says about that, “Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine in which a local suction is created on the skin; practitioners believe this mobilizes blood flow in order to promote healing. Suction is created using heat (fire) or mechanical devices (hand or electrical pumps).” The suction is used to affix cup or small bowl to the skin, presumably to help draw illness out of the body.

Since cupping is a treatment for sickness I suppose, like any treatment for sickness, cupping would be pointless when used on a corpse.

Before the internet developed its many useful and easy tools I wouldn’t have done more than shrug at this bit of language. What could I have done to make it accessible? Get out the phone book and find a Yiddish language expert? Write a letter to the author? It’s common in literature to encounter bits of other languages plopped untranslated into English. Typically it’s Latin or, even worse, Greek. But I’ve stumbled (or skipped blithely) over French and German, too. When reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer I put in placemarks wherever I came across untranslated French. Later I typed up all the bits and made them a DIR post. A less-than-useful post, I’m sure, as I didn’t know how to include the curlies and hooks on the letters to make them authentically French.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Notes toward an autobiography by others (Liz Prince edition)

Yes, I blamed the cat, too. Of course, he’s usually at fault as he snores.

read this in Alone Forever: the singles collection by Liz Prince
2014. Top Shelf Productions, Marietta GA

where I took the image from: Liz Prince’s Live Journal

Monday, September 28, 2015

word of the day: fungate

[There was] a mass in her pelvis the size of a child’s fist. In the operating room, it proved to be an ovarian cancer, and it had spread throughout her abdomen. Soft, fungating tumor deposits studded her uterus, her bladder, her colon, and the lining of her abdomen.

Before I get to the definition I have to say that if I saw the word “fungate” without context I would concentrate on the first syllable, which, after all, is a word with a lot of nice connotations. If told “fungate” was a verb I might guess it had something to do with fungus. Given the context we find it in, I have to grant there’s nothing pleasant that comes to mind.

definition (courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary): To grow up with a fungous form or appearance; to grow rapidly like a fungus

source: Being Mortal: medicine and what matters in the end by Atul Gawande
2014. Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt & Co., NY

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

word of the day: frumenty

So that night all was feasting, and if Ann and Roger and Eliza found the taste of roast venison disappointing (maybe because of the deer they had seen all alive and beautiful in the forest), at least they were too well brought up to say so. And dessert, which was wild strawberry junket and frumenty, was dandy.

definition: A dish made of hulled wheat boiled in milk, and seasoned with cinnamon, sugar, etc.

definition source: The Oxford English Dictionary

I didn’t know “junket” in this context either. According to the OED it is, “Any dainty sweetmeat, cake, or confection; a sweet dish; a delicacy; a kickshaw.”

A kickshaw?

A junket could also be more specifically a dessert made with sweetened curds and cream. There’s not enough context to say. Frumenty seems to have been chosen by Eager for its medieval flavor. Perhaps “junket” had a suggestion of old-timey-ness, too.

Ann and Roger are adventuring with Robin Hood in a magical version of Sherwood Forest.

quote source: Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager.
Illustrated by N. M. Bodecker
1956 / 1984. Odyssey / Harcourt Brace & Co., New York

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

word of the day: charabanc

… their places are taken by another population, with views about nature,
Brought in charabanc and saloon along arterial roads;
Tourists to whom the Tudor cafes
Offer Bovril and buns upon Breton ware
With leather-work as a sideline: Filling stations
Supplying petrol from rustic pumps.

W. H. Auden didn’t title his poems early in his career. The lines above are, according to editor Edward Mendelson, “from ‘The Dog Beneath the Skin’: 1932, ? 1934”.

definition: A kind of long and light vehicle with transverse seats looking forward. Also, a motor-coach.

What Americans would call a tour bus?

definition source: The Oxford English Dictionary

Auden uses “saloon” in a way unfamiliar to me. According to the OED, a saloon isn’t just another word for a drinking establishment but also “A type of motor car with a closed body for four or more passengers.” Among the exemplary quotes is the very line above.

I didn’t know “Bovril.” It’s “The proprietary name of a concentrated essence of beef, invented in 1889 by J. Lawson Johnston,” according to the OED. And, yes, the OED quotes the “Bovril and buns” line as an example of usage.

I’m following in the footsteps of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary!

source for Auden lines: Selected Poems W. H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson
1979. Vintage Books / Random House, NY

Monday, August 31, 2015

pride is no longer a thrill for the super-rich

”What would make him insist on having the company buy his postage stamps?” … “Well, when you have all that money, the only thing you can’t buy is something free. Whereas less extravagantly compensated people often take pride in being able to make purchases from their earnings,” she said, “If you are super-rich the thrill is gone.”

— Nell Minow on the compensation package of Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric.

source: “The Pay Problem” by David Owen The New Yorker “The Money Issue” Oct 12, 2009, v. 85 no. 32

Sunday, August 30, 2015

word of the day: hermeneutics

As for the hermeneutics of suspicion, I begin with Steven Weinberg’s report of an elderly friend of his who (at the prospect of his impending death) says he draws some consolation from the fact that when that event arrives he will never have to rush to his dictionary to look up what the word hermeneutics means. It means interpretation, but hermeneutics sounds more imposing. [italics in original]

The hermeneutics of suspicion is an interpretive device that attacks theses not head-on but indirectly, by innuendo. … In everyday examples, the claimant is accused of wanting to make a name for himself, or to be a provocateur.

definition (from the Oxford English Dictionary): The study or analysis of how texts, utterances, or actions are interpreted. Also: a particular system of interpretation or scheme of analysis for language or actions.

I marked the above passage in Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters because, like Weinberg’s “elderly friend” I always forget what “hermeneutics” means.

Once I started copying it out I went on and copied out the bit about the “hermeneutics of suspicion” because, why not? I doubt I will ever pop the term into conversation (or an essay), but, as with the naming of fallacies, it’s not a bad idea to know that an abusive rhetorical strategy has been pointed out for shaming by somebody clever enough to do so. Unless its inventor did it cuz she couldn’t get laid.

source: Why Religion Matters: the fate of the human spirit in an age of disbelief by Huston Smith
2001. HarperCollins, New York

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

pile of reading

Why Religion Matters: the fate of the human spirit in an age of disbelief by Huston Smith
I’m reading Why Religion Matters on my breaks at work. I agree with Huston Smith somewhat, he seems a nice enough fellow, but he has yet to lead me to a place where the evils of religion are clearly outweighed by true goodness. It’s not that I’m totally convinced religion is worthless or necessarily monstrous, rather I’m agnostic on the matter. I know there are good and gentle (and fierce) people who are inspired by religious beliefs to do extraordinary and good things. Yet there are so many who seem inspired by their religious beliefs to hack at people with machetes or blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces. As a gay man I pay attention to the role conservative religious beliefs continue to play in forcing people to live inauthentic, stunted, and tragic lives. How mean-spirited many religious seem to be. Still, while genial folks like Smith insist there’s something to it, I will keep open an ear.

In Other Lands Than Ours by Maud Gage Baum
L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, went with his wife Maud to Europe and Egypt in 1906. Maud wrote letters home. The letters were lively and evocative so they were collected and published (privately, I believe). I downloaded the Pumpernickel Pickle e-book version from and am reading the book on my iPad.

Gaysia: adventures in the queer east by Benjamin Law
Law is an ethnically Chinese Australian. He devotes a chapter each to Indonesia (although Law doesn’t explore beyond Bali), Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, and India. I hadn’t heard before that Bali was a gay destination. That seems to be a new thing. But the locals are more friendly to it than you might expect. I am now reading about Thai ladyboys (the term is not an insult, Law is told).

The Bedside Guide to the No Tell Motel: second floor edited by Reb Livingston and Molly Arden
An anthology of poetry themed (but not terribly strictly) to the sensual and interpersonal. No Tell Motel was an ezine that I visited for a while.

A Byzantine Journey by John Ash
John Ash was a visiting poet-teacher at UC Berkeley one of my years there. I took his workshop. Lately I’ve been catching up on what he’s written in the 20 years since. Ash long had a fascination for Byzantium, what’s often called the Holy Roman Empire. Rome didn’t fall, as far as the Byzantines were concerned; it just contracted a little. I’ve read Ash’s poetry books. A Byzantine Journey is prose, travel literature, the kind of thing I’ve gotten a taste for recently. The writer moves about taking down impressions, complaining about food or transportation, limning the locals and the ruins, and weaving in library research.

Eating Fire: my life as a Lesbian Avenger by Kelly Cogswell
The Lesbian Avengers formed in the wake of AIDS activist group ACT UP, eager to put a strong feminist voice on the streets again. For one action Kelly Cogswell teaches herself to spew fire like a circus performer. She and her colleagues make TIME Magazine flaming up in front of the White House.

A Year of Rhymes by Bernard Cooper
I enjoyed Bernard Cooper’s My Avant-Garde Education, which was billed as memoir. I knew I had a novel on my shelf so I pulled it down.

Two Lines: world writing in translation issue 22
In earlier issues Two Lines featured introductions to the English versions written by the translators who talk about what attracted them to the task, what special challenges were faced, and some biographical info about the non-English-writing author. The intros have been dispensed with, mostly. I miss them.

Variety Photoplays poems by Edward Field
I bought this a long time ago. I even got Edward Field to sign it. But, as much as I like Field’s poetry, I held off reading Variety Photoplays because so many of the poems contained spoilers to old movies. Field basically retells the plots of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and SHE, and I hadn’t seen them! I still haven’t seen SHE — and now I don’t have to! I had a hankering to read Edward Field’s newest book, After the Fall: poems old and new, but when I opened it I remembered that I hadn’t yet read Variety Photoplays. So I’m reading Variety Photoplays.

Selected Poems by W. H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson
I’ve said before that I won’t read a selected when I can read a complete. I have the feeling I’m going to renege on that commitment more often than I’m going to comply. I’m reading Auden rather the way I read Emily Dickinson. I read at least two pages at a sitting. I read at least two pages so I can physically turn a page and know when next I open the book I will be reading a poem new to me. I was doing that thing where I open to the placemark and find myself rereading the poem I read last time then stopping because one poem was all I could handle. One does need to move along.

The Flayed God: the mythology of Mesoamerica by Roberta H. Markman and Peter Markman
I’ve returned to The Flayed God after a long pause.The worldview of the Mesoamerican empires can be, well, unsettling. The Aztecs are known for human sacrifice, but did you know they would strip the skin off a victim and wear the skin around for a month? I know there are intense, world-preserving mystical justifications for this, but — shudder — it still looks like butchery, doesn’t it?

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon translated and edited by Ivan Morris
Sei Shonagon was a contemporary of Murasaki, the woman famous for writing what may be the first novel, The Tale of Genji. In her Pillow Book Sei Shonagon records anecdotes, impressions, and likes and dislikes. For instance, in a list titled “Depressing Things,” she mentions, “A dog howling in the daytime. … A cold, empty brazier. An ox-driver who hates his oxen.”

From the Other Side of the Century: a new American poetry 1960-1990 edited by Douglas Messerli
An 1100 page anthology. I’m going to be at this one for quite some time. Messerli’s project focuses on the experimental, the innovative. Lyn Hejinian, yes; Robert Hass, no. Allen Ginsberg, yes; Robert Lowell, no. Rae Armentrout, yes; Louis Gluck, no.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

the ragged strip that was left

Once I was sure the librarian [of the junior high school library] was distracted in the stacks, I quietly tore out the article in Life and folded it into my shirt pocket. I hadn’t so much as stolen a candy bar before that day. I’d been taught never to write in the pages of a book from the library or to tear out the pages from a magazine in a waiting room. My mother demonstrated the concept of respect for others’ property one day in the dentist’s office when she found a recipe she wanted to tear out of Good Housekeeping had already been torn out. “Don’t do this,” she said, showing me the ragged strip that was left. Despite the admonition, I kept the stolen pages of Life in the nightstand next to my bed and furtively eyed the article every night, the saturated color raising my pulse, the effect of Pop art nearly pornographic.

source: My Avant-Garde Education: a memoir by Bernard Cooper

At the Claremont Branch of the Berkeley Public Library the newest issue of Scientific American would be short of articles soon after it arrived. Someone was neatly and precisely snipping out pages because, I don’t know, he found the science “nearly pornographic” and couldn’t live without secreting the formulas in the “nightstand next to [the] bed”?

We put that magazine (and Consumer Reports and The New York Review of Books) on a shelf behind the Information Desk and only handed them over if presented with a library card, which we held onto until the magazine was returned and its contents reviewed.

I’m pretty sure I was the one who ID’d the culprit, although I made the mistake of handing him his library card before I flipped through the magazine. When I discovered that pages were missing I went up to the mild-mannered retiree, who did not look familiar to me, and asked him if he had noticed that articles had been removed. “Oh no, really?” he said.

We were trying to catch the person who’d been doing it, so if you could let us know when an article is missing, I said to him, we would appreciate it, as though I were earnestly enlisting his support in the project. It’s been several months now since an article has been snipped from Scientific American. Nor have I seen the fellow around. But would I recognize him anyway?

This is my third DIR post about authors confessing in memoirs to filching from libraries. See also Ode to Joy and another memoir, another library thief.

Monday, August 03, 2015

“I don’t want to watch boys masturbating.”

Excerpt from a Berkeley Poetry Review interview with Steve Lance and Lyn Hejinian:

How does that unpredictability and surprise relate to what you were describing earlier about how we are over-inundated with newness and we can’t place as much value in encountering new things anymore?

Steve Lance:
Well novelty is weird now. Novelty itself is commonplace. I don’t just mean in a sense of aesthetics, but do you guys know about Chatroulette? You go to a website and click “connect me” and you have your video going on, and it connects you with a random stranger. And about a third of the time it’s a guy masturbating. There are a lot of penises in this. But almost every single time it’s just people who say “hey” and that’s it. And they’re just looking to be amused by this crazy new thing. It’s totally wild, totally insane but totally boring. It’s just boring. It’s either boring or a guy masturbating.

That’s funny because I was about to say that novelty is so pornographic now. It’s just the speed of amusement, and complete commitment of your desire to that quick amusement.

Steve Lance:
Well, we should go on Chatroulette right now.

Lyn Hejinian
I don’t want to watch boys masturbating.

I’d never heard of Chat Roulette. (Probably more accurately I should say, if I ever had heard of Chat Roulette everything about it has slipped from memory.)

So I looked for more information and found a couple Hot New Thing articles about Chat Roulette. It was the Hot New Thing in 2010! Sam Anderson’s article at New York Magazine describes his experience:

I entered the fray on a bright Wednesday afternoon, with an open mind and an eager soul, ready to sound my barbaric yawp through the webcams of the world. I left absolutely crushed. It turns out that ChatRoulette, in practice, is brutal. The first eighteen people who saw me disconnected immediately. They appeared, one by one, in a box at the top of my screen—a young Asian man, a high-school-age girl, a guy lying on his side in bed—and, every time, I’d feel a little flare of excitement. Every time, they’d leave without saying a word. Sometimes I could even watch them reach down, in horrifying real-time, and click “next.” It was devastating. My first even semi-successful interaction was with a guy with a blanket draped over his lap who asked if I wanted to “jack of” with him. I declined; he disconnected. Over the course of an hour, I was rejected by what felt like a cast of thousands: a teenage girl talking on her cell phone, a close-up of an eyeball. It started to feel like a social-anxiety nightmare. One guy just stared into the camera and flipped me off. Another stood in front of his computer making wave motions with his hands, refusing to respond to anything I typed. One person had the courtesy to give me, before disconnecting, a little advice: “too old.” (I’m 32.)

Anderson pushes on, bringing in a male friend, asking his wife to participate, and he has some fun after all:

The default interaction on ChatRoulette is roughly three seconds long: assessment, micro-interaction, "next." This might seem like yet another outrage of the Internet era—the Twitter-fication of face-to-face interaction. But I was surprised (as I was with Twitter) by how much pleasant communication—joy, interest, empathy—can occur in these tiny chunks. The quest to connect becomes lightning-quick. A few seconds is plenty of time to wave, or give a thumbs-up, or type “EMO HAIR,” or elaborately mime the process of smoking marijuana, or jovially flip somebody off. (Middle fingers are extremely popular on ChatRoulette, and somehow seem affectionate.)
Eventually, I realized that clicking “next” was not so much a rejection as it was pure curiosity, like riding a train past an apartment building at night, looking briefly into as many lit windows as possible.

The New Yorker’s Julia Ioffe wrote about Chat Roulette at about the same time:

The point is to introduce you to people you’d never otherwise meet and will never see again—the dancing Korean girls, the leopard-printed Catman, the naked man in Gdansk. More than a million people, most of them from the United States, clog Chatroulette’s servers daily. To “next” someone has become a common transitive verb. Catman is an Internet celebrity, as is Merton the improvising pianist. Brooklyn bars throw Chatroulette parties, an indie band has used the site to d├ębut an album, and the Texas attorney general has warned parents to keep their children far, far away.

Sam Anderson mentions the dancing Korean girls, too.

My Google searches for Chat Roulette aren’t returning much that’s current. Perhaps I should end with a quote from’s “What went viral 5 years ago today: Chatroulette, social media’s short-lived penis empire”:

[B]efore the webcam service was declared officially dead at the tender age of eight months, the website did provide us a fascinating window into human nature in the digital age. And by that, of course, I mean penises.

According to an RJ Metrics survey from March 2010, 89 percent of Chatroulette users were male. Many, many of those men were baring it all on screen, apparently, prompting the site’s Russian teen founder to, at one point, threaten to turn the naked offenders into the cops. The absurd nudity problem quickly became part and parcel of the Chatroulette experience. is still online. You have to register to use it. Maybe you didn’t five years ago. The articles don’t mention that. Back in 2010 there was no age limit. Now there is. And now, officially at least, no dicks:

1. Broadcasting or offering nudity is not allowed.

2. If you are under 18, you can not use the service.

source of interview quote: Berkeley Poetry Review Issue 41
2010. UC Berkeley, California