Small Engagements

A ramble through the mind of the author, as I decide that I need not live in NYC forever.

On Thursday night, before I left for a weekend in Cambridge, Mass:

“The whole of Boston looks like Brooklyn Heights.”

“Well, Cambridge is where I'm going.”

“That'll be a new experience, leaving your apartment for a few days.”

“Come on. It's not fair - I saw you two days ago, I go to meetings, I was just out for drinks tonight.”

“I know. I'm sorry to mock you. It's not fair.” A pause. “You know what you really should try to see while you're up in Boston?”


“The sun.”

The sun saw me off the Fung Wah bus ($25 one way, sometimes cheaper, leaves right on Canal St.) as it arrived near South Station, and then saw me go underground to the Red Line after trading $1 for a token, then the token for a swish through a turnstile. On the train I looked left at the man reading the Globe and right at the woman scolding her 3-year-old-daughter, Cheyenne, and realized - it came into real focus for the first time, even though I'd been thinking it - that New York is not an absolute endpoint. Living in NYC has thrown me into dozens of roles, satisfied me endlessly, but I don't wake up and throw myself into its arms any more. The love is over and now I decide to either make the marriage work or move on, with no advice from the city itself, no rules to follow.

Put it this way - I am looking through a camera, and the picture is blurry. The lens is huge, the camera takes life-sized images. I realize I'm looking through the camera when I turn 14 or 15. When I'm 18 I begin to see how blurry the image is, and try to turn the lens to get focus - but I turn the wrong way out of ignorance; it gets blurrier and darker, I'm writing poetry and full of self-pity that aspires to self-loathing. Around 22 I start turning it the other way, for four, five, six years. That entire time, being in New York City was essential for turning the lens. I received so much input, so much raw information coming so fast, my eye diverted in so many directions. I learned what I was trying to see, and now at 28 I feel it all coming into a very real, and fairly terrific and exciting, to me, focus. I can see the outlines. It looks something like this:

My life plan.

Well, all right, it's hard to illustrate. But at 28 the benefit of all that stimulus is lessening and I'm finding that smaller moments explode with excitement; I don't need bridges across the East River as much as blades of grass, or the occasional blink of unfiltered starlight. This makes me a surreal houseguest, because you can entertain me with almost anything; if you said you'd like me to sit with you and stare at a brick wall in silence I would be happy to sit and think of everything brick, of the Israelites in slavery and the pigments that the earth contains, and then there's a story about the bricklayer who becomes bored with the color red and experiments with new pigments, becoming an expert in ceramics in the meantime, and the question of how bricks get their texture - is it there to hold troweled-on concrete, or as an artifact of the firing - my meditation is not searching for any essential oneness, but the riff in search of total everythingness, using referents to find other referents, and out of that comes composition. So to find the Platonic ideal of a thing, I look at as many shadows as I can, and the overlap of those shadows with the others. I could care less about the ideal, actually, since (if I got what John Searle was saying in How to Care for Your Kittens and The Social Construction of Reality) it often doesn't exist except as social consensus.

Which is why, even though I can write 10,000 words in a single neurotic sitting, and am thus 10 bleary-eyed days at any given pt from a rough, ugly draft of a novel, my work tends to be 1-2K words max, because past that it's all pathways, and I get lost and confused, wanting to break linearity and come back later, after the pathway and subpathways and subsubpathways, the recursive bending ideas that branch off the main doctrines have been fully explored and stored, and thus I create something like the screen you hold in your hands, something more like blood vessels, of which we have miles coursing through our inches, with my half-baked thoughts as the shy heart pumping blood through the distance. I live, want to live, a life in search of the ultimate riff, the infinite gloss, the endpoint of the annotation, the greatest possible series of small engagements with the world, the improvisations filled with improvisations, ideas anthropomorphized as beasts born pregnant, constantly begetting each other.

And move past the 2000-word barrier into the 100,000 word realm, wanting to move forward and slow my world down into brick-wall time. New York is not conciliatory with this plan. The city penetrates solitude with traffic noise and the ringing phone, comes in through particulate grime and turns my esophagus into a carcinogenic highway to the lungs. Here the means of social interaction is the bar or the dinner out, since everything is so far away and apartments are too small to cook. So I have a half hour or hour on the train, a few hours in the restaurant or bar, and then back, and thus I've spent $30-$100 I didn't have, and five hours, come home addled, stayed up to finish something, woke up at 11AM, and browsed the Web for three hours trying to get started - before calling my clients and trying to decide between pizza and Chinese for lunch.

This is, I am aware, as are my peers, not a sustainable model for development of person or soul. And maybe I should not try to bend the city to my increasing simple-mindedness. New York will never be my brick wall or blade of grass; it'll be chaos and noise, blinking and honking, someone insulting you in Farsi or Twi. And no complaint here, I got what I wanted from it, never intending to come in the first place, and during my salad years (with feta and oil and vinegar), the stimulus was something I wanted, a comfort and mirror to my jouncy mind. But now I want the space to spread out and focus my thoughts more, and thus begin a last grinding effort to turn the massive lens with the tiny cranks of careful thought, exercise, and diligence in craft, and bring this single psychic world, the one I was born into, into an approximate clear vision, so that I might then start to see what is in the periphery, distance, not just the foreground, letting it all cohere. And then I can move the camera and see new things. Or give up this 3-decade-per-shot pinhole misery and find a new way of seeing.

Let me try something else, because I'm sure those long paragraphs have left me readerless and alone with my thoughts: these were my exact goals, inscribed in a file, in early 1998, when I was 23 and just starting to turn the lens the right way:

  1. To improve my craft as a writer, especially in regards to narrative and thematic structure, but also at the phrasal and sentence level;
  2. To study my own processes so that I might improve them; especially, to bring into practice theories of rhetoric and narrative, and to document that practice;
  3. To master the textual technologies of XML and Perl, while developing ways to automate the development of graphical web sites--making things beautiful, while still concentrating on the text;
  4. To integrate multiple mediums--spoken word, sound, text, images--successfully and with aesthetic appeal;
  5. To build equity as a writer, online or off, and to create fame;
  6. To introduce emotional issues with honesty and clarity, whatever the content, and thus grow and mature. To illuminate both the ugly and the beautiful, and to show the connections and overlaps between;
  7. To be a full-time, well-paid writer by July 1, 2000.

The last was a bust, and Perl has given way to XSLT and Python, but I've made progress in small amounts on the rest of them, to my own definitions. So I need not to rewrite, but to amend, like so:

10 Sep 2002 Addendum to Goals for Review and Implementation

  1. I will finish the stories and flesh out the novels, start selling my work by 2003, and avoid being afraid of poverty, and;
  2. Release the code from (3), above, so that other people can share or improve the same tools; and
  3. edit for sexist, racist bullshit; and
  4. define the audience like this: I am addressing my dead heroes, from a position of humility, and I am shouting up the millennial corridor, in equal humility, explaining my time and place to the past and future. This is a lot of work and I need to do a much better job. They will brook no hypocrisy, having long seen our faults and prejudices; and
  5. in Ghana the men in the post office stamp the mail in rhythm. Their work becomes ritual and performance. I should find the rhythm for my own efforts, and stick to it; and
  6. puppy by 2004.

.  .  .  .  .  

I got off the Red Line and got lost on the curved streets of Cambridge, in jeans and two shirts and a heavy backpack, beginning to sweat, trying to find this town's Broadway from the wrong part of Massachusetts Ave, finally ending up at the Latin School, turning the curves to my friend's place, ringing the buzzer and there I was, and;

yes the list of sins I've committed is great, and;

the amount of work I have to do be truly decent is legion, and;

I've become a few unlikeable things, all fixable, I hope, and--

the reason this self-indulgent litany is ending here is because I am about to ring the buzzer on this street in Cambridge, about to go up and read books and cook food and live my life, and feel good about things, but I have learned that I should only tell stories when they decide to be told, and I've let them sift, so that I'll know when to put in the copper-colored statue of the lion, and when you put in the noise from the Haymarket; and this story - the story of being able to live anywhere and what that has to do with my goals - it's time for that one; and

here I was, very much a New Yorker, and a snob about Brooklyn, about living in the best place in the entire world, here I was alone, wandering through Cambridge, which was designed by tying chalk to snakes and where the snakes left chalk marks the pioneers put in roads, and so, trying to think like a slithering traffic snake I became lost. I asked a postman how to find Ellery St., and he took 5 minutes to get it right, putting on his glasses to tell me. He was a handsome man with a beard and a blue push-bag, and asked if I was starting school. He was the first person I met in Boston. At that moment I had no network to protect me, nor jobs lined up, nor friends a few blocks away, no life established, but I was perfectly safe in my own skin, that is, maybe NYC has become a womb, a place to shrug off challenges; and

Cambridge is someplace strange, attractive, clean, and could be any number of places in the United States and elsewhere, with hundreds of different combinations of strange, attractive, etc, and, given my goals, and despite my NYC-snob provincialism, I realized to my great unsettlement (and absolute insistence to the contrary for the last several years that Brooklyn was where I wanted to marry, divorce, ruin my children's lives, and die), that I was not in love with New York City for my entire life, that all the knowledge in the world is not wrapped up here, that leaving would do me no harm and perhaps some good, and I could shift all my referents and find a new point of disembarkation for all my journeys; that is, I could live here, and then I did ring the buzzer.

.  .  .  .  .  

.  .  .  .  .  

This essay was partially funded by Brenda Janish, who didn't give me a link, but who apparently knits like the wind, Frederick Carlson, Jr., who also gave no link, Harley Baldwin of HotGoat, where goats are never merely warm, and Cameron Barrett, proprietor of the famous CamWorld.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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