Gotham Diary:
Monday, 25 April 2011

Shortly after his Korean in-laws purchased a deli in Boerum Hill, a blizzard shut down New York City for a day (at least at its outlying regions), leaving Ben Ryder Howe anxious not only about those of his customers whose larders were likely to be thinly stocked but also about the impact of a unwonted holiday on the store’s momentum and the staff’s morale. 

If it were not for the roads (and the bridges, which will definitely be closed tomorrow if the forecast holds, cutting off Staten Island from the rest of the city) I would find a way to make it to the store — for the neighborhood, but also for us, because I know now that Kay was right about the hazards of closing for even one day. When you close, bad things happen. You may not lose all your customers, but you might miss an important delivery, or your food might spoil, or the cat might get angry about not getting fed and pee all over the store. Plus, if you survive taking off a single day, you might be tempted to make it two in a row. 

Because I’m a terrible note taker when reading books — I tend to underline material that would be pertinent to the last book I read on the subject, learning nothing from what I’m actually reading until the experience is complete — I had to re-read a great deal of My Korean Deli to find the passage that I’ve just quoted. I didn’t find it where I thought I would on several quick looks, and I was tantalized by similar passages, relating to Howe’s mother-in-law’s back-breaking (or, literally, heart-breaking) zeal, that nonetheless didn’t mention the crucial point, which was that taking just one day off might derail one’s enterprise completely. 

I lived with that fear almost every day for over six years before I realized — just this past weekend, when I was up to my eyeballs in other matters, such as streamlining the hall closet and preparing an Easter dinner — that I needed no longer to be afraid that letting go of a fairly rigid routine would be tantamount to letting go of this Web log. Writing for The Daily Blague is as natural a part of my day as any other, and I could no more give it up than I could give up sleep. I no longer need the external prods of making regular morning and evening entries, or regular (once daily, more recently weekly) aggregations of links, organized (vaguely) according to topic. For the past few years, The Daily Blague has followed a template that, in my now seasoned view, would work very well for a team of three or four like-minded writers, or some mix of senior and junior writers. For just one writer, however, it had become a prison, and for the blog itself the template was an obstacle, interfering with inconveniently-timed flights of inspiration. It had to go, but, before I could let that happen I had to overcome or otherwise lose my dread of sinking into inertia the moment I stopped binding myself to a regular schedule — to that particular regular schedule. 

I stopped, finally, this morning, and all at once the only thing that I had to do was to find that passage in My Korean Deli. Which I did, after lunch. It was the next item on the agenda, and there were no deadlines beyond it. I was not distracted by the many other blog-related activities that were languishing while I combed through Howe’s paragraphs — even the ones about George Plimpton and The Paris Review that would not, I was fairly sure, be where I found it. I hoped that the search wouldn’t take the entire afternoon, but if it did, so be it. What I really hoped was that it wouldn’t turn out that I’d concocted the phrase myself, twisting the text to my own case.

This raises the point that it was important for me to back up my own news with a quotation — an “authority” — that, now I think of it, may have set me free. Now, if anything, what I do every day far more closely resembles Howe’s comparatively shambolic job at the old Paris Review, where disorganization, at least as catalyzed by George Plimpton, appears to have been the secret of success. But that’s precisely why I wanted what I do every day to resemble his other job, the running of a deli, with all of its quotidian problems and obligations keeping me on my toes. Even though my work was unpaid, and nobody ever registered a complaint that, say, the Grand Hours entry for a given week wasn’t complete until late Sunday night, or that (much worse) my Book Review reviews — currently the only feature appearing at Civil Pleasures, my neglected Web site — appeared not a few days after the weekend but well into the following week; even in the complete absence of external penalties, I remained almost morbidly afraid of a more laid-back, see-what-happens style of operation. 

And I was right to be afraid. It was only by withholding the right to do nothing that I learned that I could almost always do something, and of course the discipline obliged me to overlook the disinclination that accompanies the more bald patches of the learning curve. It was only by glancing through hundreds of feeds a day, and reading as many as fifteen longish ones, that I learned what sort of material really interested me and seemed important to pass on. If pressed, I would have a very hard time summarizing this sort of material; I’m still very much in the process of abstracting its essences. But I know what I don’t have to look at. All those feeds made me a far better-informed reader than I’d ever been before, and I hope to hold onto the best of that. I’m not worried, at any rate, that the sites that I stop following will immediately begin producing tremendously interesting copy the moment I look the other way. And if some of them do, I’ll find out about it eventually. One thing that I’ve always been clear about is that I am not providing a news service. A think service, I hope. But not news. 

So, here we go. The immediate change will be the disappearance of structural reference to the canonical hours that were developed in Europe’s monasteries fifteen hundred years ago, and that I appropriated a few years ago as a demanding rubric. I will miss it, but only in the way that you miss something that you have helplessly outgrown. I fell back on the canonical hours four years ago as a way of guaranteeing that I’d be busy. Eight hours a day, four and five days a week (that varied), finally came to seem too much. Now the framework itself seems busy. I’m still going to collect what, in my earliest blogging days, I called “loose links,” but I won’t be looking for “finance” or “cognitive science.” My eye will simply range over the feeds and pick out items that either are intriguing and unusual or make solid additions to my existing collections. At least, that’s what I think it’s going to do. We’ll see. 

The last thing I want to do — and this is what really marks an era, as James would put it — is trumpet the coming of changes at The Daily Blague. I  don’t expect there to be any real change in the substance of my entries; and, if there is, it will be gradual and subtle, reflecting changes in my mentality, not the blog’s format. It really doesn’t matter what the format is — now. Now that I’ve worked pretty hard for a few years interrogating, as James would not have put it, myself and the Internet, I know what I’m doing, or, at any rate, I know what I’m going to do next. I don’t need a schedule to tell me.