When I (we) was young, maturity seemed like some end-point toward which…Adulthood a place which possessed its own knowledge and meaning which would become somehow obvious; achieving, falling-into this state.

For more than twenty years we took on the mantles of parenthood, thinking it was grown-up and adult, perhaps in contrast to our children who were small, needed care and guidance, and… who then grew-up.

All these outward facets of being adult have passed. We are here, now alone, now without the others to tell: yet consultants, friends, but not as adults to anyone, certainly not to ourselves.

What will be next – post-adult – beyond the imagination of becoming mature, a category whose outline blurred; what occupation, what place in the world, what to do, who and how to be?

Past-adulthood: a time to re-think, to re-consider; new problems, new notions of activity, a more powerful sense of boredom with more time, shelter no longer a house, where is there to be “at home?”


In an article which appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, (“Waiting for Goffman” – by Michael Dirda -Sept. 17, 2010), I got excited, reminiscent; wondering about Goffman… as well as about myself.

Wondering how we study the human these days, I currently find myself wandering more into socio-political arenas (given these “interesting times”), than “merely” trying to describe and understand the world. But I’ve spent so many years trying to “see and study” the human in our most…basic terms: e.g., the human body – socially, developmentally, interacting, ageing, being and seeing others, and or via ourselves. (“Body Journals,” “Foundations Project,” “Language and Human Nature.” And I think I’ve “exhausted” those subjects.

Dirda “gets off” on Goffman’s magnificent prose, but also on the depth and breadth of his observations: as Goffman tried to explore the world as “an ethnographer of small entities.” As I now refer to myself as an “anthropologist of the Ordinary” – I relate very well to the title and ideas behind the first book: “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” – a most expansive framing of the worlds in which we all wander, but… exploring who we are “behind” our public persona.

Goffman was “some kind” of Sociologist-Anthropologist who wrote beautifully, and was one of the best-ever observers of various persons interacting in varying circumstances.

And he was my “big brother”. Big brother, because we were/are heavily influenced by the same teacher-person: Ray Birdwhistell (who doesn’t show up in Dirda – but he always was the primary base for Erving’s and my thinking about… most everything. Birdwhistell who Goffman met at the U. of Toronto; me, somewhat later at SUNY Buffalo – he was our primary teacher, model, incite/insight/excite: the “best observer” I ever met. Similarly for Goffman.

Birdwhistell sent us both to U. of Chicago where we fell under the thinking of various practitioners of “Symbolic Interaction” deriving from G. H. Mead, whose ideas seem now to be “creeping” back into a field which has practically been overtaken by Sociobiology and/or by Neuropsychology and other psychologies which don’t pay much attention to the interactional-social facts of our very being.

Dirda’s celebratory piece is excited by Goffman, and wonders why he has mostly “disappeared” from public view after a good, long run in Sociology, and currently in some parts of Comparative Literature.

Well: the history of ideas and academic power overtook Birdwhistell, and then myself. I’ve been trying to revive and extend Goffman and Birdwhistell’s ideas> (Plus, Birdwhistell was the best observer I’ve ever met – in many circumstances… all of human… life.)

While Goffman “enjoyed” quite great success, his teachers and little brother got “wiped out” in what I call the Chomskyan “revolution” in ideas – where the study of the human got displaced (still is) by the notion that the human being is centrally a mind/thinker, not a body in such complex interactions.

Goffman who was finally a “university professor” at Penn, was able to “rescue” Birdwhistell and got him a position there after he was “let-go” from his study of human-interaction at Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute as support for these studies just “went away” and our careers much diluted.

flickr photo by stevegarfield, cc-by

The famous humanistic writer confessed that it was only last year that he bought an electric typewriter, his first movement in the direction of high(er) technology. He wasn’t hostile, he said, merely inept.

A mere inept, merely inept, the words and concepts run around in my mind’s conjurings, wondering what this comment represents: a confessional that he is famous and yet not good at the manufactured things in life? – an olive branch to the technology that has accelerated faster than he has been able to realize because he has been busy being a literary critic and the social times he criticizes are running with him, at his pace? – a mere statement because he does not do all of what he might, and we might, expect?

No mere inept. I ponder what this means, berate my self that I do not know all technologies, am tempted to dismiss this statement with a scoffing, scathing, muttering, sneering at the words in some stretching-out which conveys the contempt I think I should have – “meeere in-eept”: merely, merely; in-ept, inept!

A sudden sadness that the possibilities of knowing all there is, has evaporated from anyone’s life’s realities. I try to forgive myself; no mere inept, my fingers grasp this stem of black plastic holding metal ball screeching over paper depositing some substance, writing in lines which have gained meaning, writing which was invented, a technology of not so very long ago, to be placed upon a word processor full of plastics and refined metals and chips and connections and… A mere inept, twenty books later, pondering upon the times.

His theater, no mere inept, takes us to so many places that we are persuaded to take him at face value…


I have, I possess – I am told – a good voice for radio. Deep, resonant, full of an authority and depth which has replaced the phlegm of years spent in the smoker’s abyss.

Usually this idea of a good radio voice makes no sense to me. Talking, using my voice, it sounds regular, ordinary; just me. Listening to a recording of me, I sound, well, somewhat whiney: too much variation, a kind of uncoolness and too many edges of raucousness; rawness, maybe.

Years of practice, teaching in different classrooms; exploring, modulating have moved my voice down to what others hear as good, convincing, correct.

Sometimes when I record for a weekly program, especially when I am alone, I try to listen as I speak, hearing as others must hear with a feeling for style, a quality of voice which can convey…strength, truth, a belief in itself?

A slight relief. Temperature climbs to 15 degrees Fahrenheit…above zero. A month and more below zero Centigrade. Worse to think Centigrade: life is always below zero. Here, below zero F, hurts faces, burns feet, telling us that there is no heat here. The sun, brilliant, cold as the winds blowing on facial tissues, causing tears to freeze, noses to run like sieves that freeze on my moustache like the winter monster who tells most birds to go South…they listen!

Yesterday, walking through the city, snow piled high hiding large dogs perambulating. At each corner we walked up not so small hills between streets clasped in sand-browned ice and sidewalks packed in still white snow.

We crossed the several tracks of railroad yards which house, these days, only wrecks to be repaired, and tramped over hillocks into city woods where imaginations imagine a forest of depth, the slight deception disproven by packed path of skiers and walkers who sought the same scene, break upon the clearing into lakescape’s wind driven snow packs seeming so cold in the lowest rays of winter’s sun, bathed in light, steeped in strong shadows, sit down on bench thinking of the spring and summer and fall, all leading back to such depth of winter that we can sit there only for a few moments.

Snuggled in layers of cloth and felt, we stayed almost warm, walking in the deep of deepest winter.

Trying to understand a large, even huge, thinker or set of ideas – in each next moment. A quick study!

A person – me, for example – who (tells oneself) that I can absorb so much…quickly.

A framework for thinking well in mind, some precise or particular set of issues, questions posed, poised to be answered as…when or how…they must arise. Jump-in!

Some questions take so long to understand that their study seems to go on forever before they can even be addressed. Others do not reveal themselves and one can only guess that there are points of view, perspectives, visions, experiences, denial which underlies talk and words. A quick study fallen over the edges of possibility?

A quick study: a sense, a review, a reputation that causes me to transform thought that I may understand…in just a few minutes…or may not. I am, I do, a quick study! Am I a quick study?

Quick studies are like mirrors which reflect on me; reflect what is known already. They urge me to tell myself what I know that I do not truly know; that the logic of thinking has begun; that the words have substitutes which I will find quickly, so a quick study will fill them in.

For others or in other moments, however, with no framework, no articulated logic, no substitutes – only blanks and spaces – a quick study reveals only the emptiness of what is a study, and of the person who merely wants to swallow all of knowledge without taking a breath.

I like the idea of being (called) a humanist. I try to interpret and understand the notions of humanism and being a humanist through the outlook of being a writer-teacher.

I believe that all humans are a part, each an aspect of this world in physical and conceptual senses. I attempt to take the ideas of the human condition which all of us have thought out, and get them into the minds and lives of everyone’s todays and tomorrows.

I do not merely reject spirituality or whatever visions through which life is seen and lived, but I am sure that life’s problems must be thoughtfully considered, and new analyses applied to new times.

I don’t like everything about anyone, least of all myself. It is not my wish to make anyone feel good merely by playing with their moods. Rather, I wish to praise their confidence in being able to deal with the world as it is, and will be.

I study them as persons like myself, also urged to write and teach and study, trying to walk with them and their ideas as they would peruse today’s world.

I need a great deal of privacy and down-time to absorb what is happening in some constant epochal battles with being in the world. I like to live in the words and minds and ideas of the world’s great writers, thinkers and doers. Thus, I deal in the lives and words of persons who are mostly now dead; whose words, ideas, and products such as books and musical texts have survived. I study them to see how and why they have survived, to see what and how they said, attempting to place myself in their thoughts and times; and bring them in ours.

I play their music in order to discover what they have written in it.

All this I try to tell to others, and especially to urge their own studies that it may become a useful part of their own lives. I like the idea of being a humanist, and want these ways of being and thinking to live actively and thoughtfully in our lives: toward visions of the future.

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