Books vs. Blogs: Mid-Atlantic; Life Is Tragic And Absurd (But Beautiful)

Website: The TopoFiles
Project: Researching regionalism and sense of place in American lifestyle blogs.

When I tell people about this project, the question I get asked the most is a variation of “what region has the best blogs?” Deep South is a close runner up, but Mid-Atlantic takes this one. The Mid-Atlantic bloggers as a whole have a talent for nuanced, quietly striking descriptions. Deadpan, along with a sort of giddy piled-on sarcasm, is common, as are close camera scenes. Place and seasons, particularly in the New Jersey blogs, are prominent, either as the crux or introduction of posts.

To me, the Mid-Atlantic bloggers were not only the best writers, they were the most cohesive. And yet, the region wasn’t one I’d heard of before starting the project, and searching for Mid-Atlantic literary regionalism was decidedly unfruitful. What I did find useful was the region’s historical, ethnic, and cultural geography, which from its nascence has been ruled by religious pluralism, ethnic diversity, and a symbiotic farm/factory/market system. The pursuit of Capital, be it financial or intellectual, has always been the Mid-Atlantic’s raison d’etre, its driving force. According to Frederick Jackson Turner, it is the Mid-Atlantic (and not, as I always thought, the Midwest) that is the “typically American region..democratic and nonsectional, if not national, easy, tolerant, and contented…rooted strongly in material prosperity.”

The bloggers are not content (which is not to say they are unhappy), and many do not seem at all rooted in material prosperity (which is not to say they are not prosperous– many of them appear to be at least upper middle class). The rest of Turner’s characterization holds true though: democratic, nonsectional, and tolerant. By Democratic I don’t just mean left-leaning, but also imbued with a need for things to be fair, a passion for citizens’ rights, freedom of speech, equal distribution of privileges and on.

The Mid-Atlantic is extremely urbanized, and the glut of and need for microcosms, sense of insignificance and not infrequent Napolean complexes that accompany big cities are all present in the region’s bloggers, who often describe local restaurants and parks, places that are new or special to them,the people that populate their day-to-days, and their frustration or anxiety over not getting exactly what they could have, should have, need to have in order to stay in the rat race. The rat race is very much present in the younger blogs.

Mid-Atlantic bloggers are openminded, yes, and they are also generally open about their own lives. Therapy and childhood abuse are addressed in matter-of-fact asides by more than one blogger; divorce, family illness, affairs, and eating disorders, though less common, are treated in the same frank manner.

Most bloggers are not writers outside of their blogs; the Mid-Atlantic group is the exception, boasting novels, a cookbook, and freelance work. These are not professional, extension-of-my-career blogs either (that would be cheating!), but they are blogs whose authors clearly pay attention to their craft, as posts are generally focused and researched, the words deftly arranged, with a nice mix of substantive literary and low pop-culture references.

This is a fairly well-traveled bunch: with long soujourns abroad, road trips to nearly all 50 states, and many outdoorsy getaways.

To get at stylistic traits, I had to break it down state by state. In Paging New Jersey: A Literary Guide to the Garden State, James Broderick quotes author John Cunningham on his home state: “[New Jersey] is both factory and farm; it is High Point and Cape May. Diversity–that’s the spirit of New Jersey” (3). Early Jersey writers like James Fenimore Cooper, Philip Freneau, and Walt Witman embraced a language that was “patriotic, romantic, celebratory, pastoral, voluminous” (4). They criticized the narrowmindedness of their countrymen, and outlined the American credos of “freedom, democracy, self-reliance, love of nature, optimisim, endurance, a rough-and-ready posture…a small helping of genteel European cultivation and a large does of Daniel Boon-like courage and cunning”(15). In two hundred years, little has changed, though the optimism and patriotism have abated–it is hard to be both patriot and cynic! Still, there is a definite love of the idiosyncratic, eccentric, even ridiculous that is allowed to flourish in America. In BaRou is the New Brooklyn, Colleen Kane writes of her return to New York:

On spying a Brooklyn Brewery logo on a bar, I wanted to start running like George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life: ‘Hello Newark Airport! Hey ohhh all you Italian-Americans!’ [kisses one] The feeling reappeared the next day, as I went to pick up the bf in Williamsjerk (he’d taken a car from the airport): ‘Merry Christmas, Hacidic Jews! Happy Halloween, hipsters on old-time roller skates!’

Interestingly, the love of nature is something unique to the Jersey bloggers. Robin Damestra, who decorates her Caviar and Codfish with a plethora of sepia shots of the outdoors and rough-hewn kitchen tables topped with tarts, soups, racks of lamb (all locally sourced, naturellement), wrote early this fall that “one day, the world will be green and warm; the next, bone-chilling with a rainbow of reds, oranges, and yellows. The change into fall can make a person think—about the new sweaters she must acquire, and the changeover from tomatoes to apples in her salads…” In Damestra’s writing I see the “freshness of expression and bold embrace of the sensory world” Broderick attributes to Jersey’s best-known poet, Walt Whitman.

These attributes are flush in Colleen’s writing as well, and especially so in Robin Lee’s “The Girl Who Ate Everything.” Lee’s vocabulary is a mash of lolcat misspellings and scrambled syntax, and she jabbers and shouts (via CAPS and bolding) in a way that is very conversational, personable, and real. During a recent trip to D.C., after trips to Ray’s Burgers ( “After I finished off my portion I thought, ‘NOOO, I WANT MOAR, OH GOD.’ “), and Dolcezza for gelato (“There was no rush of memories of eating gelato in Italy—just an emptiness from the lack of warm, nutty happiness.”), Robin ends up in a 7-11, where she is assaulted by the chain’s “LIQUID ARTILLERY SLURPEE. EXTREEEEME! WILL HIT YOU WITH THE POWER OF FLYING SHRAPNEL AND MISSILE LAUNCHERS ANNNND FROZEN BEVERAGE SLUSH AND SORTA FUTURISTIC-LOOKING FONT IN CAPS.”

The most striking characteristic of the NJ bloggers is the attention paid to their surroundings. A NJ blogger will not just give you quotes, she’ll give you context–the cafe the conversation took place in, what music was playing in the background, what each had to eat, what the weather was like… You get a lot of deep maps of small areas in these blogs.

Sometimes, the maps are humorous (though never cruel), as in Colleen’s description of Saints fans lining up outside Academy Sports after the team qualified for the Super Bowl:

The newscaster interviewed various inarticulate but very happy line-standers, already bedecked in black and gold Saints gear about what new Saints gear they were planning to purchase. Most answers were variations on, “T-shirts, caps, sweatshirts…WHO DAT!” One more creative reveler answered in song and wove in the lyrics to “Pants on the Ground.

More often, though, they are wide-eyed and appreciative. Of her neighborhood in Instanbul, Lisa Lubin of LLWorldTour writes:

It is a former Bohemian enclave currently full of expats and artists turned yuppies and hipsters. Nearly everything you need is right here. There is a small produce stand selling plump fresh cherries, apricots, and veggies on every corner. There are grocery stores, bars, cafes, a gym, and an odd plethora of pharmacies. Sounds permeate the air harkening back to an old European village:
“Hot Simit (a kind of Turkish sesame seed ‘bagel’)!! Fresh, hot Simit!!”
“Junkman!! I can take away all your nasty junk!!!”
“Waterman!! I will bring big bottles of spring water right to your apartment!!”
One of my favorite sounds is, strangely enough, the gas man. When I first heard the sweet tunes tinkling out of his truck as he drove around the ‘hood, I thought it had to be an ice cream truck: “Aygaz…get your sweet delicious Aygaz!

And Anna, an art creator who writes Living the LBD Life uses her “beloved city of Washington as my gym. I walk 3 miles uphill to work each day, then downhill again in the evening. Because I live downtown, I tend to walk everywhere for errands, social functions, shopping, etc… I love that the exercise I do relaxes me, enables me to enjoy my city, and gets me in the fresh air.”

If a keen sense of observation, devotion to natural and man-made spaces, gentle humor, and generally well-honed rhetorical skills are characteristic of New Jersey, what can be said about the other two Mid-Atlantic States, New York and Pennsylvania? Let’s start with the former: New Yorkers also possess the pen skillz of their Jersey neighbors, but their posts are more essayish, and much wordier. MRM, a recently unemployed young Manhattanite, describes thanksgiving with her family in the manner of a very sober Bridget Jones:

Tomorrow night, as you all sit down to dinner with your families and get to answer questions from your family about when will you finally get married, why aren’t you married yet, what’s wrong with you that you don’t have a boyfriend- are you a lesbian, when will your mother get to finally have grandchildren because she isn’t getting any younger, should you really be eating that second piece of pie, are you sure that’s the most flattering haircut for your face, and while your cousins are running around screaming and knocking things down and getting in your way, take a look around the table and realize that while they may have a funny way of showing it, these are the people who love you and will be with you and until the end, no matter what.

Too, the New Yorkers tend to zoom in on people, and the places they do describe are man-made and either lie in their neighborhoods (cafes, bodegas, playgrounds), or carry internal (nostalgic) or external (trendy) value.
In general actually, they are quite aware of words’ connotative values. Pierre, who writes the very Nick Hornsby-ish MetroDad, discussing being single at 41, writes:
“When I was younger, I dated vastly different kinds of women because I wanted to expose myself to a diaspora of individual personalities. Now that I’m older, I tend to find myself far more selective. Or maybe the proper word is discerning.”

New Yorkers also love literary and ironic pop-culture references, either embedded or in list form. Here’s Lindsay, the blogger behind “Hipstercrite,” on her and her parents’ flip-flopped musical tastes:

In high school, I would play my Mom’s Zappa records while I laid on the basement floor, imaging her doing the same thing at my age in 1967. Right when I was at the point having a completely fictional LSD trip, she would kill my buzz by shouting, “Wow, I can’t believe I actually listened to that crap.”
I’d make my parents recollect their stories of seeing Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, all while bugging me to score them tickets to see John Mayer at whatever closest uber-dome there was (John Mayer + Parents is a whole another blog post in itself).

And Pierre again:

The 5 Best Books I’ve Read In The Past 5 Weeks
1. Nick Hornby’s “Juliet, Naked”
2. Lorrie Moore’s “A Gate at the Stairs”
3. Stefanie Wilder-Taylor’s “It’s Not Me, It’s You.”
4. Colston Whitehead’s “Sag Harbor”
5. Michael Lewis’ “Home Game”

5 Best Quotes I Have Recently Read
1. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Soren Kierkegaard
2. “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglas
3. “If you care about what others think of you, then you will always be their slave.” – James Frey
4. “Tina is my baby girl. She’s my sister from another mother of a different color. I’d do 25 to life for her. She is down like four flat tires.”” – Tracy Morgan
5. “Age is a very high price to pay for maturity.” – Tom Stoppard

High, low, middlebrow, stuff white people like… New Yorkers read it all. They read! (And listen to burgeoning, finely-wrought indie!) But I like it, that they read. I like that their blogs are well-written, that I don’t have to tiptoe over grammar errors and gaping sentences.

Still, I prefer New Jersey, whose bloggers have a talent for writing their lives without seeming entirely self-occupied. There is no escaping the inner “I” and all its psychoanalysis in the New York blogs. In Danielle Abroad, Danielle writes about that persnickety demon, self-doubt.

I’ve spoken of confianza before, but never of the opposite, and I believe that is where my problem lies. Yet I say this not because I’ve been doubting myself, quite the contrary actually; I have been so not doubtful that I’ve stumbled upon myself treating my body, mind, and soul with the utmost respect by default. Why yes, I have been yoga-ing for the past two days… how could you tell? 😉

Tina, who writes about her Florida-expat life in La Douleur Exquise Since1984, gives self-doubt an instigator:

Okay I said.. and when my roll is flopping over I don’t wanna hear shit about it.. he tried to sound like the good guy and say he has never said anything about it.. but he has .. one time.. I lost track of my conscious thought and let it go and he said damn babe .. that’s a big stomach…I reminded him about this and he said so do something about it.. I reminded him that I have NO time to do something about it.. and also said wait woahh buddy your body isn’t hot either you and your fucking beer belly from drinking so much…

Okay, so not all NY blogs are well-written. And self-indulgence is only fun if it’s smart.

And Pennsylvania? Two PA blogs stood out to me, the first (Blogging Barbie) due to its spewing confessions doctored in lolcatz and aimspeak, and the second (Life Goes On, I Think) because the writing is so spare and gorgeous. Blogging Barbie was one of the first blogs I read—I found it through 20SB, which I joined in an attempt to attract readers to my own blog—and it was (and still is) one of the blogs that drew me to this new world.

Blogging Barbie is both intensely private (she is careful not to drop any identifying details about who she is, and where; there are no photographs, and her profile picture is Barbie’s beaming head), and very upfront about her emotional turmoil, past and present heartaches, financial worries, and family drama. Nothing appears edited, and the language is very playful in its deliberate misspellings, truncations, and neologisms. Hers was probably the blog that introduced me to expressions like “oh hai,” “craycray,” “crazykins,” and SHOUTING, EXTENNNNDED EXCLAMATIONS! BB’s voice is a mix between Cher from Clueless and country balladeer, with loads of woven-in quotes and snappy recaps.

I suppose its okay if I want to channel my inner 5yr old. Because, today? On my last day of my pediatrics rotation? Well, I kinda got my evaluation and grade. Long story short, my instructor said that she would be honored to write a recommendation for me. And that, I quote, “pediatric nursing is where I belong.” Oh, and I got an A in my clinical grade. It made me feel like this:

Followed by a picture of kids jumping on a trampoline.
The language and back-and-forth is maintained even when the tone turns somber:

He knew that I was naive, and he played me like a piece of chess.He got what he wanted. Someone to pay his way for him, and all the while got to accomplish his hidden agenda. My family and close friends knew that soemthing just wasn’t “right” about him when they met him….but when I looked at him? I just finally saw someone that finally loved me. A relationship, a happily ever after. For once, in a very long time, I was part of the ‘LOOOK AT ME! I HAVE A Boyfriend TOOO, and therefore my world is PERFECT!!!’ crowd. Nevermind that I was blinded by a facade, explaining away red flags that my gut told me indicated something seriously, seriously wrong.

As its title might indicate, Life Goes On, I Think also contains plenty of heartache and emotionally-wrought confessions (think lots of therapist visits, a mother who recommends plastic surgery and liposuction for her teenage daughter, self-isolating instincts, and soul-crushing break-ups), though its rhetoric—literate and full of “show-don’t-tell” moments—is a far cry from BB’s lolcat trills. The blogger, Paige Jennifer, is actually a writer, mostly of short stories (from what I can tell, at least), and it translates in posts that crafted like flash fiction, edited to for maximum dramatic effect. A phone conversation with her mother is loaded with action descriptions, used both to add context to the dialogue and to convey Paige’s emotions:

For whatever reason, “accident” triggers the vision of him dropping a cereal bowl from his grasp, milk splashing across the tile floor. Never mind the fact that it has been a decade since my father had the dexterity to carry a bowl of cereal.
“He’s in the ICU with brain trauma,” my mother continues.
I fall back into the pillows, glance at the television, turn my gaze to my sliding glass doors. The soft glow of a street light shines like a halo against the dark night sky.

Most of the posts have a defined beginning, middle, and end—the above post started with a discovery that turning over the couch cushions would stave off buying its replacement. In “It’s Just a Phase,” Paige describes the past months’ phases, from clementines to pomegrantes to frozen dinner hibernation. The bulk of the post is devoted to this last phase, and how, finally, Paige is able to burrow her way out, shoot an email to an old friend asking if he wants to meet up for drinks, buy tickets to Jamie Cullen, and plan trips to visit family in Sarasota and friends in D.C.:

Eating some homemade guacamole, listening to the plows slide piles of snow elsewhere, I realized I was done with hibernating. The novelty of seclusion had worn off. My isolation phase had passed. Instead of embracing the quiet, enjoying the space, I felt punchy. It was so bad, I considered all of the different colors I could paint my living room. People, I hate everything about paint, from picking out the color to rolling it on the wall.
Without skipping a beat, I opened my laptop and booked flights for a Sarasota trip, making sure my visit overlapped with Leslie and the kids. Then I bought tickets for a concert, finalized plans for Valentine’s Day, researched what plays I want to see, and started planning my annual springtime visit to hang with my favorite DC based girls. Before I knew it, my calendar was loaded up with social activities, all of which make me squeal with delight. So I guess you could so I was on to my next phase.

Pennsylvania is more of a hodgepodge than New York and New Jersey: it is both literate and teenybopping, open and private (the majority of the bloggers don’t include identifying details), edited and uncut. Like New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians write rarely of natural surroundings; unlike New Yorkers, man-made surroundings are also ignored. Of the three states, Pennsylvanians are the most introspective, and much of their writing has an air of self-explanation and even catharsis.

The Mid Atlantic states are not typically viewed as a region the way the Deep South or New England are, and I didn’t find any literature addressing a cohesive regional writing style, and yet the states share a major characteristic, albeit one manifested in a few ways: their bloggers are wordsmiths. They know how to give dialogue rhythm and punch, they bolster stories with sensory imagery and past memories, they spin quotes and love both high and low pop-culture references. They can be sarcastic and they are always self-aware. And they hook you with plot and developed characters all the more compelling because they are real.

Source consulted:
Broderick, James F. Paging New Jersey: A Literary Guide to the Garden State

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