Saturday, May 23, 2009

Thoughts about Rexville

When I was a teenager, my dad would frequent an intellectual cafe in Damascus several times a week, where he would meet friends, discuss issues of the day, and share tidbits about personal life. He never knew who would be coming or what the topic would be, but he was always sure that someone would show up and that the discussion would be lively. He came back full of news and would sometimes replay the happenings in vivid detail. I secretly envied him that experience, and when I moved to the US, found it disappointing that these fora were not common here. I never found such a place, in fact, until I started frequenting the Rex Parker blog. While the NYTimes crossword puzzle is the starting point every day, the discussion can range far and wide under our host's watchful eye. From this exchange, has emerged a real community that I came to think of as Rexville, and it's clearly a part of my daily life.

But, sadly, there is trouble in Rexville ...

Earlier this week (Tuesday), a past member of this community, Evil Doug (ED), posted explaining why he had chosen to stay away from the blog following a public conflict with Rex. Most of us of course knew the history, but ED's reappearance created a stir and revealed some underlying tensions. That night, I was taking the red eye from SF to NY and found myself thinking about this forum all the way across country. For me, the contrast was particularly striking — negative emotions were swirling on the blog. Yet, the night before, I had finally met, in the flesh, my first Rexville denizen ---Andrea Carla Michaels no less! It was an amazing experience and I felt incredibly grateful to Rex for it. When I was finally able to post on Wednesday, I chose to focus on this more positive experience and not to comment on the ED situation, hoping that we could get past it.

But we don’t seem to be able to… I’m sure there are a lot of individuals reasons—those who feel that ED was wrongly accused by Rex of being a racist; those who disagree with Rex’s style of showing displeasure; those who have themselves been rebuffed by Rex, or those who fear they might be some day and are steeling themselves against it. I myself stayed away for a while after the conflict happened-- I needed to evaluate how I really felt about Rexville. I came to realize that my main reason for being unhappy was a sense of disappointment-- in a perfect world, Rexville should be a community that tolerates dissent and handles it with respect and civility. Implicit in that expectation is that our founder, Rex, would set that tone.

But then I realized that I was projecting something onto this place, and onto Rex, that was of my own making. Indeed, what I was asking from him may be close to impossible. The secret ingredient that turned us into a real community is that Rex is truthful about what he thinks and what he FEELS. We’re not only seeing his intellectual side. This is what invites the greater engagement on our part, the sharing of knowledge but also the broader sharing of our own feelings and emotions. And as a real person, Rex has emotions-- “the troublemakers” as the Dalai Lama calls them. Showing emotions in public is a risky business, which is why so many ancient cultures put a lot of energy into controlling their expression. Emotions are contagious—while positive ones are fun to witness, negative emotions are highly unpleasant to watch, and there is an evolutionary adaptive value in these social reactions. Yet, we really don’t know each other as humans until we witness each other’s emotional reactions, and incorporate that information into the fabric of our relationships. Rex, in choosing to be truthful about both his ideas and his gut reactions, has simultaneously achieved both ends-- created the remarkable, vibrant and authentic world which we inhabit, and left himself exposed. That takes more courage, more faith in people's ability to understand and accept, more inner strength than I think I could muster.

As I found myself missing everyone and yearning to return, I needed to remind myself of a couple of points. First, that conflicts are dyadic. In the case of the interaction with Evil Doug, there was a long history between him and Rex. I would guess that each side feels the other guy started it. But in the end, there are cases where people simply don’t get along. As important to me is that I’ve seen both ED and Rex try to make things work for a while, and I respected them a great deal for it. But the situation was always, to use a scientific term, metastable --“a state of equilibrium susceptible to fall into lower-energy states with only slight interaction”—as it did when the final conflict emerged.

Second, and this echoes the opinion expressed by Orange: this is a truly unusual circumstance. Humans know one good way to deal with insurmountable differences—they stay away from each other if at all possible. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the opportunity for conflict diminishes and emotions fade. But what is the protocol here? The truth is, Rexville represents the kind of hybrid that only the internet can generate, one never before encountered by humans-- simultaneously personal territory and public forum…

As is the case with all human emotions, the answers are not easy because emotional perspective is, by definition, personal and constricted. But this mini journey clarified something for me: This forum is unique and its very essence is defined by Rex-- his thoughts and his feelings. If, for some reason, I am unable to deal with that totality, I should simply walk away. Rex of course can choose to take the feedback he is hearing and do with it as he wishes. As for me, I am here with more realistic expectations, coupled with a greater appreciation of what what Rex does to make this happen and keep it alive.

Never for a moment do I underestimate how much heart Rex puts into creating this place for himself and for all of us-- and therefore how much integrity and courage it takes to let the discussion about it, and him, play out. If ever I saw evidence of a principled belief in free speech, this would be it. And in this way, Rexville even surpasses the ideal intellectual cafe of my youth.


mac said...

I enjoyed reading your blog, and I agree with you completely. We are so lucky to have you spell it out for us.

Two Ponies said...

Greetings foodie, I truly enjoyed your essay on Rexville. I was caught in the crossfire that ugly day. I was stung and disappointed as well. I stayed away for a week but realized I missed the other bloggers too much to stay away for very long. I feel badly now because I was the one who inquired what had happened to ED. I wish I never had as his reappearance has been a distraction and has showed us a mean-spirited side of Rex. On the positive side, however, I also heard from our old friend Wade.
I agree that Rex is brave to openly express his emotions for all to read. I cannot imagine how much work it is to manage his blog but I'm very glad he does.
I rarely express my own emotions as I comment because it seems to be very easy to be misunderstood. Rex and some of the regulars are sometimes quick to pounce so I keep quiet most of the time.
I always read your comments with interest so I was not surprised at the depth and eloquence of your essay.
Thank you for sharing today and every day, Two Ponies

fikink said...

A couple of things:
first, foodie, thanks so much for making this forum available to us.

second, Two Ponies, I must tell you that your indirectly reaching out to ED on Rex's blog led him to make his email address available and enabled me to contact him to express my appreciation for his past participation in Rexville, to which I received a warm response and invitation to further conversation. (It turns out ED and I were in the same high school football conference in Chicagoland.)

I have a boatload of thoughts about the interaction in Rexville; the conflict and commiseration are often a springboard for essays on aesthetics and creativity. ("I need a dump truck, Mama, to unload my head!" ) I think Rex does a damn good job at letting the traffic flow and putting up the occasional barricade to dangerous paths. It is, indeed, like "trying to herd cats."

chefbea said...

Hi Foodie - Great write up on Rexville. I too agree

Tigger said...

Hi foodie,

I appreciate your thoughts on the Rex/ED affair.

Having come across Rex's blog via Google last month, I've been a steady lurker, posting once.

I've enjoyed your comments on the blog, as well as those of the others, but Rex clearly is "the straw that stirs the drink," to quote an ex-Yankee ballplayer.

My view is simple: harvest the good, allow folks their indiscretions, and move on.

Thanks again for sharing your insights.


hazel said...

Once again, I very much appreciate your thoughtful perspective on a thorny issue.

I agree that the community that has built up around Rex is a remarkable one. I don't know anyone in my real life that likes crossword puzzles - so I'm very grateful for the energy and humor and intelligence he puts into the puzzle each and every day. By the same token, I also think he has an arrogant and egotistical and even mean-spirited side that I find off-putting. His post to ED where he says “Dude, you love me. I knew you’d be back. I just won a bet” - or something like that - is really beyond the pale. No comparison to the “original” exchange, but incredibly immature. That aspect of his personality may make him more fully human and honest, but it still isn’t right - and for us to accept that sort of sentiment without piping up isn’t right either. I think he needs to be called out for being boorish. Sadly, I never felt that strongly about it until I was on the receiving end of his (wrongfully directed) wrath.

Regardless of my ambivalence about him as a person, it doesn’t keep me from coming back for a daily visit. As I mentioned last week, I visit the site to hear what everyone has to say, not just him. I mean I couldn’t stand George Bush, but it didn’t make me want to leave the U.S. - at least not for good! (I do love to travel.)

Anyway, I also love the issues you pose, so hope this is the first of many posts to explore in more depth interesting issues raised in Rexville...

fikink said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
foodie said...

Hi everyone,

Thank you all for your comments. I'm real glad you found what I wrote useful.

@Two Ponies, I don't think you should feel badly inquiring about ED. While it created a stir, it also felt less like sweeping something under the rug. And I imagine ED appreciated it. While Rex did not love it, I hope that the ensuing discussion will have a silver lining for him as well. He will get a sense of the range of opinions, for example, about that interaction. Rex has created something quite unusual, and I would guess that understanding all its facets has to be of great interest to him. After all, looking under the surface is part of what academics do.

@Hazel, I come from an extended family that had some members who were quite emotional and would say whatever popped into their heads. Sometimes, it was rather harsh. On other occasions, it was sarcastic. I would find it bewildering, even hurtful, especially that I could not predict it. Yet, I knew them to be good people, even people who loved me. That was probably the start of my interest in understanding people and emotions. I learned that they underestimated the impact of their words, the harm that it can cause. In many cases, what they were saying was defensive rather than offensive-- they felt that they had been slighted or threatened in some way. From that I learned that when people are upset at me, and it feels unfair, oftentimes it's more about them than about me.

I'm telling you this to say two things: a) I do understand how you feel and b) I still think Rex is a good man, and his self-image is not that he is being mean. I should not speak for him, but people who have met him in person tell me they find him extremely likable. So, my hypothesis is that we're seeing someone who is emotionally reactive. Of course, one can learn to control this, at least to an extent, but it's not easy, especially in public. Politicians and even science administrators get special training for how to react and respond in public, and have to learn to moderate their responses and not react too quickly. And I have actually noticed that Rex has greatly improved over time. The fact that he has not been responding to the latest comments about him from his readers is a case in point.

We're all work in progress. I try to give others the benefit of the doubt in hopes that they will do the same for me : )

hazel said...

Foodie - once again I appreciate your voice of wisdom. I think I must be emotionally reactive too - I do have red hair - so have maybe gone a bit too far with my comments here - in the sense that I don't know the man. He's like a fictional character to me, a 2-dimensional person that I see through the computer screen, and that, of course, doesn't do him justice.

I can believe that deep down the 3-dimensional Rex is a good person - he sure has an army of defenders of his honor. So, I'll quit making comments about him (I'm actually now officially sick of the subject!) - and go back to my original policy of just commenting on the puzzles!!

You're so right. We are all works in progress, myself obviously included...

fikink said...

Foodie, you wrote: "So,my hypothesis is that we're seeing someone who is emotionally reactive. Of course, one can learn to control this, at least to an extent, but it's not easy, especially in public. Politicians and even science administrators get special training for how to react and respond in public, and have to learn to moderate their responses and not react too quickly."

I am of a mind that, barring physiological impairment, not only can one learn to control emotional reactivity but it is every individual's responsibility to do so; to understand one's own reactivity, and to cognitively and continuously act upon that growing understanding in order to direct one's own behaviour.
It is something ED was fighting for in appealing to Rex, et. al., to respond to him "rationally."
In a recent conversation I referred to such reactivity as "sailing with your fenders out" - a sailing expression that refers to "bad form." I think the metaphor is apt.

PuzzleGirl said...

I probably shouldn't do this, but here I go anyway. I don't really understand why people want to bend over backwards for ED. To me he seems to be someone that pops up once in a while specifically to bother Rex. Now, the fact that Rex takes the bait — that's another story. But how can anyone "appreciate" that kind of antagonism? Does nobody remember the day Rex proudly told us about his daughter winning a spelling bee? ED's response was to point out how "maladjusted" elite spellers are. Rex's daughter had just won a spelling bee and he was proud of her. I'm sorry, but you just don't do that.

Then there was the NAACP Image Awards puzzle. He jumped in at the beginning of the comments to talk about the "self-segregating awards," how he "understands that racism continues to exist," and how he is an "advocate [of] true equality of the races, [shaking his head] at the apparent desire to self-isolate when we've been striving for a fully color-blind world." Is there anyone who can read that and not believe he was trying to start some s**t? It seems pretty obvious to me.

I imagine I count among Rex's "defenders" — whatever that means — so maybe my view won't be seen as fully unbiased, but that's okay with me. I've met him, spent time with him and his family, and think he's an awesome guy. I also think he has a wicked keen sense of humor that sometimes gets lost in cyberspace (like so much non-verbal communication does). And I think ED often participates in the comments specifically to push Rex's buttons. Not that he arrives and, while discussing the puzzle, innocently says something that Rex (and others) might find offensive — but that he participates for that specific purpose.So, that's what I think. Oh and, foodie, you are entirely too awesome for words. Some days I just sit there and wait for you to jump in because I know you'll say just the right thing. Your perspective is very much appreciated.

evil doug said...


Wow. Quotes from over a year ago. You keep everything I write, or did Rex provide those for you?

At any rate, my e-mail address is attached here. Why don't you engage me directly, instead of posting here in the open where things can, as you say, get "lost in cyberspace". Perhaps I can answer a few of your concerns, replace the context that you've conveniently omitted from those posts, and try to reach some middle ground.

I e-mailed Orange and offered her the same opportunity, but so far she's remained quiet. If your desire to understand why "people want to bend over backwards" for me is genuine, I hope you'll take me up on my honest desire to work these things out with you.



foodie said...

My hope in this discussion is that we can reach greater understanding of the various perspectives, and end on a more positive note. Even if, in the end, some of us agree to disagree, my sense is that it can be done in a civil way, and people will get what bothers them off their chest, feel that they have had their say, and put all of this behind them. Fikink's ideal of rationality is something we can all strive for.

So, I feel that it's been helpful to hear from people who felt annoyed or stung, and see how they can find ways to get past it (thank you Hazel :). It's also very helpful to hear from Puzzle Girl and understand what she, and others, have perceived in ED's comments as triggers of Rex's strongly negative reactions.

So, ED, may be this is a chance to clarify from your end specifically about the two events that PG mentioned -- the comment about Rex's daughter and your intent re the NAACP awards. Like her, I think these do represent the main antecedents to the final conflict. The other sparring was just that. I'm not trying to put you on the spot, so obviously, this is only if you're comfortable. But since you offered to interact off line with Orange and PG, may be you would like to use this spot to put things in a way that feels more consonant with your original intent. I believe that one thing that you and Rex share (!) is that you both have the courage of your convictions. So, sharing your take about these events may be helpful to both you and the rest of us in moving forward...

evil doug said...

PG says she thinks I participate in the blogs "for the specific purpose" of "pushing Rex's buttons", and I thought my absence from his blog as well as from this discussion would help put the lie to that charge. By posting, I'm opening myself up to the "I knew you'd be back" deal again.

I'm also at a disadvantage. It appears Rex has provided PuzzleGirl excerpts from those earlier discussions. But at least I know what I meant, and I'll try to explain.

1. Spelling Bees: If I failed to congratulate Rex's daughter, I was wrong. But my commentary had to do with spelling bees in general, not her. I believe I even mentioned my son's extended participation--so to believe I would in any way attack a young girl for the same activity my own kid took part in doesn't make much sense, and wasn't my intent.

Based on my own experience with my son, and watching the ridiculous ESPN coverage, I have come to believe that spelling bee competitions are as anachronistic as beauty pageants. I have no doubt that the kids who participate are bright or at least capable of gross memorization, but I'm troubled by anyone who has such a singleness of purpose. I feel the same way about athletes whose entire lives are based on making the pro's or getting to the Olympics. Just doesn't seem healthy nor wise to me.

I doubt I made a comment about all serious bee participants being "maladjusted". But I certainly may have voiced concern for that possibility, given my own observations.

2. On Self-segregation: PG states my comments pretty fairly, and she herself points out my belief that "racism continues to exist" and that I'm "an advocate of true equality of the races" and "a fully color-blind world". How she concludes that such comments are trying to "start some s**t" frankly escapes me.

I do believe that certain groups and activities are self-segregating and thus counterproductive to my ideal. Having a "Congressional Black Caucus" invites bad actors to defend the existence of the KKK or other whites-only groups. Did you see how Gingrich jumped on Sotomayor's likely innocuous comment? "Imagine a judicial nominee said 'my experience as a white man makes me better than a Latina woman.' Wouldn't they have to withdraw? New racism is no better than old racism."

So when I see a self-limited award, event, or organization that might tend to set back the effort to eliminate racism, I speak out.

So my goals are honorable enough, but perhaps my means of achieving them don't sit well with PG or Rex. I can only assure you all--regardless of the really tasteless and unfounded comments laid on me a few weeks ago in the "hanging" attack--that I was in no way trying to start trouble. That PG finds it so patently "obvious" that I was exceeds my ability to explain--beyond the labels that Rex has now attached to me on more than one occasion.

Finally, let me say this: I think Rex does a great job of dissecting the puzzle, and much of his commentary is entertaining and well-considered.

Where I have problems with Rex, it's always on the blog. While I can't deny that I like to "push Rex's buttons"---I mean, the guy can be a totally arrogant and self-serving punk when he gets into his defensive "you're ignorant" mode---that's not my reason for participating.

When an interesting term pops into the puzzle that seems to lead into discussion potentially more entertaining than the proper use of an umlaut, I like to see where it will go. It gives me a chance to do some creative writing, and engage in a little friendly fencing with some pretty bright folks. That it has devolved into the current state of affairs brings me no joy, and that's the main reason I've excused myself.

So yes, I deserve and accept my share of criticism. But only my share.



foodie said...

@evil doug, thanks for the response. Since this is not Rex's site, and I invited you to comment, I don't believe anyone will accuse you of returning because you somehow could not resist.

But I do understand and appreciate your decision to abstain from the Rex Parker site, given everything that took place. I think it shows wisdom.

For now, I wanted to set aside the discussion about spelling bees. I personally believe that while the timing/sequencing of the discussion was unfortunate, especially given the history of "button-pushing", you were not trying to put down Rex's daughter or your son for that matter. It seems to me to be a sad case of misunderstanding.

As to the specialized awards discussion, I hope you will consider the following perspective, from someone who happens to be a female in a profession where they are underrepresented, and a member of a minority which is the object of some prejudice these days (Arab Americans). I say this to indicate that I have spent some time considering the issues, but this was not done with any sense of bitterness but rather with a huge sense of gratitude to this country.

I share with you the ideal of a day when race, ethnicity and gender will become totally irrelevant in America. Where having an award for women or African Americans or Hispanics will sound as odd as having an award for people who are over 5'6". I do understand your argument that in the process of having these specialized recognitions, one might run the risk of underscoring separation rather than unity. But, I personally believe that we cannot jump from today's reality to that ideal future by wishing it so. Along the way, we need to tell people who are disadvantaged that others LIKE THEM, can and do make it. We humans identify with people who are like us, our age, our gender, our looks, our ethnic background, our neighborhood, our economic reality. If we come to a place that we all truly have equal opportunity, then this identification may become secondary. But now, it does mean something real, it spells the future for many people. For the sake of this country, we have to remind people that there is a path open to everyone. Even if one is not quite as talented or lucky as Obama or Sotomayor, we have to tell disadvantaged people that it is possible to do much better. To me, this is not about being conservative or liberal, this is about knowing how people function, how they conceive of their hopes, and whether or not they dare to dream at all.

I am not trying to turn this into a debate about race or gender. I am simply trying to say that we can have a common ultimate goal, but disagree on the path we need to achieve it. While I hope you will consider this alternative view, I mostly want to underscore how it's possible to find common ground between various parties, and minimize tension. In the end there are so many important challenges that we are all facing these days, and setting aside differences while focusing on shared values sounds to me like a good step.

As usual, the thing I like most is this country is that we can even have such debates!


hazel said...

I’m reluctant to add anything to Foodie’s last post, but I have this stubborn urge to clarify myself to Puzzle Girl and also make a comment now that ED has provided some context on his perspective. I tried waiting, but the urge didn’t go away...

So, Puzzle Girl, what I meant by the term "defender" - was it seems that there are always lots of people who stand up for/support/agree with/etc. Rex whenever they sense he's under some sort of "attack" in the blog. I wasn't being smarmy or sarcastic when I described people as defending his honor, just making an observation that he has an army of supporters who clearly feel like he's a good guy - and worth defending. And based on that, I too COULD believe that he was a good guy, but I just didn't know him as a person. That's pretty much what I meant. Didn't intend to create any ill-will among anyone.

Also, ED, I would just like to say thanks for taking the time to try to be understood. I think its very hard to do through a computer, particularly when your perspective is often different from the majority. I think you've done a great job of articulating your thoughts and providing some context to the comments that have been so controversial....

I remember the Image Award issue, and not agreeing w/ you that day, but it wasn't because I thought you were a racist. Rather, I probably did think (rightly or wrongly) that you were just being a bit of a rabble-rouser, trying to start a discussion around an issue filled with land mines. I think there were lots of “Don’t feed the Evil” comments that day (that I took to be mostly good-natured). My memory is not the best, though, and I can’t recall facts and details as well as I once could. I do feel pretty good about being able to recall feelings and impressions pretty accurately, though. So, all that to say, that with everything that was said, I only remember that it was a rather sad day on the blog.

In my opinion, one of the strengths of Rex’s blog is that it does such a beautiful job of balancing the small world of the puzzle with the larger perspectives of a (somewhat) diverse puzzling community. For me, it is at its most interesting when a word or expression in a puzzle evokes a memory or experience from someone - that can be universally recognized and shared. I like hearing people's stories. But I also like debates over words and principles, based on the diversity of experience represented there.

I don’t think the forum of the blog really facilitates finding common ground on hot button issues that are implicitly charged with undercurrents, and can’t be meaningfully explored within a 1-2 paragraph “argument.”

The bottom line is that it’s Rex’ blog - his forum - so there doesn’t seem to be much value in discussing weighty issues or politics there - as there is no level playing field, nor really should there be. Its a blog about the NYT crossword puzzle. When someone starts trying to convince others of seeing things a certain way, it just seems to me that that leads to sad days on the blog. Raised hackles. Hurt feelings. General irritation.

I do think its very possible to minimize tension, however, and to that end I personally would like to see ED back at the site, stirring the pot from time to time, but in a nice way and not on such highly-charged issues (preferably ones that are bigger than an umlaut but smaller than race relations). I can definitely understand why he would be reluctant to return without some sort of apology though.

Its sort of ironic (now THAT was a good day on the blog) that the spelling bee is on TV right now!

fikink said...

I had the thought last night that possibly the problem in trying to reproduce a Damascus-type cafe atmosphere on Rex's blog might be ignoring - or understating - the different motivations those in Rexville have for doing the NYT crossword puzzle.
Within the community we have various subsets of speed-solvers, wordsmiths, bloggers, scientists, philosophers, humorists, etc., each availing themselves of the puzzle's challenge. Some tease, some instruct, some have further discussion via email, some go to Rexville for inspiration and energy; and some debate the puzzle's construction, aesthetics, and validity of clues and fill. I think Rex is trying to limit discussion to the latter as much as he can . This is why I understood Puzzlegirl getting upset with all the food talk last year and why Rex deleted me when I tried to post a political pun.
(Puzzlegirl, am I right?)

As I wrote to you, Foodie, your initiative in creating a forum where other things may be discussed might very well lead to the wider philosophical "salon" that has been pressing to be born at Rex's place.  I also think that tapping the crucible of the Rex community gives us a foundation of trust, even if tentative, that will allow honest inquiry.

In this context, nothing that Doug posted on Rex's blog regarding self-segregating awards, the fact of ongoing racism or wishing for a color-blind society, was provoking to me. It was just misplaced opinion to which PG takes offense. I think there is a justified sense of ownership of the blog which PG and Orange share with Rex, their dorm suite as it were. And I think such a clash of purpose is what caused the clash of personalities. We are Rex's guests in Rexville.

Here, Foodie, with the gentle persuasion of keen intellect, has invited us to converse.

Zeke said...

Foodie - I got dragged here due to your decision to bypass Rex's place, looking to see if you had provided an explaination (not that none was actually required).

I'm commenting because there's been one thing bothering me about this post since you put it up - Rex never called ED a racist. What he said was that ED wouldn't recognize racism unless someone was swinging from a tree, i.e. recognize that a pervacive sub-critical racism exists throughtout our society. I believe Rex was 99% accurate in that statement.

Rex's recent statement was unfortunate, but what else was he to do? ED relentlessly and pointlessly tormented Andrea, and Andrea kept taking the bait. I'm on Andrea's side on this, but the back and forth was swamping the comments.

Anyway, you're missed by me, you were the best and sanest voice in the comments.