GRANDMA’S BEST ADVICE

The other day, I had one of the increasingly rare moments alone with my granddaughter. She has been going through a prolonged siege of the teenage girl crazies, a ghastly combination of hormones, boys, high school and high drama.

Clearly, she was in need of the best advice I had to offer, so I gave it to her.

“If you are going to be crazy, be crazy,” I said. “I was a basket case at your age too. Many of us were. It’s a girl thing. But trust me. You really can trust me on this. Everything gets better. Not very long from now, you’ll look back on this time and be embarrassed by some of the stuff you are doing.”

High tension wire, golden maple leaves framed by an azure sky.

And then I gave her the best advice I had: “Be crazy if you must. Just — for God’s sake, don’t put it online. Your great-grandchildren will be finding your Facebook posts and laughing their asses off. Worse, your future possible employers will be finding them too, not to mention your potential life-partners, business associates, friends and co-workers. Be nuts if you must, but shut up about it. Don’t publish it.”

I know it’s the current thing to spill ones guts on the internet. I share too, but only if I can make it reasonably elegant and I don’t mind who knows. Moreover, I’m retired. I will never again have to hunt for a job. I have the only husband I will ever need or want. My friends already know I’m a whack job and they love me anyhow.

But my granddaughter is 17. She’s got a whole life to live, worlds to conquer and all that drama published on the internet can turn into the stuff of nightmares.

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Nothing ever vanishes once it’s “out there” in cyberspace. Everything you ever wrote, ever commented is going to show up on someone’s Google search. It gives friends something to laugh about and you something to blush over … but it’s also something for those who don’t like you to use against you. It provides easy ways for people to hurt you. If you are, as I am, past the age where you give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks or says about you, behave accordingly.

However, if you are still in the job market, still hoping for a career, especially if you are a teacher or any kind of public servant. Or looking for work in finance or something which requires a security clearance … Think carefully before you publish.

Nothing you put on the internet is private, no matter what anyone tells you. I can find posts I wrote that were supposedly private twenty years ago and newspaper articles in which I am mentioned that were published in The Jerusalem Post 30 years ago.

If it goes up on any form of social media or blog? It’s a land mine on which you will eventually step.

So be crazy. Be as crazy as you want. Just don’t publish it. If it’s unpublished, it’s a rumor. Plausible deniability applies. But if it’s published? You’re busted.

WHAT’S THE SCOOP?

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It seems to me the importance of whatever is going on in the world has an inverse relationship to the amount of attention it gets in the press. By “press,” I’m referring to newspapers, radio, television and other traditional news outlets, newer stuff like social networks, websites and blogs. Plus even newer sources of information such as newsletters and email. “Press” is the collective dissemination of information from a wide variety of perspectives and mediums. These days, it’s a free-for-all. If you care about truth and facts, you will need to do some independent reality checking.

News is loosely defined as whatever news people say it is. Whether or not this actually is news is subjective. The control of news content is not, as many people think, in the hands of reporters or even editors and publishers. Whatever controls exist are defined in corporate boardrooms run by guys like Rupert Murdoch who have no vested interest in keeping us well-informed. The news biz is about power, politics and money. Mostly money. It’s business, not public service.

That would, in theory, make “independent” sources — bloggers, for example — more “honest” … but don’t bet on it. Everybody’s got an agenda. Independence doesn’t equate to accuracy or honesty. They may not be beholden to a corporation or sponsors, but that doesn’t make them neutral or fair. They may be … but then again, maybe not. I’ve read blogs so blatantly lacking in any kind of journalistic ethics it shocked me. I am not easily shocked.

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Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledge applause during a Joint Session of Congress in which President Jimmy Carter announced the results of the Camp David Accords. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not sure exactly when news stopped being stories about important stuff going on in the world and became whatever will generate a big audience likely buy the sponsors’ products. Money has always driven the news to some degree, but not like today. Now, everything seems to be driven by the bottom-line. It hasn’t improved the quality of the news. Once upon a time, important issues and stories got a free pass, an exemption from needing to have “sex appeal.” Significant news got on the air even if it wasn’t sexy or likely to sell products. Not true any more.

For a brief shining period from World War II through the early 196os and perhaps a bit beyond, the “Ed Murrow” effect was a powerful influence in American news. Reporters were invigorated by getting respect for their work and tried to be “journalists” rather than muckrakers.

When I was growing up, Walter Cronkite was The Man. He carried such an aura of integrity and authority I thought he should be president not merely of the U.S., but of the world. Who would argue with Walter Cronkite? He sat next to God in the newsroom and some of us had a sneaking suspicion God personally told him what was important. If Walter said it was true, we believed. Thus when Cronkite became the guy to get Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to sit down and talk — the beginning of the Camp David Accords — it seemed natural and right. Who was more trustworthy than Uncle Walter? Who carried more authority? He walked in the glow of righteousness.

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He always made my mother giggle. It was not Walter, the reporter or man who made her laugh. It was his name. “Cronkite” in Yiddish means ailment, so every time his name was announced, my mother, who had a wild and zany sense of humor, was reduced to incoherent choking laughter. It was a nightly event. Eventually she got herself under control sufficiently to watch the news, but the sound of her barely contained merriment did nothing to improve the gravity I felt should surround the news.

To this day, the first thing I think of when I hear Walter Cronkite’s name — something that less and less frequently as the younger generations forget everything that happened before Facebook — is the sound of my mother’s laughter. That’s not entirely bad, come to think of it.

Walter was one of Ed Murrow’s boys, his hand-picked crew at CBS News.

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I can only wonder what the chances are of any of us living to see a return to news presented as news and not as entertainment. Where reporters and anchors check and doublecheck sources before broadcasting a story. Today, Jon Stewart’s comedy news The Daily Show gives us more accurate news than does the supposed “real” news, I like Stewart, but I don’t think this is the way it’s supposed to be.

For a look at the how we got from there to here, two movies spring instantly to mind : Network — a 1976 American satirical film written by the great Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet starring Faye DunawayWilliam HoldenPeter Finch, and Robert Duvall. Its dark vision of the future of news has turned out to be very close to reality. Too close for comfort.

The other, for veterans of the TV wars, is Broadcast News, a 1987 comedy-drama film written, produced and directed by James L. Brooks. The film concerns a virtuoso television news producer (Holly Hunter), who has daily emotional breakdowns, a brilliant yet prickly reporter (Albert Brooks) and his charismatic but far less seasoned rival (William Hurt). When it first came out, it was almost too painful to watch.

And finally, Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom …the HBO series that gives the most realistic look at how it works and sometimes, how it fails … and why it matters.

The world goes on. We think we can’t survive without this or that. We think the world will go completely to Hell without real news and serious reporters but we survive. Maybe the worse for wear, but trucking along. Nonetheless, I’d like real news back on the air. I’d like to see a return to fact-based reporting. I know how old-fashioned that is, but I wish I could believe what I read, what I see, what I hear. I miss being able to trust the information I get. I would like to be less cynical or at the least, discover my cynicism was misplaced.

Just saying.

Amateurs have all the fun

It has come up a few times lately … how to define a professional. So, are you a professional? I’ve seen questionnaires for writers that apparently feel the sign of a professional is how much you sacrifice for your art. I’m quite sure sacrifice has nothing to do with whether or not you are a professional.

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There is only one question you need to answer. Do you get paid for doing it, whatever ‘it’ is? If you don’t get paid, you are not a professional. If you do get paid, you are. This doesn’t address the issue of whether or not you are talented or especially skilled. You may be a brilliant amateur and someone else may be a lackluster professional, but that’s not the question.

Professional is a job classification and addresses your status with the IRS. When I was working as a writer, it never crossed my mind to wonder if I was a professional. I had a job. Writing. I had deadlines. I got paid. The odds are if you are wondering whether or not you are a professional? You aren’t.

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Professional doesn’t mean talented and amateur is not a comment on quality of your work. I flirted with professional photography, only to discover it wasn’t fun. To make my living as a photographer, I had to do what clients wanted and that was … well … work.

Then, this past May, along came Marissa Mayer from Yahoo to explain why they were eliminating Flickr Pro.
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Wow. When did access to tools become equivalent to professionalism? Completely ignoring the actual definition of professional, she manages to ignore any other sensible guideline and define professional as “owning the tools.” Using this reasoning, everyone who owns woodworking tools is a professional carpenter. Owning a few rolls of electrical tape and a couple of gauges could make you an electrician. Is a plumber anyone who owns wrenches?

Is everyone who owns a computer and a printer, who has a blog or posts on Facebook a professional writer? If I buy some paints and an easel, I’m a painter, right? Everyone who has a digital camera can also make movies, so are we all professional filmmakers?

If ignorance is bliss, Marissa Mayer is very happy.

The single thing that divides a professional from an amateur — excluding any legal requirements such as training, licensing and so on — is a paycheck. If you get paid to write, you’re a professional writer. If you sell your photographs or services as a photographer, you are a professional photographer. How much of your income needs to come from writing or photography? At least some. None is too little.

If you have never sold anything you’ve written, you are an aspiring writer, an amateur, a hopeful. You don’t get professional status until you get the check. This is true for photographers, painters, and all other artists. It’s true for every profession, artistic or otherwise.

CamerasIf you don’t believe me, look it up. That’s the line in the sand. If you don’t earn money doing it — whatever “it” is — you are not a professional. It isn’t about your talent, enthusiasm or dedication to your art. It is a statement about your status. Maybe you will become a professional in the future. Perhaps you were a professional in the past.

I’m retired. I used to earn my living writing. This makes me a former professional writer. My husband was a reporter. He is now a former reporter. We collect social security and pensions, so we are no longer professionals. I was never a professional photographer even though I sold a few pictures and did a few gigs for which I got paid. I am and was a dedicated, serious amateur photographer. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I think we should stop worrying about it. In most things, amateurs have more fun anyhow.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Facebook – An Itchy Elephant

The first time I accessed Facebook was early 2011, a year before the 2012 Presidential election went into a full-tilt boogie. I had never been on a social media site though I’d heard of MySpace. My impression was it was where 12-year-olds went to pretend they were 16. (I was right.)

I was pleasantly surprised with Facebook. It was easy. I could connect with anyone. Everyone. Anywhere on Planet Earth.

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That warm fuzzy feeling evaporated faster than morning mist. Facebook was the angriest place on earth. Everyone had a strong opinion — mostly based on their own or someone else’s opinion. Facts? We don’t need no stinking facts! This is Facebook! MY opinion is as good as anyone else’s (no, it isn’t actually). It seemed as if the whole world was posting angry diatribes. From the left, right, middle and far ends of the universe, everyone had something to shout about. Whoa, I thought to myself. This could get ugly (I was right … it did).

Then I discovered games. I connected with kids (now grandparents) with whom I went to grade school or college. People I wanted to reconnect with. Then, with people I had hoped never to hear anything from again. The good, the bad and the wholly unattractive, all in one basket. Whoopee.

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I began backing away as fast as I could. The games were cool, or some of them anyhow. But the percentage of enraged people, illiterates, the mentally unbalanced, the lunatic fringe — all posting whatever was on their minds (perhaps “minds” is too strong a word, but it’s the only one I’ve got) was too much for me. The temperature was in the red zone.

I continued to play games, which is why 95% of my “friends” (what a misnomer!) on Facebook are those with whom I connected because we were playing the same games. The remaining 5% are family and real live people I know. Some seem, for whatever reason, to prefer communicating via Facebook rather than email, telephone or in person. To each his/her/their own. Who am I to judge? (Okay, I think it’s weird, but I try not to judge.) (I don’t succeed.)

In the beginning, I got upset when Facebook made blatantly exploitive changes to their site. Then I remembered: I don’t have to go there. I don’t have to post. If Facebook vanished tomorrow, my world would not crumble.

By then, I’d found WordPress and begun blogging. The more into blogging I got, the less reason I had to visit Facebook … unless I was in the mood for a game. And of course, there is the convenience of using Facebook to publicize my blog. I may not like it, but lots of others do. I get quite a few click-throughs from Facebook.

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The thing is, you can’t avoid Facebook. It’s there, the elephant in the room, the itch you can’t quite scratch. Pretend otherwise, but you can smell the peanuts and no matter how much you twist, you never get that itch.

A surprising (to me) number of authors and artists choose Facebook pages in preference to having their own website. Is it because Facebook offers wide open access and effortless connectivity?

It certainly is less demanding to maintain a Facebook page than manage a website. Maybe that’s it.

For me, the open access of Facebook is a negative, a reason to avoid it. I want control over who does what on my site. Obviously others feel differently. Everything has a place and a purpose. Or as Mom used to say: “For everyone, there’s someone.”

Or something. Facebook is the something many choose. Never my choice, but that’s irrelevant. Freedom isn’t just a word. It’s one of my core values. Do your thing. I’m not bound by your choices. You’re not bound by mine.

It’s the American way. And my way.

A Place of Peace

Despite all the blogs and bloggers who have posted articles on the etiquette of commenting, too many people still don’t get it. Maybe they just don’t want to understand, because it isn’t so complicated.

I got a really nasty note yesterday from an individual who took issue with something I wrote. I think she didn’t even understand how rude she was. Another — even nastier comment — expressed displeasure with my failure to address his comment — 3 months ago. The original comment was insulting (which is why I didn’t respond). Today’s follow-up was much worse.

In both cases, the result was identical. Bye bye. You’re out of here. Don’t come back.

This is not a forum, public or otherwise. This is my personal blog, my website. My little piece of peace in a nutty, wacko cyber world. In this place, we discuss, but we don’t fight. If I don’t like your comment — for whatever reason — I can choose to not publish it, delete it, edit it … or call it spam and make it so you trouble me no more.

It doesn’t mean you aren’t free to disagree. You are welcome to disagree. Politely. Reasonably. Friendly. But if you feel like sniping, insulting me, calling names, think this is an opportunity to show how smart you are at my (or anyone else’s) expense? Bye bye.

If you do not appreciate what I have to say or how I say it, no one is forcing you to read it. You don’t have to look at my pictures, read my opinions, like me or follow me. Cyber space is infinite and you are welcome to be virtually elsewhere.

I do not have to take crap from you. Not here. In the rest of my life, I deal with all the stuff I don’t like. In this place, this tiny corner of the huge universe, I hold fast to an illusion of control. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

In this place, this space, we dwell in peace and harmony, even when we differ.

The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing

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I was in the Time magazine archives recently, doing research for my biography of J. D. Salinger, when I pulled open a drawer and found a small box containing a bunch of discarded typewriter heads for the I.B.M. Selectric typewriter—the cutting-edge writing technology of my youth. I had written, or tried to write, my first stories while sitting before this ominously humming machine. At its center was a typeball—like a golf ball with letters—that leapt up to punch each letter onto the page with astonishing violence. Hitting a key was like firing a shot. A sentence was a strafing machine gun.

It seemed, at the time, like a radical innovation, but now I think of it as part of a unified group that includes everything from the quill to the word processor and the early forms of the P.C. All these technologies, however different they made the experience of composition, produced writing that was, at first, for the eyes of the writer alone.

I picked up the box, handled the metal orbs, the many tiny letters. Even in their diminished state, the little alphabet-planets retained some of their punishing, mechanical glamour. I put them back in their box and took a picture, which I then tweeted, along with a hashtag that seemed to speak for the charms of antique technology: #IBM.

Though Twitter is not exactly a new writing technology, it is a technology that is affecting a lot of writers. It used to be a radical cri de coeur to claim, “We live in public.” Like many mantras of the cyber-nineties, this turns out to be mostly true, but misses an even larger truth: more and more, we think in public. For writers, this is an especially strange development.

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I sometimes wonder how the great writers of the past would handle the Twitter predicament. Would they ignore it or engage and go down the rabbit hole? Who are the really unlikely tweeters from literary history? Would Henry James, whose baroque sentences could never have been slimmed down into a hundred and forty characters, have disdained Twitter?

Most great writers could, if they wanted to, be very good at Twitter, because it is a medium of words and also of form. Its built-in limitation corresponds to the sense of rhythm and proportion that writers apply to each line. But some writers achieve their effect through an accumulation, or make sense via sentences that are, by themselves, on the far edge of making sense. (Robert Musil comes to mind.) Not everyone is primed to be a modern-day Heraclitus, like Alain de Botton, who starts each day, it seems, by cranking up his inner fortune-cookie machine and producing a string of tweets that are, to varying degrees, sour, funny, fatalistic, and bitingly true. It’s a comedian’s form. The primal tweet may be, “Take my wife, please!”

Gertrude Stein, with her gnomish, arty, aphoristic tendencies, would seem to be ideal. “There is no there there” may be one of the great proto-tweets.

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Marilyn Armstrong‘s insight:

Really interesting article! If you blog and write, you should read it.

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Daily Prompt: Freedom of Facebook – Serendipity’s my little world

I believe in freedom. I don’t just say that. I mean it. I believe everyone has the right to express his or her opinion, no matter how uninformed or stupid.

I do not believe our society should allow — or worse, encourage — the spewing of hate in public. Facebook has become the poster child for bigots, supporting the vicious outpourings of ignorant and mean-spirited people. When I first signed up for Facebook, there was much on it in which I was uninterested, but there were also many people expressing reasonable opinions, telling stories of their lives and the lives of others. It was a way to link up with people I hadn’t seen in years, find out what was going on in lives being lived far away. It was fun.

Freedom is meant to be a good thing, not all ugliness and hatred.

Freedom is meant to be a good thing, not all ugliness and hatred.

Then it changed. The 2012 Presidential election brought out the worst in many people. Diatribes and postings full of hate and threats (implied and explicit) of violence. I started blocking people. It made my stomach churn and still does. There is no room in my personal space for bigots, racists and hate-mongers. I frankly don’t care whether or not they have a legal right to spread their vicious invective. There is, above all, a thing we call “right and wrong” … and that stuff is wrong by any standards. Worse, the proliferation of this ugliness affects how the world perceives us — in a very negative way. It polarizes dialogue and keeps people and parties in their separate corners. You cannot have a functional body politic if people cannot speak to each other. If we hate everyone who is different from us, we don’t see them as human. That’s a terrible thing. I don’t see anything good coming of this.

My blog is my world. I own it. I have control over it. I do not allow argument for argument’s sake. The trolls will never control my website. I do not allow personal attacks of any kind and the mere hint of racism will get that person banned forever. I may not be able to control Facebook, but I can control this space and I do.

My opinion of Facebook? It is what it is, the populist bulletin board for the world. I go there to play a few mindless games and see what some of my friends (the real ones) are doing. See who has posted pictures of family, babies, friends, dogs and all that stuff. I cross-post my blog to Facebook, so technically I guess I’m considered active, though I very rarely post anything directly there.

It’s a good place to go and find out what people are yelling about these days, what the current hot-button issues are. What kind of craziness is currently afflicting our world. The people who rant on Facebook would no doubt rant somewhere else if they didn’t have Facebook so perhaps it’s better that they have it — a public venue — than to be forced into the dark corners where they would fester and become even more evil than they already are, though that is hard to imagine.

Should Facebook enforce their own guidelines? They should. Morally and ethically, they should. They aren’t strict guidelines and are only likely to weed out the most extreme of their clients.

Will they? I doubt it. They’ve gotten too big. They lack the personnel to monitor their site. It’s become a monster. I suspect eventually it will self-destruct.

In the meantime, it’s the place where the crazies hang out. Like wild dogs, maybe they will eat each other and leave the rest of us alone.

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