Sunday, September 25, 2011


If you're unhappy with Facebook's changes, don't despair. (Or do, but do it quietly, then take action, then share!) Help is usually a search-engine word or two away.

If you're not browsing in Firefox or Chrome, remedy that right away. Chrome users can install Ad Block Plus, so you won't have to see any more ads in your sidebar. And—wait for it—install The Ticker Hider. (Thanks, Dawn.)

Here are the versions for Firefox: Hide Ticker; Ad Block Plus.

It's also helpful to remember that search engines are pretty sophisticated. If you are looking for the name of the plastic thing on the end of a shoelace, you can simply type in: name of the plastic thing on the end of a shoelace. Ask, and ye shall be answered.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


If it’s not mostly quarters, is change just unnecessary weight and an unsatisfying jangle?

We’re used to doing the things we do the way we always do them. We’re efficient—and complacent—that way. Most of us don’t even rearrange our furniture or get an entirely new hairstyle, despite all the evidence that change does our brains and our bodies good. Something as simple as driving a different way every so often can keep our minds from lapsing into forgetfulness, and the muscle confusion that comes from changing workout routines is encouraged by fitness gurus. We can even suffer from a phenomenon known as taste fatigue when we eat the same things all the time. (I rotate my ales regularly.)

But this uproar over the latest round of Facebook changes?

In all these years, all that Facebook stuff—all the networking and friendship and rekindling of old flames and sharing of videos and photos, all the love and support, all the drunken midnight status updating and the PopCap games—is still free. So if you quit in a mostly unnoticed protest over what you may mistakenly believe is yet another invasion of your privacy, understand that you miss more than LOLCATS and vomiting pumpkins and bad grammar.

Here’s the real problem, the real reason you are aggravated. You’ve been on Facebook for more than a year, and you still don’t know how to use it. You have a useful tool in your hands, but it might as well be a weapon. You post but don’t assume responsibility for the things you say, to whom.1 You can’t tell the difference between spam and porn, and your desire for the latter by clicking the former leads to an embarrassing tell. We’ve all made the mistake, but so many of you don’t know what to do about it immediately to make it go away.

Like VCRs, Facebook is not intuitive. You need to read the directions or “take the tour.” But most people don’t want to stop for a few minutes to peek at privacy settings, organize contacts, disable applications. You actually do have a right to complain about the president if you don’t vote. But how can you complain that the posts you make available to all your friends suddenly show up on a feed where all your friends can see it? Especially since the first time you complained about Facebook’s changes, it was because you didn’t see enough of your friends’ updates?!

One of the first privacy-related things I did when I joined Facebook was put my friends into categories. From day one, from the first friend I got, I started lists of people—NOGLI for people in my neighborhood; Homies for people who live in town; School of Rock kids and School of Rock parents. I have a category called “Anything Goes” populated by folks I know won’t mind my politics, my bawdy sense of humor, my cussing, my issues. When I post things that aren’t appropriate for kids, I exclude them for only those posts. I turn off my wall for people in the category called “People I Don’t Really Know.”

A few weeks ago, a social media expert was talking about the new “lists” feature developed to compete with Google+'s circles. I said, “New? Facebook has always had lists!” He was incredulous. Even the experts don't know how to use the medium!

Some remarkable things have happened to me through Facebook. I sold scarves when I had back surgery, so I could afford an expensive red leather electric recliner. I got a lot of freelance work. I sold photographs. I got people to come out to Serena’s gigs and my poetry readings. I found old friends and made a hundred new ones. I fraternized with rock stars (one of them even made my photo his profile picture today!) and shared sunsets and songs and knowledge and jokes, good and bad, with everyone I know or almost know.

And yes: I share. You could call me an over-sharer, but don’t. I am a nonfiction writer and a poet, with all the eccentricities those titles bring. Plunk me down in a land called Facebook, and I am at home. Responding to me with a “TMI” or an un-friending is like bitching about drunk people in a bar. Some people have a drink or two. Some are the designated drivers. Some get tipsy. And some just need to kill the pain of the shit of their lives. Most of us have been all those people at some time.

Deal with them—with us—compassionately. Even on Facebook.

And quit yer whining about it.

1A few months ago during a political scandal, my husband, a teacher of social studies (which includes politics and current events), stuffed his bike shorts with about twenty pairs of socks, poking fun at Anthony Weiner. It was an effort to make me laugh, something I was doing with less frequency after the lymphoma diagnoses (my dad’s and mine). I posted this photo on my Facebook page—invisible to kids, despite it being harmless—because it was the funniest thing I’d seen in weeks

Though I have but a handful of school affiliates as friends on Facebook, someone reported me to the boss. My guess is it’s someone who doesn’t know how to use Facebook, someone who didn’t realize that I’d had the good sense to restrict the photo’s visibility. I sent them all an email explaining why I had to remove them from my page.

While I do take responsibility for the things I post, I ask my Facebook friends to take responsibility for friendship. If you come across a questionable post, an email or a phone call works much better than being a tattletale.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

a bouquet of words—with a stamp: an open letter to jon stewart

Dear Jon Stewart,

Mock all you want, but Senator Claire McCaskill is right.

While, as the Jewish mother of a 13-year-old girl, I applaud McCaskill's public calling out of her daughters, I defend her today as an advocate for good English and the preservation of delight. Yes, both at the same time.

You can chuckle at that, like you chuckled at McCaskill's idea of a marketing campaign. But sometimes the positive result of money spent is not merely money gained.

When I stopped teaching college English in 2007 to write a book (published by Simon & Schuster in 2009—shameless plug), students were already losing their memories to Google and their spelling and punctuation skills to texting and emailing. I considered it my job, especially as an instructor of "ideas in writing," my course title, to teach students how to get noticed by writing fucking brilliant letters—letters of introduction, of complaint, of thanks, and, most important, of compliment.

People—strangers, even—tell you they love you every day. (By the way, Jon, I love you.) But imagine how wonderful it is for a customer service representative to open a letter—even an email—that says, "You are doing a great job! I love my [Page Nibs from Levenger]! And they were delivered the next day! I don't know how I lived without these little metal miracles. And you. Thank you."

The rep who received a letter similar to that one sent me a reply, saying that the CSRs passed it around the office as a reminder that they do things right sometimes, because all they ever hear are complaints. It made them happy! The owner of the company sent me a copy of his book, signed, as thanks for my thanks!

With well-written letters, I've gotten free Ray Bans and coupons for favorite foods. I've gotten replies from rock stars. Imagine being a fifteen-year-old girl (yeah, go ahead and imagine that!) and exchanging letters with Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen! Or getting a letter in the mail from Patti Smith's bassist, Ivan Kral, or from actress Melissa Leo, or from Jane Siberry—or anyone you admire.

Perhaps even better: imagine getting a card for every holiday, occasion, or mental breakdown you celebrate. (My friend Derek does that.) My friend Lysandra sends me chocolates from Hawaii when I'm feeling down, and Monica sends thoughtful goodies to say she's thinking of me. When I had back surgery, I received cards, letters, and packages from all over the world. I might have died without those letters. They meant more to me than blog replies and emails because people had to make extra effort to get in touch.

Last year, my husband went camping by himself and wrote me and our daughter several letters from Utah. Those letters were bouquets of words, jewels. We anticipated them and went to the mailbox, hopefully1, every day. I wrote about it on my blog, and it inspired others to send letters.

A marketing campaign to encourage people to write more letters is like a marketing campaign to keep people from smoking. It's a public service. Letters—writing them, receiving them—make you healthy. They improve your vocabulary, your attention to detail, your memory, and your appreciation. They slow you down. They teach you how important your words can be and how to choose them wisely. And, unlike an essay you write in high school or college, the outcome is personal. (And you can get free stuff.)

Even if you send the letter as an email, without buying a stamp from the post office, the very act of writing a letter, as opposed to emailing someone, has improved our current state of grammatical affairs.

Letters of thanks and appreciation, annual New Years catch-up letters sent to the whole slue of family and friends, love letters—those are worth the wait. It's too easy when you're angry to pop off a nasty email; Send is commanding and irreversible. But an angry letter? By the time you print it, reread it, address an envelope, and stamp it, you've cooled down. That letter on the counter, waiting to be mailed, could be insignificant by morning. In the end, you get to keep your friend.

That's just a little of what a marketing campaign could do. It can teach us that letters are more than IDK, OMG, and WTF. It can help us regain our thoughtfulness and our intelligence and our beauty. Forget about saving the job of the nasty pink-haired biddy at your neighborhood post office. The mail is not about her. It is in spite of her.

One week after September 11, the anthrax attacks began. People took potholders and oven mitts with them to retrieve the mail. Companies stopped accepting letters, and employees in mail rooms and post offices had to wear protective gear before opening letters. Our refusal to send or receive mail is partially responsible for the post office's collapse; it's another way the terrorists win—and the government continues to erode our freedoms.

Our mailboxes should be shrines—full of thanks and love letters and beautiful magazines and the occasional flyer from the local Chinese joint, all misspelled for laughs. I'd say that bills, jury duty notices, work, and things that require immediate attention should come by email, but what about those who don't have computers or email access? These things are still a luxury for so many Americans. But mail comes to everyone.

So, while this letter, which took nearly an hour to compose on a Sunday morning (even longer to proofread and edit), will appear on my blog (with pictures and links), it will also get a 44-cent stamp and come to you in the mail.

It will also say: Thank you, Jon Stewart, for your common sense and decency and wicked humor and honesty.

With admiration and affection,


1 Note the correct use of hopefully.