The Twitter

Twitter logo

 

Last fall, I decided that I was going to get into, as Stephen Colbert calls it, “the Twitter.” I uploaded a reasonably attractive photo of myself and started squeezing my thoughts into 140-character bites. I’m not sure what I was looking for on the Twitter. I guess I wanted to share some of my better pieces of writing, articles that I found interesting and banal details about my existence on Planet Earth. For instance, I apparently thought the whole world should know that I was vaguely acquainted with someone who’d gone to a poo psychologist.

I followed the people, journalism outlets and other entities that interested me. I also started getting followers, most of whom I didn’t know. A few of them were authors, which didn’t bother me because I like to be part of a supportive writer community. However, many of them were self-appointed social media gurus and content “experts” that were bent on telling me how to run my social media existence.

Slowly, my “followers” number crept toward the triple digits. I enthusiastically followed people back when they followed me, and most people were nice except for one guy who went nuts about a reply I made to @FriendlyAtheist. Honestly, though, if you’re a Kirk Cameron fan, then maybe you shouldn’t follow @FriendlyAtheist? Just saying. I ended up blocking him so that he’d stop shout-tweeting at me and go back to gazing adoringly at his dog-eared Mike Seaver poster from Bop! 

I tried to read through my the Twitter feed a couple of times a day. I was only following just over 200 people, but reading through their tweets was sucking away at least an hour of my day. Plus, because I’d followed back the social media gurus and content experts, my feed was filled with their prolific 140-character tips plus links #helpfuladvice about getting the most out of social networks like the Twitter. I simply couldn’t find the tweets that interested me because they were buried beneath an onslaught of Internet marketing self-help. After a few weeks, I stopped reading the Twitter at all.

My the Twitter diet lasted for a couple of months and culminated this weekend with me un-following all of those helpful Internet self-promotion evangelists. When you look at their home pages, some of them are following literally tens of thousands of people. I mean, if I can’t read my the Twitter feed when I’m following 200 people, then I’m assuming that they don’t read theirs. Since they don’t read their feeds, then they didn’t follow me on the Twitter because they cared that my local Starbucks has introduced Trenta Tazo iced teas and Trenta Tazo iced teas bring joy to my corner of the world.

I’ve finally decided what I want from the Twitter. I want to know what my friends are tweeting about, and I also want to read articles from The Economist and Scientific American. Additionally, like a true the Twitter voyeur, I want to read the inconsequential but entertaining writings of famous people. I want to know that @WilWheaton is cleaning out his garage. I care.

They say that social networks like the Twitter are all about “building relationships.” However, I’m guessing that @SocialMediaNinja isn’t going to send flowers to my funeral. Un-follow. Now, let’s see if @rickygervais has posted another bathpic.

Overcoming Self-Improvement Fatigue

new year's resolutionsA recent Harris poll determined that the 10 most commonly made New Year’s resolutions are:

  1. Lose weight
  2. Budget responsibly
  3. Exercise more
  4. Get a new job
  5. Eat nutritious foods
  6. Improve stress management
  7. Quit smoking
  8. Improve relationships (with both humans and the more interactive deities)
  9. Stop procrastinating
  10. Set aside time for yourself

These are all worthwhile pursuits, but they all seem overwhelming. I think I need an Advil. Setting aside time for myself? Um, okay. Sure, I’ll get up 15 minutes earlier every day. For about three days, until I start pressing snooze. There goes that self time.

I haven’t decided what my New Year’s resolution will be. I’m still in the brainstorming stages. However, I’m pondering activities that could bring enjoyment while addressing multiple goals. Feel free to add suggestions to my list in the comments section, and feel free to borrow these ideas. I’m releasing them into the public domain.

  1. Take up a new hobby. Learning a new sport, for example, could improve relationships, enhance stress management, increase exercise and lead to weight loss. A more introspective new hobby, like learning to draw or learning a new craft, means setting aside time for yourself and improving stress management. Who knows? It may eventually lead to a new job. That’s what happened when I took up a new hobby called writing.
  2. Document your life. Buy a notebook. Join Instagram. Go through a self-help workbook. In whatever way, write down or photograph your life this year. If you’re worried about budgeting, record your spending. Start a food diary to record what you eat. When you exercise, write it down. When you smoke, write down what triggered you to get up and light up. Write in a journal when you’re stressed. Start a blog. Take photos of your family and share them with friends and extended family to improve your relationships. You’ll be surprised how much insight and empowerment you’ll gain just from living in a more mindful way.
  3. Find ways to play. Start playing board games or video games with your family. Get a sketchbook and draw when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Get a coloring book; you’d be surprised how many adults enjoy coloring. Play with your kids. Find new ways to play in your romantic relationships. Turn household chores into a game. Teach your kids new things by making learning playful.
  4. Invest in people. Join an adult education class in your community. A lot of towns offer cooking, exercise, language learning and other classes that can be ways to meet new people with common interests. Meetup.com is always a great way to find out what’s going on around you. Join a book group. Join Weight Watchers. Quit smoking with a group of people. Whatever resolutions you make, don’t be a lone wolf. You need the support of others. Visit your parents more often. If conversation is a drag, then mow their lawns or take them grocery shopping.
  5. Take a risk. Get out your bucket list, pick something and then do it. Going hiking in the Himalayas? You’ll have to budget for it, and you’ll have to get in shape for it. Write that short story that’s been brewing in your mind. Take one step toward starting your own business, like setting up a website or printing business cards. Are you hiding something crucial about yourself from other people? Stop procrastinating and come out of whatever closet you’re in—doesn’t have to be the gay closet, although it could be—so that you can live a more authentic life and improve your relationships.

Life is full of “shoulds.” We “should” be thin. We “should” be financially responsible. Most “shoulds” are good. For example, being at a good weight helps you live longer to enjoy your relationships. Instead of making a list for direct self-improvement, however, take a different approach that can help you to enjoy your New Year’s resolutions. You may even knock out a few of those “shoulds” in the process.

It’s OK to Tell Kids That They’re Excellent

More attention for gifted studentsMy son, who is in third grade, brought home a perfect score for his most recent test. On the bottom of the page, the scores were divided into three categories: 0-49 was “below standard,” 50-79 was “progressing” and 80-100 was “meeting standard.” “Look, Mom,” he said to me, “I’m meeting standard!” Meeting standard. Yay. How nice.

A quick aside—I am not a helicopter parent. I don’t push my son to earn grades, because grades are subjective. I want him to grow up confident in what he’s good at doing, not neurotic about being the best at everything.

I read a great column in Newsweek a few years ago by a mother who had two children: one autistic, and one gifted. She wrote that while her autistic son received daylong intensive individual instruction, her gifted daughter got a three-hour-per-week pullout. Her argument was that if her gifted daughter received as much attention as her autistic son, then maybe her daughter could find a cure for autism. Her major point is that too often, educators assume that gifted students will be “just fine on their own.” Instead, they should be pushing those students toward greatness.

America is thirsty for kids like my son that can succeed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Maybe if we weren’t afraid to praise kids when they do kick ass in these subject areas, America’s reputation for innovation wouldn’t be slipping away. I appreciate the importance of not over-praising our kids. However, when they’re really good at something, particularly something that our country needs them to be good at, shouldn’t we let them know?

As an adult, I’ve learned that our education system doesn’t necessarily prepare you for success. In a world where a college education costs tens of thousands of dollars, if you’re entrepreneurial enough and talented enough at something, then you don’t need to shell out $50K to put a credential on your resume. Higher education is turning out too many graduates that aren’t qualified for today’s jobs anyway. In some cases, particularly in technology-related fields, universities are two to three years behind what’s going on in the industry. College dropouts Steve Jobs and Ronald D. Moore, as well as dreadful student Albert Einstein, didn’t need a traditional education to be successful.

The hard truth of life is that not everyone is excellent at everything. Instead of pushing down kids that are excellent at something, the rest of us should cope with our averageness in certain subject areas. Because his school isn’t pushing him toward excellence, my son has to depend on me, a single mother with limited means, to find enrichment opportunities for him. I’m glad that educators want to help students that struggle. At the same time, I wish that they were pushing my son to reach his full potential.

“Meeting standard” seems like tepid praise for earning a perfect score, particularly since my son is strong in math and science. On one hand, we should recognize the unique value of every student. On the other hand, we shouldn’t hesitate to let our kids know when they’re excellent.

I Drink Beer, I Love Jesus and I Wrecked My Pickup Truck

My father listened to “outlaw” country music when I was young. He had piles of 8-tracks recorded by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. He thought that honky-tonk and bar fight songs were okay, but The Beatles were evil and only sang about drugs. Not just evil, but truly evil, as in you’re-going-to-hell-if-you-listen-to-John-Lennon “Scary Dad” evil.

Even though we have pretty much nothing in common, and I am a certified Beatle-maniac, my father did pass on his affection for Johnny Cash and Co. Recently, I’ve started listening to Pandora’s Outlaw Country station. I’ve discovered a lot of gems that I’d never heard, such as Willie Nelson’s solo version of “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Trust me, it’s much better than the duet version he performed with Waylon.

I’ve also noticed that every other song is some kind of redneck pride anthem. I see nothing wrong with loving your culture, and I don’t mind listening to songs about rural life. For instance, Pandora has acquainted me with Josh Thompson, and I like “Way Out Here.”

A lot of the songs, however, contain basically the following lyrical formula: “I drink beer, I love Jesus and I wrecked my pickup truck.” It’s quite a linguistic achievement to smash the words “beer,” “Jesus” and “wrecked pick-up truck” into a single run-on sentence.

Of course, beer+Jesus+truck isn’t the first country music stereotype ever. The one that people threw out when I was an ’80s kid was that all country music lyrics boiled down to “My woman left me, my truck died and my dog ran off.” Thirty years later, the “truck with misfortunes” endures. But today’s formula, to my expatriate ears, sounds like a weird juxtaposition of “I’m a badass” and “I’m humble before Jesus,” battered and deep-fried and served with a big “you can like it or go to hell.”

As for the “you can like it or go to hell” part, who is “you” in this scenario? Is “you” the non-badass? The non-Christian? The driver of a sensible sedan? I’m on shaky philosophical ground to say that these songs are evidence of what many red-state dwellers are thinking. At the same time, I see radio-wave provocateurs and certain news stations owned by Rupert Murdoch profiting by convincing people that their way of life is under attack.

When I listen, I find myself wondering whether wounds over a century old never truly healed because I get the unsettling feeling that the collective “you” may be the blue-state resident. The old outlaws did sing about national and regional pride; songs like Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and Hank Williams, Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” come to mind. However, although I can’t cite any statistics, those Southern pride songs seemed to make up a small proportion of the old outlaw repertoire.

I tell myself that I’m completely overthinking the output of the Nashville hit machine. Still, as I thumbs-down song after song in the formula of beer+Jesus+truck+”you can like it or go to hell” while listening to Pandora, and as I watch the growing philosophical chasm between red-staters and blue-staters, I get a nagging, uneasy feeling about where my country may be headed. I worry that the threat we divided Americans pose to ourselves surpasses any unseen threat that may be lurking overseas.

What’s in a Name?

Image by pakorn from freedigitalphotos.net

Image by pakorn from freedigitalphotos.net

We have polls for everything, right? This is your chance to help me make a decision. You can read my thoughts about the question and then scroll to the bottom to vote.

I cannot decide what I’m going to do with my last name in January when my divorce is final. Should I keep my married name (Lee), switch back to my maiden name (Vaughn) or go for something completely different, like taking my mom’s family name (Holloway)?

 Lee

Pros:

  • It’s been my name for 13 years, and I’m used to it.
  • Most of my writing credits (and they’re oh so numerous, LOL) are as “Jacqueline Lee.”
  • It’s the same name that my sons have, so their teachers don’t have to get in the habit of calling me by a different name.
  • No switching names on driver’s license, Social Security card, etc.

Cons:

  • I will no longer be married to that guy as of January 15, so isn’t some kind of change in order?
  • I would probably be stuck with that name as a writing credit for a long time, even if I remarry someday. It would never go away.

 Vaughn

Pros:

  • It’s a strong step toward a changed identity.
  • The change could demonstrate independence after an unhappy time.

Cons:

  • It’s inconvenient to change all of my ID cards and my bank accounts to reflect a new name.
  • Jackie Vaughn is a stranger to me. I’ve changed so much that being Jackie Vaughn again seems like a step backward in some ways.
  • It’s tedious to remind everyone in my sons’ social sphere that I’m not Mrs. Lee.

 Holloway

Pros:

  • My mom raised me, and I’m much closer to that side of my family.
  • “Jacqueline Holloway” sounds kind of pretentious and important, doesn’t it?
  • It’s a real fresh start. It’s a change that doesn’t feel like a step backward.

Cons:

  • Again, it’s inconvenient.
  • Changing my name to “Holloway” feels like an unusual thing to do, and I am not a person that colors outside of the lines very easily.

Vote Now!

Thanks for voting! Also, leave a comment if you have any advice based on your own experience or the experiences of people in your life.

Still Here

Image credit: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_18083888_the-words-hello-i-am-a-survivor-on-a-nametag-sticker-to-symbolize-your-perseverance-or-dedication-to.html'>iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

This Thursday will be one year to the day that my husband left. Fourteen years ago, I spent a good portion of October in a hospital waiting for my mother to die. The two biggest losses of my life, written on my mind’s October calendar page, separated by 14 squares and 13 years. October, the month when we’re surrounded by falling and dying leaves. Mother Nature wielding her metaphors with a sledgehammer.

I look back over the last year spent on my own, and I’ve accomplished nothing remarkable. I’d like to say that I’ve journeyed a lot, but maybe I’ve endlessly walked the perimeter of Square One. But I do give myself credit for one thing: I’m still here. I made it. I may not have conquered, but I survived.

I’ve survived my first year of paycheck-to-paycheck existence. I’ve endured months of fatigue and apathy, during which working took every ounce of willpower that I could muster. The phone still works, and the lights are on.

I’ve adjusted to the understanding that I never knew my husband. Expressions of love weren’t real. Times that I remember as happy weren’t. A timeline of events seen through one lens has been reprocessed in the harsh light of reality. For investing 115 percent into my marriage, I received a big tsunami of suck.

The word “unfair” doesn’t touch the experience of being ditched and then blamed for the breakup by my kids. But through it all, I haven’t spoken a single negative word about their father in front of them. I’ve lived through a constant onslaught from my youngest son during which I’ve heard that I’m not nice and that I’m a bad mommy. I’ve stayed the course through his countless temper tantrums that have included screaming, kicking and throwing nearby objects. I’m sure the blame will continue until they’re old enough to understand.

But I did something worth celebrating: I made it.

I hoped for a year of triumphant personal growth. I’m not sure that much growth happened, but I did survive. I did it with the help of friends and family that listened and did little things like remembering my birthday, writing me encouraging messages and taking me places. The energy to rebuild isn’t there yet, but if I keep showing up, then I have to believe that I’ll find it. The challenges aren’t going away, but I’ve learned that I have what it takes to survive.

Some people, like my mother did 14 years ago, face terrible circumstances in which survival isn’t a matter of will. But when I look at circumstances that can be controlled, I think that maybe survival isn’t necessarily for the fittest. Perhaps, in the end, it’s for the ones that want it most.

I want it, so I’ll watch the dead leaves fall. And as they drift down around me, I’ll count myself among the living.

I’m a Writer, Not a Word Factory

Now that I’ve been freelancing for about three years, I think I’ve built up sufficient experience to get metaphysical about this thing called writing. There’s a word that people throw around in the online world, and it’s a word I’ve come to despise. That word is:

(Drumroll…)

Content.

This cursed word has become pervasive in the world of online writing, and we largely have Google to thank. If you hang out your virtual shingle on the Web by creating a website, then you have to figure out how to get people to see your website. A large part of that process involves learning to game Google.

On one side, you have the small business owner. She wants to sell products and/or services to people and knows that she has to reach out to an online community. After building a website, she decides to post it online. She waits for the money to pour over her like a cascade of gold at Gringotts. It doesn’t. She needs a different strategy.

Enter Google. Google has a business interest in making sure that, when a person types a search term into Google’s search field, that person receives a list of high-quality search results. If the searcher continuously receives lists of junky spam sites, then that person may start to use Bing. As if—nobody uses Bing. But I digress. To ensure quality, Google constantly tweaks and bangs its algorithm to reward websites that provide useful, relevant and well-written “content.”

Google’s demand for quality rewards the small business owner for producing great website content. Also, Google rewards the small business owner for regularly updating that website with fresh content. The scenario sounds like a win-win for all involved, doesn’t it? The business receives organic promotion through search rankings, and customers come face-to-face with high-quality websites.

Then, as in all capitalism, we begin the race to the top. For business owners, it’s a race to the top of Google’s search rankings. Sure, they want high search rankings, but they also want to be useful because Google, like life, tends to reward usefulness. Quality content is important, but see, the shop around the corner also has a website that is well-written and useful. What’s the solution? More content. More usefulness. Piles and piles of useful content. They blog. They write articles. They open Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. These steps are followed by white papers, e-books and landing pages for pay-per-click campaigns.

Who has time to create piles of content and run a business at the same time? The solution: Hire a writer to mass produce on your behalf. In business writing, as in the call center, competition has gone international. You can easily ask someone from another country to write for you at a low rate.

You probably have limited resources as a small business owner, so the writer that charges 1¢ per word looks attractive to your ledger. You provide some keywords about your business, such as “landscaper in Salt Lake City,” and ask the writer to generate some content. You get your article back. You’ve paid $5 for 500 words. Congratulations! You’ve got content.

Content production has created its own little economy: search engine optimization companies, online marketing strategists and social media advisers galore. They all have content strategies, too. For example, you can visit their websites to read with titles such as, “Is Your Content Marketing Strategy a Dog or a Puppy?” I’m not kidding. That’s a real title that recently passed through my Twitter feed.

As content is mass-produced, it gets dumbed down. It’s market value also drops. After all, why pay a writer a living wage, even if that writer produces a higher quality product, if you can get “content” from someone willing to work for less than minimum wage? After all, if your goal is to rise in Google’s search results, who cares what you put on the Web so long as it drives customers to click on your website?

What becomes unreasonable is when a client wants the best of your brain power with a 24-hour turnaround time at a ridiculously low rate of pay. Unfortunately, as the market drives quality and prices to the bottom, the focus becomes less upon the craft of writing and more on mass production of content. For instance, I recently wrote a white paper on a fairly complex topic. The client sent me two rambling, single-spaced pages containing his disjointed thoughts on the topic. I researched and wrote the white paper, and when I was finished, I realized that I had not only created “content” for this client. I’d also given him my research, my thoughts, my analysis and, essentially, my brain power. He can take that white paper, post it online and say, “Yes! This is what I meant to say all along.”

Neil Gaiman summarizes the topic best: “We’re in a transitional world right now, if you’re in any artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing, the models by which creators got their work out into the world, and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, are all changing.” He’s also right when he says that, while no one knows what publishing and distribution will look like in a decade, changing times can be exciting times.

We’ve seen the consequences of mass production in our history. We’ve also seen the metaphors of mass production in our art, from zombies to Uruk-hai to Borg to Cybermen. All of these creatures represent our fears of losing our self-determination and our uniqueness. They also represent our fear that what we are will be taken and twisted until we become the very thing engine of automation that we hate. You don’t have to be a writer to have these fears. The timpanist sitting at the back of the orchestra, the illustrator creating panels of comics—all of these artists have similar fears, that their worlds are disappearing and that they’re ripe for obsolescence.

On one hand, my fear is that too many good writers that deserve to make a living for their skill and intellectual property will go the way of other artisans in the face of mass production, marking down and dumbing down, all in the name of “content.” On the other hand, no writer can contribute to the craft in the same way as I can. I say that not with arrogance but with a great appreciation for the uniqueness of each writer, for no other writer can contribute to the craft in the same way that you can, either. We may distribute our art differently than we did before, but as it always has, art finds a way.

I’m not sure how to fight back against “content.” Because I produce it, I’m part of the problem, but for now, it’s how I buy those proverbial sandwiches. I’m an idealist, though, so I still believe that if I produce art as only I can, then I’ll find an outlet that may pay me to do so. And then, if that art connects with enough people, then I can leave the world of mass production behind.