Monthly Archives: January 2010

Unreasonably Vigilant: Goodbye, J.D. Salinger

This is what Seymour Glass wrote to his brother, Buddy, who had sent him a new story to read:

When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished…I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it, Buddy! Trust your heart. (From “Seymour: An Introduction”)

Today, J.D. Salinger died. Was he busy writing his heart out? One can only assume that yes, he was. Even if the pen was set down and the body was still, he was writing, writing, writing. Much like Franny’s Jesus Prayer, after a time, you are praying without ceasing. Writing becomes an unconscious act, like a heartbeat, internalized in our very being. Salinger may have withdrawn from public life and ceased publishing, but as the accounts go, he never stopped writing. He called publication “a damned interruption.” For him, writing was holy. A prayer to be uttered without ceasing. It was so holy, in fact, that he built his own monastery and shut himself inside.

I forget exactly how I became such a huge fan of Salinger’s work, but I know it wasn’t due to “The Catcher in the Rye,” which has had to grow on me over the years. Rather, it was his short stories, especially the works about the Glass family. What J.D. Salinger did so well was create compelling characters — flawed, complex, at times annoying, but always mesmerizing. It was as if they spoke in their own voice, not a voice an author assigned to them — that is how real they are. They pop off the page. I’ve read “Franny and Zooey” so many times and have such clear pictures of those two main characters in my mind, I could swear up and down I’ve seen them in a movie, or shared an Upper East Side walk-up with them for a year.

In truth, I’m grateful to Salinger for creating not just characters, but people. In the people he introduced to us, and that we got to know, so many readers found sides of themselves. Whether it was Franny’s religious crisis, Holden’s struggle to understand why people were the way they were or Buddy’s insecurity as a writer, I know I did. As Lee Anne said, he wrote “in a way that made sense and [told] stories that people are still afraid to tell, but can almost always relate to.” What Salinger did was write them them real — perhaps outlandishly so, but real nonetheless. And being real is scary. Salinger, thankfully, was unafraid.

In the same letter, Seymour offered Buddy this advice:

Give me a story that just makes me unreasonably vigilant. Keep me up till five only because all your stars are out, and for no other reason.

Tonight, all of Salinger’s stars are out. And we are standing vigil.

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RIP leadpencil.net

On Sunday, I got an e-mail that was a long time coming, but even though it was no surprise, the words in the subject line smarted more than I thought they would.

“The Registration for your Domains just Expired.”

The domain is question was the first one I ever registered, leadpencil.net. It was 2001. I was 21, just beginning the spring semester of my senior year. I was, at that point, Over College. I was only taking three classes and was focusing on working more hours for my internship at Boston.com and applying for jobs. Over the previous year and a half, I’d become enamored with online journalism, and I was beginning to put all of my eggs in that basket. One step in that direction was purchasing my own domain. Goodbye, Geocities and Freeservers! Hello, shell account and unlimited potential!

I remember agonizing over my domain name. My first choice was littlebluelight.net, inspired by two songs: the Jayhawks’ “What Led Me To This Town” (which sports the lyrics “Blue lights are shining over my life”) and Miracle Legion’s “Little Blue Light.” I got talked out of it (too much KMart association) and settled for leadpencil, a name I thought was very poetic at the time but I soon grew tired of. Too late, though. I was branded. And the more your domain and domain-associated e-mail address get out in the world, the more daunting it is to disassociate yourself from them.

Having my own domain gave me the opportunity to play with HTML and, eventually, CSS. I built several iterations of my website. The first version actually wasn’t so bad, design-wise. I had pages for writing clips, my resume and a bio, but also — ill-advisedly, in retrospect — a link to my Diaryland site (a/k/a Angst Town). Eventually, I hosted a blog, which meant diving into the all-too-fun world of Movable Type installations. At one point, when I was at a crossroads between becoming more of a codehead or continuing to focus on writing, I built a page where I solicited milkshake ratings — for the explicit purpose of learning more about HTML forms. In time, I lessened my emphasis on code, but the HTML playground of those years gave me a basis of understanding that has served me well to this day.

The design screencapped above debuted in 2004 and languished for five years. I can understand why. In 2004, I got my current job. I got married. Life began getting a whole lot busier and crazier. There were more pressing things on my agenda than endlessly redesigning my website, as I was wont to do the previous three years. The website remained live, of course, with the resume updated as necessary and a couple of tweaks made now and then. And the e-mail address was still going strong, as well.

Beginning in 2008, I realized I needed to transition away from leadpencil.net. It took forever and a day for me to transition my e-mail over to Gmail, including updating my e-mail addresses with every online service from my bank to EddieBauer.com. And, of course, my friends. To tell you the truth, the bank and Eddie Bauer were easier to deal with 🙂 Web-wise, I eventually put in a redirect to a Google Pages site I created. Then, I finally bit the bullet and set up shop at georgycohen.com, my new online hub and portfolio. Every few weeks over the past few months, Dotster would send me increasingly anxious (if only in my mind) e-mail reminders about my pending domain expiration. I thought about extending for another year, but I realized that even though a few stragglers might get an error when trying to e-mail my old address, it was time to cut the cord.

So why is this difficult? It’s just a domain name, for Christ’s sake, right? I guess that the expiration of leadpencil.net makes me think about who I was when I first registered it, my intentions at the time, the professional I wanted to become as I sat in my fourth-floor single and sent my resume to anything and everything web. I’m not sure exactly what I expected to get out of all that effort. So, nine years later, who have I become? I may not be working in the same kind of online journalism that I anticipated as an intern at Boston.com, but I am still working in web communications, a field that has evolved to become something that geeky 21-year-old me would marvel at (though perhaps think “been there, done that“). I think overall that she would be pleased with where I ended up.

I suppose that, with the evaporation of leadpencil.net into the domain name ether, this completes my rebranding. But even though I’m setting aside my leadpencil identity, I won’t soon forget my humble beginnings and how my little slice of Internet pie (or sip of milkshake, if you will) helped make me the web professional I am today.

On Conan and Kindness

I didn’t have a lot invested in the Conan O’Brien vs. Jay Leno standoff, but I followed with some interest. What really hit me, though, as it did many people, was the last bit of Conan’s goodbye speech on his last episode of “The Tonight Show”:

Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.

Conan has been lauded by the press and public alike for his classiness in this situation, especially with regard to his goodbye remarks. But this sentence has particularly resonated with many folks. Part of it is because Conan comes off as incredibly sincere and humble. But I think that another reason is because he mentions something we don’t talk about often enough: kindness.

You may think that “kind” is not a particularly noteworthy adjective. It means “nice,” right? I don’t think so. In my mind, being nice is more about being polite. Kindness, in my mind, implies a greater degree of sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Nice is something you might be because you’re supposed to be, or it will get you something; kindness is more about the other person’s feelings, whether it’s a close friend, a colleague or a complete stranger. In the end, I believe, it’s more important to be kind than to be nice.

Why am I seeing this line quoted everywhere? Why is this hitting home? I think because we all recognize the importance of kindness, and also how unique it is to see someone call it out. The concept has become special, which is great, in a sense. But I wish it didn’t seem like such a novelty.

Hearing this line, I recalled the National song “Baby, We’ll Be Fine,” where the insecure protagonist desperately tries to navigate everyday life. “All we’ve got to do is be brave and be kind,” he reassures himself. I’m not sure how Matt Berninger’s protagonist turns out, but I hope he meant being kind to himself. That’s an important side of kindness, too. We are often too hard on ourselves, too critical and too demanding. Let’s forgive ourselves a little bit. Let’s give ourselves a break. We can’t take anyone for granted, much less ourselves.

Anyhow, kudos to Conan. People say he’s one of the nice guys in show business, and that may be true. And that’s great. But if he’s one of the kind guys in show business? Amazing things are definitely in store.

Work Hard And Be KindImage by Clay Larsen

Stream Running Over

I have to admit, when all this “lifestream” business started coming down the pike, I didn’t know what to make of it. When people like Steve Rubel started singing the praises of lifestreaming via platforms like Posterous, saying it was just the next iteration of our increasingly real-time online lives, I didn’t see how it was different than any other kind of blog.

But when I finally sat down and looked at Posterous, I was amazed at how it was just the tool I’d been looking for.

I had been noodling a personal publishing conundrum for some time: if I have a piece of media, be it a photograph or video or text or audio file, and I want to publish it to multiple channels (say, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr; or maybe Twitter and Flickr, but not Facebook), how can I do that without posting the piece of content four times, in four separate places, reentering the same data multiple times? I wanted to learn how to COPE (create once, publish everywhere), and selectively at that.

When I examined Posterous, I saw that the e-mail-based publishing system they use easily allowed you to do that. After I’ve connected Posterous to my various social media outposts, all I have to do is e-mail post@posterous.com to send to all of them, twitter@posterous.com to just go to Twitter and Posterous, flickr+twitter@posterous.com to just post to Flickr and Twitter (which is huge, since many a fun photo of mine had been Twitpic’d but never made it to my Flickr archive unless I manually unloaded photos from my phone’s SD card and uploaded them),  or if I don’t want to flood my followers with images, I post it to just my Posterous blog. And so on. If I take the two minutes to add these e-mail addresses into my phone’s contact list, I can easily, and selectively, publish on the go.

And that’s what I’ve been doing with Georgy To Go, which has become my new go-to personal publishing platform. (I’ve also added it to the sidebar of this blog.) I’ve only been using it for mobile photos to date, capturing slices of life from my travels and commutes. But I’ve been really pleased with my Posterous experience so far, not only for the flexibility and control I have over my publishing, but because it’s given me a publishing outlet I did not have previously and allowed me to create new types of content. I love having a venue to showcase the weird, funny or poignant things I see everyday — to the point of this blog, finding the extra in the ordinary.

I titled this post after an Apples in Stereo song, but let’s conclude with a version of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” sung by Kermit the Frog, shall we? Into the blue again…

Who Lives in Our Content Village?

The other day, as I was walking up to the office, I was thinking about the different roles in the content creation and distribution process. For some reason, in that instant, my brain processed them in a somewhat medieval context.

You can look at artisans as content creators, crafting beautiful vessels of meaning. Alternately, that role is also filled by the town crier, broadcasting the news to all who are near enough to hear it.

What about the farmers, shepherds and the hunters? Both, to me, represent content aggregation. The farmers and shepherds tend and cultivate a community of content creators, while the hunters go right out and claim content to be, um, repurposed.

And of course, there are the craftsmen, the blacksmiths and carpenters who create the structures and mechanisms that store and distribute content — the crop silos and water towers of databases, the plumbing of RSS, the homesteads of websites.

Don’t forget the soldiers, the security in place to protect the village from outside threats. However, no village can survive in isolation; trade with other villages is essential to growth. The list of metaphors, surely, goes on.

The most important thing to keep in mind about our content village, however, is that all of these components are necessary. If one is diminished or removed, the entire system falls apart.

And what was it that Hillary Clinton said? “It takes a village.” To get the most out of content on the web, ain’t that the truth.

Photo by Bill Ward, Flickr/Creative Commons

Introducing Buzzup North, Feb. 3 at 8AM

Talking to Guido at the Buzzup I went to during vacation, I lamented that since I live and work north of the river, I probably wouldn’t be able to make it to another one. He had a good suggestion: start my own. So, I am!

The first official Buzzup North will be held Wed., Feb. 3 from 8-9AM at Oggi’s Gourmet in the heart of Harvard Square (location inside the Holyoke Center Arcade, where the Au Bon Pain is; directions). There’s no agenda. It’s just an opportunity to start your day by hanging and chatting with some fun folks.

RSVP for the event and tweet about it with the hashtag #buzzupnorth.

Hope to see you there!

Photo by kennymatic/Flickr Creative Commons

A Social (Search) Experiment

At some point, I clicked a link that enabled my participation in Google’s social search experiment. I had yet to really see this in action until a commercial break in Sunday’s football games. One of the Southwest Airlines “Bags Fly Free” commercials came on (not this one, but a similar one):

Watching the ad, which I really liked, I wondered how many of the actors were real Southwest employees. So I googled “southwest bags commercials.”

The first link went to a blog which answered my question to my satisfaction (most if not all of them). As I looked at the other search results, I saw the expected YouTube videos, but also Google’s social experiment come to life:

See that scrollbar area with the tweets? That was updating in real-time, with newer tweets showing up dynamically and pushing down the later ones. Heck, it even has a pause button.

It was surprising to see my Google search results updating themselves before my eyes, but also really cool. Right away, I felt part of a shared, immediate experience. (I felt the same way when I was trying to find out the name of the song in this State Farm commercial, and as I typed, I watched Google auto-complete my query: “state farm commercial guy in car singing.” Eerie.) Others had watched the commercial at the same time I had and felt compelled, in one way or another, to bring their experience to the web. But while it was a new and exciting dimension to my Google searching, it wasn’t specifically relevant to my query.

I decided to do an experiment of my own and try some other topical searches. Google queries for “iran protests,” “health care reform” and “florida cold” yielded no real-time results. Googling “jay leno” and “harry reid” and “green bay packers” (the football game on at that moment) brought up a real-time stream that began with several news and blog sites, shifted to some tweets and then went back to web links (though the Packers search query yielded all tweets in the real-time feed).

It makes sense that the real-time stream comes into play most prominently for events happening in, well, real-time. Topics like my first three searches will still carry the same level of relevance in 8 hours; the Packers game will not.

Breaking news has always captivated me since my first job at Boston.com, and living in a real-time web world — not just Google; think about Wikipedia during a developing story — only enhances the breaking news experience. But it’s about more than news. Everything is a breaking story. Everything is ongoing and developing. All the angles are out there on the web, and Google is putting itself in the role of aggregator. The early results are promising, but they label their endeavor properly: an experiment, still a bit rough around the edges.

The web is archival and always has been, but it is increasingly becoming a living document. And you know what Red said in “The Shawshank Redemption”: “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”