Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Anti-Social Network

I haven’t been able to put my finger on what bothers me about Facebook, but then Stanford University did a study and nailed it for me:

Here’s my favorite line from that article: “Facebook tends to exploit an Achilles heel of human nature.” A.k.a. You Are Not Invited to the Party.

Yes. My friend Barb and I talk about this all the time. On days when we’re low energy, feeling like we haven’t seen anyone for a while, and wonder if everyone is getting together for dinner but not inviting us … Facebook is the nail in the coffin. It confirms our worst fears: everyone is having more fun, is happier, and, by the way, is better looking, than us.

Luckily, I’m a woman-of-a-certain age, in a relationship, with work I love, so on those low energy days I have much to fall back on and bounce right back. But if I were a teen?

OMG. Forget it. I don’t want to think about how I would have felt, 35 years ago, if there had been Facebook. I would have hated seeing pictures posted from all the parties I wasn’t invited to. I would definitely have felt that everyone in my entire high school was better looking and more popular than I was. What got me through those years was not having it shoved in my face that I was “out of it.” I could content myself with having a few wonderful girlfriends, a handful of activities I enjoyed, music to practice, homework to complete …. That’s how I survived. Ignorance is bliss. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

I think it’s ironic that the biggest global “social networking” creation of our age is the brainchild of a 20-something who, for all his achievements and brilliance, is a disaster at relationships. Yes, yes, I know, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, does have a real girlfriends, so the depiction of him and his ex in the movie “The Social Network” is not accurate. But … pretty much every other interaction he has with real live people is fairly disastrous, don’t you think?

I’m trying to get my head around what this means for our kids who are coming of age in the age of Facebook. Of texting instead of speaking. Of emailing instead of slowly, thoughtfully, by hand, composing letters. I have boxes of old letters from when I was in college: letters from my parents, my now-deceased grandmother, old boyfriends … They are gems. Did you ever notice how someone comes to life for you when you see their handwriting? I have an impulse sometimes to strokes the words on the page; as if pieces of their souls inhabit the ink.

I think it’s fair to predict that when my son graduates from college, I will not have a single letter from him in my possession. I will, however, have received thousands of texts and countless emails from him. Frankly, that’s one of the benefits of sending kids to summer camp where there are no computers: they have to write letters home.

Sometimes I wonder if I should print out his emails, and save them in a box.

Anyway. I don’t plan to delete my Facebook page any time soon. But thank you, Stanford researchers, for helping me better understand what’s been bugging me about the whole “posting my wonderful life” thing. And in all fairness to Mark Zuckerberg, he does appear to have more of a sense of humor than Alan Sorkin gave him credit for:

Mark Zuckerberg on SNL

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Advice for a New Writer

The Dude (see May 4, 2010), a freshman in college, had some exciting news for us. His class schedule leaves Fridays open, and he plans to use the uninterrupted time to write. Not papers and course assignments: his own stuff. Things pulled from his imagination and deposited on the page. He has an idea for a play, and goes to a college where students regularly bring their creations to the stage, so apparently he's been inspired.

I tried to contain my enthusiasm, because The Dude withdraws, turtle-like, in the face of overweening parental eagerness. But I’ll confess, I’m thrilled. I’m a big fan of the creative life, and never dreamed that one of my own might choose it. I’m curious to see where this might lead.

I’m also DYING to talk writing with him. Oh, I want to heap my thoughts and advice and writing stories on him in ways that would undoubtedly make him run for cover and never, ever, take pen to paper again. An apt metaphor would be my woodstove, which gave me a lot of trouble early this winter, because I put too much kindling and fatwood in it to start, and filled the house with smoke. I piled on, way too quickly, and almost destroyed all hopes of lighting a fire.

I don’t want to do that to The Dude.

Start small with a fire, and gently feed the flame, one piece of dry kindling at a time. Make sure the flue’s open and the smoke is gently rising. This takes a bit of patience, but eventually the flames are strong enough for the big wood.

So I’ve kept my mouth shut, for the most part, and just expressed a lot of enthusiasm for his idea and his plan. However, if he were to ask, and I were to tell him, these are the two (only two) pieces of advice I would give a New Writer. Not a young writer: a new writer. Someone with a desire to write and a kernel of an idea:

Get a comfortable chair. Writing is, first and foremost, about sitting alone for long periods of time as you string words together, one by one. This is a basic, physical reality, and the key to The Creative Life. You don’t write by just thinking about it, or talking about it, or sipping cocktails at parties and saying, “Well, this is the novel I plan to write when I retire,” or “If I wrote a play, this is what I’d do ….” Nope.

This is solitary, sedentary, and maddening. You will spend an hour on a paragraph, then throw it out the next day. You will write three pages, only to realize that the last sentence on the third page is actually taking you in a completely new direction and the entire story is going to shift. It’s a process, and discovery happens during that process, but only if you sit down and just do it. Alone. For hours. So get comfortable.

Get acquainted with your characters. I’m a great believer in “Plot Follows Character” and have absolutely found that once I know my characters well, their actions (a.k.a. the plot) naturally follows.

So … how do you get to know your characters? Well, write about them. Move than pencil across the page and get them talking. How do they speak? Accents? Good grammar and big words? Bad grammar and profanities? What do they look like? What do they hum while they’re working? What’s at the gritty bottom of their backpacks? What do they find in the pockets of their winter coats when they pull them out each fall? What do they eat when they eat alone? What secrets do they have?

And … that’s it. Yes, certainly, I could write tomes of advice and suggestions and it would actually be a lot of fun to go over all that. I love to think about writing and talk about writing. But the fact is, I think it all boils down to these two suggestions.

So … good luck, Dude. Fly. Create. Be fearless. What did that teacher say on the Magic Schoolbus, that PBS show you always watched when you were a Little Dude? “Take chances! Get messy! Make mistakes!”

Yes indeed. You’ll find great things in the mess.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Driving in Cars With Teens

I met a guy the other day who says he enjoys teaching teens how to drive.

No, he’s not some adrenaline nut with a death wish. He’s a father of teens. Who all have their licenses and happily cruise around town without smashing the family van or causing injury to anyone. This guy has a track record of proven success, and apparently other parents “lend” him their kids, who are in the permit stage, for highway practice.

Here’s what I would say about this man: he has no pulse. Unflappable. Calm, with a sense of humor, in the face of impending disaster. Someone should give this guy a medal.

The scariest thing I have done as a parent is get in a car with a newly permitted teen driver. Actually, it may be the scariest thing I’ve done, period. Scarier than having surgery (at least trained professionals are in charge) and scarier than skiing down a double black diamond slope (I’m afraid of heights.)

I realize that it doesn’t help the Newly Permitted Teen Driver to see terror on the Parent Passenger’s face, or hear the Parent Passenger gasp as the teen races to within mere feet of the car ahead before SLAMMING on the brakes. It doesn’t build confidence in the young driver to have a Parent Passenger clutching the armrest, eyes clamped shut, muttering prayers. An overall atmosphere of calm should pervade the driving experience; a calm which is shattered when the Parent Passenger says, “Slow down. Slow down. Slow down slow down SLOW DOWN!!!!!” when approaching a stop sign.

My buddy without the pulse reportedly doesn’t react this way. He’s known to calmly comment, “Okay, you just cut off a tractor trailer, which crashed into the car behind us. Remember to signal, check your mirrors, then glance over your shoulder before changing lanes.” Or: “Okay, luckily there are no cops in sight, because you just ran a red light and almost hit a pedestrian. Always remember that red means ‘stop’ and green means ‘go.’ Otherwise, you’re doing great!”

I’ve considered incorporating that calm, “no worries, bro,” tone:

“Now, did you see the way my head bobbled, whiplash-like, when you stopped just then? You hit the brakes a bit too suddenly, and were going a tad too fast.” Or:

“Did you hear that bumpety-bumpety sound just then? That was the sound of our car rolling over those kids crossing the street. You might want to pull over, so we can wait for the police to arrive.”

Even greater than my fears of what my Permitted Driver might do to hapless passers-by is what Even-Worse-Drivers might do to her. We’ve talked a lot about defensive driving, and exercising caution while on the road:

“Now, I want you to think of the most irresponsible, untrustworthy kid at your high school Someone you can’t count on to get from Point A to Point B without somehow messing up. Consider this: that person has his/her license. Every car on the road is potentially driven by that person. Heading your way, in the oncoming lane. So … watch out.”

Okay, so maybe that’s not the best way to inspire calm and confidence in a young driver. What can I tell you? I’m the shrieking-praying-armrest-clutching sort.

The only thing worse than driving with the Newly Permitted is watching them pull out of your driveway, with your car, the day they become the Newly Licensed. The day I watched through the dining room window as my son drove off with the Subaru, paroxysms of anxiety swept over me. I telephoned my own mother, who had taught me to drive on Route 17 in New Jersey.

She was not sympathetic.

“Yup. I know. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since you got your license,” she said. I laughed.

“Mom, I’m a middle-aged woman.”

“Yes,” she replied. “It’s a long time to go without a decent night’s sleep, let me tell you.”

It sure is.