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Melissa Wiley is the author of The Martha Years books about Laura Ingalls Wilder's great-grandmother, Martha Morse Tucker, and The Charlotte Years books, about Laura's grandmother, Charlotte Tucker Quiner.
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Chris Barton, author of many excellent children’s books including that Peterson family favorite, Shark vs. Train, is celebrating the impending launch of his newest book, Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!, by interviewing other authors about their relationship with video games. Today it’s my turn. I had a blast (Asteroids reference, get it?) answering his questions. You know how I love me my games.
CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?
MW: We got an Atari 2600 when I was around 8th or 9th grade. I. LOVED. THAT. THING. Fave game: Adventure. The way the dragons curled up when you stabbed them! I went through a whole blissful nostalgia-binge not long ago, revisiting Adventure on a desktop version. It’s amazing the wave of feelings it conjures up. That exhilaration of discovery; the happy state of tension I love in a game.
Naturally I had to give a big shoutout to Glitch, the best game of all time (sniff).
Oh sure, I can write the date, but that doesn’t mean I can believe it. I’d have laid money we weren’t past the 6th or 7th yet. Blink. WB goes back to school on Thursday (!) and Rose starts a Spanish class at the community college next week (!!). I will probably wake up tomorrow and discover that Huck has enrolled in graduate school.
On the forums for my Phone Photography class, someone (possibly my friend Stephanie Elms?) recommended an app called Timehop that, once connected to your various social media accounts, will compile for you each day a look back at what you posted on this date in years past. Thus it was that I discovered today is four years since we (sans Scott) visited Rocky Ridge Farm, where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote all her books.
In which we continue the family tradition of being unable to all smile for a photo simultaneously, unless Scott is standing behind the photographer working his magic.
It has been a BIG four years. Three of those girls are taller than I now, and that chubby little side of beef is a long, lean boy. There’s a lot less pink in the laundry these days (nearly all of it Rilla’s).
Here’s what we did this weekend: I was asked to be on a panel at WinkieCon, an annual celebration of the Oz books, which I grew up loving as wildly as I did Little House. You can imagine my delight, then, at encountering none other than Ozma herself.
Is that not the most incredible costume? She nailed it perfectly. In addition to being a talented costumer, Natalie makes wonderful jewelry and art.
And that’s not all. My young Polychrome was tickled to meet this fellow:
After the “Playing in Someone Else’s Sandbox” panel there was a booksigning for the authors (Edward Einhorn, Caroline Spector, and me). Look who kept me company at the table!
The convention was a delight for me and my girls, especially Miss Rilla, who dove into a ribbon-hunting quest with considerable verve. She had to seek out attendees with Doctor Who “Companion” ribbons on their badges and ask them to pose for a quick photo; for every five Companion photos she brought back to the game table, she earned a new ribbon for her own badge—starting with Dalek and working her way up through several levels, past Time Lord to a Companion badge of her own. She made a lot of friends that day, let me tell you.
One of the highlights of the convention was—I can hardly tell you how fluttery I felt, walking into this room—a collection of Judy Garland’s costumes. Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, Easter Parade—so many treasures there. And we met Judy’s son. Such a nice man. It was quite a day.
If you ever get a chance to go to an Oz convention (especially Winkie Con, which is such a class act), I highly recommend it. Fascinating people, gorgeous books and costumes and handmade wares, really interesting panels—Jane particularly enjoyed “Oz and the American Musical,” which I wish I’d attended myself—and all in a venue MUCH less crowded and overwhelming than, say, Comic-Con. Many thanks to Eric Shanower for the invitation to speak on the panel.
One of the many long galleries at Balboa Park. Assignment: In a Row.
At Comic-Con two years ago (or was it three? they begin to blur), I dropped my camera in the street, and it has never been the same since. Even before that, I was finding myself more likely to reach for my smartphone than the camera when I wanted to snap a pic. I gather I’m not alone in this. As phone cameras have improved and apps like Instagram make uploading and sharing easier, more and more of us are relying on our phones to capture the memories we want to save.
At times, though, I’ve been frustrated by the frankly mediocre quality of my phone photos compared to the kind of pictures I used to get with my camera. When I saw that Big Picture Classes was offering an online course in phone photography—and furthermore, that my fellow former ClubMom blogger Tracey Clark was one of the instructors—I decided to take the plunge.
Oh you guys, I am SO happy I’m taking this class. The “Before and After” videos, in which various instructors walk you through the editing process on a single photo, using their favorite apps, made an immediate difference in my pictures. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the biweekly lessons with accompanying photo challenges, all based around themes like “In a Row,” “Lines,” or “Fill the Frame.” I’m much happier with the quality of the photos I’m getting out of my iPhone. Almost every image I have posted here in the past two weeks was influenced by the course.
The class runs through August 16 and you can sign up right until the end. You move through the lessons at your own pace. There’s a pretty active message board with lots of input from the instructors, and several bonus videos in which guest photographers spend some time talking about their phone-photography process.
Here’s a selection of my class assignments. There’s a gallery where students may upload photos, but the best place to see others’ work is on Instagram, where we’re tagging our work #bpcphonephotographyproject and adding tags for the individual assignments, such as #ppp2inarow or #ppp2shapes.
Taken at Seaport Village in San Diego. Assignment: Rule of Thirds.
I always swoon over the orchids in Balboa Park’s Botanical Building. Assignment: Fill the Frame.
Snapped in a corner of the music studio where my kids take piano. Assignment: Lines.
Another take on the Lines assignment.
I’m always admiring these beautiful succulents in my neighbor’s yard. Assignment: Fill the Frame.
There’s a man who stacks these rock towers at Seaport Village every day. Assignment: Shapes.
Another take on the guitars…Assignment: Black and White. (I think this may be my favorite of the bunch.)
Rose found this feather and we decided it was meant for my blue jar. Assignment: Light.
Another Seaport Village shot, but I’m not saying where exactly. Assignment: Fill the Frame.
I posted this one here last week, but I tried a slightly different edit when I shared it on Instagram. I think I like this faded version best. (I prefer the taller crop on the original, though.) Assignments: Vantage Point and Rule of Thirds.
I happened to read the Vantage Point lesson right before our trip to Seaport Village, and it’s what nudged me to get down on the ground underneath Beanie as she took a stab at flying this kite. I like how the kite is about to sail right out of the frame.
One of the things I’m appreciating most about this class is the way it makes me notice things in my surroundings that I might otherwise have glanced right past. I passed these cars in a parking lot behind the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con and was struck by the reflection of the slats on their windshields. Submitted it for the Black and White bonus challenge.
Thanks to the class I learned how to straighten the horizon in this formerly very tilted shot! I didn’t tag it for any of the assignments, but the way the wind was whipping that seaweed around, it could almost qualify for the Action challenge.
Tomorrow brings a new lesson—I can’t wait!
The fun is over, and it’s back to regular life. Which is also pretty darn fun, in its own way. My parents and niece departed last night after a short, action-packed visit following on the heels of our other niece-visit. I won’t say it feels like summer is winding down—not on the 6th of August, I won’t—but the crazy-busy part is behind us now. Doctor, dentist, orthodontist, optometrist, audiologist appointments mostly all caught up. And Wonderboy does start back to school next week, which boggles the mind a bit! The rest of us will remain in low tide for a bit longer. Especially Jane, whose sophomore year doesn’t begin until mid-September. Then again, this summer she has an internship, a babysitting job, and an online psych class, so “low tide” is relative.
I look forward to returning to regular daily posts here. I have so many topics saved up, including a rave review of the Phone Photography class I’m taking via Big Picture Classes, an endeavor that has greatly enriched my summer.
How about you guys? Whatcha want to talk about? Dare I admit I haven’t cracked a book in weeks? So unlike me!
Our 20-year-old niece flew out for Comic-Con and stayed a few extra days for some San Diego fun with her cousins. This turned into a delightful little staycation for us: Balboa Park, Seaport Village, Coronado Beach. She left last night, but our fun continues: another contingent of family just landed and will arrive at the house shortly. In between excursions, I’m trying to catch up on work that got shoved aside during SDCC. So not much blogging time this week, but I’ve been tossing lots of things up on Instagram. Poor old neglected Bonny Glen, I’ll dust you off soon, I promise.
I’m wiped out.
Chris Gugliotti of Thicklebit fame
Lunch with Jock
Zander and Scott pretending they have a mean bone in their bodies
Entertaining ourselves with selfies while waiting for Stampylongnose to come onstage
The girls’ turn
Couldn’t leave this guy out
He’s finally here!
Whew, time to relax
About all I can grow during this drought.
Most years, the approach of Comic-Con means that household chores start to slip on the priority list. This year, my 20-year-old niece is flying out for a week, so we bumped the house back up higher on the list above typical pre-SDCC to-do items like read all my friends’ new books before I see them and pore over the con schedule for the best panels. And as always after a deep cleaning, I’m enjoying the minimalism and shine so much I want to vow to keep it like this forever. Ah, but I’m an experienced con-goer by now and I know perfectly well what the place is going to look like after five days of late nights and crowded mornings. I’m enjoying it while it lasts, though.
I really haven’t even glanced at the schedule. I’ll be catching panels on the fly, this year. Mostly I’m looking forward, as I always do, to spending time with friends I see only this one time a year. And my niece! And right after she leaves, my parents and another niece arrive for a few days. One of the nicest things about living in San Diego is if you stay put long enough, everyone will come see you sooner or later.
He takes his work very seriously.
Whenever I cook dinner it feels like such an event it warrants a whole post. Scott took over the cooking three years ago when he returned to freelancing, and I have mightily enjoyed that arrangement. But we’ve been talking about changing up our work schedules this summer, and one of the changes is that I’m going to take charge of three dinners a week. “Take charge” like one of those shrieky TV chefs, probably, haranguing my beleaguered sous chef—cooking does not bring out my gentle side. Okay, I may be exaggerating a little. Rose helped me put together a perfectly delectable meal yesterday and I don’t think I shrieked once.
We made this: Holy Yum Chicken. It lived up to the name. Even my picky ones were bewitched by the sauce. We served it with roasted broccoli and boiled new potatoes. Three different foods on the plate: I felt positively gourmet.
Of course then tonight rolled around and it, too, was supposed to be my night, and I was out of ideas—you failed me, Pinterest—so we’re ordering a pizza.
But NEXT WEEK. Next week I shall be a veritable Rachael Ray. Or Ina Garten. Or Betty Crocker. Or someone. As long as my sous chefs have plenty of ideas.
Sarah Mackenzie of Amongst Lovely Things interviewed me about my family’s book-crazy lifestyle for her wonderful Read-Aloud Revival podcast.
The post includes links to the many books I gushed about (I swear, once you get me started on book recs there’s no stopping me) and a Prairie Thief giveaway. I had a great time chatting with Sarah about how read-alouds work in my family with our many ages of kids, how I do dialects, how we squeeze book time into the various parts of our day, etc. Basically: my favorite topic in the entire world.
While you’re checking out the podcast, you’ll want to bookmark the two Jim Weiss episodes! What a treasure.
Huck: “You know those Inch and Roly books? Can you get them for me? ALL of them?”
HUCK’S FINGER IS SO MUCH BETTER. Yes, I’m shouting, because HURRAY.
Our attempt to bust the world record for Most Appointments in a Single Summer continues on track: so far this week: dentist (me), audiologist (WB), orthodontist (WB), haircut (me). Two more eye doctor appts next week but at least they’re at the same time. After that things should slow down a little, if by “slow down” you mean “continue at breakneck speed only in a different lane.” Because HOLY CATS IT’S ONLY TWO WEEKS TO COMIC-CON.
HOW CAN THIS BE POSSIBLE??
My list of things to get done before Comic-Con is ten miles long. Oh, July, you rapscallion, you. Every year you attempt to break me. Last year I went to Colorado and back TWICE in the three weeks before SDCC and I STILL found time to paint my toenails before the con. You think 4,000 medical/dental appointments are going to best me?
(July chortles, rubs hands together gleefully, whispers Just wait until you see what I’ve got in store for you next week, Wiley.)
ANYHOO. (She says, whistling past the graveyard.) How’s your week been? Read any good books? I gulped down Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, an epistolary novel about an overworked writing professor in a deteriorating English Department at a second-tier college. Nothing cures a beleaguered feeling like reading about someone who’s even more so. This was excellent waiting-room entertainment. The story unfolds entirely through the prof’s letters, most of which are letters of recommendation for students and colleagues, and all of which reveal a great deal more about the letter-writer than the typical LOR. Having a number of friends in English departments similarly strapped and stripped of funds, I enjoyed the book’s pointed, funny, occasionally poignant skewering of the current state of academia and was engaged by Prof. Fitger’s crusty, dogged, oversharing, impertinent personality.
And when I say “upon me,” I mean sitting on me in a squashing manner, because that’s what’s on the calendar today. So far, this has been a summer exceedingly full of running around.
Huck’s poor infected finger had been doing better, so it seemed, after he started antibiotics the week before last. By this weekend the antibiotics were done and the infection most certainly was not. Again I’ll spare you the ugly details. Of course it was a holiday weekend. We spoke to the on-call doctor at our practice on Saturday and he instructed us to take Huck to the ER at Children’s.
A dose of Versed, several shots of Lidocaine, and one fingernail-removal later, and I had a very stoned little boy waving his mummified hand in immense delight, inquiring of everyone who passed: “Why can’t I feeeeeeel it?”
Happy to report the finger is looking MUCH better this morning. Healing at last, I think. And yes, the irony of the On Tide Mill Lane parallel is not lost on me. Very happy my boy’s infected finger occurred in 2014, not 1814.
…your friend Monica’s comment gets held up in pending but Mr. Convert Flash Video sails right on through.
P.S. Since my comment notifications didn’t seem to be working for everyone (were they working for anyone?), I’ve switched to threaded comments as an experiment. I don’t love threaded comments myself—too hard to see what’s new in a discussion—but I’m curious to know if the reply notifications work any better this way. If you comment and don’t get an email notification, let me know?
He sent me this picture. Rilla, circa 2007.
There oughta be a law.
Huck proudly displaying his Tinkertoy windmill: “I followed the constructions.”
First: thanks to all who have chimed in on the Facebook/blogging/commenting/internet communities discussion. Your comments have kept my brain whirring all day. I could talk about this subject for ages.
Second: As I said in the comments a little while ago, one of my takeaways from this conversation is a more-enthusiastic-than-ever commitment to blogging, and an ensuing curiosity about what you would like to see in this space. I’ve written about how it serves as a valuable chronicle for my family (the older kids like to trawl the archives for stories about the hilarious things they said when they were younger), and I’d be lost without this site as a think-aloud journal for my reading and my enthusiasms both sudden and enduring.
I’ve had high and low tides of writing more outwardly focused kinds of posts. I think of the foreign language resource posts I’ve been writing lately as the outwardly focused kind: sharing something cool we’ve learned or experienced with the rest of the world, in hopes the information may be useful. That kind of blogging takes a bit more focus, a bit more time, but I really enjoy it and feel like it’s a way of giving back to the readers who are kind enough to make time for visiting here. If there are topics or resources you’d like my take on, please don’t hesitate to ask.
There’s another kind of post, the “let’s chat about this” kind—like the Facebugged one, actually. Sarah E., I haven’t forgotten my promise to try a book discussion post for We Were Liars. I used to do open threads for books quite often and I’m not sure why I stopped! (Or when, for that matter.)
Third: Daily notes for the aforementioned chronicle. Went geocaching with friends at a park today and found a cache that had eluded us twice before. Flushed with success! Also picked and ate delectable mulberries right off an accommodating tree in the nature trails. Blue blanket, blue sky, green grass, purple mouths. Welcome, July.
And here we are at Friday in this unusually busy week. Soon most of us will head out to a party to celebrate the finalization of a friend’s adoption—a most joyful occasion indeed. Things we did today: the trio recited their poems (“I didn’t like this yesterday but now I do,” said Huck during the brief pause for air between his, oh, I’d say fourth and fifth voluntary recitations of “The Rain”); they learned a smidge of Latin; we had our read-aloud and quiet reading times. I actually read during QRT today instead of dozing off.
It’s going to be fun, this summertime focus on the younger set, after the rich and productive (and long) high tide I had with my teens. And of course the teens themselves are enjoying the more ambling pace of their low tide. Jane’s internship is going to keep me on the road more than we’d anticipated, but it’s turning out to be a nice time for quiet conversation for the two of us and whichever of her siblings has come along for the ride. (One sibling at a time is the key.)
I’ve enjoyed keeping this log this week. As our summer days find their rhythm, I won’t have as much detail to chronicle—different books, different pieces of music, some outings. But as is our way, the overall shape of the days will be much the same. The sturdiness of our daily rhythm, enlivened by the endless variety of the books and songs and games that fill up the hours, is what makes that very liveliness possible. It’s like a tried and true recipe that you change up with different seasonings and spontaneous substitutions. A good salad, maybe, or a sandwich.
I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Forster and Eliot this week, which is silly, but sometimes I had one book handy and sometimes the other. Forster’s prose makes me ache in the best possible way. I find I’m returning to him more and more often lately, sometimes just opening to the middle of Room or Howards End and reading wherever I happen to land. And yet this is my first time reading Passage! I’m transfixed, as usual.
“She was looking through a nick in the cactus edge at the distant Marabar Hills, which had crept near, as was their custom at sunset; if the sunset had lasted long enough, they would have reached the town, but it was swift, being tropical.”
I find I’m wanting to creep verrrry slowly through Middlemarch this time, taking time to sit with an episode or even just a paragraph and breathe it in, savor its subtleties. For all Eliot is sweeping in scope (800 pages, a whole village-worth of fully realized characters), her magic is in the microcosm. This bit about Sir James, just after he finds out Dorothea is engaged to Casaubon and, after riding hard for a bit, decides to swing by her uncle’s house as previously planned—
“He really did not like it: giving up Dorothea was very painful to him; but there was something in the resolve to make this visit forthwith and conquer all show of feeling, which was a sort of file-biting and counter-irritant.”
That there’s a whole lot of character to reveal in a single sentence.
What with getting sick the week before last and zooming back and forth to appointments last week, I never found time to write about something I absolutely must chronicle. I mean, it was only one of the finest surprises of my entire life. As I’ve mentioned, I taught a six-week poetry workshop to a group of our homeschooling friends. These were the same kids as my Journey North group; I had so much fun doing Mystery Class with them that my friend Erica (who generously hosts our meetings at her house and is a far better planner than I am) and I put our heads together and decided to start a Literature Club for this enthusiastic bunch of kids.
Our age range was wide: from a ten-year-old or two up to a number of teens, including one 18-year-old who arrived home from college midway through the session and asked, to my delight, if she could drop in. (Not Jane: her school gets out late and she missed the whole thing.)
Over the course of the six weeks, we discussed rhyme scheme and meter, many kinds of meter, and several kinds of figurative language. We had examples from lots of poets but each week (except the last) I chose one poet for close readings—someone wonderful whose work had example of the meter and/or tropes we were encountering that week. Yeats (you know I had to start with him), Frost, Hughes (Langston, not Ted), Dickinson, Blake.
We had ourselves a fantastic time. Most of our meetings ended with my giving the kid a few starter lines in a particular meter and having them form groups and finish up the poem. This was their favorite part of the class, and the group readings provided much merriment.
For our last session, I wrote a poem incorporating all their names, sorted by meter—a stanza each for our iambs, dactyls, and trochees (written in the appropriate meter), with some lines full of spondees for the single-syllable names. It ends with an appeal for an anapest: we had none in the group.
I was pretty excited about my little surprise, and they seemed to get a big kick out of it. But then they revealed they had a surprise for me: they’d all written poems to thank me for the class. They read them out loud and I was crying before the first poem was finished. These kids, they blew me away.
I sailed away with my good friends three,
Up and out to the Poet’s Tree,
There I wrote poems about sharks and dogs,
And giants galore who got smacked with fat logs
But we couldn’t have done all of this without you,
Yes Mrs. Peterson you’ve made that fact true.
—”The Poet’s Tree” by Peter H., age ten
(Peterson’s my married name, as I think most of you know.)
Couldn’t you just melt? Best thank-you gift I’ve ever been given, these poems. All the kids presented me with copies to keep, which I will forever.
Alliteration, synecdoche, and onomatopoeia,
Learned a ton,
Love you lots,
Until next time—see ya!
—lines from “My dear Melissa Peterson” by Olivia L., age 13
See #1 in this series: Memrise.
Last night I had a trial lesson at italki.com with a German teacher who currently lives and works in Taiwan. At the appointed hour he rang me on Skype and we had a delightful half-hour chat. We started with video but the connection was wonky so we switched to audio only, and that worked fine. Something I especially appreciated was that whenever I struggled with a word or phrase, Stephan corrected me and typed the correction in the chat window so I could see it as well as hear it. Afterward, the chat log provided a nice transcript of the things I’d learned.
Since this was a first lesson, it was largely conversational. Stephan spoke to me in German from the beginning (when I set up the lesson I’d had to fill out a form describing my current level), asking lots of questions and encouraging me to plunge in and answer as best I could. I loved it. He also sent links to a couple of resources—a German children’s book, the first half of which I read and translated with his help, and, when I mentioned that I often confuse which prepositions go with which verbs, a pdf with some preposition exercises.
Italki lets you choose between “professional instruction,” where the tutor will probably have you work through a textbook with homework, and “informal tutoring,” which is more the conversational kind of session I had with Stephan, practicing and improving my skills through dialogue. The latter is the less expensive option, but both kinds of lessons are pretty reasonable—downright cheap in some cases, depending on the language you’re studying and the exchange rates involved. Payment is all handled through italki; you purchase italki credits (ITC) at the rate of 1 dollar per 10 ITC, plus a small processing fee based on your payment method. When you book a session, italki holds your credits, and after you mark the session completed, they pay the instructor. If the session doesn’t happen for some reason, you get your credits back. Most lessons seem to be in the neighborhood of $10-15 per session.
The selection of language is fairly staggering. Basically, anywhere there’s Skype, there are italki tutors eager to take you on as a student. Most instructors have made short videos to introduce themselves. I love this one from Modabo in Spain. Many instructors indicate on their profiles whether they have experience teaching children, if you’re looking for a tutor for younger kids. For teens, pretty much any instructor is a possibility.
Many instructors offer trial sessions like the one I had at a special rate. Italki allows new users to sign up for three of these trials, so you have a chance to try out the interface (and the teacher) without spending very much.
The website also encourages connections among users; you can find language partners to practice with or do swaps—say, you help me with German and I’ll help you with English. After all, actually speaking a language—jumping in, trying to form sentences, making lots of mistakes and having someone correct you—is the best way to move toward fluency. Users are also encouraged to write notebook entries in their target languages, inviting native speakers to offer corrections and advice. There’s a handy markup system to use in editing others’ entries. All very friendly and low-pressure.
So far, in my limited experience (two weeks browsing the site and last night’s wonderful lesson), I give italki high marks. Rose is drooling over the language list. We’re thinking some italki Spanish lessons might be a very good option for her. Like me, she’s been using Memrise to build vocabulary in her target language(s), and she studies Spanish grammar in a print textbook. But there’s nothing, nothing, like speaking with a native speaker. I’ve been stuck at a sort of low-intermediate level in German for a very long time. As in: decades. It was exhilarating last night to discover how much I really can say and comprehend. I understood almost everything Stephan said, and when I didn’t, he repeated the phrase, typed it out for me, and told me the English. It’s a very organic way to learn. I would love to take more lessons with him, the informal tutoring kind. I see Sign Language is offered as well, which is a very exciting possibility.
Huck has an infected finger. I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say they’re gory, and I’ve added a new and entirely unwanted skill (pus drainage) to my maternal repertoire. We spent much of yesterday at the doctor, he’s now on antibiotics, and, proving there’s lemonade to be made even from a festering lemon, the two of us got to sit cuddled up until midnight watching Minecraft videos together. If I’m a little punchy today, you’ll understand.
Did manage to squeeze in some fun yesterday before the unfortunate appendage went from alarming to horrific: a bit of geocaching with the younger three at a lovely park we don’t visit often. At least, the first cache was at the park; the second one was at the dead end of a neighborhood street a couple of blocks away, a somewhat grimier location than expected. To Huck’s disgruntlement I wouldn’t let him touch anything, which means Rilla got the fun of the cache grab. WB doesn’t care who makes the find as long as he gets his turn at holding the phone/compass.
Today was piano and repaired hearing-aid fetching (happy is its owner, who can hear again) and finger-soaking and general collapsing, and nary a book did we read. But if you need to know how to lure zombies into an iron golem trap, Huck and I are your man.
I’ve made an uneasy peace with becoming a product sold to advertisers. Now it seems I’ve been a lab rat, too.
The AV Club reports:
Scientists at Facebook have published a paper showing that they manipulated the content seen by more than 600,000 users in an attempt to determine whether this would affect their emotional state. The paper, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” was published in The Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences. It shows how Facebook data scientists tweaked the algorithm that determines which posts appear on users’ news feeds—specifically, researchers skewed the number of positive or negative terms seen by randomly selected users. Facebook then analyzed the future postings of those users over the course of a week to see if people responded with increased positivity or negativity of their own, thus answering the question of whether emotional states can be transmitted across a social network. Result: They can! Which is great news for Facebook data scientists hoping to prove a point about modern psychology. It’s less great for the people having their emotions secretly manipulated.
I uploaded this picture last night, intending to write my usual sort of daily-chronicle post. Then my eye wandered from the rainbows inscribed on the bubble to the blunt, browned ends of the grass and I got distracted by the ruthlessness with which we shear off the fertile edges of nature. I wandered off to bed, musing, leaving the post unwritten. (Huck’s finger is much improved, was the gist.)
This morning, after reading the article quoted above (about a different kind of bubble, a ruthlessness altogether unsurprising but disgusting nonetheless), I came back here and found the photo waiting. And now I see that I’m in the picture too, there inside the bubble, taking a photo of the green world on the other side of the film. You could work up quite a metaphor there, obvious, clumsy, but apt: the insubstantial bubbles, the world outside, the illusions of people that aren’t the persons themselves.
But my frustrations aren’t philosophical (of course Facebook was always going to exploit us in every way possible) but practical. The reason a billion people have handed over their (our) data to Facebook is, at heart, a practical one: it’s the most efficient platform anyone has yet come up with for letting us keep in touch with a large number of friends and family at once. We failed at writing letters. Good phone conversations, while satisfying, take immense chunks of time. If you want to keep up with each other’s daily lives, the little things, you have to talk every couple of days (at the least) or else there’s too much ground to cover and you must out of necessity abridge.
Yahoogroups worked, for a while—you could engage in meaningful discourse or chummy banter with a good-sized group of people at once. But generally most of those relationships were new, were forged because of the group, by means of the group. I made some lifelong friends that way (hello, TAMs! hello, Karen!) but (I don’t like that ‘but’; it sounds like a devaluation of the friendships on its left, and that isn’t what I mean at all)—but—but my high-school friends didn’t form a Yahoogroup. My college friends didn’t. We kept to our phone calls, our occasional letters and visits. I read letters six times and treasured them, and didn’t write back, or did but didn’t stop for stamps.
After a while, most of the Yahoogroups I was part of morphed into discussion boards (more efficient, because they allowed for topic-sorting; less efficient, because they required administration and management) or faded into disuse. I think I’m still signed up to forty-odd lists. I get mail from three, and read one and a half. It’s years since I logged into a discussion board.
Then came blogs. Those of us still doggedly blogging for personal reasons look back on 2005 and 2006 with nostalgia: we remember what it was like in those days, less than a decade ago, when we were for the first time opening our front doors and saying here’s my house, come in. We shared too much, made friends, celebrated art and nature, got in fights, copied one another or got furious about being copied—all the same things we’d done on AOL in 1995 and in email groups in 1999, only now with photos of our children. We formed new and very real friendships: real and strange, because we knew (know) so much about each other and have watched each other’s children grow up, and yet we live so far away some of us may never meet. When one of us goes silent for a while, the others worry. Sometimes I’ll think: if she dies, I might never know what happened.
That’s if she isn’t on Facebook. Because that’s what Facebook does better than blogging—connects wide groups of people and spreads news they wouldn’t necessarily publish on any other website—and Facebook is why only a fraction of my friends-who-blogged are blogging still. Facebook IS blogging. It’s everyone blogging at once on the same platform, a platform cleverly managed (manipulated) for purposes we all agree are greedy at best, and not guided by principles that put our best interests remotely near the top of the priority list.
I love Facebook. I hate Facebook. I have loved and hated it since the day I joined. Facebook gave me back friends I had lost: that’s the sum total of my reason for loving it, and it’s immense. All those other platforms brought me new friends. Facebook reunited me with old ones. I don’t need to dress it up in metaphors. I’d lost touch with some of the people I loved best, and Facebook gave them back to me. It gave me what blogging didn’t: daily contact with beloved cousins and old school friends. Every day, it gave (gives) me photos and anecdotes of their lives, their children, their pets, their loved ones, their work. How can I measure the value of that?
If all the people I loved were inclined to blog—to blog about their personal lives, no less—I wouldn’t need a platform like Facebook. Somehow, Facebook accomplished the miraculous feat of convincing all these old friends to blog as we were doing, with oversharing and our children’s faces and outrage and sorrow and delight. And commenting is easier there, it just IS: fast, efficient (it always comes back to efficiency), and rewarded by a heartening LIKE. And—significantly—more conversational. You can reply back and forth quickly, in real-time like chat. Don’t blog comments feel more formal somehow? They didn’t use to. I feel like we used to chitchat more in the combox, but maybe that’s nostalgia. It’s probably just the time delay. If I reply to your comment here, it’s probably a day after you wrote it, and who knows if you even see the reply.
It’s strange, actually, the way we feel safer about sharing our personal stories on Facebook. We know we’re the product there; the evidence is thrust before us every time we open the tab and see a sidebar ad for a book we looked at on a different website the day before. We rail about the way they keep resetting the news feed from ‘most recent’ to ‘top stories,’ we fume at each sneaky privacy-policy change, we wince each time another website wants us to log in via Facebook before we can leave a comment.
But we go back, because that’s where our friends are posting photos of their their babies, their travels, their graduations. Because it’s a mini college reunion every time one of us posts and all our classmates chime in, laughing over an old shared joke. Because we have history together, and we care about one another’s present-day lives. Because if something serious happens, you’re going to tell your Facebook friends before you put it on a blog.
To leave, or to make the decision never to go in the first place (for reasons I respect and with a resolve I may at times envy a little), is to cut yourself off from a certain flow of information. There’s plenty of nonsense and trivia on Facebook, as there is in all forms of human interaction, including some of the best phone calls I’ve ever had. But there’s a great deal of the Real, the Good, the True there too, and it’s that—not simply the dopamine hit, as many theorists would have us believe—that brings us back. It’s genuine curiosity. It’s, to be blunt, love. I love you and I want to know how you’re doing. If Facebook is where you’re showing me, how can I stay away?
I would pay for an ad-free social connection site with no data-mining and no gross user manipulation of the sort revealed in the newly published study described in the article above. (You can click through from the article to the study itself.) But—here’s what I know. I know it’s unlikely a critical mass of my friends and relatives would too. Facebook caught us because it was free, and because there was a numerical tipping point: so many of us are there now, you really are missing something if you aren’t. Which isn’t to say anyone should be there who doesn’t want to be: I wouldn’t presume. As I said, I respect and admire their reasons for staying away.
But I’m a practical person, and I know what I’ll miss out on if I leave. I’m 46 years old and I’ve lived in a lot of places. I love a great many people. As I said on Facebook this morning when I shared the link above—my last act before logging out for a breather—”But how will I get my YOU fix?”
I read The Secret Garden to Rilla recently. She loved it beyond reckoning, same as I did at her age—same as I do now. During fraught passages, she couldn’t keep still: had to roll around on the bed, wave her legs in the air, hug herself, squeal, stand up and jump. All that emotion had to manifest in movement. It was fascinating to witness the way the book literally moved her. It brought a whole new dimension to my understanding of that expression.
Often, after I’ve read a book aloud to my kids, they take it away and immediately reread it. I thought Rilla might want to do that with Secret Garden but she looked almost shocked by the suggestion.
“No!” she exclaimed. “After you read me a book, I kinda treat it as an artifact too fragile to be touched.”
Well. I’m going to have to think about that. She probably won’t feel that way forever, and I imagine there will come a day when she does curl up with this tome for a delicious, private reread. Maybe around age ten or eleven—she’s only eight, after all. It’s interesting to contemplate, though. Was the experience of this book so fully engaging, such a complete kinesthetic, aural, visual, imaginative absorption that it feels enough? Have you ever experienced a book that way—a first encounter so complete that you never wanted to go back again?
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There’s a lot of good conversation happening in the comments of the Facebugged post. Many topics, not just Facebook: blog nostalgia; blog communities compared to FB and other kinds of community; the sacredness of some topics and the notion of ‘right spaces’ for discussing certain things; more. Join us if you like. If I could, I’d pour you a cup of tea.