Thursday, September 27, 2007

Breaking Up With Facebook for a Week, Part 2

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

an experiment, continued:

Day 4 without Facebook. My noble purge continues. I'm like Gandhi with a mouse.

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Jet, and Ladies Home Journal have all not interviewed me about my project. But no matter. This is the true story of a twenty-two year old college grad re-learning life without Facebook...for a week. In 2007.


- Project beings in earnest. I uncheck my Facebook privacy settings so I won't get notifications of any wall posts, messages, or friend requests.
- I log-out. Good-bye, Facebook.
- I chat with my friend Adam. We reminisce about this dude we knew in high school. "Dude" is an appropriate tag because said person had a dog named Marley and a band called the Funkadelic Pentagon. What's this dude doing now? To find out, I quickly reach for the keyboard before realizing...uh-oh. I'm an unconscious click away from breaking the pledge I've made hours ago.

An invisible singe shoots through my fingertips. This Facebook fasting might be harder than I thought.


- A week away from Facebook means nothing to my friend Michael, for he's spent more than a year away from the site. He was one of the site's early adopters in spring 2004, only to drop it when it became a phenomenon. "Come back to Facebook," I used to tell him. "You're missing out on connecting to people, and you're not proving a point by rebelling. Bite the bullet already."

As you might expect, he doesn't think much of my experiment: "I'm smirking in a rather self-righteous manner right now," he tells me. But my response is a self-justification that surprises even myself: "Facebook's like a girlfriend who I've been spending too much time with," I say, "so I need to take a break and spend time with my friends. But I'll come back to her."

I then tell Michael he ought to start dating Facebook. He declines.

Analogy taken too far? Maybe.

- Where my suddenly-empty Facebook minutes go:

* AOL Instant Messenger (You might say that for me to use AIM goes against the wisdom of my Facebook fasting. To that argument I say au contraire, sir. AIM is more intimate and "connected" than Facebook. Really.

Through instant messenger, we engage in "instant" communication, and if we don't get replies to our messages, we're pointedly being snubbed. On the other hand, through Facebook we write a wall message and know that a response is not socially required. And even if we do get a response, it's not quite "instant."

As we get more technological options through which to communicate, are we in turn communicating less and less intimately? If Facebook is less intimate than AIM, which is less intimate than the telephone, which is less intimate than in-person communication, where does that leave us? The casual kick of Facebook might suit the relationships we have with some of our acquaintances just fine, but how about when the lines get blurry? Will we always resort to the path of least resistance, i.e. the path with the least intimacy? Is that necessarily a good thing? How much fun are rhetorical questions?

I'll stop.)

* Reading (I sink into Ken Kalfus' "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country." Good book.)

* The Buzz Box Infomercial (1:30am. My parents' tv lounge. The house is asleep but I'm not. I am awake and I am smiling. The reason? Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath and a blonde-streaked Entertainment Tonight-looking woman are trying to sell me every single song that defined my middle school and high school experience. Wow. Marcy Playground "Sex and Candy"? The Mighty Mighty Bosstones "The Impression that I Get?" Crazy Town "Butterfly?" Semisonic "Closing Time?" Nostalgia overload. I need this Buzz Box.

Who am I kidding? I'm not buying the Buzz Box; I have most of its songs already downloaded. But... I am eagerly waiting for Mark McGrath's sidekick to ask him about the inclusion of Sugar Ray's "Fly" and "Every Morning" on the Buzz Box. Will McGrath be that's-right! snarky or falsey modest? On another note, what happened to this guy's career? Why's he hosting this overlit informercial? Why is he hosting Extra? Entertainment Weekly answered this question two years ago. Thanks EW.

Anyway, McGrath follows the script and robotically states that he's "honored" to be included in the Buzz Box. I'm slightly disappointed, but I don't know why.)


- More of the same, except with trips into the exotic world beyond my parents' house: Borders. Book Traders. Chilie's Bar and Grill. Facebook cannot give me a delicious peppercorn burger with a cold Corona. No, it cannot.


- Do I miss Facebook? Not especially. If anything, I've been feeling more grounded and more connected with my friends, whether it be through AIM or the telephone or the old-fashioned face-to-face thing.

But...come Sunday...will I feel antsy to break the Facebook fast? Will I unabashedly return to my old click-click-click routine?

In the words of Sugar Ray, "Shut the door, babe, don't say a word."

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Breaking Up With Facebook for a Week, Part I

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

an experiment:

So it's come to this: me skimming a Facebook discussion board called "Marriage Rocks!" How's it come to this? I'm not getting hitched anytime soon, so I shouldn't be reading about young wives who've gained weight since their honeymoons. But still I click. And click. And click. It's a compulsion, destinations of clicks be damned.

Now I focus on "Marriage Rocks!", but earlier I look at my News Feed and its breaking stories: "Jessica Weir is wondering why her puppy had to die on Yom Kippur...Calvin Wynn added "sex" to his interests." And so I click. Through photo albums of parties I've missed and friends I've forgotten. And click. Through profiles of people I don't even like. A few seconds here, a few minutes there, an hour, two hours. Click. Click. Click!

Dammit. Enough clicking. I need a break.

Facebook has grown from a small social network into a sprawling forty-million-member everybody-knows-what-everybody's-doing monster. A rather benevolent monster, but a monster nonetheless.

Today, I make the pledge to take a one-week vacation from the site that tells me Calvin Wynn likes sex.

On Thursday, I'll blog about how I've used the suddenly-free hours and minutes of my life. If I were traveling or working heavy hours, escaping Facebook's grasp wouldn't be so difficult. But as it is, I'm recovering from a short hospital visit. I'm hobbled. I'm slow. I'm in-between things. I'm perfect Facebook material, or so Mark Zuckerberg thinks.

My one-week vacation from Facebook begins right now, and anybody reading this blog is welcome to join me in this little revolution. A week is all I ask. The average Facebook user spends hours a month on the site. How about we spend those hours, I don't know, calling our buddies instead of writing on their walls? Or voluntarily losing track of "friends" who aren't really our friends? Or something, anything else?

If you're with me, let me know in the comments section.


Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thank You, Esquire, for the Dumbest Thing I've Ever Seen in an American Magazine. Ever.

a rant:

For two months I've been a subscriber of Esquire.

The pages are glossy. Glossy and often cologned. "Man at His Best" is the magazine's motto. Man at His Best. That's a bold trademark, but in all fairness, I've enjoyed Chuck Klosterman's columns and their pretzeled arguments of pop sociology, and I've enjoyed A.J. Jacobs and his nerd-chic experiments in "honesty." While Esquire's grooming and clothing tips go well beyond my stylistic and income bracket, I figure that's the nature of a men's magazine targeted at thirtysomething professionals who no longer shop at Target.

But then came the October 07' issue, and Esquire's experiment in "marginal fiction."

"Along the bottom of this page, you'll find a line from "So Far From Anything," new fiction by Benjamin Percy... it's the kind of storytelling that, in a perfect issue, we'd have on every page. So we did just that - one line per page, from the opening line (page 29) to the climax (page 244.)"

One line per page? Seriously? How's that supposed to work? If you don't have a copy of Esquire in front of you, here's how a reading experience of Percy's "So Far From Anything" would go, beginning a few lines in:

(Since the text in the following images is fuzzy unless enlarged, I'll post the relevant lines of story below the images.)

"praying, for music. You need something you can sing along to- some caffeine for the - "

Commercial interruption. Gary Sinise likes Baume and Mercier watches. Okay. Cool. And now, back to the story -

- or not. Spiderman 3 is coming out on HD DVD. Awesome, I guess.

"ears- to keep you awake until the next service station. In the pop and hiss of static, you- "

Asics shoes. Look at that dude in Asics shoes!

Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey? I'm thirsty!

And so it continues. Till the end of the magazine. A line of story, advertisement, advertisement, a line of story, advertisement, advertisement, advertisement. Imagine watching a TV show, only with commercial interruptions every six seconds, and you'll have a good idea of what it's like to read Esquire's marginal fiction. Is it fair for the story's readers, or for that matter, its author, that the words of "So Far From Anything" are sprayed across the bottom of pages like graffiti? And how can we lose ourselves in a story if we're constantly reminded of Asics Shoes and Tullamore Dew Whiskey? That's not right. That's not fair. Unreadable is what it is.

In his editor's letter, David Granger refers to Percy's story as, "our little experiment in using as much of the available space on every page as possible." If this is only a "little experiment" and not a regular feature, I can forgive Esquire. But come on. Really. What was gained by this experiment? How many people are going to read Percy's story if it means piecing together phrase after phrase like a never-ending ransom note?

In maximizing all "available space" in its pages, Esquire looks like a website bloated with a thousand different links rather than a high-class magazine. And that's unfortunate, because as I've mentioned, the publication does feature some quality essays, and who knows, maybe its latest issue includes a really good story that doesn't deserve to be marginalized.

So thank you, Esquire, for the dumbest thing I've ever seen in an American magazine. Ever.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Love in the Night

short fiction:

He didn't even kiss her. Not really, anyway, but he came close in the front seat of her Bug, the midnight thrum of jazz through her radio and the two of them giggling. Giggling. Joe was the kind of guy who smirked and nodded but never giggled. Until that night. Until Dorothy. Nineteen, freckles across her nose, thin lips light and pink like a secret. Dorothy.

This was his stop: the cul-de-sac on the heels of his high-rise apartment. She gave him her number and he called it right then, an experiment, stupid, juvenile, but so what?
"What's new?" she answered, eyes cool and blue.
"Just sitting in your car, talking on a cell phone."
"You liking the cheesy jazz on my radio?"
"Loving it."
"Stop lying, furby."
"Furby? Who says furby?"
"I do, Joe."
"What does that even mean?"
"What do you even mean?"

Joe knew it wasn't just the jazz that was cheesy that night. For God's sake, he'd gone off the proverbial deep end. When he talked to Dorothy, he didn't think about his feelings. No. His mind buzzed on its own, an electric current that made him goofy with its sparks. Happy. Giggly.
"What are we doing?" she asked.
He nuzzled close to her neck, her blonde bangs like the tips of feathers brushing against his nose, and he sealed her forehead with a nub of a kiss, a nub. Barely anything at all.

She was still wearing his coat.

At the party, she put it on and he marveled at how pillowy it looked against her skinny arms. Maybe she felt cold and nothing more but he took it as an act of intimacy. She picked my coat.
He stuffed his fingers into her sleeves and they dangled their arms together "like Siamese twins," she said. They rocked back and forth. They probably looked like bozos but so what?

It was an apartment party. Everybody else was drinking, jello shots or beers but she wasn't into alcohol. He found her in the kitchen, peering into the fogged window of the oven. Baking cookies. Chocolate chip. "Smells chocolaty," he said.

He told her they'd met before. Bookstore. In the fall. How they struck up a conversation about overpriced postcards. How they laughed at the stupid ones with the talking babies on the front. How he lost her when the long lines split into two, before he could get her name. Her freckles creased when she tried to recall the details. "Oh yeah," she said, finally. "You have a good memory."

She majored in art. Sculpting. He wanted to be an actor. "Unemployed," they said in unison. They talked about books they never read but should have. "Like I have this dream about Shakespeare," she said, "and he's twiddling his mustache at me. It's menacing, really."

Decade-old Will Smith songs pulsed from a boombox and Joe and Dorothy knew the lyrics to every last line. Just cruisin', yeah baby, I don't care. They sunk into a couch with Dorothy's roommate asleep and drooling at their feet. Joe hummed shyly but Dorothy sang, her lithe fingers jousting the air with no irony, with no reason. Incredible. The waft of her peach perfume, how her cheeks turned pink when she smiled, how she looked as if she was blushing even when she wasn't.

"Incredible," he said, offering her a sheepish high-five. Their hands clasped together, lingering, tingling. She looked at him. Stared. He stared right back. The party melted into a blur of incoherent shouts around them. Staring, they kept staring. And then he blinked. "I didn't know we were playing a game," he said. "Always," she whispered.

The party waned. The music quieted. Somewhere in his logical mind he knew it was silly. This all was silly. He didn't even know this girl, and of him she knew only that he was a wannabe actor embarrassed of his own Hollywood dream. Really embarrassed. "You'll figure it out," she said. "You're a soulful person."
He'd never heard a better compliment in his life.

In the car he wanted to kiss her. He should have kissed her. But she had a long-distance boyfriend. High school sweetheart. A guy vaguely described as smart and nice and sweet and "I can't do this," she huffed after Joe planted that nub on her forehead. "He loves me."
And so they said good night.

Five years later he sits business-class, bound for a mortgage broker conference. Red-eye flight, window-seat, scotch in a glass. He's not comfortable in a coat and tie but he pretends to be. He's always pretending.

He thinks about Lily. How she slinks flowers into her hair and adorns her bedroom with pine cone castles. How he pulls her close to him when she tightropes the edge of a busy street and she thanks him for being "my roadside protector person!" Sweet soul. "What are you thinking?" she asks, any time he looks out a window for too long, his face hardened and narrow. "What are you thinking?"

As he gazes through this window at the black city unfolding, he looks for a woman he never really knew but still can't forget, a woman who sings Will Smith and says the word "furby." She's down there, there, one of those beading lights scattered like pumpkin seeds across the looming horizon. It's silly, he knows. But still. But still.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Happy New Year

On the occasion of Rosh Hashana, I figured I'd celebrate by posting a story about new years, new beginnings, and non-alcoholic beer.

Click on the image below for the readable story.

Here's to some apples and honey.

short fiction:


Sunday, September 9, 2007

T.G.I.F., 1993

a personal essay:

My great-grandmother. Her days are getting shorter. She coughs, eats, sleeps, coughs, eats, sleeps. This is the last time I see her: she's tucked in bed, two whole hours before my head even hits a pillow. The room is cramped and old-smelling, her face buttery next to the lamplight, wrinkles upon wrinkles, a toothless, tired grin. She speaks Russian; I speak English. She thinks I'm a good, little boy. She kisses my forehead and I kiss her cheek and then I'm out of there.

I'm eight years old. I like chicken nuggets and pepperoni pizza but not much else; I'm so skinny my ribs show. Velcro shoes are pretty cool, so they're on my feet forever. My third grade teacher is Ms. Morris; she wears too much makeup and her hair is yellow. I don't like her.

Every morning my mom cakes my hair with spray but two little follicles stick up anyway. She tells me not to touch my hair but it's wet and crunchy so I can't help myself. It's October 14, 1993. Tomorrow is Friday, new episodes of Family Matters, Boy Meets World, Step by Step, and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. My mom and I will share a bowl of popcorn and watch them all. On Saturday I have a soccer game. I don't have time for death.

That night my mom lingers in the driveway, her body bathed in the orange halo from the light above the garage door, her back turned to me. A phone call is how she hears the news. My great-grandmother is gone, the woman who fed my mom when my mom was little, clothed her, raised her, loved her.

Quietly I watch her from the garage. Before tonight, my parents talked: I need to go see her, my mom would say, she’s not well. Just for a few days. Alex has soccer practice, she told my dad, you’ll need to take him there.

I’m scared. A few days are too many for me. I don’t want my mom to go anywhere for any reason. Maybe she won’t go now, I hope, there’s no point. I don’t think about the funeral. Only flickers of my great-grandmother run through my mind; I don’t know her well enough to mourn the right way.

The next day my mom leaves town. She assures me that everything’s going to be just fine, just fine. My stomach feels heavy and empty at the same time.

I watch my shows alone. Boy Meets World is funny because Corey gets a bad haircut and hangs out with the nerds. On Step by Step, they’re selling bogus book reports to the stupid football team and then on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Coop’ is a Driver’s Ed teacher and he almost runs somebody over. I laugh and my heavy-empty stomach feels a little bit better.

Like mom said, everything’s going to be just fine.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Small Talks and Rent-A-Cops, Part 2

a follow-up:

The best part about blogging is the ability to share your thoughts quickly and publicly. The worst part about blogging is the ability to share your thoughts quickly and publicly.

I learned the second of these twin lessons when I re-read Small Talks and Rent-A-Cops, a blog entry I posted more than a month ago. In that piece, I gently teased an Elvis-coiffed aw-shucks security guard with whom I small-talked at the used bookstore. Or maybe my teasing wasn't that gentle: "I can imagine him in third grade, the kind of kid who'd build a worm farm for the science fair just to swallow a couple of their bodies. He'd get a C on the project, and he wouldn't really know where he went wrong."

So I made fun of the guy. Fine. Guilty as charged. I'm not apologizing for my words, but I am rethinking them. "Nice entry but kinda depressing," a reader commented at the time, "I got the feeling of a slight superiority complex on your part; no offense but maybe that's what you were going for."

Hm. At first I brushed off the critique, but later I figured she had a point. What was my essay if not a series of can-I-top-this variations on the same theme: that Garrett, frankly, was a dope? A goofy, kind-hearted dope, but a dope nonetheless? I turned him into a caricature. Although much of what he said about Chuck E. Cheese's was easy to caricaturize, Garrett was still a real person who meant more to me than our goofball small talk suggested. I realize that now more than before, for I don't see Garrett these days, and I probably won't see him again.

Parking-lot security is a job with a high turnover rate. Maybe Garrett was transferred to a position in a different part of town, or maybe he was fired, or maybe he quit. His replacement is not much for smiling, laughing, or chit-chatting. "Appreciate it," is all the new guy says when I initial his security clipboard. "Appreciate it,"he repeats, every hour on the hour, until he utters "See you tomorrow" at the end of the night. Gone is Garrett's overcologned mist and "It's me again!" drawl, and well, I kind of miss him.


It'd be overreaching to say he was my "buddy", but he wasn't just fodder for writing jokes either. He was a real dude with a real personality, and that's no small feat.

"How ya doin'?" he'd ask me. "Can't complain." "You can't complain," he'd repeat, grinning, "cause' nobody here wants to listen to you." And then he'd let loose a delighted cackle, and I'd laugh too, a real laugh without the artifice of small talk, a laugh with him and not at him.

Thanks for that, Garrett, and good luck to you, wherever you are. I'm sorry for suggesting that you used to eat worms.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Drunk Driving and Waffle House Lesbians: A True Story

a personal essay:

Life is full of moments, says the Wonder Years voice inside my head, moments defined by choices. Some are easy and some are tough, but only a few involve drinking, driving, lesbians, and Waffle House.

College. Sophomore year.

"When I say saki, you say bomb! Saki! Bomb! Saki! Bomb!" Five girls in tight jeans slap their fists against the counter, plopping cups of warm saki into glasses of cold beer. The liquid gurgles like alka-seltzer and they slurp it down, squint their eyes, stick out their tongues, and do it all over again.

At the edge of the table I sit, saki-bombing at my own pace. I'm a slow drinker but I don't care, because I just beat my ex-girlfriend Noreen in arm-wrestling.

"Kate," she says, tapping the bare shoulder of her blonde-tressed friend. "I bet you can beat him."

Kate is our designated driver, or at least she's supposed to be. Her lips slur into a smile. "Okay, Alex." She squeaks her elbow into position. "Let's do this."

Thump. Two girls in one arm-wrestling. I'm tipsy, but Kate? Her eyes are not only wobbling; they're threatening to disappear into the back of her head. She's gone. She's wasted. "She shouldn't drive," I say.

"You're so uptight," is how Noreen answers me.

"Let's go!" Kate announces with gusto, peeling her credit card off the checkbook.

Outside it's sweaty and August, and a couple of the girls cradle their high heels, their pedicured feet tip-toeing across the empty lot. They fumble into the car behind Kate, who's waving her keys like it's Capture-the-Flag.

"Get in," Noreen demands. Kate clicks on the ignition. I played with your heart, Oops I -

"What's the rush?" I ask Noreen, leaning against the window sill. "Why can't we wait till Kate sobers up?"

"Get in the car or we're leaving!"

Oops, I did it again. I cross my arms into a tight X. If this night's turning into a bad Saved by the Bell, consider me Mr. Belding, but less goofy, more schoolmarm. I step back from the window and slam the door shut. Good-bye. The tires squeal into reverse, peeling into the glowing noise of Peachtree traffic.

I'm stuck. I don't have enough cash for a taxi because I spent it all on saki bombs. My male friends can't pick me up either, for they're gulping whiskey at an apartment party. I'm stuck. That's what I get for drinking with my ex-girlfriend and her Yia-Yia sisterhood.

"I can call somebody," says a quiet voice behind me.

It's April, a skinny apple-cheeked girl who I met earlier that night. She also wasn't confident in Kate's ability to drive, but she was decidedly less vocal about it than I was.

"Who can you call?"

"These friends of mine," she says, "but it might be awkward because I didn't tell them I was going out."

Ten minutes later, I follow April into the backseat of a Nissan Xterra, where we find two black girls: Jasmine, Amazonian-tall with broad shoulders and thick ropy dreadlocks, and Laila, arched eyebrows and a dark tanktop. Jerri's at the steering wheel, brushing aside her curly mop of blonde hair and shifting the car into drive.

"Thanks for the ride," April offers meekly.

Silence answers, but this is no ordinary silence. This is a you-don't-ask-us-out-but-you-do-ask-us-for-a-ride silence.

"I'm wearing Care Bear pajama pants," Jerri says.

Conversation over.

Our next stop is not the dorms, but Waffle House, where a pack of crew-cut women in tie-dye poke through poached eggs at a window booth. I conclude with 98% likelihood that these ladies like other ladies in that way. Jasmine must have made the same conclusion, because as we approach the doors, she jiggles Laila's right boob with gleeful abandon. The tie-dye women point, laugh, and cheer. Jasmine and Laila beam with Olympic pride.

Where am I?

"I need to buy a new vibrator," Laila declares, her way of blessing our waffles. Let's eat. "I need to buy a new vibrator as soon as possible."

By avoiding a Saved by the Bell, I've stumbled upon a live and uncensored episode of Waffle House Confessions.

Jerri, she of the Care Bear pajama pants, contemplates the sexual merits of boys and girls as if comparing brands of jam. If girls are Smuckers, then Jerri loves herself some Smuckers. Meanwhile, April discreetly sips her ice water. Am I an unnecessary accessory to this table? What do they need me for?

"We should go to a gay black strip club," says Jasmine, twinkle in her eye. "I want to see some penis."

"You guys watch The Amazing Race?" I ask, throwing it out there. "They got a gay couple on there."

"I love that show!" Laila says. Jasmine must love the show too, because she gives me a swift kick under the table.

If Noreen could see me now, she'd see a Mr. Belding unlike the one she knew, a Mr. Belding who can roll with the punches, who's anything but uptight. I'm not that innocent.

Jasmine and Laila are gone. April and I think they're in the bathroom, but Jerri didn't find them there. It turns out they went to the store across the street:

The Starship Enterprises Adult Video.

My first porn shop experience is a definite Kevin Arnold moment, for I observe the silk-curtained scenery with absolute wonder. As the stench of stale McDonalds fills my nostrils, I join several sets of bloodshot eyes gazing across a United Nations of fetish and pleasure. Diversity in action. If I was a transsexual, I would be doing cartwheels right now. The girls purchase something long and blue and battery-powered, and then we leave.

"I'm very horny," Jasmine whispers back in the car. "Don't let me sit next to Alex because I kind of want to rape him."

I laugh with this gigantic female, for I do not wish to be raped tonight. She spares me.

Life is full of moments, moments defined by choices. Some are easy and some are tough, but you'll always remember the ones that take you to porn shops with strangers who want to rape you.

Don't drink and drive.