Saturday, November 30, 2013

Living Online

In these still early days of social media, folks struggle with how much of themselves to share online and who should be allowed to see it. And I’ve heard many professionals insist they don’t want coworkers to have access to their private lives via Facebook, winching from social media the way the Amish would photographs.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that walling off your personal life from the online world is not just difficult, but perhaps not even necessary, and maybe even a handicap. In some cases it’s become a negative to be a digital hermit. So just as face-to-face interactions require tact, perhaps it’s more useful to ponder what to share and what to keep private.

Because I’m a Realtor and a writer, I embraced Internet exposure. Anything to get my name out there. And when it came to posting political beliefs on Facebook, I always felt, “Hey, this is part of who I am. I’m not hiding it.” But sitting in a continuing-ed real estate class 18 months ago, the PowerPoint presenter, with remote in hand asked, “Who among you are posting strident political statements on Facebook?” Almost nobody (including me) raised a hand, but you could see the tightening body language across the room and some slumping in seats. He asked, “Why are you doing that? When was the last time you changed your opinion about something based on something your saw on Facebook? You’re just pissing people off.”
I fermented some hard cider, so of course had to tell everyone
about it. And somehow my Aug/Sept biking schedule appears
too. Is nothing private?

That rang so true I logged onto Facebook right then and there and began deleting all my snarky anti-Tea Party comments, reposts of Rachel Maddow quips, and Huffington Post articles.

But I never felt entirely comfortable with that decision. Being silent in the face of injustice is a special kind of sin. So I narrowed my social and political postings to two issues: social justice and gay rights, two issues I care deeply about that have particular social meaning right now.

Still, I know I’m inciting discomfort. Not a good thing in a medium where you can be hidden with a click – the online equivalent of someone throwing a black sheet over your head at a cocktail party because you discussed uncomfortable topics.

On the other end of the spectrum are 2 guys I’m friends with on Facebook who have raised the Facebook identity to a social art. Their posts carefully reflect specific personalities. And they’re the best Hoosiers ever, meaning their posts will never, ever, ever offend anyone or make anyone uncomfortable. That they’re both in the advertising industry at the same company says a lot about their style. Their Facebook personas are brands of sorts. Really sweet, endearing brands. We see their hobbies, their families, their children, their pets, even their quirks – with one it’s a love of vintage business signage, with the other it’s reoccurring photos of interesting number combinations on the dashboard odometer. And they have faithful followers. They can post nearly anything and comments flood in from their friends, co-workers, and clients.

Their posts give the impression they have no political opinions, are apparently unaware of religion in any form, and nothing bad ever happens to them, or, like good Hoosiers, they avoid discussion of all three topics.

Turns out they’re onto something. A recent University of Pennsylvania study showed that people who shared their personal lives online where perceived as better workers by their coworkers.

Not wanting my Instagram identity
to simply be another Facebook, I
decided to only post inanimate
objects - the cool stuff I encounter
in my daily life. Lots of archit-
ectural elements
That’s not true with everyone in social media. A former student from my teaching days is a Facebook friend with a filter more broken than mine. I used to see posts from her attacking her bosses and coworkers and customers. Still seeing her a little as the 16 year old girl she ceased being many years ago, I sent a fatherly private message asking, “Are you worried that people at your work will see your posts?” Her quick reply showed she didn’t care one damn bit.

But I think she’s on borrowed time.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep our work and online lives separate. If you’re clinging to that old, “I can’t be bothered with something as shallow as social media,” as I once did, you should know it’s not an attractive or endearing quality. It marks you as out of touch with modern social norms.

But managing what you share is a constant battle.

Before Micki and I went on our first date last March we only knew each other online. As she was getting out of the car at the end of our date, she noticed a pile of books in my backseat – copies of a local literary journal I publish with a buddy. I handed her a copy and said, “You might enjoy this.”

Once home she sent me a text saying, “Hey, the logo for your book project (a grasshopper) is exactly like your tattoo.”

I froze. She couldn’t know that.

“How did you know I had a grasshopper tattoo on my shoulder?” I texted back. There was a long silence before her sheepish reply. She admitted to googling me in the days before our date. There was my address, phone number, my real estate web site with details about my career and testimonials from past clients, links to newspaper stories and columns I’d written, reviews of a book I’d published, my blog – filled with stories about my life and details about my beliefs, an Indy Star story about the restoration of my house, and yes, the website for that literary journal, The Polk Street Review, complete with a photo file that included a picture of me pulling up my shirt sleeve at a public reading, revealing my grasshopper tattoo.

I wasn’t offended. Who could blame her? “Smart girl,” I texted back. She was going to meet a man she’d never met at a coffee shop she’d never been to. I might have wondered about her intelligence if she hadn’t googled me. But it was sobering to consider how much there is about me online. Not stuff marketing companies have gathered and shared against my will, but stuff I’ve gladly posted about myself.

It’s a little bit the nature of my work. How can you sell real estate or writing if you don’t throw yourself at people? But it’s also a measure of where we are. You are going to be out there. Sure, you can easily make yourself invisible to a particular person on Facebook – if they look for you it will simply appear that you don’t have a Facebook account. But that won’t work for the myriad of other web sites that have your info, right down to county tax records that show your address, what you pay in property taxes, and how much you paid for your house. Hell, Google street view will let someone virtually walk right up to your front door.

The reality about all these examples: each are pretty honest representations of who we are in real life. My former student is aggressively honest to a fault, the two advertising guys are genial, kind fellows with cool interests who don’t like to make people uncomfortable with their politics (I know the politics of one of them and so know he’s purposefully holding back), and me, I’m intellectually curious with an ADD-like scattershot approach, combined with a broken and/or immature filter and I’m constantly promoting my work online.

You can’t hide yourself, online or off. The real you still comes out. For better or worse.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Food is Love

I didn’t realize it until the past few years, but food it a big way I tell people I care about them.

After my marriage ended, the first gal I dated had never been married nor had kids, and so had the dining habits of a bachelor. Oh, she knew how to order sushi and wine in a restaurant; but cook? No. Lunch or dinner to her might be a cheese and lettuce sandwich and a handful of blueberries, eaten standing up at the kitchen counter. The whole process, from preparation to eating to cleaning up took about 10 minutes. I kept cooking meals for her but as much as she enjoyed them, it didn’t mean the same thing to her that it did to me. And my obsession with sharing mealtime and the rituals of its preparation actually became a frustration for both of us – me struggling to speak to her in my language, and her not entirely getting the point of the conversation.

Separated from my children and previous life, I was trying to connect with her via the echo of a ritual that was deep in me. That was my “aha! moment;” the moment when I saw I wasn't simply trying to cook for her.

When I was a child, my family ate dinner together regularly. Likewise, when my kids were small, their mother and I saw to it that we ate together as a family 4 or 5 times a week. It didn’t matter so much what we were eating – could be fish sticks or 49 cent pot pies from Aldi’s, just that we were connecting as a family every evening. For years I was the sole breadwinner and so wasn’t doing that much cooking, but after their mom went back to work and the kids got older I was cooking more while the meals together got harder to coordinate around 5 schedules. So I spent countless Saturday or Sunday afternoons restoring my old house while meat smoked on the grill, bread rose in the kitchen, and veggies from the garden waited on the counter. From time to time I’d brush the paint chips and sawdust off my shirt and knead dough or tend the grill, then climb back up the scaffolding. At the end of the day we eventually gathered around the table with marinated chicken, steamed broccoli, and fresh bread.

There was something obsessive in my instance that everyone be there and that every dish be ready at just the right moment. Sometime showing love takes a lot of work and sometimes it just takes sitting and eating, appreciating what was put before you. If you’re thinking about it right, either part you play is fine.  

I still laugh at the times when it went wrong.

I recall cooking a ridiculously doomed and elaborate meal for a girl when I was in my early 20s. I fell for her in England when we were both visiting BSU students in London. After we returned to Muncie I knocked myself out fixing a dinner for her. A week earlier she had invited me over for lunch and served me hot dogs sautee’d in barbeque sauce, barbeque potato chips, and root beer (I’m not making this up). Hell, with a menu like that, maybe she was trying to kill me. But, trying to speak her language, I made barbeque sauce from scratch and grilled some chicken, made my great aunt’s baked bean recipe, and God knows what else for a quiet dinner together in my little basement apartment on Calvert. The evening was a disaster. Not a loud explosive disaster, but a slow, quiet, suffocating - get me the hell outta here disaster.

I guess sometimes you outta just talk directly to people instead of trying to bribe them with food. Maybe I was afraid of the responses she’d give me, so thought I’d tip-toe to her heart through her stomach. Whatever I was trying to do, it didn’t work. She dumped me and went back to her old boyfriend.

Still most of the time spent cooking for people is a good thing. The times it went wrong are a reality check.

In trying to understand how food became a symbol of affection to me I recognized that gift giving and acts of service are a language of love I was raised on. The Meyers are gift givers. Of the generation of Meyers who raised me – if you were waiting for one of them to say, “I love you,” it was gonna be a long fucking wait. But in my times of need they were quietly fixing my problems or writing me a birthday check they knew I’d spend on something I needed or loved.

Or . . . they were preparing food for me or picking up the check at a restaurant.

And I find it passed down to another generation. My cousin Margaux has a lovely habit of opening her house to a wide circle of friends, presenting meals and events to draw close the people she loves. She learned it from her father – my father’s brother. My oldest son is a self-taught chef of Asian food. I can’t count the nights in the past 2 years Cal cooked me an amazing meal. My middle son Jack cooks for those he loves and recently I’ve found my youngest, Sally cooking for her boyfriend – eggs, lots of eggs.

But we are a younger generations of Meyers. We have no problem saying, “I love you." But that old language of giving in lieu of talking is wrapped up in our way of showing affection.

On Halloween night Micki was to arrive after work. I’d cooked a pot of chili and mixed batter for corn cake. Much of the ingredients for the chili were items I canned from my summer garden. But when a full waiting room kept her unexpectedly late at the office seeing patients, we agreed I’d drive up to Ft. Wayne and save her the trip down to Noblesville. After I set the pots of food on the floorboards of my car and stood to close the passenger door, I froze, staring at the dishes. It occurred to me I’d loaded the food in the car before I’d even thrown clothes in a suitcase.

Hmmm. Why was that my automatic first action? I guess becoming aware of your motivations doesn’t stop the reflex. And maybe there’s no need to stop it. It was me offering perhaps the most important thing I would put in the car besides myself – something I’d made to nourish a person I loved.

So if I’ve cooked something for you, or if you’re one of that handful of people who have been handed a jar of my homemade Sriracha sauce or canned black raspberry jam, or if I’ve dropped off a fresh-baked loaf of bread at your door or a just-picked bag of green beans from my garden, it was a note from me saying, “I love you.”

That’s not literally what I’m thinking when I do it, but I can see now that’s really what it is.