Keep the Social in Social Networking

Stop wasting time chasing likes and accumulating followers and “friends.”

Twitter LogoToday, my friend Andy started a job at Twitter.

Andy and I met a little over seven years ago on Twitter. He, in fact, was the first person I followed there.

Back in those days, Twitter was only a year or so old and no one really “got it” yet. Actually, I don’t even think the folks who made Twitter got it. They promoted it as a “microblogging” platform, a place to share very brief comments with others. Did they ever dream that it would become what it has become? A valuable and timely source of news and information? The world’s “water cooler” for chatting, venting, and sharing?

This morning, when Andy announced that he was tweeting from Twitter’s U.K. headquarters, I realized that not only had we met on Twitter, but that Twitter had become a source of our livelihoods. Andy works at Twitter now, so he’s on their payroll. And I’ve written courses for Lynda.com about Twitter, so I get royalties for sharing my Twitter knowledge.

Funny how that worked out, no?

The Frustration of Facebook

Facebook LogoI really don’t like Facebook, but like so many of my friends, I find myself drawn to it. It has so much potential to be a truly valuable social networking service and enough of my friends understand that to make it worth visiting.

But at the same time, I find it immensely frustrating, mostly because of the number of people who just don’t seem to get it. I let some of that frustration out the other day after reading a post by one of my friends — coincidentally, someone else I met on Twitter — that proved how little she understood the “social” aspect of social networking.

She’d shared a humorous photo that had made the rounds at least two weeks before, presenting it as if it were something new. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much except for three things: (1) she considers herself a social networking “expert,” (2) her accompanying commentary clearly indicated she thought she was so clever for finding and sharing the image, and (3) I know she’s friends with at least one of the people who’d shared the photo when it made its original rounds so she should have seen it when the rest of us did. It’s this last point that bothered me most: she obviously wasn’t looking at anything that the rest of us shared. She was just posting whatever she found.

And posting and posting. Dozens of Facebook status updates with links and images every day, about half of which I’d already seen days or weeks before.

For some reason, Friday’s post was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I posted a status update that said:

If some people would READ their Facebook timeline as much as they POST to it, they’d discover that about 50% of what they post as new and novel was shared by their friends on Facebook 2 weeks ago. #JustSaying #FunnyThenNotNow

I know I wasn’t completely off-base because 12 people “liked” it. That’s slightly above average for a status update that doesn’t include a photo. (More on that in a moment.) But one of my friends commented to say, “Wow…that’s kind of mean.” And another one added, “New, novel, Facebook all in one thought? Oxymoron there fly lady. Think it’s vacation time. Don’t pack the cranky pants.”

And that’s when I realized I needed a break from Facebook. So I pretty much took the weekend off.

Chasing Likes, Follows, and Friends

I began to realize a few years ago that a lot of people were using social media as a way to stroke their personal or business egos. (Hell, it’s a lot easier than blogging, which actually requires you to come up with original content.) I think that realization hit me when I heard about Klout. That’s a social media monitoring service that tells you how “influential” you are. Your Klout score is a number and apparently a lot of people who should have more important things to think about think their Klout score is vitally important.

I’m not sure how you build up your Klout score. I’m not sure because I don’t care. I don’t have the faintest idea of what mine is. From the way people talk, I suspect it has to do with how many Twitter followers and Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections you have and how many Google+ users — yes, there really are some — have you in their circles. It probably also takes into consideration things like retweets, likes, and shares — at least it should.

Stop Hijacking Tweets!

One of my pet peeves with certain Twitter users is the way they retweet content by copying and pasting tweets instead of using Twitter’s built-in retweet feature. What they’re doing is hijacking content. Even if the author’s name appears in the tweet (usually after RT), the hijacker’s account is the one that appears when it’s subsequently properly retweeted by others. It’s like taking credit for someone else’s comment or link or photo.

It’s a slime bag way to use Twitter for self-promotion.

And if you don’t know what I’m talking about and want to learn, read this.

As a result, to some people it becomes vitally important to accumulate followers, friends, connections, and circlers (or whatever Google+ calls the people who supposedly monitor your activity). And it’s equally important to post new content on the social networks with the ultimate goal of attracting attention to pump up that Klout score. So lots of these people post all kinds of things all day long.

I guess they figure that if you throw enough crap at a wall, some of it’s gotta stick.

Or maybe they just assume that everyone who follows them on social media does it they way they do: a quick glance a few times a week to see what others are saying. They figure that if they post a ton of stuff, something will be seen. So they go after quantity and not quality.

Of course, there are dozens of “viral” websites cropping up every day to provide content that’ll get social networkers the likes and shares they crave. Any site with the word “viral” or “share” in its name exists solely for that purpose. They have staffs who comb the web for interesting or amusing content and repackage it on their sites surrounded by dozens of ads. They write headlines designed to hook bored readers and drag them in. You’ve seen them: “This second grader’s revenge against Common Core math will make your day” and “Bella Thorne Suffers “Major Wardrobe Malfunction” at Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards: Picture.”

Quote List
How many of these do you see on Facebook every day? Too many, I’ll bet.

Then there are the lists: “16 Alarming Airline Secrets That Will Change How You Feel About Flying.” Or the simpler lists that just appear in images.

And the inspirational quotes, superimposed over (often inappropriate) photos.

Love Mom
I didn’t share this. What does that really mean? That I don’t love my mother? Or that I don’t want to clutter up my friends’ news feeds with idiotic crap?

And the short stories of friendship or love or faith — that end with a statement implying that you’re uncaring S.O.B. if you don’t share it with everyone you know on Facebook.

This is the (mostly) crap people are “sharing” in search of likes and shares and retweets. And the people who share this (mostly) crap don’t understand that they are being manipulated into promoting websites that have hijacked content solely so the hijacker sites can get hits and maximize ad revenue.

And Facebook doesn’t help matters. Instead of showing me everything that the people I follow post on their own timelines — like Twitter does quite faithfully — it uses some mystery algorithm to determine what appears, what order to put it in, and how many times to show it. So I wind up missing half the content posted by the people who tend to share interesting stuff and get stuck looking at a lot of crap because my friends happened to comment on one of their friends’ mindless drivel.

Social Is More than Sharing

It’s all about likes and retweets and favorites. Apparently, that’s what most people want. It’s a good thing, too. Because most people can’t be bothered to participate any more than with a simple click on an icon indicating their approval.

Deep discussion is rare. Very rare. I’m fortunate that I follow a few interesting and thoughtful people and they follow me. I’m fortunate to get the few exchanges of comments and ideas that I get. I know that now.

But it still frustrates me.

How can something be social when there’s no real interaction between people? I post a photo, 20 people click a like button. Is that a real “social” activity? (Tip: Updates with photos are far more likely to get “likes” than those without.)

I share a link to an article Hobby Lobby trying to use a claim of “conscientious objection” to avoid providing health care to employees that includes birth control coverage and I don’t get a single comment. Is it possible that no one has anything to say about this?

(And don’t get me started on the people who do comment based on an article’s headline but obviously haven’t read the article.)

Maybe the problem is what I expect from social media. I expect a two-way exchange. I expect civil discourse, conversation to carry an idea forward or sideways or simply expand it.

That’s why I got hooked on Twitter so quickly — I was building relationships with people there. These people were keeping me company throughout my work day, when I was stuck in a home office in front of a computer. They were there when I needed a break. They were my water cooler companions.

There were plenty of two-way exchanges. I was even meeting Twitter friends in the flesh — I remain very good friends with more than a few.

To me, that’s what social networking is all about: making and communicating with friends.

It’s social.

Real People, Real Friendships

Andy lives in the U.K. I’ve never met him in person; I’ve never even spoken to him on the phone or on Skype. Yet I know that he’s a techie, he loves Lego, and he’s been through a divorce. He’s someone I can communicate with every day, the guy I can find at the “water cooler” and exchange links, comments, and gripes with.

There’s a pretty good chance I’ll meet Andy in person in April. He’s coming to Twitter headquarters for some orientation. I’m in the Sacramento area with a wide-open schedule. I’ll work my schedule to meet his.

To me, social networking is social. It’s an exchange of information and ideas — an exchange that works two ways. I’ve built good friendships with the folks who understand that, folks like Andy who see how social networking can truly enrich our lives.

Hot Air Balloon Flight

Drifting through Napa Sacramento Valley by balloon.

Napa Valley Balloons
These guys are the best in the business: professional, safety-conscious, and fun!

As I mentioned in a recent blog post about Thursday’s helicopter flight through Napa Valley, I’d been invited to take a spot on a hot air balloon flight with Napa Valley Balloons, Inc. on Friday morning out of Yountville (just north of Napa). I actually did the flight on Friday as planned. Well, sort of.

I was invited to fly by Bob, the pilot I’d met a few weeks before at the airport where I’m currently living in the Sacramento area. Bob had landed with his passengers in what I consider my “backyard” here — the ramp I can see from the back window of my RV. I’d taken some photos of his landing and had sent the best one to him. He said he’d try to get me on a future flight; I told him I’d take him and two friends up in my helicopter. After too many windy days, the weather had finally calmed down and I was scheduled for the first flight with an opening: Friday, March 21.

I got my confirmation with instructions via email. All passengers were supposed to meet at Domaine Chandon in Yountville at 6:30 AM. Google Maps told me that was about an hour away. And because I don’t like to be late to anything, I gave it an extra half hour of drive time. That meant leaving at 5 AM.

I’m an early riser and didn’t have any trouble making that departure time. With my first cup of coffee in a travel mug, I put Penny and her breakfast into the truck and we headed out.

I’d just passed the exit for Winters when my cell phone rang. It was Bob. “Don’t leave yet,” he told me. “I think there’s fog in the valley. We might depart from Winters instead.”

“I just passed Winters,” I told him.

“Wow. You’re running early. Why don’t you hang out there and I’ll let you know when I have a better handle on the weather.”

We hung up and I gave it some thought. It was dark out, but I could clearly see the moon and stars. No fog here. But also no place to just “hang out.” I kept driving, thinking of maybe pulling over in Vacaville, which was coming up. I could see the rotating beacon of the airport there, Nut Tree. Maybe I could find a coffee shop close to the freeway to wait at?

But then I started thinking about how long it would take me to continue the drive if Bob gave me the green light to keep coming. I didn’t want to be the last one to arrive. And I was hoping to see them inflate the balloons. I’d keep going and, if I had to drive back to Winters, I’d do it with them.

So I kept going.

I was just entering Napa when I started seeing the low clouds of a marine layer creeping into the valley. Still clear overhead. I called Bob.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “It’s a tough call. The crew and passengers are still meeting at Chandon.”

“I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” I told him. “No bother if I have to drive back. I don’t want to hold anyone up.”

We hung up again.

I pulled into the Chandon driveway at 6 AM and followed the signs to the parking area. I took Penny for a quick walk before following more signs to the reception area. I’d been to Domaine Chandon years before — probably on my very first trip to Napa Valley with my future wasband. My memory of the place did not match the grand establishment I was at that morning. Gardens, ponds, fountains, patios, catering rooms. The place was huge and, even in the dark, impressive. I looked forward to seeing it in the daylight.

I was the first passenger to arrive. I signed in and signed a waiver, grabbed a cup of coffee and a tiny croissant, and then chatted with the two receptionist and the pilots as they arrived. Bob was no where in sight, probably still trying to figure out whether it would be clear enough to fly.

The answer came with a phone call to one of the pilots who then began briefing the 40 or so passengers who had arrived. Safety first, legal matters second. Bob had determined that the flying conditions in Napa that morning were neither safe nor legal. We’d be departing from Winters, in the Sacramento Valley.

While the passenger briefing continued, I asked one of the pilots where they were departing from in Winters. He showed me on Google Maps on my phone. Bob’s crew and the other two crews were already enroute with plans to have the balloons fully inflated when the rest of the passengers arrived in the shuttle vans.

Apparently, I wouldn’t see Domaine Chandon in the daylight that day after all.

I got directions, told the pilot and crew in the reception area that I’d go on ahead, and left. Before I left, one of the receptionists gave me two Chandon bags. I could tell there was a bottle in one of them. Consolation prize for missing breakfast with the rest of the passengers. How nice!

Sunrise
I got to see the sun rise through the marine layer on my way back.

It was a quick drive back. The fog was settling in and, although it was high still over the highway, I could see that Bob had made a good call. As the sun came up through the marine layer, it was pretty obvious that low clouds were filling in the valley.

There was a balloon company setting up beside the freeway at the Winters exit. I called Bob, thinking they might have relocated. He said that was their competition. Before he could give me directions, I told him I knew where to go. I hung up, followed Google’s guidance, and wound up in a field north of town where crews were spreading out three large balloons.

Balloon Setup
The crews were already beginning to set up the balloons when I arrived.

I’d been ballooning twice before. The first time was at a balloon festival in New Jersey, back in the 1990s, before I’d moved to Arizona. My future wasband had taken his niece and me for a flight. It was a great experience in what was probably considered a medium balloon. I don’t remember there being many people in our basket. I do remember being in a crowd of brightly colored balloons ascending into the sky over southwestern New Jersey farmland. I remember drifting silently on the breeze over people’s backyards while dogs barked. I remember seeing a woman in her bathrobe coming out to ge the morning newspaper. I remember grabbing the leaves off the top of a tree. And I remember the loud rush of gas and flames as the pilot added heat to the balloon envelope to keep us afloat.

The second time had been much more recently and I’d honestly almost forgotten it. It was back in January 2012 when I did a charter job that also involved a balloon. (Long story.) It was a tethered flight out in the desert west of where I lived in Arizona at the time. I blogged about it here.

This was different. This was real ballooning with a real commercial balloon company and pilot. The basket and balloon were huge; the basket could hold 17 people, including the pilot, and the balloon had to be large enough to lift that. The basket was carried to the site in a large truck with a hydraulic lift gate in the back. It took a lot of brute strength to get it down and into position on the ground beside the empty balloon.

Balloon Setup
The baskets for these balloons are huge.

I put Penny on her leash and wandered over with my camera to watch.

If you’ve never seen a hot air balloon inflated, here’s how it’s done. They start by spreading out the empty balloon envelope on the ground. They lay the basket on its side beside the bottom of the balloon and fasten the balloon to the basket with a series of ropes and carabiners. Then they put out one or two large fans that are fastened to generators, fire up the generators, and use the fans to start pushing air into the balloons. One or two members of the crew hold the balloon open at the bottom for the air to go in.

Inflating the Balloon
Bob (left) and a crew member hold open the balloon while two large fans begin filling it with air.

Inside the Balloon
It’s odd seeing people walking inside the balloon as it is inflated.

Meanwhile, crew members work in and around the balloon to make sure all the rigging is properly organized and there aren’t any tangles. I’m sure they do other stuff, too. It’s actually quite odd to see them walking around inside the balloon as it’s being inflated.

At a certain point, the balloon has enough air in it to begin holding its shape. But that air is the same temperature as the rest of the air. The balloon won’t fly. It’s time to add hot air. The pilot lights up the burners and adds fuel to shoot flames into the balloon. The fans and generators are shut off and moved away. As the hot air enters, the balloon starts to rise.

Adding Heat to Balloon
Adding heat to the balloon completes the inflation and makes it rise. You can see the other two balloons also being inflated on the right side of this picture.

Me in a Balloon
Yes, that’s me in a balloon.

At some point, the balloon has enough lift to bring the basket to the upright position. That’s when it’s time to load up.

The passengers on our flight arrived during the inflation process. Most of them hung back, although a few came closer to take pictures. I snapped a photo of a couple for them. No one else seemed to want to get that close.

The basket had five compartments: one on each corner for passengers and one in the middle that ran from the front to the back of the basket for the pilot and the fuel canisters. Bob and the crew loaded us up with two couples in each compartment except mine; I shared with just two people. It was cosy but not crowded. A member of the ground crew took a photo of me just before we lifted off.

And then we were off the ground, drifting into the sky. Bob snapped a photo with a GoPro he had mounted off the balloon envelope.

Basket of People
Is this a great picture, or what? Gotta love those GoPros! Bob sent about a dozen shots and I like this one the best.

Balloon Lift Off
I took this photo of our companions still on the ground as we were lifting off; you can see our shadow on the right.

Balloon in Flight
I got this nice shot of one of our companion balloons not long after takeoff.

The flight was wonderful. If you’ve never been in a hot air balloon and you can scrape together the cost of a flight, you really owe it to yourself to do it. It’s a completely novel experience, floating above the ground with this massive structure above your head keeping you aloft. There’s nothing like it.

We were the first ones from our group off the ground, so Bob did most of the navigating — which meant climbing and descending to test the direction of the wind at different altitudes. When he’d find an altitude that took us in the direction he wanted to go, he’d stick to that altitude. We buzzed along in what seemed like a gentle breeze, sometimes reaching in excess of 10 miles per hour. We moved mostly south down the valley with our companions behind us and the balloons from the other company mostly out to the east.

Navigation seems to be the big challenge — and fun — for a balloon pilot. Bob decided to do a “splash and dash” — that’s when the balloon touches down gently in a body of water and then takes off quickly again. He aimed us for Putah Creek, where it ponds up just upstream from a small dam. It was amazing to see him home in on the small pond with nothing to steer with except the wind. We cleared the trees on one side of the pond, descended quickly, and splash! Some water came into the bottom of the basket, soaking our shoes as we climbed out. I looked straight down into the pond and shot two photos of our reflection as we continued drifting south.

Balloon Reflection
Here’s our reflection just after lifting off. That’s the edge of the basket in the bottom of the shot.

Balloon Reflection
Here’s another shot a few moments later when we were drifting away from the pond past the tops of the trees.

Splash
Here’s the second balloon from our group going for a splash and dash. Can you see the reflection of his basket in the pond surface?

We continued drifting mostly south for a while. Meanwhile, the ground crew had packed up and were chasing us on the ground. One of the crew members was driving my truck with Penny inside. Bob talked on the radio occasionally, suggesting potential landing zones. We passed them one by one, occasionally seeing the ground crew below us, my truck easily recognizable by the big white fuel transfer tank on the back.

Balloons in Flight
Here’s another shot of our companions.

Eventually, the flight had to end. We’d flown south nearly to I-80. There were a number of office complexes down below us that had plenty of room for landing. We wound up coming in on the grounds of a college campus in a very gentle breeze — so gentle, in fact, that the basket didn’t even tip when landing. We touched down several times — each time, Bob would say, “We’re not done yet.” — before coming to a rest against a curb on an empty cul de sac. Bob began deflating the balloon as the crew came out to grab ropes. The balloon fell gently to the ground ahead of our flight path.

Landing Zone
X marks the spot of our landing zone.

The passengers climbed out while the ground crew worked on getting the balloon and basket gathered up and loaded. Bob said goodbye and hurried off with half the passengers in one of the vans. They’d go back to Domaine Chandon for a champagne breakfast. I could have come along, but didn’t see any reason to be a burden. After all, I’d been a guest on the flight. Just experiencing that was enough for me.

Champagne
My parting gift from Friday’s flight.

I watched the ground crew work on the balloon for a while, then went back to the truck where Penny was waiting. I let her out for a little walk before we headed out. I stopped in Winters along the way and had a late breakfast at a sidewalk cafe.

I’d forgotten all about the two Chandon bags in the truck, but caught sight of them when I was getting out back at the airport where I’m living. I brought them inside and unwrapped a bottle of Chandon sparkling wine and a glass to toast with.

That champagne is chilling in the fridge right now.

Lessons from the Goldfinch

A long and winding, beautifully written book with numerous disturbing story lines.

The GoldfinchMy friend Barbara, an avid reader, recommended The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt to her Facebook friends, including me. I’d been looking for something modern and mainstream to read since binging and burning out (and subsequently dropping) the Arthur C. Clark (and ghostwriter) Rama series books. (Clarke’s original Rendezvous with Rama is a short masterpiece of science fiction; the long, drawn out books in the series that came afterward were some ghostwriter’s attempt to fill too many pages with unnecessary personal drama reminiscent of today’s reality TV shows that, quite frankly, annoyed and bored me. I was in the middle of the third book when I decided I’d had enough.)

On a whim, I looked it up on my library’s website, discovered they had an ebook version, and put it on hold. When it became available two weeks later, I checked it out and began reading on my iPad.

I soon realized two things about the book:

First, it was beautifully written. The author used words to expertly paint pictures of New York, Las Vegas, and other backdrops for the story that put me right in those places. Keep in mind that I’ve spent a lot of time in both places and I can assure you that she nailed every aspect of her descriptions. From grabbing a taxi in New York to wandering the streets of ghost housing developments in the desert outskirts of Vegas, she put the reader there expertly. She also managed to convey the moods of not only her first person narrator but the places and situations he was in. I realized almost immediately that I’d been stuck in a rut reading garbage fiction. This book was like a breath of fresh air for my brain.

Here’s a paragraph from near the beginning of the book to give you an idea of what I mean:

If the day had gone as planned, it would have faded into the sky unmarked, swallowed without a trace along with the rest of my eighth-grade year. What would I remember of it now? Little or nothing. But of course the texture of that morning is clearer than the present, down to the drenched, wet feel of the air. It had rained in the night, a terrible storm, shops were flooded and a couple of subway stations closed; and the two of us were standing on the squelching carpet outside our apartment building while her favorite doorman, Goldie, who adored her, walked backwards down Fifty-Seventh with his arm up, whistling for a taxi. Cars whooshed by in sheets of dirty spray; rain-swollen clouds tumbled high above the skyscrapers, blowing and shifting to patches of clear blue sky, and down below, on the street, beneath the exhaust fumes, the wind felt damp and soft like spring.

Holy cow. Are you there with me? I can see the yellow of the cabs speeding by, all with their “hired” lights on, while the doorman, in his cap and long coat, steps out onto the avenue, arm held high with his whistle blowing wildly in his mouth, trying hard to get a taxi while mother and son wait under the arched awning in front of the building. I can hear the car horns and other doorman whistles, see wisps of steam rising from the manhole covers, smell the pungent odor of flooded storm drains. All the while, pedestrians rush by under umbrellas, collars turned up against the driving rain as they splash through small puddles on the sidewalk in hopelessly wet shoes.

So much of the book is like this for me.

Second, it was extremely long. I didn’t realize how long it was in real pages until today when I looked it up on Amazon just to get that piece of information: 755 pages. Wow! And my library loan gave me just two weeks to get through it!

The story follows the narrator through the tragic loss of his mother and the morally questionable acquisition of a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, The Goldfinch. Throughout the story, Theo describes the events of his life, from being shuffled from one home to another, left on his own to discover drugs with a friend to his troubled adult life. I don’t want say more because I don’t want to spoil any of the plot lines for readers. Amazon’s description, which was obviously written by some publishing house marketer who didn’t bother to read the book, is a bit misleading.

Simply stated: the story is dark and although I never actually disliked the first person narrator, I kept thinking over and over how stupid he was being to screw up his life the way he was. As one reviewer who found the book too sad to finish put it, “Just when I think it will get better something else bad happens.” A note on Amazon says that 172 reviewers made a similar statement. I would have, too.

But it was the beauty of the writing and my hope for a happy ending that pulled me through the book. Reading in bed before dawn or curled up on the sofa on a foggy afternoon, I paged through it, marveling at the quality of the prose while lamenting the main character’s often self-inflicted misfortunes. Although friendship was a major theme throughout the book, Theo’s friend was not a good influence and I had a lot of trouble getting past that until the third part of the book.

I was rewarded at the end with two passages that I bookmarked because they had special meaning to me. Both occur near the end of the book, in the narrator’s lengthy summation of his story and what he learned from what he’d been through.

Theo talks a bit about the goldfinch in the painting, a small bird fastened to its perch with a length of chain. He talks about the bird not being afraid of its surroundings despite its tiny size. About it not being timid and not being hopeless and refusing to pull back from the world. And then he says:

And, increasingly, I find myself fixing on that refusal to pull back. Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence — of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do — is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of the newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me — and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death. [...]

And — maybe it’s ridiculous to go on in this vein, although it doesn’t matter since no one’s ever going to see this — but does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end — and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?

Not exactly the kind of quote that makes you feel good about life. But in my own life, it has a lot of meaning.

Although I can’t complain about most of my life — I’ve worked hard and played hard and enjoyed life within my limited means — the events of the past two years or so have taken a serious toll on me. They’ve made me see life from Theo’s point of view. Life’s a real struggle sometimes, especially when difficult, unexpected situations are thrown in your path. A marriage gone sour for reasons you can’t comprehend. A formerly loving spouse lying, cheating, and committing a never-ending series of hurtful acts against you. Stranger-than-fiction situations triggering PTSD-driven responses that cause a chain reaction of apparently unsurmountable problems.

This is the catastrophe Theo is talking about, complete with broken hearts and no appeals or do-overs. Unlike Theo, however, I didn’t bring the catastrophe on myself — it was thrust upon me by others. I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with it until recently.

I struggle now to move forward with as much of the joy as I can muster. My friends and family tell me I’m doing an amazing job, that I’m a strong woman and will get through my temporary setbacks. I know they’re right. I have plenty of good days among the bad. But I also know the feeling of utter despair that Theo shares throughout the book.

The other passage I bookmarked reminded me a bit about what’s driven me my entire life.

In the book, Theo does self-destructive things: drugs, theft, fraudulent transactions. He knows these things are wrong, but he does them, sometimes justifying them in his own mind to make them more acceptable. Sometimes he’s just too weak or lacks the willpower to stop. In this lengthly passage, he questions the “norms” and what people are expected to do with their lives.

I look at the blanked-out faces of the other passengers — – hoisting their briefcases, their backpacks, shuffling to disembark — and I think of what Hobie said: beauty alters the grain of reality. And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, the beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.

Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all the right ones? Or, no to take it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet– for me, anyway — all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?

A great sorrow, and one that I’m only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

Because — isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture — ? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mr. Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted — ? What if the heart, for all its unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self immolation, disaster? Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical checkups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or — like Boris — is it better to throw yourself headfirst and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you blew out and out and out.

A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.

I was raised to believe that people follow a predestined path: grow up, go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire, have grandkids, die. Somewhere along the line, “get a job” turned into “have a career” and that career was supposed to be in an office working 9 to 5 for a paycheck.

But something about me made me question that path when I was in the “go to school” phase. You see, rather than getting that office job with good career opportunities, I realized I wanted to be a writer. To say I was discouraged is an understatement, but I toed the line like the relatively obedient kid I was. It wasn’t until years later, when I’d invested quite a bit of time in the “have a career” phase that I realized how unhappy I was.

You see, I didn’t follow my heart. I followed someone else’s “life formula” and that formula just wasn’t working for me. I got off the path I was on and started fresh on a new path. And I haven’t regretted it one damn bit. The only thing I regret is not getting on that path in the first place and wasting 8 years of my life doing something I really didn’t want to do.

My situation really isn’t anything like Theo’s in the book. Theo’s path was self-destructive, mine was constructive. But the point this passage reinforces is that we need to follow what our heart tells us is right, even if it doesn’t conform to what’s “normal” or what’s expected of us. I’m fortunate in that my heart usually steers me onto a path that I do want, one that’s good for me and others around me.

It just saddens me that people close to me have ignored their heart in favor of the easy life formula that’s considered “normal.” I know they will eventually regret taking the path they took — if they don’t already regret it.

Anyway, that’s my takeaway from this book. I recommend it if you like well-written prose and you don’t mind a dark story with a brighter ending.

One last thing. In prepping to write this, I Googled The Goldfinch. I wanted to see what the painting looked like. I was disappointed. What do you think?

Julia’s Thanksgiving Cranberry Recipe

The real recipe; not the lazy-cook knockoff circulating among her family and friends.

My mother-in-law Julia may not have been the best all-around cook, but there were a few things that she made extraordinarily well. One of them was her Thanksgiving cranberries. For a kid who grew up with cranberries served out of a can — still shaped like the can, mind you — this was an amazing revelation that cured me of canned cranberries for good.

Thanksgiving 1996I first made Julia’s cranberry recipe for Thanksgiving dinner in 1996. This was an amazing meal served in my New Jersey home. Our Salvation Army-acquired dining table, expanded to its full length with the help of a homemade leaf fully five feet wide, made it possible for all 15 of us to sit together. Amazing timing with the help of a standard sized oven and the microwave I still own made it possible to serve the entire meal at the same time, fresh and hot. If there is such a thing as miracles, this was one of them. I’ll never be able to top that feat again.

Anyway, Julia gave me her cranberry recipe for that meal and I prepared the cranberries a day or two in advance to her specifications. It came out perfectly.

Recently, I obtained a copy of the recipe that was distributed to family and friends on the back of a card handed out at her funeral. I was shocked to see that it included canned cranberries. The recipe Julia shared with me didn’t have cranberries out of a can. It had fresh cranberries prepared on the stove — the way a real cook would prepare them.

Here, then, is the recipe Julia shared with me back in 1996. I’ll be making this for my friends to enjoy at Thanksgiving this year.

Ingredients:

  • Cranberries
    Julia’s real cranberry recipe started with fresh whole cranberries.

    2 12-oz bags fresh, whole cranberries

  • 2 cups water
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 12-oz can crushed pineapple (packed in natural juice; do not drain)
  • 1 10-oz can Mandarin orange pieces (drained), crushed or chopped
  • 3 or 4 figs, fresh or dried, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, diced (optional for crunchiness; I usually omit it)
  • 1 small apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or orange juice

Instructions:

  1. Rinse the cranberries and place them in a pot.
  2. Add the water and one cup of the sugar and stir.
  3. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer, stirring occasionally.
  4. Listen for the cranberries to “pop.” When about two thirds of them have popped, remove them from the heat and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.
  5. Drain away the cooking water and place the cranberries in a large bowl.
  6. Add the remaining half cup of sugar and still well. Sugar should dissolve.
  7. Cool thoroughly.
  8. Add remaining ingredients and stir well.
  9. Cover and store in the refrigerator at least overnight so the flavors will meld.

Finished Cranberries
Here’s what my cranberries look like this year.

Serve with turkey (for Thanksgiving!) or pork (any time of the year).

If you’re looking for something different with your turkey this year, try homemade mango chutney. That’s also good with pork.

By the way, the other thing Julia made so perfectly was a New York style cheesecake. I dreaded when she made it in my kitchen because she made an enormous mess. But it was worth it: creamy, delicious, and just sweet enough — if you could convince her not to top it off with something silly like cherry pie filling.

I miss you more than I thought I would, Julia. Rest in peace.

I rock? At least one person thinks so.

A buried treasure in my inbox.

The other day I began a full frontal assault on my email inbox. I had accumulated more than 1600 messages — which is really absurd when you consider that I also use about 20 individual folders to sort my mail into topics and projects. I needed to sort through all the inbox messages and either file them into the folders or delete them.

I wound up deleting more than 1000 messages. Seriously: 1000 messages? How the hell did I accumulate all that crap? I also filed about 500 of them. Right now, my inbox sits at 31 and I’m very proud of myself.

Along the way I found a handful of messages from blog readers that I just didn’t get a chance to reply to. Here’s one from June that’s worth saving. But rather than save it filed in my email account, I’d rather share it here.

From: CG [I'll let her remain anonymous]

Subject: You rock!

Message Body:
Maria,

I found your blog by accident while googling for something random, and I ended up reading several of your posts and looking at some of your photography.

I am a 28-yr-old woman with an engineering degree and too many hobbies (photography, music, motorcycles, scuba diving, bicycling, arts&crafts of various sorts, reading). I just wanted to tell you how inspiring your blog is to someone like me. While I do love shoes and own too many of them, most of my interests have made it easier for me to relate to men and to find far more male friends/role models/mentors/inspirations than female ones. I have shared your experience that most women are either interested in things that seem petty and pointless to me, or else they have focused on building a family instead of building a career or having adventures. So it really excites me whenever I discover a woman who is independent, bold, adventurous, strong, rational, intelligent, and highly skilled.

I’m not looking for advice, or even a reply. I only want you to know that you have one more admirer as of today. I’m sorry for the pain you have experienced at the hands of your father and husband. I also don’t believe in karma but am hoping for it in this case! That picture of the amazing view from your Washington home is proof that you are capable of making a wonderful life for yourself. I know that reading your blog does not mean that I know you, of course, but as far as I can tell, you are an amazing person and I wish there were a lot more women like you!

Thanks for making my day.

- C

Thank you, C, for making my day. Back in June when you originally wrote to me and then again this week when I found your buried message.

It’s email like this that convinces me that I’m on the right track in my life. And makes me glad that I share so much with readers on this blog.

And if CG lived around here, I bet we’d be very good friends. She rocks, too!