Is there life beyond Facebook?

Is Facebook pulling the wool over users' eyes?

Imagine life without the Facebook. You may not have to imagine it; it could happen. Could you stand it?

Lemme think: I survived for a full and fruitful four decades without it. I do get sick of being digitally poked and prodded lately. We aren’t cattle after all, we’re sheep. (See “Like Facebook sheep to slaughter (LIKE!).) And don’t even get me started on Farmville; I strictly disallow such weed-like apps in my FB experience.

Facebook has its plusses: It has helped me reconnect with mentors whom I thought might have died by now. Funny how, in our teens and 20s, we assume all older people are WAY older; then, a few blinks later, they are our peers.

But be honest: We all have bones to pick with The Social Network. Its annoying layout changes no one requested; those creepy Big Brother ads that prove it does track our clicks and circulate our data; the peer pressure to friend strangers; the injustice of a Harvard dropout with few real-life friends becoming the youngest-ever billionaire with 750 million fake friends, 50% of whom log on every day to drain our nation’s productivity.

People spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook, according to its FAQ page. Ever more sites are enabling our addiction with automatic sharing buttons and access frames through which other apps peer. Facebook execs also are targeting struggling media companies with tips on piggy-backing hits.

This has gotta be irritating to other geeks. So why wouldn’t sabotage be tempting? Worst of all, Facebook is one of those companies that has exported its headquarters to Ireland to escape twice-as-high corporate U.S. taxes, which means all the income we generate for it is being exported overseas, along with American jobs.

And a personal thorn …

Facebook's sacrificial lamb: She was only exercising her free speech right.

In February 2010, my daughter, a heavy Facebook user, was kicked off because of its self-policing policy that empowers fellow users to report abuse, the equivalent of a citizen’s arrest.

The Dresden Dolls -- shown in proportion to band contribution (to be honest, c'mon, and I love Brian as much as the next fan)

Her crime: sheepishly playing along with one of those viral games — the one where you choose a famous doppelgänger as your profile picture. She identifies with Amanda “the ‘F’ word” Palmer, the better half of the punk-cabaret duo Dresden Dolls (sorry, Brian), and who is all about free speech, file-sharing and uploading video of their concerts. To accompany a solo album, Palmer had collaborated with her husband-to-be, Neil Gaiman, on a lovely coffeetable book, Who Killed Amanda Palmer. My daughter chose, from its array of murder vignettes, an especially edgy shot and, bam, deactivated, no questions asked, no true appeal process. After a month of peaceful protest, we had to pull a few strings to get her account restored.

If Facebook were to be taken down even for a day, I might see it a bit as comeuppance.

License by CreativeCommons

But, really? A self-policing state, Facebook? Is that not socialism? Should we trust fellow users to make such judgments about what’s fair game, fair use, a fair call? Same thing with all these “report” buttons everywhere — “report as spam,” report abuse.” Even “like” and “dislike” have repercussions. Who is marking these things, and who comes along afterward as arbiter? No one. It’s chaos. It gives mere PEOPLE all the power!

License by CreativeCommons

Anonymous, this is the forum you are targeting. Socialist or fascist or cultist (blind leading the blind) … whatever it is, it is populism at play. 

Since its initial threat in July, Anonymous has backpedaled on its spin, saying it isn’t really out to destroy Facebook — that this is merely an awareness campaign; its followers are anti-following prophets. The simple message: Don’t trust Facebook with your private info.

The cornerstone of any civilized society, though, is trust. Although it’s called a “free”way, we trust other drivers not to use the roads as bumper-car courses. We trust, when we type in our credit card number and security code to purchase an Ahh Bra, that we won’t get charged for a Wurlitzer jukebox shipped from Germany to New Zealand. We trust that the man dressed like a security officer is not going to start shooting young children or blow up buildings. Although there are always bad apples, we also trust that there will be someone to protect us, in the end. And sometimes, we err on the side of “benefit of the doubt.”

In Facebook we trust. The omniprescent.

The chosen one: Mark Zuckerberg

Still. Mark Zuckerberg is not my shepherd. And though I walk into the valley of Farmville, I fear Facebook’s evil.

So whose side am I on? It’s complicated, as is my relationship to Facebook.

If it turns out, on Nov. 5, that the new social order we’ve come to know as Facebook — my friends and I even talk about Facebook when we get together face to face! — should bow to anarchy and destruction, maybe I’d have time enough, at last, to read all of those books I never get a chance to read.

Just like the socially disconnected Burgess Meredith, below, in the conclusion of this three-part Twilight Zone episode (have we drained enough of your time yet?):

What IS Anonymous’ beef with Facebook?

“Question Authority” is a catchy mantra for someone in college. With the perspective of age, though, I wonder about the difference between questioning and challenging authority. Where do we draw the line, and where does it become illegal, i.e. harmful to society?

A 1960 picture book etched into my brain, written and illustrated by Jo Ann Stover.

favorite childhood book of mineIf Everybody Did by Jo Ann Stover — which, I realize now, formed the basis of my morality education at age 2 — posits a variation of the “jump off a cliff” refrain of parents: “What if everybody did?”

In other words, it might not hurt for me to litter my gum wrapper, but on the next page it would say, “What if everybody did?” and there would be a sea of gum wrappers, choking out all life and loveliness. Or, whom would it hurt if I spilled some tacks? Next page: This is what would happen if everybody did, and there would be people crying out in pain stepping barefoot on all the tacks. (Bonus lesson: It taught me the value of individuality, to not mindlessly follow the crowd. A bargain for a picture book priced today at $7.99.)

In my last post on Anonymous’ Nov. 5 threat against Facebook (not really a book), it wasn’t my intention to credit or blame the website as the sole driver of either social networking or flash mobs. Facebook simply gives a face to the phenom of society moving online. And The Social Network helped cement its marketing brand, although Facebook creators themselves staged a protest over that Oscar-winning spin.

More and more, as Facebook becomes the portal for Americans’ online experience — how many of you have it set as your “home” page? — the idea of any disruption of service starts to feel like a home invasion by people in freaky V for Vendetta-inspired Guy Fawkes masks.

So, what is Anonymous’ beef with Facebook?

Anonymity in the age of the Internet seems an oxymoron. Yet this loosely knit group of hacktivists thinks it knows enough to cover its tracks while it punishes the rest of us for being victims of sketchy privacy policies — for being naive or ignorant or, worse, too trusting.

It seems Anonymous considers Facebook fascist. 

Although I don’t condone hacking or theft, if you bother to read the available manifestos on Anonymous’ “OpFacebook,” the group’s ends, if not their means, do border on noble-sounding: A sampling:

  1. Expose Facebook’s crimes to as many people as possible.
  2. Scorn Facebook as much as possible in as many ways as we can scheme up.

For me, the jury’s still out on whether Anonymous is composed of freedom fighters or terrorists. Maybe Netflixing V for Vendetta would provide insight; alas I fear it, like this blog, offers more questions than answers.

In terms of cyberterrorism, though, I see little difference between Anonymous using our personal info without our knowledge to stage protests and the “evil empire” Facebook using our personal info in ways we user-sheep wouldn’t dream of. The real battle at hand may be as basic as geek vs. user. 

A Guy Fawkes mask. Guy Fawkes Day celebrates the day a British zealot was arrested, after his plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 was thwarted.

If I were Anonymous — and I’m far from it, just an overexposed blogger chick — I wouldn’t use as my default (profile picture) the face of a religious nut who sought to decimate the so-called reasonable representatives of the masses.

Is Anonymous’ true goal to get us to leave Facebook, to force positive change in its boardroom, or to destroy it — and online society — as we know it?

And, more important, what can I do to protect myself and my family? Even if I deactivated my account, it would be too late — my Facebook footprint is permanent and owned by a corporation. Hmm. Maybe it would be in my best interests if all that were destroyed.

Just don’t wanna lose my SCRABBLE stats and wry comments.

(In Part 2, we revisit our hero, Burgess Meredith, after the dastardly, senseless hydrogen bomb attack in Twilight Zone.)

Like Facebook sheep to the slaughter (LIKE!)


On the bleat beat: Hackltivism BAAAAAAAAAD! (Image by James Good via Flickr)

Trembling, I type, joining a herd of quivering bloggers discussing Anonymous’ revolving threat to “kill” Facebook on Nov. 5. That would be Guy Fawkes Day, which honors a British zealot who in 1605 was thwarted in a plot to blow up Westminster Palace and the politicians meeting within.

Bleat the sheep: Hacktivism baaaaaaad. Facebook LIKE!

Still, I’m having trouble sorting out the “sides” in what seems a battle for cyberspace dominance lately. As a journalist, I thought “free speech” was always the good guy. Yet online, the idea seems in test mode, as social-media conflagrations blur lines of good and evil. 

Egypt sets off a chain reaction.

Take the increasingly popular “flash mob.” Once a vehicle for creativity and building community — e.g. stopping time in Times Square — it logically morphed into a tool of protest, e.g. Operation Hey Mackey, which took root in September 2009 at an Oakland Whole Foods to spotlight the “green” giant’s CEO’s seemingly hypocritical stance on health care.

Then from protest to revolution: Facebook famously provided the grid for the Mideast uprisings sown in Egypt in January, spreading democracy … we think. Taken to the extreme, flash mobs are becoming synonymous with crime — enter the looting gangs in Philadelphia and suburban D.C.

Can anarchy be far behind?

This past week, it looked like anarchy in San Francisco. Good vs. evil got blurrier as outrage over the July killing of a homeless man by Bay Area Rapid Transit system police escalated into scuffling protests that were, interestingly, incited by Anonymous and fueled by Facebook (on the same side?). In response, police shut down wireless access, clamping free speech — a blanket punishment to avert a blanket attack, confusing all of us about whose side the “authorities” are even on, and prompting compounded protests.

Confounding matters: Each “side” tries to blame the media for distorting its message … but who can even tell where media begin and end anymore? The “spin” on the Web is running rampant. I like to think of the news media as on the sidelines, as not having a side … but perhaps that exposes my naivete.

Here are two video messages representing two sides in the BART conflict. First, from “BART TV” — who knew? everyone has a channel! — with its “safety first” and “we’re doing this for your own good,” Brave New World feel:

Compare that to this creepy message from Anonymous:

Here’s hoping Nov. 5 proves a case of Bloggers Cry Wolf … as we bloggers feel especially vulnerable.

Privately, what makes me laugh is: At some level, we are all on the same side — wanting to be safe, free in speech and will, and at times just left alone in peace and anonymity.

(For your sidebar entertainment, here is a man terrorized both at work and in his own home for exercising his free speech right to read: Burgess Meredith, in Part I of a classic Twilight Zone episode.)

Kazaxe: High-impact clubbing

Disco ball in blue

Image via Wikipedia

This is not your mother’s jazzercise. It’s ladies’ night at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning.

Kazaxé (pronounced ka-za-SHAY), invented in someone’s basement by Asuka-Bom, seems a distant cousin to the Zumba craze. The difference is it doesn’t feel like anybody’s freakin’ craze, because it thrives with zero marketing, and retains a nasty, underground feel. Thanks to roaring word-of-mouth, it has been forced to move to a larger basement — behind the Total Wine (!) and entering at the loading docks, beneath the Annandale (Va.) Boys & Girls Club. (Tell them Terry sent you.)

This experience is for ladies of all ages — and a few good men — who don’t get enough club time. A $5 cover (or as little as $3.33, if you buy a multivisit pass) covers mingling, disco search lights, gargantuan fans, mirrors, ear buds for the booming music, water from fountains or a fridge stocked with bottled (it’s not open bar but 50 cents extra), and at least three sexy dancers on stage to emulate. There was even the smell of smoke, in every exhalation of the hyper, tattooed lady next to me.

I admit I got lost on some (OK, all) of the hip-hop moves, but it doesn’t matter if you do nothing but grapevines, electric slides or Sandra Dee‘s moves in “Grease” — you will sweat mercilessly, and each somatic cell — maybe even some gametic ones — will be smiling after the hour is through.

At the start of the dimly lit (thank goodness) class, instructor Farrah asked who was new, so I raised my hand, aware that she would then be spotting me for signs of crisis. At first I thought that my moves were to dancing what karaoke is to singing — best done in the privacy of my bathroom. Soon I found my zen, and she would check on me, coax out a little nod, so she knew I wasn’t going under. Twenty minutes in, though, when a frenetic merengue came on, I became a BEAST. My half-Puerto Rican heritage took over, my bottom half on automatic blender so I could focus on all the crazy arm moves. Wait, who is that caterwauling? Oops. Me.

But when the healthfully narcissistic guy on stage took the lead with his impossibly jive moves during a lightning-round remix of T-Pain‘s “Take Your Shirt Off” … teasing and finally, yes, stripping off his shirt, a-twista in da air like a helicopta … I knew I was hooked.

Time to buy more scrunchies.

A sampling:

9 signs (and co-signs) of our times

I’ve noticed that common street signs have undergone a reflective upgrade, from Cheez-It yellow …


… to NEON CHARTREUSE YELLOW (paint chip, below).


 While we’re at it, why not update the signage art to be more reflective of our times? For instance:

1. School crossing.

Gone are the days kids carried books and eagerly darted to class.

Nowadays, they are plugged-in, tuned-out and let their fingers do the walking on touch-screens. 

2. Pedestrian crossing.

 Yesteryear’s jaywalker.

Today, we’re talking WIDE TURNS and possible Hitchcock sightings.

3. HOV lanes.

Haven’t seen this yet, but give it time.

4. Four-way intersection.

Pretty straightforward? Well, in Northern Virginia, some intersections are so terrifying, we all could use a little dashboard Jesus. (That’s “dashboard cheeses,” for pals Treva and Patty.)

 5. Deer crossing.

Artist’s rendering evokes merry ol’ Rudolph, plump and ready to roast. 

As development encroaches on their space, they look like a new species, perhaps something out of Somalia.

6. Here are signs I simply find puzzling:


How do they know there isn’t anyone crossing?!?!

7. HUH? “Inherently”? Is that really a “traffic-sign” word?

8. I thought the phrase was “Share the ROAD,” bikers. Must be backlash for the 51,000 bikers injured yearly in traffic (2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data).

(This photo courtesy of this website; happy browsing!)

9. And finally, a cause I can get behind. Don’t know about, you, but I am sick of it and soon might be seen on the streets carrying this protest sign.

Bonus feature: Here is a shot I took in the woods behind our home in Fairfax, Va., of an actual hungry deer, foraging around high noon, perhaps posing for a new sign. Poor thing.

(Photo by Terry Byrne; all rights reserved.)

Carl Sagan, reincarnated to the billionth power

BBC’s rock-star scientist, the hunky Brian Cox. He even sounds like Carl Sagan, with his guttural, am-I-speaking-slowly-enough-for-you tone. (Copyright British Broadcasting Corp.; please don’t hurt me for sharing, as I am helping to promote your show.)

Each day, I awake with renewed vigor to resume a stretching, diet and fitness discipline that has the power to extend my life. Equipped with knowledge, I need only the will.

But if I am to listen to Brian Cox, particle physicist and creator of the “Wonders of the Universe” series airing the past few weeks on Discovery Science channel, there’s little point in any of it.

As the cosmos moves with unflappable forward force from its ordered state of low entropy to its preferred chaos of high entropy, and — paraphrasing here —  each of the 200 BILLION stars in our galaxy, including our trusted sun, hurtle toward fulfilling their destiny of snuffing out and dwarfing all meaning of our existence, I’m left with such nebulous questions as Cox starts each episode: Why are we here? Where do we come from?”

There’s never an answer from him, but he does intone, and this is straight from the show: “As the arrow of time plays out [at the end of our Stelliferous Era, when the universe is about100 trillion years old] … the cosmos will be plunged into eternal night … a dark and empty void littered with dead stars and black holes …. yet the vast majority of its life span still lies ahead of it.” Forget global warming. This sounds dire.

His words, stretched like taffy, go on: “There won’t be a single atom of matter left. … And after an unimaginable length of time … 10 thousand-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion years … for the first time in its life, the universe will be permanent and unchanging … nothing happens. And it keeps not happening, forever.”

Our “bright window” of time on this planet, in which all life is possible, is laughingly brief — as small a fraction of the universe’s life span as “one-thousandth of a billion-billion-billionth, billion-billion-billionth, billion-billion-billionth of a percent.”

Gee, not even Carl Sagan made me feel this insignificant.

Cox’s message is clear: Our time is NOW.

I suppose, then, I’ve no choice but[t] to get right to it and care-take this ever-changing arrangement of molecules I’m entrusted with, my sad-sack body of degenerate matter. Let’s sweat to some oldies!

Maybe even include on the playlist a peppy track, Things Can Only Get Better, from British pop band D:Ream, a one-hit wonder [of the universe] that flamed out in 1997. Its erstwhile keyboard player? None other than professor big-banging Brian Cox! (The following clip is not the hit — couldn’t find one in which he wasn’t edited out or replaced by a sub, but this one clearly shows his rock-STAR persona.)

Bonus: Brian Cox’s rant on the inane forecast that the universe will end in 2012 (look out, now, keep your hands on the wheel!):

Rethink Impossible: A wake-up call

Lily Tomlin as telephone operator Ernestine on that ’70s show “Laugh-In” (Courtesy

I swore I wouldn’t use this space as flypaper for rants. But let’s talk AT&T, for just one unlimited, roaming minute, shall we? And I’ll try not to swear.

(Just exercising my free speech, at no cost or obligation to you, either — see? Totally free.)

I fear the phone company is again getting too big for its britches.

I say “the phone company” because, just like paranoid James Coburn in the charming 1967 romp The President’s Analyst, I am not sure who is behind it all. (Movie spoiler alert: The Phone Company wants to HACK into people’s brains and take over the world! Hmm, sound familiar, Rupert Murdoch?)

Sure, today’s Ma Bell and middle-aged Baby Bell – notably AT&T and Verizon — have different logos and slogans, but at times they seem in villainous cahoots, ping-ponging us back and forth with come-ons; cloned, “closed” phones; and contract chicanery.

Ma Bell and her babies (Copyright Slate, 2006)

Two years ago, I begrudgingly defected from “Team Mobile” to AT&T because my husband wanted an iPhone and, at the time, it was our only choice of carriers. (No surprise that today Verizon is the only official alternative.) In terms of billing snafus and inconveniences, it’s been two years of cell hell.

I’ll spare you the details, because I’m sure you aren’t interested – neither were countless AT&T customer service reps.

“Get Smart” (Courtesy of

What gets me is THEY GOT YOU. Hoodwinked. Because if you blink, the phone makers will whip out some technological marvel that makes you need to break your cellphone contract, emphasis on “cell”; you need a bail bondsman to get out.

Seems weird to have to pay more for a product when you stop using it.

Like the Pennsylvania Turnpike – easy to buy in, but you have to break a $20 or $50 to get off, and in between you are held captive to their choice of foodstuffs, services, brands. Unlike toll roads, though, in which the ride is generally pleasant, cellphone companies also make you pay as you go. Imagine having to stop each mile to drop in coins, still getting walloped at an exit with penalties when nature calls and the next prescribed pit stop is 38 miles away.

As a contracted cellphone customer, you also seem to be the company’s last priority, as its focus is to greedily lure more fed-up customers from rival carriers, not deal with you.

Hello! Wouldn’t this be a refreshing business model: to actually retain customers based on service and brand loyalty, rather than feel the need to lock us in for years, making us unhappy or forcing us to fork over big bucks when the next must-have gizmo comes out?

Are you also SEEING RED? Check out the second video, below, for more on the recent sea of red in New York City.

Even more refreshing: if companies like Verizon would consider loyalty and service in the case of its 45,000 workers now striking for their fair shake. Rather than spend so much time contracting with customers, maybe focus a little more on labor contracts, so that skilled, contented and loyal employees can help you offer decent services that your customers would willingly choose to stick with.

What we all need is more bargaining power. Or just the wake-up call that we already possess it. Make your voices heard. STRENGTH IN NUMBERS, PEOPLE! We’ve got their number.

Tooling around the Internet, I found something of a revolutionary: a guy who teaches you, step by step, how to break your Verizon contract, even if you, like me, still have no idea how telephones — whether pink princess rotary land-line model or wireless app-loaded non-Apple stupidphones™ — even work.

Given Verizon apparently thinks so little of contracts, I’ll pass it on.

Power to the people:

This bug says: We don’t need no stinkin’ borders!

An adult brown marmorated stink bug, aka Halyomorpha halys, tries hard to blend in. (Photo courtesy of Steven Jacobs, Penn State University Entomology Department)

Little something to get your minds off the Dow dungheap: stink bugs.

Until recently, I had only an idle interest in these curious creatures, the latest in a line of media-borne plagues (killer bees, Lyme-bearing ticks, fire ants, bed bugs, etc.).

I’d seen evidence of their eastern Pennsylvania invasion last October riding the Bolt bus from D.C. to New York. Each time the bus paused in traffic, an army of wee brown-shielded insects glommed onto its sides, like frat boys at a car wash. The bus would sputter and shake, and they’d disband. How cute, I thought. Besides, who’s a-skeered of a little odious odor?

The occasional specimen has since penetrated our personal perimeter, but a half-can of Raid usually took care of it, effectively chasing any unsavory scent (not counting Raid).

Then, last weekend on my power walk, armed only with cellphone, iPod, Power-Shot and Bushnell  binoculars, I encountered not one but two stink bugs (that’s an increase of 100%, a veritable swarm)  hitchhiking, not on a silly ol’ bus, but on MY ACTUAL UPPER BODY NEAR MY NECK.

After the paramedics left, I got to thinking: You know, these guitar-pick pests aren’t so harmless. They made front-page news in today’s Washington Post because government entomologists perceive the goal of this “invasive species” is, ultimately, to climb into our beds at night, steal our human warmth and eat all of our peaches!

I’m trying not to panic. Always been a fan of nature. For millennia, living creatures have explored, expanded their vistas, seized new niches, sought better living arrangements, capitalized on food and mating supplies … I feel it’s not up to us to quell any organism’s drive to propagate, not even the funkiest among us.

I ask you, is it the creature’s fault it was brought here from Asia? Probably came over as larvae and spent its entire life here. The little rascal knows no other home. Bugs know no borders.

At what point does an invasive species cease being “invasive”?

Copyright © 2011 Mansueto Ventures LLC. All rights reserved. Fast Company, 7 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007-2195

After it has conquered its corner of the ecosystem and the “Us” and “Them” tables are turned, I suppose.

You know, those same mad scientists who f-f-f-f-ear the lowly stink bug are now thinking about rallying yet another invasive species, a parasitic Asian wasp, to control this pestilence — a move that, as I see it, would only compound the problem, further throwing off the balance of nature and scales of justice. Even stink bugs know their territorial rights.

We humans bandy about the term “pesticide”  loosely, but when you think of it, those who would engage in pest control are performing a form of genocide — OK, insecticide — but, still, trying to wipe out a gene pool on the basis of looks and perceived motives of malice, greed and lechery alone. Fear. Plain, unadulterated, marmorated fear. Goodness, we don’t even speak the Halyomorpha halys‘ language.

And why isolate this boogey-bug du jour, when, last I checked, this country is overrun with invasive species. Indeed, this country was founded by invasive species. The only native Americans are, well, Native Americans and the like, and you don’t see us trying to eradicate other people.

Oh, wait.

So. Rather than make rash judgments about the next stink bug I see, I think I’m gonna go up to it, smile, try to find common ground and maybe suggest it move to a place it can raise a big stink and get all the warmth it needs: Arizona.

After a few generations, maybe the brown marmorated stink bug will be so addicted to our fruit trees, it’ll catch diabetes and die out.

Did you hear the one about the blind editor?

I’m ready to come out.

I have this condition, keratoconus, which most people have never heard of let alone can spell.

What’s interesting is it involves the thinning of the corneas to the point someone can become functionally, legally blind without corrective lenses, yet most corrective lenses can’t come close to correcting it. And I, an editor who makes her living correcting stuff, have it.

People ask: What do you see? The operative question might be: What DON’T I see? or What do I NOT see? See the difference? Either way. I see things that aren’t there and don’t always see things that are.

For instance, I didn’t see the band teacher gliding across the school parking lot that dawn, inspiring her to conduct me to hell with her wand finger. I didn’t see the chunky median my car tripped over, catching air. Luckily no cop saw that one, either.

Ready for my close-up: The little spot you see on the tip of my cornea — a “nipple cone” — is the beginning of the bugged-out look my eyes would have developed if not for the cross-linking procedure that arrested the disease. (Photo by Andrew Morgenstern)

And for a decade or more, until I was diagnosed in 2004, I hadn’t been able to sight-read sheet music or make out my daughters’ expressions (their rolling-of-the-eyes I easily sensed) or recognize folks I had known a lifetime if they came at me in the wrong light without distinctive vocalizations.

I made friends that way, mistaking anyone for someone else. People think they know you from somewhere, so by the time they realize they don’t, they do.

What I do see: halos and waterfalls. My landscape is like a Salvador Dali painting, everything melting. Or heaven on Earth, all fuzzy-lens romantic. In faces, I see multiple eyes, like Brundlefly should have had. (Yeah, why didn’t they give Goldblum’s creature more peepers? Jeepers.)

What I don’t see: complexion problems. Noses are just a smear, like he-who-shall-not-be-named. And my house always seems clean enough. So there’s the rub: I woke up in 2004 to a very spotty home.

Healthy vs. keratoconus: This is one simulation of what letters look like to someone with keratoconus, compared with healthy vision on the left. The difference is we don’t have the benefit of seeing it as “gray” vs. “black” and have to figure out which is the truest image. (Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, published by the Free Software Foundation)

I guess I am in good company, seeing things this way. Although estimates vary, the National Keratoconus Foundation estimates one in 2,000 people is afflicted — often without realizing it. Doing a quick Google search, I found another “coming out” blog post by Steven Holcomb, the American Olympic bobsled driver, with more simulations:

To See or Not to See

As they say, if I can help just ONE person recognize his or her problem, my life would blah blah blah. Maybe even you. How close are you to the screen right now, anyway?

Before my diagnosis, I squinted much of the time. People perhaps thought I was displeased — which works for a working copy editor. We are supposed to turn up our noses at drivel and crab a lot. (Ha! I first wrote that as “carb a lot” — typo, but that, too.)

Managing the newshound workload — my hunt-and-peck typing style a heightened adventure, deciphering proofs a puzzle — meant an extra ounce of diligence and vigilance. I figured that was poetic: a blind editor, akin to blind justice. I empathized with my one-eyed eye doc. He had lost an eye as a child, in a bike accident. A simple branch rubbed him the wrong way, which eventually inspired him to give people the gift of sight he couldn’t have.

After years of frustration over reordering glasses and contacts, sometimes up to four new prescriptions a year, I finally received a diagnosis — and my eyes leaked, puddles.


Toasting with Dr. Rubinfeld, with a happy pill (me only) and peach-mango juice, before my May 5, 2011, procedure.

My one-eyed eye doc said I was a textbook case and put me in touch with Washington Eye Physicians & Surgeons and a cutting-edge therapy, corneal cross-linking, which involves no cutting or corneal transplant, which had seemed my next dead-end pit stop, and also the pits. The thought of some dead person’s tissue as my window on the world made me shudder.

I know, the corneas of Christina-Taylor Green, the sixth-grader killed in the mass shooting that targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in January, are now helping another child to see. That’s sweet and miraculous. But I was spooked wondering what views I might adopt through someone else’s eye parts. Besides, it could have put me out of work for a year, in recovery.

So, on May 5, 2011, I enrolled in a “CXL” (medical shorthand) nine-month study led by ophthalmologist Roy Rubinfeld, a jovial fellow who whistles and sings at work, and crows about the wonders of the eye’s thousands — billions! — complex working parts. He has changed countless lives with this procedure. And saved a few livelihoods.

Though non-FDA-approved and pricey, the process was magical. They strapped me to a chair (not really), did the Clockwork Orange thing and flooded my eyes first with riboflavin, then ultraviolet light, intermittently, for a half-hour. Ha! another funny typo, I wrote “ultraviolent.” Well, it could have been, if not in such a controlled, spa-like setting as the practice’s Chevy Chase, Md., suites.

The Green Lantern: Yep, those are my green eyes. And to think my husband-to-be once asked, upon meeting me, “Are those your eyes, or are you wearing colored contacts?” Well, I was at the time, but I don’t anymore and am wearing NO contacts here, and no special effects or photoshopping applied; technician Jordan merely turned off the lights while I stared at hypnotic light. I remind myself of that Disney alien cartoon guy, what’s his name? A clue?

My vision has improved at an astounding rate, as my eyes busily produce collagen, inspired by that gorgeous purple light I miss like an old lover. I’ve been three months now healing, without contacts. Rigid lenses custom-fit to the topography of the eye are the only type that serve keratoconus patients. The lenses function as a corneal prosthesis, a push-up bra. As I struggle through my eyes’ “regeneration,” wearing multiple pairs of glasses — often at once — just to get through routines most people take for granted (reading laundry-care instructions, hunting and gathering at the mega-supermarket — a non-fun fun house), I’m feeling miraculous myself, given I could not make out even the giant “E” unassisted previously and am now LEGALLY, albeit carefully, driving. Nighttime is a trip. I think they accidentally gave me the superpower of night vision.

From Precision Vision website.

(Which reminds me of a funny story: When my youngest daughter, then about 5 or 6, had her first official vision test and was asked to read a line, let’s say, “F E L O P Z D,” she sounded it out as Felopzd! then declared, punitively, ‘That’s not a word!” When asked to read the last line, I swear, she read: “Uhhh … there’s a little dot and then it says “Copyright 1992 Snellen Laboratories,” or whatever it was. She is now a linguistics major in her last year at Northwestern University and a Scrabble master, with every two-letter playable word memorized.)

But enough about her. Back to me. I am pleased to broadcast: At my checkup last Thursday, I was told I could get back into contacts, just in time to watch the finale of So You Think You Can Dance.

Peach-mango shots, anyone?

See ya next time.

5 Things Newspapers Are Still Good For

The word is out that newspapers are dying. Is there time to appeal that sentence? As I see it, websites can never fulfill these vital newspaper roles:

1. Silly Putty® medium.

This doesn’t work on the iPad®. Besides, AppleCare won’t cover your gumming things up. What? Silly Putty isn’t popular with kids anymore? Those smart-alecks must see the bloody writing on the wall.

2. Ransom note material.

Sure, other media make great terror tools — the TV’s an evil portal in “Poltergeist” (1982), computers prove threatening in thrillers from “War Games” (1983) to “Copycat” (1995) — even a fax machine masks the villain taunting Tim Robbins in Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992).  But nothing says derangement and premeditation like cutting out letters over weeks’ time to send a clear message. (And what would the Zodiac Killer have done without the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Unabomber, without The Washington Post and The New York Times?)

This online ransom-note tool just doesn’t have the same feel:

Cover of The Economist, Aug 24, 2006

3. Pet care and training. (Dailies as pooping doilies)

This broad category goes beyond wrapping fish and lining bird cages. Anyone who has house-broken a puppy can tell you newspapers are indispensable in their disposability. Also, training a dog to fetch the newspaper is far more serviceable than the stick trick. What are you gonna do with a stick but immediately throw it away again?

Check out this pooch’s time-saving talent!

4. Cost-effective alarm system.

A neighbor’s driveway has not yet reached critical mass.

With crime invading suburban areas, most people these days are careful to curb newspaper delivery when on vacation. (Don’t forget to resume it upon your return home, people!!!) Naturally, papers piling up outside the dwelling may be the only sure sign you are trapped or dead inside and someone ought to call the police.

5. Handy pest control.

Fly-swatter, spider-squisher, ladybug flying carpet (you don’t kill a ladybug, you gently show her the door) … newspapers manage all this and more.

During a storied mouse infestation (not the USB-compatible kind) in our newsroom, glue traps were placed in strategic spots underfoot, bait-enhanced with sprinklings of crumbs from us eating at our desks. Problem was: When a mouse was caught in the Photo Department, it was STILL ALIVE. Page designer Michael B. Smith loves to tell the tale of how he finished it off with a paper stack.

Try doing THAT with a website.


The Economy of Words

On my first tweeting attempt, I overpecked.

Kingfisher Twitter goaded: “Your Tweet was over 140 characters. You’ll have to be more clever.”

Golly. Perhaps the toll of this “information superhighway” (remember that, oldsters?) is not, as I’d feared, death of the mother tongue. It demands short and sweet tweets.

Precision, excision and concision are the domain of any decent editor, but nowadays anyone with a domain gets a say. As newsprint fades, self-proclaimed wordsmiths infest the Web, hanging from the blogging rafters and online shingles (can you GET shingles from social networking?!).

With this entry, I dive into the infested pool.

Lots of tweeting going on. Is there room for one more?

Are there others out there policing for linguistic quality over quantity?

I recently ran across one British bobby, Richard Hearn, creator of the Paragraph Planet. He happens to be featuring my 75-word masterpiece today (cheap plug). Hearn’s mission, one of many, is to cultivate Good Writing™ online — not in 140 characters or less but in 75 words exactly, give or take a word, as the counter can misbehave.

The site draws about five submissions a day, subjecting Hearn to maybe 1,825 paragraphs a year on a range of subjects. What makes him groan? “Clichés, or when someone’s desperately inserting words or repeating themselves to make the word count, as if 75 words is War and Peace,” he tells me. Themes on vampires and “overly motivational pieces … lend themselves to cliché more than most,” he muses.

And to whittle all the submissions down? “I do try and batten down the hatches on my own taste — and something might be less literary but still resonate … or be a genuine response,” he explains. Hmm. “Batten down the hatches.” Cliché? Or resonance?

I, too, subscribe to novelty. I am 90% sure I harbor the novel-seeking gene — the dopamine D4 receptor also associated with substance abuse. I rule out the 10% because I am not currently abusing any substances. I also seek, inside, the novel that I shall write someday.

For now, though, I’ll focus on characters with cachet, Twitter’s directive to be brief while ever “clever” — and to what end? Broadcasting to the twitterverse and blogosphere, saying more with less. To attain followers? Or be one of the crowd? To flush out clichés only to be retweeted, hashtagged, “liked,” shared, coined, co-opted, archived, searched and, one day, perhaps, become the anonymous author of a cliché?

Briefly, before I lose your attention: Squelching clichés for a living I do.

I also recognize that such novel phrases as …

  • “Tires chew the gravel” from John Updike‘s Problems (the short-story collection from the author who first inspired me to write)
  • “Bones tap-dancing back down the velvet …” — a whirl of an invention by my pal and flash-fiction master Jacqui Barrineau on shooting craps

… are all examples of Good Writing™ because they hijack readers’ expectations, animizing inanimate objects. They strike a chord — no! — hit home — NO! — tickle the fancy — groan.

They remind us that, sometimes, to be great is to be understood.