Monthly Archives: June 2011

Life Without the U.S. Mail

I am saddened by what appears to be the imminent implosion of the United States Postal Service.  All that rain and snow and dark of night, and the kill shot comes courtesy of the Internet and an underfunded retiree trust.

Photo: Aranami

Imagine life without the U.S. Mail.  No more kitchen tables blanketed daily with seventeen credit card offers that each must be opened and shredded at intervals lest the shredder seize up.  No more catalogues from the previous homeowners to geriatric medical supply companies.  No more pleas from alma maters for money on top of the money they are already owed.

What will we do with those extra hours not spent waiting on line at the post office, while one customer devours everyone’s lunch break by reviewing every type of stamp offered to mail a postcard?  I’m going to miss gazing through the glass windows with wanton desperation at the postal workers strolling in the background.

Wedding invitations will have to be by email or text.  The grandparents and Luddites who insist on living life without computers will have to miss the party.  At least they won’t need to be sent a thank you note.

Another casualty will be the handwritten letter.  I last received one in 1992 at a sleep-away gulag in the Berkshire mountains.  It was from my best friend, and in the letter he described all the cast-away junk he had been smashing and setting on fire in my absence.  In the margins he had drawn caricatures of teachers he disliked, set in violent and lewd situations.  At night, when I was homesick for a good meal and a bathroom with a closing door, I would re-read the letter by light of my calculator watch.  I’d still have the letter today if an ogre in Umbro shorts hadn’t used it to wrap his trout.

Such a personal letter could not be transmitted over email or Facebook today.  The most we can hope for are emoticons, “xoxoxo,” and advertisements for Netflix.  Perhaps someday technology will allow people to fill electronic messages with stylized handwriting and doodles.  Curlicues, flourishes, and hearts over lowercase ‘i’s will return to written communication.  Perhaps some genius will figure out a way to transmit the scent of perfume over the Internet.  And we think the pop-ups are annoying now.

The only thing missing then will be the stroke-inducing wait at the post office.  Someone will have to create a website for that, where your avatar brings a heavy package, and then waits on line during its lunch break with billions of other avatars on their lunch breaks.  There will be button-commands for a cross of the arms, an exasperated sigh, and a glare at the unhurried postal workers.  And logging in will cost only $0.44.

11 Comments

Filed under Current Events

You’ve Been Sued Via Facebook

Photo: Bill Bradford

Courts in the United Kingdom and elsewhere are starting to allow lawsuits to be served over Facebook.  This has got to be the best idea since the Magna Carta.  Imagine signing in to Facebook, and right underneath an invitation to “Gwendolyn’s Fourth 29th Birthday!” is “Motion for Summary Judgment” from the parents of the kid who fell off your swing set two years ago.

Maybe they could just dispense with the need for serving a lawsuit and place a “sue” button on everyone’s profile page, right next to the “add as friend” button.  “So-and-so would like to sue you for $500,000.00 plus interest and attorneys’ fees.  Accept service?  Yes-No-Maybe.”

In most jurisdictions, serving the initiatory papers in a lawsuit have the most burdensome service requirements; any papers after that, known as interlocutory papers, may be served by regular mail, overnight delivery, or carrier pigeon.  So if a summons and complaint can be served through Facebook, it makes sense to allow other legal documents, like motions and demands for incriminating photographs, to be sent the same way.

But why stop at just documents?  The whole trial could take place over Facebook.  The judge would have his or her own “Fan Page,” with a photograph of the judge in the upper left-hand corner.  The lawyers would post evidence on the page’s wall, and any Facebook user who liked the page, anyone at all, could post comments, such as “ha ha there’s the smoking gun LOL.”  The witness’s testimony could be liked as well, and whichever witness gets the most likes would be deemed the most credible.

Turning Facebook into a legal forum would have the greatest utility in divorce proceedings.  Freeing oneself of the old ball ‘n’ chain would take nothing more than changing one’s relationship status from “married” to “single.”  Divorce papers would automatically be served, via Facebook messaging, upon the soon-to-be ex-spouse.  To the extent that the spouses in litigation have friends in common, those friends would be given an option to choose one spouse or the other, so that things are not awkward.

The Facebook staff would have to add a photo editing feature so that people could be untagged and erased from group photographs, and comments referencing the former spouse would be automatically edited to reflect the new-found independence.  So a comment underneath a photograph of the former spouses that once said

“You guys make such a cute couple!”

 would be changed along with the edited photo to

“Watch out, fellas!  Cougar on the prowl!”

What do you think about suing people through Facebook?  Is this a good use of social media?  What other public goods could Facebook provide?

11 Comments

Filed under Social Media

Mash-Up, June 11: Graduation

This week we review a few humorous posts involving graduation.

Chase McFadden, over at Some Species Eat Their Young, was chosen by the high school he teaches at to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2011.  His speech, titled “Go Find Your Rock,” demonstrates how to combine enough meaning so that the graduates go away with something more than a diploma, with enough humor to keep the graduates’ attention while they bake in the blazing sun under dark caps and gowns, wondering when they are going to eat lunch and get money from their relatives.

It reminded me of Woody Allen’s speech to the graduates, titled “My Speech to the Graduates,” first published in the New York Times in 1979.  I would have sat under two caps and two gowns to hear the Woodman deliver this speech.  I don’t think he would have enjoyed the heat, though.

I saved the best for last.  A recent MBA graduate named Debbie posted an eHarmony video in hopes of, I imagine, finding companionship en route to everlasting love and affection.  The first 35 seconds of the clip are a little slow, but the content after that makes me wonder how anyone could resist asking this young woman for her number.

And that’s a wrap.  Enjoy the weekend.

5 Comments

Filed under School

Of Ice and Men

A few weeks ago I came across a story about a turf battle between two ice cream truck drivers in Pennsylvania.  Evidently one of the drivers tried to run the other drivers off the road.

Image courtesy of Roadsidepictures via Flickr

In my investigation of the webpage reporting the incident, I found this comment posted by a “Miss Polly,” the wife of the victimized driver (all quoted material is sic) :

Hi Everyone, this is Miss Polly, I am the owner of the Ice Cream truck that actually called the police because the other Driver ran my husband off the road and almost hit children…The other driver has ran me off the road in another instance last year….[and] is intimidated by a female. I would never let my kids get ice cream off the trucks in our neighborhood b/c they were so scary lookingAnd so you all know…we are the ONLY ice cream truck business licensed in Uniontown, Pa…the other owner is not licensed and is operating illegally. The permit office is sending him a complaint letter. If you would like to see pics of our truck, us, our children and our fans, visit us on Facebook 🙂

Does anything arrest a child’s attention like the music of an ice cream truck coming down the street?  During summer evenings, it did not matter how deep we were into a Monopoly game, or large random hole in the backyard; we would drop our little plastic hotels or little plastic shovels, shake down the closest adult, and run out to meet the truck, screaming “ice cream man” and shoving slower kids out of the way.

As I reflect on those innocent days, when the ice cream cost under a dollar, and could be consumed with digestive impunity, I try to imagine what it would have looked like to see another ice cream truck coming down the street in the opposite direction at the same time.

The first signal would be the music.  The same tune would crackle from the trucks’ speakers – Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic, “The Entertainer” – but one measure out of phase, so that as the two trucks converged in front of my home, the dissonance would intensify, signaling that something dramatic was about to happen, and that there would be more than enough Bubble O’Bills with the red gumball nose to go around.

But instead of stopping, the two trucks would accelerate towards each other.  Out of each driver’s-side window would emerge a lance in the shape of a waffle cone.  The change in my hand would grow sweaty as I watched the ice cream men joust on my street.

Time would slow down.  My friends and I would look from one truck to the other, and instead of the loud engine and crackly ragtime, we would hear galloping horses and the drums and strings from the Battle of Stirling scene in Braveheart.  And one of the drivers – the one who came everyday, the one we knew and loved, the one who I had shortchanged on more than one occasion and who never called me out or told my mother – shouts to his enemy:

“You may take my route…but you’ll never take my Good Humor!”

Then each lance would pierce the opposite windshield, and the two trucks would collide and be annihilated instantly, like matter meeting anti-matter in a particle accelerator, leaving us kids with a puff of smoke, and a scattered and smoldering pile of Pop Rocks, over which we would fight to the death.  Or until our parents called us in, whichever came first.

And to mark the end of an era, we would keep the money meant for ice cream, and never speak a word about it.

Did an ice cream truck grace your neighborhood?  Did you run out to meet the truck like your pants were on fire?

9 Comments

Filed under Eating and Drinking

Is Your Dad Embarrassing?

Yesterday I read a story about a man who dressed in a different costume every morning, stood in front of his house, and waved to his teenage son going off to school.  The man did this for all 180 days of the school year.

It reminded me of the times my own father wore a costume.  He stopped trick-or-treating for Halloween in his 30s, so I only remember him wearing a costume for Purim, a Jewish festival that commemorates the triumph of the Jews over a Persian named Haman, who had tried to annihilate them with cookies filled with apricot preserves.  It is the one holiday where Jews are commanded to drink in addition to sitting through a long reading from a scroll of parchment.  And it is traditional to dress up as characters from the Purim story: the beautiful Esther, the resourceful Mordechai, the kind King Ahasuerus.  My father dressed up as Pinocchio.

My father’s Purim costume, minus the cricket

He wore a green Tyrolean hat with a feather sticking out, a white button-down short-sleeved shirt, lederhosen that buttoned up the sides, red suspenders, and a long fake nose.  He wore this when we walked in and saw my Hebrew school classmates and their parents; he wore this during the Rabbi’s reading of the Purim story, enthusiastically shaking his noisemaker each time “Haman” was mentioned (as is the tradition…among children); he wore this as he served cake and ice cream to the congregants after the service, saying to each one, “When I’m a real boy I want a Bar Mitzvah with a DJ!”

I’ve often said that males over the age of 10 should not be allowed to wear shorts that end above the knee.  My father does not sign on my theory.  He wore his Pinocchio costume proudly, frequently swinging his arms and kicking up his legs as if controlled by strings, and seemed unmolested by thoughts of the social consequences to his teenage son.

“Hey, that’s a pretty cool costume your dad has on there,” said a friend.

“What costume?  Whose dad?” I said.  My friend pointed towards my father while I dove behind a stack of prayer books.  I stayed there until I heard the sounds of people leaving and car doors slamming.  Soon I heard people calling my name, and I emerged.

“Oh, there you are,” my mother said.  “Where were you?”

“I was looking for my self-esteem,” I said. “It had rolled under a table.”

As we walked outside to our car, I hoped to see my father already behind the wheel, sunk down low in the seat like the drivers in Florida.  But he wasn’t.  He was standing in front of the synagogue, still in full costume, waving to the congregants as they got in their cars and drove away.  He looked so happy.  And as I looked to the congregants, I noticed that they looked happy, too.

Perhaps I was wrong to be embarrassed.  The following year, I picked up a top hat, umbrella, and grasshopper costume, and father and son rejoiced together.  And then waved to everyone.

Do you have any embarrassing dad stories?  Share them here so I can pretend they’re mine and turn them into blog posts!

10 Comments

Filed under Family

Mash-Up, June 4: Kristen Lamb, How to Write Funny, Paul Johnson

This week we review a blog post from Kristen Lamb, a book titled How to Write Funny, edited by John B. Kachuba, and a blog post from Paul Johnson at The Good Greatsby.

Kristen Lamb is the best-selling author of We Are Not Alone and Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer.  Read these books if you want to write.  In the 21st Century, like it or not, a blog, a Twitter account, and a Facebook fan page are the holy trinity of an author’s platform, and Kristen wrote the bible.

On her blog, Kristen gives additional lessons on social media and the craft of writing.  Every one of her posts answers a question I had in my head before I visited her site.

For example, Kristen’s recent post, “Scene Antagonists–The Making of a Hero”, discusses the scene antagonist that drives the inner change of a character.  After I looked up what antagonist meant (it means the bad guy), I wanted to know how an antagonist would work in certain humorous books, where the main character’s obstacles are of his own doing.

I asked this in a comment to the post.  Kristen’s articulate answer was (1) be careful of literary fiction, which must be read in the context of the time it was published, and (2) even those protagonists’ inner turmoil must be externalized to tell a good story.  For years I had wondered why my every attempt to create a buffoon fell flat on the page.  Now I know what was missing.  There must be an anti-buffoon.

I’ve learned other great lessons in writing humor from the aptly titled How to Write Funny, an anthology of essays and interviews from accomplished humor writers.  It’s an old cliché that humor cannot be taught.  But this book does not really teach humor.  Instead, it demonstrates how to find and release the humor from the dysfunction that lies within and around us.  Chapter 14, on the 7 Commandments of Comedy Writing, is alone worth the price of the book.  That is, unless you are completely humorless, which explains why you are reading my blog.

And last, but certainly not least, is one man who does not need to learn anything about writing humor.  His name is Paul Johnson, and his blog, The Good Greatsby, has become a daily treasure.  Writing comedy is hard.  Writing publishable comedy every day seems next to impossible.  I keep looking in the website’s source code for elves that do the writing at night, but all I saw were semicolons, backslashes, and a half-eaten oatmeal cream pie.

One of Paul’s recent gems, “Food Pyramid We Hardly Knew Ye”, discusses the United States Department of Agriculture’s decision to change the food pyramid to a food plate.  The very idea oozes with comedic value, and Paul capitalizes on it nicely.  If you want to start each day with a laugh, bookmark TheGoodGreatsby.com.

And that’s a wrap.  Enjoy the weekend.

12 Comments

Filed under Mash-Up

The Facebook Page Neurotic

Everyone wants to be liked by other people.  Even people who mow their lawns at 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning want to be liked by other people.  But measuring exactly how many people like you is difficult.  People might come to your party just for the peach cobbler.

Facebook pages, however, measure exactly how many people like you.  And being liked is completely different from being friends.  Lots of people are friends with people they don’t like.

I created a Facebook page to measure exactly how many people liked me, and because of this cryptic passage I read at location 195/542 in Are You There, Blog?  It’s Me, Writer:

 “All writers need a fan page.”

I created the page, uploaded a photo, wrote a self-serving blurb, and picked a gender.  I started inviting my friends to like me so that I could get the magic 25 needed for a username.  I wanted a username so that when I make business cards, the URL to my Facebook page is a neat “facebook.com/username” instead of the messy “facebook.com/firstname-lastname/longstringofnumbers.”

And I wanted my username to be exactly the same as my Twitter handle, MarkKaplowitz.  When you go through life with a first name that ends in the same letter and sound that begins your last name, you always fear that the two names run together in speech and that people won’t know where your first name ends and last name begins.

I think about the others who face this issue:  Julia Allison.  Michael Lewis.  Adam Morrison.  Jennifer Runyon, who played Gwendolyn Pierce on Charles in Charge.  Roald Dahl.  David Duchovny.  William McKinley.  Julius Caesar (using the Anglicized pronunciation).  These high achievers somehow got the world to know their first and last names.  When I saw that HTML was treating all names, big and small, on a lowercase basis, I worried that my concatenated k’s would be seen as one.  I needed a way to show differentiation.

And then I stumbled across Jody Hedlund’s Facebook page, with “AuthorJodyHedlund” as its username.  So it was possible!  I practiced typing my social media contact information on an imaginary business card:

http://twitter.com/MarkKaplowitz

http://facebook.com/MarkKaplowitz

Something was missing.  Then I saw it:

http://twitter.com/MarkKaplowitz

http://facebook.com/MarkKaplowitz

Killer!  The capital M, lowercase k, and capital K were dressed like the Blue Devils drum line!  Now no one would be confused.

My 25th like arrived last Friday afternoon.  With shaking hands I went to Facebook’s username portal, and was curtly informed that “MarkKaplowitz” was taken, just like that Steven Spielberg miniseries about aliens.

Who was this thief, this scoundrel, this cur, this knotty-pated fool who dared to take my username?

I scrolled down and found my answer.  It was me.  I had stolen my own name.

A few months ago, Facebook had offered me the opportunity to pick a username for my personal profile.  I had clicked on “confirm” because I like to click on things.  And Facebook’s help page said that usernames could not be transferred, period.

I searched for another way.  I found a post from August, 2010 that explained that one could release a username from a profile, and then immediately claim it for a page.  But the comments indicated that this strategy became risky in November.  I could not take risks.

One of the comments to that post proposed filing a Facebook copyright infringement claim against yourself.  I was skeptical but desperate.  I filled out Facebook’s form.  It asked for the name I was claiming and typed “markkaplowitz” and hit submit.  I wanted quick resolution, and a few seconds elapsed before I’d realized what I’d done.

I had forgotten to type “MarkKaplowitz” as I’d planned.  My business cards!  My perfectly aligned usernames!  My dispelling of confusion!

I received an email from Facebook confirming receipt of my request to transfer “markkaplowitz” from my profile to my page.  I drafted this reply:

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I make reference to the username “markkaplowitz” that is currently the subject of a copyright dispute.  In the event I prevail against myself, I would prefer that the username for my page be entered as “MarkKaplowitz” with the first letters of my first and last name capitalized.  Makes it a little easier to read.  Sorry for being such a pain.  I love what you’ve done here.  I did not see The Social Network.

Sincerely,

Mark Kaplowitz

As the cursor stood poised over the send button, a voice inside my head said, “Don’t push it.”  But a louder voice said, “Follow your dreams.”  So I sent the email, went in the bathroom to throw up, and stepped outside for some fresh air.

I walked to a park, took a seat on a bench, and watched people.  A mother licked her hand to wipe her child’s face.  A guy in a backwards baseball cap scratched his chin while his girlfriend sent a text message.  A silver-haired man in a seersucker suit strolled by with a house cat on a leash.  The world showed nothing but indifference.

I went back to my computer.  No emails from Facebook, no change to the username.  I tried to blog, but the words weren’t coming.  I needed that username.

As the hours passed I became convinced that I would not get the transfer.  I would have to be “MarkKaplowitz2” or “TheRealMarkKaplowitz” or “ThatGuyWhoWritesThoseRememberWhenPostsOnSchlabadooDotCom.”  My business card would look messy.  My career would stagnate.  I would grow old on that park bench, telling myself over and over that I never should have sent that email.

And then I refreshed my page for the millionth time and saw that the username had been transferred.  It was “markkaplowitz” without any capitalization.  And I thought to myself, “You know, it looks kind of chic in all lowercase.  Maybe I should change my Twitter name to all lowercase.  For the business cards.”

Thanks Facebook!

Have you created a Facebook page?  Did you have any difficulty choosing a username?  What are your thoughts on capitalization in URLs?  What are your thoughts on crazy Facebook obsessions?

20 Comments

Filed under Social Media

From Seditionist to Blogger

In high school I authored and distributed an underground newspaper.  I believe this was a step towards becoming a blogger.

My friend Darren and I had the idea of starting a literary magazine, but we needed funding for printing and the pizza parties that were required for every school club.  We asked the administration for help, but the entire arts budget had been spent on glitter.  So we took our operations underground.

The first thing we did was pick pseudonyms.  Darren chose “A. Hamilton” because he wanted to express his belief in liberty and the nobility of the fourth estate.  I chose “Zack Morris.”

Then we had to name our paper.  Our high school mascot was the eagle, and so we decided on The Eagle’s Nest.  Had I known that Adolf Hitler’s World War II bunker complex was also called the Eagle’s Nest, we might have chosen something else.  But these are the quirks of history.

We gave The Eagle’s Nest a serious tone to appeal to a higher class of reader.  We wrote articles about the quality of the school lunch, the demeanor of the custodians, and the girth of the cafeteria monitors.  We wrote editorials protesting the archaic practice of running during gym class.  We wrote fake interviews with teachers and students.  We crafted syllabi for classes that did not exist.  And at top of the issue, in a little box, was our journalistic creed:

If it’s not in here, we don’t give a s#!%.

We wrote the first issue on Darren’s computer one Saturday afternoon.  I had the more trusting of parents, and thus the copying job fell to me.  On Sunday night I asked my mother to drive me to Kinko’s.

“Of course, my pumpkin pie,” she said.  “What do you need?”

“Oh, uh, nothing,” I said, curling a manila folder.

I made her sit in the car while I made the copies.  It took only ten minutes.  I came back home with a box under my arm, went upstairs to my room, closed the door, and thought about the meaning of freedom.

And then we received a call from Darren’s mother.  “Do you know what they’re doing?” I could hear from the receiver that my mother held a few inches away from her head.  “They are going to be handing something out to the kids at school!  Something with bad words in it!  They are going to get expelled and won’t get into college!  We have to stop them!”

I tried to imagine how Darren’s mother found out.  I pictured a deposit of laundry, a neglected computer screen, and a long interrogation.

Although my mother did not confiscate the copies and put them on top of her armoire next to my slingshot and BB gun, she persuaded me to seek administrative approval for my subversion.  Darren and I agreed, through intermediaries, to postpone distribution, and the next day my father took me to the local law library to read and copy First Amendment cases.  It was not my idea of radicalism.  At least we went for ice cream afterwards

After a flurry of letters with the school’s lawyers, citing cases that involved Vietnam-era black armbands, Vietnam-era anti-draft t-shirts, and students who wanted to wear tissue boxes on their feet, a deal was struck with the principal.  We would show him the paper we wished to distribute, and he would make “suggestions.”  A memo went out to all teachers advising that Darren and I would be distributing an underground newspaper in between classes.  The arrangement was not what we’d had in mind.  We were not really fighting the establishment, and we were not really hiding our identities.

But when that first issue of The Eagle’s Nest was out there at last, and I saw my peers reading my “Elegy for Tater Tots” and laughing out loud, I thought to myself, “I like this.”

How about you?  Was there an earlier moment in your life that led to blogging?

13 Comments

Filed under Blogging and Writing