Slacker Hack: Macaroni and Real Actual Cheese

A while back I posted about how we are trying to limit processed junk in our house. Inspired my children’s absolute favorite comfort food, spaghetti carbonara (I swear by Lidia Bastianich’s recipe, although I use diced pancetta instead of regular bacon), we came up with a quick and dirty version that has made those blue boxes of mac & cheese a distant, uncomfortable memory in our house. I thought it might be helpful for families who can never sneak an egg into their kids’ diet. It’s just pasta with butter and cheese, but you add an egg yolk (protein!) while the pot is still hot enough to cook it. Basically:

  • Throw some pasta (any shape) into boiling water to cook.
  • While the pasta is cooking, separate an egg yolk (or two, if you’re doing a lot of pasta) and get some butter ready (diced into small, easy-melting pieces). You’ll also need shredded parmesan cheese.
  • Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and immediately return it to the hot pot.
  • Quickly stir in some butter.
  • Quickly toss in an egg yolk (or two, if it’s a lot of pasta) and stir; the heat from the pot should be enough to cook it.
  • Toss in a handful of shredded parmesan cheese.
  • Serve.

My kids gobble this up;Iit’s much richer than plain old buttered noodles, and assuming you keep a big old jar of shredded parm in fridge like we do, there’s virtually no prep. I haven’t tried it with cheddar or other kinds of cheese.

The Attention-Challenged Freelancer’s Toolkit

When I first started freelancing, I was terrified. I don’t have ADD, but I sometimes act like I do. I have always had real issues with distraction–particularly noise–as well as a tendency to put off things I just don’t want to do. So, I thought I’d have a really hard time keeping on top of my work without a boss breathing down my neck or a humming office full of productive people peer pressuring me to stay on task. But surprisingly, I was able to get down to business and stay on task and meet deadlines, even while sitting at home.  According to Gretchen Rubin (whose excellent Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Everyday Life I highly recommend), I’m an obliger: I work because I am obligated to work.  Put simply, I work because if I don’t, I won’t get paid. I’m obligated to bill hours. My obliger tendency is also the reason that I don’t really tend to this blog very often: there’s no deadline, no client, no payoff. So I put it off. And put it off (did you miss me?).

Anyway, in a world full of distraction, I’ve found that working at home is, suprisingly, less difficult than working in an office full of interesting and entertaining people was. But that’s not to say that I still don’t get distracted. Working is not fun, and other things are, and nobody is looking. The internet is shiny. There are treats in the refrigerator. There’s laundry to be folded. There is a beach right down the block. And one of my biggest and most ironic time wasters (and I use the term lovingly) is the time I’ve spent over the years researching productivity methods and tools to make me less distracted.  I’ve been at this for almost 15 years now, and so I thought it might be nice to share the fruits of my labors, the tools that I use to work with my tendencies and stay productive (and in stay in business).  So, here, in no particular order, are some of the tools in this distraction-prone freelancer’s tookit.

Freedom. That probably sounds like a smug self-employed person talking about the perks of the gig economy. But no, I’m talking about Mac Freedom, a simple program that shuts down your Internet for a given period of time. You click it, and it asks how much Freedom you want; you set the clock and that’s it. The Internet is out of reach, and you can write/edit/work like it’s 1991. When I’m in full-on procrastination mode, or have to deal with a piece of manuscript that is just really difficult, I set freedom for an hour and suddenly, there are no pinging emails or going off on random Google tangents. I’m suddenly alone with nothing but the words. I usually only need to do an hour or two on Freedom to get myself started; once I’m into the project, I tend to keep going. With any project, getting started is the worst part. Mac Freedom helps me to tune out all the shiny distractions so I can get started.

I was an early adopter of Mac Freedom; it was still a free app back then, for Mac only, when I first stumbled upon it via Lifehacker.  I liked it so much I made a donation then, and I have repurchased for new machines a few times since. It’s available now for Windows as well, and while it’s not free, it’s only $10. If you’re writing for a living, it pays for itself rather quickly. And if your tired of finding your kid killing virtual zombies instead of writing that English essay, it can help them stay focused, too. Can it be hacked? Sure. But it’s a pain, and if you set your intervals short enough, you’ll keep working knowing that your treat awaits in just XX minutes.

Anti-Social. I can’t mention Freedom with out giving a shout out to its sister app, anti-social. Sometimes your work requires the Internet. This is especially true for homework: Kids do all their research online, so it’s not really possible for them to work like it’s 1999. Anti-social blocks specific apps–starting with sites obvious distractions like Facebook and Twitter, but you can customize to remove your own specific temptations. You can purchase it for $15, or bundle it with Freedom for $20. I use it to block Facebook, Twitter, various news sites I like to crawl, Amazon, and yes, WordPress.

A desktop timer. I’m a huge fan of the pomodoro productivity method, which involves setting work and break intervals using a timer. A typical interval (referred to as a “pomodoro” in honor of the classic, tomato-shaped kitchen timer) is 30 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break. Because I require longer intervals to get more deeply involved (and because I bill my work by the hour), I set my pomodoros at 1 hour and give myself 10 minute breaks between. I fiddled with various pomorodo apps on my iPhone and on chrome, and found them all over complicated and clunky, so I just use a timer. I have had a different ones over the years, but I finally found this bad boy, and I’ll never go back:

Marathon Count Up/Count Down Timer

It’s big enough that I can always find it on my disaster of a desk, which is probably the most important thing. It also it has a super simple interface with a big STOP/START button, which makes it easy to pause instantly if I need to stop working for a moment to tend to the kid or answer the door. I set it for an hour, hunker down on work, and when the bell goes off I take a break for ten minutes to stretch, eat, pee, etc., before settling down for another hour.

A distraction bucket. Even if I turn off the Internet, I sometimes find my mind wandering. Sometimes that wandering takes me to interesting, creative places–but when I’m on a deadline, such distractions don’t pay the bills. So, I keep a special notebook open on my desk, on which I write any fleeting thoughts that occur to me, that might prompt me to stop what I’m doing and research a product on Amazon, check Twitter, see if there’s a better productivity tool out there that I”m somehow missing. I call it the Distraction Bucket, even though it’s not a bucket (I just think “Bucket” is a fun word to say, and it doesn’t come up in my day-to-day life nearly enough). Each day I write the date at the top of the page, and then just punk down any thought that threatens my concentration. While I’m working, I find that the simple act of writing down something to think about later helps me to just let go of it and get back to the matter at hand. When my pomodoro timer goes off, I can look at the list, and tend to anything that had distracted me during my working hour. Tellingly, 99 percent of the things that had distracted me during my work hour are not nearly as interesting when I’m off the clock. Sometimes it just says “Twitter,” or “defrost chicken” or “Mets game” or even “pee.”

Google Calendar. I’m still searching for that perfect online planner, one that will integrate a task list and not only show “to-dos” but also “dones” (as in, show a list of the tasks I completed each day right on the calendar, indicating the date they were due and the date they were done). I had this mythical program on a PowerPC Mac clone I used on the job in 1997, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was called, or why it has not been replicated by any calendar program that I can find since. But I’ve settled down and realized the Google Calendar is my best bet for now. I love that I can add events right out of Gmail and that I can see the spousal unit’s calendar and he can se mine. My teenage son is just starting to use it, too, so we all know when he’s working and when he’s off. And every morning, it emails me an agenda, which helps me plan my day and has prevented me from forgetting appointments. I’ve even started putting in recurring tasks, like changing the sheets or sweeping the sidewalk, so they become a regular habit rather than just another item to bump down on the to-do list when I’m busy. Google Calendar is definitely one of those things that becomes more useful the more you use it: Go in deep, or go home. We don’t even use the paper calendar in the kitchen anymore. Google Calendar is free, but I highly recommend pairing it with the phone app  Fantastical, which lets you make appointments verbally, using natural language, a big plus when you’re making appointments on the go.

ETA: I neglected to mention in my initial post one app that has become such a part of my routine that I don’t even notice how much I rely on it anymore. The Dayboard Chrome extension is a simple add on that allows you to put your five most pressing tasks into a to-to list. The key is that every time you open a window on Chrome, you’ll see your list first. It’s designed for teams, but I find that it’s great for helping a lone gun like myself to task. I try to keep my list limited to things I can actually accomplish in a single day; what I don’t do get’s bumped to the top of the list tomorrow.  So, if I’m in the midst of a big edit, the only thing on my list might be “Five hours on chapter 12.” I don’t limit it to work stuff, though. It’s great for reminding myself to do little things like make dentist appointments. Today’s list, as you see, is not all that daunting:

Today's pretty clear. So, yes, I will make that mammogram appointment I planned to make 10 days ago.

Today’s pretty clear. So, yes, I will make that mammogram appointment I planned to make 10 days ago.

A planner that is not a planner.  I still keep a good old fashioned desk diary, but  I don’t use it as a planner. I use it to log my hours and keep track of  what I’ve done–not to plan what I have to do. After a lot of trial and error (why are so few planners set up in columns?), I settled on the MyAgenda from MomAgenda, which has the best page layout: It shows a full week at a time–including full columns for Saturday and Sunday–and allows me to track hours by project with ease. I use the “kids” columns to track each project, and tally up my hours each Sunday; the top “my day” section is where I list specific completed tasks.

Lovely column page layout planner, from Mom Agenda.

It’s made with nice quality paper, and it’s very pretty. Pet peeves: I can (and do) do without the ridiculous “lists” they put in the extra pages in the back (seriously, a bunch of blank pages would be so much more useful than empty lists of vacations, wines, and books (and I like two out of three of those things a lot, fwiw), and the oh-so-pretty design might be a little too twee for some users (manly men need agendas, too, after all).  I prefer the spiral version, which is cheaper and easier to customize (it’s a sixteen month calendar, so I just rip out the redundant months when I start my new one each January). I trick mine out with Post-it tabs so I can easily find the current week and the frequently-used lists I made in the back (deductible expenses, invoices out/in, etc).

Earmuffs. Ok, I don’t really use them anymore, but when my kids were little and my office was on the main floor of the house and it was just noisy as all hell after school, I would put these bad boys on and ignore everyone and anything that wasn’t work.  I had even painted the words “GO AWAY” on the side with white out to remind them that MOMMY IS WORKING. They got a little hot during the summer, but as God is my witness, there are books out there today that would never have been published without them.

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3M Peltor H10A Optime 105 Earmuff 

It’s Paddy, Not Patty… and Other Thoughts for St. Patrick’s Day

It’s my Blogday! That’s a word I invented for Blog Birthday: I posted my very first dispatch, “What is a Narrowback Slacker?” on this site exactly one year ago today. I had written it as sort of a St. Patrick’s Day Post, figuring it was as good a time as any to explain what I was calling myself, and why.

Obviously, when I was growing up, St. Patrick’s Day was a pretty big deal. But it wasn’t a Hallmark card sort of holiday, nor was it the bacchanal you’ll see in the pubs throughout this month. It was a mostly formal and kind of solemn but at the same time festive affair. There were dances held throughout the month, at various local halls, with live music and dancing. My parents went to them all; we kids often had to work, serving pitchers of beer and corned beef. On March 17, we’d start the day with an Irish breakfast and then go to church, and finish up by marching in the parade, we kids with the local Irish American marching band, and my parents with the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

These lovely traditions still persist among immigrants and second generation Irish Americans, but they are largely eclipsed by the antics of the crowds watching the parades from the sidelines and crowding the bars before and after. The juxtaposition of parade participants (decked out in their Sunday best and marching with their home counties) with the parade revelers (many of them drunk at 11:00 am and wearing green plastic bowlers) offers a snapshot study of the Irish American generational experience. The immigrant puts on a suit and tie and a green-white-and-gold sash, and celebrates the feast day of his homeland’s patron saint. The immigrant’s amadán grandson wears a totally offensive t-shirt, drinks green beer, and starts a fight.

Our parents and grandparents headed here to become American, but it takes a few generations for that to really happen. I worry that we lose something important along the way: the music, the history, the work ethic. The narrowback generation is the one that sort of straddles both sides. It’s our responsibility to make sure these kids of ours don’t become too American. I suspect that most immigrant families, no matter where they are from, struggle with the same feeling.

Anyway, here’s a list of observations from one New York City narrowback.

Twenty Signs That You Are a Narrowback

1. In all the lullabies that your parents sang to you as a baby, somebody died.

2. Even if you haven’t gone to mass in years, you bless yourself every time you drive by a church.

3. Your “starter house” is also the house that you plan to die in.

4. There are two types of wakes: Good Wakes and Sad Wakes. You will laugh at least a little during—and have a few drinks at the pub after—both of them.

5. At some point in your life, you have walked into a “Good Wake” and thought to yourself, “Maybe I’ll meet someone.”

6. You have danced the “Siege of Ennis” many times. Extra points if   you spent some portion of your life thinking it was called “The Siege of Venice” and wondering if the Irish had ever invaded Italy.

7. You don’t write out your check to the bride and groom until you see if they have hired a band or a DJ.

8. In the event of the zombie apocalypse, you will be armed with a hurley.

9. You know and love  countless traditional songs. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” is not one of them.

10. “Irish Football” has nothing to do with the University of Notre Dame.

It's kind of like Quidditch, without brooms or English people.

It’s kind of like Quidditch, with no brooms or English people.

11.  “Irish Food” is always breakfast food. Double points if you admit that you actually like blood pudding.

12. You never really understood why the Pogues were considered punk.

I guess the Irish INVENTED punk, then? Because this sound existed long before the 1970s. 

13. You feel like a leech on society if you send your kids to public school.

14. “Going to” the St. Patrick’s Day Parade means you are going to march in it.

15. It’s Paddy, not Patty.

16. You were a teenager before you ate a vegetable that wasn’t boiled beyond recognition.

17. You have at least one relative who talks about recent immigrants exactly the same way that nativists talked about the Irish in the nineteenth century.

The one element that just won't mix. From Puck Magazine,  1889.

The one element that just won’t mix.From Puck, 1889.

18. You have a thing in your kitchen drawer that you call a “potato peeler.” You may not realize that almost everyone else in America calls it a “vegetable peeler.”

19. It’s acceptable to drink hard, so long as you work harder.

20. You will damned well go to college, but if you cop an attitude that in any way suggests that you think you are smarter than the parents who worked their asses off to send you there, there will be hell to pay.

I could go on all day, but I’ll cut myself off here. Consider it a polite Irish Exit.

Rockaway, or the Rockaways? They’re both right.

 

cropped-cropped-20140829-110138-39698396.jpg

I’ve lived here for most of my 45 years, and spent much of my professional life dealing with editorial conundrums and questions of usage, as well as reading communications scholarship on language and meaning. So, you know, I probably think about these things more than most people. But recent chatter in the twitterverse has made me obsessed with this question.

In all my years as a Rockaway Beach local, a journalism student and eventually a book editor, and armchair student of local legend and lore, I’ve never come across any universally consistent rules for the name of our fair peninsula. Pour over writing old and new you’ll come across “The Rockaways,” “The Far Rockaways,” “Rockaway, NY,” “Driving out of Rockaway,” and so on. All the text evidence I’ve seen—and I’ve searched through published books and newspaper archives going back a century—indicates that there is simply no precise or exclusive name for our little corner of New York City.

In their study of the peninsula, Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York (Columbia University Press, 2003), Historians Lawrence Kaplan and Carol P. Kaplan explain the terminology thusly:

Rockaway, New York, located in the southern part of New York City’s borough of Queens, is a slender peninsula, the westernmost of the barrier beaches that reach from the eastern tip of Long Island to New York’s harbor. It is also known as Rockaway Beach, or simply the Rockaways, a name derived from a Native American word meaning “sand place.” Outsiders sometime refer to the whole peninsula as Far Rockaway, but this is the name of only the largest and most built-up of the smaller communities that compose the Rockaways.

So, really, there’s no right or wrong answer. While people like to think language has hard and fast rules, the rules often bend to accommodate different contexts and convey specific meaning. So a writer must choose the language that most clearly conveys his or her intended meaning, and the editor must ensure that the usage is consistent within a published document. It’s all about ensuring clarity and consistency.

My Rockaway Style sheet. In publishing, copyeditors usually rely on a standard guide (such as The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style) to determine how to treat specific terms, and publishers also create their own rules (“house style”) that sets guidelines for the books they publish. Copyeditors and authors fill in the blanks left in these style guides on a per-project bases, generating “style sheets” for specific books or projects. With that in mind, and lifetime of Rockaway chatter ringing in my head, here are the guidelines I would put in place were I editing a book on Rockaway Beach/Rockaway/The Rockaways right-this-minute.

  • Rockaway. “Rockaway” is a shorthand/generic term for “The Rockaway peninsula” is used to refer to any place, person, or thing related to that geographic location (I’m biking out to Rockaway; I’m wearing my Rockaway tuxedo).Informally, it’s an appropriate term for any or all places on the peninsula, or as a modifier that relates people, places, ideas, etc. to the Rockaway peninsula (I’m a Rockaway local; it’s a Rockaway thing; he has a thick Rockaway accent).
    However, the word “Rockaway” lacks the specificity that is needed for more formal and informative communication. It should be avoided when possible, in favor of specific neighborhood names (Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Park, Far Rockaway, Arverne-by-the-Sea, etc.), or used in conjunction with those names so that locations under discussion are very clear.
  • Rockaway Beach. “Rockaway Beach” has two very specific denotative meanings: It refers to the neighborhood (my neighborhood!) located roughly between Arverne and Rockaway Park (basically the 11693 zip code, minus Broad Channel), and also to the New York City public beach that runs along the peninsula. So, you don’t live in Rockaway Beach unless you live in the Beach 70s/80s/90s, but if you are sitting on the sand anywhere east of Riis Park, you are on (or at) Rockaway Beach.
  • The Rockaways. While “Rockaway” is a geographic term, “The Rockaways” is a political term that refers to all the neighborhoods on the peninsula. It should be used only when discussing all the neighborhoods on the peninsula collectively.* So, if you’re talking about flooding, or insurance, or economic development that affect us all? Use “the Rockaways.” If you’re talking about one neighborhood or the other, use the name of the specific neighborhood.

The Case for “The Rockaways.” Even though I say “Rockaway” all the time, I prefer “the Rockaways” in certain specific circumstances because the term acknowledges something very important: That this collection of neighborhoods is geographically distinct and physically isolated from the rest of New York City, and that despite the socioeconomic and ethic/racial differences that seem to divide the peninsula, these neighborhoods have many shared concerns brought about by that geographic isolation. So, I think that there are specific instances when “The Rockaways” is absolutely appropriate, for example:

  • Congressman Gregory Meeks represents all the neighborhoods in on the peninsula, so he should make use the collective term when addressing the concerns of his Rockaway constituents (People in the Rockaways have the longest commutes in the city).
  • A business opening up in one neighborhood but hoping to attract customers from across the entire peninsula might wish to indicate that by using term the Rockaways in its name or promotional materials (Serving the Rockaways for more than 50 years).
  • A sign on the Cross Bay Bridge welcomes visitors not only to Rockaway Beach, the neighborhood it spills into, but also to all the other neighborhoods on the peninsula that it eventually leads to; in that context, we are in fact welcoming people to the Rockaways (though arguably we could still say “Rockaway Beach” to welcome them to the beach).

I think all our local newspapers should (and generally do) take care when using all of these terms, distinguishing between events occurring in specific neighborhoods (Far Rockaway athlete wins scholarship; new restaurant opens in Rockaway Beach) and issues that affect all neighborhoods (Flood recovery continues in the Rockaways). Again, I think it’s fine to use the generic “Rockaway” as long as the specific neighborhood is clarified somewhere in the story (New coffee bar coming to Rockaway’s restaurant row,” with a mention of Rockaway Beach specifically within the story).

 So there’s my take, from a book editor who is not really a copyeditor but still has read and reviewed a lot of copyediting.

SURVEY:

Personally, I always say, and always have said, “Rockaway Beach,” mostly because I love my spot here in the creamy delicious center of the Rockaways. And also: Because Ramones.

But I’m not going to end this with the Ramones. I’m going to end it with local legend Gerald Bair’s Rockaway anthem, which you should totally buy right now if you don’t already have it. 

 

 * There is a separate discussion to be had about whether the term “The Rockaways” includes Broad Channel. I’m really not sure. BC readers, chime in!

My Outrage Detox

I joined Facebook in the midst of the 2008 presidential election. It was super fun, especially for a work-at-home parent of young children who was craving a little water cooler conversation. I could chat with my carefully curated group of 25 or so friends, mocking this or that candidate mercilessly, and catch up with my old college buddies and former colleagues at the same time.

Over the past decade, Facebook has grown and changed, chipping away at the privacy rules (remember when you could hide yourself from “friends of friends”?) and connecting us to everyone and anyone we could possibly be connected too. That has value—it’s like an interactive white pages, really—but it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a wall of separation between different groups of people. Yes, you can (and should) create private groups for specific interests and conversations. But I found that my main feed had started to resemble a bar at four a.m., full of drunks picking fights, and I think I may have been one of the drunks. It was time to shut up and go home.

Barfight

The Internet is a perpetual outrage machine. It’s like all these years of 24 hour cable news monster-shoutery has led us to believe that being engaged means injecting our opinions into every conversation, shaming those who think differently, or proving our superior intellect and belief system at every opportunity. And Facebook has given us this forum in which we can do that quickly, thoughtlessly, and without having to look anyone in the eye. We post, we share, we reprimand, we tally up “likes.” And I felt like I was part of it, boiling my opinions down to pithy (and in my defense, usually quite witty) little comments geared toward schooling everyone else in The Way I Think Things Ought to Be. Anyone who feels that their opinions are being attacked is just going to  hold on to them even tighter, even more irrationally. Even worse, those who feel conflicted on these issues feel irritated, angry, or hurt when other people disrupt their Facebook feeds with things they really don’t want to think about at the moment.

You can spare me your thoughts on Congress.  ©narrowbackslacker

You can spare me your thoughts on Congress.
©narrowbackslacker

At the same time, I was finding that some of the crap people posted was making my blood boil. Articles that made me mad because they were wrong. Articles that made me mad because they were right. Urban myths and unverified claims. Monster shouting.

IMG_2549

So, I stopped.

I started thinking about any post that annoyed me, and decided not to put up posts like that. I tapped out on all political conversations on Facebook.

I call it the Outrage Detox. It’s a multi-step program. Every time I log in to Facebook, I try to remind myself to do following things:

1. Clarify your context. Facebook may have felt like an intimate cafe where you could trade barbs with like-minded friends in 2008, but by 2012 it was more like a crowded auditorium full of people you kind of know. Those are two very different contexts. And as I am constantly reminding my kids, context matters. If I want to rant, or read rants, there are other venues (like Twitter, or private forums, or actual face-to-face conversations) that are more appropriate. Facebook is a room full of people with whom I am sometimes only loosely connected; it  should be a polite and friendly place. I wouldn’t launch into politics or religion at a PTA meeting or on line at the grocery store, so I shouldn’t do that on Facebook either.

2. Mind your manners. There are nanas and children in the room. Be polite. I admit, I still embrace sentence enhancers; my people (and hopefully anyone who reads this blog) has learned to live with my potty mouth. But I do try to think about what I’m actually saying, and wheter it is something that might to hurt someone’s feelings, or put them on the defensive. I don’t care if people hide/unfriend me, but I don’t want to actively accost anyone with nonsense that will do little more than put them in a bad mood.

3. Filter your feed. This is America. People have a right to say whatever they want, with very few limitations. I’m all for it. But we also have a right not to listen to them. So, while I firmly—no, make that fiercely—believe that Charlie Hebdo has a right to publish any cartoon they want, I also would never read or buy a magazine as mean spirited as Charlie Hebdo appears to be. In the same way, I can just hide the opinions of people on Facebook who appear to be mean or stupid or wrong. In fact, it’s my responsibility to do that as a consumer in the marketplace of ideas.

4. Do not engage. We all know how annoying subway preachers are, and how sometimes you are just stuck on a train with no choice other than to hear them. But on Facebook, you can shut people out, if not necessarily down, but just hitting a button. I started hiding “friends” who annoy me and I bite my tongue when someone posts something that offends me (and even when it’s something that I wholeheartedly agree with, to tell the truth).

5. Take your politics (and/or religion) elsewhere.  If I want to rant, I can write a letter to a newspaper or congressperson or post on a moderated or private forum. I can contribute to a cause or work for one. I can tweet my thoughts to those who are actually interested in them.  I can discuss things with people in person. I’ve done all of these things. We can be politically engaged without hitting people with a virtual baseball bat while they’re trying to enjoy their morning coffee. If I want to support a cause on Facebook, a silent show of solidarity (like quietly changing a profile pic) shows where I stand without pressuring others to take any stand at all.

6. You don’t need to unfriend people. Just because I think someone is a wing nut doesn’t mean I won’t pick their kid up from daycare in a pinch or keep them in my thoughts and prayers when they’re dealing with a loss or health crisis. Facebook is a useful tool for keeping in touch with a large community in important and non-intrusive ways. People can get in touch with me without knowing my phone number or private email address, and that’s a good thing.

7. Refine your media diet. Facebook is not the only culprit in the perpetual outrage machine. I’ve had to unfollow monster shouters on twitter, and avoid 24 hour cable news AT ALL COSTS. Seriously, whether you’re a Maddow or an O’Reilly, that shit is no good for your soul. Block it from your TV and only allow yourself news sources that do actual reporting (not just commentary) and at least try to be objective (Don’t worry, you can still catch the best bits via the Internet). And for God’s sake, unless you are truly destitute, be willing to pay at least a little for your Internet news. “News” sources that are financed entirely by clicks are, by design, going to be more monster shouty than those that are paid for by actual customer sales or member contributions.

8. Use Facebook for what it does best. I have considered cutting Facebook loose, but ultimately determined that just can’t quit it. But now I use it for what I feel like it does best: It’s such a simple way to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family in almost real time, and it’s a great channel for following hyperlocal or niche news. Oh, and #ThrowbackThursday is a great way to share memories with old friends while decluttering your house.

9. Never, ever, ever read the comments. Especially when looking at unmoderated feeds—do not give monster shouters, haters, or mean people an audience.

1o. Get back to work (or life). For me, the worst thing about the Interwebs is that it is is just a huge distraction. All that hamster-wheeling over things that, yes, do matter (like government and crime and just mean people) is actually sucking time and energy away from things that  really, really, really matter to me in a much more immediate way. Sure, I need to be an informed citizen/voter, but other things—like spending time with my kids, or earning a living so I can feed/clothe them—are a bit more important in terms of my hierarchy of needs.

For the record,  I do think that in the aggregate, the Internet will prove to be a game changer for democracy, in a good way. I just think that right now, we are in the midst of social media’s awkward adolescence, and we need to teach it how to be an adult. That means verifying information before we repeat (or repost) it. It means taking the time to consider alternative information before we form an opinion. And more often than not, I think it means—or should mean—keeping our opinions to ourselves and respecting not necessarily the opinions of others, but their right to have those opinions. But it also means we have the right to say that we do not want to hear those opinions, and politely shutting down (or ignoring) monster shouting talking heads.

Anyway, I’ve been at this Outrage Detox business for about six months. It’s been gradual, and I’m not saying I haven’t slipped up.  Like anyone in a program, I take it one day at a time and repeat the Serenity Prayer when I find myself wanting to throat punch a troll.

Photos from Rockaway Beach, 1988

#TBT: A few images of Rockaway Beach from the dark days.

Oceanus 11693

In 1988, I took a few pictures of places around the neighborhood because I was bummed that I hadn’t taken any of Playland before they tore it down. They are not particularly good photos, but I thought people might like to see them for a wee stroll down memory lane. I do miss Boggiano’s hot dogs, but I can’t say I miss the sad state of Rockaway Beach in the 1980s.

You can see the empty lot where Playland used to stand reflected in the glass.  ©narrowbackslacker  You can see the empty lot where Playland used to stand reflected in the glass. ©narrowbackslacker

Here are a couple from the Cross Bay Bridge. Courthouse hasn’t changed (other than to further deteriorate) but the restaurants on the Bay sure have.

View from the Cross Bay Bridge, 1988. There's the old Pier 92 (now Bungalow Bar) and Bridge Cafe (now Thai Rock). View from the Cross Bay Bridge, 1988. There’s the old Pier 92 (now Bungalow Bar) and Bridge Cafe (now Thai Rock). ©narrowbackslacker

Bait and Booze: The old Bridge Cafe, 1988. I did my underaged drinking there, but don't blame the owners. My fake ID was excellent. ©narrowbackslacker Bait and Booze: The old Bridge Cafe, 1988. I did my underaged drinking there, but don’t blame…

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An Ode to the A Train (or: Why I miss my morning commute)

Photo © @notapayne (Instagram). Used with permission.

Photo © @notapayne (Instagram). Used with permission.

There’s an interesting experiment going on over at WNYC’s New Tech City. This week’s podcast (which you should totally subscribe to, by the way) talks about the value of boredom, and invites listeners to put away their phones, and just allow themselves to zone out for a bit. Various experts say that being bored from time to time may have benefits, and that by filling every moment of our day with texts and emails and Facebook and Candy Crush, we’re starving our brains. Brains, apparently, need time to wander and ponder aimlessly. Thinking about nothing at all, it turns out, is an important step in thinking creatively.

It got me thinking about how much time I used to spend trapped in subway cars, just killing time doing nothing. And  how much I miss it.

I spent a solid ten years commuting into the city, most of them from Rockaway Beach (1.5 hours each way on the A Train) with stints from Forest Hills, Queens (25 minutes on the E or F) and Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn (about 25 minutes on the F from the other direction). But since 2001, I’ve been freelancing from home, and my commute amounts to the time it takes me to walk from my bedroom down to the basement.

But you know what?  I miss it.

No, you didn’t misread that. I really miss the A Train.

More specifically: I miss my morning commute on the A train. You see, the one benefit of a long commute is that it usually means you’re at the end of the line, so you catch the train on schedule every day, and usually get a seat. I preferred the 7:40am. A Express from Rock Park, front end, corner seat by the window, on the east side of the aisle. From there, I could enjoy the morning sunshine and views of  Jamaica Bay before the train headed underground, at which point I’d let the monotonous roll of the train on the tracks rock me into a trance. (The evening commute? Not so much. The train back to Rockaway is crowded for most of the ride, and there is often a connection that must be made, outside on a freezing cold, wind-swept platform. It takes forever and is generally pretty miserable.)

But in either direction, commute time was time that I had entirely to myself, even as I sat (or stood) in a sardine can packed with strangers. For the whole of the 1990s, I spent in excess of 15 hours each week in that corner seat—or tethered to a pole on the way home—during which time I devoured novels,  listened to albums (Entire albums! On CD!), or just stared into space. And looking back, despite all the stalled trains, funky smells, “sick passengers,” and subterranean preachers expressing concern for my eternal soul (and let’s not forget the occasional grope), I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Once you’ve got a family and a house and even just a part-time job at the same time, spending three hours a day sitting still, alone with one’s thoughts (or one’s Sony Discman) seems positively decadent. And today, when we are never far away from a pinging text or email, it seems completely impossible.

While I don’t think I’m overly attached to my cell phone , I do find that the intertwining of life and technology does make it difficult for me to just NOT BE DOING for a little while each day. I guess that’s what I miss about the commute: It was a time when I had an excuse to zone out and let my mind wander, or indulge in something that might, on its face, seem unproductive, like reading a novel or listening to music. These days, I spend much of my time just absorbing information—Important information! Things I should know! Keys to becoming more productive! Info I can use on the job!—that I  sometimes neglect to take proper time to ponder and process it all. Thinking and reading and learning all great, but it’s  pretty hard to hold that stuff up at the end of the day and say to yourself: Look at what I accomplished!

I never felt guilty that I wasn’t Getting Things Done on the train. I mean, what could I do, really, other than read and reread and re-reread advertisements for Dr. Jonathan Zizmor? But as a work-at-home freelancer (and a parent, and a less-than-enthusiastic home manager), the thought of sitting on my couch for an hour staring into space, or even just taking the dog for an hour long walk to nowhere, seems almost irresponsible. I should be working! Or cleaning the house! Or tending to that neglected project! Or reading that Important Book by that Important Person about that Important Thing! 

Why do I feel like every hour of my day is supposed to be devoted to Getting Things Done? Maybe a ride to nowhere on the city’s longest, coolest line every day would straighten me out.

I’m sure my romantic feelings about the A Train are colored a little bit, at least, by nostalgia. After all, one reason why I freelance is that the thought of going back to an 11+ hour work day (factoring in a minimum of 8 hours at the office plus the commute) sends shivers down my spine. I’d also wager that,  were I commuting every day, I’d quickly evolve into one of those people who can’t go for a second without checking her phone. But for now, when I do head into the city for a meeting or to meet up with friends, I still find myself sitting in that corner seat by the window, taking in the view and letting my mind wander.

I know a lot of people hate the A Train. Yes, it could be better (and I, like every other Rockaway local, do have some thoughts on that).  But I just wanted to tell all the haters out there that  there’s still a few of us who really love to Take the A Train.

Just ask Duke Ellington.