In praise of digital relationships, romantic and otherwise

Earlier tonight, as I prepared to go to bed, I looked up a few old schoolmates on Facebook. People to whom I was never particularly close, even then. The ones I found were nearly strangers to me. I have nothing in common with them now, and the only thing I had in common with them then was geography. Even that wasn’t exactly a matter of agency, given that we lived where our parents had chosen to live.

I’ve long rejected the notion that friendships and relationships should be based on geography. Obviously you’ll eventually want to meet your closest online friends and especially your online romantic interests, and romantic partners would ultimately relocate for each other. But choosing a friend or a partner based on elementary school or high school or even college always seemed needlessly limited to me. I know many people who found their long-term partners in school; I wasn’t one of them. And while I do retain close friendships with many people with whom I went to school, I have just as many close friends whom I met through various online means, based on our mutual interests.

Because of my shyness and, to use the technical term, resting bitch face, I’ve long had difficulty getting close to people I meet first in person. I know that I come off as a bit awkward and aloof. I communicate much better in writing. Even my co-workers compliment my humor and wit in our office chat program. So it makes sense that someone like me would more easily forge written-based relationships. 

One of my best friends now is someone I’d have never met at all, in person or otherwise, were it not for our mutual love of Harry Potter and various other geekery. We crossed paths online over five years ago and up to this point we’ve visited each other and we regularly chat long-distance about other things: cooking, pets, work, moving. I talk to her about things I’d talk to any true friend about in person.

My current long-distance partner (soon to, in a few weeks, hopefully become my short-distance partner for a few days at least) approached me because he admired my online writing about, of all things, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” That was six months ago and we’ve been talking non-stop ever since. Though I’m eager to see him, I don’t consider what we have to be inherently less meaningful because it’s mostly based on written communication.

Finally, the peril of going to school in the Midwest and in England and living on the East Coast is that nearly all of my friends, even if they began as in-person friends, became long-distance friends. Written communication is absolutely essential, whether it’s a tweet, email, text, Facebook message or something else. This is what helps me sustain my friendships, because the vast majority of my friends live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

I have more in common with a handful of people thousands of miles away in England than I do with a handful of people in Kansas with whom I shared a few years of schooling 20-odd years ago. It’s worth it to me to forsake in-person interactions for the time being in exchange for a deeper emotional attachment through writing. I wouldn’t trade a day’s worth of emails with my partner for 50 middling OKCupid dates in D.C.

But I am excited to see him, though …

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Finding your voice

Not too long ago, I was having dinner with some friends, a couple. One of them described a book she had just read, but couldn’t think of the author or the title. Based on her synopsis, I remarked that it “sounded like something Chuck Palahniuk would write.” She ended up looking up the book on her phone, and the author was … Chuck Palahniuk. Her girlfriend was impressed that I could identify the author correctly — I hadn’t actually read the book.

I’ve thought about that exchange since it happened, and I’m still torn on whether, from a writer’s perspective, it’s good or bad or both or neither. On the one hand, here is a writer with such a developed voice and tone that a mere summary of a book was enough for me to identify him. On the other, from a more cynical perspective, it could be seen as the mark of someone who perhaps relies too much on a singular focus.

As a writer who does far too little of her own writing, I fell on the side of positivity (how un-Palahniuk of me) and settled on the former interpretation. I’d honestly love for someone down the line to read something I’ve written, or hear about something I’ve written, and positively ID me as the author. Really, it shows a familiarity with the overall body of work, and that’s something an author should strive for.

(The book was “Invisible Monsters,” I think.)

Refusing a bite of the apple

I might be one of a rare breed of female twentysomething journalists who consider themselves city mice: I have never made any serious, good-faith attempt to “make it” in New York, nor have I ever wanted to and honestly, unless an amazing opportunity arises or I move for a partner, I sincerely can see myself never wanting to.

A friend of mine shared this blog entry today, which I read and which maybe finally made me realize why I never sought that city the way so many women my age and in my profession do. New York City, the presumed epicenter of culture, literature and intellectual thought, is crowding out (and has been crowding out) the very people who contribute those things to the city. Creativity must be nurtured, and that requires basic security, energy and time, things that can be difficult if not impossible to attain in the city, especially if, like the blog author, you have to work a “real” job to make ends meet. The author decided to ultimately sacrifice location for that trifecta she needed to do something fulfilling, and left.

Which brings me back to myself; reading that, I have to wonder if I always knew, subconsciously, that I wouldn’t find in New York what I needed to fulfill me. Rather than needing to live there to realize that, maybe I always had a sense that it wasn’t really worth it. It wasn’t worth paying four figures to live with a bunch of other people in some outer borough, or doing a menial and unrewarding job, or going without food, just to be able to say, “I live in New York.” If “living in New York” doesn’t really come with the actual lifestyle implied by “living in New York” (creative freedom and intellectual growth), then what the bloody hell good is it? It’s an empty phrase, designed to impress outsiders or people from home; it would have no bearing on how I actually lived my life. That air of superiority, given the living circumstances of so many people like me in the city, just felt unearned, and I’d be damned if I moved there to perpetuate it.

And obviously it’s different for different people. I have friends there who love it, and I freely admit that I’d feel perfectly happy living in that other New York-esque metropolis with which I’m so familiar (London, I mean London). But after reading the blog entry and seeing a woman who might, in another life, have been me, it clicked. I had “gotten it” before I really even knew what I had “gotten.”

But then again, I never really knew or noticed how prevalent “Good-bye, New York” writings were. Time and again, young women aspire to go to New York, do so and then leave, for one reason or another. Maybe I just cut out the middleman.

In all fairness I do say this as a Washingtonian (via the Midwest and some stints in Britain), living in a place that isn’t exactly inexpensive. Many people in D.C. view it as a step on the way to New York, including at least a few of my friends. The District’s alleged inferiority complex is often remarked upon, and I’d be lying if I didn’t find the Times’s sometimes downright snotty coverage of the city (including, at times, bush-league geographic errors) to be grating. It seems like no matter what D.C. has, New York has more of it. Which is to be expected, as New York has more than 8 million people and D.C. only recently topped about 650,000, although it’s only getting bigger. But often, any criticism of New York by a D.C.-er brings allegations of jealousy or attempts at one-upping.

Which is why I found Andrew Sullivan’s own farewell to New York to be comforting; it’s rare (at least in my experience) to have someone that high-profile in the creative/journalistic community so publicly and forcefully side with D.C. over New York. For once, we’re not the ones being jilted. And Sullivan noticed that, too. It was “incomprehensible” to New Yorkers, he said, that a person might choose D.C. over their city.

And that’s at least partly why he left.

Lose your copy editors, lose yourselves

I’m a copy editor. It’s been my jam since I passed the Dow Jones editing test way back in 2007. That test led me to my first internship, at The Indianapolis Star. And, barring my master’s work, I’ve never looked back.

I am extremely lucky to be able to make a living as an editor, and lucky to work at a place that still sees the value in keeping a dedicated copy desk. I’ve had crash courses in fracking, the Affordable Care Act, patent law, defense contracting and countless other topics. It makes me better-rounded, and every time someone thanks for me improving a story, finding a better word or correcting a potentially embarrassing error, I feel glad to have come in that day, that what I do matters.

As such I — and many other friends and colleagues in this business — was distressed to see that the number of working copy editors has fallen by about 46 percent in the past decade. By comparison, reporting positions fell by 26 percent, according to Poynter. Apparently, when newsrooms need to bust out the scissors, we’re an easy target.

However, I argue that dismissing the copy desk will in the long run exacerbate problems, not solve them — the same problems that trimming the copy desk were supposed to solve in the first place.

This Steve Myers entry on Poynter last spring sums up exactly what I mean. Myers writes about the dismissal of the Denver Post’s copy desk and the assignment of editing duties to other staffers across the newsroom. Rather than comment on this one way or the other, he simply shares a single headline from the Post: “Downward sprial continues.” Oh yes, yes it did.

What do readers think when they see a newspaper (or website, magazine, whatever) riddled with spelling, grammatical and factual errors? Reasonably, they probably assume that this newspaper is bush league, that it doesn’t care enough to get things right and that it isn’t worth the reader’s subscription dollars. Readership falls, advertising follows and before you know it, the relaxation of financial tensions caused by neglecting the copy desk starts to tighten again.

A quality news organization, no matter the medium, is one in which copy is clean, concise, factual, logical and, yes, spelled correctly. And that requires an investment in copy editors. Take care of them and they’ll take care of your product, and the rest will follow.

(A copy editor, for example, could have told Cindy Adams that Georgetown is actually in Washington, D.C., proper, and that it is no longer 1991.)

Please don’t be That Guy on Yelp

According to my Yelp profile, I am on my second year of being Elite in the Washington, D.C., area. I like Yelp because it combines two of my favorite things: writing and dining out. While I use Yelp mainly for fun and to keep track of where I’ve been, I understand that it carries weight in many places.

I always write my reviews in good faith, and I’ve written them for a number of popular D.C.-area restaurants (including Rasika, Graffiato, Jaleo and Founding Farmers), as well as places in Kansas City, Boston, the UK and Paris. I try to write them as soon as possible after my experience, so the information is fresh and accurate.

Attempting to leverage my so-called Elite status to get additional swag, whether it be perks, better service or freebies, has never crossed my mind. For one thing, I can’t imagine the inflated sense of self-worth necessary to do that. For another, I’m still a journalist who believes, like any good professional critic, that a review is only worthwhile if you’re treated like everyone else. For a third, I’m not a scummy human being.

Jezebel today shared a story about a guy who’s setting up a business plan that revolves around, more or less, extorting businesses based on him being a reviewer for sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. (The original Los Angeles Times stories is behind a paywall, sorry!) He’s distributing the “ReviewerCard,” the idea being that if you flash it and promise to give a good review, businesses will offer discounts, extras and the like. He brags about getting discounted hotel rates by promising to give a good review — the logical conclusion and underlying threat, real or not, being that if he doesn’t get preferential treatment, he’ll write a bad review. The actual quality of the business does not seem to play a role in his reviews; it’s what he can get out of it for himself.

After reading the story, I mostly hoped that Yelp would catch wind of it and disable his account. Professional critics take great pains to avoid being recognized or getting preferential treatment, because they want their experience to mirror that of a regular person’s as much as possible. The idea of New York Times or Washington Post writers telling the hostess that they’re critics, so that fromage plate better be on the house if you know what I mean, is unfathomable. What this guy is selling as “win-win” is really just him being greedy.

Enjoy sites like Yelp for what they are — something that is supposed to be fun, informative and social. Don’t be a tacky egotist who believes that being Elite entitles you to $25 off your bill or whatever.

Welcome to 2013

I have, unfortunately, been delinquent at practicing my own writing while editing the writing of others. Shame on me. Right now, I’m taking a break in between holiday on-call shifts, posting news and updates about the dreaded fiscal cliff. I fluctuate between thinking that what I’m doing is important, and wanting to never, ever hear or see the phrase “fiscal cliff” again.

I will not miss 2012, or at least, I won’t yearn for it the way I still do 2011. The second half of it, at least, was exciting and interesting and challenging: moving to a new city, meeting new people and starting a job I love. But that just leads to a continuation of that in the new year.

I already have a lot planned for 2013. I’m celebrating my birthday a week late, when my best friend comes to visit and I expose her to the awesomeness that is The Passenger’s cocktail menu and Founding Farmers’ brunch. Sometime in late February, if the weather isn’t atrocious, I’m planning another long weekend in Boston. I’m playing restaurant hostess for my parents again in late March, and hoping to visit Europe again (I’m thinking Stockholm) in June. And of course I’m hoping to see how POLITICO Pro keeps on trucking and growing, and maybe try my hand at some reporting.

I feel like I’ve grown up a lot in the last few months, and I’m hoping to spend enough time in Washington to feel settled. Since I graduated high school, I’ve never stayed more than a year in the same place (although England the last time was about 14 months all told), and I’m at a point where I want to just stay still for a while.

So that’s where I am now — working and still getting the hang of a truly wonky city. Stay tuned.

5 tips for the journalist in limbo

There comes a time in (nearly) every journalist’s career when she (or he) has to take a break from the profession, for whatever reason. I’m in that position now, with graduate school. I admit that at times, without a paper or news site for which to edit, design or write, I have something of an existential breakdown. Am I still a journalist?! Is someone in a trench coat going to revoke my membership card? 

That kind of a break, whether it lasts months or years, or is permanent or temporary, can be difficult to take. Here are some ways for the journalist in limbo to stay sharp (or more accurately, they’re how this journalist in limbo stays sharp).

1. Keep writing. I write all the time — blog entries, academic essays, dissertation notes, tweets, neurotic emails to my mother. It doesn’t have to be publishable or even journalistic. Stay used to writing as much as you can. It keeps your voice, grammar and mechanics sharp. If you’re in school, academic research is good practice for looking up public records. I’m looking up Hungarian electoral data; what are Sarah Palin’s emails compared with that?

2. Keep reading. I read and skim a ton of content every day. The New York Times, Washington Post, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Guardian, BBC, Poynter, Telegraph, Gawker, Mashable, Slate, Salon and Kansas City Star form my core go-to links, but there are probably dozens more that I visit tangentially. Not only do I stay connected with global, national and local news, but I also get a good dose of quality writing and reporting. Good writing comes from good reading.

3. Keep practicing skills. This could be any one thing, or several small things. For instance, I’m working through HTML and CSS exercises in a workbook, and sampling some free online courses through News University. The code work is a refresher of basic skills I learned in J school, and the online tutorials offer a more theoretical approach to ethics, business planning and management. News University also offers inexpensive online help with several critical applications like InDesign and Photoshop, if you’re interested in that.

4. Stay engaged with social media. I tweet all the time, on a variety of topics — politics, sports, cooking, travel, movies — and it helps me practice brevity in my writing (see #1), engage others in dialogue, learn about different sources of news and practice filtering information. I’m also active in Foursquare (I love leaving tips) and maintain a LinkedIn account. You don’t need a steady journalism job to build an audience.

5. Network, as an extension of #4. Talk to people and follow people in a wide range of professions, not just journalism. Think of everyone as a potential source. Follow accounts that regularly link to job postings, maintain a website for your professional use and keep all of your contact information up to date. I created and ordered my own business cards, which I designed myself from scratch. Use the time when you’re not beholden to a media company to cultivate your own brand and learn how to sell yourself.

I’d be jumping the gun if I told you that the above points were guaranteed recipes for success (I’m still in graduate school and don’t have a job yet), but they’ve definitely helped me to stay in the loop and feel connected to my chosen profession.

I’ve worked for a newspaper of some kind in a staff capacity almost non-stop since I was 15: four years on my high school paper, four years on the University Daily Kansan and consecutive summers at the Indianapolis Star, Columbus Dispatch and Kansas City Star. It’s taken me a while to accept that while it’s awesome to get paid to write and edit and have an official press pass, my writing and opinions aren’t necessarily less valid if I’m not employed at a newspaper. Do I eventually want a full-time job in journalism? Yes, I think I do. But that doesn’t mean I have to sit and twiddle my thumbs until I get one, and neither do you.