The snarling crowd in the shadows watching us


By the time she died in 1886, Emily Dickinson had written over eighteen hundred poems. Only twelve were ever published in her lifetime, and they were published anonymously in the Springfield Republican, which, today, after significant infrastructure and population growth in the United States,  has a circulation of 55,000.

So probably only 14,000 people received the newspaper that day when “The Sleeping” was published in 1862, and only a third of those, if that, ever read it.  Five thousand people were only ever exposed to Emily Dickinson’s voice in her lifetime, and even that was anonymously and heavily edited to match publication style of that day.

When I was in seventh grade and memorizing tons of Emily Dickinson to make myself seem smarter to people older than me, I used to think this was incredibly unfair. How could someone so talented not want or need any exposure? How could she have died, unrecognized, unappreciated by anyone except her own family? She even asked her sister to burn all her manuscripts and correspondence, and it was only through a legal loophole that her legacy survived.

It used to be that there was nothing as unfair as a brilliant writer, toiling in obscurity. Now, it’s unfair that when we write, we face the universe.

That’s an exaggeration, but the recent explosion of viral content means that every time I write a blog post, I have to think about everyone that reads it: my family, my friends, my coworkers at the office, my coworkers at other offices, my dentist, people on Twitter, people on Facebook, people who repost my content in Japan or India or Korea with my blog name with my first and last name, out there in the internet.

This is obviously a choice. I chose to write, and I chose to write publicly, partly because of Penelope Trunk’s post . I could have hidden my last name, or even my first. When I first set up the blog, over five years ago, I toyed with the idea of blogging anonymously. I didn’t know much about security then, but I had a nagging feeling that, no matter how anonymous I was, I would always be found out.

What got me to thinking about how exposed we are in the modern world was this recent post experiment, where the author tries to start an anonymous blog. It outlines numerous steps he or she takes to be safe,  up to parts that are extremely annoying to implement:

Most of the time I hide the stick in a secret location in the house. When I need to go somewhere and want to be able to update this blog, I’ll back it up to the hidden volume, and then securely erase the USB disk, so I can take it with me without fear. This is what I must do until the Tails adds its own function for ‘hidden volumes’.

But the author is already not anonymous in any way. They are clearly a native or near-native English speaker.  They are tech-savvy, including knowing enough about both Tor and static-site generation using GitHub. And, they read XKCD comics. I’ve already created a pretty narrow profile of them in my head. They note that they counter  identifying writing patterns by:

 running all my posts through Google Translate. I translate into another language, then to English, and then correct the errors. It’s great for mixing up my vocabulary, but I wish it didn’t fuck up Markdown and HTML so much. Until this point, you might have assumed that English was my second language. But let me assure you, I will neither confirm nor deny it.

For the blog author, it’s an experiment. For most humans, it’s an impossible way to live. The danger of human nature is two-fold: the first is that we’re creatures of habit, which makes it easy to track our patterns, and second is that we are lazy.  We’re not machines, and we’re not perfect.

The result is that now every time we post something, we’re posting it, non-anonymously, to a potential audience of over 20,000. 300 Facebook friends, each of which have 300 Facebook friends. Even when it’s only 100 that are possibly reading your posts, that’s a million people 2 degrees of separation away from you. Your private emails are no longer private. Assume someone’s reading over your shoulder, even your Angry Birds stats.

Once you are leading any kind of online life under what is even vaguely close to your real name, you have the potential to reach millions of people every day. And there’s no way to hide who you are, because that makes you even more visible.  “The internet is no longer divided between a place between those who make, and those who consume,” writes Grace, and I agree with her, but for different reasons than she probably thinks. We are all creators now. We’re generating hundreds of millions of data points, sometimes unwittingly.

Every time I open up WordPress, I feel like I’m standing in a darkened club, front of an open mic in front of an enormous audience.  There are a couple tables up front with friends and family, cheering (some are really loaded up on mojitos, so they’re being extra-loud). The rest of the audience is whispering among each other, not paying attention, flirting, filing their nails as I choose my words carefully.  If I say the right thing, the people up front laugh and titter, and some people around them tap their shoulders, “Hey, who’s that up there. She seems interesting and funny,” and they tune in. Otherwise, they stop listening.

But if I say something that is absolutely true for me, that makes me feel vulnerable, or something funny that other people don’t think is funny, if there is even a breath of scandal, the entire audience snaps to attention and starts talking to directly to me or throwing tomatoes, and now there is a mob.  Sometimes there’s a mob even when you don’t consciously evoke one.

I’ve deleted hundreds of drafts that I’ve started writing for exactly this reason.  I’ve started drafts that are funny, sad, and angry, really, a number of drafts whose only commonality is that they are 100% what I believe or am going through, unfiltered by my fear of the snarling audience in the shadows.

Now they are, like Dickinson’s letters, gone.

If only we were fortunate to be able to delete other data before it makes its way through the crowd and the crowd buzzes in a murmur and rises to a roar, wanting to consume us.

It’s a really exhausting way to write, and, as Emily would probably say, a harder way to live.




La dolce Vika

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 6.57.18 AM

My parents have been doing some spring cleaning lately. And by spring cleaning, I mean my mom called me and said, “We have five boxes of your crap in the attic. Can we throw it out?”  My crap being everything I’ve ever generated artistically or scholastically since first grade.



How to Write a Travel Piece


Start by looking through all your photos of the trip for inspiration.  You need to have the perfect picture to illustrate your travel story. This process takes you over half an hour and you somehow find yourself looking at your wedding photos. Hm. Your nails were awesome.  Maybe you should get a French manicure again soon?

Stop that.  You have something important to write.  Close the iPhotos.

Open Facebook.  Close Facebook.

 Ok, ok.  Now you’ve found a picture, you put it in the blog post.  There it is in your browser. Better than all the other pictures. Inspiring. Travel-worthy. Theroux-like.   But there’s nothing underneath the picture.  You know what, though?  Serious writers don’t write with lots of pictures and blog links.  You’re going to try something different.  Like The New Yorker/Atlantic, classy-like. You close WordPress and switch to Word. You debate going analog because sometimes you write best on paper.  But that’s just, like, too crazy right now, man.  Who was that dude that always wrote with Moleskine? Hemingway?  Gotta Google that.
Ok, five minutes later.
Ok,  Word is open.  The cursor is blinking on the page.

But first, you need writing music, you know, to get you pumped up and in the spirit.  You open Grooveshark.  You type Scotland into the search engine.  Too much happy ceildigh music.  You need something serious and writer-ly.  You end up having to create your own playlist.  Enya. Runrig. The Corries.  You know, the basics of  Gaelic seriousness. Your husband tells you to stop listening to that shit out loud because he is going to massacre you like the Campbells and the McDonalds. (You’ve been listening to/singing Scottish music for the past two months. Sometimes you also mix it up and sing Scottish songs in Russian or Hebrew.)  You point out to him that technically killing one person is not a massacre.  He gives you a dirty look and you put on headphones.

Open Facebook. Anyone doing anything cool? No. Close Facebook.

You write the first line.

“Scotland was amazing.”  Stupid.  First grade. Delete delete.

“Scotland technically should be free.” Terrible.  What if you have Royalist readers?  You can’t alienate your reader base.

“As you stand looking over the ramparts of Stirling Castle, you’re cold and wet and miserable, but mostly, you’re thinking about Alex Salmond and Scottish independence.” Stupid.  Who the hell stands on the ramparts of a castle in the dead of winter?  You did, but that’s not the point.  It’s not a believable narrative.   Also, what kind of weirdo thinks about Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister?  Terrible.  Delete Delete. Delete. Also, you weren’t technically thinking about Alex Salmond, but it’s a good narrative device.  But then you feel like you’re lying to your readers. Spend five minutes wondering about the merits of lying to your readers.  Google James Frey, leading you down a rabbithole of literature fraud.  You would never do that.  Unless you could also make millions.

Wait.  Get back on track. You need to read up on Alex Salmond to better understand Scotland. Wikipedia. Google News.

Open Facebook. Anyone doing anything fun that you can comment on yet?  No?  Close that shit.  Read New York Times.  There’s a travel essay on Ireland in there. Feel the flames of jealousy. Ignore that shit.  If you read it, it’s going to influence how you write your stuff. That’s why you’re strictly off travel writing for the minute.

Back to Write up some some stuff on Alex Salmond.  But that will go later in the piece.  You still don’t have an introduction.   Keep listening to Grooveshark. Screw the introduction. You’ll write one later.  Force yourself to grind out one paragraph.

Open Facebook.  Jesus Christ.  All people are doing are posting picture memes.  Doesn’t anyone use Facebook for anything interesting anymore?  Discussions?  Close it.

Type up three more sentences.  You are done with your paragraph.  There it is.

The sun, always a fickle visitor in the Northern winter, was nowhere to be seen.  The muted greenery of Stirling village and farms spread out below, and the clouds moved lugubriously across the stern crags in the distance. It was two days before Christmas and the castle was empty save for five Asian tourists huddled in the Great Hall.  But I was outside, drinking in the landscape, fighting hypothermia, and thinking about Alex Salmond.

But, by God, it is TERRIBLE.  It sounds like every amateur travel piece ever written.  Also, maybe people will think you’re racist if you mention Asian tourists?  But they really are Asian.  Also, you should research Stirling Castle more.

Screw it.  It’s done. For now.  Jesus Christ, you are finally done with the first paragraph.

Promise your blog readers (and yourself) a finished version sometime next week, like you’ve been promising them for the past three weeks.

Open Facebook.


Jewish Carols

I actually wrote this post two years ago but haven’t been brave enough to publish it until now.

It’s about a secret love of mine: Christmas carols. Technically, as  a (nonobservant) Jew, I know I shouldn’t enjoy them or sing them, a knowledge that was imparted on me by my mom who, when I was learning Silent Night in third grade, acted as if she was personally experiencing the Inquisition when it gets to the part about yon Virgin and Child. I was also afraid to say the word ‘Jesus’ until I was in high school.  I was always embarrassed to sing them at home and when I did, it was always in the shower.

From youth onward, singing Christmas carols became a stigma for me and an involuntary jolt of shame and fear came upon me every time we had to sing a song in class that had anything to do with Jesus or Holy Nights or Yon Virgins.  I would panic and try to swallow the words as much as I could while burning in shame that I couldn’t just sing them like my classmates could.

Theoretically, this is good.  Jewish (or Muslim or Bahai or areligious)  kids shouldn’t be singing Christmas carols about a God they’re not supposed to believe in.   And, schools need to recognize this and not have any religious content in their holiday programs (many of which I’ve had to suffer through both as a clarinet player all through high school and middle school and a member of our school chorus.)  Not balanced content (i.e. one Hanukkah song, one Christmas song, etc.)  Just no religious content at all. And don’t label it as the War on Christmas. Just label it as a separation of church and state.

At the same time, Jewish parents shouldn’t overreact and stigmatize kids against everything related to Christmas, which is more and more becoming a secular holiday in the United States.  Particularly when one of the kid’s other parents might be Christian.  Granted, my dad is a pretty stoic Christian.   He never took me to Russian Orthodox Christmas services (probably out of concern for my sanity, seeing as to how the whole service is held standing up). He never explained Easter, or much any Russian religious to me in the same way that my mom explained Judaism. But he did take me to a monastery when we were in Russia, which was awesome and one of the experiences I remember most about that trip. There, my aunt asked me to drink some water that had been blessed by the priests of the monastery, which I shied away from very uncomfortably.  But why?  Why couldn’t I have been raised in dichotomy?  I’m not saying we should have celebrated Chrismukkah, because that’s  just lame.

But,  I’m  sad about the fact that I don’t know of any Orthodox Christian tradtitions to pass on (not even egg dyeing.  I got nothin’).  Because it is still part of my identity. And while I don’t identify with the sense of joy and celebration that are tied into Christmas carols because I’m not Christian, I am  still going to be rocking out to the following song, which has three of my favorites (Europeans, tuxedos, and cathedrals). Just in secret, still.  Because the fear never leaves you.