Thursday, May 31, 2007

you talk too much

You talk too much you worry me to death,
You talk too much, you even worry my pet
You just talk, talk too much
You talk about people that you don't know,
You talk about people wherever you go
You just talk, talk too much
You talk about people that you've never seen,
You talk about people, you can make me scream
You just talk, you talk too much

Joe Jones

The other night at dinner, Michael told me that my blog posts were exhausting. It makes him tired to read them from start to finish.

He tells me this as I eavesdrop on the conversation at the other end of our table in a fancy Northern Italian restaurant in Arlington, VA, just outside of DC. The guys who ordered the expensive bottles of wine are yakking about details of air travel—the appetizers in first class, a particular airport lounge, the vicissitudes of frequent flyer programs—that sort of stuff. The kind of conversation that just wears you down, slowly, upgrade by upgrade, delay by delay.

You should get airline miles for listening to people yak like that.

More than being a virus, words are corrosive. Not just the obvious kinds of words either, like hate speech or solemn platitudes. Other stuff too. And not just the obvious boring conversational fodder like retold movie plots or punchline-free office jokes. And not just epithets, epitaphs, and Churchillian epigrams either. No, all of those’ll clearly do you in. But I’m also throwing in the gradual abrasion caused by everyday cocktail chatter. Each clause has the capacity to gently, gradually pummel you into submission.


And my new RAZR phone has 15 Quick Notes to get you started. “Will arrive 15 minutes” and “Can this wait?” In their preposition-free brevity, they have their own capacity to wear away ground, to carve a conversational Grand Canyon over the years, byte by byte.

So I can see how my blog posts would be exhausting. Perhaps not corrosive, but certainly tiring.

Michael isn’t the first one to tell me this. My own mother might’ve said almost the same thing—that to read my posts was to open up oneself to a minor barrage of words. A veritable windstorm. Like opening the moon roof while you’re cruising down Highway 280 at 90 mph. Screenful after screenful of words. A shitstorm of words. Words about egg cartons, pink Canadian caffeine pills, and Signature Gourmet Coffee Makers.

And if every picture’s worth a 1000 more of those words, then I’m in even deeper trouble.

I’m sensitive about my prolixity. After all, when I was a kid, there was a popular doll called Chatty Cathy whose sales were no doubt bolstered by the catchy alliteration in her name as well as by the handy pull string in her back. A tug on the pull string yielded one of 11 different phrases, uttered at random.

It’s like talking to me before I’ve had coffee in the morning.

11 phrases, uttered at random. Yep. That’s me.

Chatty Cathy could say things like “I have earned every cent” or “In all of my years of public life I have never obstructed justice” or “I am not a crook” Oh. No. Wait. That wasn’t Chatty Cathy. That was Richard Nixon. It’s so easy to get a period’s important historical figures mixed up. Chatty Cathy was the creepy doll with the pull string that appeared in the notorious Twilight Zone episode; Richard Nixon was the creepy guy with the stubble who appeared in the White House.


Just imagine how confused I get by Tickle Me Elmo and George W. Bush.

Maybe someone could do a Barbie Liberation Organization prank on the two of them (Elmo and GWB) and swap their voice boxes.

“See, I'm the decider, and I decide what is best.” Elmo would say. "Uh uh uh! No peeking! Hahahaha!" GWB would answer. I don’t think it would make Elmo any less appealing or GWB any less coherent; it’d be a pretty even swap.

But Chatty Cathy. I hated Chatty Cathy. I was afraid of dolls at best—especially that mute dominatrix Barbie with her tiny stiletto heels and pink strap-on—but a doll with an insulting name like Chatty Cathy hit a little too close to home when I was 6. I may’ve just told my classmates my name was Catherine rather than Cathy for awhile back then.

Maybe they were right. I do go on, don’t I?

And, as Joe Jones’ song would have it, I may even worry my pet, although really Lumpy is my equal when it comes to having a lot to say. “Meow,” he insists. “Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow.” Which variously means, “Whatever could you be thinking? I had Fancy Feast Cod Sole and Shrimp Dinner just yesterday” or “I can’t believe the condition of my cat box. It’s like a service station restroom on Interstate 10” or even “You’ve stayed up late enough. The Colbert Report is over and it’s time for bed. March!”

Yeah. He says all that and more. Over and over sometimes if he doesn’t think you’re listening. The “March!” command is often issued with a claws-out tap on bare feet.

And he likes to meow in the shower or the back hall, where it echoes. Who doesn’t?

Ah-oooo. Lumpy says. Ah-oooo. A feline banshee.

But still…

You blog too much you worry me to death
You blog too much, you even worry my pet
You blog about people eating schools of sea bream
You blog about people—say, there goes Steve McQueen
You just blog, blog, blog, you blog too much.

I’m not being paid by the word. Why do I do it? Why aren’t I more concise?

This made me wonder, just how long is the average blog post? It’s not been in the news, so I can’t ask June Thomas over at Slate; she’s the one who always records the Slate Explainer podcasts that answer the pressing questions underlying today’s news. (For example, this week’s offering addresses the puzzler: How do spelling bees work in other countries?)

I’m sure someone’s done the stats though: if there’s something that can be readily counted, someone will have done it.

There’s the study by Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, and Swartz. In their sample (which we’ll pretend for convenience is representative, and covers blogs like mine), the words per post range from 80 to 494 (with a mean of 209) and the links per post range from 0 to 6 (mean 1).

A 209 word post with one link? You’d have to be yelling FIRE or spilling the beans about an affair you had with a politician for 209 words and one link to have any pizzazz.

But this is confirmed by a more prescriptive analysis reported in a blog called Modern Life, which tells us that “it may be worthwhile considering that most popular blogs have an average of 100-250 words per article.”

There it is again: popularity. “All of the really popular blogs…” Yeah. Yeah. Right. Reminds me of the advice, “All of the really popular girls drink plenty of water… and apply makeup carefully.”

A quick analysis of the last 30 posts of my own blog reveals a factor of ten discrepancy. Yes. That’s right. Almost an entire order of magnitude. My blog posts range from a terse, emotional 550 word post about the airlines’ current ban on liquids to a whopping 4500 word analysis of the fly-over states’ appeal (what can I say? It’s a large area to cover in a single post). My mean post length is a bulky 1968 words, only a medium-length sentence short of 2K.

The link situation is even worse. On average I’m 20 times more profligate with my links than the study sample; my mean is 18 links per post, with a high of 51 in the post about the Middle West and a low of one lonely link in the short post about the new airport security regulations. You’ve got to link though—what’s the point of hypertext if you don’t link?

Okay. I admit it. Michael is right. My prolixity is worrisome.

The posts look even more daunting as hardcopy. I archive them by printing them out and stashing them in a three-ring binder. A year’s worth of posts has filled a big ol’ 3” 3-ring binder that used to hold the business plan for a failed start-up called Public Mind. I must’ve used a whole ream of paper printing all these posts out. And surely it was an obsessive effort to use my dinky 3-hole punch to put holes in them.

So, yeah, it’s exhausting to read my blog posts—and even more exhausting to print and file them—but I have to admit that it’s exhilarating to write them.

I used to just talk to myself instead, gesticulating and sometimes frothing at the mouth to get my point across. Occasionally I’d grip myself by the collar and shout in my own face. It’s a technique honed by many years of riding public transportation and observing Muni riders far more schooled in auto-conversationalism than I am.

But blog posts? Much better than talking to myself. I can link and illustrate! I can fact-check! I can make up stuff! (“I saw Thomas Pynchon at the taquería on Mission and 24th. He was wearing lime green golf pants and eating a breakfast burrito.”) I can violate copyright! (Take that, M. Mouse! Take that!) I can name-drop! And no-one watching me thinks I’m a crazy person. My wild gesticulations will never tear a Picasso.

And—best of all—my posts come up when innocent people google for meat bees, Lester Gas, the Midnight Mysogynist, pig catapult, and other terms of art.

They’re looking for information; they’re looking for re-assurance; they’re looking for an address, a phone number, or store hours. They’re looking for built-in dinettes.

And they get me instead. Chattering away.

Sometimes they don’t just leave; they add great comments. Bill Dearing, the fellow who penned the Bat Brain comic I liked so much while I was at UMass, amended one of my posts with vital context. Erich Schneider had something to say about dining out in College Station (for better or worse). Susie straightened out my misapprehensions about minty French breath. And several anonymous readers ID’d my yellow fungus; I’d have never figured out what it was.

There is, of course, a solution for my obsessive fascination with words. A time-honored solution. One that’s worked in the past.

I need an editor.

My prose’ll turn crisp and clear, like one of Hemingway’s trout streams.

But after all is said and done, I bet when Mom reads this post (which weighs in at a sleek 1800 words) she’ll say,

“Your last blog was so short. Are you not feeling well?"


Blogger Lovecraftian Girlfriend said...

That WAS exhausting, but it was a good kind of a three mile hike or a nice cup of herbal tea before bed.

And yes, I read the whole thing.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Rock said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Rock said...

Well you could get an editor and tighten these things up and crank them out like Monkees' tunes. Then you'd be the blog equivalent of Andy Rooney.

But you know me, I always prefer the extended jams.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've made it in Cathy's blog! In honor of her more terse entry, I submit this Hemingway story:

It was night. So this is how it is, this is how it always happens in the night. Obscenity your night. With my last 50 dollars I purchased some true and honest whiskey on the rocks; I took a pull from the bottle. It was good. It burned my mouth and felt good and warm going down my esophagus and into my stomach. From there it went to my kidneys and my bladder, and was good. I remembered then when I last saw Cathy Marshall who was still a damn fine writer. It was in Arlington and we looked out the windows at the sky and drank whiskey on the rocks in the night. It was night and had been night for some time.


2:29 PM  
Anonymous Marcia said...

I can digest only about half of each at once. Then I scroll through the other half looking at the pictures. Today I poked around looking for references to people I knew. I found this extremely rewarding. Also, I'm glad you liked my birthday card.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

It should be noted (for the sake of full disclosure) that commenter Rock and I saw the Monkees in person at Disneyland some years ago.

At the time, several of those fun-loving guys required surrogates to play guitars for them. So this is no idle comparison.

I do like the 1.5 minute songs, but am incapable of delivering same (or the moral equivalent of same). Sigh. I can't even write a brief comment.

I'm doomed to be a jam band playing at the Starwood.

But, as Michael notes, "It was night and had been night for some time." The Hem was always a master of pith. Or xylem.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was sitting with Yorum at Isabel's, the coffee shop here on Lopez Island, and we were talking about needs and I told him that I thought that the more you think you need, the more those needs will propel you into houses where you don’t belong and whose owners are, hopefully, away from the evening.

He told me his friend, Cathy, has a blog, and I should tell her this as she, sometimes, was the kind of person who sometimes gives a damn.

Oh, yes. And he sent his fond greetings.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Jaina Bee said...

Hey! I know that guy! I can vouch for the cafe exchange there.

If all blogs were as interesting as yours, I wouldn't have any time left to sit around in cafes yakking with slackers.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Krud said...

Y'know, if the Google search is to be believed, you and I are the only people to have written a "You Blog Too Much" parody! ':D

(I wrote a version up this morning, then decided to do a search to see if anyone else already had.)

Don't let the concise folk keep ya down!

10:04 AM  

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