Monday, September 27, 2010

search engine optimization

On the way home from work the other day, apropos of nothing, Mark said, "Were you just talking about someone who shoots ping pong balls out of his mouth?"

Up until then, I had been talking. But what I was saying had nothing to do with ping pong balls. In fact, even in the most liberal interpretation, neither projectiles nor orifices of any sort played a part in my chatter.

“You were sleeping, weren’t you?” I said. “You were dreaming.”

“No. No. I was listening to you.” Mark said.

I sighed and turned on my MP3 player. I wear earbuds so the podcasts won’t annoy Mark.

“I must’ve been thinking about that banana ad you showed me,” Mark said. He began to snore, almost before he’d finished the sentence.

It’s not so bad that he wasn’t listening to me. Not so bad at all. Better than arguing; that much is certain.

We don’t argue that often, but the worst arguments you can have are the ones you have in the car.

In the car there are no dishes to throw, nor doors to slam. But you’re trapped. The argument has nowhere to go, except to fester and escalate, or to end in a grim, stony silence that stretches for miles. It’s especially bad if the traffic is snarled—we’ve ignored the Giants’ home game schedule, say, or one of us is trying to make an early meeting in the morning—and we’re simmering together in a car that’s barely creeping forward under a haze of exhaust.

Mostly I’m lucky. Mark and I carpool to work, and it’s nice to have company. It’s a long commute, 37 miles for me, and 45 miles for him. And usually we don’t fight; we chat companionably until Mark drops me off at the back entrance to Building 6 or until I back the car into its parking space at home.

We split the responsibilities: he drives south to Silicon Valley, and we chat. I drive home to San Francisco, and we chat some more. It works pretty well.

Occasionally we even listen to Car Talk, that long-running NPR program hosted by two MIT grads who chatter with their callers, laugh at one another’s jokes, and rattle on about fried distributor caps, old Fiats, mushy suspension, and ex-wives. They know a lot about cars, somewhat less about ex-wives, and can be surprisingly funny. It’s also the only podcast that we’re both willing to listen to, especially in the morning, when our sensibilities are delicate and our moods fragile.

“Have you ever noticed that one of the guys does all the talking?” Mark says.

“Really,” I say. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. The other guy just laughs.”

We listen to Car Talk in silence for the next 10 miles or so. It’s true. The second fiddle brother doesn’t say much. He just brays and snorts. It’s a little annoying once you recognize the pattern, especially when his laughter seems forced.

“You do know you’re going 90, right?” I say, scanning for a CHP cruiser, temporarily distracted from the NPR podcast. The Mini Cooper has a controversial speedometer mounted dead center on the dashboard, so the passenger can inspect it just as easily as the driver can. It’s a strange design idea, and apparently not one motivated by a desire to keep the peace.

Maybe the focus groups for the Mini Cooper liked a good argument. Or maybe you’re not supposed to carry a passenger in the car, and the speedometer is mounted in the middle of the dash so that it’s out of your line of sight, and can’t disturb your drive-time bliss.

“I know. I know I’m going 90.” Mark sounds irritated, but he slows the Mini to a more modest 80.

The other reason we listen to Car Talk is that Mark can almost always come up with the answer to the Puzzler, the thought problem the Car Talk guys present each week with stagey fanfare. I sometimes get it, but certainly not with Mark’s regularity and confidence.

Mark is smart.

“Have you noticed how often the Car Talk guys tell people to buy Honda Elements?” Mark says.

“Honda Elephants,” I say. He’s right; they’ve endorsed the big boxy vehicles to several listeners who’ve called asking for a new car recommendation, and to several listeners who haven’t asked about new cars at all.

“Fucking SUVs,” he says.

We are surrounded by a pod of the giant vehicles. They are on their morning migration south to the richer feeding grounds of Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

We don’t often talk about SUVs or cell phone use on our long commute, although sometimes one of us will point out a particularly egregious example of one or the other.

An Audi sedan with a ski rack mounted on its roof swerves from one side of the lane to the other, veering partway into the adjacent lane. The driver reflexively brakes as his tires cross the Bots dots. I peer in his window as we zoom by him.

“I bet you think he’s texting,” I say to Mark. “He isn’t.”

“Oh?” Mark says.

“He’s knitting.” I say. “No. He’s not knitting. He’s flipping a crepe; he doesn’t want it to burn.”

“He’s making methamphetamine,” Mark says. “He’s cooking meth in his car.”

I pout. It’s a better line than either of mine. I hate it when he does that. “You’re making that up,” I finally say.

“No, I’m not. I read a story in the paper. A guy got busted for making meth in his car.”

I’m usually grateful to have Mark carpool with me. Most days, my job doesn’t involve much socializing. A whole day might pass without me saying a word to anyone, except perhaps to say “Excuse me” when I jockey for position in front of the Starbucks machine in our work kitchenette or collide with someone on the way to the printer. Mark chats with his colleague Misha, but he has a software development job that’s to some degree solitary too. So it’s nice to spend an hour each way during the commute in conversation.

Some days, instead of talking to me, Mark snoozes. Usually not while he’s driving. Usually. He’s always been a champion snoozer, barely beaten out by the cat.

He sits with his seat much further back than mine, so I don’t necessarily notice that he’s fallen asleep. I’ll talk, and then notice he’s not responding.

“Are you sleeping?” I say quietly.


Again: “You asleep?”

I can’t really see him unless I look all the way over my right shoulder, but if he doesn’t answer and doesn’t answer, then I assume he’s unconscious and I can power on my MP3 player to listen to a podcast. My MP3 player is a Sansa, a cheap knock-off of the tiniest iPod, and it takes a while to boot.

It seems that no sooner than the Sansa boots, and the podcast starts up again, Mark comes to and says, “Why did you stop talking?”

“You were asleep. That’s why.”

“You don’t need to talk so loud,” Mark says. “You’re shouting.”

I switch off my MP3 player. “I wasn’t shouting,” I say, this time at a normal volume.

“I thought we were having a nice conversation,” Mark says.

“Okay,” I say. “We were having a nice conversation. So talk.”

Mark begins to snore again, this time in big raspy gasps.

I fumble for the switch on my MP3 player. After the usual delay, the podcast starts back up. Each time I boot, it starts about twenty seconds earlier in the podcast.

“How come you don’t want to talk to me? How come you keep listening to your podcaster?” Mark says.

I’m not sure how he does this seamless slide between asleep and awake. I turn off my MP3 player.

“I’m doing all the talking. You’re sleeping.” I tell him.

“No. I’m not. I’m listening. I’m enjoying listening to you talk.”

It bothers me to be the only one talking; I’m not at all like the talky Car Talk brother. I don’t want to think of myself as a chatterbox, so I clam up once I perceive unequal participation.

“You’re not listening to me,” I say. “You’re sleeping, and I’m doing all the talking. I’m going to shut up. I’m just keeping you awake.”

And that’s as bad as most of our arguments in the car get: petty bickering. We try not to spend too much time criticizing each other’s driving, nor deep-ending on subjects that’ll make us unhappy. Yeah, there are a few times that he says, “You went into that last turn a little hot there, Parnelli” or I say, “You want me to drive? You’re awfully close to that guy. Maybe you should back off a little.”

No worse than that, typically.

But the day after I published my last blog post, the drive was tense. Way tense. We passed the commute in silence, Mark angry and me, sullen.

The argument started while we were at home. Mark caught me off-guard in the morning; he had been thinking while he was doing the morning chores, and I was still sleeping, blissfully unaware of a gathering storm.

I don’t think you should use real names in your blog posts,” he said with no prelude.

I was still groggy, off-guard. I aimed my coffee cup at a point midway between my forehead and chin.

“Why not?” I finally said, wiping spilled coffee from the floor. My mouth is apparently not at the midpoint I was aiming for.

“Because you might not want someone to see them.”

“Someone who? You mean like the mean girls? None of them go by their maiden names anymore. Besides, they wouldn’t care. I doubt they even remember me,” I said. “I was just a nebbishy little thing, and I’m sure they don’t remember any of this.”

“Besides,” I heard myself add a few minutes later, after the caffeine had taken hold, “They actually said that stuff.”

I could feel myself retrenching. I started going through a catalog of names I had used in the last post. I knew there was an element of brinkmanship in the last few posts. “A Honda Element of brinkmanship,” I thought to myself. I knew better than to say that aloud. No-one likes a smart-ass when they’re working themselves into a fine rage.

“What about Lori Beagle?” Mark finally said. “What about her? You weren’t very nice to her.”

Lori Beagle. I hadn’t even considered Lori Beagle. I didn’t picture her spending very much time tip-tapping away at her keyboard. In my mind, she was still wearing the big goofy saddle shoes, the cat-eye glasses, and the knee-length plaid skirt decorated with a giant faux safety pin. I tried to park her mental image down in front of a computer, but I couldn’t fold her into a seated position. She was just standing there, holding a boatload of textbooks to her chest, the way girls did. (Boys held their books at their side, relaxed.) Lori Beagle.

Good ol’ Lori Beagle.

“I’m sure she’s married and has another name. Besides, she knew the deal; people made fun of the way she dressed. It wasn’t a big secret.” I said.

“Maybe she’s forgotten and you’re reminding her. Maybe it was painful for her.”

I don’t like to think of myself as mean. It’s too easy to be nasty to the People of Walmart.

“Aw, c’mon,” I said. “Who’s narcissistic enough to google themselves that way? I mean, to look so hard for something that's both nasty and obscure?”

I could tell that Mark had been stewing about this for awhile, probably since I’d read him the post.

“You don’t know. People google themselves all the time. I think you should take the names out.”

“Those people aren't going to read my blog, even if they find it. And I hardly ever even use last names, except when I want people to find the post. I mean, I wanted Ben Katchor to see the post about him, and it never made it to the first page of the search results.”

“I think you should take the names out,” Mark finally said again, “especially the last names. You can make up names.”

I frowned. “Maybe. Maybe.”

It was a silent a ride to work. Mark drives a certain way when he’s mad, extra-fast, and with added g-forces to the right and left. The tires chirp. Each time we leave from a stop sign, it's as if a checkered flag is coming down. “Gentlemen. On your mark. Get set. GO!” Now I am clinging to the strap as he takes a curve from 280 North to 101 South on two wheels.

And all the while, I fantasize about driving alone in the Civic with some podcasts for company. Not Car Talk either. Live It Up, perhaps. Or RISK! I’d be alone in the car, not thinking about whether I could use names or not, and I’d be laughing.

After the Mini had roared away from the Building 6 parking lot, and I was safely on the neutral ground of my office, I re-read the offending blog post. Then I re-read another. And another. Matt hadn’t minded, had he? He’d even gotten back in touch with me—a bonus, a reason to use real names. Chip, the erstwhile manager of the Leon Capri Apartments, hadn't seen that bit about his bad toupee and bandaids, had he? Probably not.

Neither Mr. Ed nor Josh Kornbluth had sent me a cease-and-desist letter.

Really the worst risk seemed to be in exaggerating and fictionalizing. I sometimes do have a nagging suspicion that a few people—friends, mostly—have indeed been offended (or perhaps slightly put off). But not from having their names used. Mostly I write about people I admire (Roz Chast; my ex-housemates Steve, Kathy, and Chris; William S. Burroughs; Ben Katchor; Michael and Danette; Jon F.). If anyone looks bad, it’s me.

But was Mark right?

I threw some names into the search box. “Lori Beagle” did bring up my blog, right on top. But it didn’t bring up anything else remotely related to the Lori Beagle from my high school, just a mommy-twitterer in South Carolina who was busy tweeting about Spongebob, and some Regretsy-ready dog portraits. My Lori didn’t seem sufficiently self-involved to search for her junior high persona.

Does everybody even see the same search results that I do? Search results are personalized now; I’m never sure whether what I see is what you see.

But probably Lori Beagle won’t see my blog.

Probably not.

Almost surely not.

Would she?

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the picture. Maybe I should’ve given myself a little wiggle room.

Perhaps Mark was right. I brought up my last blog post in an editor and started changing names. If I changed the names now, it’d look like I was republishing it. People’d wonder what I was up to. Maybe they would know. It’d be worse than just leaving the blog post alone.

I closed the edit window, filled with dread and the disproportionate sense of regret that comes with a social faux pas. There was nothing I could do to fix the problem without calling even more attention to it.

That evening, on the drive home, Mark still didn’t seem to be speaking to me. I got into the car, chatty and over-friendly, but there was a great wall of silence between us.

On the way home, I drive.

I move into the left lane on 101 and turn on my MP3 player, trying hard not to obsess. Was Mark right? Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes. I try to focus on other fights we’d had, on times when I’d been right. When I’d definitely been right. When had I last been right?

To show how conciliatory I am, I drive more carefully than usual. I work the turn signal with precision, well in advance of making a lane change. I’m slow to give other drivers the finger.

A person who is this polite not only couldn’t be rude, but also couldn’t be wrong, right?

“There you go,” I say, backing off so a Suburban with a “My child is an honor student at Jordan Middle School” bumper sticker can more or less parallel-park in front of me, going 90 MPH. “Plenty of room for everyone,” I add as the driver instinctively brakes hard as he synchronizes the calendar on his Blackberry. “No sense in going so fast.”

Normally I’d be full of rage. Asshole. He cut me off and then slowed down to 55.

Odd how I turn polite to counter Mark’s anger. But I’m guessing there are only two ways it can go: you drive out your anger, or you deny it completely.

I bump up the volume on the Sansa three notches. I look over and behind me to catch the expression on Mark’s face. His eyes are closed, but he doesn’t look to be asleep.

At home, I compulsively plug in my computer and search for Lori Beagle again. Maybe with a different IP address, the results will be different.

Not only did my blog come up, but I also found the spam pages that’d been constructed from it. “Mixing Raw Pork With Raw Chicken.” Great. I’m almost tempted to click. “RITALIN – Women’s Shopping Finds! (adderall or ritalin).” What'll those spammers think of next?

I can’t decide whether I’m flattered by the way something I’ve written insinuates itself into the dark world of spam or not.

Maybe Lori’s a Microsoft partisan, and uses Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Sure. What would she be doing using Google? I’ve reconstructed Lori in my mind, pushed time forward like they do on the milk cartons. She’d be independent, yet conservative.

She wouldn’t Google. She’d Bing.

The Bing results distract me from my immediate problems by showing me some stats about a Lori Beagle in Texas. “63% of graduates from Lori’s school like Dining out,” Bing informs me. Who doesn’t like dining out? “32% of graduates from Lori’s school like Channel surfing,” Bing elaborates. Which Channel? Coco Chanel? The English Channel?

“3% of graduates from Lori’s school like Rodents.”

Wait. 3% of graduates from Lori’s school like Rodents. Really? I momentarily forget that I’m deliberately on the trail of the wrong Lori Beagle.

That’s it. If she finds it and calls me, I’ll pretend it’s spam. Or a different Lori Beagle. Or a Search Engine Optimization fluke.

Time fades even the most passionate arguments. After a few days of Mark's angry silence, I’d blown through my first string and second string podcasts, and Mark had more than caught up with his pretend and real sleep.

In essence, we’d forgotten what we were fighting about, and were on an even keel again. I’d gotten busy, and was neglecting my blog. Mark had returned to complaining about his colleagues’ programming habits.

Conversation was once again pleasant.

Several months slipped by without notice, the way time does after you finish school. Time is perfectly capable of standing still in a physics lecture, even if you take uncomprehending notes as fast as you can. But once those classroom days are over, the hands of the clock can spin freely.

It’s Special Relativity in action.

I was at my desk. It was twilight, and most of my co-workers had filtered from the building. The cleaning crew was noiselessly emptying trash cans (which were mostly empty already—hence the noiselessness). I’d driven alone, and was contemplating the commute home. I brought up the traffic map, and scanned for red and black segments of roadway (slowdowns) and giant exclamation points (crowd-drawing events).

An email drifted into my mailbox from my blog.

A blog comment? For moi? How exciting!

I confess, like most bloggers, podcasters, and self-publishers, I love getting comments.

Usually if I get blog-related email months after a post, it’s either blog spam (want to buy property in Costa Rica?) or someone who happened upon an old blog post because they googled for something odd (e.g. Elvis Seconal Sealtest ice cream or built-in dinette kohlrabi). But perhaps — just maybe — it’s someone I haven’t heard from for a while. Maybe it’s someone I name-dropped off-handedly.

Maybe it’s that cease-and-desist letter from Mr. Ed. Or Jim-Bob. Or Oprah.

Wait. Have I ever even written about Oprah? Surely I must have. After more than four years of blogging, I’ve said something about Oprah.

I clicked open the comment.

It was longer and less coherent than most of the comments I get on my blog. Initially I was puzzled. It didn’t really seem like spam from my old favorites, Incontinence Briefs or Mel Gibson. It was sputtering and obscene.

I was shaken. It must be one of the mean girls, from the mean girls’ table in the junior high cafeteria. I thought they’d moved on, gone into real estate, had religious awakenings, got remarried, had a little work done on their faces, gained weight, lost weight, moved to Florida, and found Facebook.

Clearly I’d done a little too much Search Engine Optimization. Someone had searched for her maiden name. Could Lori have gone rogue?

I called Marcia.

“I think Mark was right,” I said.

“What, Cath?” she said, “About what?”

“I shouldn’t be using real names in my blog. Look at the comments.”

“Which blog comment? You haven’t blogged in months.”

“No. No. Look at the last one,” I said.

I waited in silence as she clicked. I thought I might’ve heard her laugh.

“Cath. I didn’t say so, but I thought so too. You shouldn’t use their real names. It was only a matter of time.” Marcia said. “A trollop. You’re a troll up, according to this. Who do you think it is?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Someone who’s not a good speller. Do you think I should change all the names?”

“All the names in your blog? Since the beginning? Isn't it a little late for that?” she said.

I drove home with my MP3 player turned up loud. You can't think if Pod Is My Copilot is blasting through your earbuds.

When I came home, Mark was eating a bowl of cereal for dinner. “You were right,” I told him. "You were right."

"About what?" he said, and kept eating his cereal.


Blogger Jaina Bee said...

I don't know if I'll be able to sleep tonight— I'll be searching for Lori Beagle!

PS: I have no doubt that Mark is always right, but that's his problem. <3

9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You could just use people's first names and last initials, then your blog would look like a transcript from an AA meeting. :-)

I enjoyed the narrative arc in this posting.

Jonathan S.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It wasn't me!

Adam M

1:08 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

It was the Dole Banana Man--the guy who shoots bananas out his nose at any provocation (see, e.g. ). I'd recognize his MO anywhere.

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Scott _______, the Unit Toad said...

Hello, Cathy, this is Scott _______, the Unit Toad. In all honesty, NO, I didn't look a "the form", not yours nor anyone else's. Hell, I had never even heard of "the form" until I read your blog. But you were right about one thing: You were sufficiently skanky to be "within my social reach". I imagine that you still are. The only reason I decided to back off was that I decided, after getting my first impression of you, that I was not too lazy to masturbate after all.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Aimy Lavishing said...

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11:56 AM  

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