Trying to drain my swamp, and have a cookie.

It has been a struggle to form coherent and meaningful ideas in my head these days. This is my swamp – filled with Twitter hashtags, Facebook feeds, editorials, vitriol, Trump’s transition team. Perhaps, with a president elect who communicates through disingenuous and poorly formed ideas in 140 characters or less, this will be okay – perhaps an inability to effectively communicate is part of the “new normal” I keep hearing about.

Fnding time and space to allow my thoughts to try to reassemble – to find the signal in the noise as Nate Silver has always, until the 2016 Election, been able to do, remains a challenge. I considered deleting all the “social” media, but like an accident one cannot look away from, I keep returning. I feel like I am still waiting for people to see how badly they got played – are still being played – by believing that SOCIAL media is NEWS media. I am waiting for people to see that when China warns you about bad environmental policies, Germany is leery of your understanding of human rights, and Netanyahu says be better to Muslims – to say nothing of Glenn Beck announcing that we have done our nation a terrible disservice electing the likes of Donald Trump – that we have crossed into uncharted territory. This is real. This is happening.

I want to drain my swamp.

I do not even know how to have the conversations that need to be had – the ability to have discourse is gone, one look at the comments on any given news item will make this clear. When presented with unfavorable opinions and ideas, there is always some “news” we can turn to that presents our feelings and opinions as facts. And as we have seen, they are shared and repeated over and over and over until, somehow, they become truisms.

I have likened this impossible kind of conversation to dealing with a small child:

*Toddler takes cookie from cookie jar*
“Stop. You are not allowed to have cookies before dinner.”
“You never told me I could not have cookies.”
“I did, and I am telling you again. Put the cookie down.”
“Put the cookie down, you cannot have a cookie before dinner.”
“I do not have a cookie.”
“You are holding a cookie in your hand. I see the cookie right there.”
“This is not a cookie.”
“It is a cookie, and you need to put it back.”
“My friend said this is not a cookie. It is fruit and cake.”
“You cannot eat that before dinner.”
“You never said I could not have fruit and cake, you said no cookies.”
“So you know I said ‘no cookies’.”
“It doesn’t matter, this is not a cookie.”
“You may not have that before dinner.”
“But I want it! You get cookies! You get everything!”
“I am not eating the cookie.”
“But you will! You will eat my cookie and then I will get nothing!”
“I will not eat the cookie.”
*toddler completely falls to pieces screaming about the non-cookie crushing it and rendering it non existent*
“YOU STOLE MY COOKIE!”

How do you have conversation with people who look at the exact same thing as you and see something totally different? How do you avoid being so totally patronizing – as might be appropriate with the toddler in certain instances? More importantly, now that we have made conversation impossible, and the basis for determining FACTUAL information has disappeared with the ability to always find something on the INTERNET that says what you feel is factual and what you do not believe is a LW or RW media conspiracy?

What do you do when feelings become more important that facts – or completely replace them?

I had my students read this article months ago. The premise is that “a democracy is in a post-factual state when truth and evidence are replaced by robust narratives, opportune political agendas, and impracticable political promises to maximize voter support.”

In class we talked about the impact of “fake” news long before the presidential election results made the rest of the country start getting serious about it. I asked my students if they shared political stories on social media, to which they generally said yes. I asked them is they fact checked the information. They said, no – unless it looked ‘outrageous’. On getting to the point of what in the world might be outrageous in these days, we concluded that things which brought out our negative disbelief were the only things we fact checked. [A couple of them said that they considered me their fact checker, which although mildly flattering is really pretty scary if you take that to any number of logical extensions.]

In spite of the declaration that “the global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyberattacks and the failure of global governance,” from the WEF, no one wants to talk about the cookie in their hand. They want to talk about how they feel about the cookie, or their right to the cookie, or how your criticism of the cookie is unfair/wrong/hurtful/a conspiracy against the truth.

When feelings become more important than realities facing the world [climate change, human rights, for example], we have lost the ability to communicate.

Sitting with this frustration I came across this article [yes, the author is a white male, no, that does not invalidate it], and it provided a clearly articulated (much more than 140 characters, I’m afraid) explanation of so much of what I have been witnessing in my community, my work, the world. If there is a place on the planet that embraces, condones, and validates identity politics, it is Berkeley, California. Interestingly (and many may find, counterintuitively), as many of my intimates know, I have consistently said that Berkeley is the most racist and sexist place I have worked in my entire career. I actually don’t think those labels really accurately express what I have meant. Basically my sense has been that Berkeley is one of the least tolerant places in which I have ever spent time.

This year I have been faced with an even more extreme version of all of this, a result, I would guess, of an incredibly charged political year, but also a consequence of the notion of identity politics. I have students with whom I cannot talk about a growing variety of subjects because the subjects are unsafe for them. While I am not opposed at all to the preservation of safe spaces and acknowledging that trigger warnings are real and must be respected, I find myself constantly stuck in a tough place when I ask a student to meet an academic responsibility and they do not because said responsibility is causing them anxiety/panic/stress/ideological discomfort.

The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.

I am so frustrated by this reality.

Last year on a field trip with some of my very favorite students, we ended up at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was a retrospective on Bill Graham. There was a photo of the iconic SF Mime Troupe in the exhibit. One of the players was in blackface. My students were horrified by the photo. HOW COULD THEY HAVE THIS PHOTO ON THE WALL IT IS SO RACIST OF THEM!

In my efforts to explain several things to them [1. What the SF Mime Troupe was actually about; 2. What satire is; 3. That photos of racism/ists, while uncomfortable – and by the way not at all what this was – are not in themselves racist, they are historical artifacts which document our racist history and are therefore useful tools] I realized that their sense of self was preventing them from understanding what they were looking at. And these are good kids who want to learn things and understand things. Because they were never taught the historical context of the photo, and instead have been told to focus on their personal identity at every turn of their education, their feelings were impeding them from hearing the objective details and contextual history of the photo. These feelings are not inappropriate or something to bury, but they shouldn’t preclude the ability to take in information. In my work, feelings have become so paramount that if school work or historical information gets in their way, it must be set aside.

This is where the two articles intersect. Stories have power and the moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Our identities largely give rise to our stories, and the effort to acknowledge people’s stories is real work that should not stop. The trick is remembering that they, the stories and the identities, are not mutually exclusive realities, and that their coexistence requires understanding the real facts behind all of the stories. And yes, FACTS ACTUALLY DO EXIST.

In a country as actually diverse as we are, the stories are some of the best parts – but stories are not policy. They are not data. They are not that which mandates for everyone should be built upon. [Filed under one more reason I love Joe Biden.]

The articles could come together thusly:

Because these narratives typically involve a selective use of facts and lenient dealings with matters of truth, they have given rise to symptoms of a post-factual democracy. A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. 

Until there is a place where there are some baseline realities that can be agreed upon, I remain at a loss as to where I go from here.

Maybe the only thing to be done is to insist that a cookie may be a cookie – or it may be fruit and cake – but it is my responsibility to do the work of reading the boring details of the label and the background of the naming of things, regardless of not wanting to for whatever reason I might have… triggers or facts or bursting my bubble.

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How I suck at “Social Media” and how this allows me to use it prolifically.

2014-05-06-socialmedia

Let’s start with full disclosure: I blog (which is a poncy way to say ‘I have a blog’), I have a Facebook (again, a ridiculous way to say ‘I use Facebook’), I have an Instagram (I actually think this is how everyone says this), I have two Twitters (one is for work; my students use Twitter for current events via KQED and it is a good format, and I have a personal account which is my only truly locked down and private outlet within the social media sphere), I used to have Myspace (two of those too – one for me and one I allowed students on – I do not do this with Facebook now, I just say no until students are out of school, then if they still care, I will accept their friend requests), and I have a Google+ but I have no idea what it is – although it seems public. Oh, I have a YouTube account too, but I think if you use gmail you have this because of the pervasive trend towards conglomeratization. I do not have a Linkedin – and I wish people would stop inviting me because it is a totally useless concept in my field. I do not have Flickr, DeviantArt, Tumblr (although I had a school one for a year), a Bebo (don’t even know what that is), and god help me I do.not.SnapChat.

Basically, I have a fairly visible digital footprint. Regardless of this, I still suck at social media. And I am totally fine with this because I think it is why I am able to use social media so prolifically without becoming angry and insane.

Here’s why: I do it wrong.

It turns out, I am just not really that “social”

I have always known this about blogging. I like to blog (look at me go!) but I don’t really read other blogs. I do occasionally come across blogs that I read because I am looking for something specific – like research for work or personal interests, and then I will read them, but in general, in the same way I look at my blog as a way to be hugely self-indulgent, I am not that interested in reading other people’s self indulgences. Unless they are about me or something uniquely related to me. The blogs I write that get attention get it from small niche populations. Thus it is no surprise that a blog I wrote about my cat remains to this day the blog that got the most hits out of anything I have ever done in any internet capacity. When I write about friends from home, my friends from home read it. When I write about being a teacher, my teacher friends read it. When I write about events and adventures, the people who shared the experiences read them. And there are a few exceptions here and there, a clever tag that gets others over to the page or something, but really the audience is terribly limited. And I am okay with that. I don’t interact with commenters (oh, I will get to them in a minute) and I don’t comment. I do very little to engender interaction or interest in my blog. I harbor no illusions that I am telling stories or illuminating ideas that no one has ever considered. In fact, mostly I feel like I am just adding validity to the reality that our shared human experience is far more similar than it is unique most of the time. And in its own way that is kind of cool.

I use Twitter for news. I love it and scroll through it regularly, occasionally retweet things, favorite things I want to come back to, and mostly leave it at that. I originally got it as a way to text for free from overseas, but now I use it primarily for information and as a way to measure the social temperature around said information. I like Twitter and it is very handy for my students to use as well.

I use Facebook (which I keep private, although I do not consider private in the way my personal Twitter is because there are people on my Facebook that I would not share certain things with because it would be weird and inappropriate) a lot. Although, it is getting harder to use it the way I would like. But again, it turns out I am not that “social” on FB. I post a lot of things. Things *I* think are interesting, important, funny, relevant, whatever. Again, I am under no illusion that these things are “interesting, important, funny, relevant, whatever” to other people. I am not posting for other people. I am posting for me. That is why I put the stuff on my Facebook page. If it is interesting to other people, that is cool – and I generally can predict with nearly perfect accuracy who will respond/comment/reply to the things I post. That is a benefit of having people who you actually know on your Facebook.

But I don’t get really interactive on other people’s Facebook pages. There are several reasons for this. First – Facebook is making this harder and harder as they only automatically show you the stuff posted by people you “interact” with regularly so it is easy to see how that circle gets inadvertantly smaller and smaller. Another reason I am not super active on Facebook is that there is a lot of stuff that people I really like post that I don’t wanna see. This does not mean I like them less, or do not want to be their friend in real life, or on the internets, it just means I am not into seeing stuff like that and so I don’t look at it. Going to the page of a person, like my friend D.M., a guy I have known since the first grade, and really like in a ton of ways, is not fun for me because we hold diametrically oppositional views on politics and a lot of social issues. Telling him how I disagree would be stupid – or having the audacity to tell him he is wrong or should not be posting something because it bothers me is just inappropriate. He is not posting that stuff for me – he is posting for him, so why do I want to go there and get all fired up – or worse, get involved in some comment battle where I am trying to convince someone that their opinion is “wrong”. Opinions – like feelings – cannot be wrong. They can be in disagreement with my opinions, and certainly wrong for me (or you), but telling someone their opinion is wrong is a waste of time, and really offensive. So instead I leave comments and “likes” on his Instagram where we have much more common ground.

I do believe there are times and places to help someone perhaps see that their opinion does not match data/history/science/facts or something, but I would suggest that would be like in a teaching situation, or as a parent, or an actual conversation among friends. Not really apropos for “social media.” I mean, it’s like the rules that govern polite conversation at dinner parties. People used to say ‘do not talk about politics and religion in mixed company.’ And this was not because people didn’t think about that stuff, or should not hold different opinions – it was because it was a “social” situation and being a dick by telling someone that their opinion is wrong is not very social. Remember when we were taught that if you didn’t have anything nice to say to not say anything at all? If social media is as it claims to be [social] – maybe that is a good rule…. I mean treat other people’s pages as their dinner party and use your own home(page) to say what you have to say. If people don’t want to hear your opinion they don’t have to come to your dinner party.

Facebook in all its deficiencies does allow for a couple great ways to deal with this. First, you can straight hide someone’s posts from your news feed (either by unfollowing them or selecting certain posts.) I have done this. A lot. If someone whose posts you enjoy following generally posts something you cannot deal with, you can had that specific post. A friend in HK who is super active in animal rights posted a super awful photo of an elephant, which I assume was attached to a story about how disgusting people are to elephants, and I could’t take it so I hid it, but not her. I hide all the silly fantasy sports stuff one of my former students posts – it is clutter and useless, but I love hearing about him and his family. I posted a misogynist rant that came out around the Isla Vista shooting on my page and one of my really good friends in HK who I discuss almost everything with, was like, ‘I can’t take this, I’m hiding it from my feed.’ And I totally get that. She didn’t feel the need to tell me how my posting it was wrong or that it was somehow not appropriate – she just said, I don’t want to look. That is what I would call solid use of the comments section.

Which brings me to the commenters. OH.MY.GOD. There is a seemingly growing population of people on the planet that have infinite amounts of time to dedicate to some sort of personal calling to comment on internet activity. These are trolls. I have had a few trolls. I know who one of them was, and I think I have finally blocked him enough that he cannot comment on my blog and Instagram (my only public pages) and his deal was just that he was (is?) a weird little man who thought I rebuffed him inappropriately. But it was still really annoying to get shitty comments from him. Another one I had was a former coworker who was convinced I was subliminally writing about him in my blog, which I was not, but his misunderstanding was illuminating. I am always surprised at how bad the (poor grammar and spelling aside) words of a total stranger or someone I could really not give two shits about can make me feel when it shows up on my stuff. Do the trolls have their own pages? Agendas? I have no idea, but they freaking should because that would be the right place to vent. Venting on the pages/posts/comments of total strangers just to spread vitriol is so bizarre. And it is like they get a certain kind of joy from just being awful.

Says a lot about society.

While I cannot even begin to grok why you would spend this sort of energy being a dick (and far worse) to total strangers, I am even more mystified by people who would do this to people they know – unless they just don’t want to be friends anymore, which is fine, but “breaking up” on Facebook/Instagram/blog seems pretty lame.

I am grateful for the ability to see what my friends – from near and far – are up to in their lives. It is really fun to see who has gone somewhere amazing, had a new baby, got a new job, and be able to be a spectator. I realize email could do the same thing, but that is a much different interface. Do I want a whole email every time for all these events? I think I prefer being able to look through the “news” feed. It works for me. I also have a growing appreciation for the vastly divergent attitudes and opinions my friends hold around religion, politics, social issues, and life in general. That I am friends with such a diverse group I think says a lot about me and my friends. I don’t need them to change for me, that they are who they are is what I love about them. And I do like having conversations with my friends about our thoughts, feelings, and opinions, but this does not happen in the comments. This happens in a pub in Hong Kong, at a secret diner party in SF, poolside in Vegas, on a phone call from Paris, or in email exchanges from Dubai.

In the end “social” suggests being with people and so while social media does endeavor to so this – it is not them same.

And I am okay with this.

The way I choose to use social media works for me. And if it doesn’t work for you, then there are lots of ways to handle that…. (like why are you reading this?) But whatever you do, if you want to remain hopeful for humanity and maintain your sanity… trust me on this: NEVER READ THE COMMENTS.

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[First image from HuffPo, cartoon from unknown source.]

 

Trayvon.

Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away.

I hate to say I told you so (actually, that is not entirely true… but at the very least as I get older it generally makes me feel more sad than vindicated) but I really did tell you so about this one. As the Zimmerman trial got underway and no one took issue with the defense attorney cracking jokes, the freakishly homogeneous jury, and the abased treatment of victim Trayvon Martin’s friends and family, it seemed pretty clear to me what was going to go down.

Of course it could also be that I am a historian and I feel that the history I have studied and lived prepared me for what would be the eventual verdict that came out as I was sitting at a lovely dinner at dear friends’ wedding in Mendocino County.

The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.

This doesn’t make me any less saddened by the fact that a young man was killed for no other reason than he was a black teenager. The truth is teenagers make those not used to dealing with them very twitchy, and I know this from a plethora of experience – I always watch how people react here in the “liberal” Bay Area when I get on Bart with my Berkeley High (hardly threatening, although very diverse) students… and the reactions of the commuters on the train are always the same, ranging from discomfort to disgust to real concern. And the fact that he was black does matter.

Racial bias is real. Racial profiling is real. Racial inequity is real. Racial injustice is real. Don’t take my word for it read the science on racial “profiling.” Read the science around the study of “unconscious bias” at Harvard University.

Maybe we could look at some white kids who tend to wear hoodies… skaters and surfers – no less likely to be punk kids by the way – but I cannot remember the last time I heard of one of them being shot and killed for basically being in the wrong place at the wrong time (which skaters and surfers frequently are…) And as I watch the often swift hand of justice in America I have to play the mental game of wondering how things would have played out had Martin been white and Zimmerman black. Save for pro athletes (which is a rant for another time) I feel pretty confident in saying a black male shooter would have been immediately arrested (no weird 46-day delay) and incarcerated. And I seriously doubt Mark O’Mara and Don West would ever take a case of the everyday criminal of color. In fairness, I don’t know for sure, but it is a feeling I have. Just like the feeling I had when I said these things:

https://twitter.com/demandamanda/status/355174456169218048

It’s Florida Vince. No justice there. And in times of uncertainty like we are living in (economically, politically, ideologically, environmentally) people are desperate to have something tangible to be afraid of… and so they make a young black kid seem *that* scary. It is easier to be afraid of something concrete and tangible than to face the daunting reality that our collective survival is going to require a huge effort to come together and work shit out. As you know, very few people really want to do work in any context. Everyone just wants solutions and results. Sad. [FB, 10 July 2013]

Now we are faced with the aftermath. People are angry. and I don’t think it will be long-lived or effective. People have short attention spans and the media at the very least is banking on that. Frustration will incarnate as destruction and there will be greater alienation and divides. And the reality that Trayvon Martin did absolutely nothing that warranted the sort of outcome that Zimmerman had in store for him will be lost among the fall out, resentment, and intentional effort to justify the outcome of our modern justice system. Continue reading

What is underneath it all?

A “friend” of mine has made the decision to end her blog. I don’t know why I put friend in literal quotes, suggesting air quotes. I actually know Lauren, though only because of the web of social media. When I read last night that she is ending her blog (a quite successful travel blog at that) I was surprised. Not that something would end, but that she had the commitment to kill it.  And I loved her examination and explanation of it. “I’ve outgrown my own blog.”

It got me thinking about how lately I have been writing as much as ever but blogging far less frequently. I also had an uncharacteristic  lack of motivation to deal with sorting out how I would mitigate the limits of the free WordPress platform, which I had come up against. For months I have been unable to decide what to do about that (ultimately deciding to commit to this noncommittal second free page, which will require a redirect and blah blah blah.)

On top of that I have been watching with interest how the blogging intercourse has been changing of late. I count among some of my most significant friends people who I met only via the web-based world of writing (Hello iDriss, Daniel, Clare, Michelle, Ruth, Stacy). People who came across my blog, or me theirs, or who I wrote with, and all of whom traded commentary, suggestions, questions, insights, and support surrounding our writing, and sort of by default, our lives. But this, like all things media based, seems to have changed, and quite dramatically as of late. Take for example the phenomena of “liking” something.

There’s times where I want something more
Someone more like me

When I was first writing publicly in a regular way, I had a clear and specific audience – I was a recently expatriated teacher and was recounting my experiences to my students as well as writing for my family. Of course , my audience grew as it is prone to do when one uses categories and tags in an effective way, and with this I got more and more interested in the audience factor. Still, the growth was slow. During this time, people would leave comments on my posts. Like real, thought-out comments. They would ask questions. They would offer their parallel stories and emote in logical ways. It was completely clear that they were reading the blog.

In contrast, two days ago I set up this new page. It has only a couple of not terribly profound pieces on it. Yet, in less time than it took to set up the page, I have been subscribed to, followed by, and ‘liked’ by more people than (outside of family) I garnered in the first year of the blog’s predecessor. Now, do not misunderstand me, I am still me and find the attention totally validating (falsely, I know) and satisfying (the ego is a tyrant) but this is a really different experience from the dialog I had with people surrounding my posts of yore.

But, all things change. Another friend of mine from the world of the interwebs reminded me that to like/follow/favorite something on the Internet is so much easier than other forms of interaction. And of course Ken is totally right, but the interaction is so different. Or is it? If the object of Internet intercourse is actually to draw more interest to your own work, then the interaction was never what I thought it was. Now, I am not saying this is a bad thing, just that I misunderstood the motivation for webversation in the past. This belief that the best way to get attention is to get your self out there like crazy (self-promote I think it is called?) then to go out and “like” several hundred random postings is a good plan. Right? I mean, at least in my own experience I almost always go and check out my random “likers”, which means that at least their primary objective (views? contact?) is being met.

I think.

But I am not sure that is my goal. However, having said that, it seems pertinent to identify a goal. And of this I am no longer sure. Was it to meet people? I am not sure though it certainly happened. Was it to inspire my creativity? Unlikely. Though, it may have. I think a much more honest admission of intent would have something to do with showing off a bit, whether experiences, accomplishments,”talents”…. There is even a word for this sort of thing now [facebragging]. There is also the thing about blogging in its immediacy and individualistic nature that encourages the confessional, which for me brings up all sorts of questions, not the least of which being the one I hear constantly from my friends and family: why did you write about that!?!?

Sometimes I write because I want to vent about things. This usually draws a lot of feedback, so I  imagine some of the things that make me insane must get to other people as well. I have blogged about specific people because I know they passively aggressively track my blog, but that is frustrating, because then you have to suffer though their crap to see how they responded, so really, who suffers most in that case? (Some of the shit those librarians posted made my eyes bleed, and they were shockingly poor writers for literary folk.) See what I did right there? Yeah. Some blogs I have seen are really, really bad. But not for their self-indulgence, I allow for that (obviously). A lot of people out there just can’t write. Or they are painfully derivative. Frankly, I’m unsure what is worse. But maybe they started out strong and just lost their mojo.

There’s times when this dress rehearsal
Seems incomplete

And this brings me back to looking at the lifespan of our social media selves. Maybe we do just outgrow things, even ourselves. They say even the magical empire of Facebook is waning in the face of even more abbreviated formats like Twitter and Instagram. If we keep on this trend pretty soon entire posts will be punctuation and then… *

Maybe the lack of inspiration to share things is less about not having things to share than a realization that some things aren’t served by this medium of self-indulgent immediacy. Maybe as we get to know ourselves better we realize that it is less important to explain ourselves to others. Maybe there are just better things to do with our time.

So many moons that we have seen
Stumbling back next to me
I’ve seen right through and underneath

For now I will keep blogging. For the same reasons. To talk about work, about travel, about funny stories that I know will make certain people laugh. Maybe because I like the idea of some sort of personal archival record. Maybe to meet more interesting people. Maybe. I am not even a good blogger like that in terms of interacting and reading other blogs… I go for months without taking my head out of the sand and then I binge and see what all my friends are up to. But I will miss Lauren out there in the blogosphere.

And I will be more aware of that niggling feeling I get sometimes when I just feel like maybe there is something more substantial, or at least more relevant, underneath it all.