Orkut’s decade of not quite making it

Off Brand

This is it, dear readers! The last of the Off Brand blog posts! Wow, who knew we’d survive this long? (I’m sure you knew, you’re very clever.) Anyway! Today we’re talking about Orkut! And if you’re anything like me, your response to that will be, “What’s Orkut?” Oh, we are going to cover that and more. Strap in for a dramatic tale of the rise and fall of a social media platform! Okay, not really, it’s not that dramatic, but if you’re already strapped in that’s fine.

Orkut Büyükkökten

Source: MarTech

Venture back with me to the year 2004. Usher was breaking records on the Billboard Hot 100, the Summer Olympics were back in Greece, the EU was expanding, and Google launched its first social media platform, Orkut, named after the Google engineer who created it, Orkut Büyükkökten. Orkut was a result of Google’s 20% Rule, a policy that was implemented when Google went public the same year. “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google,” explained founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Orkut started as a gathering place for A-list tech heads and branched out from there. It was invite only, and attracted a lot of initial interest thanks to Google’s reputation. Orkut’s focus was on connecting people, and they promoted the use of communities within the program. You could rate your friends for different traits, and this became somewhat competitive in the larger communities. Orkut initially allowed everyone to view everyone else’s profiles, but eventually implemented more privacy features to give control of that to the users. The interface went through a number of changes over the years, but they focused on keeping things clean and simple. You could feature 9 top friends on your profile (originally 8), similar to MySpace.

Brazil and India

Source: San

Orkut saw its greatest success in Brazil, where the platform just took off, with India following in second place. At its peak, the platform had 30 million users. Brazil has emerged as a strong market for online retailers, and the communities on Orkut as well as the ability to recommend businesses and products appealed to Brazilian audiences.

Orkut also introduced themes. For example, on Diwali, in India, a “Happy Diwali” message would pop up and allow user to change their interface to a Diwali inspired theme. Themes were only available to Brazilian and Indian users – there was not enough of a market elsewhere.

More People More Problems

The downside of Orkut never taking off outside of certain markets was that Orkut never really stopped being a 20% Rule project. As a result, as Orkut began to run into the problems you would expect from a social media platform – fake accounts, hate groups, worms and viruses, issues with bandwidth and file sharing – there was not a large dedicated team taking care of these problems like you would find on Facebook or Twitter (and even then, let’s be honest, no one has found a good solution for the hate groups problem).

Orkut also found itself contending with bans. Iran, Saudia Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all banned Orkut for issues of “national security,” and also for promoting promiscuity and making it easy for people to join communities focused on casual sex. Sorry, “ethical and moral issues.” Bahrain was under pressure to ban the platform as well. Proxies for Orkut were created so that users in these countries could still access the platform, but those proxies were difficult to access for anyone who wasn’t particularly tech savvy, and eventually those proxies all got taken down.

The Fall and the Future

In September of 2014, Orkut was retired. Google engineering director Paulo Golgher said in the announcement: “Over the past decade, Facebook, YouTube, Blogger and Google+ have taken off, with communities springing up in every corner of the world. Because the growth of these communities has outpaced Orkut’s growth, we’ve decided to bid Orkut farewell.” Now, we won’t talk about what happened to Google+ right now (Google just can’t seem to crack the social media code). The point is, despite the people who still loved it and used it, Orkut was no longer viable, and had to be put down.

What’s interesting is a recent turn of events. The Orkut website has been reactivated. Currently, all that sits there is a letter from Orkut Büyükkökten that says the following:

Hi there,

I’m Orkut. Seventeen years ago I started a little social network while I was an engineer at Google. In just a few years, that social network – orkut.com – grew to a community of over 300 million people.

I believe that orkut.com found a community because it brought so many diverse voices from around the world together in one place. We worked hard to make orkut.com a community where hate and disinformation were not tolerated. We worked hard to make orkut.com a community where you could go meet real people who shared your interests, not just people who liked and commented on your photos.

The world needs kindness now more than ever. There is so much hate online these days, and our options for finding and building real connections are few and far between. I’ve always believed that a friendship is more than a friend request, and I have dedicated my life to helping millions of you build authentic connections with your neighbors, family members, employees and the beautiful strangers who come into your lives.

Our online tools should serve us, not divide us. They should protect our data, not sell it. They should give us hope, not fear and anxiety. The best social network is the one that enriches your life but that doesn’t manipulate it. I want you to be able to be your true self, online and off. I want you to be able to make connections that stick. I want to help you do that with all my heart.

I’m an optimist. I believe in the power of connection to change the world. I believe that the world is a better place when we get to know each other a little bit more. It’s why I created the world’s first social network when I was a grad student at Stanford. It’s why I brought orkut.com to so many of you around the world. And it’s why I am building something new. See you soon!

Sign up below for updates, and be the first to know about it.

Stay beautiful,

Orkut

There is field to sign up, and nothing else on the site at this time. That’s pretty recent activity, though, so who knows what future Orkut has? Maybe it will rise up from its grave. Maybe it will be something completely different. One way or another, it will be interesting to see if Orkut and his team have learned their lessons, and if Google will finally produce a social media site that can compete with Facebook and Twitter.

The initial appeal and the giant problem with Weixin

Off Brand

Hello, darling readers! I have so much to talk to you about! I just got back from Seattle, where the 20th anniversary of the Seattle Erotic Art Festival was a resounding success. I also caught COVID, and been sequestered in my bedroom with my husband since we got back. And we’re not going to address ANY of that today, because it’s time for another marketing write up adventure (although I have things to say about the festival, we’ll get to those soon).

This week’s topic is Weixin, the all-in-one social media app from tech giant, Tencent. My social circle is more familiar with Tencent due to their media efforts, and how many video games they’ve got money in these days. The case study in my text book is from 2014, when Weixin (WeChat for international users) was still a baby to the social media scene and leaving competitors floored by its rapid rise. Since those nascent years, Weixin has been in the news for how often it is used as a monitoring tool by the rather authoritarian Chinese government (and there goes my chances of ever having a book circulated in China). I can’t write the “wow, look at this amazing social media marketing technology” article that the syllabus wants, because we no longer exist in the mid 2010s and a lot has changed. So we’re going to discuss the platform, why it’s exciting from a business standpoint, and then talk about the problem.

One Stop Shop

Weixin launched in 2011, a simple messaging app that has grown into a mega platform, and by 2019 boasted more than 1.1 billion active users in China, Southeast Asia, Europe, and America. So, from a business and consumer standpoint, what is it about Weixin that makes it so appealing? It handles practically everything. No, really.

Look at your smart phone right now. How many apps do you have? I have over 100. I continue to get more and more annoyed every year as businesses come out with their own app for everything that you have to use if you want the special discount, or the reward points, or whatever reason you have been pressured into using their stupid app. Then there are the social media sites I visit frequently, the chat programs I use, and my rotating list of mobile games. With Weixin, all of that is in one app. It’s a chat program, a social media app, a market place, it’s everything. You can message a friend, share a video, hail a cab, start your own business, browse the web, whatever you want to do, all without having to launch another program.

Source: Masters of Media

Those store apps I was talking about a minute ago? The annoying ones? Weixin has an answer for them. Weixin uses “mini apps,” which are versions of those apps that only operate within Weixin. From a business standpoint, it’s brilliant. There is no reason to go elsewhere, and who wouldn’t enjoy that kind of convenience? And as someone owning and running such a platform, who wouldn’t enjoy such a captive audience?

Big Fish, Tiny Fishbowl

It makes sense why my textbook would point to Weixin as an example of a stunningly successful social media platform. The Economist, back in 2016, dubbed WeChat the “One app to rule them all,” citing how it filled all aspects of life in China. My problem is that all this success is credited entirely to the fact that Weixin/WeChat is such a versatile mega platform that was integrated into the daily routine of so many people. Now, I am not saying that isn’t a factor, but let us discuss the elephant in the chat room.

WeChat’s model fits political theorist Langdon Winner’s outline of an authoritarian technology: It is “system centered” and “immensely powerful,” a technology that leads society toward authoritarianism.

Peter W. Liu, Ph.D., and Justin M. Liu

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) keeps an incredibly tight rein on what information can be accessed, which apps can be used, and how they can be used. Think back to the late 2010s when the US tried (and failed) to get WeChat banned from the Apple Store after it became public just how much the CCP used the program for monitoring. Peter W. Liu, Ph.D., and Justin M. Liu offer a very succinct explanation in an article (which you should 100% go read as soon as we’re done here) published in Monmouth Magazine:

“WeChat’s model fits political theorist Langdon Winner’s outline of an authoritarian technology: It is “system centered” and “immensely powerful,” a technology that leads society toward authoritarianism. This is made evident by WeChat’s unprecedented rise and the ways that it censors information. As mentioned, WeChat is indispensable in today’s China. However, it has not become a backbone of Chinese lifestyle simply because of its usefulness; as long as it continues to align with the CCP’s values, it will receive plenty of help from the government. On top of granting subsidies to Tencent, Beijing has globally banned or heavily handicapped virtually all of WeChat’s foreign competitors, making it the only logical choice for practical use.”

It’s easy to outpace everyone when you’re the only game in town, and the government is backing you.

Convenience or Privacy

So I understand and acknowledge that most of the information about my life is easily accessible by anyone who understands how to navigate the internet. A few web searches and you’ll walk away with almost anyone’s last three addresses, marriage history, and anything else that’s considered public record (and also possibly surprised and unsettled by what is considered public record). That said, there are still many things in my life that are private. I understand social media well enough to regulate what those apps share about me, I use chat programs that don’t have backdoors so that my conversations remain private, and thanks to recent legislation every time an app tries to track my information Apple has to inform me and give me the opportunity to tell it “no.” Which I do.

As convenient as an app like Weixin could be, even if built in a country that had laws about censorship and privacy, I feel like I would be reluctant to trust it. Perhaps because of what I know about Weixin/WeChat, perhaps because I just wouldn’t be comfortable with any one entity controlling that many facets of my life (I’m already a little uncomfortable with how much power I give to Google). As social media platforms continue to scramble for the top tier, however, we may see more companies looking to Weixin as an example.

Memes, Cyberactivism, and Breast Cancer

Off Brand

Hello darling readers! We are back with another marketing class assignment! This particular assignment is addressing something that is near and dear to my heart. Both metaphorically and quite literally. I’m going to need to ask you all to dive into your mind’s Wayback Machine and pull up some viral memes from the early aughts.

Drea, Black

Okay, who remembers when you would get spammed on Facebook at the beginning of every October with the latest, “Hey ladies, put this obscure message as your status update! It will confuse people and somehow promote Breast Cancer Awareness! Don’t tell the males!” or something to that tune?

So, ignoring that referring to people as males and females is repugnant, let’s focus on the memes. It started with name and bra color, i.e. “Drea, Black.” Then it was phrases like, “I like it on the chair,” or “I like it next to the bed,” where the “it” was where you left your bra. After that it was a number, followed by the word “inches,” and how long it takes to do your hair. Because sex sells, the heightened sexualization of the meme resulted in increased circulation, including but not limited to national news coverage.

I absolutely remember when these messages were circulating. The meme aroused interest, certainly, and hundreds of thousands of women jumped on board. I understand why – it was fun, it was playful, and it was interactive! Each person could customize the message to reflect themselves while still participating in the larger movement. As an extra bonus, you got to be in on the joke! People love being in the inner circle, even if that inner circle is enormous. Finally, it let people feel like they were doing something, helping a cause, for very little effort.

But was the meme effective? Short answer, no. Let’s look at the longer answer.

Breast Cancer Awareness

Source: Get The Gloss

Raising awareness for breast cancer is like raising awareness for the ocean – if you are ignorant of the subject in today’s day and age then it is because you have either been hiding in a hole in the earth, or you have intentionally avoided any sort of internet activity, news media, grocery stores, I could go on. There are a lot of problems with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and how they’ve made breast cancer an industry, but they have certainly gotten the word out. Pink products regularly flood every business imaginable during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Businesses change their logo colors. Arenas turn their display lights pink. The awareness is there.

Awareness is not needed as much as education and action. People across the world patting themselves on the back for raising awareness for a cause that is already widely known doesn’t do much to actually help said cause.

Save Women (and Men), Not Boobs

Another problem with the viral memes is the continued sexualization of breast cancer. So, yes, as I said earlier, sex sells. A lot of survivors are quick to point out, however, that breast cancer isn’t sexy. Not only that, but focusing on messages like “Save the Ta-Tas” and “Save Second Base” is incredibly objectifying. And survivors have been making this argument for a while.

Source: SCAR Project, Copyright 2011 © David Jay Photography

Some efforts have been made to bring the public image of breast cancer back to its reality. The Scar Project, which has been described by Forbes as “a shockingly raw, yet strikingly beautiful, photo series that shows a side of breast cancer we’re not used to seeing,” documents survivors boldly topless, many with nothing but a long scar where a breast once was. The survivors are smiling, stone face, and crying; some stand next to a family member, some are held by a partner, one even depicts two generations of cancer survivors, but most are in the image alone.

While I understand that breasts are sexy to a lot of people, myself included, the problem with using sexualized marketing strategies for breast cancer is that it is ignoring that a person is battling death and facing disfigurement for a chance to survive. People diagnosed with breast cancer are more than just their breasts. Furthermore, did you know men get breast cancer? Because men have breast tissue. All humans have some amount of breast tissue, no one is completely risk free here, though women absolutely bear the largest risk.

Correlation ≠ Causation

Now, I know what you might be thinking. Yes, objectifying breasts is a bad thing, but could this be a case of the ends justifying the means? Those memes got national news coverage—surely they did some good even if they made people uncomfortable? Well, the aforementioned Susan G. Komen did report an increase in donations during the time those memes were circulating. But those memes were circulating at the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

In both my journalism classes, as well as my statistics class (ah, the good old undergrad days), a point that was brought up in the first week and covered repeatedly throughout those courses was that correlation does not equal causation. I know this is a hard one for a lot of people, particularly you political types. The ONLY way to prove causation, is through experimentation. What this means for our current conversation is that there’s no proof the memes did anything other than make a lot of people feel warm and fuzzy and convinced that they were doing something useful.

This in a nutshell is the problem with cyberactivism. It’s really easy to post something on social media and feel like you did good. However, if your post doesn’t contain something that educates, or links to a place where people can make donations, or actually furthers the cause in some way, then you didn’t really do anything. The memes didn’t go viral for their message, they went viral because it was mysterious and everyone leapt on that bandwagon.

What actually helps?

Cowgirls Against Cancer. Source: Colorado Springs Gazette

As a society we are still working on how to employ social media for the greater good. Humanitarian Academy for Development has a great, quick article on the good and the bad of cyberactivism. The tl;dr is that it gives people the sense of doing good for very little effort and sometimes no results, but at the same time it can also spread a message far and mobilize people that might otherwise have remained disparate. So how can cyberactivism help?

  • Educate. A cute message isn’t enough, provide information.
  • Connect. Include links to educational sites, foundations, message boards, etc. For example, here’s Breast Cancer Action’s site, check them out.
  • Donate. Want to help but don’t want to spend a lot of time doing it? Send money. Directly to the org, don’t just buy something pink/green/puzzle pattern/pick your cause’s merch color.
  • Get involved. Use your new online connections to find the people who are getting things done, and go join them.

Warby Parker and Social Media

Off Brand

Hello, darlings! Remember when I said I would update more often? That’s gone well, hasn’t it? So, seriously, resetting your life after being somewhere else for 13 years and change is a Big Deal(tm). We’re still getting used to everything. And unpacking. It’s a process.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today! We’re here to talk about Warby Parker! Why, you ask? Because I’m taking a Social Media Marketing class to fill an elective for my MFA, and they’ve decided we’re going to talk about Warby Parker this week. “Drea, this isn’t what we were anticipating when you said you’d try to update more often,” I hear you saying. It’s not what I envisioned either, but let’s try it out! The class is only for 10 weeks, and I believe I’m assigned a total of four of these case study blog posts. I’ll make a point of throwing in some posts about writing and my absurd life in between. It’ll be an adventure!

First Impressions

Source: Warby Parker

Okay, let’s focus! So, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was first introduced to Warby Parker when I was roaming around University Village in Seattle. They had their own building which cropped up in a corner of the parking lot back in 2016 (which was annoying, because it meant less parking lot), and honestly because they had a trendy new building in an expensive shopping center, I made a lot of immediate assumptions about the company and their prices. If you’ve ever been to University Village, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

It turns out, however, that I was wrong (see, I admit it when it’s applicable).

Apparently, Warby Parker is the brainchild of Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, David Gilboa, and Jeffrey Raider, who were classmates at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (it’s a business school, I had to look it up). These charming (benefit of the doubt) individuals decided that they would revolutionize the way prescription eyeglasses were bought and sold. The traditional way of buying glasses – making the appointment every time, heading into a show room, paying through the nose – didn’t work for everybody. Their solution was to create a business model that focused primarily on online sales, manufactured in house, and sold directly to the consumer.

Now, in 2022 there’s an excellent chance you’re going to shrug and say, “So?” because by this point ordering glasses online isn’t really a big deal. Who hasn’t, right? In 2010, however, when they launched this endeavor, it absolutely was. To ease the initial distrust that the average consumer might have over ordering glasses online, they started the Home Try-On Campaign, where they would actually mail up to five pairs of glasses to your house for you to try on, decide which you preferred, and return the rest. They also made a point of being particularly engaging on social media.

Staying Connected

For Warby Parker, engagement looks like a lot of posts, frequent campaigns, and as much customer involvement as they can manage. Their Twitter bio lays it all out, “Glasses starting at US $95 (including Rx), sunglasses, contacts, and eye exams, too! Buy a Pair, Give a Pair. Questions? Let @WarbyParkerHelp know.” It’s effectively the same on Facebook and Instagram – who they are, what they offer, where to get help if you need it. They are good at balancing their content. What do I mean by that? Well, though they’re a company and clearly selling a product, they make a point of having content that isn’t just about selling more glasses. There are a lot of updates about their different brick and mortar stores that are opening across the US, which makes sense. They feature pictures from customers in their frames. They even have completely unrelated content, like libraries they would love to go explore.

Source: Warby Parker

Perhaps my favorite of their current social media campaigns is #WarbyBlue. Warby Parker’s primary color in their stores, their shipping materials, and so on, is blue. They partnered with Lichen on an eyewear tray, which is in a very bold blue, and is a funky looking thing inspired by egg crate to hold your glasses in place when you set them on tables, nightstands, and so on.

The #WarbyBlue hashtag has been partnered with everything from the new eyewear tray to a short video of bouncing blue gelatin. It’s fun, it’s playful, and if you followed Warby Parker it would add a pop of color to your feed that catches the eye and interest.

There’s one more thing all over their social media, and I like it even more than #WarbyBlue. It’s not just a campaign, and it’s definitely more important.

Buy a Pair, Give a Pair

For every pair of glasses that Warby Parker sells, they provide a pair of glasses for someone in need. Since the beginning, Warby Parker has partner with VisionSpring to provide glasses the people and communities across the world for whom corrective eyewear was very necessary but out of reach. It is easy not to think of it this way, but poor vision is a disability, and can negatively impact people’s lives if it is not treated. In 2015, Warby Parker began their own program called Pupils Project, which currently works primarily with the Department of Education in New York City and the Department of Health in Baltimore to provide screenings, eye exams, and glasses to school aged children. They also partner with a similar program in Mexico, run by Ver Bien, which provides glasses to elementary school children throughout the country.

El Salvador. Source: Warby Parker

According to the case study in my text book, Warby Parker has been able to provide over 500,000 pairs of glasses to people and children in need. However, my text book was published in 2016, which means the case study they’re citing was probably from 2014. That was a very long time ago in the world of social media, social change, and business. If you go to Warby Parker’s website right now, or any of their social media pages, you will find out that number is a little behind. So what are they at now?

10 million pairs of glasses.

10 million pairs of glasses to people who might otherwise never have been able to afford them. To people who might otherwise have never been able to see. That is powerful. That is a business who has used their platform for something meaningful. I’m not saying they’re not also making a ton of money – their brick and mortar stores indicate that they definitely are – but they’re also doing good.

Going blue?

Clearly Warby Parker is doing just fine. Their business continues to grow, their online store bolstered by the storefronts popping up all over the US and even moving into Canada. Their business model, and a steady social media presence and marketing plan, has more than paid off. So, as a person with impaired vision, will I be switching to Warby Parker?

No.

My absurdly extra frames. Source: Faniel Eyewear

Not because they’ve done anything wrong, but Warby Parker employs a classically fashionable approach to their designs and to be perfectly honest it’s just not for me. I get my glasses the frustratingly old fashioned way because I found a company whose styles I love and the frustratingly old fashioned way is the only way they sell their frames. That said, everyone in my household (with the exception of my daughter, but age will likely do her in as it did me) wears glasses. Given everything I’ve learned about Warby Parker in this assignment, and given how much I dislike our current eyecare place, when it’s time for my son to get new glasses I may just go see what Warby Parker has to offer.

Things to do, we have things to do

Uncategorized

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, my plans for the night were just cancelled (it was a very small gathering with people in our bubble, it was cancelled due to snow, don’t go there with me), and so I’m starting this reflective piece sober at 5:14 pm instead of tipsy at 1:00 am (which was the original plan).

This year was challenging. Beast got laid off right before the move, and my own income streams that dried up in 2020 have not come back. The move was particularly taxing. We left the home and city we loved to be closer to family, and I’m not sure any of us realized just how much we would miss Seattle. I miss that cold, rainy, pretentious, overpriced city so much that I still cry about it sometimes. The house that we’re living in is still half finished, and renovations that were supposed to be done in November might, hopefully, be done by February. Half my life is still in boxes. I’m behind on everything.

I’m not trying to say it’s all been bad, or even that things are bad now. They’re not. Obviously things are going well enough if we still have a home and everyone is healthy and somehow no one in the house has caught COVID despite not always being on point with our precautions. That said, there’s still a layer of frustration and depression in the household. We made all these changes and moved our lives and shifted everything for the promise of something better. So far, though, it’s not better. Add to that the continued pandemic, our country’s absurd political situation, and the continued uncertainty that has permeated our lives since early 2020, and no one is at their best. Motivation is hard to come by, but I’m reaching for it as best as I can, because I have things to do.

Which brings us to goals. So, I don’t do resolutions anymore. Haven’t for a while. They’re stupid, no one keeps them, and people just get depressed when they inevitably don’t do that thing that they kind of deep down already knew they wouldn’t do to begin with. “New Year, new you” is bullshit. It’s the same you when our made up concept of time and the year shift. I’m not going to magically hit the gym three days a week because it’s January 1st.

I do, however, have goals. So, what’s the difference between goals and resolutions? Goals are something to achieve. Resolutions are absolute – you do it, or you fail. Goals are something you’re working on, something you’re aspiring to, and if you don’t meet your goal it’s okay. You just keep trying.

Goals for 2022:
1. Write a little every day. Now, when I say this, I mean for my WIPs, not blogs or social media posts. There’s no minimum word count here, I just have to write something every day.
2. Regular social media updates. Pretty self explanatory, really. I’ve ignored IG for months, and have been puttering a little on Twitter (finally more than 100 followers! Wee!) but there’s a lot more to do.
3. More dates. This year has been kind of garbage for romantic time with my Beast. We need more time together, and not just grabbing a quick dinner on the way home from running errands.
4. Finish two books. This is actually an achievable goal because I have work that’s half and three quarters done that I just need to put some steady time into. See goal 1.
5. Start reading again, and more specifically indie authors. I used to consume books rabidly. Having kids and my eyesight deteriorating slowed that quite a bit. I would really like to start reading again. I miss it.

And that’s it! Five aspirational goals for the new year. No weird promises to myself that I can’t keep, just things to do my best to achieve. The way the past couple years have gone, we really need to be more gentle with ourselves. No more impossible hurdles. Just something better to strive for.

My Last Dream

Memoir

I was recently talking to my sister-in-law. One of those late, 2 a.m. talks where you both should have gone to bed hours ago. I said something to her that stuck with me. Something about my life, and my goals. I’m going to share, but some background first.

When I was a little girl, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a famous performer. Now, I never said it so succinctly. I wanted to be a ballerina. No, wait, a pop star. No, wait, a Broadway star. No, wait, an actress in Hollywood, but also still a ballerina, and maybe still a pop star. I loved to perform. My mother put me in a “creative movement” class when I was 4 – somewhere there’s a picture of little baby me in my pink satin leotard with a bandolier of scarves that I wore for my first recital. Thus began a lifelong obsession. I was in every choir, in every school and church play, I took tumbling and ballet and jazz dancing (though I stuck with ballet the longest). My siblings and I used to stage performances for our family. My friends and I would play games that were essentially singing contests. When I went to college (the first time), it was to study Vocal Performance. This was the dream. Even after I left college (re: was kicked out because I stopped going to classes due to depression following my first major break up), this was still the dream.

I wanted the stage. Nothing in the world feels like being on stage. The adrenaline, the tingle in your skin as you take your place and wait for the curtain to draw up and the lights to come on. The long nights practicing with a cast that becomes almost a family for the production run. Hearing your voice soar through an auditorium, knowing that everyone is listening to you. There is absolutely nothing like it. And when the concert ends, when the curtains fall on closing night, you feel accomplished and exhilarated and heartbroken that it’s over, but you know you can do it again.

And then I got pregnant. I was barely 20 when I married the man involved (an ill advised union to put it politely), and gave birth to my son in January of 2000. I still thought, for a little while, that this was only temporary. That I would get back to the stage. I found some solace in other creative pursuits – I started writing more. I had been writing since my freshman year of high school, off and on, but it was a thing I did with friends, I had no real aspirations there. Not even a year later I got pregnant again (I am apparently hella fertile). Had a little girl. Then I found out that my son was on the autism spectrum, and I mean the end where people weren’t sure if he would ever be able to write his own name or communicate without pictures. I tried getting a part time job, but my ex couldn’t handle being alone with my son. I got a divorce, and my ex stomped off in a pout with no contact information left behind. Obviously I’m glossing over a lot here, but we’re highlighting the significant life decisions.

I went to one audition when my children were still young, shortly after I had filed for divorce and my ex had disappeared. It was for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a paying gig at the Fine Arts Center. I’d had paying gigs before the children were born, though not many. I botched the audition. I wasn’t warmed up enough, it had been too long since I had done…anything. And that’s when I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t chase this dream and be a mother to my children. Maybe others could, but I couldn’t. I would have to give up one, and since giving up the children wasn’t an option, I had to give up the stage.

And that was it, for a long time. Oh, sure, my friends and I had pipe dreams about owning our own clubs or starting up a gaming café or whatever else got us excited at the time. But my dream, what I wanted to do with my life – that was just gone. I was a mom, and that took most of my time. I held a variety of jobs, though lost a lot of them. Even worked at Intel for a little while, but problems with consistent affordable child care saw that blow up in my face. I ended up working for my mother at her laundry business, because who else was going to let me bring my kids with me when I needed to? Later on I also worked for my future in-laws at their shop selling bumper stickers and buttons for the liberally minded. Paycheck to paycheck, frequently in debt and juggling bills, home alone at night and utterly exhausted. Friends came by for game night. Sometimes we went out. I couldn’t envision a future other than survival. Quite frankly, there wasn’t one at the time.

Things got better. I fell in love with someone who was worth it. We became one big family. Slowly, over time, it got better. I went back to school – it was hard to find work that paid enough to be worth the child care with just a high school diploma, so I applied for grants and financial aid and started taking classes again. I started writing again. Then an interesting thing happened – people other than my parents started telling me it was good. Professors praised my tone and my style. Every article I submitted to the school paper got printed. I started submitting short pieces to literary magazines and anthologies, and saw them published. It took 8 years, but I got my BA in English – Professional and Creative Writing. After a year off, I went back for an MFA (still working on that). I started working regularly as a freelance writer.

So back to the conversation with my sister-in-law. I told her that I realized, at some point in the last year or so, that writing is the new dream. Specifically, writing a novel, getting it edited and polished and submitted to an agent or publishing house. It’s an attainable dream in many ways, though you wouldn’t know it from the way people talk about it. Not very many people in my personal circle are terribly supportive of this endeavor. Most of my friends don’t take it seriously – they’re all doctors and lawyers, or married to software engineers, and when I try to talk about my writing they treat it like a hobby. My family says I’m a great writer, but they think I should be writing about my kids or my experiences, they’re not interested in my fiction. Some of the people closest to me have said some well meaning but horribly disparaging things since I started to focus on this seriously.

The thing is, though – and this is the point I made that night, that hit me like an epiphany – I can’t give this up. It took me a long time to find another dream. I can’t just let go of this one because people think I should be doing something else. My husband understands, and supports me in this. I thank the stars he does. I’m 41 years old, my children are technically adults (though my son will require some level of supervision and care for the rest of his life), it’s been a long road but things have continued to get better. I need to see this out. I need to try. If I fall on my face, if I’m wrong and no one wants my stories, then fine I’m wrong, but I need to take this time and put in the work and put myself out there. No, it’s not the most stable profession. No, it doesn’t come with PTO or benefits or a 401K. But it’s the only dream I have left.

American Apostate: About Christmas

Memoir

I love Christmas.

Okay, so, slightly macabre, but make it festive.

That may sound strange coming from someone who left the church, but seriously, I love Christmas. It is my second favorite holiday of the year (with the first being Halloween, naturally). The weekend after Thanksgiving all the autumn decor goes away and the tree comes out. My husband rolls his eyes and gets out of my way. The kids help decorate the main tree according to whatever theme I’ve picked for the year (yes, I have enough ornaments to choose different themes), and then we have a second, smaller tree that goes in the family room that they get to decorate with whatever’s leftover. We don’t really have a lot of outdoor decor, but that’s in part because our house is in the back corner of a weird little cul de sac and surrounded by bushes and trees. You can’t see our house from the street, so we keep it light. Though I do have the most adorable tinsel narwhal. He lives on our porch.

Recently, The Southern Jew put out a reflection on the perpetuation of Christian culture by former Christians and non-Christians through the celebration of Christmas. I found the write up to be interesting enough to start following them on Facebook, although they did make the point that the only reason they created the FB page was to share the write up, because so many people had asked to share it and they didn’t want their personal information out in the world. They have since deleted the page, and I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that it’s because they received angry pushback from the internet, because we have an overabundance of trolls these days. So, sadly, I cannot direct you to or quote what they discussed, but we’re going to talk a little about the gist of it.

They spoke about the monster that is commercial Christmas, and touched on how originally Hanukkah was not that big of a holiday in the Jewish community, but has been inflated over the years to compete with Christmas. The author asked for a little accountability from non-believers who continued to participate in Christmas, and therefore continued to perpetuate this beast of a holiday that (in the US at least) is admittedly a corporate monster and a little out of control. The clinging to Christmas also perpetuates the image that the US is a Christian nation, for all that many people celebrate Christmas secularly. So I wanted to talk about why I, as an apostate, continue to celebrate Christmas.

Tradition plays a big role in it. I was raised a Methodist, with a lot of Catholic and European influences in my childhood. Christmas Eve dinner is a big deal, and was often the one of the few times of year we broke out traditional Polish foods that my grandparents loved. There’s actually a funny story about how, after my grandmother passed, my mother finally confessed she didn’t like śledź w śmietanie (pickled herring in sour cream) and I was just beside myself for, like, an hour. It was always about food and family, however. We attended candlelight services on Christmas Eve when I was younger, but they tended to be short things that were just a nice time to see my friends from Sunday school (or the preacher’s son who had a crush on me – it was not reciprocated, but he was a nice enough friend). And then we got to go home and open a gift – just one, and not a big one – with the rest waiting for Christmas morning. By high school we were barely still attending church (and would stop before my junior year), but dinner and family time were still very important parts of the holiday.

There is glitter IN THE CRANBERRY CURD! *dies*

Also, let’s not overlook the vast importance of the lights and decorations. Christmas is beautiful – sparkling lights, trees full of glass baubles and shimmering tinsel, glittering displays in a rainbow of colors. It is gloriously amazing. And for someone who continues to struggle with seasonal depression, Christmas is an intense uplift during a dark and gray time of year. I really need something this bright and happy in February to get me through the rest of the rainy season (don’t say Valentine’s Day, it’s forever tainted by bad movies and societal expectations). And the food! So much amazing food is paraded before us during this time of year, and it’s fun to look up recipes and try new things. I bought a Cranberry White Chocolate tart from Trophy Cupcakes this year. It’s the most gorgeous thing that has ever graced my holiday table, and it was delicious. I also made a twist on the Eton Mess, using chocolate meringues and cherries in a sauce to give it a Black Forest gateau feel and flavor. Not as beautiful, but super tasty.

These parts of the holiday that have so much significance to me, that are so important to me, were never about religion. They’re about family, about festiveness, about finding something beautiful and bright during a dark time. When I started my own family, I originally tried to shift the celebration to the solstice. After all, I spent a while dabbling with Wicca, and while it didn’t stick for many of the same reasons I left the church, I do still retain a number of pagan sympathies and beliefs. But here’s the thing – I was a single mother, with no money, and most of my children’s presents and certainly the big festive dinners all happened at relatives’ houses. On Christmas Eve or Christmas. What little I had the bandwidth to scramble together on 12/20 couldn’t hold a candle to what my family could do on 12/24, and I was already so exhausted it didn’t feel worth it to keep trying.

Things changed, I remarried, the financial situation dramatically improved, but by that point my children’s formative years had been spent celebrating Christmas. Their Christmas is entirely about family and togetherness, and Santa, with no religious overtones. Which, considering all Christmas decor comes from pagan traditions, and it’s only celebrated in December because early Christianity needed a holiday to compete with Saturnalia, kind of works out. Then again, our family donates to food banks and buys presents for kids whose families are struggling, and arguably those are the most Christ-like things you can do during the holiday. Definitely more Christ-like than screaming about Starbucks cups.

I don’t do green trees – if I’m going to have a fake tree, you will KNOW it’s a fake tree.

So, do we perpetuate Christian culture with our secular celebrations? Yeah, a bit. And right now I don’t have an alternative. Christian traditions are very accessible. I’d give Hanukkah a go if I didn’t think my Jewish friends would find it super rude of me (it would really just be an excuse for gelt, latkes, and sufganiyot). Now that my children are almost grown and we’re no longer dependent on my extended family for all holiday cheer, maybe we can start to shift back towards solstice again. It won’t get rid of the tree or the lights, though, so I feel like it doesn’t really matter. I will still be perceived as celebrating Christmas whether I am or not.

Perhaps the answer is just to continue to push the narrative that Christmas has evolved into a secular holiday, and make that more widely pronounced and understood. It will always have religious meaning and connotations for Christians, as it should, but quite frankly they stole the holiday and all its trappings from other religions to begin with, so maybe I’m just taking it back.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk

Writing

More old school work! This one was for structured essays, specifically hermit crab essays. For those of you whose lives do not revolve around writing, hermit crab essays are when an essay is structured to appear as something else. Like a hermit crab hiding in a shell, get it? Anyway, I decided to write up a snarky course synopsis. It made me giggle.

TEDxSeattle Presents

Sarcasm, Thick Thighs, and RBF: Making It Work For You

Saturday, December 2, 2017
6:00 p.m. to 12:45 a.m.
Church Key Pub (Edmonds, WA)
$25.00 (tuition includes two drink tickets) / class size limited to bar occupancy

taught by Drea Talley

Drea Talley has years of experience being the Mean Girl most of us are not willing to be. The second youngest of six children, she was raised in a household where a clever tongue and sharp wit were valued. From as early as 5-years-old she was trading quips with her brothers, and over time progressed from “You’re a butt,” to “Oh, sorry, let me make this as monosyllabic as possible: you smell and no one loves you.”

Ms. Talley has also spent the last 24 years as the (not always) proud owner and manager of a zaftig figure, and has worked out a program for not hating yourself just because you don’t meet societal beauty standards as well as telling people where they can stick their comments about your weight. Ms. Talley has also developed strategies for addressing passive aggressive attempts to belittle your appearance, and the proper response for anyone who dares utilize the phrase, “I’m just saying something because I care.” Because let’s be honest, if they cared about anything other than their own perceptions and biases, they would want to know what you wanted.

Through this workshop, Ms. Talley will walk you through pushing past your self-conscious impulse not to say anything or wear drab palettes to go unnoticed. She will discuss with you your best colors, and why none of that matters if they’re not colors you like. Particular time will be spent reinforcing the mantra that black and grey are fine if that’s how you roll. Embrace the glitter. Those earrings are absolutely not too flashy for a casual lunch, and who asked Karen anyway?

Ms. Talley will help you lay the groundwork for calling forth the wild-eyed she/he/they-demon that already lives inside you and knows perfectly well that no one actually likes kale and will definitely say that to Becky’s face at the PTA meeting. While eating a brownie.

Ms. Talley’s other TEDx presentations include “Women Over 30 Can Wear What They Want” and “Tea and the Rise of Civilization.”

American Apostate

Memoir

I had an idea.

As a writer, I often plumb the depths of my soul and regurgitate it out onto the internet to share with strangers and the three family members who might look at my blog once a year. I have been letting the dust settle on my personal blog for a while as I worked on creative pursuits (more on that another day), but I haven’t had much I really wanted to dig up and examine about myself. Then, gentle reader, 2020 happened. In all its bewildering, excruciating glory. The pandemic, the election, the absolutely bat shit insanity of the evangelical church, all these factors have aligned to cause me to reflect on a topic that I am typically more private about.

I am an apostate. I typically describe myself as agnostic, but I am also an apostate. This lends me a certain perspective. So here is the start of my little project. I’m calling it American Apostate, because I’m an American, and apostasy in America is a strange thing that is both not considered of great consequence and yet simultaneously holds the potential to be very alienating. The chances of my being killed for my apostasy are minimal, but not completely nonexistent. Of course, I am also a “West Coast Liberal Elite” or whatever the favored term is these days, so it’s not a danger I’m exposed to. Regardless, I intend to write a short series of essays on my reflections of the state of the union as a former Christian.

Before we get started, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. So what is apostasy? Let’s ask Mirriam-Webster.

Definition of apostasy

apos·​ta·​sy | \ ə-ˈpä-stə-sē  \plural apostasies

1: an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith 2: abandonment of a previous loyalty 

Now, what makes me choose the word apostate? Well, for starters, because I like to use words that have meaning. I know, all words have meaning, but hear me out. Just calling myself an agnostic or a non-believer or a non-Christian does not convey my experience of this journey the way calling myself an apostate does. I was baptized. I grew up going to church in your Sunday best. I was in every weird Christmas pageant. I sang in the choir during the Christmas cantata every year once I was old enough for them to let me. I was a wise man and a shepherd in the live nativity on different years. I believed, whole heartedly, until I did not. I spent a year convinced I was damned because I had begun to doubt.

When I was doing my initial research for the project and looking up how the church defined and presented apostasy, I stumbled across Dr. Michael J. Kruger of the Reformed Theological Seminary. I’m not linking to them, because Dr. Kruger is a sanctimonious gentleman who thinks he’s special because he got his PhD from the University of Edinburgh. Something that he says several times is that apostates “seem” to be Christian, and implies that an apostate intentionally deceives those around them and leads them astray. “Apostates are not people who were Christians and then stop being Christians. Apostates were never Christians to begin with and only later did it become apparent that they weren’t Christians.”

Respectfully, Dr. Kruger, kindly stop talking out of your ass. I didn’t spend my life deceiving my family and friends and those around me. This feels akin to when your friend breaks off a toxic relationship and is all, “I never loved them!” and you’re sitting off to the side like, “No, you did, but I appreciate why you need to say that right now.” Christians like Dr. Kruger hold to the belief that we deceived them, because a true child of the Lord would never turn their back on the faith. This, of course, is paradoxical to the teachings that we are all children of God, regardless of belief, but we’ll get to the church and its paradoxes on a different day. Or days. There are a lot of them.

“They were never Christians!” No, we were. I was. And you need to make your peace with that just like I had to.

And so this writing experiment begins. I don’t know how far it will go right now, but I’ve got at least three subjects I am eager to expound upon. I imagine the first of these will find its way up here before that most popular of retail holidays descends.

Relating to Winter

Writing

So, I was digging through old school papers trying to find an essay I had written, and came across this exercise from 2016. It is an imitation exercise, and I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the work we were imitating in the writing. If one of you clever darlings can place it, let me know. Anyway, as we are into December and certainly at the right time of year, I thought I would share.

Relating to Winter

This was supposed to be about moonlight filling the silence left in the wake of new snow. The kind that turns the hillside into a blanket of shimmering white glitter, unbroken save for a trail of fresh footprints. Like the girl in the stories that finds Frost in the woods and becomes his bride. This was supposed to be about cashmere scarves settled like silken armor about the neck and tucked into leather coats, about stinging kisses of wind to the cheeks and curls teased into tangles by every errant gust. About nights spent walking through the cold, sparkling city and admiring the twinkle of lights and stars. This was supposed to be about smiles and bright eyes. This was even supposed to be about driving slow through neighborhoods you would never be able to afford, hands wrapped around cups of chocolate warmth, breath fogging where little faces pressed against windows as you and your children murmured in awe over the colors and animatronic reindeer.

Or maybe it was supposed to be about watching holiday movies between contractions, or about the strangely cozy silence of 3 a.m. while wrapped in a blanket gazing at still fading embers, or sleeping through afternoons filled with gray and wind and rain on the living room couch with a child curled to your chest, and also behind your legs – a Tetris puzzle of limbs and blankets that comes together with an inborn artlessness. Or maybe it was just supposed to be about rain that only gives way to days of brittle sunlight and frozen streets with no sparkle. About tears freezing to cheeks in a hospital parking lot, stepping carefully around patches of ice before the heat of the lobby crashes over you like a wave, making your head swim. Watching holiday movies on a bigger TV now, waiting for doctors, and offering bland platitudes to a sobbing girl who keeps saying she just wants to go home.

Or maybe it was about something entirely different. The spicy smell of a candle. The weight of a fog that doesn’t lift for three days. The crinkle of a taffeta dress. The whistle of wind around the house. But disregard what was supposed to be. And know that this is not now nor will ever be about an insult and slammed door as you walk away without once turning around or looking back because he doesn’t deserve it. Not about the pointed fragments of a shattered china cup. Nor about malicious silence.