THE SILVER ISSUE
The week of January 25, 2015

What my mom taught me about the Internet

By Cooper Fleishman

In a modest kitchen in a rental house in southern Delaware, the granddaughter of Sicilian immigrants prepares a quiche. Onion, kale, swiss. Her cookbooks are hidden somewhere in a storage unit, along with her grater, so she improvises: a cup of milk, three eggs, then cheese cut into dime-sized cubes. Two hours later, when the crust is golden-brown, she pulls her invention from the oven. She snaps a photo with her Panasonic point-and-shoot, then plugs the camera into her iMac while the quiche cools. Her Tumblr blog is already queued up.

“It’s an art form for me!” said my mom, Joanne Caputo, 59. She was busy taking more photos of the quiche—her “dinner pie”—when I called her Wednesday afternoon. Her blog, A Life of Pie, racked up about 5,000 followers after being featured on Tumblr’s food category last year. She is far more popular on the Internet than I am, and she’s been a student of the Internet for far less time. She’s been blogging on Tumblr for less than two years.

“How’s it look?” I asked about the quiche.

“Prit-ty, prit-ty good,” she said, channeling Larry David.

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To call my mother serious about pie—baking it, eating it, photographing it, now blogging about it—would be an understatement. As a recent transplant to Delaware, she’s found joy and simplicity in driving around the state, finding unique spots to eat near the coast and talking with chefs and wait staff for hours about the local food. Then she heads home to try her hand at a new recipe, documenting every step.

Baking is in her blood. Our lineage features baker after baker, men and women who pressed dough in turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh and 19th-century Palermo, Sicily. On a recent visit to my parents’ condo rental, I marveled at how the kitchen stayed active every hour of the day. She juggled three meals at once. We stirred and chopped fresh vegetables while chicken stewed in tomato sauce, pizzelle cookies fried in a special waffle iron, and pie crusts cooled.

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There is always pie in Joanne’s house.

But what impresses me most of all is how committed she is to using Tumblr as a platform for sharing pie recipes and “food porn,” as she now knows to call it, with her much-younger followers, of which there are plenty. Getting accustomed to the site, which has gained popularity among socially conscious teens and young adults, must have been a challenge, I suspected. But Caputo insisted that the hardest part of the process is remembering to take a photo of the pie before devouring it.

“You don’t have to be a 20-something to be in style.” —Amanda Brennan

“I just become an eater at that point,” she told me. “So Dad’s getting good at saying, ‘Don’t you want to take a picture first?’”

Caputo has worked as a filmmaker, director, writer, and producer, and last year she even developed a fart-game app with my dad and brother. But baking has always been a passion, and blogging is just her latest creative pursuit.

I’m an unabashed fan of her work. Her prose has an earnest quality you don’t see anywhere else on the Web. Her enthusiasm is infectious. Frankly, I wish more blogs sounded like hers. She simply loves pie, and she wants to share her affinity for baking with the entire Internet.

When my mom first launched A Life of Pie, she felt like she owed her readers an explanation if she wrote about stuff that wasn’t pie. Even savory pies, or other, non-pie desserts, would come with a disclaimer.

“Yeah, I’ve really loosened up about that, haven’t I?” she admitted. “It’s a pie blog, so I had to let people know if it’s not about pie! Then I realized, no, nobody cares. It’s my blog. They can like it or not like it.”

Now it’s more about the pie lifestyle. “When your hands are in baking, it’s very meditative. You create something, then you get to eat and taste it. It’s beyond other kinds of visual art. You get to have a secondary experience with it, putting it in your mouth. If I’m a person who wants to stop and get a picture of that sunset, I stop. I appreciate small things, and that includes a small piece of pie.”

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Why the pie? Why not, say, cake? For her, it’s all about simplicity. She talked about trying to buy gifts for her own mother, who’s at the point in her life where she doesn’t need a thing. “I get that now,” Caputo said. “You don’t need much. You don’t need big, decadent, glamorous. You just need simple. That’s the difference between a pie and a cake. Who needs layers and frosting on top? It’s too much. Plus I don’t like all that fat, that frosting. The thin fruit pie is basic, barely sweetened. The pie just has everything you need for dessert.”

“Simplicity is the Jo Caputo brand,” I ventured. “I think so!” she said. “Dad’s the opposite. He loves frosting. He made himself cut back on it.” She said Americans bake with way more sugar than we need to. “It’s a goofy trend.”

“Mom’s pie radar is very acute,” said my dad. “Hey, want me to say something crusty?”

“I don’t want to work with that. I don’t want to live like that. But I’m grateful that you have a job.” —Joanne Caputo

Mom calls her Tumblr “a funny mix of performance art and community service.” Writing for the Internet feels like being on stage, she said: “You wait for feedback. You wanna see how many people like it or reblog it. Then it feels like community service—it’s not a job, I don’t get paid, so what do I get back? It’s a more intrinsic value.”

Does she find joy in her writing? Sure, she said: “Maybe just knowing I’m sharing with a community that appreciates what I appreciate. It’s like having a ‘food friend,’ but I don’t know who [my followers] are.” She does know, however, what they want: great photos of pie. “The posts are just a flash in the pan,” she said. “It’s usually a good photo that catches on.” Does she care about how many likes she gets? “Sometimes I care! I’ll check in the afternoon to find if someone’s liked a post.”

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According to Tumblr’s Amanda Brennan, there are a few other well-known older Tumblr users, and they use similar strategies to engage with users. “Probably the most famous senior Tumblr user” is Amitabh Bachchan, who turned 72 last year. Bachchan, an actor, “writes really beautiful longform posts” like this recent meditation on dreams. There’s also Klemann Lee, a 62-year-old bird photographer, and Style at a Certain Age, run by a 56-year-old fashion blogger “with amazing OOTDs”—outfits of the day—“that prove you don’t have to be a 20-something to be in style.”

How does Jo Caputo stack up? “Your mom does a great job of making her blog feel home-y,” Brennan told me in an email. “I love that she sprinkles in some pie news and even other foods. This looks AMAZING,” she said, linking to a photo post with some delicious-looking crab-stuffed prawns. “While her lighting could be better, her pies are beautiful and her photos are shared with meaning. Can we talk about how delicious this looks?”

Brennan says the senior bloggers “don’t seem to use Tumblr any differently from our younger users. They took the time to make their blogs look great. The fact that Bachchan uses Tumblr to keep in touch with his fans across generations is really cool. He could be doing it anywhere.”

By contrast, though, my mom has been very careful about how engaged she wants to be on the platform. She’s embarrassed to admit it, but she doesn’t actively follow anyone on Tumblr. “I don’t want that in my timeline!” Caputo said. She would rather open Tumblr’s homepage and just see her own work. “I don’t want other people’s postings in my blog. It’s nothing personal. The older I get, the more I want a simple life, so I wrestle with how much of that social media to engage in.

“All these timelines, Facebook and Twitter, it’s all so time-consuming. They’re time-sucks, and I don’t have it, so I don’t do it. Sometimes if I want to relax from a work task, I’ll go look at Facebook and see what’s posted. It’s clutter for me. I try to tread very carefully into anything social media.”

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For her, the Internet is a tool, and not much more. She limits her time online by scheduling her posts for the week every Sunday. She even has a “secret researcher” who reblogs food posts from around the Web. “I’m not a young person who just grew with this,” she said. “These are just mechanical, technical tools. I’m not that in love with [social media] all the time, but I need it for my work.”

It’s the opposite of how young people use the social Web; we’re wired in from the moment we wake up, our smartphones like an additional limb. We’re constantly on call to the Web’s demands. When I asked my mom if Tumblr has helped her understand the Internet better, she implied she now realizes just how much she doesn’t understand.

“I suspect that most of my followers are younger than me, and I suspect they are sitting in front of their computers way too much. This is one of the things they do: follow blogs, Tumblr blogs. They’re starving for content.” (True!) “So here I am trying to provide some healthy, fun, harmless content.” But she knows it’s the tip of the iceberg of how wrapped up we can get in our social media.

She simply loves pie, and she wants to share her affinity for baking with the entire Internet.

Case in point: me. I’m the most hopeless case of Internet addiction she knows of. She brought up the tools I use for work and how alienating they seemed to her. When she and my dad last visited the city, I taught them how to use Twitter. I wanted my mom to learn how to find other pastry enthusiasts by searching for hashtags like #pie and #baking. I’d love for my dad, an illustrator, to share his sketches on Instagram, but that would require him to upgrade his flip phone for a smartphone—a whole other can of worms.

“When you were working,” Mom said, “you had the streaming, the watching… what was that thing?” (It was TweetDeck.) “That for me is like the friggin’ stock market. I would never want to work like that. It’s frenetic, visual, ya-ya-ya,” she said, imitating the pace of tweets flying down the 20 or so columns I have set up. “I don’t want to work with that. I don’t want to live like that. But I’m grateful that you have a job,” she conceded.

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I asked her for tips on how to work on the Internet more passionately, how to bring more energy to my own creative pursuits. Her advice? Get up out of my seat and get the hell offline. Get a standing desk, too. “You can’t sit on your ass that long,” she warned. “Exit your browser and enter your kitchen (or any creative space). Make something nice for yourself. Have a visceral experience, instead of a vicarious one.

“You have to disconnect!” she continued. “You have to put the tool down, put the phone down. We’re like Pavlov’s dogs. Any little dings—ding, ‘Ooh, a message,’ ding—why do we want to live like that? Just disconnect and breathe. Develop hobbies. Do something else with your eyes that don’t involve staring at a monitor.” She laughed. “Go outside and play!” She’s been telling me that since I was 6, and all I wanted to do was fill up the screen on our Mac Plus with Kid Pix art.

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“I love getting out every day,” Caputo said. “I need to walk on the earth and get in the sun and see the sky. I pay more attention, I guess, to being in balance. I try to pay attention to staying in balance in all areas of my life.”

She credits this search for balance in her life with being a cancer survivor. Caputo developed breast cancer in her 40s and underwent a mastectomy to remove a malignant tumor. It gave her a new outlook on life and a new appreciation for creative work. She left her job as a commercial director for a hospital in Dayton and began producing and directing her own films, often with my brother and me as camera assistants. Her documentary feature On a Roll, about disability rights in America, premiered on PBS’s Independent Lens series in 2005 and got a review in the New York Times. (What’s next for A Life of Pie? Caputo could see it as a Food Network series with her as the host, exploring small bakeries around the country. She’d travel all across America, she hopes, looking for that perfect slice of pie.)

Something else led her to leave Ohio, the state where I grew up. Last year, she and my dad moved to their current rental in Delaware, eager to leave behind the frenzy of their college town and live more peacefully by the ocean, closer to family in Pittsburgh and to me in New York. They’re enjoying the beach, but there’s one problem—it’s harder to find a great slice of pie.

But she’s less concerned about that now. She wants to make sure I’ve been getting out of my seat. The morning after our call, I woke up to an email telling me to take a dance class or learn Qigong, the ancient Chinese meditation art. “Just get moving!”

“If you need anything else, let me know,” she wrote. “I’m sorry if I cut out too soon; I had to eat (feeling the low blood sugar).”

Pie might help.

Illustration by Max Fleishman