Uncategorized

Commencement

“Like I was saying,” he began. It got the polite laugh he was hoping for. He straightened his black polyester gown, arranging the words in his head, preparing to tell the members of the audience all the things he wished he'd been told when he’d sat where they did now. He rubbed his thumb against the fraying enameled edge of the wooden podium. Almost a thousand faces pointed in his general direction, though it was hard to tell how many of them were interested. It seemed likely that not many were, not on a day as packed with anxiety as this one.

He couldn't recall who had given his own commencement speech. He'd paid attention, too, sitting and listening to the whole thing, and there were even a few phrases of it that came back to him now. Something about how he and fellow graduates were toothpaste being squeezed from a tube. (He assumed, or hoped, that this had been part of a broader lesson and not just a grim metaphor for their impending evacuation into the cold world outside the coliseum's doors; either way, he couldn't remember what had come before or after it in the speech, which had been given by someone whose name or face he could no longer dig up.) He knew, though, that the young people here today would probably not remember what he said, or even that he'd even been the one to say it.

Goddamn but they were young. They looked like raw dough: unformed, unfinished, unaware of the oven. He could see on their faces the looks he’d seen every spring at every university he’d ever worked at or visited: of bone-deep belief in their specialness, and that no one who came before or will come after could ever feel the way they do now, at this exact moment. Each one of them believing that their knowledge is their own. That’s their curse, like it’s everyone’s.

He had a problem, he knew: the fundamental point he wanted to make was impossible to explain. He wanted to tell that that he could not do anything for them because life's lessons can only be learned through the exhaustive, painful repetition that comes with being alive. There is no easy way versus the hard way; there’s just the one way, and that way is letting experience take root in you over the course of months or years. This was sound, if boring, advice.

Trying to communicate this point, though, was, by its own nature, self-defeating: because it relied upon a belief in knowledge built over time, they would not be able to understand it until they were older, by which point they wouldn't need it told to them. It made him think of that set-up in old movies where the hero would find his sidekick or love interest tied and gagged on train tracks, and the hero would remove the gag only for the friend/lover to spit out “It's a trap!” The hero should have known right away—it was so obvious—but there was no way for him to find out until he took out the gag, by which point the exclamation that the situation was a trap was self-evident and unnecessary.

When he was 15 years old he’d spent three weekends doing yard work for a friend of his father’s who lived a few miles away. The man was single and only in his late 30s, though to a teenager he’d just registered as indeterminately old and adult. The speaker at the time was happy to have any kind of work, and any amount of money going into his pockets, so he showed up every Saturday morning for almost a month and worked from 8 in the morning until late afternoon. The man paid him $50 each weekend and bought them both burgers at lunch. One day, engaging in as much small talk as their gap in years would allow, the man said, “You’re so young, you don’t even know what you don’t know yet.” This was the kind of perfect observation that seemed so stupid to the speaker then—of course he didn’t know the things he didn’t know; if he knew about them, he’d, you know, know about them—but it came in the coming years to seem like deep wisdom, hard won and not lightly imparted. The man had been talking about the unknown unknowns, those things that are not only impossible to determine but impossible to even know exist. They’re outside our comprehension and understanding entirely. Where the speaker would go to college: that was a known known. When the speaker would lose his virginity: that was, he hoped, an unknown known. But the problems you cannot even fathom existing, let alone provide an answer for? Well then.

He imagined himself standing on a cliff instead of at the podium. At his feet was a wooden bridge that extended straight out and met an opposing cliff hundreds of yards away. The air between was laced with fog, and the place where the bridge met the other cliff was difficult to pick out. The graduates stood behind him, waiting for him to go. As he walked across the bridge, the fog grew denser behind him but lighter ahead, until at one point he could see the other side and know he would make it safely across. When he reached the other side, he turned back to look the way he’d come. They were all still there, and some of them had started to make their way out onto the bridge. They looked scared: of the heights, of the fog, of the bridge itself. He stretched out his arms and tried to shout, Here I am, but something about the fog stopped his voice as soon as he spoke. It sounded like his words had been spilled into a bowl and thrown away. He didn’t want to keep walking and leave them behind, but he also knew he couldn't go back out on tyhe bridge again. He tried stretching his arms more, wiggling his fingers in the vain attempt to make them longer that always feels like it should work. They edged toward him, some calm, some shaking. He could not reach them, only hold out his arms and wait. As soon as one would reach him, they would see that everything was OK, that’d they’d survived the passage, at which point they would turn to look back at the remaining crowd and shout the good news that safety was just a few steps away. But their words, too, were wiped from their lips before they could ring out. There was no way to know you would be safe until you were, and no way to communicate it to the people behind you. There was just anticipation on one side, silent exhortation on the other, and in the middle the journey everyone has to make on their own. The things they would do, and feel, and regret, and imagine. I’m right here. I'm right here.

He looked down at them, wondering what to say.

Baseball

The storm was a trauma. Not just in the appropriate emotional sense of the way the word is often used today, but in the classic, pathological one: "a serious wound or shock to the body." People lost their homes and jobs and businesses. People drowned. People walked around for weeks afterward on edge, nervous and irritable, scared without realizing it. Entire blocks looked like war zones, sodden and moldy trash piled by the curb. Recycling pickup was suspended because the trucks were needed to haul debris; it's still a couple weeks away from starting up again. Tens of thousands of people are still displaced, living in hotels or apartments or with friends and family.

///

Baseball is just a game. That's all. It's a game. You run around outside for a few hours. It's for fun.

We like games, though, for the same reason we like good stories, or art, or the ability to travel. We are all constantly aware of the fleeting nature of our mortality: not that we will one day die, but that we will die and, in all likelihood, not be remembered. So we look down at these clumsy vessels and wonder how fast we can run, how high we can jump, how well we can take the thoughts and feelings that seem to exist for us alone and turn them into something that someone else can understand and, if only for a moment, embrace. We're trying to make a mark, even if we can never define it more clearly than that.

///

When the rain let up and we could all get out again, we all asked each other the same question: "Did you make it?" It was how conversations started with coworkers, cashiers, strangers on the elevator. You didn't need to explain what you meant. And they'd either nod and say yes, they did, or they'd shake their head and say no, we didn't. In those gray and fragile days, there was a sense of joining, of collective sheltering and support, that's only possible between survivors of something horrible and random. We'd come just a little closer than usual to realizing how quickly everything goes. It's why we latched onto things like "Houston strong" and charity campaigns. We were reaching out to each other, still trying to make those marks.

///

Pop sports culture talks often about "bandwagon fans," or "fair-weather fans." This is usually done in a smug and condescending way, to differentiate those who have recently participated in the excitement that can sweep a city during a championship run from those who have been loudly suffering years of losses. This is, as you can probably tell, a really sad and small-minded way to live. If you've ever seen someone online brag about seeing a band live before you'd heard of them, you are familiar with the general vibe.

It's also a fundamental misunderstanding of what can make games exciting for the people in town who only casually follow news about the local teams. Even non-fans have a general conception of what's going on. When the team does well, we all know about it. It becomes part of the small talk that fills moments between citizens in public spaces. When the team does exceptionally well, and begins to approach making history, that conversation doubles and trebles in volume and intensity. Longtime residents reminisce about games from their childhood. Recent transplants learn about local history. It becomes the subtext of every conversation, a feeling in the air, a noticeable change in attitudes. People share.

///

That's what all this has been about, in tragedy and triumph: coming together. Talking with your neighbors. Asking not just "Did you make it?" but "Did you see that?!" Forgetting for a moment the methods we use every day to keep ourselves within our walls, and taking a moment to look someone in the eye and know that you have a shared experience. You know what it means to lose, and you know how it feels to win. You did both together.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

“It feels really good to be home.”“ … I’m pretty high.” “ … Yeah.”

///

We came to Crested Butte slowly: flying from Houston to Denver, driving from Denver to Gunnison in a 200-mile series of switchbacks and grades that take you over the Continental Divide and through the Gunnison National Forest, then north from the town of Gunnison in a gradual curve up to Crested Butte, nestled at the foot of the mountain the shares its name. The mountain makes itself known in glimpses and gradual turns, appearing and then disappearing behind closer peaks before ultimately reappearing in a view that swallows your front and right sides as you close in. This is maybe the best way to come to a mountain, which is a place to reflect not on permanence, but on a pace and scale of change we can’t comprehend. Days seem long to us, years enough to define our lives, but this mountain and its brothers and sisters were formed millions of years ago.

It seems appropriate that we left the mountain quickly, then. Something like that, something whose size and grandeur and prominence seem to fool your eye, something that recalibrates every notion you’ve ever had of history—maybe there’s no sense in lingering. A quick departure’s as good as any other to the mountain. At any rate, that’s how I’m starting to think of our 30 hours in its shadow: just one more coming and going.

///

After spending a wonderful Sunday morning in town, we rested throughout the afternoon, which would turn out to be one of the things that helped us survive the night ahead. Sometime around 6 p.m. that day (an hour behind our friends in Texas), we found out that that tentative arrangement our housesitter/niece had struck with our dog, Sadie, had been declared by the dog to be null and void. Maybe it was the scattered thunderstorms that added to Sadie’s sense of fear and panic, or just the fact that Tracy and I had already been gone for a day and she didn’t know when we were coming back. This is, after all, a dog that was abandoned multiple times by owners who kept returning her to the Humane Society (one of them adopted her with a clean bill of health and returned her with heartworms), and while her separation anxiety has mellowed considerably in the 10 months we’ve had her, she’s still not wild about our being gone for long periods of time.

Whatever it was, Sunday night—just 24 hours after we’d arrived at Crested Butte—our housesitter got in touch to let us know that Sadie had decided to go what could charitably be called ballistic and keep her (the housesitter) pretty well penned in the rear half of our house. This was not great news to get, and we didn’t like the idea of our niece, who is very sweet and wonderful, having to contend with an unstable blockhead of a dog getting bitey because she thinks her parents have disappeared. Tracy and I worked out what seemed like the best possible alternative: Sadie would stay the night at the house by herself, and in the morning, our niece’s moms would take her either to our vet for boarding or, if the vet didn’t have any openings, to their barn for the week, where she’d be safe but also removed from people.

The plan was for our niece’s moms to come over in an attempt to execute a kind of pincer move in which one would enter the front door while the other would come in through the back, distracting Sadie enough so that they could throw down some food and our niece could scram. However, Sadie, being just smart enough to cause herself serious harm, ran out the back door. The yard’s gate was shut, of course, but she ran around to the far side of the house and did something she’d never done there, something we didn’t even realize was possible: she squeezed through a narrow gap between the chain-link fence and the house’s brick, and she was gone.

She wasn’t wearing her collar or tags, because we never make her wear them around the house. (We didn’t make Emma wear hers, either.) So when Sadie ran away and fled deeper into our neighborhood, she did so without ID.

While this was happening, I’d gone to town to get pizza. Tracy and I were emotionally drained (we thought), and we just wanted to eat a pie and smoke the joints my sister- and brother-in-law had left behind for us. We were a couple slices in when we started getting text messages about what had happened. We had to communicate through text message because, at the time, we didn’t have cell service in Crested Butte: a recent lightning storm had taken out an AT&T tower that blacked out the entire area. So at this point—around 9 p.m.—we decided to move up our timetable and leave immediately. We were already planning every dark thing we’d have to do: make posters, put them up, send out local alerts, hope, pray. Flights out of Gunnison were prohibitively expensive, and besides, we’d rented the car in Denver anyway, so we found tickets for a flight leaving around 6:30 Monday morning and started to pack. My father-in-law insisted on buying our tickets home—“Dogs are family members,” he said—and he stood in the room with us while we received fragmented updates and collected our things. He just wanted to be there. We shook and worried and felt every imaginable thing: regret, sadness, anger, fear, instability. We got in the car and drove away around 10 p.m., the mountain behind us, already impossible to see.

After a brief stop in Gunnison to refuel at a combination gas station and bar, where we partook in a conversation among slightly inebriated bros about the acting prowess of Jonah Hill, we lit out. AT&T service had been restored by then, so our friends kept in touch with us as we drove and updated us on the search for Sadie: she’d been spotted, she got away again, on and on. I didn’t want to think about it. My father-in-law had asked what kind of caffeine I’d be drinking to make the nighttime drive, but I barely needed the soda we stopped and bought at the gas station. Adrenaline had the muscles in my face and arms pulled taut, my heart moving at a clip.

After a couple hours or so on the road—it’s hard to remember—our friends told us that Sadie had come home. They’d left the gate open as an invitation while they were out circling the neighborhood, and when they returned to check our house, they found her in our back yard. They shut the gate and were able to shoo her into the house like a bull going through a chute, after which they locked everything down again. Everything felt surreal. We hadn’t been there for any of this, so hearing about it through calls and texts only added to the feelings of impotence and fear. Knowing she was home again, I felt myself start to relax just a little. “I wouldn’t have been able to handle it,” I said to Tracy as we drove, not wanting to define what “it” might entail. We held hands most of the drive.

///

We made it to Denver around 2:30 a.m., an hour that’s neither late night or early morning. We did the only thing we could think to do that would let us rest while also filling a little time before we went to the airport: we went to IHOP. An IHOP after midnight is a fascinating and occasionally horrible place, but since we were only a few hours away from the start of the work week, the customer base was limited to us and a nearby table of three very drunk women (two of whom turned out to be mother and daughter) whose subjects of discourse ranged from “drama” to “not having no beef with her.” Our server, Michael, was an angel who gave us refills in to-go cups, and I tipped him around 50 percent.

After a meal and some welcome downtime, we drove to the airport around 4 a.m., where we returned the car and started the day. At this point, we’d both been awake for about 20 hours, and aside from a short nap Tracy had taken Sunday afternoon, we hadn’t rested. (Besides, whatever benefits that nap had bestowed were eradicated in the stress of the ensuing evening.) I felt nauseous with exhaustion, and I entered a kind of fugue state at the gate while we waited for our flight to board. I entered a light sleep almost immediately upon seating; I didn’t even make it until takeoff. I slept for an hour or so, about half the length of the flight to Dallas.

We went to Dallas because we had a layover at DFW for a couple of hours before the final leg of the trip home. DFW is one of the busiest airports in the world and one of the worst places man has yet created, a kind of architectural and logistical defiance of the belief that anything in life can be good or worth experiencing. It is hot and crowded and low-ceilinged, ringed by a tram line and unforgivingly bright. Tracy and I made our way to a Pappasito’s for a 10:30 a.m. lunch that wasn’t bad but whose price was out of proportion with all sense of honesty and virtue.

Taking a tip from the flight attendant who’d sat next to us in the jump seat on our first ride of the day—Kelly, a cute nerd who bonded with Tracy over Doctor Who—I decided to double-check the gate information for our flight home. That’s when I noticed something that had escaped my and Tracy’s notice the night before (we were, again, under a fair amount of stress): the tickets were taking us to Hobby Airport, but we’d originally flown out of, and left our car at, George Bush/IAH. We were going to the wrong place.

This news created a kind of crack in our spirits. Fixing it wouldn’t be impossible—worst case, we’d take a cab from one airport to the other so we could get our car—but it just felt like one too many things to have happen. I realized why we’d been so confused by all the signage, too: we were flying American, and they had two flights headed to Houston leaving within five minutes of each other but going to different airports.

Tracy was able to get the gate agent to move us to the IAH-bound flight by explaining our situation with no small amount of emotion. The woman was the platonic ideal of an airport employee: at once both helpful and emotionally detached. She reminded us that our bags couldn’t be switched to the different flight, but we figured that was (relatively) a minor inconvenience. We’d just drive down to Hobby and get them, then head home. Out of the way, but not too bad.

The flight out of Dallas was awful, a kind of confirmation of our hatred of the airport and our experience there. We taxied for 18-20 minutes before leaving, and the AC never kicked on. We departed around 12:30 p.m., which meant I’d been wearing the same shirt for around 27 hours. I could smell my own sweat and funk rising in waves, feel the heat under my arm whenever I moved it. Tracy, seated between two people and acutely aware of how trapped she was/we were, had a panic attack and took 1mg of clonazepam and just shut her eyes and held on. She was glass-eyed for a couple hours.

We landed so hard my book fell out of my hands, and we taxied for another 10 minutes, but we were home. We were strung out, wrinkled, groaning, not able to totally stand up straight, but on the ground in Houston. We made our way to the shuttle to the parking lot, which is when Tracy got the text that our bags had been lost. (Dallas, it seems, had found one last way to make itself known.) My only reaction to this news was logistical: now we could drive straight home instead of going by the other airport first. I was tired past any kind of feeling or response.

We made it home around 3 p.m., or about 16 hours after I’d locked the car doors and started driving out of Crested Butte. We hadn’t gone to bed, or showered, or had anything resembling a balanced meal.

Sadie started barking angrily when she heard our car pull up, but when Tracy called out “Sadie Lou!” she stopped, then began scrabbling around, knowing we were home. We didn’t even bring our backpacks in with us at first. We just came in and got on the couch and hugged her, told her that we were home, that everything was OK. It’s easy for me to forget what being abandoned so many times as a puppy did to her. She’s always a little concerned that she’ll be left again.

Our house looked normal, with no sign of any of the chaos we’d heard about from the night before. It was dreamlike to be home. The rest of Monday was disorientingly quiet compared with what we’d just been through, and after one of the best showers of my life, I fell asleep a couple times sitting with the cats. (It should be noted that, throughout all this, the cats showed no investment in the situation or any of its possible outcomes.) Tracy volunteered to stay up until the delivery service came by with our luggage, which they finally did after midnight. I went to bed around 10 p.m., and when I lay down, it hit me: I hadn’t been to bed, in any bed, in two nights. The night before was just driving and waiting, driving and waiting. But we were home now. I was asleep in minutes.

///

The next day, Tuesday, seemed to evaporate instead of pass. We didn’t get out of bed until 11 a.m., after which Tracy went back to bed for a few hours. I know I did things—watched videos, played a game, read—but I don’t remember much of it, or in what order it happened. It took us 24 hours just to recuperate to some kind of baseline, but we’re both still tired. The weekend was, it would be best to say, an instructive one. But I feel better now, or at least more whole. Driving that night, all I could think about was my dog in the dark, scared, alone, not knowing where I was. Come home, I told her. Come home. I’m coming home tomorrow to see you. You have to come home. She spent the day sleeping next to me, curled against my leg. As I write this, she’s sitting at my feet, chewing her bone, occasionally stopping to look around to make sure we’re all here, and we are.

An Eternal Flame That Gives No Heat

I woke up thinking about the maw. Web publishing — blogs, news outlets, magazines, etc. — is a numbers game, and the goal is only to make more to put in the machine. What's most frustrating as a content creator is that it almost doesn't matter what the content is. It just has to exist so people can see the image and headline, click Like/Share, and move on. It's kind of a Catch-22, though: if the content is badly written filler, you'll get dinged for gaming the system or trying to put one over on your readers, but if the content's really good, no one will read it to know the difference. You're just producing to produce, throwing meat into the maw. This Slate piece digs into the way people click without reading, as if their only goal is to acknowledge that something was published before moving on:

When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing.

[…]

The worst thing about Schwartz’s graph is the big spike at zero. About 5 percent of people who land on Slate pages and are engaged with the page in some way—that is, the page is in a foreground tab on their browser and they’re doing something on it, like perhaps moving the mouse pointer—never scroll at all. Now, do you know what you get on a typical Slate page if you never scroll? Bupkis. Depending on the size of the picture at the top of the page and the height of your browser window, you’ll get, at most, the first sentence or two. There’s a good chance you’ll see none of the article at all. And yet people are leaving without even starting. What’s wrong with them? Why’d they even click on the page?

[…]

As a writer, all this data annoys me. It may not be obvious—especially to you guys who’ve already left to watch Arrested Development—but I spend a lot of time and energy writing these stories. I’m even careful about the stuff at the very end; like right now, I’m wondering about what I should say next, and whether I should include these two other interesting graphs I got from Schwartz, or perhaps I should skip them because they would cause folks to tune out, and maybe it’s time to wrap things up anyway …

But what’s the point of all that? Schwartz tells me that on a typical Slate page, only 25 percent of readers make it past the 1,600th pixel of the page, and we’re way beyond that now. Sure, like every other writer on the Web, I want my articles to be widely read, which means I want you to Like and Tweet and email this piece to everyone you know. But if you had any inkling of doing that, you’d have done it already. You’d probably have done it just after reading the headline and seeing the picture at the top. Nothing I say at this point matters at all.

It's getting harder and harder to make yourself heard. It's also dispiriting that something you ache over and spend a lot of time trying to get just right will be tossed aside with the same lack of interest as a list of celebrity outfits or a list of news links. The democratization of online publishing isn't that everyone can publish; it's that everything starts to look the same, so there's no effort made to sort the wheat from the chaff.

The ramifications of this for critics, journalists, and other writers are still shaking out. But it's hard not to feel the machine taking over. Being a critic already means dealing with the studio/publicity engine that drives coverage. Studios want you to see a movie, give them a seven-word power blurb, then go to the next one, so you have to walk away and spend some time with the work to understand it. Actual criticism — seeking to understand and explore a work, and being honest about the way you bring yourself to it — always takes more time and nuance than the machine wants to allow. Now, though, many consumers of that written content are creating their own blind machine: they want only to see and click and skim, to wade through the stream and forget something the moment it passes. I can feel myself doing it with others' work. I know it happens with mine, too. While I don't agree with critic Charles McCarthy's assessment of some of the films of 2013, I did find myself nodding at this:

Social media, moreover, have created a deafening echo chamber in which opinions are confirmed ad nauseam until a de facto truth has been established. Dissent from the status quo can be attention-grabbing for a time, but a limit is quickly reached at which point the dissenter becomes marginalized as a crank.

With so much editorial emphasis placed on readership numbers (hence all the award show overkill), there is the furtive temptation for critics to align themselves with marketing forces. A rave review will be widely circulated by the studio distributing the film or the theater producing the musical. The danger here isn't so much conscious as unconscious collusion.

Popular sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, while useful to consumers, are detrimental to critics for two reasons: By tallying up the consensus of reviewers, they throw into relief the loneliness and vulnerability of the outlier position and by reducing criticism to a negative or positive assessment they are the enemy of nuance.

The decline in weekly and alternative publications of influence has endangered the long view perspective as has the demand for all journalistic outlets to keep pace with the 24/7 media cycle. There was a time when critics such as Stanley Kauffmann and Pauline Kael offered correctives to the haste of daily reviewers. What one of my editors calls "slow criticism" has long been banished to the quarterly fringe.

Creation and consumption are faster now, but not deeper. I don't know what the next step would be to change that, or even if it can be changed, or if people would want it to. This could be a problem with no solution, or it could just be one of those things that doesn't have any response. I just know that we're throwing logs on the fire every day, and it never gets warmer.

Rambling, man. Rambling and avoiding the reality. The fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose yesterday. The sadness of drug addiction taking lives, the struggle of the drug addict to stay off the shit, to not get locked back into the groove where choices diminish, where reason no longer applies, where the will is compromised and tethered to a malignant desire. Horrendous. It’s a horrendous loss. It’s a horrendous loss when anybody dies tragically, in almost any way. Why not just say any way? But when you know somebody who’s been fighting, I guess what at one time was a — no, let’s say at all times — a good fight against that particular bug, having experienced that bug, having lived with that bug for all of my life, having somehow kept it at bay through various methods, I understand it. I understand that. Once you surrender your will to getting high, all bets are off. You don’t know what the fuck is gonna happen. And this guy was a talented guy. He was one of the greatest actors who ever lived. And he had this horrible struggle. And there’s nothing more bothersome, more horrible, than people going, “Eh, he made a choice.” Yeah, he made a choice, but I don’t [think he had] much control, if any, over that choice. His heart and mind were being given instruction by a fucking demon. It’s probably one of the closest — metaphorically, if not literally — it is the closest I have ever seen to demonic possession. Active drug addiction. It’s nothing to be trivialized. It’s nothing to be dismissed as some sort of bad life choice. I really think that that kind of conversation about drugs needs to be eliminated from the culture.

It’s one thing to try to stop drugs; that seems futile. But try to raise awareness and get people treatment so they at least have a shot. And Philip Seymour Hoffman had had some periods of sobriety. But something switched off. Something didn’t stick. Something was not there when he needed it to be there in terms of the support necessary to stop him from reentering the dragon. From opening his soul to the demon. And now he’s gone. We lost him. We lost him to that, we lost him to that fucked-up disease. Fucked-up drug.

You know, I’ve seen a lot of people go down because of this, people in my business, people I’ve known. Some people come back. Heroin’s a tough monkey to kick, man. Seems to be the hardest, really, to reenter life after being strung out on dope. It sets the bar of your brain chemicals so high and so low simultaneously that you can never recapture that. Once you have that blast, once you feel that nod, a lot of things pale in comparison, and the deep hunger in the reptile brain for that feeling is a tough thing to stifle. I know cats that have quit dope and kind of moved through methadone and then became sort of managing alcoholics, drinkers, to sort of give that demon a taste. And a lot of them didn’t go back to dope. A few guys I know that ended up sort of putting that at bay and nursing a drink every once in a while to take the edge off. They’ve done alright. I’m not saying abstinence is for everybody. As Jim Caroll said about Kurt Cobain, he should’ve negotiated with the monkey. It’s hard to negotiate with the monkey. Sometimes you got to cut that fucking monkey off.

You know last week, on Thursday, we ran an interview with Marc Spitz, who also battled with heroin, but who at this juncture has not lost, and is out of its grips. Not sober, per se, but out of the grips of that motherfucker. Heroin’s a bitch. Drug addiction is horrible. It’s a mental illness. It’s a real disease, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead, and it’s sad. It’s sad. Because — just know that there is help available. And this may be a little serious, I understand, maybe I’ll get to something funny in a minute. But there is help available, there is help on the way, there’s always help available if you look for it. The hardest thing about it is once you get into that mind, once you are in demon mind, your decision-making capacity, or your will to say or know that you’re in trouble, becomes somewhat compromised. You know, “I’ll kick tomorrow.” Yeah.

R.I.P., Philip Seymour Hoffman. You were great.

— Marc Maron

Maybe we do want too much. Maybe we do want it too soon. Maybe we do think too highly of ourselves. Maybe we think we should have it all. Maybe we think we shouldn't have to work. Maybe we think struggle is for others. Maybe we believe our own press. Maybe we think the rules do not apply to us. Maybe we don't know we think that. Maybe we've never known real struggle. Maybe we don't know how to reconcile ourselves with the gulf between us and everyone who came before. Maybe we're soft. Maybe we're delusional. Maybe we're selfish and small. Maybe we don't know how to fix any of this without waiting it out and seeing what happens.

But maybe we're also tired. Maybe we also know what it's like to watch a generation shuffle away with nothing in their eyes but the weary look of someone who did nothing but survive and is trying to tell themselves that's all they had to do. Maybe we don't know what we want to do, but we also know we don't want to stop trying to find out. Maybe we realize on some level that nobody gets out alive. Maybe we understand that nobody on their deathbed ever looked back and wished they'd spent more time at the office. Maybe we don't think that the job is the person. Maybe we don't think the job is anything other than a necessary evil, a tool wielded only because of the things it lets you build. Maybe we know we'll never change things, not in a big way, not really, and maybe we're disappointed about that. Maybe we don't want to sell ourselves short just because somebody before us never bothered to sell themselves at all. Maybe we don't want to settle a bill we didn't charge. Maybe we know that the grind is the grind, but that doing it doesn't have to mean living it. Maybe we don't want to wake up one day and realize it already happened. Maybe we're going to blow the whole thing. Maybe we're OK with that. Maybe we'll change. Maybe we can't. Maybe we can. Maybe we're waiting for you to leave already. Maybe you should accept that.

One of the reasons I love subscribing to The Listserve is the opportunity it gives me to realize that everyone, everywhere, usually wants the same thing: to connect. Signing up at the site means getting a daily email penned by one of the subscribers, chosen via random lottery, so every day you and a few thousand other people get a note from someone you don't know about a topic of their choosing. Most people write about life choices and crossroads and trying to sort their needs from their wants, but everyone's story usually hinges on the idea of connection. We write and read these things in the hope that someone out there recognizes their weaknesses in ours, that they see in our struggles a hope that theirs might succeed. People's personal emails aren't used in the letters, yet so many of the writers still opt to include their contact information because they genuinely want responses, questions, comments, or just a chance to keep the conversation going. Some of the letters are better than others, and sometimes I'm not in the mood to read them, but that's why they're there. Every day, a reminder that we all spend our lives looking for ways to connect, and that finding those connections is often easier than we think.

Feeding the Buzz

What does this even mean? BuzzFeed is terrible. Probably not entirely; their tech section publishes interesting (if authorially bland) features, and they'll also put out some worthwhile longform first-person stuff. For the most part, though, their content is defined by an endless of series of mindless lists predicated on the idea that remembering something is the same as having a feeling, and that pointing out a piece of trivia to a reader is the same as making an insight for them.

Recently, though, BuzzFeed relaunched their Community section, which allows users to create accounts and post articles that are identical to BuzzFeed-created content. This is a canny business move on their part, since it means they can pad their site with content they didn't pay for but still reap benefits from traffic, ad impressions, and so on. (This is also another reason they are terrible.) Last week, something in me snapped and I decided to create a user account and upload my own BuzzFeed lists. I didn't know what shape they'd take; I just knew that I wanted to do something to comment on how inane the site is.

So I did. I'd seen Joe Veix's attack post and knew that BuzzFeed wasn't wild about content that mocked their own empire (and Kaleb Horton's amazing piece), but I just didn't care. I wanted to see what it was like to post ridiculous, stupid content that went in a variety of directions. At first I posted some surreal, more mocking pieces (like 6 Rocks That Totally Rock!! and 7 Sure Signs You Grew Up in Texas), meant to highlight the total obviousness and emptiness of BuzzFeed's lists. Their content relies on recognition and cheap nostalgia, and their goal is to trick you into believing that "I remember that thing" and "I am entertained" are the same emotion.

Then, weirdly, one of the posts got some traction. Not a lot; this was not something that was taking the Internet by storm. But it generated more traffic and referrals than the others. It was called 13 Benedict Cumberbatch GIFs That Are All The Same, and I wrote it to point out how easy it is to assemble .gif lists that rely on nothing more than familiarity with TV stars or pop culture. There's zero insight required to make these. Zero. That's the whole sad point. I was kind of stunned that it took off, especially when some of the comments reflected a split between people who got it and people who just really wanted to see pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch, context be damned.

I posted some more throughout the week. Some were weird and some were plain and some were sad, but all were designed to puncture the expectations people bring to BuzzFeed content. Also: You'll be amazed what people will click on if you format the headline properly and attach it to a BuzzFeed URL. I could've done these lists on my own site or somewhere else and not brought in a fraction of the content. Yes, there's the appeal of seeing an anti-BuzzFeed list actually published on BuzzFeed, but at this point, most people really are conditioned to just click and scroll. I'm no different.

I'll probably post some more. The archive is here. I don't really know how many I'll wind up doing. It's fun to put them together, to show just how empty the site is, but it's also overwhelming to realize that these dozen posts are nothing next to the fire hose of mindless clickbait that BuzzFeed publishes every day. There's no way to beat them, at least not with jokes like these. I think the only way is to just look for something else, and to try and be entertained in newer/older ways.