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THE SPECTRUM OF OBSOLESCENCE

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Reading the New Yorker this week, I came upon a feature by Tobi Haslett on Susan Sontag that included this quote of hers: “What the word intellectual means to me today is, first of all, conferences and roundtable discussions and symposia in magazines about the role of intellectuals in which well-known intellectuals have agreed to pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which … they belong.”

The story of Susan Sontag is one of decline, from the heights she reached as a critic of unrivaled elegance and intimidating authority to the tragic lows to which she fell as a dithering and dilettantish fictionist. It’s a story written by other critics, of course, disillusioned by the fact that Susan Sontag herself had become disillusioned with her work and its value. “Her work rustles with the premonition that she was obsolete,” Haslett writes, “that her splendor and style and ferocious brio had been demoted to a kind of sparkling irrelevance.”

I would do the piece an injustice to go on about it at length, but it is quite fascinated by the melancholy of Sontag’s later years that seemed to spark a quest for meaning about her vocation. As Sontag is among the few people of confirmed genius, I hardly begrudge her attempts to apply it elsewhere (though Haslett argues that success was mixed), but I’m at the same time surprised it took her such a long time to come to that conclusion. Chalk it up to the times, perhaps: that vaunted mid-20th century aristocracy of ideas that offered enough solvency to put off facing the darker truth of intellectual uselessness.

We of the blistered 21st century know better. Intellectuals are ever the brick-heavy iPod of forgotten yore. Alas, genius of Sontag’s kind is hard to come by, making helplessness endemic.

But fear not! For I have looked into the matter and divined a whole spectrum of obsolescence, which clearly shows that not all descents into it are equal. Indeed, it appears we’ve been going about it all wrong. We’ve been estimating intellectual merit on a passion-based scale of dispensability. No one is dispensable, of course, but every so often one or two intellectuals are indispensable leaving everyone else in an odd lurch. No more! Now everyone shall know precisely where they stand and, if nothing else, find clarity. I’ve come up with five intellectual types, listed them in order of most to least indispensable before revealing their more accurate obsolescence reading.

So peruse the list, find out where you stand, do it with a coworker or a significant other and compare, it’s probably fun.

The True-ass Believer
Of all the groups, the True Believers are by far the most respected and the most envied. Not for bad reason. True Believers are characterized by fearlessness. Nothing in their general makeup exists to filter their courage, to sedate their resolve, or to obscure their clarity. They take a stand and refuse to settle. This has lent them an air of simplicity, at least with preferred True Believers. Less preferred True Believers betray some notable distinctions. Some are so earnest (à la Robespierre) that they make you want to commission a contraption that claws your eyes out, slits your throat, and uploads the procedure to YouTube. Some are quite clever (à la Pascal) and make you want to do much the same thing. True Believers are not an especially wise bunch, but they have ample heart and energy for what they care about. If metal bands could coalesce into single individuals, this is the type they would be.

True Believers are exposed to considerable risk of obsolescence. They live or die (sometimes literally) by the temper of the times. If one does not have a high threshold for suffering or great personal security, it is a frightful gamble. These are hard terms, but terms they are likely to accept, as they only see the task before them, which only force will restrain them from achieving. Compromise or evenhandedness is worse than death. What is death or purging compared to the disgraceful ostracism of having survived? Ah, to not be Edward Dmytryk, that is Heaven, the True Believer says in the mirror in the morning and on the guillotine in the afternoon.

Obsolescence probability: 50 percent
Risk factors: Aside from temporal shifts, obstinacy, a taste for chaos, and inability to impose order.
Notable True Believers: Ian MacKaye, Mencius Moldbug, Amanda Marcotte, dog owners, Trump era Mike Cernovich, Kurt Vonnegut

The Hard-as-shit Pragmatist
No one wants to be a Pragmatist, or really to ever have to deal with one. Generally they are quite humorless and boring. They think almost entirely in figures, parts, outcomes, balances, contingencies, and logistics. They appreciate a grand vision only insofar as they are able to dismantle it and reassemble it once they’ve determined the most essential parts and the most efficient process. They are quite sensitive about an apparent absence of belief and go to such lengths to delineate their beliefs as to appear bloodless and, um, somewhat subjective.

And yet, Pragmatists are ever in need. What they lack in humor they more than make up for in flexibility. They can accommodate the views of all sorts and take on working relationships without much thought to optics or pleasantries. And they have a sharper than usual sense of calling things as they see them. Where the more intransigent among us see nothing but light, the Pragmatist is leering at the shadows just out of view. It’s a peculiar set of talents, and not talents one can hone so much as talents one gets to have and continuously apply.

Obsolescence probability: 30 percent
Risk factors: No social skills whatever. None. Zero. Total losers.
Notable Pragmatists: Megan McArdle, Edmund Burke, Henry Rollins, Hillary Clinton, mainline Protestants, 85 percent of the American population

The Craven-motherfucking Opportunist
The Opportunist is the closet humans have come to an animal. It’s not so much that they have failed to evolve into human decency, but that they may have evolved away from it, beyond it even. It is as if the Opportunists saw the True Believers and the Pragmatists, took their worst qualities, and made them worse still by utilizing them for the narrowest possible purpose. From the True Believers, the Opportunists take their single-minded determination and slash-and-burn intensity. From the Pragmatists, they take their rigorous cost-benefit cast of mind. The Opportunists mix them into a self-serving protein shake, which makes them more agile predators. What do they hunt? Whatever sustains them. Once that no longer does, they move on to the next kill. Such instincts may, at first, appear exciting, even noble; but Opportunists can’t commit for very long before substantial demands are made on them, and so they are prone to quick leaps. Many crash and burn; but others settle into a predictable pattern, once people see their animalistic habits, they are treated as such, and placed in a kind of zoo of public understanding, watched as much for curiosity as for security.

Obsolescence probability: 87.7 percent
Risk factors: Ends-justify-means instincts, nocturnal.
Notable Opportunists: John McCain, Gamergate era Mike Cernovich, human sexuality professors, actual good journalists, non-pet owners, the Duke of Marlborough

The Chickenshit Cynic
Some may find this inclusion to be redundant. After all, are not Pragmatists and Opportunists guided predominantly by cynicism? I’ll concede that. But one must concede as well that Pragmatists and Opportunists are, at bottom, principled groups. Granted their principles are somewhat malnourished but they have enough strength to drag their respective sleds on the right path with little wavering or drifting. Cynics, on the other hand, are confused by principles. I’m not even sure they can identify a principle should a principle present itself.

The dumbest of our categories, Cynics are attuned to the music of rather than the meaning behind signals, codes, and tics. Some might say they have a sensitive intuition, others an emotional intelligence. They will make reference to “political correctness” or “nuance” or “intersectionality,” but don’t expect them to stop and explain any of them. Who has the time? Cynics could not accommodate substance even if they wanted to. It weighs down on their chests like cinderblocks. Not that any of it matters, because they more or less reinvent language by sheer self-assurance. The lack of seriousness with which they see their opponents and the masses obscures but does not outweigh how seriously they take themselves. The Cynics are lonely, having mastered all that needs mastering—by their own curriculum, of course—and standing monumentally on a column that only fits one.

Obsolescence probability: 99.99999999999999999 percent
Risk factors: Stupidity, replaceability.
Notable Cynics: Christopher Hitchens, Paul Joseph Watson, et al., Damien Hirst, Tumblr users, Cum Town, et al., Lord Bolingbroke

The Unimpeachable Nihilist
“Nihilist” is lately an abused term, often as a term of abuse. A Nihilist is supposedly one who disregards the #actual good in favor of the totally deplorable, and does so flagrantly and spitefully. The espousals of this Nihilist just so happen to align with whatever set of beliefs the accuser disdains. In fact, every one of the aforementioned types can and will have the label foisted onto them at one time or another.

To speak of Nihilists in this fashion means to make the assumptions that Nihilists (a) actively choose this role and (b) relish it having done so, making Nihilists little more than trolls. Not at all the case. Indeed, Nihilists find being so all very draining. They are as horses being ridden across the great plain by an ornery truth that insists on kicking their sides. They get no water, certainly no rest; they are only driving to a destination that is somehow both ominous and getting further off the more they move. Why it falls onto them to undertake this is not known, only accepted. Occasionally Nihilists harbor fantasies about being “saved” from their trials, but at the end of the day they are just that. Nihilists can only live one way, they cannot begrudge those who do not see what they have seen but can’t really help them either. Nihilists live beyond provocation, beyond expectation. To be nothing of consequence, to be nothing of magnitude, to be nothing, that is Heaven, Nihilists say to themselves on their commute, binging This is Us, or at the birth of their children.

Obsolescence probability: zero percent
Risk factors: None that I can recall.
Notable Nihilists: Ambrose Bierce, Mark Rothko, Adlai Stevenson, Fr. James Martin, SJ, ferret owners

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TIM HEIDECKER’S SINCERITY

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Appearing on WTF with Marc Maron, Norm Macdonald went into an extended rant against the peculiar offshoot of humor known as meta- or anti-comedy, to which his own offbeat style had often been attached, much to his obvious dismay. “The idea is this,” he begins. “The performer does not find the comedy he sees to be funny. So he chooses the worst he can find and ridicules it.” After further exegesis, he cuttingly concludes that “anti-comics, when you come right down to it, are critics, which may be why they find favor among, guess who, critics.”

Macdonald is correct. I submit myself as an example. As a frayed postmodernist with little discernable skill beyond observing the comings and goings of culture and expositing on them with a vague semblance of authority, I’ve always been attracted to the detached creativity (creative detachment?) that is born out of diving headlong into something one does not like. Such contemptuous experimentation can risk mutation, but can also be profitable. It stands to logic that I took to anti-comedy with the least resistance.

So it is with some regret that I find myself having to turn the same skill that brought me to anti-comedy firmly, though not conclusively, against it.

I’ve been a fan of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim for over a decade when I saw their first Adult Swim series Tom Goes to the Mayor. I became, as the haters declaimed, a confirmed “Tommunist.” So when that show gave way to their live-action sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! in 2007, I took to it gladly. I liked its Dadaist send-ups of MTV, its tributes to the unconscious weirdness of pre-internet fringe culture, and whatever the fuck Celery Man is. I even liked its increasingly unsubtle dark, self-referential turns in the concluding seasons. Certainly it was not without its more questionable touches. Its use of unconventional and awkward performers had a Diane Arbus/Nathanael West air that didn’t always sit well with me. It was one thing to go off the beaten casting path, quite another to make sure they don’t get much farther beyond it. Also their movie is quantifiably loathsome.

But I let none of those qualms phase me, especially when they branched off into subsequent projects. Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories demystifies Charlie Brooker’s occasionally biting, mostly suffocating Black Mirror. Wareheim is helping to redeem the music video, and has found mainstream success in Master of None. But Heidecker’s own comparably more ambitious undertakings have monopolized my attention as of late, specifically his constantly evolving On Cinema at the Cinema.

On Cinema began innocently enough as a podcast with Gregg Turkington (née Neil Hamburger), satirizing fan culture and the pretensions of amateur criticism. Once it moved to YouTube, resurrecting Awesome Show’s public access fetish, Heidecker and Turkington expanded on their characters, while keeping their real names. Heidecker grew into a holistically obsessed rightwing blowhard, dragging anyone in his orbit through his several midlife crises. Turkington embodies criticism-as-pathology; he is a VHS tape hoarder masquerading as a “film expert.” The running joke is that Tim constantly digresses from On Cinema’s stated purpose to talk about his family strife, his medical problems and the quackery that will cure them, his political hang-ups, and his terrible music. These digressions take lives of their own in such forms as a spin-off fake action film series, Decker, which itself has been spun off maybe two or three times over. Just last month, On Cinema reached its most ridiculous height with the #ElectricSun20Trial, a five-day real-time courtroom proceeding to determine if Tim Heidecker was guilty of second degree murder after vape pens distributed at his unpermitted EDM festival killed 20 19 attendees.

The trial, livestreamed on Adult Swim’s website, was riveting to watch as it committed to the sterile staging of the courtroom just so Heidecker could derail it with his pettiness and egomania. He even dragged Star Trek II director Nicholas Meyer into it. Heidecker filled his Twitter feed with grammatically and phonetically imprecise bravado professing his innocence. On Cinema fans joined the fun dividing between “Timheads” and “Greggheads.” Ultimately, the struggle of the competent prosecution against his maddening, laughable antics, and the resulting mistrial, was a not-so-faint echo of the recent past.

No shit. But that’s fine. Compared to what else is out there—Kimmel, Oliver, Baldwin, Pickle Rick—no comedy is as committed as Heidecker’s is to skewering political normalcy’s rupture over the past year and a half and the angst that has stewed ever since. The On Cinema universe casts a net out into wider American culture, hilariously exposing how the country’s delusions, pretensions, and other hubristic blind spots grow out of control when unchecked or enabled and cause real harm. (A real toxic vape pen doesn’t seem more than a few years away from plausibility.) But for my part, the narrower his focus, the more he risks in spoiling his efforts.

In the weeks before the trial, Heidecker released Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker’s Trump Songs. As the subtitle suggests these are songs about Donald Trump, written in haste, mixing his comedic and musical chops with his real-time anxiety. Heidecker is clever to use the styles and structures of baby boomer icons such as Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, and Randy Newman as the basis for the songs. The songs themselves are more unusual, effectively breaking from his mischievous absurdity to bask in acrid sarcasm. He is wistful of Richard Spencer being punched in the face, pens a blue-collar ballad to plutocratic Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and goes at length about Trump’s fast food-hardened bowel movements. The album got a robust 6.9 from Pitchfork, concluding that it “manages to articulate some of our prevailing confusion and terror in a way that resonates.” But it also noted that its low points engage in “heavy-handed satire” cutting too close to “a bad Twitter thread.”

Tim Heidecker can do whatever he wants with his time, energy, and talent. He has earned that much. Even if he didn’t earn it, he could still do whatever he wanted with his time, energy, and talent. Such is the principle at the heart of America’s twisted beauty. This isn’t even necessarily about him so much as the force to which he and others in his circle have succumbed.

The inability to form a coherent opposition to Trump was a dismal and recurring revelation throughout the year. It appears that the fixation on the man himself, this gelatinous, perpetually grimaced figurehead with bad tweets and an endless supply of abnormally wide neckties, is a considerable hindrance. It could be that Trump’s foibles mask nearly two decades, at least, of pre-existing policy failure and stagnancy for which no one wants to answer. More accurately, that stagnancy, which Trump compounds, feeds into solipsism, one rooted in powerlessness at failing to form a proper pushback that will just be deflected anyway. As 2017 comes to a close I come to see its theme, at least among certain circles of influence, as solipsism en masse. (I refuse to say “depression” as that is an insult to depressives everywhere.) It is the popping of one bubble only to retreat into another, smaller bubble where one struggles to find new ways to say what one already knows.

Heidecker’s comedy is nothing short of confounding. Its genius is that it manages to function long after it stopped being funny or even if it was never funny to begin with. The work of Tim and Eric is best seen as creating a kind of mirror world, not simply where the frightful is funny and vice versa, but where horror and humor have been forcibly coupled, along with shame, dread, and ambivalence to create a hybrid emotion, or in any case their own compound of angst. It is work in keeping with all the great absurdists and existentialists before them. Heidecker’s sincerity, by contrast, is rather homespun and embarrassed. It’s identical with that of so many others who’ve been awakened from a long complacency, but who’ve fallen back on amusement for lack of anything more constructive to offer.

Heidecker’s sincerity recalls that far off time in 2016 when Adult Swim allotted and quickly rescinded airtime to Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace, a show similar to, even studied in, the tone and aesthetic Tim and Eric had laid down a decade before. Though Sam Hyde denies any specific political bent beyond pure provocation, MDE was clearly comfortable with reactionary agitprop, and its rage was barbed and exposed rather than punctuated by pathos. Its cancellation is mired in controversy, and the roots of it (zealous, threatening alt-right fans; the objections of other talent) are probably all true, but MDE clearly didn’t mesh with Adult Swim’s suddenly accentuated vision. There were standards after all, and it would have to take its “post-irony” back to the performative hoax soup in which it was fertilized.

But that is old news. From solipsism and sincerity seems to go atomization. I suspend judgment as to its merits or lack thereof. It does seem more bearable when the atom one happens to be in is shared with people who are, on the whole, inventively funny.

THE KING OF POSTS: PART THE LAST

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[Note: Click here for part one.]

I rode passenger in Clint’s Mitsubishi Mirage. We’d been driving for I know not how long. Time blurs somewhat when one is wearing a hood that looks suspiciously like a hood one saw on the news more than once about 13 years ago. Clint was unclear as to where he got the hood.

“I buy them in bulk on Amazon.” Never mind then. “But you can only buy them in bulk.”

Clint took the time to elaborate his thoughts about the King of Posts. I was unsure what to make of them. His reverence and awe towards him shifted gracefully into rancor and envy before circling back again. I could not tell if the King of Posts was a cherished mentor to Clint or an equal with whom he had a falling out. Over Michael McDonald’s greatest hits at low volume, though, his accounts resembled a love letter written two years after the fact, when every high and every low can be taken into account, at their most confusing but also at their most objective. “Nothing prepares you for when you meet a man like that,” was Clint’s only insight about him that seemed really salient. Most of the time he talked as if he was wallpapering his real thoughts with thoughts from other memories or half-assed Zen koans. “Nothing prepares you for knowing your weaknesses better than you know … your own secrets.”

“Can I take this off, your constant U-turns are making me dizzy.”

“In time, child. In time.”

As soon as Clint abruptly stopped for what seemed like the final time, he pulled off the hood, and I adjusted my eyes to … a pristine cul-de-sac of newly built homes. Getting out of the car I was overcome with silence, and realized that most if not all of the homes were unoccupied. The one we parked in front of looked no more active.

“So where is this place?” I asked.

“This is an enchanted realm, where up is right and left is down, and where magic is as free and easy as candy on Halloween!”

“My phone says this is Bernardsville.”

“Enchantment has many names.”

“Okay, but the King of Posts lives in Bernardsville? That’s closer to me than you are!”

“Will you just shut up and follow me?”

Clint knocked on the door. We heard some steps and a creaking noise from below. The mail slot was opened.

“Who goes there?” The voice asked in a sleepless, robotic deadpan.

“It’s Jared, I’m with a protégé. We’re here to see the King.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Of course not.”

“What time is it?”

“Oh come on, man, it’s me.”

“No exceptions. What time is it?

“Fine. It’s time for some game theory.”

“Very good.”

“Well?”

“We do two-factor authentication in this household.”

“Oh go impale yourself on a barre rail, Maurice.”

The door opened, revealing an unshaven, unkempt young man of about college age. He was scrawny, with stringy blond hair, pink-framed reflective sunglasses, white Ked mules, and an oversized white t-shirt with EUNUCH #2 custom printed on it. I did not see any shorts. “Right this way, gentlemen.”

The house was sparsely furnished and erratically adorned. There were no personal pictures but many impersonal knickknacks of an office arts and crafts party quality: squiggled abstract finger paints and watercolors on the walls, jagged wooden humanoid figurines on the tables. One table in the foyer had a sizeable mountain of overdue notices from God knows how many previous occupants that looked vulnerable to the slightest breeze. The living room had a recliner and two ergonomic office chairs. The dining room had a card table and some folding chairs.

“His highness will be with you shortly,” Eunuch no. 2 assured us. “You look hungry, would you like something to eat? Bagel Bites perhaps?”

I hesitated, but Clint nudged me.

“Don’t be rude,” he huffed.

“Sure,” I said.

“We only have fish sticks,” he replied automatically, as if rehearsed, and walked upstairs.

“Are … are you gonna make the … okay then.”

Walking over to the dining room, I looked through the sliding glass door and over at the half-painted deck to spot a mound of earth and several shovels laying about it. “Looks like they have a big landscaping project going on.”

“What? Oh don’t mind that.”

“You know what that is?”

“Yeah,” he said walking up to my side. “That’s the Pit of Deletion. It gets deeper every day.”

“Deletion? Deleted what?”

“Deleted accounts, what do you think?”

“Deleted accounts go there?”

“Yeah, what do you expect happens when someone deletes or gets suspended? They go on with their lives offline with their jobs and their families and their corgis and all that? No, that’s not how this works. It goes: all of it.”

“Corgis are buried there?”

“No stone gets left unturned, Chris. Something to think about before you see the King.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Gentlemen,” Eunuch no. 2 said from behind us, “his highness will see you now. He’s waiting in the den.”

The King of Posts’s den had the same stuck-in-time look as Clint’s office. In fact it looked as if the remodelers just didn’t bother to go downstairs at all. The floor was carpeted with bile yellow shag, and was cratered in the center by a conversation pit, fit with cushions and pillows with seagulls, hearts, and sentimental sayings on them. On the walls were printed out portraits of many the accounts Clint had mentioned and a few others like so sad today, da share z0ne, and Nein.

We stood at one end of the pit facing Eunuch nos. 1 and 3 in much the same attire and condition as Eunuch no 2. Eunuch no. 3 was at my left, lurched over with an electric guitar around his shoulders and an amp. Eunuch no. 1 stood at attention on the other side, appearing to be the most competent, or at least the better postured. In between them was a large rectangle obscured by a tarp.

“Hey,” Eunuch no. 2 altered his co-eunuchs, “these guys are here to see the King.”

“Okay,” Eunuch no. 1 said. He threw his shoe at Eunuch no. 3, who plugged in his amp and pressed his guitar against it, emitting membrane-searing feedback. “All hail the King of Posts.”

“ALL HAIL THE KING OF POSTS!” the eunuchs cried in their unison drone.

Eunuch no. 1 pulled the tarp away revealing a fortune-telling machine, but with a George W. Bush Halloween mask placed over the head.

“Will the tributary approach the pit?” he commanded. “Will the tributary bend the knee?”

“WHY HAS THIS NORMIE TWERP SUMMONED THE KING OF POSTS?” the machine asked in a static and guttural bellow like an impatient drive-thru operator. Through the mask I could still see the eyes light up each time it spoke.

“Um, hi … your highness,” Clint sheepishly interjected, “this is Chris, he’s a client of mine.”

“YOU BROUGHT ME ANOTHER LOSER, JARED? WHEN WILL YOU LEARN?”

“We’ve been working together on really upping his online presence.”

“UGH. WHAT IS HIS FOLLOWER COUNT?”

“About 700.”

“Almost 700,” I unhelpfully added.

“HAS HE GONE VIRAL?”

“A few times, your highness.”

“A FEW TIMES? A FEW TIMES? WE’RE REALLY CIRCLING THE DRAIN HERE. BUT YOU CAME ALL THIS WAY, AND I AM VERY BORED. I WILL SEE WHAT I CAN DO.”

“Thank you, your highness.”

“BEFORE YOU CAN BE PRIVY TO MY WISDOM, YOU MUST ANSWER ME THESE QUESTIONS THREE.”

“Okay.”

“BUT BE WARNED! IF YOU GET ONE WRONG, ONE OF MY EUNUCHS WILL CRACK YOUR PHONE SCREEN. IF YOU GET TWO WRONG, YOU FORFEIT ALL YOUR PASSWORDS TO ME. AND IF YOU GET ALL THREE WRONG, YOUR ACCOUNTS GET DELETED. ARE WE CLEAR?”

“Yeah … sure.”

“VERY WELL. FIRST QUESTION: WHAT DID THE LONELY SPARROW ON THE LOWER BRANCH ASK THE POPULAR DOVE ON THE HIGHER BRANCH?”

“How’s the weather up there?”

“CORRECT! SECOND QUESTION: WHAT ARE YOUR DREAMS?”

“There’s a right answer for what my dreams are?”

“THERE IS NEVER A RIGHT ANSWER PER SE, BUT ON OCCASION THERE IS A WRONG ANSWER.”

“I had a dream once.”

“DID YOU?”

“Not long ago, either. I had a dream where I was respected. Not just by unseen onlookers but also by everyone whose respect I explicitly sought out. I remember feeling it very distinctly. I can only assume it was the feeling someone has after not having mapped out their life history with a road paved of hurt and error. It was as if I got every achievement as easily as getting items in a grocery store. It was as if every opportunity fell to me at the right time. I couldn’t remember whose respect it was that I sought, nor could I remember the achievements I owned. But I felt the accomplishment and contentment and I felt that I deserved it. I was sitting in a lawn chair as I felt this. But I was not on a lawn. I was in a very dark room. There were no light sources except those that were behind the walls, which pulsated every few minutes in different colors: red, purple, green, orange, all that. I couldn’t tell you what the colors meant, but the lights revealed that I was not alone. In fact I could hear that I was not alone, a certain clacking and writhing. The right hue, though, could reveal a precise outline of an arachnid creature—many arachnid creatures, actually—about the size of a pizza. And then came the whispers. I couldn’t make out what they were saying until one of them was right in front of me, its legs grasped at my knees. When the wall lights glowed just right I could make out its face. It was of a girl who lived down the street from me when I was a boy, she moved away to Texas or something early on and I didn’t know her well. I think her name was … Meredith … or Diane. Anyway, the girl arachnid looked at me and just said ‘W’ and put a magic marker in my hand. Then other ones came to me and gave me more letters: S, C, O, T, E, D, another T, I, P, M, two more E’s, etc. It was implied that I was to write these letters on the wall. So I did where I could find space, and each time they would crawl up behind me and whisper a new one. After a while they stopped. And so when I had a wall with letters all over it, I turned around and asked what I was to do with all these. By then they were all piled onto one another in the corner, as if they were feeding. I moved closer but stopped when I stepped on something. Through the lights I could see it was a pair of glasses not unlike a pair I owned many years ago. Then I saw a hand twitching out from under the pile. Then I woke up.”

“NOT INCORRECT! THIRD AND FINAL QUESTION: WHY DO YOU WANT TO BE EXTREMELY ONLINE?”

“Because I hate myself and life has no meaning.”

“CORRECT! I SEE THE SPECTACULAR JARED HAS NOT COMPLETELY WASTED YOUR TIME AND MONEY. AND NOW I SHALL RENDER UNTO YOU MY DECREE. EUNUCH. EUNUCH!

Eunuch no. 1 elbowed the side of the machine. A small card fell into the front slot, he instructed me to take it.

“OBSERVE ITS DIRECTIVE WISELY.”

I looked at the card and read it aloud: “‘Everything will work out because you are a good person even if you really kind of aren’t.’ What the hell is this?”

“YOU ARE WELCOME, GOOD LUCK IN ALL YOUR FUTURE ENDEAVORS.”

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“You do not question his highness’s guidance!” Eunuch no. 1 sternly retorted. “Be gone.”

“No way, I’m not going anywhere until I get a—”

“WHAT IS THAT?”

“What is what?”

“IS SOMEONE SMOKING?”

I look back and lo and behold, Clint indeed was imbibing is nicotine habit indoors yet again.

“THERE IS NO SMOKING PERMITTED INSIDE, PLEASE USE THE DECK.”

“What the fuck?” Clint said as he bent down to his right ankle where a holster was concealed. “No one tells me where I can and cannot smoke.”

He took out a small pistol and shot several rounds into the King of Posts, which emitted sparks and smoke, setting off alarms and sending everything into general disarray. Out of the corner of my eye, a tuxedoed man ran out from a door in the back of the room, along with numerous cats that attempted to defend him by vomiting on our shoes. I looked inside and saw an elaborate audio setup and a laptop counting analytics that were off the fucking charts.

“Clint, this son of a bitch has been podcasting this whole time.”

“Are you serious?”

We ran up after him, dodging equally evadable cats and eunuchs. When we managed to escape the house we found our tuxedoed foe standing statuesque on the front lawn, just waiting for us. Though it turns out he was no ordinary foe.

“Woodrow Wilson?” I asked in astonishment, which was greeted by a severe slug in the groin.

“That’s Governor Wilson to you, shithead.”

While I struggled on the grass, Clint was understandably more overcome.

“I knew it!” he finally said.

“Yes,” the Governor replied with a slight but friendly smile. “I’ve been looking over you for some time.”

“Oh no.” Clint fell to his knees and grasped at the Governor’s jacket. “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me. I’ve failed you conclusively time and time again. No, actually, do not forgive me. I deserve none of it. I am worthless. I am a worm. A plague upon mankind.”

Governor Wilson remained silent, but placed his hand on the side of Clint’s face, and wiped a tear with his thumb.

“There is nothing to forgive,” Wilson said. “You have done all I have wished of you and more. You’ve brought joy to countless people, you keep an adequate home, and you fill this wretched earth with wonder.”

“I … I do?”

“Yes, Jared. You have earned your place beside me, with all the others. Will you join me?”

“Yes!” Clint said exalting to the heavens. “By God yes!”

“And so it shall be done. You may rise.”

Clint stood up to face him. Governor Wilson’s eyes began to glow a deep red as they met with Clint’s, and beams came suddenly shooting out from them. (I swear this is true.) Clint’s entire body started to glow and he laughed maniacally. Then came a bright, loud blast, and Clint’s material frame had, so to speak, been broken out of.

“Well, that takes care of that,” Governor Wilson said as he dusted off his hands.

“You could have fucking told me to stand back.”

“Hey, language. This is New Jersey, not a pigsty.”

“So what about me?”

“What about you?”

“You’re King of Posts, right?”

“Oh, that. Um … good posts are the friends you make along the way.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“The freshest #content came from right here all along.” Governor Wilson pointed to his chest.

“These are dumb memes, not advice.”

“Oh grow up, asshole. This stopped being about you like three hours ago. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a franchise to consolidate.”

The King of Posts Governor-for-Life of New Jersey rifled through what was left of Clint and managed to fish his keys out of the mess, and while I struggled to pick bone fragments out of my hair and off my sweater, he drove off into the Garden State night to only God knows where, “What a Fool Believes” fading in the distance.

***

ME: So what do you think?

WEB DEVELOPER: About what?

ME: About my mission statement.

WEB DEVELOPER: Oh. I guess I’ve heard worse.

ME: I really need something that strikes right at the core of prospective clients. I need it to make them say, “I am looking for X-type of attitude in fulfilling my needs, and Chris R. Morgan Marketing Solutions, LLC has just that attitude!”

WEB DEVELOPER: Well … I mean, usually mission statements contain words like optimize or dynamic or retrofficient or, like, Ravenclaw.

ME: Hm. I guess you’ve got me there.

WEB DEVELOPER: So, while I have you, I’ve been meaning to ask about my invoice.

ME: What about it?

WEB DEVELOPER: Just this part here where you added “in Bagel Bites” next to my flat rate.

ME: Ah, yes. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Gosh, this is so embarrassing. I still haven’t figured out where the Bagel Bites are so it will have to be fish sticks. I need to Google, but the exchange rate should be only a few very slight percentage points less.

WEB DEVELOPER: Yeah.

ME: Very, very slight.

IT’S OVER

THE KING OF POSTS: PART THE FIRST

John

Those who know me would never mistake me for someone who lacks confidence. I am ever and always assured of the high esteem at which I hold my efforts and myself. Yes, I have exacting standards, which dizzy even the most robust peer, but I meet them almost always. I never bring my B or C game. I don’t even know what properly constitutes a B or C game. I survey all my work and am convinced that I am ascending toward, if not already ascended to, my prime years, which I am equally as convinced will be enduring.

But looks can be deceiving.

Lately I’ve had to contend with the possibility that my achievements over the past decade have been all for naught. Not one speck of my work seems to serve any good to anyone. Sure, I put in my best effort, but is it really enough? Have I misunderstood the multitude? Worse, have the multitude misunderstood me? Clearly I talk a good game, but game is all it is. I stand on this grand marble pedestal, hoping no one will notice the escalator just behind it. I look down and think long and hard of whether I should dive headfirst back down into the swirling, fetid sty where you dwell beneath me, come what may.

It is all very hopeless. Some time ago this feeling reached a marked acuteness, and with seemingly no remedy with which to sort it out on my own—short of selling my wares and joining a monastic order, anyway—I sought the counsel of my most trusted confidant.

Every now and then I would go to an office park over in Linden, a panel-walled, brown-carpeted holdover of everyone’s orthodontia-related nightmares, to get some priceless wisdom from my branding consultant, Clint Emporius. Sure, the plaque on his door read “THE SP  TAC LAR JARE , FORMER MES E IZER,” and his receptionist called him “Mr. Dale,” and he seemed to respond to all three names at any given time, but doubtless people knew the Administrative Dean of Dank Memes when they saw him.

And there I found myself face to face with him not so long ago in his windowless office. To my right was a reproduction of Woodrow Wilson’s official gubernatorial portrait. To my left was a gun rack with a notably empty rung. On his desk was an ashtray not cleaned since maybe 1999. He stretched back, put his feet on the desk, snapped his suspenders, took out a cigarette, and dangled it on his lips. “You know, Chris, there are three unsolved disappearances under investigation in this town,” he said, flicking his lighter and putting it to the cigarette. “They share an important commonality.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Each of them at one time or another were in this very office. Why, I can’t remember. All I know is that each of them, in their own ways, told me not to smoke in my office. My office, Chris. The place where I do business. The place where I help people like you.” He took a long drag and stood up abruptly. “What fascist fucking state are we in where someone can tell me not to smoke? Goddammit, Chris. Sometimes I just get so angry. I lose myself. One thing leads to another and another and another and …” He trailed off getting lost in Woodrow Wilson’s eyes.

“Does that concern you?”

“What? Of course not. Maybe in an older America, sure. But this is a new America. An America that respects boundaries. Now where were we? Ah yes, your numbers.” He sat back down and took an iPad out onto his desk. He swiped at something I couldn’t see and gave me a stern look. “You have garbage numbers.”

“Yes, that’s why I made the appointment.”

“Well it bears repeating. Zero clicks? Two ‘likes’? That’s like the average of your output. This one I’m looking at isn’t even for anything you wrote; this is something from The Cut, with your worthless commentary on top. Your posts are like the spider-sprinkled icing on a strychnine-laced cake.”

“Hey.”

“Don’t ‘hey’ me. I give you solid advice on maximizing your brand, and you blatantly disregard every piece of it. I feel used, quite frankly.”

“No you don’t; I pay you for that advice.”

“You can pay me all you like, I don’t think you’ll ever not suck at posting. Let’s go to the videotape. Your irony is barely detectable, your emoji style is incomprehensible, you have the attention span of a fruit fly, and you’re like three months behind in memes. You’re what they call a ‘smart poster.’”

“Isn’t that good?”

“No, it means you’re so concerned with your posts being smart they circle back to being dumb. About virtually nothing. They’re like sign-offs in a human resource managers’ email chain. You’re dipping your toes in the stream. Yes, it’s ice-cold. Yes, it’s brimming with needles and used diapers. But you need to take the plunge.”

“What do I need to do?”

“Try drinking just before and during your posting time. Set your alarm clock for 4:30 AM, but don’t go to sleep until two. Start posting from eight in the morning until eight at night. 70 percent of your posts should be replies to accounts of high school students and aging veterans. Did you stop taking your antidepressants like I told you to?”

“I haven’t been on antidepressants in five years.”

“It’s a start, I guess.”

“You told me shitposting was like falling into a bottomless pit filled with all the dead people who fell into it before you.”

“That was before your life became a shitpost. It’s time to get with the program.”

“Well … I mean … there must be a way to … to ease back into gear. Say, like, practicing on cosmic brain memes.”

“What did you say?” He stared me down more intently; his jaw clenched so tightly his cigarette nearly cut in half on his canines.

“Co— cosmic brain memes?”

He stood up and leaned at me over his desk, pointing his stiffened, crooked index finger like a wand of ill intent. “No client of mine is going to do fucking cosmic brain memes. Are you trolling me with this shit? That’s like pivoting to snuff films.” He fell back into his chair, rubbing his temples and his eyeballs. “Chris.”

“Yeah?”

“Chris. Chris. Chris. Chris. Chris. What negligible providence brought you to me?” He opened his eyes and stared silently at the Wilson portrait for what seemed like hours. He got up and walked toward the portrait, puppy-eyed in expression with hands clasped. “Governor Wilson, I hate to come to you again so soon. I know I am pitiful and undeserving of your wisdom, though you give it anyway. But … I’m at the end of my rope with this leech.”

“Leech?”

“There must be something I can do to free myself of his bite.”

“Clint, I’m right here.”

“I’ve done everything right. I’ve started a business, I provide for my family. I help people. I can’t let this roach tear that all down.”

“Is this what you do in your off time?”

“What’s that?” He moved in closer and put his ear to the painting. “You want me to do with him like those other scumbags? The ones who came in and told me how to live my life?” He ran back to his desk and started going through his drawers, in search of something I almost certainly did not want to see.

“Wait a goddamn minute. Clint, come on, don’t give up on me like that. You’re better than that. And I never complained about your bullshit smoking habit.”

Clint stood in silence and regained his composure. “You’re right, kid. I always appreciated that about you.”

“Now I think Governor Wilson has a better idea about what to do with me, if you just listen.”

He walked back over to the portrait and stared at it for a few silent seconds. “Yes. Yes of course!” He went back to his desk and faced me with a wide-eyed grin like he’d ingested the whole world’s supply of Prozac. “I didn’t think you were at that point in your life where you’re ready for this. But I think maybe it’s worth the risk.”

“Risk? What is it?”

“I’m gonna take you to see the man.”

“The man?”

“The man.”

“Okay, who is the man?”

“He’s the King of Posts.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s exactly what it means. He’s the head honcho, the big cheese, the final authority on memes, posts, threads, content. The whole enchilada.”

“But … wait, you kept saying you were like the Pope of memes or whatever it was. That was like your main selling point.”

“Yeah I am, but he’s like the Holy Roman Emperor. All the greats bare his noble seal. Krang T. Nelson, Justice Don Willett, Woke Space Jesuit, Joyce Carol Oates.”

“Whoa.”

“I know I’ve been hard on you, Chris. But know that I do it from place of love. In our time working together I’ve come to think of you like a … like a … actually like a client renting out my services. I’m not sure where I was going with that one. Anyway, I’m almost certain that this is going to be the big moment for you. The one thing that puts it all into place.”

“Really?”

“Yes, Chris. Really. Except we have to go right this minute.”

“Right now?”

“Yes.”

“But—”

“No buts,” Clint said. He leaped from his desk to the closet at the other end of the room and started hastily rifling though it. “You’ve had all your life for that.” He hobbled back to his desk with a rolling suitcase and what looked like a bunch of crumpled items of clothing he picked up without actually having looked at them. In the middle of his frantic packing he paused and looked at me. “Before you know it you’ll be blocked by Arthur Chu.” He pressed the intercom on his phone. “Kent.”

“Yes, Mr. Dale?”

“Cancel the rest of the day. Chris and I need to make some … travel arrangements.”

“Yes, Mr. Dale.”

TO BE CONTINUED

 

VAMPIRES WITHOUT TEETH

automat

I am not lonely. I am pretty confident that I am one of the least lonely people in America, perhaps even on the planet. To see me anywhere is to see someone whose life is uncontestably full and alight with people. Whether friends or lovers or loved ones, they are never absent.

It is a mystery why this occurs. I don’t seek these people out. They have a way of seeking me. I might be at a bar with a book. And a man may come from a dark corner, smiling warmly, holding two beers. “I have the suspicion that this is your favorite,” he says handing the glass to me. It’s Rolling Rock, which isn’t my favorite, but I wouldn’t let it phase me. We’d make bland observations about the two different sports on the overhead TVs, and then describe films neither of us has heard of. Soon enough I’d be part of his Slack group. I’d mostly lurk. A woman comes to my apartment, she says she’s my sister and that it is my birthday. She hands me a small wrapped box, gives me a hug, and thanks me for always being there when she needed me. We smile and part ways. I open the box and find a flash drive with a picture of me as a child on it. There are some things on it that were not intended for me but which she forgot to erase; but I don’t tell her.

From simple observation one could deduce that mine is a life of good fortune. I would not discount that outright, sure. Gratification is an infectious thing. It is gratifying to know that I gratify others by my mere presence. But the non-lonely life is not without its drawbacks. For one thing, it is not always possible to keep up with the whos and whys of my interlocking social circles. Not a few times have I misplaced names and had to rely on physical traits as identifiers. One friend I only know as “Beardy” … Simpson, I think. A woman at the office has a quirk of wearing the same brown cardigan every day regardless of the climate and I thank God for that. Much of my free time at home is spent scrolling the internet for funeral homes of a capacity sufficient to accommodate all of my mourners.

My life is something of a chaos; a joyful chaos, but a chaos all the same. And in it I am prone to forgetting that some people don’t have lives as full as mine, so they are not able to empathize with the hazards that I endure. People whose lives are comparably more tranquil, with far less fury, far less demand, far less movement, and far less noise. In fact some don’t have any at all.

I’ve come to understand these to be the lonely. I’m told that in this country by itself, they are in great numbers, with some people even bandying about the word “epidemic” to go with them. Not that anyone can give me exact figures. I’m told that it is nearly impossible to count the lonely proper. I hear this with a sense of dread on my friends’ lips. The lonely are a breed unto itself, they say, that cause the non-lonely to always have to look behind them lest they be lurked upon.

“They’re vampires, dude,” “Beardy” … um … Swanson told me over drinks. “But with, like, no teeth.”

“How are they vampires exactly?” I asked.

“I’m pretty positive they only come out at night. Like, the sun isn’t an issue for them, but they just sleep. And sleep. And sleep. And when they wake up around 4:30 or so, they have nothing to do, so they just stand around in corners and such.”

“And what do they feed on if they have no teeth?”

His eyes darted from side to side. He took a swig of his beer and lurched down closer to me to whisper. “Shame.”

So “Beardy” is kind of a fucking idiot. But there was something to his sentiments, as friends with more tact said much the same thing with little more than their eyes. Though another friend did claim that she actually saw what could only be a lonely person, leading by the hand an elderly neighbor, who she claims died just a few days before, down the hallway to a door that properly does not exist, or in any case leads nowhere. “She was lithe,” my friend told me, “with a serene look on her face like I’d never seen on any adult ever. She was like PJ Harvey, but with some kind of … complex.”

The skeptic in me started to think that these were just sadder projections of their own selves. But of course life has its little surprises, which have a way of setting you right.

One night over the summer, I found myself unusually obligation-free. Somehow I had no dates, no events, no half-hearted hang out commitments, or any work that could not reasonably be put off until later. It was weird, and a little nerve-wracking, but I rolled with it. It was nice enough that I went outside for a walk to a nearby park.

I feel like it wasn’t so long ago when people who went to parks at night had some salacious reason for doing so. But it was oddly pleasant behind the walls. No one really appreciates a park until it is sparsely occupied. There are no Frisbees to dodge, no impromptu concerts on the grass, fewer dogs yapping at you and each other, and no paddle yoga in the pond. It was just a few joggers trying to maneuver around some slow-walking older couples. I sat at a bench overlooking the pond, looking up to admire it when my phone wasn’t amusing me enough. There was a single light off to my right that, as in the movies, beamed straight down onto a small circle of the path. So I didn’t notice anything until She came out from the darkness and into the circle with a liquid saunter.

She was dressed in a long black coat, which was open but I could see into it. It was only black, just as I could hear Her shoes but not see them. Her hair was grey and sinewy, but also kind of frizzy, as if She’d either been electrocuted or just had a haphazard dye job. She crossed the light and sat over at the other half of the bench. She crossed Her legs and stared out at the pond. She said nothing. She did not have a phone or even a book. I stared down intently at my phone opening any app that would hold my attention. I looked around quickly and noticed that the park, or at least that immediate area, was entirely vacated save for the two of us. Still silence. Not even a cricket was chirping.

My body stiffened; I’d never felt so unnatural in all my life. Years of maturity just seemed to melt into air. I decided to glance over very quickly—Like She wouldn’t notice, I stupidly thought—only to find that She was staring at me. For how long I have no idea, but the look was at once piercing and disarming.

My muscles loosened and I turned to face Her. She was smiling slightly. Her eyes appeared as a deep black, which I attribute to the poor lighting. Nothing happened for a few more seconds. It was as if She was throwing down for a staring contest. And then, from what impulse I will never know, I spoke. What I spoke I will not tell you. They were never meant for anyone’s ears. They were my deepest, most concealed secrets, which until then I clung onto more tightly than my seasonal affective disorder therapy light. One secret after the other left my mouth like bombs from a B-52. And She took them all without budging.

Once I’d finished She stood up, still smiling, and faced me. She raised her palm and placed it gently on my forehead. The stiffness returned to me. More than that was a sudden lurch in my stomach, like the punch of an invisible fist. I knelt down on the path, writhing and retching. Soon a dark sludge poured out of my mouth like an overflowing clogged drain. Then everything went black.

When I came to it was morning, and I was on the couch in my apartment. I was chilled from sweat but otherwise unaffected. Making coffee I tried to piece together what had happened, how a pleasant night by myself could spiral out of control as it did. My phone rang. It was my mom. She was distressed by something I’d texted her at four in the morning. When I looked at the text I understood her puzzlement. It was a photo, a poorly angled one at that, of a slight porcelain hand scooping up a dark slime into a plastic Rite Aid bag. Everything came back to me. I told Mom that it was just a failed prank that was meant for someone else. I laughed the same faint and frivolous laugh I always deploy to get from under her scrutiny. It barely worked; I told her I’d call her tomorrow.

I considered sending the photo to one of my friends, but soon thought the better of it and deleted it. After spilling my guts, so to speak, I had found a new secret that seemed bespoke to go to the grave with me. (So maybe don’t tell anyone else.)

I’m not sure that loneliness is an epidemic, or if people who fear it are just treating it as such, as if it is steadily encroaching upon them. Maybe it is, but so what?

I can’t quite explain it, but I felt relief in my encounter. There’s something necessary in the lonely. And maybe everyone is right about them in one way or another. They are relied upon like no one else on this planet. They might be the last great race—the last pure breed. They want for nothing, they oppress no one, and they relieve the burden of oppressors by oppressing themselves. The habitat of the lonely can’t be described, it can’t be seen. The lonely can’t be found on maps. You can’t retrieve their coordinates. You can’t call on them. They are just there, at a moment that seems right for you.

Staring out the window in the direction of the park, I knew that I would never be lonely. It wasn’t my calling. I use that word intently. Because sometimes one person’s toothless vampire is just as easily another person’s collarless priest.

A POST ABOUT POLITICS

giphy

A man sitting across from me on the train put down his tablet device and leaned toward me to ask me what my politics were. What a peculiar question, thought I. Though the occasion that brought me to this train was not one that necessarily earned me quietude on the ride back (say, a hard day’s work), I dearly wanted it anyway. I shall on principle answer with something insipid and forgettable. “I am a centrist.” No. “I am a radical moderate.” That should nix this thing right quick. Then I mulled over for a few seconds the relative worth of spending what’s left of my life in prison for having caused this poor fellow’s head to literally explode with my answer. But our journey had only just begun, and the prospect of an hour decorated with the cranial contents of another man was comparably less appealing. Fine, sir, I thought further, for your amusement and my comfort I shall answer your question with substance.

My politics, sir, are the politics of accident.

What kind of accident? asked he.

The accident. The perennial accident. The royal accident. The accident that fathers, encompasses, and lords over all subsequent accidents. The whole thing.

The whole thing?

The whole thing. As in, Rod Dreher’s whole thing, which you are expected to read.

Rod Dr— … Read all of it?

As many words as you can. Until you understand.

Understand what?

My politics.

I’m not sure I follow your kind of politics.

Dammit, I’m telling you my politics! Aren’t you listening?

Maybe not enough.

No. No, it seems not.

I am deeply sorry.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Go on, please.

Very well. But I worry if the fault lies with me. I worry that I did not preface this by saying what I believe politics to be and to ask if you agreed.

I see.

It is important to get these matters straight.

Yes, of course.

So with that in mind, I believe that politics is politics. That is, that politics is the act of being political. Would you agree to that?

Yes that sounds correct.

Good, what a relief that is! I think what’s best is that I restate everything I said up until this point but in a different way.

Ah ha.

And maybe you can help me.

How can I help you?

Maybe I can tell you at length what my principals are, and what I understand to be the components of a just and peaceful society.

That fits within the frame of my question.

And maybe once I have told you these things, you can help determine what faction with which they will have the most likely compatibility.

Ah ha.

Because they aren’t exactly moored to anything, so far as I know.

Okay.

And I would like to be moored somewhere. Any feedback would be appreciated.

I’ve never been asked this before.

This is a whole new world, friend.

Oh my …

I need you to get with the program.

I think I can get with it.

You think? We’re thinking now? What has thinking ever done for anyone? Nothing good, I’m pretty sure. It’s time to break out of that shag-carpeted Winnebago we call “thought.” Burn it. Walk away. Don’t look back. Not even to savor the ashes. You are now in the wilderness. It is the time to do. And also the time to be.

I see your point. Okay then, I can get with it. The program, that is.

Wonderful! So I think on the whole there is a lot of overlap between my politics and the politics of most other people in America. It is built by, for, and upon people. People who, despite having their own lives, their own experiences, their own demands, their own cognitive capabilities, and all that, nonetheless find themselves in the same general area, and so they have resolved to pay heed to an obedience they more or less share. Even when they disagree with that obedience, they are hard pressed to deny that it is there.

Yes, I recognize this so far.

Ah good! Now, here is where I believe I part ways with many of my countrymen and women. But please correct me if this is not the case.

I will do so!

Thank you! I believe that the source of our obedience possesses a significant regulatory power. Most people see the source of obedience as being able to regulate wealth or behavior or certain forms of business or whatever; I frankly never gave much thought to regulation until I began to think about the human sense of self-worth. That, to my mind, seems like a paramount object of regulatory imposition. I can’t remember quite how it came about, but I suppose I was out one day and idly took stock of my surroundings and discovered an abundance of self-worth among my fellow citizens. It was overwhelming and confounding, like feeling a midday heat in the dead of night.

That sounds dreadful.

Was it ever! I believe this surplus of self-worth has an unseemly effect on the health of our nation. It gets into the brain, you see? High levels of self-worth can cause the synapses that moderate our collective judgment to short out, and obscure our collective vision with cataracts. My whole being chills over in sweat imagining all manner of misdeed, calamity, and woe that inevitably has flows from that source. Now, before you say anything, I am not one of those types who believe Americans are incapable of possessing a good thing in portions of their own estimation. I know not enough about the good things to comment on that. Self-worth is the certainly not among them. So I believe that self-worth should be confiscated from every citizen—every citizen—and stored away. Push all the gold out Fort Knox, and fill it with all the self-worth in America.

That’s not really regulation, though. That’s more like prohibition.

Indeed, friend! It is not my intention to ultimately outlaw self-worth. These are but the messy and extreme measures of getting it under control for the careful process of dolling it back out. The state will be the sole source of self-worth in America. American citizens who want self-worth will not be able to obtain it without going through our permission process. Citizens must fill out a formal request application, they must procure letters of recommendation, they must pay fees, etc. before they can be considered for receiving self-worth. Once an interview process is completed, and fingerprints and DNA samples are taken, the approved applicants will receive their self-worth by post in about 12-14 business days. Each supply has the same amount; exceptions can be made for slightly more, but that requires additional applications and screenings. Once they are received, citizens are responsible for their use. After a six-month period, citizens may reapply for more self-worth. And it goes without saying that this will entail the creation of a policing agency that will prevent hoarding and illegal distribution. I understand that this seems extraordinary, and in any other instance I would balk that the lengths to which I am proposing we go, but I am more confident on this matter than anywhere else that such measures are for the good of the American people.

I see.

You are perplexed.

Only a little.

Do tell.

I can kind of understand how a state would manage to confiscate self-worth from its people. If it causes enough of a crisis, surely a benevolent power would step in and curb its influence. To do otherwise would mean shirking its duty and undermining its authority.

Of course.

I’m not certain what faction would see the appeal in this. Unless …

Yes?

Tell me, friend, will there be an app?

An app?

Yes. When the self-worth is taken, will there be an app developed that keeps the people informed? That helps them with the rigors of the process you laid out? That notifies them of approval or when the next application process begins? And also keeps track of their current supply?

I hadn’t thought about that.

Neither had I really, until just last month I attended a trade conference—

Are you in tech?

I am an associate account manager for a distributor of clowning supplies.

Ah, interesting.

I’m in charge of gloves and face makeup. But part of the conference included a seminar about how integrating artificial intelligence, algorithmic data tracking, and block chains into our business model will maximize efficiency and steady the rate of our quarterly losses.

Oh … I see.

I know, I know. I was skeptical of it at first but since we’ve taken on some new consultants it has shown impre—

And so in the end I was unable to prevent my fellow commuter’s head from detonating. Though it did happen at a more opportune moment closer to home that lessened my discomfort, it shall nonetheless be to my lasting regret. I stand in this courtroom a more humbled and chastened man than ever I was in my life. I am very sorry that your dad, your husband, your ex-husband, your friend, your coworker, your occasional boyfriend, and your neighbor blew up. I am very sorry still that I was the last one to see the state of his head when it was still in once piece, fleeting though that seems now. It was, as I recall, a fine head: in acceptable proportion, a smooth, eggshell baldpate amid a well-cropped shrubbery of hair, and no asymmetry that I noticed.

I return to that event often. Not so much to wonder how it could have gone differently, but to assess why it was so. I never really paid mind to those types of people who thought that everything happened for a reason. What nonsense, I always thought. But these events give me pause. They seem driven by destiny. This is not just about one symmetrical clown glove and makeup distributor’s life; it is about the power of ideas, to which I submit myself as its latest martyr. Your honor, you may pass down sentence on me for “negligent homicide,” or whatever, but in my heart and ultimately, I think, in posterity, I have been sentenced for flawed heroism. Thank you.

Okay, I hereby sentence you to life of copywriting Restoration Hardware catalogs for the crime of flawed heroism. May God have mercy on your soul. [pounds gavel]

Gulp.

IN PRAISE OF WITCHCRAFT

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February of 2017 was when reality set in for a plurality of Americans. As it turned out, they were not in a dream. There was no coma imprisoning them this whole time to be let out of. The glitch in the Matrix was not going to be patched. Donald Trump was now by law the highest-level public official in the United States. After months of disbelief and teeth-gnashing, the facts of history had to be faced. Some threatened to move abroad. Some took to the streets with clever signs and hats. Some stayed in and hashtagged in sympathy. Some tried to check out of reality altogether. But for a select few, this was not enough. Donald Trump was a unique adversary whose defeat required, shall we say, uncanny methods.

After the inauguration, a document was made public entitled “A Spell to Bind Donald Trump and All Those Who Abet Him.” It describes a ritual “to be performed at midnight on every waning crescent moon until [Trump] is removed from office.” Its components include an unflattering picture of Trump, which they provide, a small orange candle, a white candle (any size), a Tower tarot card, water, salt, and a feather to represent elemental Water, Earth, and Air respectively, an ashtray or a dish of sand, etc. Pyrite and sulfur are optional. The resulting “binding spell” is not a curse or a hex, but one that would “restrain someone from doing harm.”

In other words, this is not the equivalent of magically punching a Nazi; rather, it is ripping the bullhorn from his hands, smashing his phone so he can’t tweet, tying him up, and throwing him in a dark basement where he can’t hurt anyone.

“This document has been making the rounds in a number of magical groups both secretive and public,” writes self-professed “eclectic magician” Michael M. Hughes. “I make no claims about its efficacy … . But many are clearly taking it very seriously.” Among the many was Lana Del Rey, who tweeted the dates of the crescent moons and added, somewhat unhelpfully, that “Ingredients can b found online.” (The tweet has been deleted.) Del Rey became something of the unofficial spokeswoman for the effort, making one wonder how many occult rituals are being performed without a celebrity’s endorsement.

But the exposure has not produced any tangible results so far. Nine rituals later, Trump is unhappy about his job, but he is still able to add little touches of harm on top of the regimen of violence, indignity, disenfranchisement, and confusion the United States government regularly provides to people within and without its borders. When asked about the ritual by NME, Del Rey offered the coda appropriate to the underwhelming outcome: “Look, I do a lot of shit.”

The failure to harness the power of the occult to effect change seems like no great loss in the swirling sewage of failure coursing through this year. But it offers some interesting dilemmas depending on the root cause of that failure. I can think of three.

The first possible cause is that witchcraft and other dark arts simply do not work. Even Hughes admitted this possibility in his introduction to the ritual. Some people, he wrote, saw it more as a symbolic “mass art/consciousness-raising project” not unlike the time Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies tried to levitate the Pentagon in 1967. And Del Rey’s neo-hippie cum Nico persona simply compounded its countercultural sheen. It is aesthetic and cathartic rather than properly spiritual, another crest of the wave of “neopaganism” that, however deeply or shallowly adhered to, stands in for broad antipathy of the mainstream.

The second possible cause is that witchcraft and other dark arts do work, but that they were not powerful enough. Not, anyway, compared to the power of God as it is infused with Donald Trump. The pro-Trump Christians are correct. Donald Trump’s moral character and keen mind are what is required to revive America from its malaise and to bring Christ’s message back at the center of American life.

Some may chortle at that second one, and while I am not one to chortle I will at least plaintively nod along. Even if Donald Trump does possess a moral character that ventures somewhere beyond “what looks best,” his grasp on religious matters gives numerous Christians pause. And yet there is something to the Trump presidency that can’t quite be rationalized. A kind of charisma hangs around him that no one can lift; that empowers him exponentially, if not to push forward on an agenda then at least to confound and dizzy his adversaries. No one can quite best him, and the screeching sound of his scurrilous minions being vindicated over and over is still more salt in the psychic wound. It could be that Trump is that good. Or it could also be the third possible cause of the binding spell’s failure: witchcraft and other darks do work, but the pro-Trump camp knew them better.

One makes this suggestion with caution. It brings to most people’s minds the odious memory of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s harried, booze-sodden face of as he accused the entire United States Army of having been subverted by Communists. McCarthy’s legacy is a pox on all of us. His rise exposed us as a public who craves showmanship at the expense of precision. His fall left the impression that our institutions were invulnerable to duplicity and sabotage.

In 1943, the National Security Agency enacted the Venona Project with the purpose of intercepting and decrypting messages sent from Soviet intelligence agencies. The project lasted until 1980, receiving thousands of transmissions. In the process they uncovered several spy operations being undertaken in the United States and other Western nations, often in close proximity to or right inside of the halls of power. Evidence against the likes of Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, the Cambridge Five, the Rosenbergs, Victor Perlo, and others were gathered by this project, though none of it had been made public until 1995.

For as long as the United States remains a powerful nation—and maybe even after its decline, for the hell of it—there will always be nefarious actors looking to infiltrate it at any level. And to exclude the purveyors of the ultimate darkness from these actors would be senseless and dangerous, especially when that darkness has so eminently fillable a vessel as the White House’s current host. Among the greatest embarrassments of the liberal order is how it has wasted the potential of countless inquisitors and left aimless several would-be Witchfinder Generals in far less dignified roles as, I don’t know, Recreation Commissioners, or Board of Education Presidents.

But here I hesitate again in suggesting their immediate reinstatement for two reasons.

First is the possibility that a Satanic presidency will have no greater a success record than any Christian presidency. Surveying our most pious recent Presidents—Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and Bush II—no consistent Christian thread runs through any of them. In some instances, the guidance of Christ went almost entirely unheeded. It stands to reason that the occult will have just as many obstacles to perfect application. The United States government is susceptible to vice, it is a matter of finding what doors are open for its delivery at a given moment. The witches and warlocks of the Trump administration could be smuggling in all the sacrificial babes, virgins, and fauna that we can procure for them, and they may never get it exactly right.

Second is the benefit occult operations in government bring us generally. For all of its antagonism toward virtue, peace, and man’s salvation from his fall, witchcraft brings a sense of balance where a sense of nothingness once was. What is a worse method: a free jazz approach to governance spawned of mindless self-indulgence, or of hyperfocused malice of an otherworldly menace? What is a worse outcome: shortsighted institutional corruption for pure grift, or the farseeing institutional corruption for the Fallen Prince to gain his foothold into our plane for the expansion of his Dark Realm? Indeed, such is the state of our affairs that not a few may look on the blackening of the sun, the wailing of the dead, the flaying of the innocent, and the preponderance of locusts and think, “At least it was to some purpose!” before being shredded asunder by hooks from every direction but no certain origin.

An occult of this kind is of eminent use for the American public, not because its victory will somehow ennoble us, of course, but because the example it offers. Our moment of petty evils can accumulate in to a far greater evil without vigilance. This is the lesson of Robert Eggers’s now-classic The Witch that seemed lost on the Satanic Temple. “Living deliciously” is liberating only insofar as an obstinate and prideful Christianity will enable it to seem in comparison. In the end, adherents still give themselves over to a power greater than themselves, though it is a power that may not really care one way or the other who is giving or why, only so long as they fulfill his obligations for the opportunity. On that alone, our quid quo pro-affectionate President cannot deny its appeal.

@DRIL VERSUS THE VOLCANO

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My favorite method of distinguishing one hub of Western Civilization from another is to discern how its people see its heroes. Each nation of the West worships heroes but they never do so in an identical way. The German hero is a clear-eyed engineer leading the Volk as passengers on the rails toward their destiny. England does not see the bother about heroes but keeps them on as an extension of their irony before quickly disposing of them once they get bored. Ireland takes the opposite view. Spain has God for want of better options. Italy takes that opposite view. No one cares about France.

The United States is part of this but always manages to make things more complicated as its nature dictates. Americans are a humble, joyous, and simplistic people who want for nothing but more dignity in being humble, joyous, and simplistic. Their hero towers over them as if giving the correct pose for his or her inevitable monument. The hero is a genius whose vision peers far beyond their blurry-eyed ken but whose ends will ensure that their vision is no clearer than it already is. This has made Americans rather promiscuous about its heroes, offering no consistent type to pinpoint how we want what we want. Often we take several heroes at once. In every case, though, they are given the status at the demand of the people, whether the status is sought after or not. If there is one overriding characteristic of Americans it is their romantic pathos of either being saddled with mass existential burden or of wanting but failing to be saddled with said burden.

This seems an odd thing to bring up in the United States of 2017, which has reached a fever pitch of iconoclasm. Much of what passed for heroism before this year has been unveiled as a sham at best or utter villainy at worst. One can’t really look on the whole mess and deny that they could not see it coming. But of course the hero’s death is greatly exaggerated in America. And even when Americans are never out in search of one they always seem to find one anyway, who compliments completely their priorities and their predicament, and who has a lantern with which to show them the way out of whatever it is they are in.

The Twitter account that goes by the handle @dril appeared on the site in September of 2008. It is part of a larger subset of “weird” accounts, many of which migrated from the doldrums of the Something Awful forums. Regular users of Twitter are bound to have seen at least one of @dril’s tweets, or seen them referenced or imitated (however willfully or not), as the account has garnered over 800,000 followers. The style is easy to detect with its mangled syntax, spelling, and grammar, but most of all its absurd humor. Imagine the crude acidity of retirees in line at Dunkin Donuts, the observational satire of Randy Newman, and synapses clouded by bitter divorce and some horribly tainted kush. And then you get @dril.

One hesitates to address @dril in any way other than by @dril’s handle. For no one knows who @dril is. There are rumors, of course. @dril is either a burnt out graphic designer or many burnt out graphic designers, based either in New Jersey or Philadelphia. But one could fall into a deep sad wormhole of maybes. Maybe @dril has a lover or spouse, or even children, who keep the secret. Maybe some people across the country, who are tragically keyed into Twitter culture, remember a high school or college classmate with an eccentric gift of gab who never had an outlet before now. Maybe @dril is your guidance counselor. Maybe @dril is your car inspector. Maybe @dril is sleeping right next to you, forgetting to take out the recycling. These are idle fantasies. No one, save maybe Julian Assange, has any interest in making any of them real. @dril, ostensibly, is no one, and seeks to be nothing more than no one in an age in which nothing matters. For the masses stuck in this age, there is no more ideal hero than @dril.

I merely echo in my own words Clayton Purdom at AV Club, who praised @dril this week for possessing a nonpartisan appeal that is vanishingly rare in this cultural climate. “Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter ‘who Dril is,’” he writes.

Dril is a ghost, an id, a fictional bucket into which all the scorn of the internet has been heaped. Dril has returned to this hellscape imagery repeatedly over the years, and it helps to explain the nightmare-like vividness of his convictions, as well as their ability to dissolve and reformulate from one tweet to the next. It has the mutable logic of a dream.

The @dril tweet is formulated in such a way that it confirms everything followers of @dril feared about the internal monologue of the Other. The Other is just as imprecise as @dril’s authorship, though in most cases it is someone who is unfamiliar with the philology of “corncob binch.” @dril is a very pure, even celestial, impurity, allowing us to cope with everyday grotesquery and perversion through its signature digital packaging, which can be consumed like vomit in Snack Packs. “In music, there is the purist who refuses to sell out,” Brendan Gallagher writes. “Twitter has @dril.”

Then @dril sold out.

On Inauguration Day, somewhat appropriately, @dril launched an account on Patreon, a haven for untethered creatives and freelancers to hawk content in exchange for actual currency from subscribers. Called “Hell,” @dril’s fanbase pays a combined $2,200 a month for product. @dril further pledges to publish two books, one of which being a collection of “hundreds of hand picked posts … sorted by subjects (guns, politics, digimon otis, etc).” @dril would not be the first Twitter account to have tweets committed to paper, coming after Tao Lin and Dave Hickey. @dril also follows La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, G.C. Lichtenberg, Ambrose Bierce, Karl Kraus, and especially Malcolm de Chazal. “Death is the bowel movement of the soul evacuating the body by intense pressure on the spiritual anus,” is nothing if not a primordial, albeit chaster and diamond-encrusted, @dril tweet.

But Purdom has a point when he writes that “any artist would dream of this kind of success, but popularity only makes subversion more difficult.”

There’s something deflating about knowing the exact dollar amount Dril’s creator earns—and who needs Twitter in book form? And the risk of all this wider exposure is that he loses his mystique and lapses into self-parody, like some sort of internet Banksy.

Equally as contorted as the American conception of the hero is the American conception of the sellout. On the surface it comes down to a question of authenticity. The sellout has lost him or herself to some baser calling. It is also a question of integrity: not compromising one’s principles for purely mercenary gain. These were most scathingly explored in the 2001 live action adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats, in which the Archie spinoff band is plucked from obscurity in Riverdale to massive stardom and, ultimately, corporate spokesthingship. Yet at the same time, selling out is a strange concern to have when success in America is rooted largely in popularity and marketability.

Creatives naturally gravitate to form a scene, and through nods, handshakes, and winks they form standards of ethics, aesthetics, and hierarchy. All cultural communities in the United States are molded on Transcendentalism. Each scene type descends from it: the high priest (Ralph Waldo Emerson), the quality control (Margaret Fuller), the pretentious blowhard (Amos Bronson Alcott), the activist (Horace Mann), the runt (Henry David Thoreau), and various hangers-on (Orestes Brownson, etc.). Such scenes are somewhat porous, but generally united through mutual interest and held together by force of personality.

Nathaniel Hawthorne flirted with transcendentalism, albeit mostly by circumstance. He lived in the experimental community Brook Farm and later next to Emerson. But Hawthorne was at heart a moody moralist who preferred romantic symbolism to pure sermonizing. Hawthorne has, in fact, transcended his cultural era through his strange work, while Transcendentalists remain a largely dated concern. (Fuller dying at sea probably didn’t help.) And those acolytes of the movement who also broke out of the bubble—Thoreau, Walt Whitman—did so in spite of Emerson’s elder statesmanship.

Yet the story of selling out is always told from the scene’s perspective. And the sellout’s explaining why s/he so abandoned the scene is a customary form of grudging tribute. (The Blithdale Excuse, let’s call it.) Scenes, for good or ill, are the last vestiges of America’s communitarian impulse, representing simplicity, security, and naturally bred culture. People work hard to cultivate it, for some it is all they need or want. But members as a result bristle at outsiders. They are even more wary of nomads, someone passing through and taking resources for a shrouded long game in which they play a nonconsensual role. Notions of “friendship of utility” and ends-as-means don’t put the sellout in a kind light, to be sure. Selling out is best understood as a breach of etiquette.  But scenes can eventually gravitate from cultural flourishing to cultural management. If a Brooks Farm sustains itself, it is just as susceptible to becoming a Stepford later.

Because @dril is not authentic, and @dril’s integrity is not very clear, @dril’s ascendance from Hell to “Hell” is something of a non-issue. No one will really care because selling out as we have known it is itself a non-issue. Insulation and aloofness read in this moment like luxuries. Survival is the game, and fortifying one’s brand is as good a way as any other to win it. Today, the only respectable way to keep oneself pure is to have nothing anyone wants to buy.

For @dril, as with Hawthorne, selling out is as much an act of sovereignty, of using tools at one’s disposal, and of customizing one’s own flourishing. @dril’s example effectively takes a brickbat to the cultural dichotomy of more economically sound times. It used to be that we had two options for shelter: the temple or the shopping mall. Yes, the temple is burning from the roof down and the shopping mall is burning from the basement up, but either beats scavenging out in the cold, right? But @dril being our anointed hero in this cycle has that far-reaching sight I mentioned before; and lo, @dril has spotted a great landmass beyond the infernal structures. It is a volcano, which @dril is in the midst of scaling to serve the goodly spinning wheel of Mother Gaia.

But this is a challenge, not a sacrifice. It would be wasteful of @dril to be the only one to dive into the magma of brand maximization. Some, certainly, are comfortable in their corner of either shelter, if they have been able to keep them. Some may even have resigned themselves to wandering the outer limits. But for those who are afraid, either of losing their integrity or their solvency, @dril is there laying a gentle hand on your shoulder, just before pushing you over the edge. If there is a central message of @dril it’s that in this world none of us are free from being owned. We might as well own ourselves.

USE YOUR (DIS)ILLUSION

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In February of 2013 I took a meeting at GQ. Back then its office was still in the original Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square. It was with the research editor in hopes of getting a $25 an hour fact-checking gig. I didn’t know it was freelance at the time, but at least it would have been at the offices, which I much prefer than doing remotely. I wore a suit, my only one at the time, which no longer fits me. Because NJ Transit is selectively functional I am always into the city ahead of schedule. I paced around a cold but sunny Bryant Park just after they dismantled the skating rink. I paced around the spacious, minimally adorned Condé Nast lobby while I waited for approval to go up. (It took about three calls.) I paced around the corridor in between GQ and Teen Vogue before I was finally buzzed in. I passed by an island of drab grey cubicles, which I took to be the research or otherwise miscellaneous departments; the more brightly colored editorial section flashed in my side view like a fluorescent Xanadu. I met the research editor. He was amiable, sharp, and down-to-earth. A fellow New Jerseyan at that. Our meeting lasted about 25 minutes. I told him that GQ published the only John Jeremiah Sullivan piece I  can tolerate. He was grateful. He didn’t have anything for me.

I knew halfway into the interview that I was overshooting, that I had miscalculated somehow, and that this was as far as I was ever going to get. I was not unqualified in the least. I had four previous stays at magazines, all of which are either gone or mutated into forms I no longer recognize. But my career path had led to a very nice cul-de-sac with no vacancies, and this meeting was the roundabout way in which I was being told to turn around. You are actually in a dream, this is the end of it, and when the cold hits you on the way out, you will disappear because, actually, you are not the dreamer. Somewhat related: if it turns out that the Greeks were right after all, I would be not the least bit surprised—delighted, in fact—to find myself being taken down the river Styx by a bespectacled Gen X Charon, in jeans and a nice sweater.

Discouraged, I did nothing for months, which I regret. I should have been plotting my next conquest as early as the trainride home. The outcomes would have been no different, but I would have benefitted from the bringing the lesson that was merely implied in the original encounter out from the shadows and right in front of my nose.

Here you may be tempted to stop reading if you haven’t done so already. What use is it to hear another rose-colored praise chorus for the character-building virtues of failure? Only pain gives way to gain, you see? And things that don’t kill you can only ma— yadda yadda yadda, who cares? This is not that. Not that you won’t stop reading soon after this, as what I have in mind is much worse.

“I actually haven’t survived the fickle world of media that well,” Choire Sicha admitted last month, answering a question icons of midrange fame in this professional quadrant will never avoid. And in fact he continues as if he was carrying this reply in his back pocket for years:

I’ve moved out of apartments in the middle of the night, I’ve owed massive amounts of money to the IRS, I’ve searched for gas and cigarette money in the couch cushions. I’ve done all these things as a grown adult man, not as a 19-year-old, and it was not cute. I think everyone makes it look easy when they have a good job or are wearing nice shoes, but anyone who wants to work in journalism has downs and ups, and we don’t want to talk about the downs as much as we should.

Sicha’s disarming bluntness has been much abused over the past decade. An agile cynic can easily ferret out the humblebrag. Most media denizens are immediately cognizant of the industry’s material limitations. They manage them either through generous parents or through developing the shrewdness to discern influence and access as the more substantial currencies. The naïve dreamers pouring into major metropolitan areas with Big Ten BAs and visions divined from Showtime or wherever are in the minority, and they coast soon enough into public relations, event planning, or law school. But since I touched on bitterness in a previous post, I’m opting here to take Sicha’s words at face value and follow their implications elsewhere.

I occasionally hear and read about this era they call the Golden Age of Media. Depending on who is addressing me, it is either right this moment, or about 15 years ago. For the latter it was a time when one could walk into any communicative hub and hold a job for more than five minutes, when “associate editor” had some measurable distinction, when writing had substance, and when video editors were not leaping from the dark corners of your ideation capsule to scalp you. I don’t doubt that such a time had ever existed, but I tend to turn a deaf ear to those who lament it with entitlement rather than a tragic sense of good fortune upended. Congratulations! You were at the tail end of the blip of stability in an otherwise chaotic industry. But maybe don’t take my word for it.

Daniel Defoe is best known for having written a novel that everyone reveres as a classic but that no one seems to like. Charles Dickens famously summed up Robinson Crusoe as “the only instance of an universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry.” But Defoe’s novels were written later in his life, with the years previous being taken up by his copious pamphlets and journalism. Like his Augustan peers/enemies Addison, Steele, and Swift, Defoe did not earn income primarily through his written work—in his case he was a merchant and tax collector—but he is nonetheless recognizable as the first modern hack. He was a political pundit, a disaster reporter, an economics analyst, and a content farmer.

Defoe would have understood the struggles of today’s media grunt, and might also have thrived among them. His anonymously published 1702 pamphlet The Shortest-Way with Dissenters was hailed as a rigorous (and violent) defense of high church orthodoxy against Presbyterians and other freethinking faiths. When it was revealed that the Presbyterian Defoe was making the opposite case through irony, he was imprisoned. Defoe was also an eager networker, making business contacts while also working as a spy for the crown in Scotland during the unification. Though he never could escape debt, and it is said that he died in 1731, around age 70, evading his creditors.

I am in no position to teach nascent journalists, I do not intend to seek one, and no one else offers it to me. But if anyone I know ever does and deigns to solicit advice, mentioning the Defoe example in some manner is the only one of substance I can offer. It serves two purposes. First, it instills students and interns with the full measure and timelessness of the professional hustle they need to foster in themselves. It is far better than getting it from any “mentor” whose history is in flux as long as he or she is living and is at liberty to adjust the levels of romance and pathos as desired. Second and most importantly, it eases the young into the inevitable disillusionment they are going to have to face—and not merely in journalism.

But introducing disillusionment education at the college level is not soon enough. Unlike failure, disillusionment is not a setback that can be reversed or learned from, nor is it an exclusive byproduct of failure. In fact it is possibly more often wrought out of success. Disillusionment should be taught in elementary-level health class at the earliest. Because it is like pregnancy: a natural occurrence that could become a crisis without adequate vigilance. Yet many of us fall into teaching the opposite lessons of positive thinking and “dreaming big.” “Positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it.”

Culture is seldom wanting in sad platoons ready to drown in optimism’s moat. And really no one wants to deal with a cheermonger anymore than they want to deal with a buzzkill. But there’s always a kind of hedge being made, or a delusion being conjured, when telling people to manage their expectations. Realism, the preferred hedge, means getting a key to a mansion that is actually meant for a bungalow on the other side of town. But there is little to be said when one gets the key to the mansion only to find it filled with bedbug-infested furniture.

Part of it might boil down to simple optics. The realist is grounded in maturity. The failure rises up from tragedy. But the disillusioned is weighted by defeat. To determine that one is disillusioned means also to determine that one is a loser. Not that it is easy to determine. Disillusionment sets in at a pace custom to the one at a loss. Sometimes the losses are slight, but can often accumulate into a larger malaise. Other times it is a gradual degradation of single objective that outwits, overpowers, and finally buries its opponent. In either case, the end result is an equalization of every experience into drudgery. The disillusioned should not always be expected to be outwardly miserable. They may be perfunctory, almost mechanical in their actions, whether at dinner with a romantic interest, getting groceries, or reading their child a story before bed. After a certain point disillusionment is impossible to prepare for, and only identifiable when it is too late. Two instances in popular culture demonstrate this.

One is the Amazon Prime comedy I Love Dick, in which Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) becomes sexually obsessed with Dick (Kevin Bacon), a Marfa, TX-based artist who is sponsoring her husband’s academic fellowship. Based on Chris Kraus’s experimental memoir/epistolary novel, the show explores some interesting contrasts. The most buzzworthy is that between female loserdom and male humiliation; but more broadly it offers two distinct forms of disillusionment. Chris is a struggling filmmaker who plays second fiddle to her barely more successful husband in a town whose quirky customs and haute aesthete population constantly get the better of her. Dick is an established artist and local icon, who has not created new work in years and drifts palpably into isolated irrelevance. Their situations are familiar but carefully drawn enough to constitute much more than two midlife crisis dramedies crammed into one. Chris and Dick are drawn to and repelled from one another in stranger ways than mere lust can handle. Theirs is an affair, really a duel, of inadequacies, which compliment as well as best each other.

The other is Donald Trump, whose behavior over the last nine months has been more plainly indicative of one who is (a) ill-prepared for his current job and (b) frustrated by its trappings. As hazardous as his Twitter use is, Trump displays an unprecedented transparency by letting anyone with internet access into his thought process as any other user would, and in all their increasing jaundice, petulance, and boredom. In a more customary situation we would hate Rex Tillerson and Jeff Sessions somewhat more than we do now. But Trump’s disdain for his position puts everyone near and far to him under the same thunderdome of defeated victory. The strange (albeit very trivial) solace is in seeing what happens one man makes bold claims and just enough people call his bluff.

If these examples have anything to add to teaching disillusion, it is mostly in demonstrating the challenge of rising up from it. Conceivably it can at least be mollified, but by acceptance, not improvement. Trump could stabilize but he’d still have to take his loss. This seems unlikely, as refusing to give ground is his only distinctive attribute. Acceptance in this case means relieving oneself of burdens, achieving a kind of emotional minimalism, even asceticism. This is not to encourage self-denial but to concede that there is only so much one person can take on in a lifetime. Here Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” is ripped out from cliché and put back in its place as pointed diagnosis. A lot can be said against Thoreau, being disillusioned cannot be one of them. “I am not worth seeing personally,” he admitted, “the stuttering, blundering, clod-hopper that I am.” We can’t help but believe him.

The ultimate trouble with disillusion is that it has no end; only a cycle one falls into. Of going to bed at night waiting to be throttled all over again by a new day; and of waking up in the morning one day nearer the grave. There beneath the truth of daily living is its skeleton. It has no cure. One can, I guess, take up the activity of grinding the bones to dust with all the diversionary splendor of building model train sets, no one will go out of their way to pass judgment aloud. For the more cold-sighted among us, there is the work of accepting and walking in the truth, and prayer that those not currently chaffing under its intensity will do so in time.

GOOD VIBES AND THEIR DISCONTENTS

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I had looked on Matt Spicer’s debut feature  Ingrid Goes West with keen interest for a few weeks before seeing it. It tells of Ingrid Thorburn (played by Aubrey Plaza), a lonely Pennsylvanian, whose combined obsessive streak and lack of social skills cause her to interpret online notifications as gestures of intimacy. Much of her free time—and there is a lot of it—is spent scrolling her Instagram feed, “liking” posts and agonizing over the proper wording of comments. When her greatest fixation gets married, Ingrid crashes the wedding and sprays mace in her eyes. After her release from a psychiatric institution, she finds another, a professional #authenticlife social media influencer named Taylor (played by Elizabeth Olsen), in California. With a $60,000 inheritance from her recently dead mother, she moves to Venice and the process starts again with even worse outcomes.

As a pointedly bleak satire on the people who (sometimes literally) profit by social media through the eyes of the people at its mercy, there was much to commend it. Spicer and cowriter David Branson Smith have a precise aim on culture’s over-commoditized state. They depict a world where no one reads books, where art is commentary on secondhand camp, where food is more pleasing to the eye than to the tongue, and where shrewd judgment merits success far more than skill, taste, or personality. The most scathing of its scenes is when Ingrid, out of toilet paper (not to mention money and electricity), uses pages from Joan Didion, which she bought based on Taylor’s endorsement, in desperation, clogging her plumbing.

And yet the film fell short of my intuited suspicion that it might be among the best released in 2017. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hobbled itself from greatness. Its satirical gaze was easily diverted by the allure of the unlikeable protagonist. When the film drags its secondary characters to earth, it pulls Ingrid down to the molten core. Any salient lob is undercut by Ingrid’s penchant for criminal behavior (kidnapping dog and man alike), Single White Female tendencies, and an almost lethal selfishness. And her gutting video selfie cum suicide note is set up only to get knocked down by her ultimate, cartoonishly rendered irredeemability (more on that later). Though a friend of mine who also saw it made a valid point that suggesting a sociopath could infiltrate lifestyle Instagram without much effort is a pretty hard-hitting own, I still thought it let more deserving targets go free. The Day of the Locust in X-Pro II filter this was not.

Part of my disappointment can be put to bias. Did I have an ax to grind against a certain socially Teflon style of human? Maybe. Did I want to empathize with, even root for, the titular (anti)heroine? Yes. I have affinity for portrayals of the inability, as opposed to the unwillingness, to integrate into popular norms. It’s a dilemma made all the more acute by social media’s insurmountable dominance. A sharper film may yet be possible; for now I work with what I have.

If IMDb is to be believed, Aubrey Plaza was born on June 26, 1984. If my birth certificate is to be believed, I was born on June 22, 1984. The film does not give Ingrid temporal placing outside of her generation, and though this framework may be questionable for one reason or another, I find it a helpful convenience. I recall Thomas Hobbes’s mordant quip that “my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear” when panic over the Spanish Armada’s launch caused her to go into labor prematurely. So far as I know, the circumstances of my birth were unremarkable, but abjection always seemed to me my own secret sibling, that trailed my path as if in envy of my shadow. But this had no proper articulation until I saw Ingrid, whose character does more to compliment than contrast my predicament. Granted, she confronts the predicament in ways I would not think to, and cannot altogether excuse. But I also cannot, like any attentive sibling, misunderstand.

There’s nothing very offensive about the social media influencers when I think about it. They are probably more in tune than I am with flaw, error, and disorder. It takes a certain obsessive caginess to arrange a living room just so with 40-year-old unread back issues of the fashion magazines they are killing; a turntable with a blues record freshly wiped of dust; secondhand books on witchcraft and ancient sex positions in between potted plants that are replaced biweekly; and furniture, fashion, and accessories that have to be meticulously catalogued because they’ve chosen to make their lives a catalogue to others. They supply happiness, but they don’t really own or control it. Their end presentation is like a cell—a diorama, even a zoo. Happiness is the corporate body that grants them their franchise. They are happy to work more than they are to represent any set form of that happiness.

Each character in the film has happiness as their object. Considerable dialogue is spent discussing what they want to do. Ingrid’s landlord wants to write screenplays (and also to be liked by Ingrid), Taylor wants to buy another house in Joshua Tree to turn it into a boutique bed and breakfast, her husband wants artistic talent. Ingrid wants someone all to herself, preferably another woman, to fill a bottomless void. But here happiness comes with ground rules that some follow better than others. Ingrid takes them so seriously as to consider baggage anything that doesn’t cohere with those rules; like her past, her health, or rule of law. Ingrid is an emotional extremist who was denied consistent moderating influence. But even extremists who are more attuned to it and seek out moderation will never be fully prepared for each new test happiness hands down.

Unlike Ingrid, I am not a fast adapter to the internet. I’m not the type of person who, rightly or wrongly, was excited by the ease with which people and information made themselves known on it. I mean, early on there wasn’t a lot there to begin with, but even so I was predisposed to not only being overwhelmed by what could be accessed but to question most of its veracity. For all the celebration and condemnation of what can be exposed online, so much more can be obscured. But I prefer the idea that nothing so easily found should be taken in total as a complete truth. Certainly not people, and especially not friendship, which for me requires some effort to be earned if anyone wants to rise above the suspicion of being a catfish. On the internet, everyone is a pornographer peddling a fantasy.

This is a comfortable status quo compared to the alternative, where everything is on display as it should be. More effecting than any pornography is the glut of authenticity that is more prevalent on any social media platform, especially on Instagram, whose “explore” feed moves like an ooze as one falls into its scrolling hypnosis. No one goes there in a state of contentment and so is made vulnerable to gross displays of people living their best life, to varieties of experience never before seen and levels of elation never before comprehended. But whereas Ingrid will go above and beyond to emulate it, I come to resent it.

Resentment seems comparably lax against Ingrid’s mayhem. But if it is not worse it is also not better. On a good day I can accept that happiness is rather illusive even in an easily fulfilled life. It comes in jolts rather than in waves. I can accept that success is an ambiguous concept that, if it comes to one at all, it comes at its own pace and stays at its own whims. I can accept that validation is not always valid. I can accept that depictions of love and family are idealized and belie the hardship of long-term maintenance. And I can accept that I have not and may never meet the most advocated-for standards of happiness and success in any age. That does not stop me from suddenly wanting everything I see, often solely because others have it, and letting it boil over into a rage that discolors every interaction into dialectical frameworks like have and have not, give and take, or privilege and rejection.

The intensity of one’s resentment depends on certain factors. It is possible to manage if one’s self-confidence and expectations are within moderate limits. Not all of us are so lucky. Some build a self-perception girded from top to bottom in total assurance and control. It is not untrue, but somewhat biased with little to no outside input but completely dependent upon outside validation. When that validation goes unmet, as is often the case because personal and outward wants are rarely so in sync, the assurance melts like ice cream before a flamethrower.

The resentful doesn’t lash out, but retreats into a mental space as barren and hopeless as the torture chamber in Videodrome. Modernity is at turns arbitrarily rigid and chaos writ large. The resentful, craving objectivity and order, seeks to establish one but imprisons himself at the lowest rung, having failed conclusively. There is dignity in that rung but dignity is always a higher value, a prize that is somehow won by arrogance, and is not recognized in any other sense. The resentful proceeds to bury himself in his own narrative, the truth of which being entirely beside the point in favor of pure bile. You may reach the pinnacle of your abilities and prudently expend every ounce of your promise while I waste it on shortsighted pettiness, the resentful says to everyone and no one, but I will still be better than you. You may find that you are loved and wanted and depended upon and receive joy and safety in return while I will be perpetually discarded at the table of one, but I will still be better than you. You may go down into posterity for your talent or your charity or your bloodline while I will never be found, but I will still be better than you. You may be at ground zero of the atomic fallout while I languish at the edge of the blast making, perhaps, for a fossilization less desirable to whatever bipedal race has the misfortune of replacing us but I, by what reasoning I can’t determine right now, will still be better than you.

At a restaurant that Taylor frequents, a waiter introduces himself to Ingrid with the question “What is your biggest emotional wound?” He points over to a board on the wall. “It’s the question of the day.” It’s an odd flare of darkness from a Good Vibes zone. But it is entirely consistent with the film’s overall message. At Venice Beach, therapy is just another yoga and mental suffering has no place here and is not our problem. It’s that second point where the film truly fails, more or less suggesting that it is a damn good thing, too. At the same time, the film does get right, if by accident, that Ingrid’s suffering (emotional extremity, mental illness, whatever you want to call it) cannot be contained in an arc. That was the great lie of other, supposedly more humane, institutionalization films of the past—Girl, Interrupted, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and so on—that treat a stay in a psychiatric ward as a rite of empowerment. Mental suffering is a long-term concern, by no means limited to the sufferer, none of which should be sidestepped as it was.

That is yet another better film that can be wrung out of the one we got instead. But, as ever, I can only work with what I have, and what I have is years of self-moderation and self-improvement barreling toward a conclusion that is no clearer now than it was 15 or so years ago. Occasionally some squishy watchwords—like perspective or wellness—come to have clearer meaning. But the process is slow. The middle ground is a temperate but soggy foundation. I sit on it in rotating barstool. Between me are two possible ends for this wild modernity I have to navigate. One is where everyone is given happiness; the other is where everyone, for their own good, is given none at all. I rent out my talents to the former when they are called for, I give my heart to the latter without condition. All the while I try not to sink.

And on that note …

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