Black Ribbon Award



March 4, 2018 was for America the night of one of the most momentous and paradigmatic Academy Awards ceremonies in recent memory. Weeks, months even, went into the building up of its immense proportions, which were as much historic and social as they were artistic. It was designed as a monument to all the hopeful and vibrant things that managed to escape from the vortex of negativity long roving across the land. A commemoration, simply put, of emerging voices and relevant stories. So revolutionary and radical were the circumstances surrounding it that they caused a horror film to be nominated for Best Picture and a fantasy film to win it. To have missed the events of that night, then, constituted an act of malice in the eyes of right-thinking people.

We are ever a nation drunk with malice, it turns out. The 2018 Oscars broadcast was viewed by a mere 26.5 million people. That seems like a lot but is actually a 19 percent decrease from last year’s viewership, making it the lowest-rated Oscars ceremony ever. For those for whom the direct avenues of power are closed off, the next available detour is often the power of refusal. As is often my fortune, I never go out of my way to seek power; it’s just something that falls before me offering its embrace freely. This instance is no exception, and so I feel it is my obligation to disclose the responsibility, wisdom, and prudence with which I wielded my power.

I was very tired at the close of that Sunday. Some time before dinner I’d finished and sent off a long essay that I had been writing over the last week, and so I was not interested in the grave matter of validating cinematic history. As with the conclusion of similar undertakings, I want to lighten rather than leaden my mind. I resolved to dive headlong into what scribes of online call “guilty pleasures.” So instead I put on last year’s film adaptation of Baywatch.

The effect that comes with watching a bad film can really only be equated with the effect of taking recreational drugs. Every bad film promises for viewers an intensification of their senses and an elevation of their well-being. The sorrows and stress that brought them to their viewing are vaporized in an instant. These effects are in some cases quite cheap and dirty, with short-term sharpening giving way to long-term dulling. Some viewers never quite recover from seeing Troll 2, The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence), or We Are Your Friends. It takes a shrewd sense to know which bad films will waste you and which will spark the fuse of your third eye consciousness. Baywatch did not, at first, seem like anything special. It looked mostly like a sure thing that curiously misfired. I soon found that I was mistaken. But rather than Helen Hunting myself, I was fortunate to traverse the cultural-space continuum and attain enlightenment.

In the annals of bad film, the status of Baywatch is pretty plain, and not in the camp way of the show on which it is based—it is simply a mistake. A strange mistake, to be sure. It was a safe concept wasted either by poor writing or by not casting it with more improvisation-friendly performers. (I am also quite certain that at least some part of Zac Efron’s musculature was CGI-enhanced.) Baywatch is that rare beast of an error whose charms have no effect on the contrarian fairy. The initial critical response was the correct one. It was not wasted for me because I found one bright spot, a North Star tearing a small but easily spotted rift in the film’s otherwise tepid void.

Hannibal Buress Is listed in the cast as playing “Dave the Tech.” I know this because as part of the not even five-minute stretch of his performance in the film, he is sitting behind a laptop, discussing some tech-based exposition to the film’s villain, Priyanka Chopra. He is there to keep the plot moving, which is another way of saying his character is killed off somewhere at the film’s midpoint. I remember his line-reading more than his actual lines, laconic and indirect, like any stranger at a party. His two modes aside from being dead are standing stiffly and sitting stiffly.

In a film that is predicated on physical prowess and movement, he is an energy sinkhole. The critics noticed. “Hannibal’s talents were terribly underused in a movie that needed some genuinely funny comedy,” Megan Schuster wrote at The Ringer. “Underused” might not be the right word. Oscar Nuñez was underused. Misused is more accurate. A better film would have cast someone who was at once unmemorable and more tonally compatible in the role—say, a Curtis Armstrong type. But this is no such film, and so “Dave the Tech” is a needlessly unusual addition, contrasting rather than complementing Baywatch’s beachfront utopia.

Burress’s persona in the film is detectable to anyone who watched The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim. As with their sibling shows, Eric Andre relies on absurd, surreal, and discomforting forms of comedy, but here it is more deliberately framed within a late night talk show format. Eric Andre is the manic, volatile host, who starts every show by destroying the set before it is quickly replaced. His guests—who don’t seem to know where they are—are more objects to prod or bounce off of then people to inquire about. Buress is the sidekick, who is more introverted and awkward. There is only one chair next to the host’s desk, so when a guest appears, Buress stands beside them and looks down.

The Eric Andre Show’s genius is not in its random antics like Doc Chicken but in its approach of the host-sidekick dynamic as a sort of parody of physics: Andre is the unstoppable force to Buress’s immovable object. It also highlights, if inadvertently, the distinction between people who disregard social mores and people who don’t understand them. In interviewing Lauren Conrad, Andre asks dismissively about what she does and later starts dismantling his desk with a buzzsaw. Buress asks her if she likes Waka Flocka Flame and then eats a head of lettuce. Buress’s deadpan delivery recalls Steven Wright and Bob Newhart, and in some respects Maria Bamford, for whom the tone is as much the joke as the content. “I have a question,” he says to porn star Asa Akira. “Do we have enough porn?” Akira replies, “No.” “I think there’s enough,” he muses back. That is not the limit of his style, of course. His standup is more spirited, with one of his sets more or less catalyzing the Bill Cosby rape allegations into wider attention. And his role as Lincoln the dentist on Broad City is more conventionally funny. But even there his presence shines a beacon on a virtue much maligned in our present atmosphere.

Few people understood or cared to know what constituted “low energy” until Donald Trump lobbed the term against Jeb Bush in 2015. Though as with anything Trump touches, language itself is servant to his own purposes. It strikes at the heart of what seems to disgust Trump the most: self-abnegation over self-assurance, apathy over enthusiasm, inertia over velocity. Surely if Trump had the ability of detection and power of execution, he would scour America and its territories for every person with a trace of low energy to rehabilitate them and to cordon off from the rest of society those whose rehabilitation do not take. Buress’s example, as seen on Baywatch and Eric Andre, does not deny cause for Trump’s revulsion. But it does show how low energy is often a valid social phenomenon.

Perhaps what went most wrong with Baywatch was that it got lost in translation. Instead of poking updated fun at a ridiculous ‘90s melodrama, it reverse-engineered the concept to convey an ideal world. Much of what was portrayed in the movie are things sincerely hoped for by most Americans: sunny surroundings, filled with positive and active people, for whom physical appearance is somehow both prized and not a big deal, and who are protected by the benevolent authority of The Rock. Nothing in it would cut against the grain of Theodore Roosevelt’s “strenuous life.” In that sense, the only plausible joke landed in Baywatch is Buress himself, who stands in the middle of The Rock’s hyperkinetic dominion as a weather reporter stands in the middle of a hurricane.

Less is left to the imagination with The Eric Andre Show, where there is more of a balancing act being performed. Andre’s love of chaos is met by Buress’s tolerance of it. Each feeds off the other in equal measure; yet while Buress is more in control, Andre is more dominant. It would be a most unusual paring if it did not so acutely reflect the true character of the American situation as it is now. In Baywatch every moment he appears on screen he averts the audience gaze, tempting them with thoughts of a world that does not subsist exclusively on charm, can-do attitude, wit, or conventional notions of beauty. That world is our own.

With this I mean not to pigeonhole Buress himself. As The Ringer points out, Baywatch’s ultimate crime was treating “2017 Hannibal Buress like he was 2013 Hannibal Buress.” I suspect that the “2017” means “more famous” and therefore more multifaceted. Far be it from me to say conclusively what Buress should be going forward, though it would not be a grave offence to suggest “better used.” If that means more conventional and mainstream work—maybe even a talk show or Netflix series geared to his own idiosyncratic charms—it would be no detriment at all to the wider world. But, if somewhere down the line it includes an ingenious and revelatory adaptation of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I, for one, would be more than delighted.





The last few years of my life have been tyrannized by an embarrassing predicament. It is clear that I make a portion of my income through writing. More often than not, that writing is focused on what my fellow Morris and Essex rail line denizens Naughty By Nature call “OPP”—other people’s published[ work]. I don’t believe I am bad at it. In fact, I have something of an aptitude for it, or what one friend described as “a calling.” All well and good, of course, but I often wonder how much easier that calling could be responded to if I had an at least an equal aptitude for reading itself.

Let me clarify: I know how to read. Granted, I had to learn to read differently from others thanks to one of my neurological hexes, but I can get through more than one sentence from start to finish. Rather it is the discipline of reading that fells me every time. I suspect no one is more surprised at my career path than anyone with whom I shared a literature class in college. Particularly the two Education majors who would very visibly roll their eyes every time I spoke in class about a text with which I obviously hadn’t familiarized myself. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but my surplus of nervous energy is difficult to overcome. I’m fidgety and irritable when still, and filled with anxious thoughts. Meditative practices for me require extensive or routine movement like miles-long walks or washing dishes. I did not inherit the temperament of my father who after dinner every night sits at the table for an hour at least working through a new thick tome (Middlemarch, Little Dorrit, or the Neapolitan novels). He was even diligent with the rigors of college reading, talking of Moby Dick as if he vanquished a gladiator in the Coliseum. Sometimes I think maybe he deserves my bookish friends more than I do.

Needless to say, this has given me something of a complex. Though I’m not sure why this should be. Literary history is at least moderately populated with well-regarded, even revered, writers who were also reluctant readers. Thomas Hobbes, according to John Aubrey, “was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men.” Virginia Woolf wrote of William Hazlitt that “he never read a book through after he was thirty; that indeed he came to dislike reading altogether. … [A]ppetite, gusto, enjoyment were far more important than analytic subtlety or prolonged and extensive study.” I make no claims to be anywhere on par with these two authors (or at least to ever be on par with Hobbes) but there is something to this that appeals to me. If my writing has any distinction, I would think it is for how I try to integrate extra-literary elements into it. Put another way, the essays of mine I most esteem are those that hew closest to the tone and structure of Cave In’s “Juggernaut.” But I digress.

Of course I do read, even for pleasure. It just takes certain situational factors to make it more possible. As with alcohol and God, reading is more agreeable to me when there is a void that requires filling or a tribulation that requires endurance. In this case it was “having a job,” though it had to be a particular kind of job, with apathy practically form-fitted into the description.

Growing up in my corner of Union County, there was one place where a certain type of young person in need of money could work and get some enjoyment out of it. Scotti’s Records was the local hub for the punk in-crowd. As with the fabled alcoves of interwar CCNY, young cultural luminaries would convene to debate the pressing issues of the day—just swap out the encroaching threat of Stalinism with actually, Bivouac is better than 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, tyvm. Depending on who one was, one either liked or hated Empire Records for precisely this dynamic. I liked and got on well enough with the people who already worked there, running into them at shows and, occasionally, parties. I applied for jobs there three times, and each time I failed. The process was a bit strange. After a standard application, you were given a “test” to prove your cultural expertise, including a question to list what the top five bestselling albums were at that time. In hindsight, the test seems very much like an exclusionary tactic for reasons both practical and petty, but fair enough, I went next door and down the stairs to the movie theater, which shared employees with Scotti’s and caught a lot of its spillover. I was promptly hired in 2004, the summer after sophomore year in college, leaving behind Empire Records and settling for Ghost World.

Writing in the era of streaming services highlights many novel experiences of the business of getting people to leave their homes and sit in a dark room for two hours. Not all of them are really worth remembering, but I’ll do so anyway.

On my first day I stopped a screening because, when being shown a projection room, I neglected to notice the convoluted process of the projector that loops the celluloid across the floor. It was my good fortune that the film in question was in the end credits. On the opening night of Anchorman, a fight broke out in the middle of a packed screening because some kid brought in glow sticks. On a particularly busy day, a customer held up the concession line by rubbing his chin and asking in a Grey Poupon commercial cadence, “What do you recommend?” whenever I asked him what he wanted. A group of mid-2000s-style hipsters were the only people in a screening of Land of the Dead, when the film ended, one of them proceeded to lecture us on our poor choice of projection lens. He did not appreciate my mockingly asking him which film school he attended. The fire alarm system went off for no reason once, and as the fire department went through the building, my coworkers and I had to sit up front and wait. One of them went on an exegesis on Dr. Strange, and for a hot minute I was intrigued by the Marvel extended cinematic (whatever) universe. I only saw four people see Catwoman, and most people walked out of Before Sunset. I imagine I would hate Potterians less if they cleaned up after themselves better, but not by much. One positive: as befitting the town that counted Jon Corzine and Jim Cramer as residents, our patrons were so careless with money that I personally found just under $100 on theater floors in a single summer.

In spite of these annoyances, however, I managed enough downtime to actually read. I believe I managed to get more reading done during my theater shifts than any other time in my life. Part of it was in my choices. Red Harvest and The Big Sleep are not very intensive, neither are Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I had something of a southern kick that summer, going through Harry Crews’s Feast of Snakes, Terry Southern’s Red Dirt Marijuana collection, and, I shit you not, The Sound and the Fury. Also there was a Howard Hughes biography for good measure. I never finished that one. Much of this was done during sunny matinee days, with two of us working. Once or twice in a shift would come a sweet spot where multiple film times overlapped and I could read uninterrupted as my coworker napped in one of the armchairs.

But much of this was done just up the stairs in the ticket booth, at once the best and worst place to be in the theater. It allowed for significant isolation from everyone else downstairs, with few distractions and an almost enveloping silence, comparatively speaking. And the job was not very demanding in concept, with the computer doing the difficult parts. Even long lines were a breeze provided two things happened: the ticket dispenser didn’t get stuck, which did happen from time to time, and the costumers observed the regulatory mandates of the MPAA.

I’m of two minds when it comes to rules. Generally, I understand them to be feeble, arbitrary, and rife with temporal and institutional bias. But I also know that once they’re there they stay there and it is easier that they be followed rather than subverted. I guess in that respect I am very much like Hobbes. A cavalier attitude toward rules, even stupid ones, is a very quick way for me to lose respect in anyone. Then again, to be an effective custodian of those rules, one must have a certain authoritative self-possession that I found myself confirmed to be lacking.

The summer of 2005 saw the release of Wedding Crashers. With a $209 million gross from a $40 million budget, it is considered “one of the most commercially successful R-rated comedies of all time.” Now 13 years on, people are able to look back on it as a cinematic milestone, an R-rated film with as much maturity, wit, and heart as vulgarity. I thought it was a mediocre bro comedy at the time and was popular just for that reason. Long lines and sold-out screenings were frequent, and the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson pairing was guaranteed to bring out the two variants of male teenhood they each embodied: perpetual senioritis and middlebrow soulfulness respectively. And if one was under 17 in the Summit area who went to see this movie while I was manning the booth, there is a sure certainty that unwonted entry was gained.

I had many ways of facilitating that entry for them. There was sheepishly asking for ID, which was grudgingly given, then not really looking at it, or forgetting what the chronological cutoff was. There was asking for it, getting it, and then enforcing it, only to indifferently accept their money through an adult intermediary a few feet behind them, an arrangement made in my view. (To quote the superior movie of my tenure: “I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.”) Then there was simply aging youngish customers in my head out of sheer laziness. This backfired once when I carded a girl who turned out to be in a woman in her thirties, her frustration indicated that this was a frequent occurrence. Or it was a fake ID and she was a good actor, who knows?

One might be tempted to ask if I am haunted by my days as a diffident corruptor of youth. If I made the job of my superiors more difficult then yes. But I’m not sure if that was ever the case. It seems that the most trouble I got into was for taking the tedious closing inventory way too early or for failing to upsell on certain obscenely priced concession items, which they monitored using a spy.

Occasionally, though, I wonder what might have gone differently if I had been more of a stickler than I was. Working the ticket booth necessitated a sharpening of my observational skills. But these were another method of passing the time, more fruitful perhaps than even reading. I cannot imagine the kind of person I’d have to be to weaponize it, however trivially. Even if the rating system wasn’t as laughable as it now is, it still doesn’t seem worth it. A rule seems less compelling when it is not practical. Moreover, I imagine vigilance would have denied me both the instance and the amusement of turning away a woman because Wedding Crashers sold out again, seeing her turn to me as she was leaving to tell me in a huff, “My nephew wrote it,” and the subsequent teachable moment of wondering whether fame of that kind was ever worthwhile, before proceeding to get more reading done.

The movie theater has since closed, along with most of its nearby branches. It and the carpet store that was above it are now a West Elm. Scotti’s remains open, of course, subsisting largely, I suspect, on the fumes of vinyl. The last time I was at the theater was three years ago to see, of all things, the Skype-based horror film Unfriended. It was a Sunday night and I was the only one in the theater. They were selling tickets downstairs by the concession stand. The interior and the technology had improved in the decade since I’d been there, as did the character of its staff; or at least the one staff member who asked me for my ID before selling me a ticket. I obliged and he did not even blink when he saw that I was born in 1984.

Before going into the theater I wanted to commend him for his adherence to the rules, and to tell him that he was a better class of human than I have been and will ever be. But I refrained. Ultimately I crave nothing greater than respect. And I probably wanted his a little too much to risk it with candor.



Of SpaceX’s launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket last month I had two reactions. The most immediate was of bitter amusement. It crested just after the rocket breached the firmament and released its payload of a Tesla car and a space-suited dummy strapped into the driver’s seat. How wonderful, I thought to myself, that Elon Musk found a proper use for his comically impractical toy cars that had previously evaded them on earth. And nothing could be better than for it to traverse the far reaches of space to another civilized planet with hostile intent towards us, whose citizens shall gaze upon its late capitalist glory and assume no harm could be dealt to such a planet that hasn’t already been self-inflicted. Then I forgot about the whole thing.

Upon being reminded of it a few weeks later I was more delighted. I began to appreciate the ingenuity of the launch and Elon Musk’s bottomless drive. I care not a lick about Mars or whether or not it is livable, but the future potential of SpaceX to dispatch my enemies is too thrilling for me to wave the whole enterprise off. My thought now was not of one gimmicky luxury car floating into the cosmos, but hundreds—maybe thousands—of gimmicky luxury cars in space, each carrying a former obstacle on my path towards personal betterment. Whether they are moving as aimlessly as the current one or on a more direct path—say, towards the sun—is no matter to me at present; a bridge to be burnt and all that.

In admitting this vision there comes with it not a little embarrassment, though there is a matter of placing its source. It is not in its “cruelty,” which I’m certain does not deviate from the thoughts of any other person on a given day. Nor is it in its “hubris,” which can only be so if it was impossible to carry out even if the means were available to me. If my dream of power was made real, little would prevent me, no doubt, from sending loyal toughs to the SpaceX headquarters to commandeer its technology and its inventor while the show trials commence elsewhere. In time I would be easily another link in the Chain of Greatness that holds Queen Boudica in Camulodunum, General MacArthur in postwar Japan, and Dr. Cotton at Trenton State Hospital. Consider me one of those people who, as a child wasting precious homework time in the library, saw the posters on the wall with, say, Cal Ripken endorsing the belief in my own potential for achievement and did precisely that. My embarrassment, then, is rooted in the equal certainty that my potential will go unmet.

The common complaint against my generation by those older—and soon younger—is that we lack any clear endgame with which to guide our lives, yet at the same time are expectant of the riches that come with a life well-ordered. I will not deign to speak for my cohort, but if the complaints have merit, then I would be an outlier.

More than well-ordered, my life is crafted to perfection. Tireless years went into carving out my arc: a precisely curved mound, rising steadily to its peak before a most elegant downward slope—more of a glide than a decline. It is a masterstroke of self-knowledge, a span of existence in no conflict with my intellect, my charm, and possibly even my personal appearance. Perhaps my chronological brethren really are a little too reliant on destiny, or least on the hope that things have a way of sorting themselves out in time. This is not my way. I’ve always held to the truth that one gets nowhere without a sure plan of action, and the ethic of strife, consistency, and integrity that must go with it. But just because I accept something as true doesn’t mean I have all the faculties for living it out.

Though my arc is constructed with care, marshaling the materials for my ascension of it is a different matter. Every time I think about realizing my life vision something stops me from going forward. Obtaining power requires amassing influence; this requires networking, putting myself out in the social circles to promote and to persuade others to invest in my vision. But what if my pitch is ill-formed? What if it falls flat on the ear? What if it my assurance masks my sophistication and I look the dumber for it? What if it does all these things and alarms someone so much that they mount resistance against me? And if so, do I have the bodily courage and the mental resilience to endure the consequences? If I endure the first time, can I repeat the process until I get it right? Am I prepared to sleep less? Eat poorly? Have fluctuating body mass? Have no friends, no consistent income, no leisure time, or comfortable living space?

Surely if all these requirements were actionable and all the adversities easily overcome, nothing would stop me, and those who’ve given me offense over the years would be in some trouble. But they aren’t. Whenever it came to deciding whether my arc was better as an elaborate, if plausible, fantasy or a worthy life commitment, my conclusion always fell toward the former. Why? I don’t know. Fantasy seems far more fruitful than the effort to make it real. Is this not always so? Maybe not for some, maybe not for the hard doers of times past. Maybe this is what is meant when a Boomer lambasts a lesser for being “low-energy.”

Make no mistake: I never lacked for confidence, but confidence is more of a blanket than a shield. I wrap it tightly around my person as if a caterpillar wearily reverted back from its butterfly stage. It’s a pure, self-satisfied confidence, demanding no answer or qualification from its possessor. It is among the last well-kept secrets of our Age of Disclosure. Above all else, however, it is a confidence that does not worship in the church of effort. It does not sacrifice for the liturgy of trying as one might. In the past it might have been called something like “smoker’s hubris.” Whether it is willing or able to prove itself equal to the robust it is not going to, there is no law compelling them, it is no one’s business but its own.

Such talk is obscenity for certain Americans: those who can’t conceive of restraint, reticence, or prudence as anything short of modern seppuku—ancient seppuku, ironically, being too much for today’s quitters to take on. They do not take kindly to mere suggestion. Anything less than confirmation, no less of struggle, leaves an existential wound on one’s being. It is not enough for me to want to and believe I can launch miscreants into the sun; I must take action, and be proven. And they’re not wrong. To shirk the realization of my arc is to deny the simple catharsis of a cleanly checked-off to-do list.

Beneath my confidence there is some disappointment that it is, at the end of the day, only that. But it’s just as private as the confidence itself, a little gift I give myself from time to time for bearing the burden of crippling reluctance. Sometimes in those moments I do wonder if I’m just like the other millennials after all, that all this happens for a reason and that I’m being guided to the right conclusion to be reached in due time. I’m not as keen on an answer as others might be. Often I pacify these moments by looking up at the night sky, imagining other possibilities.



As with most people, it was not until recently that I’d come to know about the 20-something social media star siblings Logan and Jake Paul. And as with most people, it was not a pleasant introduction.

Last December, Logan Paul took a trip to Japan. After spending a few days running around Tokyo throwing stuffed Poké Balls at policemen and thrusting raw fish in people’s faces, he made a stop at Aokigahara, Japan’s breathtaking “sea of trees” that is infamous for its numerous instances of suicide. Its reputation did not disappoint. Within 100 yards of the parking lot, Paul happened upon a dead body; though he implored to call the police, he also took 15 minutes to film the corpse and prod it with probing inquiries like “Are you fucking with us?”. He then uploaded the video on New Year’s Eve, warning his 16 million-odd YouTube subscribers that it was “the most real vlog” he’d ever posted.

The outrage was widespread and instant; indeed, it was as if people could not be outraged enough. “Go rot in hell,” was the simplest advice from Aaron Paul (no relation). But the outrage was understandable for two reasons. The first was the very fact of the video’s content, which needs no real explanation assuming we all have some residual decency. The second reason seems more unique to our time and place. There was hope that last year would ultimately be like all others, when the usual obtrusions of bad news and obnoxious personalities abated somewhat in December for some fantastical and inoffensive social aloofness. This was not to be, and 2017 made its uniqueness plain in its final hours in a moment that was as grotesque as it was stupid.

Troubling as it was, though, the situation also left me somewhat curious. For deep down something prevented me from fully accepting that the Paul brothers are in any way real. They are, of course, real in the sense that everyone else is real, with desires, personal contexts, blood types, and so on. But all that aside, there remains something about them that is very exceptional, and in fact quite intentionally so. Though much of their notoriety can be attributed to media savvy, there is something more to it; something that is actually quite beneficial rather than antagonistic to the pervading social spirit.

Much of 2017 found media figures and outlets trying desperately to keep pace with a zeitgeist in overdrive. In the process, I would often come across a few repeat words that aimed at pinpointing at the general atmosphere. “Anxiety” was one. “We’re a culture of anxiety,” the AV Club writes. “The myriad intricacies of every relationship, every interaction, and every ‘friend’ on social media is [sic] enough to collapse even the most ironclad of constitutions.” The other word was “hellscape.” “But that advice [to be personable and tell stories] falls woefully short of the real role of science in the post-fact Trumpian hellscape of the current American moment,” goes The Stranger in response to the response to New York magazine’s controversial climate change feature of last year. “We’ve reached a weird, quiet agreement that the most potent force in our politics is, for the moment, a stew of unease, fear, rage, grief, helplessness and humiliation,” Nitsuh Abebe writes in The New York Times Magazine.

America in 2017 and for the foreseeable future is a country averse to fun and joy and afflicted with despair and discontent. And whose citizens find everything they possess and every principle they share either entirely meaningless or vulnerable to being taken away or corrupted. Strange, then, that the Paul brothers have an outlook entirely contrary to the broader one. They carry themselves with a confidence that permits them to pretend that no existing rules apply to them and to wave away any new rules that might crop up in their path. These are not court fools in the Tom Green mode, using in-born irritation to lift our spirits, they are more careless than that. Before the Japan fiasco, Jake Paul made local news when he caught backlash from his West Hollywood neighbors for having to endure his filmed antics, like setting a huge bonfire in an empty pool. His response to them was twofold: dabbing, of course, then tweeting what appears to be a guiding philosophy: “Don’t conform to society.”

The most obvious conclusion is the one already made: the Pauls are trolls of refined toxicity, combining an ease to offend with a mastery of self-promotion. But this is almost too pat to be taken seriously. For even as we lambast them for each new break of decorum, they persist. Even if their young fans remain loyal and increase, the Sophisticated Adults Who Watch Westworld (SAWWs as I call them), can turn away any time, or inveigh to stop them. Not just take away their posting privileges, but shame and ostracize them in their own perpetually adolescent playpen and move on. But we don’t. It is as if we somehow require their presence, as if they are imparting some profound omen to the rest of us. That the Pauls are inescapable YouTube sensations seems a necessary evil to their more central role as interactive PSAs against the dangers of happiness.

If Americans are in any way exceptional it can be found in their relationship to happiness, which is never casual and always shifting. We remember how it started, as a “self-evident” truth to have an “unalienable right” to be pursued without any outside infringement. Soon enough it morphed into something on par with a consumer good; not so much something found in actual goods purchased—though it was certainly thought that way—but as something with which you exchange things (energy, let’s say) for a long-term commitment. This was its most lasting form, which as of last year came to an abrupt end.

Happiness now appears more like an illness with very visible, mass-affecting derangements if it is left untreated long enough. Happiness is a kind of stupidity that clouds us of our better judgment to see the world as it really is: broken and unjust. Our joyful ignorance may not have been the culprit, but it was an enabler. These millennial test cases you see tricking people into helping move dead bodies, bear this out. Two cures are available: earnest self-righteousness or ironic detachment. At worst one can just crouch in the corner in paralytic self-mortification. But those who resist any cure to happiness are nothing short of emotional Typhoid Marys.

It takes a certain level of cynicism to both hold up this idea of happiness and to keep the Paul brothers somewhere in the public mind for its containment. And there was a time in my life when I would have been among that vanguard, to be sure. I have no taste for fun or adventure or carefree living. I tolerate life more than I enjoy it at any given time. At the height of my distaste, anyone with an opposite view was to be scorned and discouraged using whatever means available at my behest. For me it was a zine, and it was a resounding failure. Not that this feeling lasted. I found later that stupidity does not discriminate between dispositions. Cynics are easily vulnerable to it. It allows them confirmation of their most tempting biases, prime of all the notion that our reduced state is uniquely reduced and it must be accommodated in order to be endured.

Anyone who has read tough love self-help understands first that life is a struggle, perhaps not as universally brutal as gurus portend but it’s more hardship than harmony. Happiness, moreover, is not the end goal or an object of pursuit, but a modest outcome. There is no gleaming pillar, let alone a grave spire, but a polished trinket, the location of which is never known and only discovered from time to time in the midst of bypassing other obstacles.

Compared to Big Happiness, this is a much trickier kind. Pursuing it directly means never reaching it, and having reached it means that the long struggle or the arduous task, the end of which seeming unreachable in the process, has been overcome. On the one hand, it’s not a happiness that makes itself known to others, to be seen as a display of health or satisfaction—it’s private and intimate, like a haunting. On the other hand, it is a happiness that thrives on connection to others, human or animal. In fact, the happiness achieved is not always one’s own, but the object of an act of good on one’s own part, undertaken as a necessity because, again, reduced times are reduced and will be reduced whether we wish them to be or not, and we seek to elevate them through a combination of resolve, integrity, patience, and a knowledge of one’s own limitations. For instance, a regular citizen has not much power to curb any number of war crimes being perpetuated around the world at this moment. But, assuming any of the aforementioned attributes line up—and it is rare that they do—a plan might be drawn up to replace the current political personnel with personnel less keen on our involvement in their perpetuation.

What sort of happiness comes out of that, let alone in how long a time and at how far a distance, is not guaranteed. If anything is achieved it may never be seen by anyone who set the change in motion. But such are the wagers one makes if someone truly believes the Great Hellscape is worth beating back instead of observing ad nausea.

But I know happiness is possible. I felt it myself in a small way, back in late December. It was a strange uplift to which I was hardly accustomed. Hearing about Logan Paul’s now global displays of idiocy elated me as much as they despaired me. For once I was in tune with the feelings of my fellow bipeds, entirely in unison with their disappointment and their exhaustion. I brought me out from the cold and into a tepid shelter of belonging. It’s a rare feeling, but one that gives me the temptation to seek to keep the Paul brothers around for my own joyful reasons.



I have two approaches when it comes to attending parties: show up very early or show up very late. By “late,” of course, I mean the following afternoon when it is certifiable that every guest has left but all the Solo cups, pizza boxes, roaches, and small mirrors (if applicable) are still strewn about like a bomb went off and when the bathrooms are still disgusting. I find these approaches to be greatly congenial to my temperament, which craves not the thrill of the spectacle but the intimacy of its being carefully assembled beforehand or totally dismantled after the fact. Needless to say, the frequency at which I am invited to parties has steadily dwindled over time.

This is no less true of metaphorical parties. And indeed this is the case now as I find myself late to the pornography party that came and went last weekend.

As Twitter seeks to resemble the brute meritocracy of high school more and more, I seek refuge further and further from it. Yet I still could not help hearing through the grapevine that never ceases to grow that Ross Douthat threw a “ban porn” rager in his online corner and simply everyone who was anyone was there. I’ve been early to pornography parties before, which is awkward enough, but showing up late to a pornography party, even a metaphorical one, is quite like the old saying that one should never bring a knife to a gunfight, except there are much different … tools involved. But here I am, and I hold my nose accordingly.

Douthat’s piece is a standard spiel from conservatives who have achieved a certain level of prominence in the center-left forum. He tries to persuade those who would be his enemies that they are, quite contrary to their blasé conventions, his friends. They share a common ground that culture is in a bad way, with sexual mores being entirely tangled and lopsided as either gross power play or “joyless mimetic spamming.” We must seek to be better to one another, ergo we must seek to be virtuous. “So if you want better men by any standard,” writes Douthat, “there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle.”

It doesn’t appear that his pitch was altogether successful. But I believe there is reason for this.

Anti-porn crusaders are familiar with the standard line of pro-porn argument that pornography won’t be banned until humanity has ceded its dominion over earth to a less depraved species. Douthat was perhaps moved to write what he did when his employer published Maggie Jones’s long feature on “porn education” three days earlier. It tells of the push of sex studies professors introducing “critical thinking” courses on pornography to high school students. As one professor puts it, such classes are “grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.” Hannah Witton, a YouTube vlogger who focuses on sexuality, also sounds the education horn in her video “The Benefits of Porn.” Granted, her pointers are not entirely consistent. Porn helps people in relationships open up about their desires and boundaries, and it provides escape when those sexual desires prove disappointing. But that seems beside the point, and indeed implies a much grander aim.

I suspect that pornography doesn’t factor too heavily in the schemes of the sex positive. It is, as the porn literacy teachers imply, something they’ve come to accept, albeit gladly. It is not sex sex, let’s be clear. It’s an ideal, or in any case it is a kind of magical realism. Whatever it is, though, it is not offensive or an aberration, but something that should be encountered, acknowledged, and not shunned. It’s a part of a ritual: a rite of passage. It is the entryway rather to than the final destination of the new adulthood.

Over the advocacy of pornography, or whatever atomized issue is presently at stake for them, is the blanket gospel of the maturity the advocates are demonstrating. It is less a concern to ask why a world takes this or that form than it is to adjust to its norms and to assimilate. This particular world is one that favors freedom, but a very joyous and extroverted sort. It’s the kind of freedom that comes to resemble mandatory fun as it depends on the assumption that one would be foolish or actively antagonistic not to want to bask in the bacchanalia. But of course there are such people, people who are awkward, people who have scruples, people with morals founded out of sight or while the screens were in sleep mode, people who are low energy, people who are fearful but who can’t really say why, people who had fun exactly once and felt awful, people who don’t care to talk right now, people who don’t live in cities, people who can’t afford to move, people who dropped out of school, people who need rather than luxuriate libraries, people who require considerable effort to be happy, people who may never be happy, people who are at least content and may not be interested in any ideas of happiness others are selling, among others.

It’s wrong to assume that sex positive advocates disparage these types of people. It is probably better to say that they simply don’t notice them, and when they do it is generally met with bewilderment. The negativists may be vulnerable to offensive notions, but they themselves are too strange to truly offend. The positivists will show compassion, if not empathy, but might lose patience once the negativists prove immobile on certain principles. But of course the prestige self-help movement where sex positivists thrive has become less ideologically inert, while remaining tonally so. Soon people like Jordan Peterson shrewdly come to take the place the last person who gave up left behind.

Ultimately it is less interesting in parsing the justification or logistics that go into restricting pornography. If it comes it comes, and no one crusader may have any significant say in how it does. The implications of that shift, no matter what, will be messy and any benefits derived from it will not be apparent after maybe a couple of generational turnovers. What’s more interesting, and for my part more important, is to figure out how to jump off of this pendulum that swings violently between repression and liberation, and which calls for an all-consuming hegemony on either end. The greatest case against pornography, and the world in which it thrives, is that sooner or later it’s going to get boring.



Last month held a significant anniversary for me. 10 years ago—January 24 to be exact—a box containing 300 copies of the first issue of Biopsy magazine was delivered to my door. After a year and a half of false starts it finally came together, physical evidence of a thing I conceived in my head to be used at my discretion. Of course I gave them out to whoever would take them. Somehow, over the course of five years, we managed to repeat this process three more times.

The onset of the anniversary came to me sporadically over the course of last year. Throughout that, it occurred to me that I might be in a position to mark it. How this was to be done I could not say. An “event” was out of the question. We never held events for Biopsy while it existed, what point is it to have one now, for a magazine whose core audience was never fixed and whose other creator has effectively moved on to better things? Indeed, thinking about what to do merely reminded me of the poor logistics I brought to the entire operation. In the end, the anniversary was rather muted; in part because of the event I mentioned in the previous post, and in part because there simply wasn’t occasion for it.

I had taken plenty of opportunities in the past to wax triumphal about my zine. I’m sure that even—perhaps especially—at its most tongue-in-cheek, such triumphalism over a burgeoning and unproven endeavor could come off as perplexing or hard to swallow. But that is the paradox of triumphalism, which works like the inverse of nostalgia. With nostalgia, one realizes that the good old days were good long after they’ve occurred and have had time for the rough patches to be smoothed over. When one is triumphal, it is often in the heat of excitement in real time, before the moment’s faults and lesions can be gleaned.

But of course this triumphalism was not limited to me. It was constantly being over-shouted by one that I could not avoid for what seemed like Biopsy’s entire existence.

Blogosphere is not a term one hears very often these days. In fact it seems like I am the only one who brings it up anymore. When I think of it, I’m reminded of the scene in the 1980s-set 1999 film SLC Punk in which a monied German weed dealer is showing off his laser disc to a bored Matthew Lillard and Michael Goorjian. The dealer has that glee people sometimes convey when they see what looks like a past being heaped onto the funeral pyre by a risen future-present, but rendered ridiculous with over a decade of hindsight—you know, when DVDs were on the cusp. But my memory of 2008-2013 was rife with such moments before the hindsight, and I was somewhat more than bored with hearing them.

I’ve thought of the Dish as a blogazine for quite a while now. The model we’ve groped our way toward combines the agility of a pond-skater with the ability to deep dive at any moment. And its reader-generated content makes it a product of a collective mind as well as an individual one, a bull-session as well as an individual’s thinking out loud. Who knew this evolution was possible even a year or two ago?

That’s Andrew Sullivan writing on The Dish, his then Atlantic-affiliated blog, in 2010. I read The Dish fairly habitually in its heyday; it was by no means a poor source of information and reading material in a time of media upheaval. (My own work was even linked on it.) But I would sour on Sullivan every so often when he would post those self-congratulatory hosannas, often accompanied by images of empty magazine racks, to how swimmingly he and others were navigating this upheaval. “But that’s the joy of this new medium,” he concluded. “We still don’t know where it will go next. And we’re all improvising like mad. What’s not to love?”

In truth, I can see his point. Sullivan and others where experimenting with ways to compel readers to care about substantial journalism. Print was buckling under a changing market. Sullivan, a magazine veteran was looking to adapt while a host of young upstarts were gaining entry through this new medium. Even Biopsy had a blog component, but I didn’t consider it until someone told me to do it. But in the end I could only see blogs, “blogazines,” and bloggers as benign antagonists. It all seemed rather convenient, gushy, and presumptuous to boldly usher in this new era with so many people with less ingenuity struggling to keep their professional lifelines connected. (In addition to Biopsy I was working at a failing magazine publisher that, come to think of it, still owes me money.) They were not enemies to me personally but to my stringent notions of work and craftsmanship. My view of that time period was as a lone prophet diving strange and subversive ideas with a darkly bewitching aesthetic while precocious Cool Kids were talking VERY LOUDLY about Sarah Palin, the surge working, voter demographic charts, or Julia Allison.

10 years later I can say that Biopsy was unique, even, I think, among the independent (maga)zine crowd. At my most triumphal I compared it to Carnival of Souls, a Z-grade horror film with (mostly credible) art house ambitions. Biopsy was more atmospheric than intellectual, portending, as a friend pointed out, a generational malaise to which the remaining generation had not yet caught up. It was also the most effective way for me to admit that Biopsy was very, very flawed. It was perhaps the purest product of which a 20-something could conceive, infused as it was with over-fired ambition, immaturity, inexperience, isolation, anxiety, and patent lack of self-awareness. There was an urge to get something accomplished and to derive merit from it. More than that, I wanted each issue to me a testament to my abilities should I get hit by a bus soon after one was printed.

Needless to say, I’m very glad I was not hit by a bus. With time, the Biopsysphere and blogosphere would become less separate and, in fact, they would find overlap. But this is perhaps due in no small part to our respective ‘spheres coming at the same crossroads. Some of us needed to do something else. Blogging in the late-‘00s ideation burned itself out on too much rapid-fire commentary and quantitative hairsplitting. For the most talent blogging veterans, the ultimate endgame was being less concerned with experimentation and more with just giving readers information in the most complete form possible, which meant a return to web-calibrated magazines and print-calibrated websites. For me it was accepting the necessity of being somehow a part of a professional web of sorts, though more than that, accepting certain limitations and just generally trying to be more socially cohesive. Also, I am very obviously writing on a blog now while, oddly enough, Andrew Sullivan is back at a magazine.

Occasionally people have put to me the suggestion of starting Biopsy again. Some of these are probably in jest, responses no doubt to the aforementioned triumphalism. But even the serious suggestions are not compelling for me. First are my limitations as a manager and editor. The four issues break down in revealing ways. The first two had me trying and failing to be an editor, or some mismatched idea of what an editor was. The last two, the issues I still share with people, mark when I became a writer in earnest. But I can’t also just sit down and write a Biopsy article, some of which seem labored in subsequent reading because they were often padded for space. I also can’t tell if they are more muddled or more amusing/sophisticated predecessors to the current crop of “edgy” online pablum.

If Biopsy is of any importance it is at least in its establishing of a mode of working. So long as avenues are available to me, I am always going to do fugitive work. Sometimes it will be to set foundations to building on ideas, other times it will be as a more self-indulgent end in itself. One medium—print or web—is not superior to another. Each has its own distinct benefits and detriments, neither lacks potential for prestige, they just reach it differently, or at least at different times.

In any case, the search for the perfect all-purpose medium is of less interest to me than testing the limits of any one idea I may have with a range of options, at least with text. Here just happens to be the most proper place at the moment to explore them. I am not a zinester because I no longer put in the work. I am also not a blogger because I don’t seem to be reader-friendly. I would not be averse to having some work gatecrash Kool-Aid man-like into a #conversation without immediately stumbling face-first to the floor. More often, however, the best work I can manage on here is to take on a succession of personal fixations, examine each one with as much precision as I can manage, and render unto the public their ultimate condition. Kind of like some kind of form of medical testing but in prose, which seems kind of familiar.

TL;DR: I became a better writer.


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Teen me, circa 2000.

It was lyrics day in Creative Writing, an elective I jumped at the chance to take during, I think, the first marking period of the spring semester of my sophomore year at Governor Livingston High School. So, winter 2000. I remember very little of what I accomplished in that class. Though I do remember some very terrible “joke” “poems” I wrote that my teacher Miss Sample decided to tolerate, as she always had, and not add to my grade, much to my incredible fortune.

It’s not fun actually remembering a lot of this time, if I’m being honest. It was a low point in my adolescence, at turns pathetic and simply embarrassing. I don’t think I’d been more insecure, more clueless, or unhappier than I was at that point. But I remember lyrics day! That fun day when we get to set aside the rigors of craft and discipline to bask in the glow of our own, obviously faultless, pop cultural tastes.

Miss Sample set up the stereo. There was a usual procession. “Doll Heart” by Hole, I’m pretty sure, was one of them; at least one Tori Amos song appeared as well.  Not bad by any means, but having resolved the previous year to go punk, then, like a month later, to go rivethead, then circling back to straight edge before summer, I wanted to go one further. By then I was a connoisseur of the extreme; a sommelier of the fringe. Granted that came about largely in isolation. I scoured histories and collected “essential” albums with my limited resources—special ordering at Scotti’s in Summit, or getting someone to drive me to Curmudgeon in Edison, a record store that had no parking lot. One such acquisition was MIA by The Germs, a compilation of the early Los Angeles punk band’s entire body of work, all 17 of their songs. Darby Crash was a self-destructive, nihilistic idiot. He was also a poetic genius, and so what better time than that moment to showcase it? I stood up, played “Lexicon Devil.” I can’t say that most people in the class shared my enthusiasm. Miss Sample, if I recall, wasn’t unimpressed (and going back over those lyrics again, rightly so), but so much for that.

I can’t remember if Chris went before me or after me, but I remember his presentation being more successful. Chris was a senior. We sat in the back corner of the classroom in a mini-fiefdom of other “weird” students, which given the class was saying something. Chris was unlike me, he was routinely in better spirits; he had a sense of humor that combined the jovial, the dark, the gross, and the absurd in the proper proportions. He was a musician and played in a few bands. His typical facial expression was a blend of the impish and the cheerful. It was the same expression he made as he stood before the class and pressed play on Miss Sample’s stereo, blasting forth The Dillinger Escape Plan’s “Jim Fear” off of Calculating Infinity. The band’s debut album had just been released the previous fall and I didn’t take to them right away. But Chris read off the band’s enigmatic, staccato lyrics and mesmerized me. “Alfresco slapsticked/Foam mouth sunshine/Slash her and bash her porno freak/Throw another crap cake on the stove, Jimmy/The flaming hermit/The lonely fool.

So Dillinger Escape Plan lyrics are actually kind of terrible. But that moment sticks out as rather monumental all the same. It signified the opening up of an entire world that I didn’t think could possibly exist. A culture that was at once self-contained and self-refined. It was an intimidating one, of course, driven by pride and passion, a resilient stridency that there was nothing else going on that was better than this. What dumb luck for us that we were at least half-correct. Chris, who had a genius for being unencumbered by petty bullshit, whether related to high school or the scene, was a generous and patient guide through this world. He introduced me to several bands, he was partial to Lou Barlow’s projects Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, as well as the burgeoning emo luminaries Grade and The Promise Ring.

We started our own project, little evidence of which actually exists outside of a few t-shirts (designed by me) and maybe some photo footage (not that I particularly want to know). It was called Morgancore, featuring me on vocals and Chris on acoustic guitar. We debuted at that year’s Teen Arts Festival, performing before a packed lecture hall at Union County College. The evaluating teacher indulged us and the students were amused, more or less. With the addition of drums we played one and a half more “performances.” To some it might appear that I was making a total fool of myself. It wasn’t exactly wise, I’ll give you that, but it wasn’t something I can look back on and regret.

What I do regret, though, was what it took to remember this. I had never properly forgotten any of it, but time has a way of rearranging boxed memories into new corners, each more mildewed than the last. Our friendship drifted as these tend to do, and was more or less relegated to Facebook interactions that went from occasional to infrequent before dropping off entirely. We had some reconnection over the fact that he would go on to attend my college to get his nursing degree. He never seemed to lose that joy that stood out above most others in GL. Indeed, attending his wake reminded me of his justly earned class individualist and friendliest senior superlatives. But his passing is a reality I’m coming around to gradually. I left a gap wide open, which now will never be closed.

Chris was the kind of person who will cause countless other people to have similar flashbacks. I make no claim that this is among the most significant, and certainly I do not mean to set aside the other memories of this kind I’ve made and would go on to make with others. But loss has a way of sending us back to the mind’s account ledgers to review what we owe and to whom we owe it. Because we never self-invent as independently as we think we do. Often we’re sent back to our personal wind changes, whether breezes or gusts, and are grateful they blew in a certain way. It leaves me, as surely as it leaves others, at turns thankful and sorry.



Let me make this perfectly clear. Right from the start. Before we commence. With why we are here. To avert any confusion. This—all of this, all that you see here, all that you sit within—is mine. It’s not yours and it’s not ours. It’s mine. You see me pointing at anyone else but me? This space has been deemed mine for the allotted time we have together. So, from 10:45 AM and until 11:45 AM, it will be bound by rules crafted by me. And I use “crafted” knowingly. Because this is a workshop—and everything is workshopped.

In fact, let that be the first rule. Prepare for labor-intensification the likes of which you have not seen before. Yes, some of you are students I’ve had in semesters’ past, and you think you have my approach and my style down pat. Maybe you did, once. But like I said: everything is workshopped. I shall repeat with emphasis: fucking everything is fucking workshopped. That means I have gone to previous classes, assessed painstakingly every weakness and struck them out. Then I pored over the strengths and infused them with greater strength still. I have no idea how these revisions will play out over the course of the semester. But I’m assured that this demonstrate why I ask the very same of you in this class. You will be craftspeople. And this extends to your marginal contributions. Emails asking for office appointments or any doctors notes that look dashed-off, “stream-of-consciousness,” or have any other indications of ironic postmodern carelessness will be disregarded.

The second rule is show up promptly. I enter that door at exactly 10:45. I expect to see two things upon entering. First I want to see everyone seated at a desk. The desks should be arranged in a circle. You are responsible for the width and curvature of that circle. The focal point of the circle is the desk, of which I will always sit on the edge and never at its seat. Anyone who is not seated will be removed. Anyone who is late will be denied entry. Sit out in the hall, lean under the window between the bushes, I don’t care. Process your penalty any way you like. Second is that everyone must have their notebooks on your desk and opened to your most recent entry.

The third rule, then, is to have entries written within 12 hours leading up to each class. I do not impose strictures as to length or content. If you fill up a notebook in a night then you buy a new notebook. But they must be, shall we say, freestyle. The first things that come to your heads, place them on the page. Do so legibly; I will select one of you to read your passage out loud before continuing with class without further comment. My hope is that by the end of this semester you will have an idea of our natural filth and of the importance of always being clean.

The fourth rule is class participation. The volume and candor of an opinion is always proportional to the impracticality of the opinion and to the lack of authority the giver of the opinion holds. The greater the impracticality and the lesser the authority, the more permissible the volume. So speak up and speak often.

The fifth rule: get acquainted to the point of intimacy with the syllabus, even if I haven’t, or even if I have but don’t feel like following it. I could, for instance, be stricken with a personal matter that I want explore in detail using the format of this class. Or I could be vexed by a conflict on The Great British Baking Show. That is no concern of yours, do not deviate from the syllabus.

The sixth rule: your scarf is a distraction. Now outside the classroom that’s just an observation. So really the sixth rule is that in this room, at this time, any observation can and often will be a rule.

The seventh rule: those who sit to the left of me, you are on the men’s side. Those who sit to the right of me, you are on the women’s side. I will not tell you which side you have to be on. You’re not in the Real World yet, but you are adults. You come into this class, you make a conscious decision about where you sit on a given day, and you must abide by the customs, the norms, and the cues of the side on which your desk is found.

Finally, you are not bound by me to adhere to these rules. I am not a taskmaster and I offend easily at insinuations of being perceived as one, let alone having to act as one. But I will not overlook those who break them. You see … I’m grading you on two tiers. The first tier is the academic tier. It’s the covenant we make to the world outside of this room that something tangible has been accomplished. It must be satisfied whether we like it or not. The consequences may well prove cataclysmic to all if even one of us, willfully or not, breaks it.

But even so, the first tier is a formality compared to the second, and higher, tier: my personal evaluation of each and every one of you. I do not share these evaluations with anyone. Rather, I compile them myself and keep them in a safe place for my immediate reference. When or how they will be referenced I do not know. It depends entirely on you and how you chose to conduct yourself in this classroom … at this time. I allow you to assume that careful observance of these rules translates more or less into positive evaluations, and that they might benefit you long after this class is over. But assume along with that that this tier does not function with the same metrical logic as institutional grades do. I cannot clarify more than that because what good would it do to clarify a curve you cannot see, and which I’d prefer not to have anyone outside of this room know I am applying? Just know that it is a curve and that is bends for everyone in every way you can imagine it being bent.

Now that I have established the rules of the classroom, we will sit together in silence for the remaining half-hour, as I have left the syllabi in my office, which is not even in this building.


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I’d like everyone to take a moment and listen. Just … listen to the room around us.


Do you hear that sound?

Silence. A chair creaks.

That’s the sound the world makes when it’s decided that you no longer have anything to offer it. You have nothing to say, nothing to feel, and nothing to do.

Perhaps you know what that sound is like. Perhaps you’ve found yourself hearing it sometimes, and then, without any advance notice, you are hearing it often, and with steadily decreasing moments of relent. It’s a yawning kind of sound forming, as it were, a personal invisible dome. Sure, you can cry out, you can prove and reprove your worth. You’re free enough in yourself to do that, you’re not a mime in a box. But your sound, your contributions, will not carry very far. You are as the spider, and the world is as the boulder rolling toward, over, and past you.

Now if we could just see these domes, we’d find that quite a few of us are covered with them. We’re like ghosts in finely smoothed sheets. I am one of these people. And I’d like to tell you my story.

There was a time when I had some kind of value in the world, when I could be counted as a member of it in reasonable standing. I’m quite sure of this, though the details as to what I did to have that esteem are foggy now. Foggy, anyway, compared to the state in which I found myself at a later juncture and in which I have remained ever since. It felt like I had taken a wrong turn into a desolate bombed-out village and the road behind me just disappeared the further I went into it. There is no map for such a place, of course. It’s something you have to navigate yourself. And believe you me, I was lost for the longest time. It was a long and winding journey to find my way around it; but I managed eventually.

Something happened, you see, when I reached a particularly low point. Isn’t that always how it is? You can’t get any traction until you’ve reached rock bottom. Anyway … one night the sound of the world got a little too deafening. I tried everything I could to at least muffle it, but nothing was working. So—and I only admit this because it’s crucial to what follows—I took an unusual step; unusual for me, anyway. I did a Google search, I made a call, and a person came to my door. This person provided certain services that can be tailored at the individual patron’s discretion, shall we say. I didn’t quite know what I wanted, so this person and I both sat stiffly in my living room. Nothing happened for what seemed like almost an hour. And I could hear that sound just rising up and over us like a flood waiting to drown both of us with malicious intent. I panicked and asked “How did yo—” and before I could finish my question this person just exploded with tears and sobs, and sustained them for well over the time I had been allotted. I was shocked, of course, and a little confused. I almost hadn’t noticed that this person’s cries were sending all other sounds scurrying away like furry woodland creatures at the sight of a wolf.

By the end of the session I found I was onto something. That person wouldn’t come back; so I hired out others and had them do much the same thing. After a while, however, it got to be a rather expensive habit, on my purse and on my energy trying to figure out how to bring what I wanted out of them. And because the real thing had had so potent an effect, internet searches were not going to cut it. So I put my mind to it, I don’t think I’ve put my mind harder to anything in my life, and came up with a solution. After two years, I’ve found it.

This is uCry. Sure, it looks like your run-of-the-mill modern day car key, but in this tiny device is the answer to a very big problem. uCry is especially designed to stifle the overpowering hum of the world’s negation with the ambience of human sadness. It is equipped with a single red button and a point sensor. Its use is simple. Place your thumb on the button, each uCry is customized to its user’s thumbprint and will vibrate twice when it recognizes the print and will deliver a light shock to any print it doesn’t. Once you activate it, point the device at any person’s head, when you feel another quick vibration, press the button and the tears will flow in an instant.

What it does is send a sharp, precise signal to the amygdala, that part of our brain that controls mood, memory, and emotion. The signal will trigger that part of the brain to conjure the most recent sad memory of anyone you point it at, causing a crying episode lasting 45 minutes on average. For that time, all of your troubles will be a secondary matter, not even. All with the push of a button.

There are a few disclaimers that come with uCry, of course.

First, and this one goes without saying, do not use the device indiscriminately. Though it can be applied to anyone, and there’s as yet no legal restriction in doing so, the ethic of consent applies here as a matter of simple decency. Get permission if you are to use it. Perhaps a complete stranger will oblige, but in most cases this will be someone you know and trust and who in turn trusts you.

Second, use the device in a place you know well, preferably a place indoors and sparsely peopled. Related to that, follow the device’s directives to the letter. That is, don’t use it on someone when it hasn’t vibrated. Doing so may misfire and trigger an adverse response that renders your surroundings unsafe.

And third, do not, under any circumstances, use the device on yourself. That’s not how its design was intended. That’s why it’s called uCry and not iCry. And also if you have permission for only one person, please wait no less than six hours to use it on them again.

This version of uCry is the first just out of its beta stage. It underwent considerable testing and reconfiguration, and we’re ready to take it to the market. It is our hope that reaching the projected sales figures will allow for us to make improvements and upgrades. I see little preventing us from improving the signal’s aim and intensity to lengthen the crying fits to, say, an hour, an hour and a half, maybe even longer than that. Our proposed premium membership will include a network to help you get the most use out of the device. My early experiences have guided the making of a database listing confirmed voluntary subjects, based on psychological makeup and experiences, who will make themselves available on your request, and at no extra charge for you.

The possibilities with uCry are without end. If enough are purchased we may see a complete atmospheric shift in the quality of life. We may never leave our desolate village; we may never be able to crack our domes—not completely, anyway. But uCry offers us some hope that the sound of the world bearing down on us can be abated somewhat by a world of sorrow.


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If it’s all right with everyone, I’d like to preface with a brief statement about love.

Now I should never generalize, but I think it is among the safer assumptions out there that we’ve all asked for advice about love. We’ve asked advice about what it is, how it should feel, and how to keep it right where you want it once you’ve managed to find it. And more often than not, that advice, whether from friends or family or paid experts, is to never be afraid. I guess there’s something to that. The power is in its simple obviousness. Of course. Courage levels all obstacles and routs all bugbears. It enlivens and emboldens our clearest, proudest selves. Hesitate, even for a second, and perish.

But I think that there’s something to that fear. In fact, it makes quite a good deal of sense when we step back and really look at what it is we are afraid of. Failure, yes, that is obvious; but that’s not all! Break that fear down to its parts and you get fear of unfulfilling, fear of shaming, fear of numbness, fear of complacency, fear of embarrassing, fear of being bad, fear of causing pain, and fear of disappointing.

I think that these fears are perfectly healthy.

Now before you step in and naysay, take a moment to think about the fears I put forth. The astute listener will note that they go only in one way. I made no mention of fear of being unfulfilled or of being hurt or of being disappointed. Certainly these fears are real and worthy of confronting. They are the fears of loneliness. They are lurid and surreal fears that come only after the unfulfillment, hurt, and disappointment have manifested. But these fears, in short, have little—nothing, in fact—to do with love.

Love is about being able to set yourself aside. It is about being so unconcerned with your own distastes and negating proclivities as to feel bulletproof in the face of any misfortune. I suppose that is something we all know in our heart of hearts. It may, depending on the translation used, even double as a gloss on St. Paul. But I think we forget it enough times that it bears occasional redux. Certainly I forgot it, and count many of my struggles in the matter to its being forgotten. Indeed, I remembered it only recently, though in a rather happenstance and unusual way.

For a very long time I owned this car. Well, it’s not really a car, exactly; I’m using it as a stand-in for something more embarrassing. But I had this car, and, as I said, I had it for a long time. For a long enough time that in driving it I’ve had many ups and downs with its functionality. Some days it was better at getting me to where I needed or wanted to go than it was in other days. On the bad days I often found myself saying some hurtful things about it, and sometimes to it. I will not repeat them here, but sometimes I’d go so far as to say them as I was driving it. And in one of these moments, I so lost my bearings that I locked my keys in the car while the car was still running. As I waited for the police, sitting on the pavement, banging my head against the door, I had this sudden epiphany. This was my fault. And not only this but every other instance of tension and dysfunction could be traced back to me as their source.

The car never set any detailed conditions nor did it make any explicit promises. It came into my life with a very basic, straightforward purpose. As I used it, it was mine to make or to break. Of course, I broke it but it did not break me. Rather, I broke myself. The more time I spent with the car, the more I came to appreciate the simplicity of it and the complications I put upon it in our cohabitation. The more I ruminated on those complications, the greater responsibility I felt to make things right.

What is this if it is not love? Is not love, after all is said and done, the act of making things right? Making things right is among the hardest of our abstract duties, but it is made all the more worthwhile when done for someone who—or something that—can never disappoint. This makes it seem a bit one-sided, but the beauty of love is finding that person who dreads your disappointment every bit as you dread theirs. It’s not easy, but finding that balance, and remembering what’s lost with imbalance, is one of the greatest boons to personal joy. It is second only to the knowledge that each thing made right, side by side with love, vanquishes one gratuitous wrong thing from our concerns.

With that sentiment in mind, let’s move on to address this internal liability report for our processing plants. How the hell is this worse than the independent audit? For fuck’s sake, accidents have doubled. Not only are we up to our Adam’s apples eyeballs in nondisclosure settlements, we’re really stretching the ontological limitations of what properly constitutes “head cheese.” Shit, people.