How Shame Works (& Doesn’t Work) on the Internet

When you feel that who you are as a person is not okay, shame is that feeling. Shame is the whole affect comprising the thoughts surrounding the feeling (e.g. ‘I just wish I could be less ____’), as well as the behaviors and habits that come as a result. Shame makes a person lie when the truth threatens to reveal values, beliefs, or attributes they find (or worry are) unacceptable in themselves.

Guilt does this, too. When asked, ‘Did you sleep with that person?’ the guilty adulterer says no. The ashamed adulterer, however, says no to the question, ‘Do you want to sleep with other people?’ Desires cleave to identity in the ashamed self.

This Shame 101 recap is helping me get at some thoughts I had while catching up on old New Yorkers and reading two pieces that addressed the ways shame works online. The articles covered the facts and events of episodes of online shaming, and they began to explore why they happened and what they meant, but something in their analysis felt off, or missing. I’m here trying to fill in the gaps.

But before I do that, let’s go back to that ‘okay’ in the opening sentence. A very good way to work through shame is to clearly define that ‘okay’ from your perspective, and then sniff out who defined it that way for you. Who or what set the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? Our society and its culture do this at all times (e.g., ‘Thou shalt not have a limp dick during sex’, ‘Thy BMI shall not be above this number’), and because we believe in the necessity of morals and ethics in maintaining that society, the question is what we do when someone crosses a boundary.

Too often, we shame. It’s a verb, too, unhelpfully. Shaming comprises everything we do (to others and ourselves) to induce the feeling of being not okay. Shaming goes beyond ‘you crossed a boundary’ to assert ‘you are bad at heart for having crossed the boundary.’

Here’s Dr. Zoidberg to illustrate:

*

Let’s look first at Becca Rothfeld’s review of two recent books on online shaming, one of which is written by a philosophy professor named Owen Flanagan. From Rothfeld’s review (my emphasis):

Because shame is a means of enforcing whatever values are operative in a given society, whether it proves salutary hinges on the merits of the moral system in which it is deployed, at least according to Flanagan. He admits that shame has too often been conscripted as a weapon against the oppressed—as when women and queer people have been encouraged to suppress their sexual impulses. Nonetheless, he calls for shame to be enlisted in the service of social justice, as it was when a concerted social-media campaign ejected the Hollywood producer and serial rapist Harvey Weinstein from power.

Shame can punch up, is the book in question’s basic argument. And shame sure can, but it should not expect results, which is how Rothman seems to conclude (again, my emphasis):

Shame, as Flanagan sometimes appears to forget, is an effective weapon only when it’s brandished against those who already inhabit a shared ethical universe. If politicians on the other side of the aisle strike Flanagan as shameless, that’s not because of any shame shortage but because they are not bound by the norms he favors. When Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, remarked that ‘anyone who denies the truth of what happened on January 6th ought to be ashamed of themselves,’ the Fox New commentator Tucker Carlson countered that she was the one who ‘should be ashamed.’ A mere increase in the total volume of shame in circulation would not result in the social betterment that [Flanagan] envisions; big feelings do not guarantee big changes.

She’s right, but I don’t think for the right reasons. Is shame an effective weapon to bring about change, even when brandished against those sharing our ethical universe? Spoiler alert: this writer says no way.

*

I, as versed in shame as anything in this world, can think of three ways one responds to shaming, self- or otherwise.

One: You shut down. Shame is very good at lying affirmatively about the self, such that when you feel bad about, say, how much you enjoy sweets, it feels like something as deeply innate and intractable as the shape of your genitals or smell of your armpits. Shame doesn’t allow for the fact that you’ve made (and can unmake) certain choices, or fallen into certain habits (and can climb out of them): shame convinces you that this is who you are. And it’s even more scarily good at convincing you that who you are is also easily ashamed, making you ashamed, again, of feeling ashamed, angry and disgusted at yourself for once again shutting down in shame, and thus begins a shame spiral. Down and down and down. It happens especially when you share the values of the people who are shaming you. They’re right about me. Jesus Christ they’ve found me out. Shaming is thus a very effective way to prevent even the possibility of change ever happening.

Two: You act out. There’s something that often feels deeply unfair about being a bad person, when you assume (falsely) that everyone around you is a good, or at least better, person. Like: why me? Why can’t I etc.? Compound this with the notion of intractableness above, and you start saying Fuck it. If I’m bad, let’s be B A D. Or, similarly, you fight back against the shaming with the assumption (again, false) that the opposite of acting shamefully is acting shamelessly. Like that ‘cash me outside’ girl. Or perhaps a more useful example is owning the libs. When you hear that who you are (i.e., poor, rural, conservative, etc.) is not okay, there is so much joy and liberation (often false, but the feeling is real) to be had in doing things that would piss off the people you believe have set the standard. ‘It’s really fun to see the other side lose,’ is how professor Khadijah White puts it, in this NY Times article about D. Trump’s fans being less in support of him than aligned against his critics. White is speaking about the pleasure in doing things that don’t help you, and may even harm you, as long as they trigger the outrage of those you feel are trying to shame you.[1] This is a trap just like the spiral above; in acting out, you double-down on the thing you’ve been shamed for (or felt ashamed of), and so good luck effecting change.

Three is where you understand you’ve been shamed, and little if anything true about you has been said, so you move on.

(Three is like a superpower I’m writing a whole book to try to acquire.)

*

Let’s look next at this profile of Orna Guralnik, the star of Couples Therapy, a show I’ve never seen before and would personally only ever want to watch the homosexual segments of. Toward the end, the article mentions one couple, Annie and Mau, the latter of whom became something of a villain:

[Mau] insisted that his needs were not merely straightforward but rational, normative. He considered sex to be a daily necessity. He had been displeased with a birthday orgy that Annie had planned for him and, after Annie said that he disrespected her, responded with sophistic, “I’m sorry if you feel that way” reasoning, resisting Guralnik’s interventions at every turn.

Here we have a shameless man, or a man about whom many would say he oughta be ashamed. Whether Mau has worked through shame toward self-understanding and -acceptance—or whether he’s just a dick—I can’t say. My guess is he’s a dick, but I was surprised and then somewhat enlightened when the reporter asked Guralnik about him:

‘I actually enjoyed working with him a lot, even though he wouldn’t enter my field,’ Guralnik said. ‘I really respected him. People became kind of obsessed with ragging on him. It was a little upsetting, actually.’

I’m trying to get at the place where her respect is coming from. I think it lies somewhere between stubbornness and self-esteem, or between assertiveness and arrogance. Maybe it has something to do with being a clear communicator about your needs, no matter how outrageous or unfair they may seem to your partner. Or to Reddit, which the article reports went apeshit over Mau and started a thread called ‘Somebody smack Mau please’. They called him a dick. They diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder. They shame-hated on him so much that Mau appeared on the thread in an attempt to explain himself, which you can imagine how that went.

Well you don’t have to. Mau wrote that he’d wanted, on the show, ‘to express complex and interconnected dynamics’ and Reddit called him a dick. Mau then deleted his post and moved on. In the moment of his online shaming, he took option no. 3. And nothing, in anybody involved, changed.

*

The most useful metaphor I’ve come to in trying to express what shame feels like is a hall of mirrors. (I’ve written about this before, in a post about shame spirals and how to get out of them.) Well it’s like a hall of those warped, distorted funhouse mirrors that make your body look funny. In shame, all you can see is various distortions of your self. You’re too fat. Too slutty. Not smart enough to publish with the intellectual big dogs. Not enough of ‘an alpha’ to pull off’ that jacket. Too lazy etc. etc. You turn away from one image and another is there to lie to you again about who you are. Key thing: that’s all you can see. There’s nothing else in a shame spiral but ‘You’ ‘You’ ‘You’ ‘You’.

The way out of there is Somebody Else Somebody Else Somebody Else Somebody Else.

Acting shamelessly is not the way out, because you’re still bound by shame’s grip—the way wearing an HRC ‘Make America Gay Again’ hat [JPG] is not a form of #resistance because you’re still agreeing to use the tyrant’s language. People who act shamelessly often have fun, but rarely have the best perspective on their actions, and those actions’ consequences. Shaming them usually just adds more fuel to that fire.

Consider instead being a flat mirror, a more accurate mirror, reflecting what the other person is doing. This is Psychobabble 101: When you do X, I feel Y. A cliche because it works. Or doesn’t: Mau on Couples Therapy likely heard a lot of mirroring statements, if Guralnik is as good as the profile said. He likely clearly heard her and Annie, didn’t get defensive or act out shamelessly, and he likely didn’t care enough to change or do anything about it. The shock of that may hurt deeply, especially if you love the person, but you’ll also be getting a clear message of your own: I don’t share your values. Best to understand that’s often going to be the case on this overstuffed planet, and move on.

Maybe a better construction is When you do X, you hurt mostly yourself in this way. Take it from a person who nearly lost everything at his most shameless: being shown how your actions actively impede your goals and dreams is highly effective in starting the path toward change. There’s nothing kicky or fun about this kind of talk. You get no points in ‘owning’ anybody. But of course we know that. Shaming is always less about effecting positive change in the shamed than in helping the shaming self feel better. Another funny trap.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. And when you, on the ‘other side’, perform the intended outrage, this is Feeding The Trolls 101. You don’t feed the trolls. You should not expect positive results from anybody when you get on Twitter and feed the trolls.

I ‘didn’t say gay’ when I came out to my parents: Some thoughts after Florida on calling queers by their name

You better believe I practiced the speech, to be delivered in their hotel room on their first visit to me in Nebraska, four months after I came out to myself. It started like this: ‘I wanted to tell you guys that [pause for a sec] I came out to BJ last spring.’ BJ was my oldest friend, my ‘brother from another mother’ as our mothers had often put it. So there was a familiar friend amid what I assumed would be, for them, overall bad news.

But also there was the past action, the fact (L. facere: ‘a thing done’). I made sure to deliver them the fact of what I’d done in lieu of the fact of what I am. ‘I’m gay’ sounded in my newbie ears like an explosion, a slap in the face with the hand of my difference, which would highlight what might feel like a sudden departure from the family mold.

Mine is a history of acting not for or from myself, so much as acting to minimize others’ disapproval I imagine being always at the ready. When I told my parents, ‘I came out last spring,’ that was for them.

What I needed to say, for me, was something like, ‘I’ve always been gay. I’m only now strong enough to say it.’

*

The Parental Rights in Education bill Florida’s governor signed into law yesterday has a number of provisions to uphold ‘the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children,’ but the big one is this: ‘Classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3.’

A recent Politico poll showed that 51 percent of Americans are in favor of this bill, or at least of what it prohibits.[1] The rest of us have nicknamed this the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, because, I imagine, we’ve read George Orwell and know the work it takes to cut through the lies of political language. You score many points in the game of amassing political power when you affirm ‘parental rights’—witness the racist SF school board recall and Terry McAuliffe losing the Virginia governor race after stating what sounds to me a basic truth of how education works to develop a child into a free-thinking adult: ‘I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.’

52 percent of Virginia voters believed that parents should have ‘a lot’ of influence over how school teach children. I can’t find stats on what percentage of parents talk to their children about sexualities and gender identities, but it’s safe to assume the number is scary low. And ‘scary’ meaning dangerous: ask anyone working with sex education, pregnancy/STI prevention, queer/trans youth etc., and they will all agree that talking less about sex and sexuality creates more suicide, more unwanted pregnancy, more date rape.

You can’t pass a bill that aims to hurt more children—queer or otherwise—but you can very easily pass a bill that gives parents more power, because people love power. (The Parental Rights in Education bill even lets parents sue schools, with state-refunded attorney’s fees, when they feel taboo topics have been addressed.)

To be clearer: Florida’s bait-and-switch has been to tell parents they deserve more control over their own children, and that schools are trying to take that control away from them. In whipping up this frenzy, they’ve found another way to long-term fuck up the lives of queers and trans folks they fear getting political power.

Three things I knew when I was in 2nd grade: (1) what my dick was for, other than peeing, (2) what I wanted to do with the dicks and butts of other boys, (3) 1 and 2 were disgusting and I should hate myself for them and keep it all a deep, deep secret. This is what parental control over my education got me. No teacher ever said ‘gay’ in all the health/sex ed classes I took.

I survived, but barely. If you want to talk about the longterm damage of never being told my sexuality was okay, buy my forthcoming memoir (please).

*

Some counterarguments, to keep thinking about this. Florida hasn’t prevented sexuality or gender being taught, just being taught ‘in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate’. Setting aside the obvious problem that no queers or trans folk are being given the power to define ‘age appropriate’, it seems we have in this country a fundamental unwillingness to accept that children are sexualized at birth. Gov. DeSantis expressed this as clearly as anyone after he signed the bill: ‘As the parent of three kids that are age 5 and under, thank you for letting me and my wife be able to send our kids to kindergarten without them being sexualized.’

No school has ever ‘sexualized’ a kid. It’s not how sex works. It’s not how normative sexual development in children works. Like most heteros, DeSantis hears ‘sexuality’ and thinks about intercourse, because he’s another undereducated American. Nobody working in comprehensive sexuality education mentions sex practices to kindergartners. Instead, younger children (the Netherlands starts sexuality education at age 4, and fewer Dutch teens regret their age at first intercourse than do U.S. teens) talk about crushes, and they learn about bodies and difference, and they learn about boundaries and good-touch/bad-touch distinctions.

When I think about this, I go right to regret and ager. I think about all the years of needless pain I put myself and others through because of what I had been taught—directly and indirectly—about what I was. There is never an instance in which less education is the answer. America needs more education—on everything, including sex, which fewer U.S. students get now than they did in the early 2000s. (Abstinence-only education is not education, it’s lies.)

*

Another use for the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ nickname is how it connects this bill to Russia’s 2013 bill ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, which forbids—anywhere in the country, not just in schools—talking or acting in any way that might argue that homosexuality is normal. Neal and I were very much aware of this bill when we visited St. Petersburg in 2019, as foreigners who broke the law (by, say, our holding hands in public) could be arrested and detained for up to 15 days.

More and more it seems the GOP’s dream is to enact a future as authoritarian and ‘tough’ as Russia’s. Their hate is relentless. The laws they pass—against race education, against medicine for trans kids, against women’s autonomy over their own bodies—are fascist by simple definition: they lie about a culture in decline, point to an Other as the cause of that decline, and promote authoritarian rule as the solution.

We have little reason to believe the work of radically restoring justice will take less time than the long history of white men[2] in power denying equal treatment under the law to others. It’ll be a long, slow, difficult struggle to upend the structures we older folks grew up inside and felt that we survived without much stress. I get it, straight parents: you didn’t need anybody telling you about sex when you were 7. This isn’t because sex isn’t a part of a 7-year-old’s imagination. It’s because every day, in everything you saw and heard, your sexuality was already being told to you, in positive terms. Every day you got this message: You are normal. You are okay.

It often seems like silence is neutral, that nothing good or bad is being said. But children fill any silence with whatever they have at hand—usually it’s other children, who’ve heard in silences the untruths of other children, on and on like a dangerous game of Telephone. All I know from my own experience is that lack of affirmation didn’t feel that different from being called a faggot, and worrying about what the other boys saw in me, and what I’d somehow become.

Imagine every day learning the opposite of what straight and cisgender kids learn. You are wrong. You are not okay. You are a problem. When you’re mad about change, or about losing some form of control—or when faced with a poll or ballot—try to put yourself in that mindset before you find your voice, the voice you’ve always been allowed to have.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. ABC News found that 62 percent of Americans opposed measures that would prohibit sex education in elementary school, and it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t exactly what Florida has banned. You can teach sex and gender in 4th grade, just not 3rd.
  2. And women. A woman wrote Russia’s anti-gay bill, after all. As Hilton Als put it in a recent Instagram post on Ginni Thomas, ‘I’ve sat across from some version of this woman my entire professional life. And had to pretend I didn’t feel her rage at my being in the room. She hasn’t always been white. But she has always believed in one source of power: His. And I don’t mean Jesus.’

Notes Toward an Essay I’ll Try To Sell

Last weekend, I was in Williamsburg with my 3/4ths of my family watching lots of basketball, having tagged along with Jenny on her annual March Madness trip. It was suggested by Jenny and Dad that I write an essay about watching basketball with my family. I thought it, initially, a lousy idea. (I’ve got a book to write, for starters.) And then, inevitably, I got ideas.

Along with the necessary essay ideas was the idea that an essay on watching March Madness with my family would be easy to ‘pitch’ to magazines as timely content next March. (I’m not banging this out before the championship games next week.)

At any rate, I need to bang something out quickly before I lose the memories, because if there’s any talent I have it’s for forgetting—a stellar trait for a writer of nonfiction. So here are dashed, first-word-best-word notes and sketches toward a someday essay.

*

A field goal in basketball is any basket made during play. A regular jump shot is a field goal. A layup is a field goal. A ‘3-pointer’ is a field goal. A dunk is a field goal. A free throw is not a field goal, but a free throw. Despite encompassing the same overall action and result as a field goal’s ‘shot’, and despite them calling the clock ticking away the seconds in which a player has to make a shot a ‘shot clock’, when a player is fouled and given the chance to make a shot (or two, as we’ll see), basketball calls what they do a ‘throw’.

It used to be that the arc outside which any field goal would score 3 points would touch the top of the key (an otherwise functionless semicircle that extends from the free-throw line) at a tangent, but now there’s a couple feet between the top of the key and the 3-point line, given I guess, how drugs and conditioning have changed the bodies of athletes in the last howevermany years since I last watched a basketball game, and how relatively easier it soon became to sink a 3-point shot.

There’s now also this other semicircle under the net which echoes the key’s, and it marks a zone where a defensive player can stand in advance of an offensive player rushing to the net, and if the defensive player gets within the semicircle before the offensive player does, then it’s the offensive player’s foul when he runs into the body of the defensive player. (I could have that one wrong. My family did their best to explain and I’m for god’s sake not looking it up.)

My sister, along with the legion of male and female basketball commentators, likes to call sunk 3-point shots ‘buckets’. Nobody in the world of basketball refers to the hoop’s net anymore in such terms as ‘swish’ or ‘nothing but net’ both of which reigned when I first start playing both actual basketball and NBA Jam on SNES.

After a team is fouled 7 times by the other team, they get what’s called a ‘bonus’, which means that whenever their players get fouled going forward, they are given 2 free throws to make. Without a bonus, a team’s fouled player is given a ‘1 and 1’ free throw, where if they miss the first one, the ball is in free play. The exception is when a player is fouled while taking a shot. Regardless of any bonuses (double bonuses are a thing, marked on the screen as ‘bonus+’, but there’s no telling what that means), such a fouled player always gets 2 shots.

*

I learned all this and more over three days of watching NCAA basketball with my dad and sister. It’s an annual trip Jenny makes down for the start of March Madness, and when I heard she was going again this year I decided to fly out and join her, as I was on spring break and had been trying to put in a visit with my parents. They retired twenty years ago to a new-at-the-time housing development in the outskirts of Williamsburg, Virginia, home of the famous colonialist cosplay tourist trap and the nation’s second oldest university, the College of William & Mary—not, this year, part of the NCAA tournament. The drive down I-95 was swift and eventless, dogwoods in bloom, the sun blazing, the skies a clear Tarheel blue.

Jenny would be unhappy with that comparison. She’s been an unwavering Duke basketball fan since I’ve been unpube’d, having falling in love in her formative years with Christian Laettner, a Duke forward whose biggest talent was making last-second game-winning shots, or ‘buckets’ as Jenny calls them now. Laettner is one of the most hated basketball players of all time (there’s even a documentary: I Hate Christian Laettner), but the people filling out this poll had clearly never been 15-year-old girls watching this blue-eyed fox win a lot at their favorite sport. Jenny’s love for him is matched maybe by her love for her husband, Adam, but definitely by her love for coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose surname I don’t have to look up how to spell, because Jenny taught me it years ago under the category of Must Know Info. One more story about this: after our first dog died, our older sister, Shani, brought a new one home, and it soon threw up on Jenny’s bedroom floor. Furious, she insisted that she get to rename the dog as penance, and that’s how Duke became even the family dog.

Watching Duke with Dad in the NCAA tournament was always a serious, high-stakes event for Jenny, but this year was Krzyzewski’s farewell season. That I was coming along on this visit was welcomed (we siblings always like a buffer while visiting our parents), but Jenny made it clear that we would be watching a lot of basketball.

‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘That’s what we do at Mom and Dad’s anyway: relax in front of the TV.’

I thought I understood what I was in for. But by the time we left Sunday morning, I had watched more basketball in three days than I’d seen in my entire life. I’d always known about March Madness the way I knew about Mercury in retrograde: it was sometimes going on, and many people I didn’t know well cared deeply about it. I don’t care about basketball, but I care deeply about my family. I told myself, booking my flight, that I would do this for them. Or with them? I often confuse the difference. I am the youngest member of my family, and I live on a different side of the continent than they do.

*

Jenny and I pulled into our parents’ driveway just seconds before Dad came home from his job at a golf course—he works part-time preparing carts for foursomes as a way to get (a) free golf and (b) out of the house. The knee of his khaki pants was stained rust red. ‘What happened?’ Jenny asked, pointing, and he waved it away. Just tripped over a curb while he wasn’t watching where he was going. Just banged his knee a little. He thought he may have bruised his ribs, but it was, he assured us, No Big Deal. Dad is 74. Jenny and I suggested he get himself checked out at the ER, and he just asked if we needed any help with our bags. Dad doesn’t fear or avoid doctors—he’s had every kind of skin cancer, he’s conscientious about his health more than ever now that he’s aging—but he wasn’t about to let a little fall get in the way of this weekend with his kids. I couldn’t help but admire him in his red polo and khakis; Dad’s cheeks had sallowed over the years, but he was still, at his age, a sturdy dude. His squeeze hugging us hello was solid, all-business.

Inside, Mom showed us the brackets she’d printed out for us. Jenny had texted about this weeks earlier:

Dad and I fill out brackets every year and compare our selections. Would you be interested in joining in?
Sure. Do you put up money or just for fun?
Yay. We do it for fun. Especially when you pick the underdog and dad didn't. Adam always wins though and he cares the least 🤷‍♀️

In the contest of caring the least, I was not about to be bested. I should love a bracket. I mean, I love a spreadsheet. Systematic orderings of information or entities thrum something essential in me, like what a bow makes a violin string do. I took a pen and stared at this bracket of 68 teams. Why wasn’t it 64? The tournament had a ‘first four’ round of also-rans playing each other for the chance to be among the 64. Fine, okay. I looked at all the matchups. Texas Tech vs. Montana St. Michigan St. vs. Davidson. Illinois vs. Chattanooga. I tried to imagine the people for whom these names signified anything. Chattanooga has my whole life been only a choo-choo and a town in Tennessee I periodically read It’s Cool There Actually! articles about.

Basketball hadn’t even started and I was faced, once again, with the sports problem: how to get emotionally involved in a game played between strangers you have no affinities with? Hell for me is being stuck in a cab where the driver is listening to sports talk radio dudes argue about yesterday’s Tampa Bay v. Arizona game. Stuck in situations where sports is the subject, I’d try to pretend what I was hearing wasn’t news about teams but news about the animal kingdom—Should the jaguars blow it all up this offseason?—but it could never last.

I reminded myself that getting emotionally involved was caring, and for March Madness not caring was the key to victory. I looked at the seed numbers, and I aimed for upsets, and I bracketed my way to a Final Four I felt happy about: Connecticut losing to Purdue and Providence losing to Tennessee, the tournament’s ultimate victor.

‘No Duke?’ Jenny said when I announced my picks.

I told her I’d be sad about their inevitable upset and she admitted she hadn’t picked San Francisco, the school I teach at, to win even its first game. Neither had Dad. Mom, an indoorsy sort who sang in the choir growing up, never does a bracket, making her the smartest of us all.

*

When, in college, I learned how to watch sports on TV, it was football we watched, and that set the pace for me. Other sports felt like they were doing televised sports wrong. Baseball was mostly shots of clear skies and men standing. Ditto golf. Hockey was unwatchable because I couldn’t follow the puck, and in soccer they never scored. Soccer is this for 3 hours:

The problem with basketball—I’d announced a dozen times in my life, with who knows what authority I mustered up—is that they score too often. Look, another basket. Now it’s time for the other team to dribble it to the other side of the court and … yep another basket.

The games started Thursday afternoon, but Thursday afternoon, Jenny and I were keeping what’s for us a brisk pace in the Williamsburg Antique Mall—her other planned activity this weekend. An antique mall is a place where I activate. In any antique mall I’m with my eyes the way every dog is with its nose out a speeding car window: look at this, look at that, look at this, look at this, look at that. I found a nude lady mannequin wearing only a boy’s Cub Scout neckerchief and a photorealist pencil drawing of Johnny Depp with Fabio’s haircut. I found a yearbook/photo annual of a place called Kamp Kill Kare, and a painting of a bottle of Redskins Cabernet, with the old racist team mascot on the label. I was lingering in the junkier booths far longer than Jenny could, and I asked if we needed to get back. Hadn’t the games started already?

‘It’s fine,’ Jenny said. ‘It’s just the first half.’

Which is how I came to feel vindicated about my dismissal of the entire sport. At this level, the teams were all good enough to score a lot, and sure enough when we got back and Jenny turned on the Michigan-Colorado St. game it was 5 minutes into the second half and the score was 30-31. The rest of the game felt less like a nailbiter than gaming with a cheat code: you could apparently just skip right to the good levels that mattered.

I picked Colorado St, to win, and they didn’t. Then the next day, Colorado St. was supposed to play and lose to Tennessee, who in reality lost to Michigan. But that’s about bracket results and narrative and hope and feeling, and I think I have more to say about the experience of watching games, esp with Jenny and Dad in the room.

I need to acknowledge the knotting tension I felt in my gut during the final minutes of game play, because it’s clear that this is 9/10ths of the thrill of watching basketball. It’s a sensation that imprinted early on Jenny, for sure, watching her blue-eyed boyfriend sink a last-second shot to finish Duke’s 1992 tournament game against Kentucky at 104-103:

You can’t see it, but Reston, Virginia’s own Grant Hill has thrown Laettner that ball from the entire other end of the court. I get how this is thrilling. I get how there’s something … artful? maddening? stupid? ineffable, I think, and thus artful, in the way Laettner dribbles the ball once, with under 2 seconds left, before shooting, but it’s possible that the dribble was necessary for rule reasons?

I also felt driven to clap, quietly and to myself, whenever ‘my team’ sank a shot. Not every time. But I think what I was responding to was the actuality of a sunk basket amid so much fouling. They foul a lot in the NCAA. They’ll be driving to the net and inevitably someone on the defense will do something unseeable and occult that makes the whistle blow. And all the action has to stop. Plus I learned that intentional fouling is a strategy when you’re down and it’s in the final seconds of the game, because you get to stop the clock (reward) with the hopes that the fouled player will miss one or both of his free throws (risk) and thus return the ball to your possession.

So it’s foul after foul after foul. And then it’s shot after shot after shot. A lot of soccer-style passing from one player to another (thank god for the ticking clock that forces teams to make a shot). But sometimes, in the twisting-eels scrum of players around the paint, someone slips out to the 3-point line and the guy with the ball sees this and sneakily flings the ball out to him, and when he takes the shot with a tall man flying at his face, it’s exactly like that moment in drag ball culture when the beat drops and you watch the queen collapse herself in a dip:

When that moment moves your team back up into the lead, it’s extremely satisfying. It feels almost like justice. It feels like when you hear someone’s in remission, or when Antonin Scalia died.

*

One makes sounds when watching sports. Mine, as mentioned, is a little pat-pat flat-palmed clapclapclap to myself. Jenny’s is mostly saying ‘Oh!’ in anxiousness and ‘Buckets!’ in glee. Dad—and this has been true for as long as I’ve known the man—never expresses glee at a team performing well, the idea being I guess that scoring or preventing scores is just the job description that nobody needs praised for. But he is vocal with his upset. Aw, jeez, COME ON! is a standard construction. You assholes! is another, with an emphasis on ass that really brings out the flat vowels of his southern Maryland upbringing. He’s got a peeve for what he calls ‘street ball’ or ‘playground ball’, which I gathered was when players took their own paths or aggression tactics instead of, like, running a play. Is that what they call it in basketball, running a play? After so many years of watching football, I still can’t keep all the different positions straight, but I can follow a play, I can see how the setup along the line of scrimmage has forecasted a running play or a passing play, I can eye the guys getting open.

Basketball is messier, likely because faster. (There’s nothing fast about football. ‘Rushing yards’ is a funny euphemism.) When I noticed a defense strategy, it was Zone defense. God this is boring. I’m utterly bored writing about the mechanics of basketball. The point here is that Dad would see something (I hoped it wasn’t race) in the ‘style’, maybe, of the play that would anger him. And it would often anger the coaches on the sidelines, too, especially when a foul resulted, or a missed shot. At one point during Friday evening’s Duke game (which we had to sacrifice Jeopardy! to watch), they put a closeup on Krzyzewski after his team made a foul, and even though he wasn’t anywhere near a mic you could see his big angry mouth shout HANDS GO UP! HANDS GO UP! And then he put both hands in the air, like at gunpoint.

I have anger issues, perhaps, in that I rarely see the utility of having that feeling. Anger feels so physically unpleasant it’s been almost a survival tactic to not let myself get angry, which often, I’ve realized after all this therapy, has involved shutting down to even the possibility of an emotion. Don’t get too invested, Dave. Dad rarely, if ever, shouted at us growing up. He was not a simmering kettle waiting always to explode, but an empty kettle sitting helpfully on the back burner. (I identify with this so much I titled my second book If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There.) In sport, he ‘lets himself go’ maybe. He’s vocally expressive with anger and frustration. Jenny too, to a smaller degree. Whereas this was me over on the sofa all weekend whenever ‘my team’ lost:

*

I should love a bracket, but if I learned anything last weekend (other than the regulation facts above), it’s that forming a bracket carries a very real destructive force on actually enjoying basketball. If there’s a rule I try always to follow, it’s Bill Callahan’s[1] ‘Root for the underdog / no matter who they are.’ Which is one reason why ‘Blue Lives Matter’ schmendriks suck and are anti-American (to say nothing of the dogwhistling racism in their claim): The Police Do Not Need Championing. They have the full support of the State. It’s like scorning your fellow countrymen laughing at the newly clothed emperor. If ‘Reminding teacher she forgot to assign homework’ was people, they’d be Blue Lives Matter folks.

Likely I could have done the smart thing and chosen every lower-seeded team to win, and thus I’d get to root for the underdog each time. But underdogs aren’t always so clearly forecasted. In the narrative of a game, things like ‘heart’ or ‘hustle’ start to appear, and it makes you want to root for that team to come through all the adversity they’ve had (sometimes, I saw, by what was pointed out to me as blind referees). However, if they win, then there goes your whole Midwest bracket. So here’s this little guy, literally, in comparison to the guys on the other team, playing like a phenom, and you have to clapclapclap when he misses his death-dropping threes.

It sucks, the way any gambling does when attached to a game. What filling out ‘my bracket’ did was demand disassociation from the players. They were not people I cared about, or felt I was living vicariously through. They were people I needed to deliver me my desired outcome.

*

I need more actual memories and fewer arguments nobody will care about, and so we return to my talent of forgetting.

Jenny and I spent an hour at the golf course Dad works at, hitting bags of balls at the driving range as hard and as high as we could—as with gambling, needing to do something fun (i.e., hit a golf ball very hard and very high) with some kind of scored accuracy also ruins every game. I wore a Syracusely orange performance polo Dad let me borrow, and then let me have to take home. ‘I don’t really need a golf shirt,’ I tried, at first. ‘Well you never know,’ he said, really wanting to give it to me, and thus forcing my hand. ‘Well, you know, it’s not really my style.’ I mean, look:

His face tried not to fall but fall it did. Another dashed hope. The compromise was that I would keep it in the closet of ‘my’ bedroom at their house, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about packing golfcourse clothes whenever I came to visit.

Jenny and I had fun together hitting golf balls, and after the first ten or so, she said, ‘I can’t believe Dad isn’t here to watch us.’ And I agreed. He’d set us up with free bags of balls and showed us where we’d be able to hit, and then went off to be social with the coworkers he already sees 3x a week. Maybe he needed a break from us, and we both agreed there was something nice about not having Dad tell us what he thought was wrong with our swings every time the ball sped feebly off the tee and dribbled twenty yards on the ground. ‘See, Dave, you brought your head up again’ etc etc. We didn’t miss it, but we both missed his praise. Or we missed getting to show off for him.

It was possible, I realized not for the first time, that Jenny has Daddy Issues, too. For much of my life, it seemed impossible. Dad was an athlete in school, playing all the sports, like Danny Zucko does over a week in Grease but with Dad it was for his entire time at school. Jenny did the same. Her years were set to a sport schedule: fall field hockey, winter basketball, spring softball. Dad bought us a basketball hoop when we were starting teen years, and these are memories I can bring in later, so long-ago-encoded with enough psychic scars I have little risk of forgetting them.

*

Sometimes the questions I’d ask the room during a game (never sure which of Jenny or Dad would know the answer) would have no ready answer, like when I asked what a Bonus was and what it meant. Jenny had to go on her phone for that one. I asked about everything, asked for clarification on all the rules and things I was seeing on the screen. I told myself without giving it much thought that I really needed to know why, if Jenny and Dad had said that any foul made during a shot attempt would grant the fouled player 2 free throws, they just gave the fouled shot-taker a 1-and-1 free throw.

There’s an easy and obvious pleasure I take in learning new things, even (some might say especially) when the new things have no apparent practical use. And I especially love to learn new things quickly, because it’s another of my talents. (It’s likely part and parcel with the forgetting talent: let’s make more room in here, please.) And I felt the strength or at least change in legibility by Saturday afternoon, knowing what to look for, what to expect. Specifics and details, EVER USEFUL!, fail me at the moment. I knew to look in the corner of the screen to see whether the leading team had possession of the ball at the next um…whatever they call it when the players hit a stalemate on whose hands are more firmly on the ball after a rebound. I knew to say things like, ‘Given that it’s a 2-possession game at this point he better feel bad about making such a stupid foul.’

In other words, I found myself doing something I’ve done at anxious times in my life: work overtime to fit in. Here’s how I put it in an essay I wrote years ago: ‘How did it feel to spend life learning sports metaphors the way one hopes to learn the language of his captors? What happens when the misfit’s unfit even for Misfit Island?’ My family was not just part of the heterosexual world I wanted also to be a part of, they defined it. That world sprang from their collective forehead, and much of that world involved loving sports, a thing I tried to care about but never really could.

What I cared about was the heteros in my life. My family. My football-loving guy friends. My default move, in trying to be close to people I care about, is to ask them questions about what they care about. In this, I become impressed, and I mean this less as an attention value and more as almost a physical action: I direct them in their answering to impress themselves upon me, and I willingly receive the impression. Asking questions is always easier than saying something, even if it often leaves me unsatisfied. This is a thing psychoanalytic scholar Léon Wurmser put into a new context for me when I read his book on shame:

The two basic modes [of interacting with your environment] could be called attentional and communicative, and the corresponding social modalities could be described as ‘being impressed,’ with its modifications of being attentive, curious, exploring, and fascinated, and as ‘expressing oneself,’ with its modifications of impressing, influencing, and fascinating others. Sexual scopophilia [i.e. voyeurism] and exhibitionism would be narrower versions of these more broadly conceived partial drives.

If I’d had the strength last weekend to express what I wanted—i.e., that it was sickening to me how poorer schools are than they used to be, how gleefully conservative US policies have gutted their budgets, and how students and faculty bear the brunt, and yet here’s college sports, this 100% useless vestige that has nothing to do with educating anybody, which gets all the money and attention—it would fall on deaf ears. Or angered ears, leaving Dad and Jenny not to accept my position on the matter as mine, but arguing with all the old shit about the value of athletics. (It helps raise money for schools! It gives young athletes an education for when their sports careers are over!) And we’d be at an impasse—not Not A Family Anymore, I’ve come to understand, and not Now A Family With A Conflict (because lord knows there’s plenty among us), but A Family In A Mood Of Goodwill That’s Now Been Soured A Little By The Fact Of This Difference In Our Ranks. This feeling would, as it always had, get compounded by the fact that I’m the youngest member of my family, and I would feel once again humored, at best, by the older heteros, but definitely not listened to. Likely outright dismissed. (Probably this is why I love teaching: I get to express things I believe to people who seem always to want to hear them.)

So I play along, and I impress the people I care about with my thoughtful questions. I elicit them to share their love and expertise. And I share so little of my own. Again, deaf ears, but then again as I said the idea for this essay was Jenny’s. Or maybe Dad’s? Memory doesn’t serve, but I recall both family athletes endorsed the idea.

And immediately I saw two essays in front of me, the wanted and the unwanted. The wanted essay would tell the story of the weekend, using basketball and March Madness as an objective correlative to evoke feelings of love and affection, and how here was this thing that could bring us three together, and let me learn something new. The unwanted essay would express how tired I am of this.

I don’t tire of my family. I needed them, I could feel it, after so much time apart. What I tire of is that hustle I got at above, the impressing hustle. At some point early on, I learned it wasn’t enough to let people have the things they cared about, I felt I had to visibly care about those things too in order to trick them, it’s almost felt like, into caring about me.

Where, though, is the boundary between impressing others and being in conversation with them? Taking your turn to talk about you, and then your turn to ask about the other? I’m not sure yet, but it wasn’t long after the wanted/unwanted binary hit me that I saw (as I soon do with most binaries I initially get hung up on) the way out was through, or with. The right essay would be both wanted and unwanted, just as the time I spent watching basketball with my family was.

I like, to return to Wurmser’s formulation, to peep on dudes as much as I like to show off to them, and as I’m risking making these notes hit 5,000 words I’ll wrap up with the recollection that I used to only want to peep. I used to fear showing anything of mine off, especially my body and its desires.

What changed? I came out. I grew up. I had sex. I did therapy. Basketball is for Dad and Jenny, but writing an essay about basketball? That’s all mine.

*

Oh, here’s my bracket for those interested:

My 2022 March Madness bracket



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Not the coach.

I Don’t Even Know What Love Isn’t

I.
I took another personality quiz the other night; I find these irresistible. This one was part of an online course a magazine article on happiness had directed me to, and the quiz’s 96 questions of the “How well do you feel this statement applies to you?” variety, promised to rank 24 attributes in order of my personal strengths and weaknesses. Here, in order, were what the course called my “signature strengths” (i.e., the top 5 most applicable):

  1. Creativity
  2. Love of Learning
  3. Judgement
  4. Curiosity
  5. Leadership

These felt accurate, by which I mean they flattered the things I like to pride myself in (when I feel I’m able to). I noted the image of the person they pointed to; he’d be most comfortable in an ivory tower. Out of curiosity, I looked at the rest of the list to see what, at #24, was the attribute ranked last among all possible attributes.

It was Love:

Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing & caring are reciprocated; being close to people.

I thought two things when I saw that: I’m not surprised, and then, Shit is this a wake-up call?

keep reading

Plains Rebellion

Follow up to yesterday’s post, because things I was asserting about safety in certain sectors of Flyover Country haven’t sit well with me. I mean, I don’t think I have it right. What I said was that Texas (which I’m going to continue to include in Flyover Country only because I get to imagine how indignant it would make Texans) wants the non-Texanness of you to get the fuck out of there, and the Deep South will be very polite and hospitable to you without actually liking or even respecting you if they don’t know your people or where they hail from, but the Plains are a place of nice people, and their famous “Minnesota Nice” is real.

George Floyd’s murderer is from Minnesota, I seem to have forgotten. And Michael Stipe and Kate Pierson are from the Deep South.

Whenever I want to assert a thing about a people or a place, I should remember that I’m in dangerous rhetorical territory, particularly as a person who has vocally stood as an exception to whatever nonsense others were peddling about his current home state. So whatever is leading me to feel unsafe in other parts of the country reveals things about me, not those parts of the country.

In other words, I need to write, alas, about history.

*

History was my worst subject in school, and I’ve never really cared for it or bought into its dictum about being doomed to repeat it, so I’ll keep this quick. The history I have in the Plains is long and all those memories are (chiefly) fond ones. I continue to have people I love and miss who live here. This isn’t (as) true in other parts of Flyover Country, or F-150 Country, or the Bible Belt.[*] I feel about the Plains the way I can tell a number of the grad students I taught in Alabama feel about the Deep South, a place I endured for three years until I could get out, and a place they had four of the most fulfilling years of their lives in.

With the right friends and family in the right places, you can feel safe and home everywhere. Even Boston, a city I’ve many times called the Angriest City In The World, which has plenty of its own Texas-style Get The Fuck Out Of Here vibes, but it’s also where my old college friend Jay lives (well, he lives in Quincy).

Boston has a big history of rebellion, given all that tea they spilled. Texas too, Jesus. I know so little of history, but I know that the Six Flags of those amusement parks refer to the 6 nations that have owned/stolen Texas throughout its history: Spain, Mexico, France, Texas Itself, the U.S., and the Confederate States of America. And the Deep South still claims its failed rebellion as its heritage. It remains important to them that they once tried and failed to hold onto a way of life that needed to enslave Africans to survive.

The Plains, on the other hand, was an empty land of bounty when the people my friends and family here claim cultural/ancestral connections to first showed up. The Missouri Compromise instilled slavery in one part of the Plains, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act spilled it outside of Missouri, but when people think about the Civil War we’re not looking at Flyover Country. What rebellions seemed to be waged here involved populist, pro-agrarian, William Jennings Bryan-style demands for fair labor and wages. (Right? I don’t know my history, I only know what I picked up after 7 years of living here, which is that it’s an exaggeration to call Plains voters “fiscally liberal, socially conservative” but like only a little.)

*

Every time I’m in Sioux Falls, I make sure at the HyVee to grab all the free magazines off the rack in the store’s vestibule: etc. for her and Sioux Falls Woman and The 605 and the rest of them. These are glossy monthlies printed here in what they call “the Sioux Empire”—i.e., the city of Sioux Falls and its suburbs. Print media is thriving here. And in the articles I read in those magazines about the history of this place, they always begin the story with the first settlers, which I don’t need to tell you means the first white settlers.

The Plains, like all of the U.S., are a site of Native American genocide. It’s probably going to take a while for South Dakota to see what’s psychically and historically wrong with the phrase “the Sioux Empire”, because if people don’t turn to denial and willful silence when confronted with their shame, they turn to anger. Neither emotion is good for growth. I recognize how it must read to have essentially a Plains Tourist like myself tell people whose people go back generations here to grow up, but maybe one way to end this post is to admit that it’s advice I need to take, too. We all do.

As much as people want to make the Civil War our country’s greatest conflict, a better one (well, “better” is a poor word here but you get what I mean) is our centuries-long genocide of Native peoples and theft of their land, “better” because it happened everywhere, it’s likely still happening, and in happening everywhere it can unite us as a country. The Native genocide isn’t a red/blue state conflict. It’s not contained in Flyover Country. San Francisco, where I live, was stolen from the Ramaytush speaking people, one of eight nations now referred to as Ohlone.

The South Dakotans I know grew up with Native Americans as neighbors, as a lived and seen reality. (How they treated or considered Native folks varies depending on who you talk to.) In Virginia, Native Americans were something out of history. Here they make history, like in the blocking of the Keystone XL Pipeline. If, as a Plains Tourist, I can have a dream for a state I only visit once or twice a year, it’s that South Dakota lead the nation in first acknowledging the tragedy of Native genocide and then working to restore Native lands and equitable treatment.

In the Deep South and Texas I feel like an outsider to their conflicts of two centuries ago. In the Plains I remember I’m another American, thriving from the spoils of genocide. If you’re curious which Indigenous people the land you live on belongs to, you can find that info at native-land.ca.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Once, in grad school, I asked my officemate where the Bible Belt was exactly, because nobody had ever depicted it on a map for me. Was it the strip that runs north from Texas to North Dakota, or did it go laterally along the South? I felt it had to be the former, because a belt (I’m a very literal person) bisects a body right around the middle. But which middle? “Well, it actually starts just east of Seattle and goes along the Canada border, then it sweeps down at the Dakotas, runs all the way to Texas, and then goes over to Florida and Georgia, and sweeps right up to Maine.” It was a good joke for 2007 and probably a better joke in 2021.

The Old Sincerity

Before the Internet, we subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine. Every video game was like a maze we asked our moms to drop us off in on her way to work, and whole days were spent finding our way over this fiery gap, or that impossible wall. When we got stuck we asked a friend who had gone before us, or we dug through our Nintendo Power library, or we threw the controller across the floor. The first time I swore in front of my mother, my small Mario had just been bitten once again by a fish. I said “Fuck!” and threw my controller across the floor. I gasped, and my friend James sitting on the floor next to me gasped, and my mom digging through her closet gasped, and I ran to my bedroom and locked the door.

This is the way video games were real.[1] Alice fell down the rabbit hole, I knew; Samus fell down shafts in the Brinstar, but I controlled Samus, and when I couldn’t hit B with the right timing to make Samus bomb herself up the high wall, I didn’t say, “Samus can’t do it,” I said I couldn’t. Death came often and had consequences. What kept me staring into the screen was less TV’s total narrative absorption and more this fire in my belly that felt like commitment and courage. Video games helped me feel big. To this day, knowing that Ganon once again has Princess Zelda gets me a little mad the way news of Amazon’s tax payments does.

Time to go slay another beast.

*

Gamers have terms for all this I won’t bother to learn, but one I’ve picked up is Platformer, meaning the type of game where you jump on and off a lot of different platforms while the screen scrolls back and forth. Super Mario Bros is the classic platformer. Mega Man 2 is another. Like Caddyshack 2, which played basically every afternoon on cable, Mega Man 2 was a sequel we knew and loved better than its original.

Two things made Mega Man 2 fun: one was that you acquired the weapon of the boss you killed at the end of the each board, and the other was that you could play any board in any order you wanted. So part of what made the game a treat was learning that the saw blades you get from beating Metal Man were handy in killing the floating eyeball things rampant in Heat Man’s board. Not every weapon was useful. Wood Man’s leaf shield felt too slow and cumbersome for most battle situations. Bubble Man’s bubble lead was virtually useless. In time, you refined your arsenal and this is how you traversed the maze of the game.

The afternoon I want to write about took place in the summer, in Jenny’s bedroom, where for a number of reasons the NES was kept in those years. Maybe I was 12. I was boards deep into MM2, which I’d never beaten in full before. What I failed to say about the game was that, like with all platformers, death came quickly and often, and even though the game had a password system that let you begin tomorrow with the same victories and weapons you’d acquired today, there were still lots of repeated frustrations. Somehow, that afternoon, I had made it to the final board, where I knew at the end of it lay Dr. Wily, the evil scientist who had built all these robots I’d been killing. I had a number of extra men, but not a ton, and I had an audience: Jenny sat up on her bed watching me play.

I made it to Dr. Wily, who I remember floating in a kind of pod it was hard to aim into.[2] I tried the trusty metal blade, and it bounced off. I switched to the quick boomerang, and nothing. He was hitting me two or three times a second it felt like. Then I died.

I used another man and tried again. Nothing with the crash bombs, nothing with atomic fire. Then I died again.

I thought about throwing the controller, but I didn’t.

I used another man. Every single weapon I tried on Wily did no damage and I couldn’t figure out how to not be killed again. Then I tried the only weapon left, the useless bubble lead, and it hurt him. “Oh my god,” I said, mad at all the men I’d wasted. Of course with this plot twist: the game’s most useless weapon becoming the only way to win. I did my best to keep hitting him with it, but he was too fast, or I was too slow, and I died again.

I was on my last man. If I died now I’d have to start the whole board all over again—not a disaster, but a frustration. I knew what weapon to use, and I went in ready this time. It was not easy. I kept getting hit and then hitting him, and if you looked at our energy meters it was neck and neck. I worried about running out of bubble lead. I was so unfamiliar with this weapon that I had to learn its tactics alongside Wily’s. It wasn’t looking good, and Jenny wasn’t keeping quiet. “Come on, come on,” she kept mumbling, the way her teammates did on the softball field.

And then I heard her say, “Come on, David! I believe in you!”

*

One thing the Internet has obsolesced is working shit out on your own. We know this about bar bets and memory, none of us needing anymore to argue whether it was Rich Hall or Dennis Miller who played the fast food carhop alongside Taylor Negron in One Crazy Summer, say. But the survivable experience of being lost in unknowing for a while is what I’m talking about. In the maze of living, the Internet is a bird’s eye view.

With the Internet in my pocket, I would’ve just looked up how to beat Dr. Wily, and chalked my subsequent victory up to my execution of somebody else’s plan. I’m sure it would have felt good enough.

Despite my years of playing video games, I’m a glutton for somebody else’s plan. In grad school I devoted far more time to reading other writers’ craft books than figuring out how (and even why) I wanted to write fiction. Chalk it up to always wanting to get a good grade from teacher. My therapist is very good in her job in this regard. “It sounds like you’re looking to me for validation,” she’ll often say, and I’m like, Yeah, duh.

One thing I’m trying to work out for myself these days is free expression. I understand this to mean saying directly whatever you feel in the moment, the way children do until manners get shamed into them. I don’t like that. I’m bored. I’m horny. I want to be alone for a while. I just feel a lot of love for you right now. You are pissing me off. I don’t want to be friends. None of those feels possible for me to just say, not without real difficulty. One reason is that I’m often afraid of the other person’s reaction to what I’ll say. But a more pressing reason is that just saying what I’m feeling feels embarrassing.

Jenny and I continue to this day to joke about that “I believe in you!” She shares my feeling that it was a funny thing to do, but it also may be the most free and sincere thing anybody’s ever told me. To just say aloud what you’re feeling, uninflected with humor or irony, tends to make me roll my eyes. Twitter tends always to make me roll my eyes. I get embarrassed for anyone who writes something like, “If America is a democracy, then the GOP has officially become the party that hates America.”

Sure, yes, nothing could be more boringly obvious.

And that’s I think what lies at the heart of my problem: I either assume that what’s not obvious is obvious, or I assume that the obvious never needs to be said. I’m probably wrong on both accounts.

*

My favorite Sebadoh song is “Mind Reader”:

Look, baby, I’m not a mind reader
You’re going to have to tell me so
You’re looking down at your shoes again
Take us down off of a cloud
Riding high in the sky
You’d have to tell me so

“Mind Reader” is a song about every relationship ever, and how what seems obvious isn’t actually obvious. Within that seeming lies a disregard of the other person’s experience of the world. Why don’t you see the way I see? It’s a selfishness I’m often guilty of, which you can see in the way I want to finish everybody’s sentences for them, my brain having already gone off on its own, abandoning the present the other person rightfully assumed we both shared.

Let’s state the obvious: the only way somebody can know what you’re thinking and feeling is by hearing it. This is why “the obvious” needs to be said. (Or written. Years ago, I chose writing over speaking, and only now am I realizing I could have chosen both.)

This isn’t, I don’t think, why people need to tweet. I think the ostensible, intended purpose of putting “If America is a democracy, then the GOP has officially become the party that hates America” out there is to inform one’s imagined audience. The hope is that this point (this “take”) is heard, and that it changes or in some lesser way effects somebody’s mindset. But I think the real purpose is to be given a place to speak. I’m not being a radical thinker here when I say that people tweet foremost to express themselves, to speak into a public forum when they feel otherwise powerless or small. I’m scared and/or lonely might be the base content of four out of five tweets, and it’s probably good and healthy to express that?

I don’t know, I’m figuring it out on my own.

But more and more these days, turning to Twitter for takes on what’s happening feels like running to the Internet for video game cheat codes.

*

So: not everything said is meant to signify to an audience, much less transport them somewhere new and exciting. I don’t think I want to believe this, or I think I enjoy believing that I’m a better person when I exempt myself from this truth. Here’s the reality: I might be able to argue that I’m better, but I usually feel worse.

John Dewey, whose Art as Experience I’m still slogging my way through (he’s a great thinker but just a terrible writer), makes a helpful distinction between expression and statement. For Dewey, science states meanings and art expresses them; the difference lies in the fact that statements point to or describe experiences, whereas expressions constitute them. Expressions make use of a medium to turn raw and spontaneous feeling—like, say, throwing a NES controller across the floor—into something else, something new, the way vintners make use of their feet to turn plucked grapes into juice for winemaking.

Which might be one way to understand my bristling at most tweets. Despite what this blog usually demonstrates, I am as an artist more interested in expressions than statements. It only feels fair to hold myself to the same impossible standard.

And yet, my life seems to be calling these days for a turning away from Dewey’s idea, or at least it’s calling me to give myself regular breaks from the burden of always needing to cleave raw emotion to some creative medium. To risk whatever embarrassment might befall me—or, actually, to fully learn I’ve got no reason to presume any embarrassment. Jenny and I still joke about “I believe in you!” but moments after she said it, I finally beat the game.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Here’s another way video games are real: as an Xmas present, Neal got me Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game where you are encouraged to create a character who looks like you and has your name, just in case living vicariously through a different person/creature is too challenging for you, and the overall point is to gather items and creatures on this island you’ve moved to, and turn them in for money. As I’m sure others have said, playing Animal Crossing every morning has helped balance my days and make them more emotionally even. It’s nice to have chores to commit to. I’ve got digging chores, where I gather ore from rocks and look for fossils, and then I do my shore cleaning chores, picking up shells and fishing for sea creatures I can sell. I do all this after my daily walk through the park, where I pause mentally every time I see a tree branch on my path, or a large pinecone, or even an insect—my immediate instinct is to gather it so I can sell it later. My video game practice has informed my living in the world practice, and I don’t see it as a problem, but then again I don’t play Grand Theft Auto and rarely, if ever, find myself in a position in this world where I need to carjack a woman while running from the cops.
  2. The Internet tells me that I actually was fighting an alien that Dr. Wily transformed into, but I have no memory of an alien, so I’m choosing not to believe it.