Growing Up with a Hoarder

My mother was a hoarder. It didn’t start out this way, but it became more pronounced and more disturbing once she hit middle age and she started locking her bedroom.

We all knew that hillocks of clothes and bulky boxes of once-used items were being piled needlessly high on any spare inch of floor space behind that sealed entrance: an increasing sign that my mother did not have her life together and, in hindsight, a telltale indicator that she could not care for us.

She collected things much as she collected people: there was the initial delight followed by an ephemeral interest, followed by swift abandonment and a failure to finish what she had started. I was so unnerved by my mother’s packrat tendencies that I developed an anti-materialist lifestyle in which I assiduously avoided the accumulation of baubles. But I still held onto my notebooks and any creative scraps I generated. And I still wonder to this day if this is an entirely healthy tendency. I didn’t develop the confidence to buy a third pair of shoes without guilt until I was in my early forties and I only recently purchased a waffle maker, even though I have long possessed the desire to cook jolly breakfasts for friends. The greatly underrated writer Jessie Sholl has written about the way our parents pass along these deeply humiliating conundrums in her book, Dirty Secret. The shame of understanding or even remotely mimicking who our parents are causes us to take several serious missteps in our own lives. Our parents’s personality traits scar us in ways that we don’t often realize until we’re well into adulthood ourselves.

Perhaps my mother’s desire to cleave to doodads represented her need to take up space entirely on her own terms and no one else’s. This is very often what motivates a narcissist: a lack of mindfulness intertwined with a solipsistic impulse that is fragile and frangible enough to transform into self-destruction. But whatever the underlying psychological motives, my mother’s hoarding transformed from a manageable obsession into a monomania so suddenly and so unnervingly that I have only just realized, as I am in middle age and I am trying not to repeat the mistakes of my parents (with mixed results), that this was indeed hoarding and that much of my life was shaped by it. (Thankfully, I have mostly confined my “hoarding” to the more than three thousand books I live with, regularly purged and repatriated to ensure spare shelf space.)

In the early stages, in the comparatively innocent days, my mother bought clothes and her closets filled up. The dresses crunched up together so that fur and taffeta were flattened, resembling unassembled cardboard boxes in look and in texture and often never worn. The more space we had, the more it became devoted to my mother’s hoarding. Our garage was especially frightening. You had to climb over and leap across all manner of bric-a-brac just to get the mail. There were rats nesting in the crevices, rats that later set up camp throughout the house and scratched into the walls and scurried around the attic and nothing would be done about this and I would often stay up late and watch movies to drown out the noise of rats scraping loudly, relentlessly into the night. It is why I may be more terrified of rats than most people, although I have summoned the bravery, when called for, to dispose of rats like any bona-fide Brooklynite.

The weird thing is that, while my mother was inveterate in the way that she held onto things, she was completely incompetent in knowing when to go regular grocery shopping and replenish the cupboards. I have long wondered how someone who was supposed to be responsible for us could be so stunningly irresponsible. But examining the motives of a narcissist usually results in the same thrumming singular chord. What I did do was cultivate a fierce loyalty for my friends and anyone or anything I have ever loved. And I know that my exuberance can be scary, scary because it is both incredibly sincere and incredibly intense.

I have been afraid to own things. And that includes being afraid to own who I am. Because to do so would be to hoard, to succumb to the same myopic impulses that fueled my mother and to shamble through detritus, even though wading through the muck of one’s failings is the only way we grow stronger. My answer to this has been to embrace a state of existential obliviousness and hope for the best. It is not exactly hoarding, certainly not in the material sense, but it does represent a quality that is just as insalubrious.

Is Anna Gaca the Worst Writer Ever?

To read a piece of needlessly hostile “journalism” is to be a victim of circumstance — of unimaginative hyperbole, petty music nerd hatred completely disproportionate to, oh say, Trump’s racist speech last night, and other mediums where faux sophistication is derived from an outrageous sentiment, and does this fucking sentence ever end, and are there even copy editors at Spin to confiscate the endless clauses and the glaringly atrocious syntax, and is this even a sentence or a question. Spin regrets the error.

I could spend the rest of this essay thoroughly satirizing Anna Gaca’s hate-infested piece on Imagine Dragons. It’s easy as hell. But I won’t.

You probably came here for a hit piece. You came to follow the rabbit hole. You came to fritter away your time, perhaps seeking an inconsequential expression of enmity to make you feel superior to other people. Especially famous ones.

Well, I’d like you to consider instead a strain of Internet vitriol that you may very well be participating in, recently seen in a warped attack on the band Imagine Dragons.

Now I like Imagine Dragons. I’m far from a hardcore fan. Imagine Dragons is never my first or even my ninety-eighth choice when listening to music. But I have performed their song “Whatever It Takes” at karaoke to appreciative audiences. Imagine Dragons is a completely mainstream but perfectly respectable pop rock band. What was the band’s crime against humanity? To be successful and thus played everywhere. In supermarkets. On Lyft rides. On radio stations. I once heard “Radioactive” on the telephone while I was on hold. The band’s offense is to be inoffensive. Ubiquitously inoffensive.

So when the band bombed on Monday night during a college football halftime show in Santa Clara, California, the Internet pounced on Imagine Dragons and singer Dan Reynolds as if the new Nickelback had at long last emerged from some demonic realm beneath the earth. It was aided and abetted by Ms. Gaca’s Spin article, which gave many license to hate further upon a band that had done nothing wrong other than perform a bad set and have its music played over speakers seemingly against the public’s will. Or, as Ms. Gaca herself phrased it:

Since 2012’s breakthrough “Radioactive,” dynamics have been their blunt-force instrument of choice, each new single crashing through the hyperreality of pop radio to pound another bland hook into a powerless public.

The hyperbole here, driven by words like “blunt-force,” “crashing,” “pound,” and “powerless,” is truly ridiculous. First off, the public is not “powerless.” They can choose to not listen to Imagine Dragons. They can refuse to buy Imagine Dragons’s albums or see them live. They can politely ask the Lyft driver to turn the radio off if Imagine Dragons comes “crashing through.” I’ve done this myself with other bands. It neither impacted my Lyft rating nor did it result in acrimony. Furthermore, what could be more pedestrian and quotidian than pop radio? There is nothing “hyperreal” whatsoever about listening to Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” for the fifty-seventh time while grocery shopping. It is far from surreal and it is about as normal as you can get. To summon this bizarre level of rage and to suggest that there has been some violent imposition comparable to being viciously attacked in the streets by a thug are the telltale marks of a writer incapable of conveying a reasonable opinion.

Every band has an off gig. Every person has an off day. There isn’t a human being walking this earth who hasn’t made a mistake. And if you’re the kind of person who is just waiting for someone you despise to screw up, what does this say about you? Wouldn’t that time be better spent creating or making something? Or perhaps basking in culture that you enjoy or hanging out with friends that you do like?

I can’t imagine the level of pressure on someone like Dan Reynolds to be flawless at all times. But I really warmed up to the guy after seeing his Instagram videos:

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In these three videos, Reynolds is honest, sensitive, kind, strong, and objectively decent. How could you hate the guy? Even if you don’t like Imagine Dragons. He is, in short, a human being.

As for Anna Gaca, I don’t hate her at all. But I now know who she is and how she writes. And if I ever see her byline on an article, I’m not going to read it.

But I will still listen to Imagine Dragons.

1/10/2019 UPDATE: Hyperbole would appear to beget hyperbole. Writer Ed Burmilia has actually compared Anna Gaca’s hit piece to H.L. Mencken’s famous obituary of William Jennings Bryan.

I realize that Burmilia is nobly sticking up for a fellow media colleague. But there is a salient difference between the two writers. Mencken used tangible examples to uphold his opinion, such as Bryan’s waffling on Prohibition, whereas Gaca invents bizarre conspiracies such as the “‘recognizable young rock band’ benefits plan.” (And the original version of Gaca’s piece contained a prominent factual error about the Grammy Awards, which was later corrected by Spin.) Imagine Dragons, much like anything, is fair game for criticism. The question here is why the band requires such an extraordinarily aggro response completely disproportionate to its professed sins.

Mencken: “But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment’s notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.”

Gaca: “And there’s hardly a safer way to hold market share than being traditional enough to capitalize on the Recording Academy’s ‘recognizable young rock band’ benefits plan (they were nominated for two more Grammys in 2018), yet flexible enough to bend wherever the whims of popularity dictate.”

The Feeble and Completely Pointless Thought Experiment of Roger Simon

It is a well-documented fact that Twitter turns the finest minds of our planet into simpering and sophist children flicking inconsequential 280 character bagatelles into the digital ether and that these portentous pronouncements are often misconstrued as High Thought, if not The Truth, about The Way Things Are in Today’s World. And even though I accept the deplorable trolling and the gormless groupthink, and the fact that nobody seems to offer pushback or nuance or a charitable consideration of another viewpoint, nothing could quite prepare me this morning for the lethal combination of hubris and stupidity that I discovered in this tweet from Roger Simon:

Now Roger Simon is not some doddering dude yelling some crazy lager-fueled bullshit at the top of his lungs in a bar. He is the bestselling author of Show Time. He was a long-running columnist at Politico. He has a history of legitimately provoking thought, such as this subtly trenchant piece on how the right-wing media caused a repulsive furor after exposing private messages sent through Ezra Klein’s Journolist.

But here, Simon has clearly lost his marbles, capitulating to the worst “hot take” tendencies that desperate self-appointed pundits retreat to when they’re trying to file six thoughtless blog posts each day that get people outraged and thus tweeting about it in high histrionics. It stands against the kind of journalism that Simon purports to stand for.

I certainly want Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg to live as long as possible. But what rankles me about this tweet is how it epitomizes everything that I detest about a certain strain of magical thinking that has increasingly come to replace reason: (a) the guilt-laden plea to donate one day of your life for the greater good (and thus the “better” person), which in and of itself implies that the 10,000 people sacrificed their day weren’t going to live a meaningful day in the first place, thus mitigating the selflessness, (b) the refusal to accept that something as grief-enabling as death is a process of life and thus an existential reality that we all have to accept, which causes us to become stronger and more empathetic to our fellow humans, and (c) the warped “solution” to the troubling Supreme Court situation, cemented by the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh swinging the high court into a 5-4 tilt to the far right, involves Ginsberg hanging on for dear life and that this is the only apparent idea to preserve a politically balanced high court for the next few decades.

The trolley problem is a thought experiment. Plutarch’s Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment. Hell, even The Man in the High Castle is a thought experiment. In all of these cases, the speculative proposition causes us to think about something tangible in our thoughts and our everyday lives. In the case of the trolley problem, we have to come to terms with the morality of whether killing one person to save multiple lives makes us complicit in the singular death. In the case of Plutarch, we are asked to consider whether constantly replacing the rotting parts of a ship ad infinitum means that the ship can indeed be the same as it was when it first started out. In the Amazon television series, we see how 20th century American life under a hypothetical Nazi victory reveals dark quotidian parallels to the world we live in today, causing us to reexamine whether our tacit acceptance of consumerism and comfort might share some qualities with the same vile impulses behind death camps and slaughtering the weak.

But Simon’s proposition has no such larger moral philosophy, much less any realist allegory, in mind. His proposition was so condescending and badly considered that it provoked anger and befuddlement from the left and right. And this sort of nonsense disheartens me. Once again, we have someone who should know better trafficking and even reveling in stupidity (just read his replies on his Twitter feed). And it serves to uphold my thesis that everyone on Twitter — even a seemingly distinguished veteran journalist — inevitably succumbs to the cloying attention-seeking asininity that is systematically tearing this nation apart and preventing us from finding real solutions to very serious problems.

Scoop (Modern Library #75)

(This is the twenty-sixth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)

When I last dived into Evelyn Waugh’s exquisite comic fiction for this crazy project nearly six years ago, I wrote a sour essay in which I permitted my hostility towards Waugh’s pugnacious life and his reactionary politics to overshadow my appreciation for his art. Perhaps the way I read fiction has changed or the idea of completely discounting a writer’s achievements with the histrionic tone of an upbraiding Pollyanna who doesn’t possess a scintilla of self-awareness fills me with a dread I usually associate with wincing at a tax bill or standing in a needlessly long line for a pizza slice. Whatever the case, I allowed myself to zero in on Brideshead Revisited‘s weaker elements (namely, the deplorable gay stereotype Anthony Blanche) without possessing the decency to praise that novel’s excellent prose in any way. This was decidedly uncharitable of me. For Waugh was, for all of his faults, a master stylist. That I was also bold enough to rank Wodehouse over Waugh was likewise problematic (although I would still rather read Pip and I have never been able to get into the Sword of Honour trilogy and I still feel that Waugh was more or less finished as an author after The Loved One; incidentally, Waugh himself called Wodehouse “the Master”). At the time, the eminently reasonable Cynthia Haven offered what I now deem to be appropriate pushback, observing that I brought a lot of “post-modern baggage” into my reading. My “take” on that novel’s Catholic dialogue was, I now realize after diving into Waugh again, driven by a cocky yahooism that is perhaps better deployed while knocking back pints in a sports bar and claiming that you’re a big fan of the team everybody else is cheering for. Never mind that the names of the players are only lodged in your memory by the blinding Chryon reminders and the bellowing cries of histrionic announcers that work together to perfect a sense-deadening television experience.

Anyway, I’ll leave cloud cuckoos like Dave Eggers to remain dishonest and pretend they never despised great novels. I’d rather be candid about where I may have strayed in my literary judgement and how I have tried to reckon with it. In a literary climate of “No haters” (and thus no chances), we are apparently no longer allowed to (a) voice dissenting opinions or (b) take the time to reassess our youthful follies and better appreciate a novel that rubbed us the wrong way on the first read. Wrestling with fiction should involve expressing our hesitations and confessing our evolving sensibilities and perceiving what a problematic author did right. And so here we are. It has taken many months to get here, but it does take time to articulate a personal contradiction.

So here goes: As much as I appreciate Scoop‘s considerable merits (particularly the fine and often hilarious satire when the book takes place on Waugh’s home turf), I cannot find it within me to endorse this novel’s abysmally tone-deaf observations on a fictitious Abyssinia — here, Ishmaelia. There are unsophisticated thoughts cloaked beneath the light fluidity of Waugh’s exacting pen that many of his acolytes — including The Observer‘s Robert McCrum and NPR’s Alexander Nazaryan — refuse to acknowledge. There’s no other way to say this, but Waugh is more nimble with his gifts when he bakes his pies with an anglophonic upper crust. And that ugly truth should give any reader or admirer great pause. (Even Selina Hastings, one of his biographers, was forced to concede this. And McCrum, to his credit, does at least write that “Scoop derives less inspiration from Ethiopia,” although this is a bit like stating that Paul Manafort merely muttered a little white lie.) Waugh’s limitations in Scoop are not as scabrous as Black Mischief — a novel so packed with racism that it’s almost the literary equivalent to Louis C.K.’s recent attempts at a comeback. But his “insights” into Africa are still very bad, despite all the other rich wit contained within the book. Waugh cannot see anyone who does not share his lily-white complexion as human. His creatively bankrupt view of Africans as bloodthirsty cannibals or “crapulous black servants” or “a natty young Negro smoking from a long cigarette holder” carries over from Black Mischief. “A pious old darky named Mr. Samuel Smiles Jackson” is installed President. I was rankled by the constant cries of “Boy!” from the assorted journos, late risers who complain about not getting swift servitude with a smile. (“Six bloody black servants and no breakfast,” sneers the entitled Corker at one point.) Even the potentially interesting politics behind Ishmaelia’s upheaval are coarse and general, with the arrival of Dr. Benito at a press conference described in one paragraph with a contrast of “blacks” and “whites” that show the force and timing of a man determined to be vituperative, but without substantive subtlety. One of the book’s jokes involves a nonexistent city on the nation’s map identified as “Laku,” which is Ishmaelite for “I don’t know.” And while it does allow for a decent setup in which numerous journalists expend lavish resources to find Laku for their stories, I suspect that this is really Waugh confessing he doesn’t know and can’t know because he doesn’t want to.

Still, in approaching Scoop, I was determined to give this book more care than what I doled out to Brideshead. Not only did I spend a few months rereading all of Waugh’s novels up through Brideshead, finding them considerably richer than I did on my first two canon reads, but I also dived into the Selina Hastings and Martin Stannard biographies, along with numerous other texts pertaining to Scoop. And one cannot completely invalidate Waugh’s talent:

“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in a carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know. Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution.”

This is pitch-perfect Waugh. Sadly, the wanton laziness of journalists and willful opportunism of newspaper publishers remain very applicable eighty-one years after Scoop‘s publication. In 2015, a Hardin County newspaper misreported that the local sheriff had said that “those who go into the law enforcement profession typically do it because they have a desire to shoot minorities.” And this was before The New York Times became an apologist outlet for Nazis (the original title of that linked article was “In America’s Heartland, the Nazi Sympathizer Next Door”) and didn’t even bother to fact-check an infamous climate change denial article from Bret Stephens published on April 28, 2017.

So Scoop does deserve our attention in an age devoted to “alternative facts” and a vulgar leader who routinely squeezes savage whoppers through his soulless teeth. Waugh uses a familiar but extremely effective series of misunderstandings to kickstart his often razor-sharp sendup, whereby a hot writer by the name of John Courtney Boot is considered to be the ideal candidate to cover a war in Ishamelia for The Daily Beast (not to be confused with the present Daily Beast founded by Tina Brown, who took the name from Waugh — and, while we’re on the subject of contemporary parallels, Scoop also features a character by the name of Nannie Bloggs, quite fitting in an epoch populated with dozens of nanny blogs). John Boot is confused with William Boot, a bucolic man who writes a nature column known as Lush Places and believes himself to be in trouble with the top brass for substituting “beaver” with “great crested grebe” in a recent installment. He is sent to cover a war that nobody understands.

The novel is funny and thrilling in its first one hundred pages, with Waugh deftly balancing his keen eye for decor (he did study architecture) with these goofy mixups. Rather tellingly, however, Waugh does spend a lot of time with William Boot in transit to Ishamelia, almost as if Waugh is reluctant to get to the country and write about the adventure. And it is within the regions of East Africa that Waugh is on less firm footing, especially when he strays from the journalists. Stannard has helpfully observed that, of all Waugh’s pre-war novels, Scoop was the most heavily edited and that it was the “political” sections with which Waugh had “structural problems.” But Scoop‘s problems really amount to tonal ones. Where Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (ML #91) brilliantly holds up a mirror to expose the audience’s assumptions about people (with the novel’s Broadway adaptation inspiring a tremendously interesting Ralph Ellison essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter,” which many of today’s self-righteous vigilantes should read), Scoop seems more content to revel in its atavistic prejudices.

In 2003, Christopher Hitchens gently bemoaned the “rank crudity” of Waugh’s childish names for side characters. And I think he was right to pinpoint Waugh’s declining powers of invention. For all of Scoop‘s blazing panoramas and descriptive sheen (the prose committed to the Megalopilitan offices is brilliant), the ultimate weakness of the book is that Waugh seems incapable of imbuing Ishamelia with the same inventive life with which he devotes to England. When one looks at the travel writing that came before this, even the high points of Waugh in Abyssinia are the sections where he bitches about his boredom.

Waugh’s writing was often fueled by a vicious need for revenge and an inability to let things go. Take the case of Charles Crutwell, the Hertford dean who praised Waugh on his writing and awarded him an Oxford scholarship as a young man. Waugh proceeded to be incredibly lazy about his studies, deciding that he had earned this financial reward, that he no longer needed to exert himself in any way, and that he would spend his time boozing it up and getting tight with his mates. Crutwell told Waugh that he needed to take his research more seriously. He could have had Waugh expelled, but he didn’t. And for this, Crutwell became the target of Waugh’s savage barbs throughout much of his early writing and many of his novels. In Decline and Fall, you’ll find Toby Crutwell as an insane burglar turned MP. In Vile Bodies, a “Captain Crutwell” is the snobby member of the Committee of the Ladies’ Conservative Association at Chesham Bois. There’s a Crutwell in Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust. Waugh’s story “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing” was originally titled “Mr. Crutwell’s Little Outing.” And in one of Scoop‘s supererogatory chapters, William Boot meets a General Crutwell who has had numerous landmarks named after him. Keep in mind that this is sixteen years after the events in Hertford. You want to take Waugh aside, buy him a beer, and say, “Bro, walk away.”

Now I have to confess that this type of brutal targeted satire was catnip for me at a certain impressionable age that lingered embarrassingly long into my late thirties. The very kind George Saunders tried to get me to understand this twelve years ago during an episode of my old literary podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, in which we were discussing the way Sacha Baron Cohen singled out people with total malice. Cohen’s recent television series Who is America certainly upheld Saunders’s point. Of course, I stubbornly pushed back. Because ridicule is a hell of a drug. Just ask anyone with a Twitter account. But I now understand, especially after contending with Waugh again, that effective satire needs to be more concerned with exposing and virulently denouncing those in actual power, railing against the tyrannical institutions that diminish individual lives, and, of course, exposing the follies of human behavior. Waugh does this to a large extent in Scoop and his observations about newspapermen running up large tabs on their expense accounts and manipulating the competition are both funny and beautiful, but he also appears to have been operating from an inferiority complex, an intense need for victory against his perceived oppressors and something that, truth be told, represents a minor but nevertheless troubling trait I recognize in myself and that has caused much of my own writing and communications with people to be vehemently misunderstood, if not outright distorted into libelous and untrue allegations. When your motivation to write involves the expression of childish snubs and pedantic rage without a corresponding set of virtues, it is, from my standpoint, failed satire. And I don’t know about you, but my feeling is that, if you’re still holding a grudge against someone after five or six years, then the issue is no longer about the person who wronged you, but about a petty and enduring narcissism on behalf of the grudgeholder. What precisely do these many Crutwells add to Waugh’s writing? Not much, to tell you the truth.

We do know that, when Waugh covered Abyssinia, he wrote in a letter to Penelope Betjeman, “I am a very bad journalist, well only a shit could be good on this particular job.” So perhaps there was a part of Waugh that needed to construct a biting novel from his own toxic combination of arrogance and self-loathing.

But Waugh’s biggest flaw as a writer, however great his talent, was his inability to summon empathy or a humanistic vision throughout his work, even if it is there in spurts in Brideshead and perhaps best realized in his finest novel, A Handful of Dust. When William Boot foot falls in love with Kätchen, a poorly realized character at best, Waugh has no interest in portraying Boot’s feelings as anything more than that of a dopey cipher who deserves our contempt: “For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and and heart-whole; landbound. Now for the first time he was far from sure, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently in submarine twilight. A lush place.” It is one thing to present Boot clumsily setting up an unnecessary canoe or showing the way he gets hoodwinked over a heavy package of stones or not understanding basic journalism jargon and to let Boot’s bumbling behavior (or, for that matter, the apposite metaphor of a three-legged dog barking in a barrel just outside Kätchen’s home) speak for itself. It is quite another thing to stack the deck against your protagonist with a passage like this, however eloquently condemned. What Waugh had not learned from Wodehouse was that there was a way of both recognizing the ineptitude of a dunderhead while also humanizing his feelings. You can lay down as many barbs as you like in art, but, at a certain point, if you’re any good, the artistic expression itself has to evolve beyond mere virtuosic style. This, in my view, is the main reason why Waugh crumbled and why I think his standing should be reassessed. The vindictiveness in Black Mischief, however crucially transgressive at the time, still represented a failure of creative powers. All Waugh had left at the end was a bitter nostalgia for a lost Britannia and a fear of modernity, which amounted to little more than an old man pining for the good old days by the time Waugh got to his wildly overrated Sword of Honour trilogy (and by the time Louis C.K. returned on stage with his first full set littered with racism, transphobia, and scorn for the young generation). If Waugh had learned to see the marvel of a changing world and if he had embraced human progress rather than fleeing from it, he might have produced more substantive work. But, hey, here I am talking about the guy nearly a century later, largely because he’s on a list. Still, even today, young conservative men have adopted the tweedy analog look of a “better time.” So maybe the joke’s on me. Thankfully the next Waugh novel book I have to write about, A Handful of Dust (ML #34), is a legitimate masterpiece. So I will try to give Waugh a more generous hearing when we get there in a few years. For now, I’m trying to shake off his seductive spite as well as the few remaining dregs of my own.

Next Up: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms!

You’re Not Very Interesting

So tell me about you. I mean, I’ve been talking a lot about myself.

I don’t mind. I like to listen.

Yes, but you’ve spent the last hour listening. And I don’t know if that’s entirely fair. What do you like to do?

I walk.

Yes.

Long distances. Quite a few Great Saunters under my belt.

What’s a Great Saunter?

You walk around the perimeter of Manhattan starting at 6 AM. 32 miles. I stopped doing it when I got food poisoning after eating a burrito in the Bronx. That was halfway through the last Saunter I did.

Mmmm. What else?

I cook and I bake. I invite people over for three-course dinners.

What do you make?

Everything. A professional food writer even gave me the thumbs up, which was a nice surprise. Or maybe she was being polite. Anyway, I always try something new. I once made sancocho from scratch. It took five hours. It made many people very happy. My dishes are often hits at potlucks.

What else do you do?

I volunteer.

Who do you volunteer with?

A few places. Meals on Wheels. Various organizations.

And you write and make audio drama?

Yes. It’s very fun. And it’s nice to have actors come by. They’re all very kind.

And you sing?

Yes. I have also written a few dozen songs since picking up the guitar again in August. People seem to like them. I’m going to start performing them.

You perform?

I act sometimes. I sometimes do all this under different names. Just to see if I’ve still got it.

Why?

Long story for another time. But I do most of what I do under my own name.

What else do you do?

I do a secret good deed every day.

Such as?

Well, it wouldn’t be a secret good deed if I told you. But kindnesses here and there. A gesture, a donation, a favor, a lengthy email of encouragement. Anything ranging from five minutes to three hours.

Why do you do that?

Because you have to give back. Or just plain give. It often isn’t enough.

Can I confess something?

Sure.

You don’t sound very interesting.

I once saved a magazine’s archives from permanent digital deletion. I have talked quite a few people out of suicide over the phone. I gave money to a woman to help her escape her abusive partner and now she’s thriving. I drove 400 miles to bail out a friend on short notice. Not too long ago, a homeless woman asked me for a cigarette on a cold night and she looked so lost and sad that I bought her a meal and a Metrocard. I said that she could use my shower, gave her a new toothbrush and a few T-shirts, had her sleep in my bed while I crashed on the couch.

That sounds dangerous.

Everything turned out fine. I give pep talks. For some reason, people open up to me.

You don’t have to be defensive.

You’re right. I’m working on that. Well, if I’m not interesting, why are you here?

I don’t know. There’s something about you that intrigues me.

But you just said that I’m not interesting.

You’re not. But you intrigue me.

Can you be intrigued by someone who you don’t find interesting?

Maybe.

Maybe you’re just passing the time. Can I tell you a story?

Sure.

So I was a little effusive on New Year’s.

Texting?

Yeah. I just wanted to wish everyone a happy new year. Because I was feeling good and really positive at a karaoke bar. They gave me the mic and I sang U2’s “New Year’s Day” just after midnight. And I accidentally texted someone I dated two years ago.

What happened?

Well, she opened up to me a bit about how we had connected. And I told her she was kind and peaceful.

Yeah?

Yeah. And we were being real with each other. And then she said something about a guy named Isaac. And I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. And that’s when she realized that it was another guy named Ed that she had dated around the same time.

What happened?

She invalidated the text chain that we had shared before and told me she wasn’t interested in texting further. So I peacefully obliged. But here’s the thing. If you share an experience with someone, and that person is not who you think they are, does that cancel out the experience? It was a harmless mistake. Could have happened to anyone. But it made me wonder if we’re all far more willing to fall into scripts and assumptions rather than actually connect and empathize with each other and understand that there’s another human being on the other side. That there’s a beauty in recognizing another person’s totality. I don’t think anyone wants to acknowledge the commonality of our fuckups. We would rather be the heroes of our own stories. And that’s not very interesting.

Maybe you’re just not very interesting.

Maybe you’re right.