Appraisal

It’s a wonder you’re not dead. What keeps you alive? The shining hope you mine from the mire of dark dreams. An occasional kindness you didn’t expect from a stranger. The news that some fierce and sincere pep talk you delivered years ago resulted in someone living a better life. You saved two lives just this year alone: a friend who you tracked down in a doorway just north of Union Square who was carving into herself with a knife and who spilled blood in the tony entrance of a women’s clothing store, a woman who you patched up and took care of and eventually had to call an ambulance for, and another friend who was about to down a full bottle of Ambien in a East Village establishment that shall remain unnamed. You saw his mouth and the open orange container and you sprinted with every ounce of fortitude you had. If you had arrived just a moment later, he would have swallowed the pills. But you tackled him at just the right time. You’re still haunted by the relentless clatter of the bottle’s contents spilling onto the grimy bathroom tile. It took ten minutes to buy him a beer and to calm him down and to get him to laugh and to remind him why life was worth living. Which you seem to be good at doing.

You didn’t want either of them to die because New York needed them both. You were so certain of that and you were proven right. Both now thrive. And perhaps your empathy went into overdrive not just because you care about other people more than you let on, but because you had been there yourself five years before and little trickles of that fateful morning on the bridge, a morning in which a teeny isthmus separated you from Kings County and the undiscovered country, have sometimes dropped into your mindscape in the intervening time. When a spritzer of ideations sprinkled into your head after a resentful and hateful gang invented convincing lies and hounded for your blood, your therapist ghosted you because she had had enough of your blubbering feelings. The latest development seemed to confirm that you were a fuckup, even though you were doing much better. Or maybe the therapist saw you, as so many do, as an insignificant spectre. You seem to project such confidence and authority that it’s impossible for people to see that you want to stitch up the remaining wounds. They can never praise your accomplishments and will never see all the good that you do (not that you advertise this), but they always magnify one pedantic fault. Such is life in the 21st century. If you can’t live up to the unreasonably golden ideal, then get lost. And now no mental health professional in the New York metropolitan area seems to want to take you on, especially after you slam them with a precis of what’s troubling you. The war against authenticity includes even those who are supposed to provide help to those who are trying to be more real and thus more connected to others in an increasingly isolated age. Your messages fall on deaf clinical ears. And it reinforces this idea that you don’t belong or that you are unworthy of succor. Well, you privileged white male son of a bitch, what do you have to complain about? You had a free ride because of your genetics and you blew it and you deserve every hell for every mistake I’ve heard about. And you say solo and sotto voce, “No, I don’t. Who does? Aren’t you a humanist?”

You played two jokes in the first week of April, issuing a fake apology on Instagram and writing a goofy essay in which you claimed to have two daughters. But your problem is that you’re just too damn persuasive and convincing. Because people wrote in and asked if you were okay and who was the lucky woman and when did this happen and mazel tov. So many people seem to want you married, a condition that, in most cases, represents an illusory felicity. But the truth is that, well, maybe you’d like to be. Well, not necessarily. You just want to be involved in a situation in which your apparent attributes and considerable attention to detail after midnight don’t represent the sole reasons why a woman sleeps over. People never seem to see your kindness and your empathy and your affection, in part because you keep this on the q.t. and it seems churlish at this stage in your life to announce it. And it’s also difficult to articulate your feelings because it’s construed as a form of emotional manipulation, even as you are careful to find the gentlest candor to stand up for who you are. They say that you can’t beat the house. So maybe there’s just no one out there for you, other than that dude in the mirror. The only recent woman who seemed to care for you, who accepted you and offered handwritten cards, turned out to be married and was seeking multiple dalliances. You had to laugh at the irony, given how so many others had believed in the faith of this imperfect institution. So you had to say sayonara to her. At this stage of the game, you’re the “if only” choice. But you really want to be somebody’s only. This puerile game of musical bodies grows so tiresome. You’re far from the only one experiencing this plight. So why not shut the hell up? Besides, maybe it’s too late for you.

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that any self-appraisal inevitably turns you into the ignoble hero of your own self-serving story. In some sense, as Kiese Laymon has recently observed in his excellent memoir Heavy, you need to tell lies before you tango with the truth. Which is exactly what you did last week. So let’s do better. You feel that you give and they take, despite the fact that you also believe that life should never involve a ledger. But, hey, we all contain quite a few contradictions. You love and it’s always unrequited. You frequently wonder if your desire to be loved for who you are is the most selfish thing to ask for. You ask for favors once in a cerulean moon yet there’s always some camarera gently placing the onyx check presenter upon your mesa. You’re tired of paying your dues, but there’s no other choice. Men who have done far worse things than you are alleged to have committed are allowed to write cover stories for major magazines to state the bleeding obvious. It’s not that you’re resentful or envious. You don’t have a competitive bone in your body. But you do despise the mediocre and you want your work, especially the stuff for which you put in serious time, to be respected. But there’s no chance of that happening. Not in an age in which a tweet composed in five seconds is now considered just as worthy as a work of art that took years to put together. Your ship sailed in on the strength of your achievements last December and a feral horde collected invidious myths to smear you. Because of this, you put on about five, maybe ten pounds. And you’re now within a few tenths of that BMI sliver between normal and overweight that becomes ever more difficult to shave off at this metabolic stage of your life. The winter prohibited the walks that make you feel more alive and the stress-fueled drinking eroded your thinness. Now it’s spring and you’re pushing yourself hard, shaving sleep to dream, which is the one thing you live for and that you do best at and the one thing that keeps you sane. But it’s incompatible with the profit motive of the venal bean counters. You cut all ties with your selfish fucked up family. And when you tell a friend, only a few nights ago, why you’ve done this, pointing to the fact (among many others) that you attended five different schools during five formative years, and all this while enduring physical and emotional abuse, your friend replies, “Jesus, Ed, you have the most fucked up family out of anybody I’ve ever known. Now I understand.” Well, at least someone does. At least you’re committed to sharing more of yourself with the people who actually take the time to know you.

What ultimately keeps you giddy and alive is knowing that you refuse to play the sick game of being a saint in paradise. Likes, favorites, popularity. Christ, you actually bought into that horseshit not all that long ago. What you can do is allow the world to come around to you. Maybe one day they’ll see that you have a huge heart and that you have a lot to give. But, for now, anyone who wants in is going to have to talk to that big muscular guy standing next to the velvet rope. He’s pretty damn scary to most people in the club, but you’re not going to make the mistake of believing that all visitors into your VIP lounge are acting with the best of intentions. On the other hand, you’re really pulling all the stops in the places that count. So be you and let the haters choke on the bile of their failure to speak in a real voice. If you want to truly feel for others and make waves, then you have to be true to yourself. Don’t let the seductive propaganda steer you any other way.

The Social Media Fast

On March 9th, I decided to say “¡No más!” to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for a while. In recent weeks, I had received a sustained series of obsessive messages, both public and private, from crazed strangers whom I had never met or barely knew. One such fervid crusader was a feverish cartoonist who had spent hours of her life tweeting about me because I had written a paragraph in 2003 that essentially amounted to “I don’t like your McSweeney’s article.” None of this squared up with the joy and positivism that I was receiving from people in my real life. It was incredibly weird to go from a volunteering stint in which I had made people in need very happy, only to log onto one of the social networks to discover people pining for my demise or engaging in microaggresions or simply dehumanizing me because I fit their bill of a sinister Snidely Whiplash.

It finally dawned on me that I experienced nothing even remotely close to such casual malevolence in my day-to-day adventures, where friends and acquaintances and workmates laughed over bons mots that the digital pitchfork crowd perceived as baleful tells. Beyond all this, perhaps the most substantial reason for this virtual fast was my need to focus on some quite tricky scripts that I’m now writing for The Gray Area‘s second season, along with a few other pastimes. Abandoning the “essential” platforms was also a way of putting the kibosh on a pervasive nastiness that I felt and responded to with considerable and excessive emotion. It’s quite possible that I have a personality perfectly warm and gushing and endearingly oddball for reality, yet apparently incompatible with the cartoonish assumptions engendered through social media.

Whatever the case, I decided to cut the cord. I deleted the appurtenant apps on my phone and resolved not to check anything. I would never know if something I posted had been liked or favorited. For all I know, there are direct messages awaiting me right now on these poisonous online poppy fields. The funny thing about all this was that I was such a prolific presence on these channels that three friends texted me to ask if I was okay. I had managed to connect more by disconnecting.

I can safely report that I am considerably calmer and much happier. I suffer neither fools nor FOMO. I have still been able to follow the news, digging up newly appointed CIA director Gina Haspel’s sordid past as a black site torturer and developments pertaining to a potential Stormy Daniels interview on 60 Minutes — all this without using Twitter. I find myself less stressed, more smartly informed, and more willing to be true to who I am. The early days did admittedly involve some modest dopamine shakes, but I responded by reading books, cooking nice and elaborate meals for myself, engaging in self-care, and keeping in touch with friends on a more regular basis. Not by text, but with phone calls. We often forget that human emotion stretches itself across a far more promising tapestry if you take the time to know a voice or a face or a soul. Phone calls and real world hangout sessions are vastly richer experiences than the half-hearted texts that digital jockeys bang into their phones while sprinting off somewhere and asking themselves later why they are so frequently disappointed.

The problem with wearing your emotional candor on your sleeve or being big and vulnerable enough to tell others how you feel is that anything you say in a small text box is immediately dismembered and distorted from its original intent. If anything I had written on social media had been uttered in person, the other person and I would have likely laughed it off over a few pints. But because my messages had been delivered through a Pringles-like canister honed for circular reasoning, my words became deliberately misinterpreted and used by a few otherwise smart people to harbor fierce enmity. Undoubtedly, the fault is mine in some way. I am not the type to avoid expressing his mind and his heart. Moreover, I have certainly judged people unfairly based on what I think I know about their worst qualities on social media. And I have often been wrong, especially after I met them. Even so, it seems to me especially banal to hurl one’s line into a lake that rewards only those who catch fish through the same tried and true methods. These days, the latitude for “offense” has thinned quite considerably. Due process has been replaced by character references from dodgy strangers clenching their fists in a basement and somehow landing book deals for their superficial insights even as they take no real chances in how they express themselves or know other people.

People who are easily offended are quite funny. The bar for expressive delinquency has dropped so low that some folks are willing to engage in sustained jihads over disputes that are actually pregnant with communicative possibility. I’ve seen the thoughts that cause people to get hopped up and I am often quite baffled. On any given day, I have heard far worse statements uttered by people in my neighborhood in a jocular context. I’d never think of ostracizing a regular mischief maker who I run into at least twice a week and who cried out to me only a week and a half ago, “Hey, you bald motherfucker, how the fuck are you doing?” The sheer enthusiasm he applies to this sentiment is not only hilarious and admirably magical, but has allowed for some witty repartee that has amused passing bystanders. (Incidentally, he followed up his “profane” statement with a big hug.)

The upshot is that judging another person by who they appear to be online does not do justice to his beauty, his magnanimity, and his possibility. And even though we must allow other people to judge, even when they are wrong, the whole point of listening to other perspectives is to have one’s worldview expanded rather than flattened. Why then do we erect walls? Fear perhaps. A sense that someone who jolts our established notions may be telling a grim truth we don’t want to hear. But the barrier is no different from the border wall Trump hopes to build. Walls are built to memorialize xenophobia. The wall builders clearly aren’t motivated to understand another perspective, much less trying to change it. They are predictably afraid and predictably shallow. At a certain point, a grudge that one holds against someone isn’t so much about the other person’s allegedly ill repute, but about the personality flaws inherent in the grudge holder. The way I see it, you have about seven years to hold a grudge. And, even then, the grudge should be reserved for something significant — like, say, someone who stole your lover or murdered a family member or who ruined a good friend’s painstakingly assembled fortune.

I’ll probably be back on social media eventually. For now, I’m enjoying this extended period of slowing down, sitting with people, chatting with friends and strangers, focusing on my thoughts, and realizing how the digital world, despite all the relentless backslapping by techbros, is one of the most preposterous reputational metrics ever devised by humanity.

Conscience and Integrity

He was a passionate devotee of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and many others who he sensed were writing the Great American Novel. He made acquaintances with a few of his heroes, attending workshops and the like. And he spent eleven years working on his novel. Because he needed his novel to be perfect. To his mind, this was the only way he could live up.

He didn’t realize that great novels — and indeed great art — often happen by accident. By routine. By turning around work and getting better at what you do. Even the best ball players can’t hit a homerun every time. He caused himself and a number of other people close to him some grief. It’s all there in Chip McGrath’s article. And it will all be there in a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show.

I bring Charles Bock up in light of Carrie Frye and David Ulin’s responses to the Zadie Smith controversy. Both suggest that Zadie Smith’s decision was exacted with, respectively, conscience and integrity. Anyone who writes knows that writing can be a tough and unrelenting business. That you’re going to get “no” (or, more often, no reply at all) more often than you get “yes.” Which is why it’s important to keep on writing and not let anyone stand in your way.

Now it’s certainly important to demand the best out of people, no matter how small the stakes. When friends and acquaintances offer me their manuscripts, they know damn well that I’m going to be hard and ruthless with their words. Writing is too important to be taken for granted.

But I believe that it’s also important to be encouraging with people who have the basic nuts and bolts. To leave some wiggle room for another writer to work out a problem and to find her voice in her own way. To encourage a writer, particularly a good one, to carry on writing, however difficult the process, however much the writer’s writing may not speak to you, and whatever the extant fallacies you perceive. The only way that a writer can get better at writing is to look that white whale right in the eye. To produce without fear of judgment and without fear of failure, but with an upturned ear. Judgment and failure come with the territory.

A wholesale dismissal of a manuscript without reason is less helpful than an honest and reasonable excoriation, which might provide the writer some clues on how to get better or where the writer went wrong with one person. Writing, like many things in life, benefits from failure as well as success. So I can find little conscience and integrity to Zadie Smith’s actions. Had she bothered to highlight the deficiencies of these manuscripts using very specific examples — and, for that matter, had the print people damning blogs used very specific examples — we might be having a pugnacious but ultimately well-intentioned discussion. But Zadie Smith, lest we forget, is just one voice. She is not the final arbiter of taste. The very idea that art must be perfect fails to take Michelangelo’s maxim into account: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Casablanca, you may recall, was just another studio picture. Picasso was frighteningly prolific. On the Road was written in three weeks. Dostoevsky quite famously wrote his novella, “The Gambler,” because he had to meet a crazed deadline in order to meet his debts.

The Charles Bocks of our world are left to sweat when they might benefit from writing with a sense of urgency. They continue in this way because instead of being true to their voices, they feel the need to adhere to some ridiculously high standard proscribed by others. When the high standards should come primarily from the artist, guided in large part by an intuitive subconscious.

So what role then is the critic or the judge? I think Mencken was pretty close:

A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.