But alone is alone

24 Jun

It occurred to me at 4 a.m. this morning that I was lonely.

It was an odd but familiar sensation, a sort of sinking in my stomach battling for prominence with the two bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch I’d decided to eat when I was half-asleep and hungry and justifying poor dietary decisions as a really early breakfast. I felt grossly full — and also, kind of gross in general. But the feeling I couldn’t really pinpoint was the one lingering underneath that, whatever subtle nagging urge had me curled up on my bed with my head near the foot so the fan would be even closer, even though for once I wasn’t sweating. And I realized, with sudden unwelcome clarity, that what I was feeling was loneliness, a state of being I once knew so well but has since become something I’ve come to regard as a childish affectation. Being lonely is for teenagers who write poetry and read Camus and make declarative statements about love two months after receiving their first kiss. (This is not me. I read The Stranger, but only when it was assigned for class.)

Logically, I know that loneliness is an incredibly common emotion, which is probably why human beings are always obnoxiously wrapping our arms around one another. I, too, crave physical contact, but at this point, I accept that begrudgingly as an irritating side effect of not being a robot. Companionship, while nice, is something I don’t often feel I need, and I say that as someone who genuinely loves the people in his life. It’s not a reflection on them, but on me, and the way I’ve learned, sometimes by necessity, to be comfortable by myself. And I go through phases, yes, where I truly do feel the need to be surrounded by people I love as often as possible, when I’ll double-book myself just to ensure I don’t have to spend too much time with my thoughts. But even then, if plans fall through and I’m left as solitary as I’d feared, it’s not loneliness I feel. Frustration, annoyance, and boredom, sure — not loneliness.

That’s why I was so caught off-guard at 4 a.m. this morning. It felt so absurd to me that I would be experiencing this useless concern I’d grown past. But of course, it’s completely normal and human, and the only truly strange thing is that I’d ever believed myself to be beyond loneliness in the first place. I don’t think of myself as a cold person. I’m not withdrawn. I guess it’s more that I’ve come to resent the idea of living your life with the purpose of finding someone else to share it with. And that’s not cynicism so much as hope that we can all be self-fulfilled, to the extent that any sort of coupling, conscious or otherwise, we entertain is an added benefit to an already complete existence. I still believe that, to some extent, even though it’s perhaps a bit short-sighted. And I still maintain that far too many people stuff themselves into relationships that very clearly don’t fit out of the vague but terrifying dread of dying alone. All of this can be true, and I can still have felt lonely at 4 a.m. this morning, without any real prompting aside from the fact that the pillow I was clutching to my chest had become too warm with body heat and I had to let it go.

But I guess this is all to say that, rationality aside, I could stand to let a little more loneliness into my life. And maybe someone else, if it came to that, but it’s OK if it doesn’t.

12 longform BuzzFeed pieces you should read

18 May

BuzzFeed: it’s not just cat GIFs, jackass. That’s not our slogan, but sometimes I think it should be.

At this point, people who read BuzzFeed know that it’s not just a site for cute animal pictures and personality quizzes. I mean, it is those things, yes — but it’s also home to some of the best investigative reporting and longform writing on the internet. I’ve worked at BuzzFeed long enough to not be surprised when people don’t get it, and I no longer feel the need to get overly defensive about it. I’m proud of the work I do, and I’m proud of the work my colleagues do, and I feel like the work speaks for itself.

But given that it’s Sunday evening, and Sunday evening is the ideal time to read long articles you’ve been putting off all week, I’m going to share several of my favorite longform BuzzFeed pieces. This is not to discount the lists and quizzes that also populate the site — because believe it or not, those take a shit-ton of work to put together, too. (Seriously, I have spent so many hours perfecting quizzes. Unless you’ve done it, you have no idea.) But in the interest of celebrating the kind of work people still seem surprised to find on BuzzFeed, I’m focusing on essays, reported pieces, and other longform features.

Some of them are recent. Some are older. You’ve probably read a few already. And I’m leaving out dozens and dozens of pieces I love so as not to make this too overwhelming. With that in mind, I’ll probably end up doing another installment of this in the future. Anyway.

1. “The Secret History of Britney Spears’ Lost Album” by Hunter Schwarz. Hardcore Britney stans may have already known about Britney’s lost album Original Doll. I was not one of those people. Hunter did some impressive reporting on this piece, which not only covers Original Doll, but also offers insight into the psyche of one of the most confounding figures in pop music. On a personal note, it was exciting watching Hunter dig deep into a subject he doesn’t usually get to write about. The results were equally thrilling.
2. “How Smash Became TV’s Biggest Train Wreck” by Kate Aurthur. I loved Smash so, so much. I miss it more often than I’d like to admit. Kate didn’t set out to write a takedown of creator Theresa Rebeck — and that’s not what this piece is, regardless of how Rebeck may feel about it. It’s revelatory and occasionally damning, but it’s also very fair. You can tell there’s no agenda here past trying to understand where Smash went wrong, and for a fan of the show — and a fan of television in general — that’s incredibly important.
3. “The Summer I Tried to Save Memphis” by Saeed Jones. Saeed started at BuzzFeed shortly after I did, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching him expand the LGBT section, combining great reporting with some of the most stunning personal essays I’ve ever read. And Saeed, aside from his skills as an editor, is an exceptional writer. This piece is undeniably powerful, but what I really love about it is its specificity. He writes with such gorgeous detail about an intensely personal experience — with, yes, larger cultural implications.
4. “‘Something Terrible Has Happened Here': The Crazy Story of How Clue Went From Forgotten Flop to Cult Triumph” by Adam B. Vary. We’re not huge fans of the term “oral history” at BuzzFeed, and with good reason. As a format, it’s a little played out, and very hit or miss. So while Adam could have done an oral history of Clue — which would have been great, too, I’m sure! — he turned his interviews into this excellent written-through feature instead. It’s just as fascinating, and even more fun to read.
5. “‘That Dead Girl': A Family and a Town After a Cyberbullied 12-Year-Old’s Suicide” by Ryan Broderick. We hear awful stories on the internet all the time, and more often than not, we don’t follow up. Following up is what this heartbreaking piece does. It’s the perfect example of BuzzFeed going deeper — not simply reporting the surface story, but diving into the hard truths of a suicide and its aftermath. Ryan’s unique understanding of the internet also really helps here, adding valuable context to the story.
6. “How Melissa Leo Became an Overnight Sensation in Just 30 Years” by Doree Shafrir. I’ve been lucky enough to have Doree edit my work — she completely changed the way I felt about the editing process. But Doree does so much at BuzzFeed that she rarely gets to publish her own pieces. When she does, they’re always a treat. I love this interview feature on Melissa Leo, which, again, could have made an interesting enough Q&A. As a feature, though, it’s far more memorable. Worth noting that the photos are pretty wonderful, too.
7. “Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500″ by Drew Philp. In addition to having a staff of some incredibly talented writers, BuzzFeed also recruits great freelancers. This piece, which you’ve probably seen since it went mega-viral, is by a contributor. Plenty has been written about Detroit over the past few years, but this is a different story and perspective, which I think is why it shared so well. Again, it’s specificity that speaks to the larger issues at hand. Also, how cool is it that longform writing can go viral? (Very.)
8. “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls” by Anne Helen Petersen. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a lot of Jennifer Lawrence-centric content on BuzzFeed. People love her, clearly, and if you need more proof of that, note that this piece also went viral. Page views aside, it’s such a great essay, placing Jennifer Lawrence in a historical context that most of us probably hadn’t considered. Celebrity culture is easy to deride, but it’s so much more interesting to analyze, and this feature does that brilliantly.
9. “It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat” by Louis Peitzman. Am I seriously including one of my own pieces on this list of articles you should read? I’m an asshole. But listen. When people ask me about writing I’m proud of, this is the piece that most often springs to mind. It took a lot out of me to write. And even though it’s not very long, I think it packs a punch. While I feel a little guilty self-promoting, I’m including it because I’m so grateful that BuzzFeed gave me the freedom and encouragement to share this little piece of my soul.
10. “My Father, All That Jazz, the 1980 Oscars — and Me” by Kate Aurthur. Yes, another article by Kate. I was reluctant to double up, but I just had to share this one. Kate’s personal essay was one of the first I read on BuzzFeed, and it was so exciting to know that this kind of writing was something we could do. It’s a moving, bittersweet piece that completely subverts expectations of a first-person account of attending the Oscars. And like so much of Kate’s work, both before and at BuzzFeed, it’s been a big influence on me.
11. “36 Hours on the Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump” by McKay Coppins. The controversy this piece brought about — especially the glorious freak-out from professional troll Donald Trump — was fucking delightful to watch. But let’s not ignore the fact that the article itself is truly great. I’ll admit I don’t read much political reporting, though I certainly admire my coworkers who write it. This goes beyond simple reporting, however: It’s a completely riveting character study. And sorry, Donald, I believe every word of it.
12. “Why I Stay Closeted in Asia” by Connor Ke Muo. Before Coming Out Week at BuzzFeed, I felt about coming out essays the same way I feel about coming out films: enough already. But Saeed made a point to collect personal essays that weren’t like anything people had read before. This one, in particular, has stuck with me over the past seven months. It’s honest and it’s painful, the kind of piece I felt immediately compelled to share with gushing praise across all my social networks. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself the favor.

Voicemail

28 Apr

Hi, Roxy.

I keep reaching for the phone to call you. In those few seconds before the reality dawns on me, I take comfort in knowing that I’m moments from hearing your voice — that even if you don’t pick up, I’ll hear your outgoing message. And I’ll leave a voicemail, despite the fact nobody likes checking their voicemail, because whatever, you can deal with it. Sometimes even after I come to my senses and I feel the reality of your absence, a sensation not unlike falling, I think about calling you, anyway. I don’t think your voicemail is still connected, but maybe — and then I could leave a message you’ll never hear (you weren’t going to check it regardless) and it would almost be like talking.

I’m still not sure what I believe in when it comes to the afterlife, but I like to imagine you floating in the clouds somewhere, annoyed at the fact that you’re still getting voicemails, but mostly just frustrated that you can’t call me back. Believe me, it’s hard for both of us.

I wonder what you’d think of the way I air my grief in public. It’s something I’m still not sure I should be doing — yes, even as I’m doing it — but it remains the best way I know how to cope. From a young age, I learned that for me writing was the first step toward healing. And the second step, the more important step, was to put that out into the world, as scary and shameful as it sometimes feels. I guess the hope is that someone reads it and relates, that maybe I could help that person, but I think on a more basic level, I just want my pain to be heard. Otherwise I’m screaming into the abyss.

Put it this way: I need someone to listen to my voicemail.

I question my use of metaphors, my stylistic flourishes, the fact that I try to create something meaningful out of my grief instead of just writing “I miss you I miss you I fucking miss you” over and over again. Perhaps it’s self-indulgent — that I’m not just offering up something bare and raw —  but crafting language is how I process my thoughts. This is what happens when you major in English and you’re a little bit pretentious.

If I were leaving a voicemail, I’d keep it brief and tell you that, yes, I think about you every day, and some days are harder than others. I’ll feel fine and then a certain memory will needle its way into my thoughts, and suddenly I’ll find myself sobbing on the arm of my couch. But I’d also want you to know that I’m OK, that sometimes I’m actually pretty damn good. I am flawed in all the ways you knew me to be flawed and loved me anyway, and I am working to get better in all the ways you would have wanted to me to. On the good days I know that I can make you proud.

I didn’t know what I was going to write when I opened this page. I just knew that my eyes were welling up with tears because once again I thought of something to tell you, reached for my phone, and was struck by the fucking injustice of your death. It’s stupid and rude and I will never get over it. There is, as I think I’ve said before, a Roxy-shaped hole in my heart. As grateful as I am for all the love that surrounds me, nothing’s ever going to fill that back up.

(OK, I’ve given it more thought, and realistically, if there is an afterlife, voicemail is an eternal punishment, not the kind of thing you’d be subjected to in paradise. Besides, I’d like to think that wherever you are, you’re surrounded by all of us who loved you and will always love you. We exist there and here at the same time, which is exactly the kind of hippie bullshit belief system we might have laughed at back in high school. I mean, it’s still a little silly, but it’s comforting, so I’m going to hold onto it anyway.)

This is now verging on a ramble, the kind that I would instantly regret if it really were a voicemail. I try not to talk about these things too much: I don’t have a monopoly on grief, and I’m only one of many who misses you. And I don’t want anyone to think I’m a constant weepy mess, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not me. I am someone who does his best to hold it together, who sometimes needs to force himself to ask for help, who can be fragile or strong depending on the hour, and who honestly never would have made it this far if you hadn’t been there to help me along the way. I do cry, but I also smile — and that’s as much as credit to you as the tears.

I wish you hadn’t even read this, that you saw the missed call and were already calling me back.

Happy belated birthday

2 Mar

Last week I got a birthday card from Roxy, five months after my birthday, three months after her death. Earlier that day, at lunch, I had been saying how much I wished I could write about the good memories, the nights we spent eating too much and laughing too hard over the kind of inside jokes that best friends accumulate over nearly a decade of being best friends.

I’m not there yet. It’s still too fresh. Her absence cuts too deep. And while I’d like to look back and smile — and I do! sometimes, I actually do — I can’t enjoy the memory and share it, because I’m distracted by the way her story ends.

The card encapsulates that perfectly, I think, because it’s ridiculous and funny in a way that Roxy appreciated. Which is to say that it’s a giant talking pickle that spouts out awful puns when you open it. But it’s also almost too upsetting for me to look at. Even having it in the house — I keep it next to the program from Roxy’s funeral — is bittersweet. I’m so grateful for this tangible heartfelt message, but its mere existence brings the loss into focus.

And so I’m left with the same hope I mentioned before I got the card, that eventually the sadness won’t be so overwhelming that it dwarfs the joy. One day I’ll be able to blog about Roxy and it won’t be the same mournful dirge. And I’ll appreciate the card for its sense of humor — so distinctly Roxy in my mind — without feeling the lump in my throat that comes from the words inside. I want it to become the kind of reminder that keeps me warm when I’m missing her, and not something I’m almost afraid to touch.

Because eventually the pickle is going to stop talking. That’s maybe the most ridiculous concern I’ve ever had, but the thought of it has made me well up on more than one occasion since I got the card. Once that happens, I’m worried I’ll feel even more alone, left with only the words. They’re good words, and they’re Roxy’s, but I don’t know when they’ll stop feeling like a punch in the gut: “Every year since we’ve met, we both get better and more fabulous. I look forward to who we’ll become and celebrating more birthdays with you.”

At least now, the pickle’s still rattling off puns — “Oh my gherkin, it’s your birthday! Hope you relish every second of it” — so I can smile through the tears. I’m not sure what happens next.

Addiction and free will

2 Feb

No one chooses to be an addict. Addiction is a painful, relentless, life-destroying force. The idea that anyone would make a conscious decision to live life that way — constantly in search of the next fix and an unattainable high — is absurd. Calling it a disease always feels limiting to me: “Disease” implies that there’s a cure. No one who picks up a cigarette or a bottle or a needle thinks that this will become the thing they can’t control. Addiction builds and it takes hold of you so suddenly you don’t notice it happening. By the time you realize how deep in it you are, you’re already stepping it up to harder drugs and dreading the agony of withdrawal. No one chooses to relinquish control.

No one chooses to stay an addict either, because once you’re an addict, you don’t have that kind of choice. Getting treatment isn’t a choice so much as a battle for survival, and it’s always easier said than done. A stint in rehab teaches you coping skills, but it doesn’t make the cravings go away. The program works, but you have to work it, and that takes a kind of strength many of us don’t have. Sobriety doesn’t fix the emptiness that until that point you’ve been self-medicating. It’s a coping mechanism for a world that is scary and fucked, for brains that are scary and fucked. No one chooses to need drugs to feel whole — or just to feel normal.

And no one chooses to die. Even those who take their own lives are fighting against depression so severe that suicide feels like the only option, and no one chooses that unbearable misery. Death is fucking infuriating, which is why we’re so eager to assign blame. To an outsider, death by overdose looks selfish: You chose to get high, you got careless, you died and left your family and loved ones behind to deal with your absence. But selfishness suggests free will, and addiction robs you of that. No one chooses to give it up willingly, and once it’s gone, it’s a fucking endless struggle to get it back.

Stop using “free speech” to defend bigotry

19 Dec

“I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment,” said Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal in a statement defending Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s right to homophobia. Believe it or not, I sympathize with Jindal’s frustration: I remember when politicians understood the First Amendment.

Sarah Palin also weighed in on A&E’s decision to suspend Robertson from Duck Dynasty indefinitely: “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”

This is nothing new. When Alec Baldwin was fired from MSNBC after calling a photographer a “cock-sucking fag,” he blamed the “fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy.” Baldwin supporters called GLAAD’s behavior “bullying.” And so, the words that the LGBT community was once forced to defend itself from — “fundamentalists” and “bullying” — are turned around on it. LGBT activists are challenged on their “tolerance.” The unsubtle implication is, you gays are just as bad as the homophobes you’re always complaining about.

That just isn’t the case. The worst thing that will happen to Phil Robertson is that he won’t get to appear on his reality show. He will not be physically assaulted for his views on gay people, the way that gay people might simply for being gay. The same goes for Alec Baldwin, no matter how sincerely he views himself as a victim. He may have lost his MSNBC series, but he won’t get brutally beaten while enduring an onslaught of gay slurs — “cocksucking fag,” perhaps.

For people who have encountered actual intolerance — in the form of schoolyard bullying, workplace discrimination, or physical violence — the perversion of these words is that much more repugnant. But the point Palin and Jindal are trying to make, however misguided, is one that comes up again and again: The “real” intolerance is in censoring people who have opinions that are not “politically correct.” Bigots should have a right to air their bigotry without consequences, because that is what this nation was founded on.

The truth is, “free speech” has never meant what A&E’s critics would have you believe. When you air your bigotry publicly, you are subject to repercussions. You have every right to rail on against the minorities you feel most victimized by — but don’t be surprised when you lose friends, respect, or your job.

And yet, there remains a concerted effort to turn the conversation in on itself. People like Palin and Jindal hope that they can distract from the truth with cries of “free speech” and “politically correct.” What really happened is that a reality show star made comments that were dangerous and shameful. His employers decided to suspend him. And two politicians attacked those employers, because in their minds, it’s more important to propagate a misunderstanding of the First Amendment than it is to engender a culture where LGBT citizens feel safe.

The five stages of grief

26 Nov

Denial:
I read the email with the subject line “Really bad news” over and over again, pulled over on the side of the road. And even when I was screaming and sobbing and literally gasping for air, I was still sure that it was the worst practical joke of all time. Obviously I knew it was true, because I can’t remember the last time I cried so hard, or if I ever have, but I was equally sure that there had to have been a mistake. That I would get a follow-up email explaining that she was a medical mystery but alive and well. Or that Roxy would call me and tell me that herself.

The more people I called to tell, the harder it was to not believe it. And with every incredulous response, I had to be the one to say, yes, really, it’s awful but it’s true. You say that enough and you can’t deny it any longer. The numbness sort of melts away and the pain sets in. When I called Alex and he told me what happened, I could see it perfectly in my head, even though I didn’t want to, and there was no doubt any longer. Still, there are moments when I wake up from all-too-frequent naps and think, wasn’t that a fucked-up dream I had. I can’t wait to tell Roxy about it.

Anger:
This, I internalized. And I’m still having a hard time letting go. I’m not angry at Roxy for leaving or at a higher power for taking her — though please, I beg of you, don’t talk to me about God’s plan, because if God has a plan, it’s being an asshole — I’m angry at myself for not being a better friend. And I know that sounds like I’m being too hard on myself, which I maybe am, but you don’t know how bad I could be about keeping in touch. I looked at our last IM conversation: She was just checking in and I said I was too swamped at work to talk. That was true, but I never got back to her. So fuck me, really.

I didn’t know she was suffering, and I should have. I didn’t make the time to see her when she was in town — because yes, we were both bad at making plans and following through, especially over the last couple years, but couldn’t I have tried a little harder. She had a birthday card for me that Alex has now, and I’m still so angry at myself that in my darkest moments, I don’t feel like I deserve it. I’m worried that by admitting all of this, it sounds like I’m seeking reassurance, but the truth is I know I fucked up. As time passes, I will accept that I fucked up because I’m human, not because I’m a bad person. I won’t let myself off the hook, but I’ll at least be less pissed off.

Bargaining:
I’m not sure about this stage. Apparently it’s about trying to regain control, but all I feel is helpless. There is a part of me that will sit here and say, I could have been there for Roxy more and helped her through her depression, and then maybe she wouldn’t have needed the medication, but that’s absurd. I know how depression works, and it’s not simply a matter of cheering up. I remember in high school, she would start to feel better and then stop taking her meds, and the dark feelings would come back, and I would say, “It’s not just a mood. It’s your brain chemistry, and you have to treat it like a medical problem.”

But do I wish I could go back in time and stop all of this from happening? Of course. I keep having the fantasy of calling her a week ago and saying I had a premonition and she needs to see a doctor immediately. They would find out what was wrong, and treat her accordingly, and even though she’d still need to find a new regimen to deal with her depression, she would be alive. These are pointless thoughts, and I resent even having them. There’s nothing any of us could have done, realistically. But what if, what if, what if.

Depression:
I’ve been medicated for years, so I’d almost forgotten how bad I could feel. Since getting on Prozac, I’ve found that in those dark moments, I’ll experience a sharp pang of sadness and then feel it subside. I’ll exhale and wonder if I’m numbing myself too much, but I’ll be grateful to feel OK.

Only know it’s not subsiding. I feel fine when I’m distracted enough to forget, and then it all comes rushing back and I’m crying again. I’m afraid to leave the house, not that I want to, so I just sit here and watch bad TV and eat junk food under a blanket. I know it’s important to feel, but I’d forgotten how wretched these lows are. And while I believe that I’ll be normal again, eventually, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to hear “Cavanaugh Park” without crying or see a photo of us without burying my face in my hands and trying to shut the world away. I’m told this is just how things are from now on.

Acceptance:
I’ll let you know.

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