I’m swamped with grading and can’t update the blog today. I probably won’t get to until next week, as I’ll be trying to finish up the summer semester until then. I’ll be back ASAP. In the meantime, I’ll miss you guys.
The 24-Hour News Cycle: In My Opinion, This Sucks
**Disclaimers** For fans of my series on aging (both of you), I’ll be getting back to it as soon as other things stop pissing me off. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what I’m doing. I’d also like to say that I’m aware that “media” is a plural noun. In the essay below, though, I refer to it as a singular, monolithic entity—not because I believe that’s an accurate description, but because the people I’m writing about seem to—and thus use singular verbs and pronouns in conjunction with the noun itself.
Today while channel-surfing, my wife Kalene flipped past one of the 24-hour news network—Headline News, I think. And not two seconds passed before we heard the first mention of Warren Jeffs, the polygamist leader whose trial starts soon. As the anchor of the moment promised more on the story after the break, I could hear, somewhere in America, Casey Anthony breathing a sigh of relief. As Jon Stewart once said, all the networks need to change their focus is to stumble across something shiny. Get past the exhaustive coverage of one major scandal and you’ll probably find the next one lined up, ready to worm its way into the national consciousness with the help, even the prodding, of the “news” channels.
Normally, when anyone from the average lay person to the richest celebrity wants to complain about the problems in their lives, the media becomes their go-to scapegoat. I have little patience for that kind of oversimplification. Hey, famous douchebag who cheated on your spouse in public, the people reporting what you did aren’t “haters” or cogs in a media conspiracy to ruin your life. If you don’t want to see your picture on all the news channels and every tabloid from here to Mars, don’t cheat on your spouse, or at least have the good sense to be discreet.
During the George W. Bush administration, the President and pretty much every Republican on Earth complained about the so-called “liberal media” every time someone reported that anything might be wrong with the country or its methods. As a liberal, I’m still waiting to discover this mainstream “liberal media.” The Nation is liberal. Mother Jones is liberal. CNN? No. Their neglecting to proselytize from a far-right stance does not make them liberal by default; it just makes them not Fox News. I always wondered how the right could complain, considering the media utterly failed for at least six years to do any investigative reporting on pretty much every questionable, unconstitutional move the administration made. Back to Jon Stewart, he and his staff once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “How can the news channels ask whether the President did a good job making his case?” when they should have been asking, “Was he ever telling the truth?” Mainstream outlets almost never called the administration on their excesses until Bush was headed for lame duck status and even Republican politicians started abandoning his ship, even as they kept pushing (as they push today) for the perpetuation of his policies.
Back during the presidential election of 2008, Sarah Palin’s infamous interviews with Katie Couric should have proven to the world, even to John McCain, that Palin was dumb as a stump and willfully ignorant. Instead, McCain helped her blame the media for her inability to answer a basic question like “Which of your running mate’s policies do you agree with?” Mr. Senator and Ms. Ex-Governor, that isn’t “Gotcha Journalism,” whatever that means. It’s an elementary policy question. How can you trust a person with the second-highest office in the land if she doesn’t even know what she claims to represent? The dumbassery was Palin’s fault, not Couric’s or the media’s.
More recently, when Rachel Maddow delivered an editorial arguing that Fox News could no longer legitimately claim to be a news channel, I had friends who dismissed the argument out of hand before they even heard what she had to say. “It’s just another case of the media’s being out of control,” some of them said, failing to explain how the media could be in a conspiracy against itself. Maddow’s reasoning was that Fox News’ on-air offers to sponsor Tea Party rallies put it in the position of news maker, not news reporter, and that it had abandoned any pretense of its own “fair and balanced” tagline. She had a point. You can bet that if CNN tried to sponsor far-left rallies and report on them in prime time, the right would have a fit. And they’d be, well, right to do so. The news should report, not editorialize or opine or pontificate.
Leaving the realm of politics, you can’t go ten minutes without hearing some actor or sports star accuse the media of trying to ruin their careers. Does the media too often focus on the sensational, the sordid, and the bloody? Sure it does, and for that we should call it out. But we’ve also got to reserve some of that blame for ourselves. When our comments and our Internet traffic and our TV ratings prove that we’d rather hear about, say, Ben Rothlisberger’s sexual assault cases than Warrick Dunn’s humanitarian work in his hometown, we can’t just blame the media as if it is somehow disconnected from us.
Some of us even blame the media for things like eating disorders in young women and our youth’s tendency to shoot their classmates when things go badly in their lives. The media may well be part of those problems, but we can’t oversimplify the situation—ignoring issues such as personal responsibility, parental intervention or lack thereof, genetic predisposition, mental and emotional issues, the ridiculous ubiquity of guns—or we’re basically putting a Band-Aid on a car crash victim.
This complicated relationship between us and the news media often results in our frustration, our anger, our tendency toward violence. Judging from the comments I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter in the wake of the Anthony trial, I know a lot of people who would happily string up the accused, with or without hard evidence. That bothers me. And in cases like this, I think that the news media is not completely responsible but more culpable than usual. If the so-called “liberal media” had actually been liberal from 2000-2006, we might have avoided morally-murky issues like torture, warrantless wire-tapping, the invasion of Iraq, the dismissal of climate change, the mortgage crisis, No Child Left Behind, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. How different might history have been if the media had been afraid to go after a sitting president when Watergate happened?
And if the media had not crucified O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony before their trials even started, forgetting about the whole inconvenient-to-their-narrative “innocent until proven guilty” thing, people might not have been so shocked at the acquittals. Once the media narrative reached its tipping point, the national attitude changed from “Did this person commit this crime?” to “This person committed this crime, so how far should his/her punishment go?”
If you asked me off the record, I’d admit that I, too, believe that Simpson and Anthony were guilty. But believing something and knowing it are two very different things. In the case of the Anthony trial, I think the prosecution’s major mistake was in pushing for the capital charges instead of the lesser ones in the absence of the so-called “smoking gun.” I’d be willing to bet that most of those jurors believed that Casey Anthony killed her daughter. But when a human being’s life is on the line, belief isn’t enough. You have to know; you have to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. As Tim O’Brien says, once a person’s dead, you can’t make them un-dead.
Of course, no one seemed more shocked and outraged at the verdict than the very talking heads who had long since bypassed due process and had convinced so many of us that Anthony was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps the loudest voice belonged to Nancy Grace, the Yosemite Sam of 24-hour news. She seemed, and remains, apoplectic that the rassen-frassen Tot-mom is walking free. (Incidentally, whenever she repeats that silly name, I want to paraphrase the Rachel McAdams character in Mean Girls. “Nancy, stop trying to make ‘Tot-mom’ happen! It’s not going to happen!”) I also remember flipping channels one day and hearing Jane Valez Mitchell saying, “Right now we’re just speculating, because that’s all we can do.”
“No,” I shouted, “you could just shut up until you actually have something to report!”
And therein lies the major problem with the 24-hour networks. In their zeal to cover every tiny facet of the latest sensational trial, they seem to believe that this wide world lacks enough actual news to fill 24 hours of coverage. American secondary education is utterly failing our children. American higher education drifts further and further toward the corporate model, handcuffing teachers and chaining them to the desires, not the needs, of the students; retention becomes the goal, not a pleasant side-effect of a strong university. The food industry keeps trying to poison us while making as much money as possible. Corporate executives keep stuffing their own coffers while screwing over their workers and the American public. Our penal and justice systems continue to demonstrate our nation’s class and racial inequalities. Poor kids of color go missing or get butchered every day, or they just starve to death or overdose because our society glosses over their problems and supports the system we’ve built that perpetuates those problems. And all over the world, people are killing each other, stealing from each other, invading each other’s countries, dying of horrible diseases and fighting those illnesses without funding or help, struggling to survive third-world conditions and natural disasters while we bitch about slow Internet access, and traffic in each other’s bodies and minds.
Moreover, people everywhere also do great things. Many of us get out and work in underprivileged areas, give to charities, overcome great obstacles, fight racism and classism and sexism and homophobia, research ways to beat disease and famine and inhumanity. Every single day brings an almost limitless array of stories just waiting to be told. You can never convince me that the networks couldn’t fill up 24 hours with material outside the Scandal of the Month.
So one major problem is that the networks focus on the wrong things. A second one is that most of the airtime is taken up with talking heads who offer not news but opinions and speculations. I have no problem with shows featuring people like Anderson Cooper and Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, though I find that the latter two are cartoon characters who shouldn’t be taken seriously as thinkers. Those people deliver editorials and speculations and opinions, and they make no bones about doing so. But that’s what they’re supposed to do. On the other hand, when I watch network nightly news or an allegedly news-based show on CNN, I don’t want to hear a panel of experts opining about every little nuance of a scandal. I want facts and pictures and statistics. Great TV journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite editorialized, but they saved their editorials for segments dedicated to those kinds of ideas. They didn’t tuck in their chins and puff out their cheeks like bullfrogs and deliver an emotionally-charged frame to every story on the air (I’m looking at you, Mike Galanos).
When we ignore facts and journalistic objectivity in favor of inflammatory opinion, basic human rights like “innocent until proven guilty” get lost. And when that happens, when we allow a situation where it can happen, we’re all in trouble.
24-hour news networks need to block out their timeslots, devoting an hour or two to some major news category—American Politics, American Top Stories, International, Finance, Sports, Multicultural Issues, Human Rights at Home and Abroad, and so forth. They need to commit to those blocks, refusing to cut into the scheduled programming unless some major event occurs. And they need a strict definition of “major event,” the kind of thing that once stopped presses and called for extra editions of print newspapers when diverging from the printing schedule cost time and money. Casey Anthony’s lawyer’s leaving the courthouse for lunch or some psychologist’s long-distance speculation about Warren Jeffs doesn’t count.
In these time blocks, networks need to commit to showing us the full range of news in the world—not just the sensational or the repugnant, but the uplifting and the noble. Not just the upper-class white victims of crime and tragedy but the persons of color, the poor, the LGBT, the non-Christian. Not just the shouted opinions of personalities, but the objective reportings of journalists.
When I see a documentary like Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman,” or Robert Kenner’s Food Inc., or Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight or Inside Job, or Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side or Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room or Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo, I know that investigative journalism is still possible. When I watch the nightly news on ABC or CBS or NBC, I sometimes find that glimmer of hope that news anchors can still present the story without comment.
But the 24-hour networks are failing both us and themselves. Just as bad, they are failing their own mandate, which should be a sacred part of the American experience. And when the fourth estate becomes a parody of itself, when Stewart and Colbert become redundant as we point and laugh at the networks, who will remain to deliver the news of journalism’s demise?
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at email@example.com.
Untitled on Purpose III
Sunset brings to me
A new mind changed from
Old like night to day,
The people in my head
Swimming frantic blue
Backstrokes through ever
Muddy waters of
Light and fading strength
Run breathlike from my
Flowing from my own
Rock. I want to be
Drunk all the time to
Dull the hairsplit knife
Edge in my brain. I
Have lost something that
I never knew I
Had. I don’t even
Know its name.
Comments Sections and the Death of Civilization
In my forty-plus years on Earth, I have witnessed many phenomena that someone, somewhere posited as the death-knell of the American Empire, western civilization, even the world—Feminism, Civil Rights, rock and roll, pornography, punk rock couture, secularization, country music, Republicans, goth fashion, communism, hip-hop, Democrats, rich people, poor people, gay marriage and/or adoption, nuclear proliferation, socialism, capitalism, Sarah Palin. My paternal grandparents, I was once told, firmly believed that the Beatles signaled the end of the world, and all those guys wanted to do most of the time was hold your hand or smoke a little pot. My parents stood aghast at posters of KISS, Black Sabbath, Motley Crue, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, ad infinitum. Conservative white people everywhere freaked out (some still do) at gangsta rap, at Public Enemy, at Kanye West and Jay-Z. And those are just a few examples from music. Add in politics, movies, television, religion, and so forth, and we’ve seen many potential Ends of the World.
Me? I think the death knell of civilization as we conceive of it might just be websites’ comments sections.
I’ve said this before elsewhere, but I’m serious about it. If you ever want to feel better about your personality, your knowledge, your attitude, and your command of the English language, go read the comments section on a website. If you can make it past the pre-K spelling and punctuation, the scathing vituperation of even the most innocuous text, the name-calling, and the blatant disregard for other human beings, you’ll find that only one in twenty posts has anything approaching an original, critical, debatable, intriguing idea.
Website comments sections are where manners, good grammar, empathy, and healthy debate go to die.
I’ve often said that the best thing about the Internet is that it provides an instantaneous, democratic forum in which anyone with the ability to find a connected computer can speak out, use their voices, contribute to the national dialogue. And the worst thing about the Internet is that it provides an instantaneous, democratic forum in which anyone with the ability to find a connected computer can speak out, use their voices, and contribute to the national dialogue. I try my hardest to avoid the comments sections these days (except my own, which have yet to be overtaken by sub-literate trolls with an axe to grind), but sometimes I just can’t help myself. I’ll read an article and wonder what people think about it—the ideas, the implications, the different ways we might understand it, how it might help connect us to each other and to our culture.
But for every thoughtful, eloquent post, you’ll find fifteen or twenty that say nothing at all. And if you’ve never had the displeasure of slogging through such comments, believe me when I say that these “writers” say nothing at the tops of their lungs, and in language that would make Noam Chomsky weep, if not jump off the nearest bridge.
Let’s look at a few examples.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship has a pay-per-view scheduled during the first week of August. It’s one of those shows that seem cursed; training injuries have caused several fights to be shuffled as opponents come in and drop out. The co-main event was cancelled altogether. But the main event itself attained a new level of intrigue when Phil Davis, and up-and-coming but currently limited fighter, had to drop out of his fight with former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans. In Davis’ place, the UFC called on Tito Ortiz, another former light heavyweight champion and one of the sports’ pioneers. Ortiz recently won his first fight in five years, a shocking submission victory over young lion Ryan Bader. Ortiz suffered no damage in the fight, so he was healthy enough and suddenly hot enough to plug into a main event, even at short notice.
Here are some of the comments on the UFC article announcing the replacement. I have copied and pasted these without correcting anything.
An initial post: “need to bring lidell back for 1 more just to put tito back on the bottom where he belongs!”
A reply to that one: “fuck dat nigga chuck [note: Liddell is white.]. where is he at …getting drunk while the hated Tito Ortiz is trying pretty f*****g hard 2 prove everybody that he still has that drive n ppl still doubt him???cmon ppl grow up. look same situation wit rashad, although rashad talked shit 2 rampage n everybody hated him 4 that, …HE BACKED IT UP!!! n dont get me wrong I LUV RAMPAGE . HE IS PURE NATURAL BEAST . IDK BOUT U GUYS BUT I THINK U SHOULD JUDGE PPL BY THEIR PERFORMANCES N SAME GOES 4 CHAEL SONNEN, HE TALKED SHIT BUT HE WHOOPED THE LIVING FUCK OUT OF ANDERSON SILVA!!!! just sayin “
Another initial post: “tittoooooo is going to get knocked the fuck out.”
A reply: “Tito never been ko idiot!!!..”
Another: “Guess you don’t watch UFC. Chuck knocked him out.”
Another: “your right he just gets hit and puss’s out or plays possum.”
This is discourse? The paradigm seems to go like this: Person A makes a short comment in the most aggressive manner possible. Person B calls that person an idiot (or stupid, uninformed, retarded) for having an opinion different from his/her own. Persons C, D, and E take up the conversation in kind, burying any salient points in badly-spelled text message-speak, all-caps shouting, curse words that add nothing to the debate other than more unnecessary aggression. Even those who seemingly agree with you couch their posts in the language of back-handed compliments or out-and-out dismissal.
People talk at each other, not to each other. They turn into keyboard warriors, ready to get in someone’s face and denigrate that person’s intelligence, knowledge, personality, and reason to live, none of which they would be likely to do in person, even late at night in a sports bar. As a result, you can feel your own IQ lowering with each comment you read. And your own aggression might rise as you realize how many truly stupid, wasteful people exist in the world.
Ah, but this sort of thing isn’t limited to websites dedicated to sports where people beat the crap out of each other. Here are some comments on Entertainment Weekly’s recent review of the film Horrible Bosses, which critic Lisa Schwarzbaum (whom I admire) liked enough to give an A-.
“Funny this movie just dosen’t look that good to me. I’ll wait to rent it.” (Not a stupid comment or an offensively mean one, but doesn’t it miss the opportunity to start an interesting, helpful discussion? Why not tell us WHY the movie doesn’t look that good?)
“I was planning on seeing this movie anyways but now that Lisa has approved it, I will for sure be checking it out Friday night !” (Good for you—you said something positive! However, I’d still like to know WHY you trust Lisa so much. When has she been right in your opinion, and why? How often do you think she’s wrong? Why follow her recommendation without question? And if you have reasons for following, why not share them? You might enlighten at least one hater out there. Speaking of which…)
“There’s only one word this trash: Stupidity. And yet, you give it an A-? This is exactly why I don’t listen to critics.” (Why is it trash? Why is it stupid—because you say so? Who are you, and what are your qualifications? How is this one review somehow indicative of every critic’s entire oeuvre?)
“A- really??? For this crass, hopelessly broad unsubtle, uncleverly potty humor (literally) filled toilet of a film? Makes The Hangover 2 look like Dostoyevsky. That bad, despite the cast.” (This one at least intrigues me, but I’d still like to know what specifically strikes you as crass, or broad, or unsubtle, or unclever (is that a word?). Also, you assume that we didn’t like The Hangover 2 and that we do like Dostoyevsky. You’ve got my attention; now tell me more.)
Of course, EW.com readers have a hard character limit for their comments, so there’s only so much they can do. But can’t we do better than this? Here’s one that goes into more detail, but falls into the UFC commenters’ problems with unnecessary rudeness:
“I saw “Horrible Bosses” at a sneak preview and enjoyed it a lot, but an A- is goddamn generous to the point of pandering. There was a lot of room for improvement, and a lot a reasons it won’t hold up to the films of Mike Judge. BTW, let’s remember that you gave “Midnight in Paris,” a likely Best Picture nominee, a grade B. Recalling why, your main gripe/reason was that Paris was too pretty, and more glamourized than it actually is. Do you think in a comic fantasy that Paris should be ugly? Duh.”
See, why do we have to do these kinds of things to each other? I don’t have a problem with the foul language per se; I just don’t think it’s necessary to make the point and thus may turn readers away from your more salient criticisms. The “duh” at the end basically says that the critic is stupid. Why is that necessary? Why not just call attention to a potential flaw in her reasoning? Why do we have to use our keyboards like talons to rip at each other? This writer starts out by saying that he liked the film but spends the rest of the post attacking the critic. By the way—“likely Best Picture nominee” doesn’t necessarily mean it deserves more than a B, given the eclecticism of tastes and the expanded Best Picture field.
I could have added a “you dumbass” or a “as anybody who knows anything would tell you,” but that would just antagonize people unnecessarily. We can make a point without bashing others over the head with it. We can talk to other people, even on the Internet, as if they are human beings who should be respected, at least until they prove that they don’t deserve it. And disagreeing with us is not a sufficient reason for disrespect.
If the world ended today and, sometime later, an alien found only comments sections with which to judge the human race, he or she would likely characterize us as a savage, isolated people with little grasp of language, manners, or respect. And then he or she would probably not be surprised when discovering that we regularly blow each other up, join political parties more interested in beating each other about the heads and shoulders than in serving us, shoot each other over parking spaces and baseball games, and marginalize/oppress/kill those who are different from us.
Language matters. Courtesy matters. Rational thought and meaningful debate matter. The Internet has given us a cheap, easily-accessible forum for using these tools. And we’re squandering it.
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 5th, 2004
The night after LSU won the National Championship, he was still partying in the Quarter on Royal Street. He had come from a bar on Bourbon—sometimes it seemed that all the bars were on Bourbon, though of course that wasn’t true—and was trying to find his way back to Dauphine, where Melanie was supposed to be taking photos for her article. He was drunk and had to piss, the nine Miller Lights in his belly trying hard to dribble down his leg. He needed a bathroom, an alley, anything. But there on Royal, he saw nothing but shops, all of them now closed. He spat
and turned around, and that was when the fist came out of nowhere and caught him between the eyes. A bolt of pain shot through his head, white light exploding behind his eyelids, and he sprawled on his back, legs in the air. He turned his head and vomited, his eyes still closed against the pain. Someone above him said
and then a hand jabbed into his front pants pocket, ripping out his keys. He heard them jingle as they landed in the gutter. Someone grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him upward and over, then pushed him down on his face. His nose cracked on the concrete, the pain like an electrical fire in his face, and he passed out. When he awoke, only seconds later, someone was cursing and shouting
Yeah I got the wallet, but the motherfucker pissed on me
and he realized that they were talking about him, the warmth spreading outward from his crotch. Someone kicked him in the ribs and he moaned, turning over just enough to see shoes, scuffed white Nikes with worn soles, the swoosh on the left one flapping back and forth like a flap of torn skin. He wondered if Royal Street was empty save for him and his attackers, or if someone might be watching, snapping pictures perhaps, possibly shooting the footage on cell phone. Perhaps tomorrow he would see his own mugging on the Internet. Somewhere a few blocks over Melanie was snapping photos of dimly-lit architecture, unaware that piss was pooling underneath his thigh and that his own blood was running down his throat like sips of fetid water.
Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
“Whose Hands Are These?”
A few months back, Kalene and I were watching an episode of Strange Addictions. The subject of that week’s program was a young woman addicted to tanning. She went to several different tanning beds every day, divvying up her visits to avoid the safety limitations that each individual salon imposed. Then she would go home and lay out by the pool, her only sunblock a bottle of baby oil. This woman didn’t have a tan; she fairly glowed orange, rating about an eight on the John Boehner-Hulk Hogan scale. You could have used her for a nightlight.
At one point in the show, she visited a dermatologist, who, of course, told her that she had been playing Russian Roulette with her life, given the increasing prevalence of skin cancer. He also took one of her hands and pointed out all the wrinkles, the spots, the dryness. The woman called them “old people hands,” though of course the presence of that condition did not deter her. When she found that she had no major skin issues at that point in her life, she took it for a sign that she was making sound decisions and that she could rub the results in her concerned friends’ and family’s noses.
The fact that she would probably look like a piece of beef jerky by the time she was thirty-five apparently did nothing to persuade her, and neither did the fact that, you know, she might develop major health problems in the future. I suppose that most smokers in their late teens to early twenties probably don’t have emphysema yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re making healthy decisions.
You just can’t tell some people anything.
For me, though, that image of her hands stuck out the most. They were as deep brown/orange as the rest of her; fittingly enough, her nails looked like five alabaster tombstones sticking out of rich newly-dug earth. Deep wrinkles covered her finger joints. You could see the beginnings the splotches people call liver spots or age spots. And she herself used that phrase “old people hands.” Of course, I looked down at my own hands at that moment, and I found that, while my skin tone remains at the polar opposite of orange, the rest of the symptoms presented just fine. The wrinkles at the joints. The increasingly-large freckles. The out-and-out splotches that I had heretofore only noticed on retirees.
I had old people hands.
None of this has to do with my own current tanning habits, which rate somewhere just above Dracula’s. I don’t burst into flame on contact with sunlight, but it’s pretty close. My pale skin reddens after less than half an hour of sunlight, even after I use SPF 85. It turns boiled-lobster red if I stay out longer than that. I have been known to stay out for a few hours with insufficient sunblock and spend the next days in agony, my blistered skin feeling as if a million needles were being jabbed into it ceaselessly, my shoulders and upper back covered in water blisters. Most of that happened when I was a kid, before anyone knew the potential effects of sunburns, and only three or four times at that.
But even now, against Kalene’s advice and the recommendation of dermatologists everywhere, I don’t moisturize every day, and I don’t wear sunblock on my way to work or the grocery store. I haven’t refused to do so out of some entitled sense of my own immortality or sheer stubbornness. I just don’t remember. And as a result, my currently forty-year-old hands look forty years old.
But it’s not just my hands. My face has changed, too. I now know the definition of “crow’s feet,” a fact that dismays me more than I can explain. I have a deep wrinkle across the bridge of my nose right between my eyes and another one a half-inch or so down, evidence of how much time I apparently spend scowling and angry. Even when I open my eyes as wide as I can and shove the skin back with my fingers, I can still see the depths of those wrinkles. I’m afraid that by the time I’m eighty I’ll look like a bulldog—a very pale, almost translucent bulldog.
See, here’s the thing: I couldn’t tan even if I wanted to. I learned that the hard way when I was younger. I never really cared what anybody else thought of me, but for some reason, I wanted a tan, probably so that I could wear shorts in the summer without having to fight every self-styled wit with a pocketful of “fish-belly” jokes. So I would lay out in the back yard, at the public pool, down at the river when my friends and I drove out for a day of swimming. I fondly remember the look on my father’s face when he came home for lunch one summer day, looked out his back patio door, and saw nothing but a ladder and a few pairs of dangling legs. My friends and I had decided to sunbathe on the roof. And once, I ruined a perfectly good fishing trip with my father as I struggled to maneuver around in the boat so that I could “tan” equally on both sides.
Oh, I used sunblock—SPF 2.75 or something like that. But as early as my mid-teens, I learned that the pain of even a mild sunburn did not seem worth the pathetic results I achieved. I never tanned; I just got a bit less white. If the Twilight films had existed back then, they could have plucked me off the street and sent me out as Vampire Henchman #4 without any makeup.
These days, I don’t even care. When I go to the beach or the pool, I spray or slather on the sunblock until I am encased in a solid layer on which bugs lose their lives. Throw a Frisbee at me and it just might stick fast. I have read too much and experienced too much of the scary effects of tanning, only one of which is the premature aging of your skin.
Nevertheless, whenever I look in the mirror, I can still see aging’s effects in every wrinkle, every freckle that has morphed into something the size of a penny, every liver spot that has had the temerity to show up so far before its time. And though I am perfectly comfortable with aging gracefully—no plans for any plastic surgery for me—I just don’t understand why someone so young would take so many chances with their appearance, their health, their very life now that we know everything we know.
I mean, if I could say one thing to that woman on Strange Addictions, I guess it would be this: if my hands look their age, you’ve got to remember that I grew up in the seventies and eighties, when nobody really knew about the dangers of second-hand smoke, or ultraviolet radiation, or letting your kids climb all over the inside of a moving vehicle, or eating deep-fried everything.
What’s your excuse?
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at email@example.com.
Facing industries of
Discontent in the fall
Of a plague year riding
Engines of coherence
And unjust compromise
I wonder if the sun
Can light the way or melt
The cold and deadly touch
Of human permafrost
On Halloween we dress
In masks to cover our
False faces giving thanks
For things we never lived
Through and take for granted
Fat men in sweaty red
Suits ring charity bells
While rich men throw pennies
Spring is a green mother
Summer a furnace that
Bakes cookie cutter men
Coalblack apathy eyes
Asking if anything
Changes with the seasons
Why stand stuck fast in a
Snowbank fried by the sun
Simply because you will
Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
On Feline Philosophy
Sometimes I wonder what it’s really like to be a cat. Then I remember that, as I get older, I probably already know. They spend most of their day sleeping and far too much of the night roaming about, breaking into cabinets with the efficiency of a safe-cracker and pouncing on unsuspecting dreamers and eating too much. I can relate.
Not long ago, I woke up late. I mean really late, nearly one o’clock in the afternoon. True, I had had a rough night; I was up till nearly five. I had worked and played until two am, and then I tossed and turned for another two and a half hours or so, trying desperately to get comfortable on my aching muscles and sometimes-creaky bones, to breathe through my nose that constantly clogs every time I lie down, to stop thinking about the things I didn’t get done and all the things I’d need to do the next day.
I knew that I would wake up late, and that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I would remain groggy all day, out of sorts, my already screwed-up biological clock thrown even farther out of true. And sure enough, it all happened just like I imagined. Up at 1 pm, eating lunch at 5, eating supper at 11, back to bed at a time when most people have already sunk deeply into their REM sleep, dreaming weird dreams and drooling onto their pillows.
I have, over the past couple of years, trained myself to take one or two short naps during the day, partly because I need to make up for the sleep I didn’t get at night and partly because I just can’t go without sleep like I used to. I started experiencing sleep problems when I was a teenager. I would go to bed around 10 pm, but for whatever reason—a surplus of young-person energy? Budding anxiety disorder? Lewd sexual fantasies?—my mind would race as soon as I turned off the lights. Soon enough, I learned that I could solve this problem to a certain extent if I left my radio on all night; then I would concentrate on the music, the lyrics, the mix of genres and styles, and eventually I would drift off, still not right away but earlier than I would have otherwise.
Of course, then my dreams would often take on an even more surreal quality. Once I dreamed that I was walking through my neighborhood, which had somehow been turned into an Asian market. People thronged everywhere, their eyes on the road or the market wares, their shoulders bumping against me as I made my way through them, looking for someone whose name I could not remember. And through it all, David Bowie’s “China Girl” blasted from unseen speakers. The sacred cow he mentions kept wandering through people’s yards and taking enormous shits on driveways. I woke up in the middle of the dream and heard the same song on the radio.
So my sleep schedule has always been weird. And that weirdness has become more and more of a problem as I’ve gotten older. Once, I could stay up for days and still perform at high levels. Now I can go for about four hours before I at least wish I could take a short nap.
I first discovered that age plays havoc with your ability to cope with sleep deprivation not long after my daughter Maya was born. I was still married to her mother then. My then-wife was breastfeeding Maya, which had never presented a problem; but we never considered what might happen if that food supply was suddenly eliminated.
My ex had decided to have her tubes tied after her second pregnancy, which was fine with me. We weren’t getting along at all by then, and I already had three children, so I was pretty tired. The procedure was supposed to take place in the morning, and, we were told, she would get to come home that afternoon. So before we took her to the hospital, she didn’t stockpile any milk for Maya. I saw the unused breast pump lying on a shelf in our closet and shivered, as if I had glimpsed through a crack in the universe a very specific kind of hell. Then I forgot about it and took her to the O.R.
During the allegedly routine procedure, the surgeon found a cyst on one of her ovaries, and it alarmed him enough that he went ahead and removed it. When a physician risks a lawsuit by performing a procedure without familial authorization, you know he must have been concerned. This extra procedure obviously increased the surgery time, but it also necessitated a longer hospital stay, as did the doctors’ feelings that further tests would be necessary. To avoid infection, they gave her more, and different, antibiotics, plus more pain meds than they had originally planned, all of which would have been secreted through her breast milk.
And so a few hours’ stay turned into a multiple-day ordeal. The hospital kept her for further tests and observations. Meanwhile, I was stuck at home with a hungry baby and no breast milk. I had no choice but to give Maya formula, but she hated it. When some of that stuff dribbled into her mouth, you’d have thought that I had given her a lemon rind and alum sandwich. She screwed up her face and screamed at me, as if to say, “You asshole! Are you trying to kill me?” She also responded badly to the artificial nipples and the different feeding position she had to assume. She would barely eat, and because she was so hungry, she cried. Loudly. Interminably. I cannot imagine that victims of the Spanish Inquisition cried louder than she did. I think they heard her on the space shuttle.
I tried everything. I even tried leaning down next to her ear and making a heartbeat sound, which fooled her for about two minutes. But she simply would not take the formula from a bottle. I tried giving it to her with an eye-dropper; she spit it back out. I tried powdered formula and canned formula and every other kind I could find; she would have none of it. And because she was crying constantly, she barely slept, which meant that I didn’t sleep either.
Eventually I reached my wits’ end. I asked Kalene—my third and final wife who was, at the time, a very good friend of ours—to come over and watch Maya so I could get a couple of hours’ sleep; she obliged, but that two hours did me little good. The world began to take on that too-bright quality, where the light looks weird and voices sound muffled and life takes on the characteristics of a Dali painting. You start saying things in a deep, slow voice just to see how weird you sound: “HEEEEEEEEElllllllOOOOOOOoooo, nurse!” Yet when I went back to the hospital, they wanted to keep my ex even longer.
“Doc,” I said, “please understand that I want you to do everything you need to do. Make sure she’s safe and healthy. But if what you’re planning is in any way extraneous, let me tell you this. I’ve been up for days. I’m on the verge of having a psychotic episode. My daughter needs breast milk, and she can’t get any if you keep pumping drugs into my wife. What I’m saying is that if these tests aren’t really necessary, then I urge you, for the sake of three people, don’t run them.”
They ran the tests but did not give her any extra drugs, noting that they were being as cautious as possible but that she would almost certainly be fine without the extra antibiotics. We went home, and she was fine, and my daughter ate, and I slept for about six months.
I can no longer stay up for days at a time, for necessity or fun. I can still go a day or two on little sleep if I have to, but it isn’t easy or pleasant anymore. Yet my sleep schedule remains as screwed up as it has ever been, and short of getting one of those machines that re-align your Circadian rhythms, which my doctor has actually recommended, I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t just go to bed earlier; I toss and turn, unable to get comfortable or stop thinking about things. I can go to bed at 9 pm and still won’t fall asleep until at least 2 am, regardless of circumstances. So I might as well just stay up.
Having lived with cats for the past ten years, I’ve noticed how much I have in common with them. The way they live their lives mirrors, in many ways, how I live mine.
What are cats interested in? What do they do? Well, they eat, and sleep, and excrete bodily wastes. They occasionally snuggle up to you in search of affection, and when they’ve had enough, they leave, regardless of your feelings. If you leave human food where they can reach it, they will often sneak snacks that they shouldn’t have, so you have to remain vigilant around them. And when they feel like it, they want to play, no matter what you’d rather be doing. Some, like our cat Cookie, will even punish you if you don’t comply.
I think about more than these things, of course. I don’t reduce my existence to basic functions like eating, drinking, and pooping, and if you don’t agree to have fun with me exactly when I want, I probably won’t attack the printer or paw at the flat-screen TV or knock something off a shelf. But in many ways, I have, as I’ve aged, come to resemble our cats, in philosophy if not appearance.
For instance, I tend to nap at odd hours. I can usually sleep anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours pretty much whenever the sun is out. I can lie down on the couch, my head resting on Kalene’s lap, and fall asleep fairly quickly. I can stretch out on our bed and crash as long as sunlight peeks in through the blinds. I can’t curl up in an office chair like a cat, nor can I use my own arms and legs for pillows. But naps have become an important part of my daily existence. They leave me feeling refreshed most of the time and give me the energy I need to make it through the rest of the day.
I know what you’re thinking. “If you’d just stop taking naps, you could get to sleep at night earlier.” But that doesn’t work. Naps are a comparatively recent part of my routine, but I’ve always had trouble sleeping at night, even when I’m exhausted.
Another way my older self mirrors our cats is that I eat too much and don’t work it off as easily as I used to. When I was younger, I had the willpower to avoid unnecessary snacking. I would eat something until I no longer felt hungry, and then I would stop. Yet, ironically, my metabolism fired so quickly that I didn’t really need any willpower. I could shovel in heaps of whatever I wanted to eat and remain thin and wiry.
Now, my willpower has faded. If somebody hands me a cheesecake, I want to eat as much as I possibly can. If I force myself to stop at one piece, I soon find myself standing at the open refrigerator, looking longingly at the fruit and yogurt and ice cream and snack veggies piled in there. Sure, most of that stuff is healthy, but all of it contains calories. Moreover, I have become increasingly attracted to the kinds of snacks I have always been able to take or leave—Little Debbie snack cakes with enough fat and caloric content to serve as half my day’s allowance, sodium-heavy trifles like potato chips, peanut butter sandwiches as snacks instead of lunches. And as my willpower has faded, my weight has steadily climbed north. When I was in high school, I weighed perhaps 130 pounds. When I was thirty, it was more like 160. Now, at forty, I am nearly 200 pounds. Sure, I eat a little more than I used to and have a harder time turning down sweets, but the main reason for the weight gain is that my metabolism has simply slowed down. I noticed in my early 30s that my stomach was starting to protrude more than it used to; now I sometimes think I look like I’m six months pregnant. True, I don’t have a lot of body fat; I can pinch perhaps an inch on my waist. But my body has changed in ways that I don’t like and that I can seemingly do nothing about.
Our cats have gone through a similar change. When Judas—our beloved companion of nearly two decades, who died a year and a half ago—was still alive, she pigged out quite often. As a result, her belly hung down until it dangled perhaps an inch and a half off the floor, and when she ran, it flopped from side to side, striking her in the middle of her ribs like a scourge. Similarly, Cookie has gained weight since she realized that she’s a cat, not a dog or a human. In her former household, she lived with a lively little dog and an energetic little girl. She was always on the go. Here, our youngest visitor is Maya, who’s going on twelve years old now, and we have no other pets. We play with Cookie as much as possible and run her half to death with her favorite feather toy, Da Bird ™, but she now chills out more than she used to. She takes more naps, stops at her food bowl more often, and generally acts like a cat with nothing particularly important on her mind. And as a result, she’s a fraction heavier than she used to be. I get the feeling that when her own metabolism slows down in her old age, she’ll be quite the little butterball. Sometimes I feel the same way—not that being a bit overweight is so bad, but that a change that I didn’t authorize has occurred and that I’m helpless to change it.
What other ways has my daily life come to resemble my cats’? Well, I’m grumpier than I used to be. I’ve never been one of those people who constantly need to be surrounded by others. But I find that, more and more, I’d just as soon stay home as go to that party, that football game, that concert. Someone asked me not too long ago why I don’t take advantage of my university connections (whatever they might be) and attend more college football games. I said, “Why would I want to go out in the weather and battle close to a hundred thousand drunks for the pleasure of seeing the part of game that happens close to my seats, when I could just stay home and eat my own food, use my own bathroom, and see the whole thing on TV?” And often, when I go out to eat or to a movie, I have to sit on my hands to keep from punching somebody in the face. When did people get so damn annoying?
Cats tend to hang out with people only when they want to, regardless of what the people themselves want. Cats rub on your legs or jump in your lap and demand affection, and when they’ve gotten what they wanted, they tend to wander off by themselves. We used to find Judas sleeping behind curtains, in the closets, in our office chairs. Cookie likes the office chairs too, but also digs the tops of the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets or sunny windowsills.
Cookie will stop doing pretty much anything if she suddenly realizes that she needs a bath. I’ve seen her dash madly after a toy, freeze in her tracks, and stick one hind leg straight up in the air so that she can clean her asshole. Apparently some itches just have to be scratched. As for me, I’ve gotten less tolerant of being sweaty. I’ve got to shower every day, even if I don’t go anywhere or do anything in particular. On the other hand, Judas’s hair got duller as she got older and lost interest in grooming herself. Mine now feels oily and greasy if I don’t wash it every twelve hours or so.
When you have more in common with your cats than you do with most people, you might be in trouble. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more insular, impatient, and easily annoyed. I’ve seen my hair start to turn gray and my belly swell out like I was malnourished. I get sore every time I work out or play some sport for more than five minutes. I rail at life’s little injustices—what kind of world is it when you can have both gray hair and pimples? Shouldn’t having the one preclude the other??—with less motivation and more passion. I spend a lot of time by myself or with only Kalene and my kids; I’d just as soon wait for a movie to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray instead of listen to somebody’s brat caterwaul over the opening credits or watch that idiot two rows down answer the cell phone he was supposed to have turned off twenty minutes ago. Where once I lost myself in the Dionysian pleasures of rock concerts, I now spend half the time wishing that guy would stop stepping on my foot or that that stupid woman would get off her boyfriend’s shoulders so the rest of us could frickin’ see.
In short, I would, nine times out of ten, find more pleasure in curling up in the warm sunlight for an afternoon nap than in losing myself in a human biomass accompanied by loud music or pretty pictures on a screen.
At least I don’t take my dumps in a box or lick myself, right? But then, I’m only forty. I wonder what eighty will bring.
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