I Don’t Care About Spots On My Apples

Things go wrong; that’s just a reality. I’m not talking about the result of machinations to fuck people over, or screw up others’ plans and hard work, but instead the times when… well, things just go wrong. When it’s no-one’s fault, per se, but just what happens sometimes and you deal with whatever’s happened and move on. It’s a simple, if frustrating, fact of life.

This site disappeared for a bit, a few weeks ago. Not a long time — an hour or so, maybe? But it vanished, entirely; something went wrong somewhere on the internet, and any attempt to reach it was met with messages explaining why that was impossible, that the server wasn’t available, that you couldn’t get here. R.E.M.’s “Can’t Get There From Here” played somewhere to underscore the possibility, just in case the blunt, dry message onscreen wasn’t enough.

The why of it all wasn’t the issue, really; my web host was having trouble for whatever reason. Maybe it was being attacked by raccoons, perhaps they had a power outage, or someone tripped over a cable and unplugged something. It wasn’t anything I had any control over, so a lot of me has this feeling of, what actually happened wasn’t really that important.

What felt more important, though, was the sense of immediate loss I felt every time I refreshed the page and couldn’t get to the site. At first, I thought it was just the back end that had failed, as I was trying (and failing) to write something, but then I realized everything was… gone. It was an odd, disorienting, feeling — I’ve often said that I’m not entirely sure why I post here, but at least I now know that, if everything here was to suddenly disappear, I’d feel a deep and impressively sharp loss, as if I’d literally lost a part of myself.

That’s melodramatic, I know — especially as the site returned soon enough, as if nothing had happened — but the experience made me realize how important this small, relatively private, place to wonder and ponder and write just to write had become to me, and how much I get some undefinable, yet very real, joy and value from it. Somewhere, the ghost of Joni Mitchell is exasperatedly going, “What did I say about not knowing what you got ‘til it’s gone?” but, well, there’s a reason people liked that song so much, and it wasn’t just her laugh at the end.

Website, thank you for your service. Don’t go away again, please.

To Pack A Pen With Vinegar And Insight

One of the untold casualties of the coronavirus: the webseries that Wired was planning on making out of the weekly While You Were Offline column I write for the site. I’m not sure if it’s totally dead or just sleeping due to circumstances, but I do know that the week everyone at Condé Nast started working from home was, ironically, going to be the week the series launched. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying.

I had this strange relationship with the webseries — on the one hand, I wasn’t really involved in developing or making it beyond talking to the producers early on in the process, so I was pretty much on the outside. But I also was on the inside; each episode was to be built around the column I had written for that week, meaning that I was responsible to some degree for each week’s video. I was in two places at once.

The development process took months; the first I heard about it was in the second half of last year, and what seemed tentative and slightly stuttering in terms of progress soon became much more constant. There was a pilot made — I never saw it, which I’m at once relieved about because I know I would have broken everything down and been highly critical of my role as minimal as it was, but at the same time, I do kind of wonder what it was like — and then, I believe, a series of weekly dry run episodes as a proof of concept that the production and turnaround time was possible on a weekly, ongoing basis.

For my part, I just kept doing what I do with the column with the one change being that I filed it a day earlier each week in order to let the video team do their thing. It was something that I struggled with at first, because it shortened the time I had to get the column done and made it less timely when it ran, but I soon settled into the new rhythm of things.

And now, to the best of my knowledge, it’s all off. It was an odd experience, the feeling of expectation and excitement and uncertainty, of weird responsibility, almost, but not a bad experience. We’ll see what happens when the post-virus world starts to assert itself.

Hey Hey Mercy

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I tend to have a buffer of posts for this site; I’m not sure exactly how it started but by mid-April last year, I’d built up a three week advance on what was going to be posted and when, and it’s something I’ve more or less maintained ever since, with a couple of bumps where I simply didn’t have time to write.

It’s an imperfect system, for sure, and purposefully so — the buffer is literally just that, and I tend to play with scheduling and rearranging the timing of posts a bunch. Often, I’ll write things that go live that day or the next, and bump what had been loosely scheduled for that spot to some time in the future as a placeholder; it’s not uncommon for those posts to end up getting bumped repeatedly and eventually show up months after I originally wrote them, to the point where I’ve even forgotten what they’re about. But that’s kind of the point of the whole system.

As a system, it’s only come close to breaking down once before, and that was the result of overwork and having no time to do anything new for a week or so; I remember the anxiety I felt watching the number of scheduled posts count down to five, at which point I just decided to spend an entire morning just writing, to fix that.

This time, though, I got to just a couple of pre-scheduled posts before I started being able to replenish the supply, and the reason was simply that I had nothing to say. The combination of being sick, then catching up on work, while the internet exhausted me and real life just kept happening completely burned me out, and every time I sat down to write something for here, I realized that I had nothing.

It was, I guess, unsettling, but more than that, it was something I recognized as a sign that I needed to stop for a while and let my brain soak, relax and refill with the dumb ephemera that would let me come back when I was ready. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to recognize the need to just… stop, sometimes. It’s a small victory for self care, but a victory nonetheless.

And, ironically, because of the buffer of posts, I got to take the necessary break and come back recharged without posts here even pausing. I knew there was a reason I did it.

Never Got Lost On This Road Before

And then, I got sick of the internet.

Being online is an important part of my job, and I mean that in a bigger way than simply Oh, I telecommute and work for publishers based in California even though I’m based in Portland. Literally, a significant part of my job requires me to be online a lot, because the internet — and specifically social media — is where I get a bunch of stories. I have a weekly column for Wired that is explicitly based on things that people are talking about on social media! It’s a place I spend a lot of time.

And, until recently, I’ve been okay with that. More than okay; I enjoyed the back and forth, the constant conversation and discussion and rhythm of the way social media worked, and the strange tense humor that fueled it. I could recognize patterns, and also loved the places where those patterns broke down and something new and unexpected happened, instead. It wasn’t just that I liked the internet, it was that I felt I spoke it’s language and understood it; it felt like my place, for better or worse.

And then it didn’t.

I couldn’t tell you when things changed, only when I realized. It was about three weeks ago and, in the internet’s defense, I was hardly at my best then either; I was recovering from being sick, and feeling pressured to catch up with everything as a result, and feeling quietly surly and stressed as a result. But if that was my mood, it was nothing compared to the internet.

It was the week when Super Tuesday was happening, which was also the week when the US was starting to realize how serious this whole coronavirus thing really was, and I was paying far too much attention to both because, in addition to being interested, it was also literally my job; I knew I’d be writing about both for Wired that week. And I hated it.

All I could see was people being angry at each other and picking fights, making overblown, self-involved statements and then flexing, as if preparing themselves for arguments they were sure were coming; it was the stereotype of the worst of the internet made real, and it was literally everywhere that week — even those who were traditionally calm and open and thoughtful seemed to be crouching, scanning the horizon for potential threats.

It was exhausting, and upsetting. It was disappointing, too, a constant stream of, not you too, you’re better than this…! that wore me down every single day. I knew the answer was to walk away and let this particular fever of nerves and anxiety and anger burn itself out, but I also knew that I couldn’t; I had to keep an eye on things for work. So, I did that, and felt myself slowly but surely get sick of the internet.

I’ll get over it; I don’t feel quite so tired and saddened by everything even now, if I’m honest. But, truth be told, at the time, it felt a little like heartbreak. This was, after all, my place — and then, it wasn’t.

Trying To Find A Radio

Every now and then, I remember that I co-wrote a successful column for my university newspaper for two years, and think to myself, “how did that happen?”

The answer, realistically, came from the fact that they had open submissions and were desperate for new material, but more than two decades later, it still seems unlike me to have submitted anything in the first place, and I genuinely can’t remember how I managed to convince Andy, my best friend at the time, to do it, either. Maybe we should just chalk it up to the confidence of youth.

I was underselling it before; it wasn’t just a column — we had that, sure (“Gubbins,” it was called, which was either Andy’s suggestion or the editor’s), but we also had a comic strip wholeheartedly ripped off of the Kyle Baker and Evan Dorkin collaboration from the early 90s where they reviewed shows together, a series of fake horoscopes, and a regular How-To guide to dancing like your favorite Britpop icons. We were astonishingly productive on a biweekly basis for two 20-year-old art students.

And, perhaps most surprising of all, it was a success, to the point of people recognizing us when we were out, which was an entirely surreal experience, and the byproduct of putting our likenesses in the comic strip in the first place. (Suffice to say, it was a small enough city we were all in for this to happen.) It was an odd brush with almost-fame that flattered our egos enough to be enjoyable, but was small enough to keep from being unpleasant.

We did all of this for two years, our second and third years in art school. By the end of the second year, we were pretty burned out and devoid of material, as well as all too aware that we should probably buckle down and be serious about course work in our final year, so stopping seemed like a good idea. I’m pretty sure our shtick was getting old by that point for other people, too.

I wonder, sometimes, how this all set me up for what I do for a living now; it was the first time I wrote about pop culture publicly, and in what I considered my own voice at the time. It was the first time I dealt with deadlines and audience response and… well, everything that my job is now, it feels like. Perhaps it was my secret origin.

The Story Behind The Story

When a news story breaks and you’re reporting on it, it takes over your life. Last Friday’s story about Dan DiDio leaving DC is a perfect case in point; it’s something that went from is this happening? to this is happening at breathtaking speed, faster than most — easily in single digits in terms of minutes — and from that point on, I was just in the thick of it with emails, phone calls and Twitter DMs.

(Twitter has proven to be one of the primary ways information on stories like this is shared, oddly enough — I learned more through Twitter than I did any other form of media, yesterday, and I’m not entirely sure how that happened. It wasn’t even this way a couple of years ago, but I digress.)

Partially, of course, all of this is driven by the impulse of I want to be the one to break the story, and the competitive urge there. I think THR was either first or second (behind ComicBook.com) to get the news out there, and certainly the first (or second) to be able to confirm it instead of speculating. That’s a nice feeling and something fun to boast about, but it also brings a bunch of people asking two things over and over again: “What actually happened?” and “How did you find out?”

Beyond the competitive journalistic impulse, there’s something deeper and more intense: the need to just find out the truth of the whole thing. Again using the DiDio story as an example, I knew he was out long before I knew why, with two very different versions of events having been shared with me by people in the know as the real reason. Obviously, it was unlikely that both could be true, and I just really, really wanted to know what was actually the case.

So, I kept digging and digging and updating the story and learning new things and talking to people about it, and suddenly it was two hours later and Chloe correctly pointed out that I hadn’t stood up or really even moved much for all that time, and that perhaps I needed a break. She was right; I went outside and it felt wonderful, but curiously alien and unusual at the same time.

Breaking news is, perhaps, why we’re in the game we’re in, but sometimes it makes us forget everything else out there.

Extra Extra

I’m thinking about newsletters again. I do this periodically.

I love email newsletters; I love the intimacy, the immediacy and the unexpectedness of them. They just appear in your inbox without warning, letters from friends you don’t actually know that always feel like surprise gifts (although I do happen to know the authors of a number of newsletters I receive, now that I come to think of it).

I work on one personally — the surprisingly successful Heat Vision newsletter for THR, which perpetually outperforms expectations in terms of opens, which is how readership for such things is measured, I’m told — and I have often thought of starting others: A comics news round-up with commentary, for example, or a summary of things posted here, with links to the full versions.

What always stops me is time. I’m too busy to do everything I want to already, how can I add more to that plate? (Other abandoned projects: A series of essays about the post-Jack Kirby New Gods comics for Wait, What? and writing new essays about the HBO Watchmen show and DC’s Doomsday Clock to put with my Wait, What? essays about the original comic and after-the-fact prequels in a digital book collection. One day, perhaps.)

And so, I read what other people are doing with newsletters and have ideas and thoughts and questions. I think about the potential of the form and its parallels to blogging, which is apparently making a comeback in 2020, I read. (I’m ahead of the curve, for once!) I wonder about newsletters as secret transmissions to curated audiences and what that means and can mean, and I ask myself how much fun it could be to send different versions of the same letter to people without anyone noticing. I’m a stinker.

There are things to be done with newsletters that I want to do. I’ll get to do them eventually, I hope.

Mr. Happy Was Missing

This post, which touches on the nature of blogging and format and intent of writing online in general, got me thinking about headlines and my strained relationship with them.

For anyone paying attention, it’s relatively clear that the headlines to the posts here are, at best, not entirely descriptive to the contents of the posts they’re attached to. Indeed, sometimes they’re not even related, just random phrases that come from song lyrics or something equally transient that happen to be in my head at the time. This is, of course, intentional, but its origins come from my long-standing frustration with headlines in a professional capacity.

In my job, headlines are a must, literally; every post I write has to have a headline, and it has to be a functional headline that exists within the parameters of whatever outlet I’m writing for (and there are oddly different expectations and traditions for each one; a headline is never just a headline). It’s one of my least favorite things about my job.

I say that not only because I like ambiguity and the idea of misdirecting an audience, although I do. I say it because I am very bad at headlines. I always have been. I struggled with them starting with io9 and, although I’ve gotten better at them since — a necessity, given just how difficult I found them back then — it’s never been a thing I’ve shown much aptitude for.

It’s not just that I rankle at the idea of summarizing the story I’ve written in a handful of words — if I could do that, why would I have spent all those words writing it in the first place? — but also that, more often than not, I cannot actually manage to do so in a manner that sounds palatable, never mind attractive. I fight an urge to just headline things, “An Interview With That Guy Who Wrote That Book,” or, “Some News, I Guess.”

My attempts at headlines are often rewritten, and at certain outlets, I’ve come to expect that. I write placeholders, knowing that editors far more skilled than I will come up with better. That’s a dangerous game, though; more than once, stories have run with my placeholders, and I’ve thought, shit, I wish I hadn’t made that joke.

I just realized I’ll need to headline this post. I don’t know what I’ll choose, but I’m sure it’ll perfectly illustrate my point, however obliquely.

And Now I Finally Realize

I’ve been thinking about the idea of writing as discipline lately. I think it’s because I’m coming up on the year anniversary of posting three times a week on here, which feels at once an achievement and nothing at all, given how rambling and free-associating this can be. Nonetheless: a year. (Technically, it’ll be a year next week.)

I’m far enough away from the decision to be suspicious of any recollection of why I decided to write here more regularly, never mind on a thrice-weekly basis, but I know that part of it was a selfish desire to do something for me; writing that wasn’t work, wasn’t fulfilling an external brief or purpose. I didn’t have any intention at the time to even re-read what I’d written and posted — I still haven’t, for the most part — and I knew pretty clearly that no-one else was reading, either, so the point was the act of writing itself. Doing the thing.

(I know at least two people read now; thankfully, it’s my two favorite people in the world, so I don’t feel too self-conscious about the rambling. If there are others, don’t tell me.)

Despite the fact that I was only doing it for myself, I found myself surprisingly strict when it came to the structure of the thing; it was quickly obvious that three posts every week was very important to me for some inexplicable reason. Tradition? Superstition? Simply keeping a promise I made to myself? Whatever the reason, the idea of skipping posts was almost immediately anathema to me: there would be a post on Monday, a post on Wednesday, and a post on Friday no matter what.

And here I am, a year later, having done that, feeling quite pleased with myself. Even though, as I said, I don’t re-read what I’ve written and it might all be nonsense. (It probably is, let’s be honest.) Is it simply that I’ve kept up the routine, maintained the rhythm? Possibly, but that didn’t happen accidentally. There’s a sense of genuine achievement in knowing that I managed to be that self-disciplined all year, no matter all the everything else that was going on at the time, even if it was “just” this personal, private space.  That I continued to make time for something just for me, after years of writing myself off or talking myself down.

It’s a good feeling, really.

We Don’t Need No Education

It’s strange, sometimes, thinking about the things I’ve learned while making a living as a writer. I have no formal training as a journalist — a fact I think is occasionally shockingly obvious — yet I have, somehow, managed to make it as a professional writer for more than a decade by this point. (And as an unprofessional one for years before that; some might claim that I’ve never fully stopped being unprofessional, of course.)

A lot of that is down to luck, as much as anything. I really do have a career that has owed a lot to being in the right place at the right time, and from making connections accidentally, because I thought I was just making friends and then they asked if I’d want to help them with something in exchange for money. The lack of forethought and planning in my career is genuinely impressive, and similarly embarrassing; if my career had a theme song, it’d be Big Star’s “Thank You, Friends” on a loop, with extra emphasis on that “Thank you again!” refrain at the end.

But there’s also been more than my fair share of learning on the job, both through direct and intentional teachings — at Time, I had an amazing editor who taught me all kinds of things, not least of which how to structure and rework thinkpieces so they weren’t just me going “Oh! And!” over and over again — and from picking up on context clues left out by accident in the middle of a conversation.

One of those was a conversation before taking a regular gig at a site, when I learned the definition of shortform web versus longform — of course, this was in itself six or seven years ago by now, and the goal posts have shifted more than a little in that time. But I remember having to mask my feeling of, oh, now I get it, I didn’t know that, thanks when the prospective editor told me that he wanted multiple shortform pieces from me daily, no longer than 400 words. “You tend to write around 600, and that’s just too long for people reading quickly,” he said, a fact that got filed away and sticks in my head when writing professionally even now.

Most of these posts here, by the way, are between 300 and 400 words. Anything longer, and it feels like I’m taking up more time than a random thought deserves.