Let's Just Welcome 2019 To Spite 2018

Civilization is rapidly melting like a butter castle in the sun. The turning of a Gregorian calendar can’t stop it. Institutions can’t stop it. But we can, maybe. And if we can’t, we can all at least comfort each other to the end with campy subversion.

Happy New Year. Here’s a short story by Kafka, who I’d left in 12th grade English, but who apparently hasn’t left us.

A Chinese Puzzle

Once there was a Chinese puzzle, a cheap simple toy, not much bigger than a pocket watch and without any sort of surprising contrivances. Cut into the flat wood, which was painted reddish-brown, there were some blue labyrinthine paths, which all led into a little hole. The ball, which was also blue, had to be got into one of the paths by means of tilting and shaking the box, and then into the hole. Once the ball was in the hole, the game was over, and if one wanted to start all over again, one had first to shake the ball out of the hole. The whole thing was covered over with a strong, convex glass; one could put the puzzle in one’s pocket and carry it about with one, and wherever one was, one could take it out and play with it.

If the ball was unemployed, it spent most of the time strolling to and fro, its hands clasped behind its back, on the plateau, avoiding the paths. It held the view that it was quite enough bothered with the paths during the game and that it had every right to recuperate on the open plain when no game was going on. Sometimes it would look up at the vaulted glass, but merely out of habit and quite without any intention of trying to make anything out up there. It had a rather straddling gait and maintained that it was not made for these narrow paths. This was partly true, for indeed the paths could hardly contain it, but it was also untrue, for the fact was that it was very carefully made to fit the width of the paths exactly, but the paths were certainly not meant to be comfortable for it, or else it would not have been a puzzle at all.

[Photo: Getty/AFP]

I Am Tired of Being Tired

In a world of fraud and myth, what else is there? No. Really. I'm asking.

First, to all the people who have supported this blog financially since August, while it lay fallow: Thank you. I will now write regularly, though I don’t know yet what you’re going to get, beyond un-topical navel-gazing and karma-dumping. But your faith and investments in me are not unfelt, and deserve something in return. This will have to do for now. As another overrated white guy once wrote, “Even if I must pawn my syringe, I will see to it that this wretched debt is paid.”

For months, since the implosion of my last best career intentions, I’ve fielded kind words and offers of work and delivered on next to none of them, putting my entire life on hold to produce a proposal for a book I don’t feel capable of writing. In sussing out the story (and securing a book deal), I thought, I would get my mojo and sense of purpose back. It hasn’t worked out that way. I’m in a deeper rut than I’ve been willing to admit, and unsure where to go from here.

The story is that my grandfather, a man I barely knew but who looms large in my family’s eccentric mythology, was not just a popular gunsmith outside Woodstock, not merely a friend and counselor to curators at the Met and the West Point museum; he was also a master forger of antique American firearms.

Literally hundreds of Ken Weinstein’s “Hurley Mountain Specials” are out there — fabricated 19th century Colts, mostly, but plenty of other pistols and long guns as well. The most notable of these — though he was more of an assistant or midwife on it, leaving the dirtiest and wettest work to an American-born Italian partner — is the only known example of the Belton “repeating” flintlock, an 18th century firearm that Joseph Belton, a fast-talking, eccentric colonial inventor unsuccessfully offered to the Continental Congress as a revolutionary weapon for a revolutionary cause. The Belton is now something of a missing link in gun activists’ bully defense of the Second Amendment: If the Founding Fathers knew of Bolton’s gun, with its rudimentary superimposed charges, then they would be unsurprised — and untroubled - by semiautomatic “assault weapons” and full-automatic machine guns.

Though I’ve uncovered a few other interesting connections and revelations, I still know very little about the Belton business, or my grandfather’s other adventures in forgery. I don’t know how he did it.

I don’t know how anybody in my bloodline achieves anything; my own life is a mass of incompletion, inertia, and regret. I was ambitious once, perhaps ambitious enough even to be criminal, but mostly I just hit plateaus and yelled at everybody else unlucky enough to be there with me.

Now I will digress into the self-pitying stuff that’s been blocking me up, that I’ve been loath to discuss openly. That’s chiefly out of respect for other people’s privacy, as well as to safeguard whatever semblance of normalcy or professionalism still attends my “brand.” None of that is worth much to me now. It’s certainly not worth the burden of carrying this shit on my heart alone.

I joined the Navy out of idealism, then lasted two years. I went to Columbia, got lonely, and dropped out for a year before my already considerable debt spurred me to finish. After 9/11, I entered the reserves and lasted another two years. I married someone I shouldn’t have, and with her encouragement, went into a career that I shouldn’t have — journalism, after another expensive year of grad school. One month into my first job, on the copy desk of the Wall Street Journal, I was laid off. Two months later, the Great Recession was underway. I was so fucked up at the time, I once left a party at a j-school professor’s house drunk with a pilfered copy of her new book, then lacked the money to repay her for it.

I went to Iraq as a contractor, then departed early when my marriage was at stake, leaving tens of thousands of dollars on the table. I took a job at a magazine for residential mortgage default servicers at the height of the housing bust and lasted a few months, before my refusal to help choreograph a musical number for the servicers’ annual bacchanal did me in. I worked a $30,000 a year magazine job in San Francisco and covered the rent with freelance while my wife, depressed, failed to land a job and stayed in bed in our dilapidated studio most days. We moved so she could finish her PhD, and I started a doctoral program of my own; neither of us has ever completed those degrees.

I took a reporting job in Washington at the height of a presidential race and the toxicity of the city and the politics and our poverty and our overpriced basement apartment choked me, until the winter night that our heating failed and a toilet flooded the entire place with hundreds of gallons of sewage, leaving the Red Cross to rescue us in the middle of the night, which meant depositing us in a Comfort Inn in College Park, Maryland, where we both had nervous breakdowns as our two-month-old gurgled on the bed. When our landlords returned from overseas, they refused to give us our security deposit back.

I supported us, and then our child, singlehandedly for eight years, in moves to Philadelphia, New York, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco, Tallahassee, Washington, Fort Lauderdale again, Tallahassee again. I stayed married far longer than I should have, because I already felt like a quitter in every other aspect of life and was determined not to quit on my wife or son. So my wife and I stayed put, drank heavily, and abused each other instead.

The week after I finally asked her for a divorce, she got the first salaried job she’d held since before we met. She was going to be a journalist now. The year after we finalized our divorce — which took extra time and money, after it turned out she’d told a radically different story to our mediator about every aspect of our relationship and our terms of parting — I lost a prestigious, stressful journalism job and took a management position at another company, which later purchased my previous employer. Somewhere in there, my previous employer hired my ex-wife. She deserves it, though; she’s brilliant.

Then I was let go from my job by an executive mentor, for badly dropping the ball on one of several projects I’d headed a few months earlier, while sick, and between an out-of-town leadership seminar and a hurricane bearing down on my family. I was also cut loose right before our newsroom held its vote to unionize — and right after, as a reluctant organizer for our office, I’d publicly corrected two company Vice Presidents when they tried to give bum information on unions to the staff at an all-hands meeting. I asked the union if I had a case. Not really, they said.

Then Donald Trump was elected president.

Then my high school wrestling coach was murdered in Parkland.

Then I took a job that seemed fun; then that site’s wealthy owner, who’d promoted me to editor in chief only weeks before, began to obsess over me and my politics, then he ordered me to do something that was contrary to all my professional training, and I quit. Several executives shortly left the company, too. Nevertheless, my brand became “leaves abruptly.”

Throughout all this, there were angry emails, tweets and calls from people who disliked my writing and my politics, told me to kill myself, threatened my child, and averred that I was worthless. Un-American. Part of a vast media elite conspiracy.

I am 40 years old. I have $126,000 in student debt, costly preparation for work in an industry I no longer have a taste for. I have no taste for anything now. I am A Real Loser, a half-time father who spends the rest of his time drinking, smoking, and pitying, and mostly keeping quiet about it, because I am an educated mediocre white man, precisely the type of guy who fucks everybody else’s lives up; everyone is suffering now, and I feel like an asshole boring people with my own. I don’t keep many friends in real life. Being a steppenwolf has never really worked for me, but I’ve never been good at the alternatives.

I used to have serious faith in myself and in the world. But I feel now that much of my life has been defined by an inability to deal with people and institutions who exploit or ignore faith — in other words, most people and institutions. My reporting, my employment, my world all seemed to revolve around bad, self-loving actors. And so I lost faith, the way a lizard loses its tail when pursued by a predator. Only faith doesn’t grow back of its own accord.

I am offered work, often good work, and I can’t deliver on it because I can’t see the use of it, any of it. I think a lot about other men who have midlife crises, the men I see cruising the beach in convertible sports cars and cruising Tinder at a douchey bar on Las Olas. I wonder if I am like them when I’m like this — whether, if more of the breaks had gone my way, I would still hurt like them.

On the plus side, I now feel no compunctions about applying for jobs as a disabled person. “Major depression” always sounded like a fake disability to me as a young person, a quick excuse for the lazy, dramatic and shiftless, whose ranks clearly included me. But if I could have willed the failings out of me, I would have by now. My last counselor agreed. I currently lack insurance, so it may take some time to get a second opinion.

When I was in high school, the mother of one of my friends died suddenly, unexpectedly. We were told she’d tripped over an open dishwasher and fallen on it, impaling herself. The service was in a Catholic Church. I spent the whole time wondering, as best as a 17-year-old could, how life could end like that, where the fairness was in it. Then my father told me the truth: This woman had committed suicide, but that couldn’t be acknowledged publicly, else it would scandalize her family and endanger her heavenly reward. We’d known she wasn’t always stable, though she’d always been gregarious with me. It was still beyond my understanding.

“Some people are just tortured souls,” my father said, with none of the gusto or speed or cliches that usually marked his fatherly wisdom. It never occurred to me until recently that I might be one of those souls.

I’d like to not have shared this sad story. I’d like to have a better one. But I’m fucking tired, and in no state to help myself. It’s been a long couple of decades.

Was my grandfather tortured, too? Did it motivate his work? Or cloud it? Or was he possessed of that chutzpah, that faith in self that rationalizes fraud and myth-peddling as something normal? The more I learn about him and his unsavory dealings — his first gun sale, of a stolen military pistol when he was a preteen, ended with a kid shooting his brother in the head — the more unsettled I am, and the more certain I felt that he *should* have been a tortured soul. Yet I am appalled at what I still don’t know about him, and certain that some key to my improvement has to lie hidden in his life story.

I don’t know if that counts as faith. Maybe just a light obsession. But at the moment, it’s what I have.

Amid Media Storms, a Weather Man Confesses to Imprecision

What a TV meteorologist (and Anthony Bourdain) can tell us about the future of news

If you’re reading this, hello and welcome to the firstish installment of National Insecurity! There’s so much we can talk about here, but today I want to go essaying about the true confessions of a TV weatherman, a few confessions of my own, and Our Ongoing Media Credibility Crisis.

First, read this fun fun piece by South Florida weather broadcaster and hurricane whisperer Bryan Norcross, “If forecasters really want to reach their audience, they should consider the art of numbers,” published Wednesday by the Washington Post. His basic premise is that news-weather forecasters regularly round temperatures up or down and exaggerate modeled forecasts in order to make them more useful to more viewers. He argues that a weather man’s credibility is more bound up in this usefulness than it is in technical precision: “If users gain confidence in the forecaster, either because they favorably remember the heat alert while sweating through the day for which 90 degrees was forecast, or because the 82 simply sits better in their mind, should we fight against that reality?”

I admit a bit of bias here, having grown up with Bryan as the voice that steadied my family through many storm seasons. If you asked me who I would most listen to on any meteorological media topic, my list would begin with “Bryan Norcross” written three times.

But besides being a fun bit of insider dishing — like Anthony Bourdain’s famed original 1999 print piece, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” but for TV weather — Bryan’s column points at a larger challenge all journalists have: how best to articulate complex situations for large audiences in a simple medium. How does the media actually intermediate this relationship between people and their world? And if it involves elevating certain facts or downplaying others, telling only part of a story, how does the media do it credibly?

There aren’t a lot of perks to being an aging journalist, but one is looking at a published story and getting pretty good at understanding what’s *not* being printed in it, and why. Of course, in recent years, most astute news readers, too, are good at grokking who “a person familiar with X’s thinking” is, or how that front-page story about Y’s latest expansive national scandal owed a lot to a beleaguered local reporter’s banal, terse dispatch on Y’s weird LLC that seemed like a biased nothingburger when it came out three weeks ago.

These readers today grasp what many in our business are loath to accept: Every time you write a story or a listicle or a package for an audience and lay it out on paper or a CMS, you engage in interpolation. How you interpolate very much depends on who you are and where you work. (Take the headline on this post, for example: What publication does it mimic? For whom are its headlines written that way?)

We’re loath to acknowledge this because of how much of our professional ethos is still wedded to a model of credibility that was the best practice for much of a century. That’s Natural Objectivity: “The things we tell you are indisputable facts and nothing more.” The closest thing to an ideal news form in this model was AP wire copy: shot around the world, self-contained, in “inverted pyramid” style. The lede gives you the facts. Next sentence gives you the context of the facts. Next comes a quote from a principal subject. After that, some details and quotes and a kicker.

I learned this form in high school: It was a natural law that this was how you write news. If you wanted flowery ledes and feature stories, you went to the local paper’s Sunday magazine. (All the papers had one back then, when Objective Journalists Ruled The Earth.) I assumed this was how news readers wanted their information, because I was told so.

It was only later, as a copy editor, the local-paper equivalent of a good restaurant’s back-of-house chef, that I learned the inverted pyramid had a far different utility to newspapers: economy of space. Some nights, my job involved filling inside pages of the paper with state or national news stories. If I had six inches of newshole on 2A and this wire story was 12 inches long, I had a problem! “Objective” inverted pyramid stories solved this problem. All the key facts were in the lede; everything after was expendable. So you chopped it from the bottom and jammed it in your hole. Bye, heart-rending kicker! So long, “X has faced five previous ethics complaints”! Telling but nonlinear details just didn’t fit sometimes.

Most newspaper readers had no idea how much of a story had been cut to size for their eyes. If you grew up as I did, reading the sports recaps or national capsules in the paper, you were jarred the first time you realized these were decapitated heads on display, the torn ledes of 900-word stories you’d never see.

This practice spurred other weird, esoteric practices. Some wire editors, before sending their reporters’ copy to newsroom hacks like me, would insert “<<<OPTIONAL CUT HERE>>>” to guide us in our trimmings, as if to take back some control over how much context readers got: “Fine, cut here, but not there, please.”

When pulling from the wires, you also saw how many times a breaking-news lede got a “writethru” — an edit with additional, sometimes *key*, information to a story. Often, the latest important writethru came too late to make the paper. 

And then, sometimes, in addition to the inverted-pyramid “news” report of an event, the reporter would send along a “feature lede,” a colorful scene-soaked entree that usually incorporated the news story, usually verbatim. So it was possible to read a paper in Tallahassee that gave a state politician’s arrest two paragraphs, and to read a paper in Miami that had the *same* story, by the *same* writer, in magazine form, taking up a whole page beneath a photograph. 

That’s a lot of weird, quirky stuff, but my main takeaway was that our pretense to objectivity — the bargain we made with readers to be credible and useful to them — was also driven and shaped by a lot of other outside factors, often material ones.

Those factors seem quaint now — and, in an information glut, so does the pretense to objectivity. No one trusts a storyteller that isn’t laying it all out there anymore. But laying it all out there is never easy, for many reasons, some of them good.

So we all intermediate when we tell our stories. We connect dots the best we can. We strive for facticity, even when many facts are unreportable for whatever reason. We exercise our judgment. Why not be honest and transparent about *how* we do that?

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Now, back to the weather. Bryan’s topline is: The weather you get from TV is not *The Weather*, but it explains The Weather in a way we believe is useful to you. Here’s how. 

Some of those “hows” *do* seem problematic to me. Part of that is because they seem outmoded, like avoiding reporting temperatures that end in odd numbers because studies show people react faster to even numbers — in an age where anybody can download a freemium app on their phone to access all the the weather and temperature models the TV weather reporter uses. 

Part of me also worries that some of the practices in Bryan’s retelling reinforce the same behaviors they seek to address, the ones that make it hard for people to grasp The Weather in the first place. After several generations of only seeing even number temperatures on TV, how much *less* responsive will we all be to odds?

A small example, but it gets at the fact that when we intermediate info for our audiences, we are also *conditioning* them to be audiences in ways big and small. We need to be more honest about our role in that process, and more transparent about why we do what we do, and more solicitous of input from our audiences — the way that Norcross does here for weather reporting, and Bourdain did for restaurateurs. 

Is there danger in being so open about how journalists exercise their human judgment? Will it open the door for media critics to attack our reporting, while themselves injecting fictions into the body politic? Sure. A lot of the bad-faith but ascendant attacks on the media are aimed not at what the media reports, but at its very existence, at the act of intermediating information. 

But my gut tells me that a shirtless Alex Jones screaming that the media lies about global warming doesn’t look any more credible because TV weather guys admit they round the local temperature up to an even number. You can still be honest about the limitations of your work and the reasons for them. You can still be the bigger intermediator. And to your audience, he’ll still just be a hairy kid stomping and bitching about the weather.

Tangentially related reading: Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand

(Photo: zooey/flickr

Well, hello there.

I have wares, if you have coin.

What am I doing? All kinds of things, some of which I even control. This is one of those things. The idea, as I understand it, is like my c. 2004 Myspace, only people see this and give me money for it. Needless to say, that’s a high threshold, but I’m down.

At the moment, this conversation I’m starting is “National Insecurity” — mine, yours, ours, theirs. But it’s apt to look a lot less like my paid published writings and a lot more like tweeting without character limits, which, honestly, are you sure you’d subscribe for that?! I mean, you said you would, so let’s test it. If you like: essays; links galore; parenthood kvetches; geopolitical opinions; grandiose condemnations; guest writing; coping skills; answers to your questions; 1980s Phillies trivia; cat and kayak pics; and someone to tell you you probably aren’t nuts… well: There is water here.

What can I tell you this week? Not nearly as much as I hope to down the line. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Wednesday, Aug. 8: Military Veterans’ News Site’s Top Editor Quits, Says He Faced Pressure to Be ‘Less Liberal’ (The Wrap)

Thursday, Aug. 9: The Space Force, Like Trump, Is a Consummately American Grift (Rolling Stone)

Friday, Aug. 10: How to explain Rick Gates, the almost-sympathetic thief and philanderer (The Washington Post)

Saturday, Aug. 11: Taught the kid how to make a survival whistle out of a soda can.

Sunday, Aug. 12: Made tacos.

Monday, Aug. 13: Held two (2) vitally important phone conversations with leaders in my industry while wiping my kid’s bottom. Requested a deadline extension on something cool while trying to map out all the cool things and ignoring alerts on my banking apps. Met you fine people here.

It’s all downhill from here, right? Stay tuned for long, illuminating, fun updates that will hopefully revolve less around me and more around the work of many far more interesting and intelligent people.

Now, gimme a fiver.

(Photo credit: dasharez0ne)

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