letter to a venting friend

A friend texted me last night, needing to vent about the state of the world. I ended up writing this very long response, which I realize is a good summation of where I'm at right now, emotionally. Figured I'd share.

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Everything changed for me in the primary. I was absolutely gobsmacked that Andrew Yang didn’t win in a landslide. I was heartbroken to learn just how fucking stupid and short-sighted my country is. Then, hit after hit: the pandemic, the protests, the divisive politics. I started to withdraw from the news this summer, and then when RBG died I decided I probably needed to quit news entirely until after the election. 

Twitter had become increasingly toxic by this point, too. It’s either endless regurgitation of bad news, cult of wokeness inanity, or mean-spirited “jokes”. One of my breaking points was a tweet I think you posted a reply to - someone eviscerating someone else for some silly thing. There is so much pettiness and bullying and sniping on Twitter, and thanks to the algorithms, there’s no escaping it. 

Sam Harris has interviewed some of the key figures in The Social Dilemma, really smart and well-spoken people who make the case that social media is deeply detrimental to our well-being. Which I’ve always known - I was off of Facebook by 2009 and greatly curtailed my use of IG when I got tired of married men DMing me. And of course the fact that we’ve lost control over the content we see. IG jumped the shark when they killed chronological ordering. 

Since the pandemic started and I realized that nothing will ever be the same in this country again, I re-committed myself to a life of the mind. I know, sounds dramatic. But I’ve spent most of this year thinking about when in my life I felt the most engaged intellectually and creatively - what did my world look like at that time?  Well, it looked like stacks and stacks and stacks of books…which I had time to read, in part, because it was pre-social media. I thought long and hard about how simple and pure that time in my life was. Books, running, hiking, classes, friends. That was it. I was happiest when I was actively learning. So now I'm recreating my reality without the distractions that didn't exist, back when I was an active learner. 

(Also: there is a .05% chance I will still, one day, become a professional writer or novelist. I don't know if I have it in me. But I do know that drops down to 0% unless I change what I do and think and read, daily. Garbage in, garbage out, right?)

When The Social Dilemma came out, I was primed. It was the last little push I needed. I’ve been talking to some of my parent friends for a long time now about how Silicon Valley parents forbid screens entirely - the richest schools in this country are now completely screen free. That tells me everything I need to know. 

I deleted Twitter and stopped taking in the news entirely, from any source. Within the first week I had read two novels. 

But, much more importantly than that - I cannot tell you how much more peaceful it feels. There is a…quiet in my brain. There’s more space for reflection. I have done an enormous amount of work, emotionally and psychologically. I’m less reactive. My self talk is more positive. And even if I don’t do *anything* with my time when I come home from work, it’s still just a beautiful feeling of relaxation and chill, the not having of NEWS NEWS NEWS and CONSTANT INPUT AND STIMULATION.

Vote. Talk to people, if conversations present themselves, about why you feel the way you do re: important issues. Beyond that, save your fucking sanity and inner peace. American news is a nothing more than an outrage machine. I learned that when I saw them blasting every stupid fucking inconsequential thing Trump did rather than seriously take up the issue of UBI. Our country could have turned around right then and there — but it didn’t, because scandal sells.

I have very little hope for the world right now, and my heart absolutely breaks for zoomers and beyond. I truly believe the best any of us can do for ourselves is largely withdraw all the toxic things in our culture and environment and learn, quickly, where and how to find inner peace. I’m continually refining my own search and constantly asking myself - What makes you happy, El? Some things I know already and am working toward, some things I’m still finding out. 

But the answer is certainly, definitely, decidedly, not to be found on the nightly news, on Facebook, or on Twitter. 99.9% of what is to be found there is perfectly engineered to elicit our ugliest, most base reactions. I may never go back to taking in the news. Really. If there's an assassination or a natural disaster heading my way I'll found out about it soon enough. And I will always know where I stand on moral matters; my values don't need Apple News to direct my vote. 

Do your part and participate in the democratic process. Then turn it all off and go do the things that make you happy. 

PPRL: A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley (winner, 1992)

It's been a long minute since I posted about a Pulitzer novel. But I'm back on the sauce and still as weird about reading as ever, thanks to my English major programming, and it doesn't feel like a complete process until I've gotten down some thoughts about it.

A Thousand Acres (a reimagining of King Lear, set in the 1970s midwest) creeps up on you. You think it's plodding, you think it's your typically even-paced, multi-generational farm story. Then boom, you've got incest, extramarital affairs, attempted murder, suicide, and other family fun. What I enjoyed most about the story was the protagonist Ginny's range of emotion, action, and reaction. And I loved that, depending where you stand, you'll either admire her or pity her at novel's end. If I had a complaint, it's that Smiley lobs such massive plot bombs at the reader one after another without letting them fully detonate before throwing another. It's hard to absorb, and hard to believe, after a while, without sufficiently explored fallout. 

Essay topics: appearances vs reality, trading / bargains struck, things that grow and bear fruit vs. things which are barren, interrupted, abandoned etc.

amulet

They met in a space that was small and close, empty of expectation but full of possibility. She assumed they were alone. But something about the way he glanced sideways, nervous, then leaned towards her--

"What is it?" She touched his top shirt button, then his chin, trying to draw his gaze back to her face. 

"Doesn't matter." His lopsided, reassuring smile. "I'm safe here. You're an amulet."

And she believed him.

But then time went on. And the thing, which had a name neither of them spoke aloud, kept creeping into this space of possibility. Sometimes she'd catch it in the periphery of her vision, waiting, watching, threatening. Sometimes she'd feel the weight of it on them, pressing down and pushing the air out of the room. Sometimes it tore through the moment as quick as lightning, burning her, branding her with tiny scars of unforgetting. 

The thing became a thief. It stole trust. It stole joy. It stole patience. And most unforgivably, it stole time. It stole every solid stone they stood on until they lay crumpled on the ground, unmoored. 

"I thought I was an amulet," she whispered, clinging tight, desperate and terrified the thing was going to rip him away forever. He shook his head; it was all he had the wherewithal to do. But she didn't know if that meant that she wasn't, and all was lost, or that she was, but it didn't matter, and all was lost anyway. She didn't know, and he couldn't say, and she was left unknowing if she had ever been anything close to enough.

And the unknowing was another tiny scar, too.