Hazlitt Magazine

'Minimalism is a Survival Strategy': An Interview with Kyle Chayka

The author of The Longing for Less on minimalism as an inherent judgment, the aesthetics of community, and why he’s hesitant to identify as a minimalist himself.

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There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance.

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‘Minimalism is a Survival Strategy’: An Interview with Kyle Chayka

The author of The Longing for Less on minimalism as an inherent judgment, the aesthetics of community, and why he’s hesitant to identify as a minimalist himself.

There’s a moment in Kyle Chayka’s The Longing for Less (Bloomsbury USA) when it feels as if the entire book is about to fall apart. Chayka, an established cultural critic for The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Nation and more, makes the incongruous observation that writing about minimalism is anathema because words crowd the stark beauty of a blank page, filling it with clutter. Indeed, there’s something unnerving about the impulse to decipher the meaning of minimalism, and the cognitive dissonance that comes with that acknowledgment elicits the power of a sucker punch. The term minimalism has become modern gospel, shorthand for a self-congratulatory lifestyle that eschews the accumulation of material goods and casts all nonessentials as sheer frivolity. One needs only to glimpse at Kim Kardashian’s tchotchke-less, concrete home to understand that minimalism has become one of the most important—and loaded—cultural signifiers of our time. Chayka demonstrates that the basic tenets of minimalism have been conveniently repackaged multiple times throughout history, beginning with the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece, shifting to the transcendental self-sufficiency of Henry David Thoreau, and later, the “voluntary simplicity” adopted by people who shopped from the Whole Earth catalog in the 1970s.  The Longing for Less is a powerful meditation on the origins of minimalism, its recent commodification, and how it all went awry. Chayka explores famous minimalist cultural artifacts like Philip Johnson’s boastfully austere Glass House, Donald Judd’s sterile cubes, and John Cage’s brilliant musical troll, 4’33, to craft his argument that minimalism has the power to be far less dour than our current cultural understanding allows. Chayka speaks in a sort of surfer-dude drawl, punctuated by plenty of “yeahs” and “totallys.” We spoke about minimalism as an inherent judgment, the aesthetics of community, and why he’s hesitant to identify as a minimalist himself. Isabel Slone: Throughout the book, there are snippets of your own interest in minimalism: a wardrobe filled with grey clothing and a relatively empty Brooklyn apartment save for your roommate’s stuff. How would you describe your own personal relationship with minimalism? Kyle Chayka: I started paying attention in 2015-2016, when I kept seeing the word minimalism pop up all over the place, used to describe the interior of a bar or a restaurant or a hotel. People were also talking about how they were living a lifestyle that didn’t put much stock into material possessions. And I had been looking a lot at this magazine, called Kinfolk, which ushered in this hipster-minimalist aesthetic of Spartan living. Around that time, minimalism was everywhere, but then I remembered that Agnes Martin and Donald Judd were part of an art movement in the 1960s called minimalism, and the work they made seemed to have little connection to what people were talking about as minimalism today. So I got interested in that disconnect between how people were using the word and the origins of the word. You clearly appreciate the aesthetics of minimalism, but you stop short of calling yourself a minimalist. Why is that? The aesthetic of minimalism has always really appealed to me; bare empty rooms, the art gallery vibe. But the label of minimalism that emerged over the past 5-10 years actually doesn’t have that much to do with the ideas behind minimalism and minimalist art that attracted me. The thing that makes me hesitant is that minimalism as a concept has been super commodified, as we’ve seen with Marie Kondo selling crystals and tuning forks on her website. Minimalism has become a brand that I don’t think has much in common with the original meaning of the term. I wrote the book in some ways to follow that trail and see what it could mean in the future. I’m curious about how minimalism came to be associated with affluence. It used to be that owning a lot of material objects telegraphed wealth, but now it seems to be the other way around. How did we get to that point? Right now, minimalism is this commandment to consume fewer, better things. But aesthetics are always evolving and each era and generation has a different idea of what luxury means. In the 1940s and ’50s, post-WWII, the aesthetic of success and luxury in America was material accumulation. It was a house in the suburbs, a fancy car. But at the same time, artists and writers were rebelling against that, especially in New York. Artists started colonizing the factory neighbourhood of SoHo and moving into these giant lofts. Then over the following decades, that kind of industrial austerity became a luxury aesthetic on its own. From the 1980s to the 2000s, fashion brands adopted the lifestyle of the SoHo loft artist as a marker of cool, which they branded and marketed to us as a quote-unquote authentic way of living. Now every new condo building is a loft. You brought up fashion, so I wanted to take your temperature on something. The rise of minimalism coincides with the fashion industry’s widespread embrace of down-market clothing; designer sweatpants have become more covetable than a bespoke suit. Do you see these two phenomena as related? Totally. The promise of minimalism as a consumer idea is that you can buy one perfect, multipurpose item. That’s not going to be a finicky fashion thing, like a couture dress or a tailored suit. It’s going to be the kind of hard-wearing, sturdy basics everyone is gravitating towards. It’s sort of funny, "basic" is another word for minimalism, in some ways. What Everlane and Uniqlo are selling, for example, is essentially affordable, minimalist clothing that will not make you stand out and not make you look bad. It’s middle-of-the-road optimization of fashion. There’s this conception of minimalism, exemplified by Philip Johnson’s Glass House, as an implicit boast… I would say it’s explicit. Okay, an explicit boast that seems to pass judgment on anyone who doesn’t live by its tenets. Is this sense of being judged by minimalism a legitimate reaction or just a perceived slight? I think it’s a totally valid reaction. The sense I always got was that minimalism can be a form of control, and it’s really easy to feel not included, or that your messy humanity is not accommodated by the style. I remember being in this hotel in Texas that was all cement: walls, ceiling, floor. It looked very cool but it was an inhuman space. It felt oppressive, like it was not conducive to living things. On the other hand, we can compare Philip Johnson’s Glass House to Donald Judd’s loft as an example of minimalism as a lack of control, where you can let anything into your space and not have to force the style. Minimalism doesn’t have to be homogenous. Hopefully I sketch out an idea of minimalism that’s not so judgmental and not so controlling. What I perceived the conclusion of the book to be is that unhappiness and disappointment lies at the root of our cultural obsession with minimalism and if people learned to be more accepting of their lives, they wouldn’t feel the need to exert control over minute things. Is the galaxy brain meme version of minimalism just…not giving a fuck? I think my sense of minimalism is much closer to not giving a fuck than trying to make a perfect space or trying to find the perfect object. I mean, I’m still very pretentious. I love finding great stuff. But this idea that you can buy a perfect set of furniture and thus control your life is very problematic. The people in the book I like the most are the ones who give less of a fuck about following an orthodox set of rules. Like the Eames. Is there anyone right now whose DGAF minimalism you think will be remembered fondly by history? Steve Jobs was a huge design influence on everyone’s lives. The iPhone sort of set the expectation for this wealthy, glossy, minimalist aesthetic of technology. But the Eames would have been so against iPhones. They would not like what is going on, I feel. You write that minimalism is simply a natural reaction to living through the brash excess of the early 2000s. Do you think the aesthetic pendulum with shift soon and we will begin to crave noise and clutter once more? You have to separate the trendy style of minimalism from the ideas that define it. I think the fad will inevitably fade pretty soon. We’re already seeing people turning against the super austere style. But to me, the idea of considered living and developing your own sense of taste and living in a sustainable way is so much more important. I think it will keep being a concern, especially in the next few decades considering climate change and the possible apocalypse and the total upheaval of our lives is a looming threat. Minimalism is a survival strategy, I think. And right now feels like a moment to survive, rather than accumulate more crap. You position minimalism as the aesthetics of individualism, yet the culture feels like it’s starting to shift away from the individual in favour of community. Is there an aesthetic for community? As a fan of minimalism, I hope that minimalism could be an aesthetic for community as well. You see the hope of design for community in Bauhaus, or even the Eames ideal of making the best thing for the least money for the most people. I think minimalism’s aesthetic is, to use a tech phrase, minimum viable style. You can make it cheaply, you can adopt the style easily and use whatever is around you. So I think minimalism could be the aesthetic of impromptu communities or industrial reuse. There’s a phrase you use in the book I found irresistible: “luxurious minimalism.” These two concepts that should theoretically oppose each other actually work really well together in practice. Can you expand a bit on what you mean by luxurious minimalism? That’s the paradox of the book, I suppose. How did minimalism become luxurious? Speaking to the context of the Japan chapter, whether the phrase appears, the people in Heian Japan around 1000 AD lived these lives of extreme luxury. They had tons of servants and giant mansions and were surrounded by material goods and they just seemed to have appreciated it all so much. Despite their surroundings, their quality of living was actually not that high. The structures they lived in were super drafty, they were not as technologically advanced as China or Korea, at that point they had kind of cut themselves off from the world. So in the absence of other influences, they were driven to appreciate, say, the blooming of a single flower, or the intricate changing of the seasons, or the smell of one stick of incense. Shonagon, the author of The Pillow Book, was obsessively recording the super mundane details of the world. I think that’s kind of a luxury in itself, to be able to notice everything so closely and observe what’s around you. That’s the luxury of minimalism to me. Not wanting to accumulate more stuff, but instead wanting to have the luxury of attention and an appreciation for what’s already there. We don’t have that enough. That’s a lovely thought.
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There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance.

A few weeks after I lost the admin gig at NASA, I pulled a job at the men’s sauna downtown. The building was nondescript: gray, with a gravel parking lot, snuggled between the lofts beside Toyota Stadium and Chinatown. Inside, you took one flight of steps after another, passing white signs on black walls in dim lighting leaping out at your face: VIAGRA AND POPPERS ARE A DEADLY COMBINATION; IF YOU ARE DRUNK, WE WILL NOT ADMIT YOU; NO MEANS NO, EVERY TIME; ASK ME ABOUT PrEP. By the time I made it to the register—this glass window in front of a padded black door, behind which stood the locker room, which led to the baths themselves—I’d almost psyched myself out. But I’d already made it farther than I thought I would. This short Latino guy squinted at me from behind the counter. Dude had round cheeks behind rounder glasses. Soft voice. Sleepy eyes. His nametag said Eduardo, but the letters were crossed out, with Eddy scribbled in Sharpie above them. I asked him for an application, and then I asked if the place was hiring, or if I should make an appointment, or if I should just leave. Eddy blinked twice. Shook his head. Buzzed me in. We sat under a wall of keys, numbered from one to infinity. Another guy, muscled and Vietnamese, stood beside us folding towels. Eddy asked about my experience, scratching at his armpits. So I started in on college, and then grad school, and I stopped when Eddy yawned. Guess that wasn’t what you meant, I said. No, said Eddy. But you have a lovely voice. You ever even been to a gay sauna before? Seriously? You’d be surprised. Of course I have, I said. This wasn’t a lie. On a work trip to Dallas, like four years ago, I’d slipped into an oversized locker room on the edge of the business district. I paid in cash. Gave no I.D. After a few minutes of tiptoeing around, an older black dude touched my shoulder. He led me to a room, where he kissed me, gently, and then he sucked me off, gently, and when I did the same to him, or when I tried to, he moaned, gently, and then not so gently, as if he were singing to me, fondling my earlobes, pinching my neck. He tried fucking me, but I was entirely too tight, so he grinded in my mouth until he came. When he’d finished, and I stood up to leave him, he grabbed me, again, kissing me on the lips. Then he smiled. That confused me. I grabbed my shit and ghosted. Once, I told Eddy. And that made you want to work at one, said Eddy. I still think about it, I said. Eddy looked me up and down. There was something boyish in his face, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That only made it stronger. Don’t take this wrong, he said, but you don’t look cut out for this. No one’s cut out for anything when they start, I said. That’s fair, said Eddy. But you still don’t. I just want to be around men, I said, surprising myself. Men like this. At that, Eddy smiled. It completely distorted his face. Like what, he said. You know, I said. I want you to say it. I’m looking for something, I said. I think I’m looking for something and I think that this is where I can find it. Eddy blinked at me. He laughed in my face. You and everyone else, he said. I worked every night but Tuesdays, from eight to four in the morning. After you’d made it inside, past the walk-up, the sauna had four floors. Every room was dim, and stocked with condoms and lube, from the lobby to the hot tub to the showers to the dry saunas. The second and third floors were mazes, both flanked by padded rooms with double-lockable doors. The fourth floor was where men went to sleep, with a mini-bar, vending machines, sofas, and an STI clinic. Mostly, at first, I plodded around the building in flip-flops. Picking up towels and wiping down mats and snatching up used paper towels and slipping on lube. Some nights, the tile stayed immaculate. Other nights, it was dotted with semen. Sometimes, I’d wake up guys who’d fallen asleep in their towels on the floor. Eventually, Eddy had me working the front counter, too. Logging I.D.s, checking dudes in. Most people quit within a week or two, he said. It’s been three, I said. Give it another three, said Eddy. The rules for employees were simple: no drugs. No photos. No phone calls. You could use the sauna whenever, but you couldn’t fuck on the clock. But I wouldn’t recommend fucking here at all, said Leo. He was other guy who manned the counter with me, with the biceps. His were thrice the size of mine. I’ve had experiences, he said. Trust me. I will, I said. Great, said Eddy, slipping between us for a key. But most people do. And the guys that come here, said Eddy, they aren’t your friends. Okay, I said. Really. They aren’t here for you. He heard you, said Leo. Of course he did, said Eddy. Most people say that, too. There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance. I saw guys in three-piece suits. I saw guys in tracksuits. I saw frat kids. I saw fathers. I saw doctors. I saw chefs. I saw family men. I saw car dealers. I saw pastors. I saw teachers. I saw burnouts. I saw guys visiting relatives for the holidays. I saw guys visiting relatives in the Medical District. I saw guys entirely too fucked up from clubbing. Once, I recognized a gaggle of football players in town for a playoff game, and when I told Eddy, he only glanced at their driver’s licenses, which were fake, and shrugged. Later, Leo told me that this happened all the time. Nearly everyone wore the same smile. A tight pinch of the lips. Shoulders tensed. I’d pass them their towels and their keys and they’d shuffle through the door. Most guys stayed at least an hour. Some stayed eight or nine. Some guys sprinted right back through the entrance minutes later. But once they’d made it through the doors, most of these men were very different. They were stupid. They were goofy. They very deliberate, or not. Some of the men ignored me, but most of them at least nodded, and every race and ethnicity passed through those fucking doors, although of course most patrons would follow a single whiteboy around the sauna for hours. The handful of black men I saw in the building held eye contact with me like a grip, literally shaking it. A few months in, some of the regulars made it a point to chat. One of them, a young Chinese guy, took to hanging around the lobby in the evenings. He’d stay past sunrise, sipping Powerade and tapping on the counter and chewing chips and scrolling through Instagram. One night, I asked him why he didn’t just pay for an annual membership. It’s not that simple, he said. I just can’t go home at the moment. Fuck, I said. I’m so sorry. No no no, he said, smirking. Calm down. I mean I missed the bus. So I’m stuck. Oh. I literally can’t get home most nights. Mm, I said, and I turned away, but he didn’t. You don’t look like you should be working here, he said. What does that mean? You look smart enough to know exactly what I mean. You don’t look like you should have an Australian accent, I said. But here we are. You’re funny, said the guy. But maybe not as smart as I thought. He said his name was John. He was a student, he told me, in the States on scholarship. Said he was smart enough not to show the university how smart he was, so he kept getting funding because it always looked like he was improving. Another guy named Arash leaned on the other side of the counter. He said he’d thought I was Sri Lankan. That’s what Leo told me, he said. When I first saw you working here, I was happy. I thought—finally. Leo’s a liar, I said. We’re all liars, said Arash. But this one’s too good, said John, nodding at me. He won’t even kiss me. Not even a kiss, said Arash. Impressive. I’m not here for you, I said. You’re only here for me, said John. I pay your salary. You’re talking like a colonizer, said Arash. Of course you’d say that, said John. You’re saying that because I’m Indian. He’s saying that because he’s an idiot, I said. I’m saying that because I can, said John, scratching at his hip, eyeing a whiteboy who’d been lingering behind him—and, without a word, John gave us a look, before he followed the guy upstairs, slapping his heels on the steps. Arash was a nurse who lived out in Bellaire. He slept at the sauna four nights a week. It was cheaper than paying rent. He sent most of his checks to a sister overseas, although he wasn’t sure that it wasn’t really going to her husband’s family. He’d been in Houston for ten years. He’d worked at the hospital for seven. They love me because I work holidays, he said. Never took a sick day. Not one. One morning I broke my toe and the next hour I was at work. But I never see any of the money. You think you’ll go back? Your answer’s in the question, said Arash. Ten years here, what can I do? I rarely ever saw Arash pair off with anyone, but it happened from time to time. Burly brown dudes stuck in the city on layovers. Sometimes whiteboys, too. Mostly, he slept on the third floor, watching men walk up and down the stairs. And John was his polar opposite, talking entirely too loudly at the counter before disappearing for hours at a time. But at some point or another most evenings, both men lingered in front of me. Toying with their phones, pulling crumbs from the same bag of chips. Men are disgusting, said John, adjusting his towel, scratching his belly. You only say that after they’ve fucked you, said Arash. You’re assuming I’m bottoming, said John. And I say that because it’s true. They’re foul. We’re foul. You sound like every spurned lover there’s ever been, said Arash. Shut up, said John, and he threw chunks of a cookie at him. I told them both to stop fucking around. I forget, said John. You’re working. I am working, I said. For you, as you’d say. You’re learning, said John. But you’re here for the same reason as everyone else. I’m not here to fuck. Fucking has nothing to do with it. I thought you said you had a Master’s. You have a Master’s? said Arash, gurgling a chocolate chip. It doesn’t matter, I said. I’m curious, said Arash, what brings us here, if not fucking? Of course you know why, said John. I don’t, said Arash. Enlighten me. Enlighten me, mimicked John, in a voice four octaves higher, tossing another cookie into his mouth. Some mornings after my shift I’d walk from the sauna’s lobby to the upper levels, sweeping up stray condoms but mostly listening. Loose moans oozed from closed doors. Yelps popped from the mazes. That smacking sound followed me from staircase to staircase. And porn—skinny white guys fucking each other senseless—played from the televisions above. These were just the sounds of the workday. In a way, none of this felt too different from the old office: coffee dripping, hushed conversations. There, I wore something like a suit. Here, I had a different uniform: a black t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I wore a name tag for a minute, until I realized that nobody cared. Some days, I changed the name, just to see what would happen. Around the sauna, men leaned over others having sex, like they were watching sports, just snorting at the score. They hunched on one another in benches by the stairs, laughing or whispering or just rubbing their eyes, staving off sleep, biding their time. Eddy called the sauna a sort of purgatory. But a good one, he said. I’ve never heard of a good purgatory, said Leo, folding towels. I was raised in the church. I heard everything. So you think it’s like a break from life, I said. It is life, said Leo. But distilled. Like mezcal, I said. Sure, said Leo. Or soju. Now you’re just naming liquors. But there’s a point, I said. Drink too much and it’ll kill you. The only point here is time, said Eddy. If these guys wait long enough, they’ll get what they’re looking for. Maybe, I said. Now you’re the expert, said Eddy. He’s right, said Leo. Some people have to wait quite a while. But they wait regardless, said Eddy. And they pay to do that. What it comes down to is who can afford to wait. Who has that kind of time. Who can spend it. Or who can spend it because they don’t have shit else to do, said Leo. They’re still spending something, said Eddy, picking his ear, twirling a set of keys. I pitched the thesis to Arash and John later that evening. They leaned on the counter, sweating and sticky, working through a bag of spicy Cheetos. I’m not saying I agree with it, I said. Then why even tell us, said Arash. Because he’s an idiot, said John. And he’s wrong. You know what this place is really like? Educate us, said Arash. A bottle of Pop Rocks, said John. Pardon? I don’t know what your brown man’s equivalent would be, said John. Put one Pop Rock in a water bottle, and that shit explodes on contact. But fill an entire bottle with Rocks, and none of them move. They have nowhere to go. That’s what everyone’s doing here, said John. We’re all waiting for someone to free up some space. So one of us can move. Some days, there’s a whole reaction. Like an orgy, I said. Obviously, said John. You told us you study at a university, said Arash. What I could do with the money they use to teach you these things. Capitalist, said John. You’re finally an American. I will never be an American, said Arash, smiling, examining a Cheeto. They aren’t even that hot, said Arash. You people will call anything spicy. In the mornings after my shifts, I’d drive back to my place just north of downtown. Grab a few tacos. Sleep for a few hours. Fuck around on the internet for two or three more. The panic attacks had mostly subsided, they weren’t nearly as bad as they’d been, but there was, in those months, a sort of fretting that was going on in my life. My parents were bereft. They’d heard that I’d lost my last gig. They were both West Indian; they’d grown up in the mountains; they’d found cushy middle-class gigs in the States. When I’d told my mother about losing the job, she’d sobbed on the phone, intermittently, for thirty minutes, just wailing. My father just shook his head. I’d been their hope for new money. After I came out, they’d mostly stopped asked questions, and we’d mostly lost our points of connection—but this they could understand. Aimless young men are like roaches. We exist in every pocket of the world. I told them I’d figure it out. They asked if I could do it at home, back in the suburbs. I declined without declining every time, steering the conversation to relatives who couldn’t have given a fuck about me. There was the ex, too. We’d met on the apps. He was a bear-ish white guy, the kind that always happened to me. For a while, I thought he was with me because he was just into black guys, and I still don’t think I was wrong about that. But he was nice. I was old enough to know that niceness is a rare, fleeting thing. And he was rough when we fucked, a bit like a savage pillow, and the loudest noises he ever made around me were when he came. Afterwards, he’d become himself again, and I’d set my head on his stomach, and that’s exactly how we were when I told him I’d lost the gig. And it’s exactly how we were when he broke it off, a few days later, in a whisper: he didn’t come from money, but he’d never known anything but middle-class. Losing my job wasn’t the only catalyst, I don’t think. But it didn’t help. Six months in, the sauna’s internal rhythms gelled with mine. Eddy was big on theme nights. We held them pretty often. Foam parties on Wednesdays. Black-Outs! on weekends. The spa kept Happy Hour prices at lunchtime, and we’d hit up to 250 men in the building. Locker keys appeared and disappeared and reappeared, creating a fucked-up Rorschach behind the counter. Leo called it our little exhibit, curated by heathens. These were the days that our building was the loudest. Everyone fucked everywhere but the spa, and only because of a large, laminated sign that said NO FUCKING, PLEASE. Every few days, Eddy drove it to midtown for relamination. Someone would’ve inevitably pulled it from the wall, blurring the print in the steam, and we’d find condoms in the hot tub hours later. One day I asked Eddy how he fell into his job. He looked at me a long time and then he looked away. We were smoking on the roof. We’d made it a point to check the balcony twice a night. Sometimes we found stashes of pot, pipes, and spent condoms; Eddy said no one had ever jumped, but that didn’t mean no one ever would. A few weeks back, I’d asked John and Arash about the roof, and Arash had simply shaken his head, muttering about idiot Americans looking for new ways to die. John had clicked his teeth. He’d been up there once or twice. Why, I said. Drugs, said Arash. Fuck off, said John. I thought he asked a question, said Arash. I thought you’re supposed to answer questions. It was a long time ago, said John. The view up there is unreal. But it was too tempting to jump. So I came back down. And we’re grateful, said Arash. Shithead, said John. It was obvious that drugs flowed through the building, but Leo and I didn’t go out of our way to search for them. Eddy didn’t either. When I asked him why, and if checking bags might stop people from coming, Eddy looked at me and he smiled and said that people would never stop coming. But the last thing the sauna needed was a police presence. Eddy called that a death blow for business. And now, he stood beside me, leaning on the railing, exhaling smoke. I used to work in an office, too, he said. For a politician. Local government. Fun, I said. A very Christian, wholesome man, said Eddy. I was his assistant. But that only meant scheduling his girlfriends’ calendars around his wife’s. I was good at that. Sounds like perfect training for this job. No, said Eddy. It’s completely different. A few days later, we had an incident. A bigger whiteboy had been chasing this Latino kid around the building. After a third rejection, he’d decided to put his hands on him, and one of the younger guy’s friends called for help from the staircase. I yelled Eddy’s name and sprinted up. Some other men had separated the two of them, holding the whiteboy by the arms. The younger one was crying, cradling his friend. The whiteboy asked what our fucking problem was, why anyone was here if not to fuck, and why he couldn’t fuck, and it took a moment for me to realize that he was on something. His eyes were beet red. No one answered him, but they didn’t let him go, either. When Eddy made his way upstairs, he told the man to leave. He didn’t raise his voice. He kept it cool. We were pulling the man’s membership, he said, a lifetime ban. The whiteboy called Eddy a wetback and a faggot and a dog. He yelled something about reporting the sauna. Eddy told him that was fine, but it also meant he’d be outing himself. The whiteboy said that was okay. But from his tone of voice it didn’t sound that way. By then, the crowd had dissipated. The Latino boys had disappeared. The incident had become significantly less interesting than whatever sex could be found. Afterwards, I asked Eddy what I should’ve done. I told him that he’d handled it so calmly. This was an event, and he’d defused it seamlessly. Eddy widened his eyes at me. But then that dissolved into a grin. He shrugged. This is work, he said. This is a job. It’ll become boring for you like everything else. When Arash and John were at the counter later, Arash wore the biggest smirk, the first time I’d ever seen him smile. You got rid of him, said Arash. Good. He was an animal and a predator. All of the white men here are. I don’t know if that’s true, I said. All of them, said Arash. You did the right thing. Good. I don’t mind white people, said John. Of course you don’t, said Arash. They don’t mind me, said John. Of course they don’t. You’re just mad because they won’t fuck you, said John. You should listen to yourself, said Arash. Imagine what your grandparents would think. Their distant descendant, in Texas, chasing after white dick. They did too, said John. How do you think they ended up in Sydney. Then I guess you’re making them proud. Guys, I said. You’re dropping crumbs all over the floor. All I’m saying is that you did the right thing, said Arash. Eddy got rid of him, I said. Of course, said John. You never do anything. I talk to you, I said. I clean up shit and cum and the rest of it. I keep you from slipping and busting your fucking forehead open on the tile. Sure, said John, but by then he’d lost interest, crushing more cookies in his palm. The three of us stood at the counter. The door buzzed open behind us, revealing another man. We looked up, glazing over him, and he looked up, too. But then he finally smiled just before he turned away. My parents never asked about my employment, but at some point they became aware that I was working. They’d heard about my breakdown because everyone had heard about it. A friend of a family friend at the office had told them. It’d been a subject of discussion at the West Indian Foundation meetings my folks attended—that was their attempt to stay plugged into the community. Everyone met in the back of a library downtown. Fifty parents, a handful of toddlers, and even fewer of their grown children thumbing through Twitter in the back rows. Everyone mostly ignored me. One lady said she’d heard I was unemployed, smiling. I usually spent the time opening and closing apps, scanning faceless profiles, attaching them to bodies in the room. These were the only times I saw my parents, really. Probably because the meetings convened halfway between the city and the suburbs. Afterwards, the three of us would go out for dim sum, where we’d talk about nothing. My father ordered one of everything. My mother smiled politely at everyone wheeling their carts. One day, out of nowhere, after my father had stepped in his car, my mother asked if I worked at that gym downtown. What, I said. It’s okay, said my mother. It’s not fucking okay, I said. Why are we talking about this? Who did you even hear that from? I’m not saying you shouldn’t work there. Of course you are. Isn’t that why you brought it up? I asked a question. You said everything else. All of this aggression is yours. Okay. So calm down. Alright, I said. Who told you? You ask too many questions, said my mother. God, I said. I just want you to be safe. I’m working there. Not fucking. Excuse me? Sorry, I said. It’s just a job. Fine, said my mother. But it’s not sustainable. Surely you don’t think it’s sustainable? I think it’s a job. I think I’m making money. Honey, said my mother, and my father blared his horn from the truck behind us. My mother and I just looked at each other. A handful of bystanders walked around us. I wondered what we looked like to them, talking too loud in front of Ocean Palace. I want you to take care of yourself, said my mother. We can find you another job. That’s why we come to these stupid meetings. I thought you came to see people, I said. I can see them on Facebook, said my mother. Let me find you a job. I don’t need you to do that. No child needs their mother to do anything. They don’t even know what they need. And my mother started to say something else, but then my father honked again, longer, so that two men smoking on a stool beside us looked up, along with everyone else. My mother smiled at me. She mouthed, Text me, and set her hand on my shoulder. I walked back to my own car across the lot, glancing at the smoking men. One of them turned to the concrete. The other guy smiled, like we shared a secret. And maybe we did. That evening, the sauna was dead. Arash played synthy K-Pop on his phone. John kicked at the counter. They had sadly, inevitably, become my only confidants. I told them about the dinner, and the meeting, and my mother. You care too much, said John. Try not caring. It’ll clear up your skin. Everyone cares, I said. Stop kicking the door. You asked for advice. This is the weight of knowledge. If that door dents, you’re paying for it. Bullshit. And everyone cares, I said. Even the ones who say they don’t care end up caring about caring. That’s some grad school word game bullshit, said John. Arash opened his mouth to say something, but then he didn’t. He closed it, chewing at his cinnamon bun. And then he reopened it, singing along to the song’s chorus, some beautiful thing we couldn’t understand. One night I was off and the ex hit me up. We’d been texting here and there. Mostly boring shit, how was your day have you eaten lunch what does your weekend look like and so on. But we’d spent the week building up to something, a tangible thing, and it surfaced when he asked if I’d see him for dinner. The question preceded a gang of eggplant emojis. I replied with the nerd face, which I thought said a lot. And also, worst-case, nothing much at all. The ex lived in the same apartment. He’d kept all of our nice guy apartment things. We pretended to sit down for dinner, with the rice and noodles he’d ordered from up the block, and while he unfolded the napkins, unsheathing the chopsticks, the ex told me he missed me, and that he missed this, gesturing amorphously toward the wall. I said that I did, too, waving in that same popping-your-wrist way. And then the ex leaned over to kiss me, and I kissed him back, and then our shirts were gone, and then our shorts. At some point, I was sucking him off. At some point, I climbed onto his lap. At some point, I took him into me, but then I changed my mind, and I lifted his legs, instead, and after a chuckle and some throat clearing he made a sound I hadn’t heard before. Then he made more of those, like he was running through scales. A few minutes later he yelled, Stop. Shit, I said. Sorry. Am I hurting you? No, said the ex, you’re good. I’m alright. Was that too fast? No. This is fine. It’s not fine. You said, Stop. Not in that tone. That’s exactly how you said it. Alright, said the ex. It’s just that what you’re doing is a lot? Okay, I said. No worries. I’ll try something else. Cool, said the ex, but something we’ve done before? Something we’ve done before, I said. Yeah. Something normal. What we were doing is normal. No, said the ex. I mean, I just hadn’t expected it. I don’t know if that’s what I wanted. What you wanted, I said. Yeah. Like you’d ordered me off of Prime. Wait, said the ex. What? That’s not what I meant. You called me, I said. Listen, man. You’re overreacting. You know what I meant. I do, I said. Fuck. Next time, just order your fucking takeout. I didn’t expect the ex to stop me from leaving and he didn’t surprise me. I drove to Whataburger. I drove to work. Eddy wasn’t around, but Leo stood by the counter. He raised his eyebrows at me, but he didn’t make any faces, and I told him that I just wanted to sit in the sauna, and he nodded, smiling. But I couldn’t read the bend of his cheeks. Play safe, he said, handing me a key, buzzing me in. The building was mostly dead. I sat in the water for an hour. Re-showered. Went back in. After a while, I drifted from floor to floor, plodding around with half-moist heels. Every now and again a guy would look me over twice. There wasn’t anyone I recognized. I’d nod, briskly, settling my fingers on stray hands, tapping them gently until they loosened their grip. At some point, I bumped into one guy in the dark maze, a little shorter than me, and he caught me, or I collapsed onto him. He laughed. And that had me laughing. And then we were both laughing. And then I saw that he was a little lighter than me, and that he had a bit of a belly, and it sat on his towel. He touched my shoulder. And I—just reacting—touched his. We held each other, briefly, and then the guy toed open a door behind us, lined with a padded floor. We fucked for two hours. I did the thing I’d tried earlier. This guy whispered, Fuck, once, but he didn’t ask me to stop. It took entirely too long for me to find my way inside of him, and then I just stayed. Every now and again, he’d stand to lather more lube on himself. We finished at the same time, which had never happened to me before. I was exhausted, wheezing. He was, too. He lay on his back, and I set an elbow on his belly, and then he began to chuckle, a slow laugh, and that was it, we were both laughing again. He asked what my name was and I told him. He said that his was Selly. Or Zelly. He’d come to Houston from Malaysia to fix cars. I asked if he liked Texas, and Selly or Zelly frowned. The food is not so good, he said. It’s not that bad, I said. Yes, he said, rubbing my shoulder. But not so good. We stayed that way, toasting, sweating beyond belief. I imagined, for thirty minutes, for an hour, what our life together might look like. We’d fall into various degrees of trouble. We’d never buy, we’d only rent. We’d both be broke for the rest of our lives, probably, but we’d travel from time to time. Selly or Zelly would cook dinner. I would cook breakfast. We’d smile at our neighbors in Alief, transplants from all over the world. Neither of us would meet one another’s families. Neither of us would much care. Neither of us would ever be upset about anything ever again. Eventually Selly or Zelly sat up. He was sleepy, he said, and sore. Sounds like you need a shower, I said. A shower would be nice, he said. We both smiled, a little sadly. Then Selly or Zelly asked which one of us should leave the room first. John saw me walk out of the room. There was no reason for him to be on that floor. He sat on a bench behind the dark maze, fiddling with a bottle against his nose. I recognized it, immediately, and he recognized that I recognized it. It was almost comical how guilty he looked—how guilty we both looked. I almost laughed. What, I said. Nothing, said John, blinking. Why are you here, I said. I’m always here. And what are you doing? I could ask you the same thing, said John. You’re following my schedule? Don’t be fucking daft. The two of us stared at each other. John lowered his arm, swinging his feet. He set the bottle on the bench. Look, I said, are you good? Yeah, said John, after a pause. Or I thought so, he said. Until you asked me. But I think I’m okay. And you, he said. Are you okay? I’m fine, I said. You’re sure? Three-hundred percent, sir. Then we’re both good, said John. So there’s absolutely nothing to talk about. And he stood, tightening the towel around his waist, snatching his little bottle, whistling and turning the corner. One morning my mother called to tell me she may have found something for me. An actual job. Through the West Indian church diaspora network, probably. I’m not looking for anything, I said. It’s not in finance, said my mother. You probably wouldn’t be using your degree. Ma, I have a job. You’ll have to drive out to Memorial. It’s this office on Eldridge Parkway. Your father can give you the car in the garage, yours has too many miles. You aren’t listening, Ma. You’re not saying anything. I said I’m employed. I mean gainful employment. I am gainfully employed. You are working at a sex club. Ma, I said, and she probably heard me bounce my palm on my forehead Okay, said my mother, but it’s still a job that’s there. You can’t be making enough money right now. I make money, I said. Okay, said my mother. But not enough. Let me know when you want the number. The next evening Eddy glanced at me when I buzzed in, but he didn’t say a word afterwards. I folded towels beside him, signing men in and signing them out. When he took off for dinner at Mai’s, he asked Leo what he wanted and disappeared. As soon as he left, I looked at Leo. I don’t know, he said. He’s just been like that. Did you do something? Have I ever done anything? Did I do something? I don’t know, said Leo. Maybe. He’s probably got trouble at home, with his guy. That shut me up, because I’d never thought of Eddy that way. As someone with a lawn out in Montrose. Plants around the house. A dinner table with two busted chairs and a bookshelf and shows to watch on Tuesday evenings. When Eddy made it back, already chewing at an eggroll, I asked if he wanted a cigarette. He blinked at me. Then he glanced at Leo, setting the bag on the counter. When we made it to the roof, fumbling with lighters, I turned to Eddy and just said it. I fucked someone here. What, said Eddy. I wasn’t working, I said. And I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I don’t know why. Eddy took a long drag on his cigarette. He exhaled way too quickly. Do you want me to congratulate you, he said. I just wanted to put it out there, I said. I didn’t want someone else to tell you. Why in the fuck would anyone tell me about that, said Eddy. You still don’t get it, he said. Most guys your age get it too quickly, and that’s their problem. But it hasn’t clicked for you. No one cares what you do here. This is a place where you aren’t the main character. That’s why these guys come here. No babies or boyfriends or wives or anything to make them feel special, like they matter. At all. They’re just here, and that’s it. Eddy leaned on the railing, turning his back to me. I looked him over, his ass and his back. Then I stooped beside him. That’s very zen, I said. Shut up, said Eddy. I didn’t say I wasn’t mad at you. But you aren’t mad at me, I said, and Eddy coughed, slapping at his chest. Disappointed then, he said. That’s fair. So what does that make us if we work here, I said, and Eddy laughed. We’re context, he said. Then he passed me his cigarette. Okay, I said. Supporting details. Okay. These guys need us to be sustainable, said Eddy. Protagonists come and go. But the details remain the same. Those are the things that last. A few hours later, back in the lobby, I texted my mother for the number. Chatting up a new boyfriend? said Arash, cracking his knuckles beside me. New boyfriends are just old boyfriends in flux, said John. Shut up, I said. And stop eating up here. You always say that, said Arash, but you don’t mean it. Fuck you, I said. You don’t mean that, said John. If you meant it then I’d stop, said Arash. I looked at John. He made a face, shrugging. The sound of something slapping, and a loose moan wafted down from around the hallway. When my phone dinged, I glanced at the banner. It was my mother, followed by a handful of numbers, a handful of blue hearts. My breakdown at the admin gig happened during a workday, right before a presentation. I don’t need to tell you what it was about, but this was NASA, so you can guess. Some coworkers had just made some changes to a plan I was presenting. Pretty major ones. I told them they wouldn’t work, that they were illogical, but nobody cared. And I just felt thirsty the whole time. I hadn’t eaten that afternoon. Or that morning. Or the evening beforehand. The whiteboys I worked with didn’t ask if I was well, although I clearly didn’t look it. They hadn’t asked me anything. Not until just before the presentation, which they’d assumed I’d taken care of. It was our annual review, a year’s worth of work, and now it was changing on the fly. The whiteboys wanted to add mics to the auditorium. They wanted to add a projector. This was a meeting we’d planned for months—that I’d prepared for for months. I told them that wouldn’t fly, and they asked why I couldn’t make it work, because they’d thought I could handle it and I was being a little bitch. And I didn’t say anything to that. I told myself I would figure things out. But then the room began to fill, people began to take their places. That left me on the stage, alone. Fanning myself. Trying to smile. They all looked up at me, ready to produce. It wasn’t burnout, exactly. But I was roasting. Squinting. It started off fine, I guess, but then my throat caught in the middle of speaking. I tried to continue. I couldn’t. I touched my throat. I reached for some water, but it wasn’t there. And the entire time it was happening, I knew what was going on—but there was a disconnect between how I felt on the podium, and how I felt. I could’ve laughed, watching everyone’s faces. It was like watching a movie. I watched myself leave the podium, loosening my tie. I watched myself drop my jacket. I watched myself parting the crowd, past the whispers, walking out the door. It was warm outside. We weren’t expecting rain for another few weeks. You really felt it on the balcony. You were just grateful for the breeze. A few nights later, I was folding towels when a young black guy came sprinting past the corner. I’d seen him around. He fanned wildly towards the stairs. Eddy had stepped out for a cigarette, so I glanced at Leo to watch the desk, and when he nodded, I jogged upstairs. There was already a tiny crowd around the body. It convulsed in the center of the dark maze. My flashlight blinked, and I felt the body’s wrist, and then its thigh, and then its face, which belonged to John. He shivered, tucked into himself. A towel lay damp beside him. Arash held the back of his head, scooping him whenever he jerked, squinting into the light behind me. I gestured to him, and two bigger guys standing beside me, and we lifted John out of the maze, and the guys surrounding us dissolved, slipping back into their usual rhythms. The body had been moved. They’d finally been un-implicated. We carried John into the elevator. What the fuck, I said. Shit, said Arash. Do you know how it happened, I said. Do you know what he took? I don’t, said Arash, looking away. But he isn’t foaming, said Arash. He’s just dilated. He’s probably tripping. So we don’t need to call an ambulance? If you need to ask then you should call. Don’t, said John, blinking my way, shaking his head. Is he insured, I asked Arash. How the fuck would I know? They’re not too expensive, said one of the men holding John’s thighs. You’re probably fucking covered, said Arash, and then the elevator doors opened. We walked John behind the counter. Arash and I supported him. I thanked the other guys, and they nodded, shyly, before they slipped back upstairs. Eddy leaned on one table, and Leo sat by another, manning the counter. We made eye contact, just for a second. Was it drugs, said Eddy. I don’t know, I said. Of course you know, said Eddy. You’ve gotta get him out of here. What? Just drop him outside. Are you looking at him? If something happens here, then we’re liable, said Eddy. That’s when the cops come by. And that can’t happen. We make too much noise, and that’s it. And if something happens to him on the curb? Then it didn’t happen in here. And we aren’t liable. That’s fucking bullshit, I said, and Eddy crossed his arms. He started to say something else, but I grabbed John again, flipping his body with Arash, walking him down the stairs. There was a chill outside. The three of us stood together, three buildings away from the sauna. It was late enough that there weren’t many people on the street, but a gaggle of white folks passed us in suits and too-tight dresses, smoking and laughing. One of them looked at us, nudging his buddy. They erupted into a laugh. Arash opened his mouth, and I lipped, Don’t, and then he closed it again, rubbing at John’s shoulders. John shook his head between us, leaning on the two of us. Fuck, said John. I know, I said. Shit, said Arash. Are you okay? Are you fired? I don’t know, I said. Maybe. It’s okay. Are you okay? No, said John, blinking. He glanced at Arash, and then me. I feel horrible, he said. I feel fucking horrible. So you’re back to normal, said Arash. Yeah, said John. You feel just like us. Yeah. And then, he started laughing. And Arash did, too. I laughed, a little bit, and then a lot, and then the three of us were laughing, falling all over each other, damp and cold. I didn’t get the joke then. I couldn’t put it together. But I’ve since realized that it wasn’t the point.
‘My Browser History Was This Appalling Record of Someone Wasting Their Life’: An Interview with Anna Wiener

The author of Uncanny Valley on becoming the perfect consumer, digital surveillance, and why Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t matter. 

In 2014, Anna Wiener was twenty-six years old, making a plush annual salary of $90,000 at a data analytics startup in Silicon Valley. And she was miserable. Wiener once worked in publishing in New York. Uninspired by the direction of the publishing industry, she decided to make an unconventional move from the literary to the tech world—first at an ebook startup in NYC, and then venturing to the west coast—feeling a “relief to have joined a group that told itself it was superior, and a hedge against uncertainty, isolation, insecurity,” she writes in her debut memoir, Uncanny Valley (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). But the move bore hidden costs. Wiener, a feminist, found herself navigating a misogynistic workplace culture, well-documented by figures such as Ellen Pao and Sarah Lacy. While brushing off comments about everything from her lips to her sex life, she realized that she had also failed to secure the same equity in the firm that her male colleagues enjoyed. Moreover, she began to feel uncomfortable with the way the company she worked for, which she tells me helped “enable the surveillance economy,” was tracking user behavior without their knowledge. A writer at heart, Wiener often spun sympathetic narratives for the men in Silicon Valley who had essentially taken over the world, who she trusted to “tell me who I was, what mattered, how to live”—a situation that had become a “global affliction.” But after a few years working for them, she wised up: “I was looking for stories,” she writes. “I should have seen a system.” I spoke to Wiener, who now covers tech culture for the New Yorker, on the phone from her apartment in San Francisco. Hope Reese: You saw a “future” for yourself in tech that you didn’t see working in publishing. What did that look like? Anna Wiener: I’d been an assistant for a few years, and it wasn’t clear what the path forward was for me. I was interviewing for jobs that were also assistant jobs. It just sort of felt like a slow-moving, dues-paying culture. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to do that, but I didn’t know what the end game was. The decision was largely about looking at the jobs ahead of me in publishing and not being sure there was space for me, and falling backward into this publishing-adjacent startup and feeling like there was this whole world ahead of these guys. This whole industry with so much momentum, where people moved quickly. It felt like the opposite of publishing. But, in hindsight, there’s a reason publishing moves slowly. There’s a really different approach to output, and a different strategy in how you release work. But I was just looking around and trying to figure out what the future held for me. For millennials, you write that “those who understood our cultural moment saw that selling out—corporate positions, partnerships, sponsors—would become our generation’s premier aspiration, the only way to get paid.” How much was money a factor in your decision to enter the tech world. To clarify: I did not have student loans. I want to be really clear about the different privileges I had that made it possible to go into publishing in the first place. For me, it was a combination of things. It was a desire to feel useful and to feel valued. In my mid-twenties, without a ton of work experience, money was how people attached value to things. Going to a job with a higher salary, there was some feeling that I was doing things right. It’s a really dark and slippery slope, and fucked up, but at the time, I was looking for anything that would tell me I was doing something right.  When you arrived in San Francisco, you describe observing the huge wealth disparity. And the fact that certain people living with rent control were not those that rent control was intended for. What did it feel like to see this? To observe the disparity and also understand that your presence is exacerbating it. It’s also a reflection of broader social ills and political failures. The narrative of blaming the homelessness crisis or the wider disparity on the tech industry is not the correct narrative—the tech industry has exacerbated and accelerated those problems, but they have very deep roots. Personally, I felt a lot of shame. I lived in the Haight, and there’s a lot of homelessness in the Haight, a lot of people slept in Golden Gate Park. I remember one night, we had leftover pizzas at the office, and I was stacking up pizzas to go to bring to the park, and a coworker said, “Wait! Don’t take the one with the prosciutto.” There was something that felt so horrible about that. You sort of have to laugh at that, because it’s so vile. Your salary at twenty-six was $90,000 a year, and many people working with you made more than that. What was it like to have this money? Did it change you? Did it change people around you? Money changes people. I wanted to be transparent about my own salaries and what my equity was worth, to show the stakes, but I also want to be clear that I was pretty low-ranking. There were people making six times my salary. I wouldn’t say that I’ve extricated myself from that. My jobs have changed but my circumstances are stable, and that comes from my background. One of the things I found interesting in San Francisco in the last few years is the anticipation of this new money, how people are trying to build businesses or build real estate that appeals to this cohort. I had a lot of fun poking into open houses and seeing how they’re decorated. The lifestyle branding. I don’t know how many people enjoy that, but the aesthetics of this wealth are interesting to me. They’re somewhat self-denying, but decadent. What’s interesting to me about the money is that a lot of people aren’t interested in material goods or art or philanthropy. A lot of it gets pumped back into the industry. It’s a running joke here about people becoming angel investors once they’ve had a windfall working for a company that’s IPO’d—everyone adds “angel investor” to their Twitter bio. It’s this aspirational thing, but it’s a sign of a moral value. It’s funny to me … it’s seen as philanthropic, but what you’re really doing is perpetuating the cycle, giving money to the same people. Instead of specifically naming companies in your book, you call them things like, “the social network everyone hated.” Why did you choose to keep these companies anonymous? I did that for stylistic reasons. I wanted to separate the companies from any associations readers might bring. The primary reason was that I don’t think it matters. They were all expressions or reflections of structural forces. In a lot of ways, these companies that I worked for could have been any company, and the executives could’ve been any people. It’s a highly specific world, but none of what happened to me was unusual. I also think the names are ridiculous. Isn’t it mortifying that a portmanteau like “Facebook” has geo-political clout? I think it’s obscene. You worked at a data analytics startup. Can you talk about what, exactly, your company did? It’s a huge, highly unregulated area. The company I worked for did product analytics. Software that can help other companies track how users are moving through their app or website. So, anything that you do on an app, any information that you input, anything you press or slide can be tracked and aggregated and analyzed. This company was helping other companies look at user-flows through product and also helping other companies understand exactly who those users were, and where they were coming from. Basically, helping other companies move through their product in such a way that whatever the end game was, which was revenue optimization, that they would get there faster or more frequently. There’s another side of it, used for marketing. This was individualized. You could promote your product to a certain segment of users. If you want to reach people who are twenty-six, on an iPhone, active on the site between 2 and 6 a.m. and suggest they buy a gravity blanket. The company I worked for, at the time I worked there, only did aggregated reports for the companies they worked with. They didn’t sell data. But there were different ethical issues. The qualms I developed were that most people using apps or websites don't know that they're being tracked and don’t know that they're being tracked by a third party, and definitely don't know that they're being tracked by a third party whose employees potentially have access to that data. So, for me, it's more about this lack of transparency, or opacity, within the user experience where you have this imbalanced power dynamic and mediated experience in which the end user isn't even aware of what’s behind the scenes. Would you consider it a digital surveillance firm? What does it have in common with, say, a company like Cambridge Analytica, that used user data to help sway the US election? My answer is: Sort of. Or: Yes, but indirectly. The product facilitates surveillance, and helps companies collect information from users, often without users' knowledge. Data collection is almost always disclosed in a mature company's Terms of Service, but the names of any third-party tools that are doing the actual collection are not necessarily included. Basically, the company I worked for was a conduit, but I don't believe in neutral technology platforms; in my view the ethical issues of the company and product are inextricable from the broader landscape, and the behaviors they enable and normalize. I think the two serve very different functions, but they are in the same ecosystem. Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting firm that harvested voter information and sold the promise of "psychographic profiles" that sourced demographic data from various places, e.g. Facebook. The company I worked for made a tool for collecting, aggregating, and analyzing user behavior. The "tool" also had a feature where you could see individual user activity within a customer's app, alongside their personal metadata, and send targeted content based on that information. That latter feature, which is called "People," strikes me as a pretty pure expression/outgrowth of surveillance capitalism. In theory, the startup I worked for could have enabled its customers to engage in Cambridge Analytica-esque activity inside of their own platforms or apps, but the analytics startup itself did not build cross-platform profiles. I don't know what they would have done if a political campaign had an app or a website and wanted to use their tools; they probably wouldn't have paid it any mind, and I would assume that if the campaign was high-paying or high-profile enough, the company would assign it an account manager and have a paid employee helping the campaign optimize their products and outreach. More realistically, there's also no way for me, or anyone, to know what our customers did with the data they collected on their own users. It's possible they could have sold it or integrated it with other data sets. I don't know, and don't want to speculate too much. You call yourself a “self-identified feminist in a position of ceaseless professionalized deference to the male ego.” How did you handle this? I’m embarrassed about it, looking back. I’m a little ashamed about the way that I was so deferential and did my best to normalize everything that was happening, and even participated in it. I tried to erase myself. I wouldn’t say that that’s a brilliant coping strategy, but I really wanted to be a part of something. That meant that I was consumed by this thing.  As someone who was a non-technical employee at a pretty low level, who felt really grateful to be included, it was what I needed to do. I think that if there was someone who was a senior technical woman with experience and credentials, who had already been affirmed by an industry, she might've had an easier time with it. But to be honest, I'm just thinking about other people that I've encountered that do fit that criteria, but I don't know that they were given the credit that they deserved either. It sort of led to a complete dissociation from who I knew myself to be. I own my mistakes. You write that “the tech industry was making you a perfect consumer of the world that it was creating,” and describe about going down these rabbit holes online, as most of us do. When did you start noticing the problem with this? I felt it. I had this job, I was working remotely, I mostly worked from my apartment and I had these days when the day would be over, I'd be done with work, it'd be 7 p.m., and I would just feel so bad for myself. I wouldn't be able to account for how I spent my time or what I had learned that day, or what I had even produced. Working customer support is sort of like, the tide comes in and the tide goes out. It doesn't really build into anything, for the most part. My browser history was just this appalling record of someone wasting their life. It was more a sensation, a building feeling of dread and anxiety, and feeling like I had chosen a profession where I was, potentially, perpetuating that cycle. Ironically, I’m now in another profession that requires that I be on the internet quite a bit. I write about the tech industry, and a lot of things that happen in the tech industry bubble up on social media. I’m still hanging out in these spaces more than I wish I did, but I don’t know very many people in tech who manage to avoid spending a lot of time on the internet. At the end of the book, you write that you were “looking for stories and you should have seen a system.” Can you explain what you mean by that? I have always been very focused on personal narratives and personal ambitions and justifications and psychological motivations that people have. But actually, what I should have been looking at was the structure—not working on such a micro level. For my own understanding of this world and why things are happening the way they were. I have a friend, Moira Weigel, who is also a writer, and we were having a conversation about Mark Zuckerberg, who she had gone to college with. She's just sort of threw her arms up and said, “if he didn't exist, the internet would have invented him.” That encapsulates what I mean by it. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t matter. The people that I worked for don't matter. In terms of their individual intentions or motivations, good or bad. I think that even people with the best intentions, who think they can push against this industry, are running up against the same problems with people who are succeeding, who wouldn’t see them as problems.  I think structural analysis can be very forgiving, if that makes sense. I would’ve had an easier time, even in my own life, if I hadn’t been so focused on the individual narrative. But isn’t it partly a writer’s instinct to do that? Yes, and the industry relies on good storytelling. The industry has told these stories about itself. The biggest strengths are marketing, branding, packaging. Part of what was compelling to me about working at the analytics company was that data is a kind of storytelling. Looking at data in aggregate is fascinating, it’s about how people are living their lives, even if it’s how they live their lives online. I wouldn’t say this isn’t a world with a lot of storytelling. But I think, for me, zooming out would’ve eased the burden of trying to understand this world. You mentioned to me earlier that when you moved to the West Coast it was because you didn’t know what your end game was. Do you know what it is now? I’ve always had a very hard time picturing the future. I try not to do it. I remember having a conversation with my manager at the analytics company, and we were trying to figure out what my job should be. He said, “Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?” Classic question. As a working professional, you should have an answer to that question, even if it's bullshit. And I was very honest and I said, “I don't really know.” And he said, “You could start a company!”  I think the fact that that's the end game, that’s the most valuable thing a person can do in this world, is part of the problem. I don't see myself starting a company anytime soon. I have really enjoyed writing. It took me a long time to admit it was something I wanted to do. This book is an admission of that. 
‘Go to Where the Rawest Stories Occur’: An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

Talking to the author of Consider This about “dangerous writing,” testing your story-telling instincts for emotional responses, and finding laughs in transcendent tragedy.

There’s a short but telling section in Consider This (Grand Central Publishing), Chuck Palahniuk’s new memoir on writing, that simply says: forget about being likable. The book, a collection of personal essays on everything he has learned about writing in the last twenty-five years, quotes people from Tom Spanbauer to Amy Hempel to Ursula K. Le Guin on technique, style, and form. It was Spanbauer, a former student of Gordon Lish and the author of five novels himself, who created the Dangerous Writing workshop, which pushed Palahniuk to write Invisible Monsters and then Fight Club in the mid-’90s. What Spanbauer meant by “dangerous writing” was to explore the work that personally scares or embarrasses the author; to make it dangerous is to express those fears honestly through art. It was through Palahniuk I found Spanbauer’s workshop, too. In 2013, I spent a weekend in Portland working on a short story in that Dangerous Writing workshop, and then two subsequent years working with Spanbauer on my own novel. Palahniuk has never been one to write characters people would see as likable or upstanding; rather, they are deeply flawed. In Choke, one of my favorite books by Palahniuk, the narrator, Victor, concocts a convoluted plan to pay for his dying mother’s hospital bills which involves pretending to choke on food at restaurants. While he chokes, he waits for a person to “save" him so they can bask in the glory of being the hero, and as a result, these "saviors" send Victor money, which he uses to pay the bills. In Diary, the main character, Misty Wilmot, suffers through caring for a husband in a coma following a suicide attempt, after having given up her dreams of an art career to raise a family; she struggles with her past of poverty, the desire for fame, and the oppression of the wealthy islanders who are related to her comatose husband. Many of Palahniuk’s characters are trying to find success through some kind of glory, and are willing to humiliate themselves, lose all dignity, and hopefully live through it to get there. In Consider This, Palahniuk says this kind of obliteration of self is also the writer’s job, that the point of writing is to coach one’s self where one would never have gone voluntarily. The problem with being vulnerable as a writer is there’s a paradoxical desire for the work to be liked, whether that means validation through the publishing process or being accepted by some sort of readership, while simultaneously shutting out self-critique or worry about whether others will accept the work. I once talked to a writer friend who discussed the need to “lean in to your disaster”—disaster being the raw, distinguished pain of one’s words which makes a writer’s work unique, wild, and telling. Often in Spanbauer’s workshop, this practice started with an assignment about the thing you’re most afraid to tell. The idea was you might exhaust all of the emotional or psychic pain of a moment through writing, make the pain totally vulnerable, and come to a new place on the other side, changed. Perhaps this is what draws people to Palahniuk’s work: the sense that a flawed character always has the hope of being redeemed (even if they never are). I recently spoke with Palahniuk by email about craft, writing workshops, and who inspires him to be a better writer. Elle Nash: Could you talk a little about the effect of Tom Spanbauer’s teaching on your life? Consider This is dedicated to him, and the subtitle of the book is: moments in my writing life after which everything was different, a callback to his workshop. His influence on me has been very deep, and it is hard to say what guidelines I tried to follow before his workshop, even. I loved reading your words about him in the book. I know you’ve discussed his workshop a lot, mostly I’m curious to know what your ideas about writing were before Tom—before you were changed? Chuck Palahniuk: Like so many would-be writers, prior to Tom I was a Lousy Stephen King Copy. Or I was a Pathetic F. Scott Fitzgerald Copy. Meaning I'd read and try to emulate the style of successful writers. Among the first things Tom told me was, "The world already has a Stephen King." And then he showed me empirical ways to unpack and reverse engineer storytelling, and in doing so create my own style and voice. Instead of mimicking the superficial aspects of a famous writer, under Tom's direction I could begin to build the deep framework needed for truly unique stories. Presuming there is no workshop to give feedback, how do you think a writer can learn to trust their intuition? Minus any workshop, go to parties and tell your stories. Test to see whether people engage with them and give an emotional response. Also test to see if strangers approach you with similar stories from their lives, ones you might use to expand your original story. Parties are the best. A distant second-place option would be "open mic" public readings. Such readings allow you to hear where a story earns an emotional response, but most of your audience is too competitive and distracted (drunk) to offer anything beyond their laughter or gasps or groans. This sort of testing will help build your story-telling instincts. On the note of workshops, I’ve always felt that art is never a solitary act. I’d love to discuss with you the effects collaboration can have on a writer’s work—from trusting their peers in workshop to simply feeling inspired by another writer. Who inspires you to be a better writer? Go to where the rawest stories occur. In Alcoholics Anonymous I'm always blown away by the most unlikely people inventing a phrase or sharing an anecdote so tragic that it makes the listeners laugh. My background is in journalism so my impulse is always to preserve, archive, curate these incredible moments. Good, real people telling true stories inspire me to become a better writer in order to better honor such stories. You said once your formative years were the punk years. What makes something punk versus not punk? Is there contemporary fiction you’d consider punk these days? My reference was to an observation made by Billy Idol. He said that all punk songs started abruptly, ran three minutes and fell off a cliff at the end. Hearing that I realized that my best short stories began at full throttle, went only a few pages, and ended—blam. With that insight I could start to vary my pace and length in fiction. But in my reading I still prefer work that drops a reader instantly into a reality and resolves circumstances in twelve pages rather than twenty or forty. Are there any short stories or authors you recommend that drop the reader into reality like that? For instant immersion, I look for short stories. Mark Richard's The Ice at the Bottom of the World, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Honored Guest by Joy Williams, The Informers by Bret Ellis, Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun, and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson.
The Year in Pivoting to Video

There’s only ever so much you can control at any job. You make the things you make as good as you can, at which point they are not really yours anymore, or anyway not yours to control.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. For better but mostly for worse, I have always thought of the jobs I’ve had as fundamentally someone else’s business. My work life, since the beginning, has been a matter of digging myself out from under things dropped onto me by managers for reasons I only sort of understood or cared about. Other tasks seemed to have just materialized on their own somewhere between the ionosphere and the drop-ceiling, and those landed just as heavily. I sense that most jobs are at least a little bit like this. In the early days, I did not bring my work home, in the literal or the emotional sense, because it was the sort of thing that could only really be done, in the literal and the emotional sense, in the fluorescent mehscape of an office. I did not ask questions about why I was doing any of it, because the work itself—forcing search keywords into descriptions of luxury condominium buildings like butter into a foie gras goose, or taking information that was trapped in one digital field and re-typing it into another more useful one, or standing over a thrumming scanner in clothes I couldn’t remember buying—was so transparently inessential as to foreclose even the possibility of an interesting answer. It was something I did for money, and while I did it grudgingly it’s worth noting that I was then doing everything else in my life just as grudgingly. I applied myself more assiduously to drinking in bars with my friends and writing short stories in which I visited wry but richly deserved punishments on people very much like me, but I treated all of it as an imposition that I would just have to endure on my way to wherever I was going. I walked from one waiting room into another into another, for years. The first two-thirds of my working life were a bleary hungover skein of unrewarding and luridly meaningless jobs, some of them officially temporary but all of them unofficially so. I was later pulled up into some rewarding but extremely precarious staff editorial gigs, which was much better. For the first time, I cared about the work I did and the people I worked with, but I was invariably pivoted or pushed out of those jobs after a period that did not ever exceed two years, into adrenalized and harrowing jags of freelance freefall. I did not always or even often understand why those jobs kept being eliminated, but I knew just enough to understand that 1) there was probably a reason of some kind, and 2) I would probably disagree with it even beyond the consequences that notional reason visited upon me, but 3) none of it was strictly my fault, or even probably the fault of the superiors who had been tasked with giving me the bad news. There were systemic forces at work, broader strategies and gambits, industry trends to be hedged against or surfed upon. The resulting consequences—the strange new work initiatives or the laying out of new and very different priorities or whatever—landed just as heavily on me as all the older and more obviously preposterous stuff used to. Strange new duties arrived like weather; changes just sort of happened, and kept happening. We organized the newsroom at one of my old workplaces, and what was initially thrilling and even moving about that work—all these talented and confident and ground-down people crowding into a conference room, each revealing with some shame and surprise that the weather had in fact been very bad of late above their cubicles, too, brutally bad for years in some cases—became something stranger once we finally got management to meet with us. We had long debated amongst ourselves, first in bars and then as a bargaining unit, whether the people above us were feckless or actively venal, merely kind of dumb or actually casually cruel. It quickly emerged that they didn’t really have anything in mind at all, at least where we were concerned. That company had always prioritized video, and had often done it well in its way, which amounted to sending young dudes to Liberia or Kashmir or East St. Louis to talk with the locals and sometimes shoot a gun. The type of video that we were told one day that we were going to be doing was much different. Our videos would fulfill a provision in a deal that the company had signed with a cellular phone company’s startup streaming service; that service needed videos, which maybe could only be viewed by that company’s subscribers and quite possibly would be viewed by no one at all, and we would make those. And so, every couple of weeks, we would write short scripts and go sit in a part of the company’s new showcase office space that afforded sufficient room and light and views of other, cooler employees doing things in the background. There we would talk into the camera about a story we’d written, or a thing that was happening; the videos were edited down to 90 seconds. It’s hard to know what happened from there, and the streaming service no longer exists; to my knowledge, these videos are nowhere to be found online. Doing the videos seemed, then as now, more or less the same as not doing them. Again, it was my job but not really my business. *** It is still unclear just how much people have ever wanted to watch video online, although it is well known by now that the viewership numbers that Facebook presented to advertisers back in 2015 were inflated by something like 80 percent. The delirious rhetoric that accompanied that push—“We’re entering this new golden age of video,” Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook...is video”—makes that figure seem modest. In 2018, some advertisers filed a lawsuit against Facebook alleging that it knew its video figures were wrong at the time, and that the figures were inflated by more like 150 to 900 percent; Facebook has copped to making a mistake, but denied that it did so with an eye on deceiving advertisers. At any rate, it is also well known that this overinflation—feel free to swap in “brazen lie” here, if you want—had a number of unpleasant and unfair consequences for people working in online media. Resources were reallocated to video stuff that no one really wanted, and people lost their jobs as a result. Multiple websites pivoted themselves more or less out of existence, seemingly due in large part to peer pressure; sites could look at their own traffic and see that people did not really watch very much video, but just assumed that Facebook knew something they didn’t. In 2017, Fox Sports eliminated the written word from its website entirely, replacing columnists and features and game stories with videos of ovoid men heatedly pretending to be upset about college football. Traffic to the website declined by 88 percent in the months after the change. When I was laid off from my previous job, in July of that year, the company explained it as the result of a decision to “put more resources into video production.” They laid off everyone on our site’s video team, too, but again I assume they had their reasons, or didn’t. My next workplace understood video not as the secret future of the internet, but as a useful if modest part of an uneasy present. The sites that comprised the larger company were popular and profitable and powerfully in flux, as they had been ever since an aggrieved tech billionaire, using a honeybaked WWE antique as a cutout, successfully sued them into bankruptcy. The coterie of venture capitalists that had bought the sites at a discount briefly attempted an ambitious pump-and-dump asset-flip, then punted and brought in some consultants to justify and oversee layoffs and buyouts in advance of a different and more desperate kind of sale. Everything at the place atrophied as ownership looked for and found ways not to spend money on workers and work it no longer even pretended to care about. The satellite office where we shot our videos emptied first of people, then fixtures and furnishings. On the last day there, before management let the lease run out, I booted a wildly oversized tennis ball, one of the inexplicable promotional doodads that had been left behind, and knew that, wherever it landed, it could not hit anything that could break or wasn’t already broken. Strangely, for all the ambient hauntedness of that moment, this was also one of the happiest and most productive times I’ve had at any job. Ownership didn’t just not-care about what we were doing, but was actively and obviously not paying attention to any of it; the plugger sent up from Miami to oversee the sites before the sale seemed not to have even heard of them before. But as long as we stayed within the budgets agreed-upon back when everyone was still pretending to care, we could do pretty much whatever we wanted. The lack of institutional support necessarily limited the scope, but the totality of that neglect allowed us to try things, and keep working on them until they got good. Within these limitations and in that vacuum, the production staff created a series of small and silly video series built around various people sitting together and doing various stupid things—participating in oblique open-ended competitions, parsing and rating old NBA jerseys purchased at thrift stores, unwisely attempting to eat 50 scrambled eggs. The tone of the videos was convivial and welcoming and, I thought, rather relaxing to watch; an online friend remarked that they served a sort of ASMR function for him. A tossed-off blog post that had grudgingly become a self-satirizing feature on Facebook Live—everyone was still sucking up to Facebook, then—was reimagined as a recurring bit in which I and some willing co-workers opened old packs of trading cards and did our best to remember the players whose cards we found. A reader sent a big printer box full of loose baseball cards from the 1980’s and ’90’s to the office without a return address, and we opened it and talked about those cards on camera. It was all just about as goofy as it sounds, but the videos built an audience over time, despite or because of how low-key and similar they were. My wife’s aunts passed around a video of me explaining how various plaid shirts made their way into my closet; online friends memed it as kindly as possible. The producers were the reason that any of this worked, but I felt a part of the process in a way that I hadn’t ever been before. I cared about the videos being good, and the people making them cared about them being good, and other people—not the people paying for them, of course, but other people—cared about them, too. I was proud of that. The sale, when it finally came, put our network of sites in the hands of a private equity concern; an irascible veteran digital media executive, whose personal fortune had been built running grim and nondescript content mills years earlier, put up some of his own money in that deal and installed himself as CEO. He arrived with a reputation for picking fights and cutting corners, and swiftly got to work doing both. People began to leave and weren’t replaced and the CEO busied himself hiring men he had worked with a decade earlier. None of those guys were what you might call big readers, either, but this time that didn’t protect us. They jammed the sites with advertisements until the pages stuttered and stalled and refused to load; readers complained, those complaints were forwarded upstairs, and the pages grew only more choked. Word would periodically come down that the CEO was furious about, say, a video in which my co-workers competed to identify different brands of yogurt in a blind taste test. It was never clear why, and he’d shortly get enraged about something else, but none of it inspired much confidence. “They’re playing house,” a longtime executive at the company told me of the new CEO and his crew one night at a bar, shortly before he left the company. I learned about the first big advertising deal that new team landed the same way everyone else did, which was that I suddenly heard my own voice coming from my computer’s speakers every time I loaded a page on the website. The deal, we were later told, could deliver up to $1 million in revenue provided we were able to deliver something like 15 times the video exposures we currently did across the network. Because we did not have anything like the staff or infrastructure to make that many more videos, it was decided that the ones we had would play automatically in a small window at upper left on every page; immediately following an advertisement for the aforementioned insurance company, a second video would also begin playing, with sound, in the middle of every page. [tweet_embed]https://twitter.com/david_j_roth/status/1187045902961258501[/tweet_embed] So I found myself on every page of the site, muttering or chuckling or just sitting in some strange stooped way in one or more of our videos. What was for people visiting the site just the latest experiential offense among many was, for me, both an unsettling manifestation of the self-consciousness I felt about my personal pivot to video and something stranger. Much of my job, there and everywhere else I have worked, has amounted to wading every day into the internet’s sprawling garbage lagoons in search of eye-catching chunks of floating trash that I might show to other people on the off chance that it might amuse or disgust them; I did not always enjoy the smell, but I’d worked enough other jobs to know that there were worse places to spend your day. It was jarring, as I became the ubiquitous face of the spammily cretinous new regime, to find that I was myself now part of that chaos—it was my face and voice, decontextualized and unbidden, pouring out of that pipe. I couldn’t stop it, but it doesn’t stop. So I chased myself around the page, suddenly much more noise than signal. There’s only ever so much you can control at any job, of course. You make the things you make as good as you can, at which point they are not really yours anymore, or anyway not yours to control. In time, I and everyone I worked with left that last job; the part that was ours was just shrinking too fast. And yet I still go back to the garbage lagoon, because it still feels like my job and because I don’t know where else to go. So I bring you this. Is this anything? [[{"fid":"6706301","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]
The Year in Breathing

Cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. But cool, I learned, may have been killing me.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Life lately has been very embarrassing for me, a formerly cool person. For starters, consider the Crocs, a pair of tie-dyed clown shoes I’ve worn near-daily since summer. It’s not that I was ever cool like I could pull off a pair of denim panties or whatever. But I was cool like I could look comfortable even when I wasn’t. Cool like when someone told me a while ago that I was hard to read, I felt warm with pride. For reasons equally personal, cultural, and political, cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. Cool was permission to slink. Cool was not flopping around in a pair of plastic shoes just because they felt good on my feet. But cool, I learned last year, may have been killing me. I fainted on the A train on my way to work one morning. Some days, blood leaked from my nose spontaneously. My memory, known among friends for being obnoxiously sharp, started to flag. I felt deep pain most of the time. My orbital bone throbbed with migraine several days out of the week. It finally got bad enough that I took myself to get a check-up, a completely mundane exercise for which I had secretly believed myself too cool. Within weeks, seven different specialists had investigated my body. I was severely anemic. My septum was deviated. Polyps lined my nasal passages. My heartbeat was faint. There was a 2 mm growth at the base of my skull. But the real problem, the doctors determined, was unmanaged stress. It made my jaw tense and my neck stiff. It made my brain fog up. It made simple tasks feel like missions. A neurologist prescribed a triptan, half a dozen supplements, and deep breathing. I laughed. Telling a patient to breathe is to a doctor what thoughts and prayers are to a politician. But then this spring, I found myself in a belly flop of a depression. A few months earlier, I had quit a job around which I’d organized my personal and professional identities. A relationship I’d emptied myself into had begun to show cracks. I was unmoored and pathetic. Bored, I would pad through Instagram’s recommended page. The algorithm, which typically served me an equal mix of Kardashian children and satisfying slime videos, had read the room. Mindfulness memes colonized the app: 10 ways to maintain your boundaries. How to sit with discomfort. Affirmations for anxiety. Good reasons to put down your phone. (Irony is lost on the algorithm.) I felt moved, and strangely inspired. I didn’t recognize the instinct in myself but I craved more of the warmth and clarity and comfort that came from accounts with names like @notesfromyourtherapist. Around the same time, I went to a lecture given by a friend about yoga. It was specific to her experiences and family history, but I wanted everything she described her practice to be: grounding, challenging, expansive. The next morning, I borrowed my mom’s mat and went to my first yoga class in years. And then I went a couple more times that week. I wasn’t very good. But miraculously, I didn’t care. I didn’t feel self-conscious needing to reach for a block; I didn’t feel competitive when I had to reset in a child’s pose before anyone else. Depression had humbled me. Nearly all the instructors talked in riddles about breathing, and I thought of my doctor’s directive. Is a hot fire going up and a cool water going down what she had in mind when she had encouraged me to breathe? I became more aware of the tightness in my chest, the rigid shrug that turned my shoulders into little mountain peaks, the empty pocket formed by my tongue pressing into the roof of mouth. I had subconsciously trained myself to hold my breath. It’s possible that my brain and my body have gone years without receiving the oxygen they deserved. I had been too cool for the most elementary of human functions. I spent the fall breathing, and deeply. In for four, hold for four, out for four. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. In through the right, hold at the top, out through the left; reverse. In through the nose, out through the mouth, 30 times quickly; in again and hold for 10. Hand on belly, hand on chest, in until you’re saturated, out until you’re empty. Soon, everything looked different. My hips were in communion. My toes unclenched. I stopped shaving my head. I no longer needed the friction, the erasing my barber could do with a set of clippers. I wanted the softness of my curls to return, even when they made me look like Justin Timberlake. I started flashing deep smiles at strangers, letting them talk to me even when I had somewhere to be. I understood what people had meant all these years when they said it’s the small things. Every breath was a victory. I became the most embarrassing version of myself possible, a walking cliché. I also leaned into my worst nightmare: a pair of Uggs for when the weather rules out Crocs. I feel humiliated sometimes. But more so, I feel good.
The Year in Making Clothes

Threading a needle is a momentary sideline from a feeling that might otherwise darken me completely. That can be enough, and as a new decade approaches, I find peace in enough.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. “Sylvia Plath loved to sew,” began my therapist’s email, some weeks after I attended our appointment wearing a freshly completed Wiksten Haori. She was referring to a New Yorker story by Dan Chiasson about Plath’s last letters, published in a new volume that includes correspondence either suppressed or ignored in previous edits of Plath’s work. I skimmed the article, which was full of the misdeeds and mysteries related to Plath’s short life; the posthumous tailoring of her output to protect the reputations of her surviving family, most notably, her husband Ted Hughes. But I read with deep interest of Plath’s “new & exciting” sewing hobby, which I too had fallen hard for. “Plath had none of the leisure for contemplation that we associate with male writers,” writes Chiasson. “Her muses were economy, thrift, and the clock.” One day, “cowlike and cabbagey” after Frieda’s birth, Plath went downtown and “bought three 2-yard lengths of material” and a Simplicity sewing pattern. It’s, well, funny to receive an email from a steward of one’s mental health pointing out the hobby of a poet associated quite closely with her suicide. But it articulates something about Plath that I’ve long struggled to reconcile in my own understanding of depression—namely the ease with which a chronic condition can feel like the thing one is, rather than a quality through which, at a given time, one might pass. As a person prone to variable periods of anxiety and depression, it reminded me that Plath had access to joy and optimism, perhaps even deepened by her knowledge of despair. Plath, despite the mental distress she presented so brutally in The Bell Jar, still found pleasure in buying fabric and sewing patterns and making dresses for her daughter. Sylvia Plath loved to sew. I also love to sew. Based on little more than a wish to make my own ridiculously wide pants, I learned to sew at age 14 from a jocular nicotine chimney named Don. A towering ginger with red plastic glasses that dangled from a cord around his neck, I attended Don’s teen sewing class every Thursday, where I was often the only student, and usually stayed for the adult class that directly followed. When I try to remember what I learned in that class, I think it was mostly how fun it was to be with Don, who didn’t so much teach sewing as do our sewing for us. He helped me buy my first (and only) sewing machine: an unbreakable Janome RX18S that’s gone hard for twenty years, never more than in 2019. The light bulb hasn’t even burned out. I stopped sewing for a very long time, doing it mostly when pants required shortening. Then, last winter, I found myself in a mentally deranging period of work-related stress. Riven with anxiety, I drifted into the Toronto fabric stores I had first discovered as a Modrobes-horny kid: King Textiles, with its sign-tossing sentry bellowing FaBrIc SaLe! at the corner of Queen and Spadina, as he has since the beginning of time. Affordable Textiles, which it is, and World Sew Centre, where they would check whether a fabric was cotton by setting a scrap of it on fire. Fabric stores are subject to an uncommon entropy. Somehow, twenty years later, they all look, smell, and sound the same. These stores, due to the dampening factor of all the fabric bolts, have an uncanny lack of acoustics. Someone talking to you from six feet away will appear to be on mute, lip-synching to nothing. That kind of quiet is healing. My first item of clothing sewn and completed this year was a stretch velvet t-shirt that a friend of mine had requested. It took me a month to make it, a very simple garment, ultimately overworked and clumsily finished. But when it was, I felt the clearest form of happiness I’d experienced in years. As 2019 began, I was full of ideas, revived curiosity, absolutely hectic with interest in YouTube pleating demos and vintage Issey Miyake sewing patterns on Etsy. I hung a pegboard to organize my growing collection of tools; acquired a self-healing cutting mat and a rotary knife and a tailor’s ham and a seam gauge and a point turner and a blind hem foot—accessories that grew from the projects that I was teaching myself to do. I repeated the brand names aloud for their absolute non-descriptness: Dritz. Olfa. Brother. Singer. I bought a heavy Black & Decker iron that has seared the flesh of my inner arms with its point multiple times, causing a minor airshow of little pink triangles that I dab with Lucas’ Papaw Ointment. One piece of advice to any sewer: get a good steaming iron. The heavier, the better. The passionate assumption of a hobby led, in my case, to spending money on things that I convinced myself I needed. As spring approached, I worried that my desire to sew and sew and sew was producing waste I could not defend, even with my happiness. So I took a break from the peaceful glut of the Queen West fabric stores and began thrifting old quilts and bed linens; learned to dye them with synthetic and eventually natural pigments—indigo, osage, madder, goldenrod. Adding iron to most, if not all natural dyes will darken the shade, a process known as saddening. As stories like Natalie Kitroeff's investigation into Fashion Nova's laissez-faire exploitation of their workers, or Uniqlo's refusal to pay $5.5 million in wages to workers after the sudden closure of an Indonesian factory emerge, the ethics of fast fashion continue to shape how we evaluate the clothes we choose to wear. I can’t say that I started my obsession with sewing this way, but seeing how long it takes me to make a pair of shorts produces a visceral understanding of just how undercompensated most overseas—and in the case of Fashion Nova, domestic—garment workers are. Very often as I am writing something, I will rise from my keyboard, moving to the corner in the back of my apartment where my sewing machine, my new overlock machine, my shears and bobbins and French curves are all in a state of readiness. Within minutes my iron is hissing and I am cutting out a shirt or a dress. Sewing is slow but steady. Its products grow from the fibrously small into something that you can button up or down. I will just as quickly rise from my sewing machine and walk back to my computer to type something that entered my brain while hemming a sleeve. It becomes appealing to look at a Word doc as something tactile and slow growing. Distracted by the certainty of a garment, my mind is free to write without the smothering observations of ego. And so I type it quickly, before I can decide that it sucks. I feel most at peace while traveling between one machine and the other, because I know I will have something exact to do when I arrive at either. In university, I did an interview with the playwright and mathematician John Mighton. In that conversation, he told me that he taught himself to write by taking apart the poems of Sylvia Plath. I have nothing new to add about Plath, the writer. I admire Ariel and The Bell Jar and thinking too much about her life as I mostly know it makes me sad. But thinking about Sylvia Plath, the seamstress, makes me happy—because I know how happy sewing makes me. Something soft to lay her hands on. That Mighton found her poems to be worthy garments to learn from is apt, although any and all writers can be treated the same. Isn’t that how we all teach ourselves to write? Take it apart; see how to hide or show the seams as the one you love did. In the past year, my sewing has improved vastly, to the point that I now know how much of an amateur I still am. I have made jackets and coats and skirts and pants and curtains and dresses and a baby-sized version of Bjork’s swan dress. I’ve gotten faster and better, and then smug, and made mistakes that require hours of fixing that sometimes can’t be fixed. If my mood is low, the task of threading a needle is a momentary sideline from a feeling that might otherwise darken me completely, iron in the dye bath. Sometimes that is enough, and mostly, as this new decade approaches, I find peace in enough. As described in her letters, Plath’s goal was to publish enough poetry to buy her own sewing machine. “I am awfully proud of making clothes for little Frieda,” she wrote in her letters, which prompted more poetry, writes Chiasson. “She wrote the poems that allowed her to buy the machine, which, in turn, shows up in a poem.” Is this love then, this red materialIssuing from the steel needle that flies so blindingly?It will make little dresses and coats, It will cover a dynasty.
The Year in Plants

Taking care of living things is a science of intuition—I had no guarantee that my choices would be more helpful than harmful.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. In January of 2019 a friend told me she was moving back to New York and asked if I would be interested in taking over her apartment in Los Angeles. When I first moved here two years earlier, I’d hopped around from house to house, relying on friends’ couches and kindness while I tried to root myself; this was the large, lofty space, full of blinding amounts of California sunlight, of my dreams. Along with the furniture, she left me NINE different plants. “They need to be watered more than you think” was her only instruction, and though I had no clue what that meant, I plastered it to the forefront of my mind. Overnight, I had become a foster plant mom. I texted my plant-obsessed friends photos of the “babies,” so happy to join the club and blissfully unaware of what kind of work went into taking care of plants in the desert. In response, my homie sent back exact instructions from his auntie; I felt blessed for the crash course and was determined to be nothing but successful. The cardboard palm, African violet, and goldfish plant all needed repotting. There was Devil’s ivy above the fridge growing wild that needed trimming, along with a gorgeous jade bush, a rubber plant made up of three separate four-foot tall stalks, a dracaena palm, and another, baby, rubber plant. There was a pinstripe plant that looked like it was in a deep coma, but maybe all it needed was regular watering. I realized, quickly, how committed I had become to these plants’ growth, and how personally devastated I would be if anything happened to them. When a friend brought over an orchid as a housewarming gift, though, I felt affirmed. I’d grown up with plant lovers, spent years in and around homes with jungle corners, vines twisting out of mason jars along the windowsills—I could make this work. But taking care of living things is a science of intuition. It requires empathy, and with objects that cannot talk nor bark back it is almost impossible to know what they need without the strictest observance. Not to mention, I had no idea what their history of treatment was. “They need to be watered more than you think.” How much did I think they needed to be watered? I was making a diagnosis based on what I could see in the moment and had no guarantee that my choices would be more helpful than harmful. I put my tropical plants together and misted them for a hothouse effect. I gave them plant food and watched as some of them doubled in size while others faked the funk. I talked to them every morning, addressing each one while I drank my coffee; I’d aptly named them after my favorite divas: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eartha Kitt, Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton, and even Alfre Woodard. Then it happened. One day while watering my orchid in my kitchen sink, I destroyed it. As I removed the plant from under the faucet, I wasn’t paying attention and hit it against the cabinet right above the sink, breaking the stem attached to ALL the blooms. I felt insane. I frantically researched how to save it and developed a year-long plan. Would I even be in this apartment in a year? I wasn’t sure, but the thought of tossing it in the trash was too much to take. Everything went downhill from there. Did you know cold weather burns leaves just like extreme heat? I didn’t. Every day I was on Google with another question: how do I get rid of the gnats that seemed to have come extra with the soil I bought? Why were there brown spots on the leaves? Why did the jade bush bloom on Tuesday and then literally shed every leaf like a snake on Saturday? What the hell were these mushrooms growing on my soil? I hadn’t been able shake my friend’s now-ominous initial advice—“they need to be watered more than you think”—and so I’d been splashing water from my Brita all over the topsoil; now it was clear that I was drowning them. I would forget when I had watered them last and freak out, dipping my finger into the topsoil and asking myself if it was damp or just cold. Some days I would be unable to even touch them because I was so frozen with disappointment at my “mothering,” then other days I would be determined to try again, remembering the only thing they needed from me was to keep trying to keep them alive. Summer came and everyone bloomed. My orchid was still growing healthy roots. I moved things around again to my taste. I felt like I had begun to understand my plants, but I was still a disorganized mom: watering from memory, not measuring, and overreacting to things that went bad rather than actively working on the good. I read some more, not just about plants but about my attachment styles, about my anxiety and about my depression. I let the plants take care of me for a bit. They listened to my stories and my music and watched me pace around the house when I should have been writing scripts. They were silent witnesses to my cooking, my writing, my growth. After a drastic sinus infection, I bought an air purifier and a humidifier. A friend commented on how happy these items would make my plants, and I realized they needed them just as much as I did. During a trip to London in the summer, four plants dried up in my absence, sending me down a path of despair. A few months later, a friend sent me a moisture meter. I was grateful for the help and reached out for some more. I ordered some soil while a friend was staying with me and had them keep me company as I repotted. I made a chart about my plants and set reminders for when to water them as the florist had suggested. After a friend posted their watering schedule on Instagram, I began to measure out the water in strict cupfuls. I reminded myself it wasn’t about my ego—it was about taking care of the things that took care of me. Trial and error and commitment. It terrified me to think that things might depend on me over long periods of time. That they would need me not just to be perfect but to be present, patient, observant, brave, and empathetic. These were significant things that I could practice and improve, not just for them but for myself and my own community. I could be those things. And so, me and the divas have entered our winter hibernation. Some nights I sleep with them in the living room so they can have the heater and humidifier—it’s a sauna for all of us, and reminds me that I could use that treatment, too. In a year, my plants have taught me confidence, but they’ve also taught me to take root in my home and in my self. I belong here.
The Year in Aliens

The popularity of the Storm Area 51 meme could easily be read as a cry for help—as though if we save the aliens from the government, they can, in turn, save us from ourselves. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. It started off, as the best things do, with a shitpost. It was the end of June when 21-year-old college student Matty Roberts created a Facebook event that would ultimately birth a viral meme turned national security threat. What later came to be known as Alienstock started off as an event page entitled: “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us.” Area 51, of course, is the highly classified U.S. military base located within the Nevada Test and Training Range that has long been the subject of conspiracy theories regarding state secrets related to UFOs and extraterrestrial life. The action was set for the weekend of September 20. It struck a chord. In a matter of mere days, more than a million Facebook users pledged to attend what was essentially pitched as a civilian-led raid on a highly classified United States Air Force facility. A spokesperson for the Air Force warned Roberts and would-be raid-goers not to attempt to illegally access the military installation. The military even sent troop reinforcements, coordinating with local law enforcement to put up extra barricades surrounding the base. Roberts quickly changed tack and began to discourage a raid, promoting Alienstock as a counterculture festival instead. But the die had been cast. At the peak of Storm Area 51’s virality, some 30,000 people were anticipated. Due to the sheer number of people publicly stating their intent to participate, the media began to echo the panicked tone of the Air Force, reporting on the story as an impending catastrophe rather than what it was: a shitpost. Two separate rural Nevada counties declared states of emergency. In the end, 6,000 or so people showed up and pitched tents in the desert for the “festival.” Alienstock was light on programming (attendees mostly participated in DIY activities like hatchet throwing) but included a stage and a DJ. Before Alienstock escalated to the level of a national panic, though, it was a meme that reached saturation point across social media. Lil Nas X, himself a viral sensation by virtue of his megahit “Old Town Road,” released a version of the song featuring guest verses from Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug, and Mason Ramsey (a.k.a. the Yodel Boy). The music video for the song, which was released in July, was an animated depiction of the four squaring off with soldiers outside of Area 51. Upon gaining entry, the group links up with the aliens inside who are (obviously) cool as hell. What was it about this particular shitpost that so many people found compelling? Why did millions of people—most presumably in jest—sign up to storm Area 51? The answer lies in the meme itself. The goal was never to invade a military base or to steal state secrets. It was far kinder. Most people participating in the Storm Area 51 meme, myself included, wanted to do one thing: liberate the aliens. In that specific online moment, it felt good to hit retweet on every single joke about freeing the aliens I saw. One tweet amongst the thousands exemplifying this allegiance to the aliens features a video of internet personality Rickey Thompson dancing erratically with the caption: “Me distracting the guards at Area 51 so the aliens can escape.” It had a hundred thousand likes. Arguably the most infamous instance of mass media-incited panic around extraterrestrial contact is the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. On Halloween night, CBS aired a live performance of the 1898 H.G. Wells novel adapted for radio by Howard Koch and performed by Welles. The broadcast took the form of a typical radio program, interrupted by live news bulletins announcing the arrival of invading aliens, culminating in a Martian attack on Manhattan. Thousands of listeners panicked, calling in to the station and local police precincts. The CBS building in New York was mobbed by a swarm of uniformed officers demanding that Welles stop the transmission and announce it was fiction. Executives stalling the cops barely bought them enough time to finish the hour-long show. H.G. Wells derived his concept for War of the Worlds from a thought experiment his brother put to him: what would happen if aliens colonized England the way England colonized Tasmania? Would the fate that befell the Indigenous Tasmanians befall the English? More astute observers of Storm Area 51 have pointed out that the meme arrived at the precise political moment when the news cycle revolving around migrant children being separated from their parents and caged under President Trump had reached peak hopelessness. Even on the (perhaps unconscious) level of language, the meme betrayed the collective urge to compel the government to show mercy, particularly to children whose home countries have been made unsafe directly through U.S. interventionism. After all, the federal government refers to immigrants as “aliens” and issues “alien numbers” as a banal matter of bureaucracy. I should know, I have one. It's possible that a mass cultural moment obsessed with liberating aliens from our government is an expression not just of our social health as a country that routinely cages children, but also as a species beginning to publicly reckon with the collective crisis of conscience concerning our global health as we face down climate-driven mass extinction. Storm Area 51 could just as easily be read as a cry for help, then—that maybe if we save the aliens from the government, they can, in turn, save us from ourselves. Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to see that little at the core has changed since the brutal colonization of Tasmania inspired H.G. Wells to envision beings from space bringing home the destruction white empire visited upon the rest of the world as just desserts. This was also a year that saw noted bald billionaire divorcé and real-life Lex Luthor, Jeff Bezos, launch the lunar lander Blue Moon, built by his company, Blue Origin. Blue Origin’s tagline is prominently featured on the company’s website under the subsection “Our Mission”: “We're committed to building a road to space so our children can build the future.” In May, Bezos pitched NASA and the White House (Trump has stated he intends to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon by 2024). Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, has stated its intent to colonize Mars. In September, former front man of Blink-182, Tom DeLonge, worked with the U.S. Navy, one of the largest polluters on Earth, to confirm that three F-18 gun-camera videos published on the website for his To The Stars Academy (an outfit dedicated to space research) were indeed “unidentified aerial phenomena”; DeLonge’s group subsequently signed a contract with the U.S. Army. As we approach cataclysm, those in power seem increasingly invested in their future colonizing and exploiting space rather than fixing the problems they’ve caused on Earth. The question of extraterrestrial life has always lurked just under the surface of pop culture. From time to time, it bursts through into the wider imagination and asks us to collectively imagine what the consequences of contact with aliens might look like. In a very real way, these cultural reckonings have served as a sort of barometer of social health: a way of gauging how we feel about our planet and our species. The beauty of a shitpost-turned-meme like Storm Area 51 is in how the joke gives way to an earnest feeling. Taken literally, a mass civilian raid on a highly secure U.S. military base is not funny. But as a nonliteral expression of a feeling—of allegiance to the Other, of liberatory intent, of collective power—you come away with something else. Knowing full well it’s dumb as shit, in the end, you want to believe.
The Year in 5

The standard explanations for why things have happened this year have turned out to be as useless as the most far-out conspiracy theories.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Saved on my phone is a photo that is one of my most treasured possessions. Whenever I need to laugh, or to take a load off and just reflect on what kind of a place this life is, and there is nothing in my immediate physical vicinity presenting itself for inspection, I take out my phone and there it is: the best and most hilarious thing. The photo is of a laptop screen showing my friend Ben’s Facebook feed. Taking up most of the frame is a faintly shimmering grey block with some wiggly lines going around in the middle. It has a certain Magic Eye quality to it, the grey block, but more dreary. At the top of the grey block it says “Write the number ‘5’ in the comments and watch what happens!” You are maybe nodding in recognition by this point. It’s possible you have seen this rubbish grey block and the instruction at the top and thought: No thanks. I don’t need to see what happens when I press “5.” It’s not important to me. I can feel in my spirit that I don’t need or want to press “5” and watch what happens. I’m finished with this idea. If you are even more wise to the ways of the world, what you thought was, I am not the type of mark who will press “5,” because what will happen when I do that is nothing. Even if you have never seen this shitty grey block, you are at least nodding in assent at either of these responses. Who would want to press “5”? Eight hundred eighty-eight thousand people is who. What the screenshot plainly shows is that 888,000 people saw that shitty grey block and thought, Now hang on just one moment. What’s this “write ‘5’” business—intriguing. I’m not too proud to admit, even just here quietly to myself, that I’d like to see what happens with this unpromising-looking grey block when I write “5.” The world is full of wonders, even now, and I am not the kind of cynic who turns coldly away from the opportunity to write “5” and watch what happens. [[{"fid":"6706241","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"width":"300","style":"float: right; margin: 25px;","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]Eight hundred eighty-eight thousand people did that, according to the screenshot. I only know who one of those people is, though: my mum. You can see her there, under the grey block, writing “5.” Waiting. Watching. “5.” It’s obviously just the way the algorithm works, showing Facebook users only the commenters that they’re friends with, etc., but the way it appears on Ben’s feed makes it look like my mother is the only person in the world who has done it. Just my mum sitting there in her office, on the computer, maybe with the ceiling fan whirring away, no one around, thinking, What harm can it do. It seems like what they’re saying is the picture is going to swirl around a bit, and maybe that would be nice for me. Well, here goes: 5. Let’s see, now. Ben caught this perfect moment during one of his bi-monthly Facebook trawls and sent it to me immediately, knowing that I would fall to pieces with mirth. There is something so pure about it, so lovable. “5.” I sent the screenshot to my brother, whose reaction was identical to mine: great shouts of laughter and then a great wave of love for our mum, as he imagined her sitting at the computer with her finger hovering over the 5 key. Pressing it. Nothing happening. Looking. Staring. Pressing it again. “5.” Nothing. I sent the photo to all my friends who know and therefore love my mum, and they fell to pieces too, and we all had a great morning discussing “5,” the very idea of it, and the idea of our parents on Facebook, thinking no one can see what they get up to on there. “5.” All of our parents, in their different ways, all sitting at the computer and pressing “5.” Replying to a message in their inbox by writing on their own Facebook wall, and then underneath that saying, “Sorry, I thought I was replying to Irene.” Writing “Happy Birthday Chris. !!” with the weird spacing that the dads love to do now on, again, their own wall and then phoning their daughter and asking how do they send it to Chris, this birthday message. How does Chris get it. Being vulnerable to clickbait in a way that is more touching, somehow, than our generation’s same apparently infinite capacity to be gulled into clicking on stupid bullshit. Getting harvested for their likes right there in the open. “5.” I knew I shouldn’t send the photo to my mum, because she would of course be mortified by the information that she had gone viral among my friends simply for the act of typing “5,” simply for having an open and curious mind and the generosity of spirit that allows you to believe that pressing “5” will yield gratifying results. At some point, however, I could take it no longer, and sent her the photo, needing to know what had made her do it, how did she feel when nothing happened, and so on. She talked me through it, the process of pressing “5”: “I typed ‘5’ even though I thought: this is stupid—I shouldn’t be doing this. Then I stared at the shimmering image expecting a five to miraculously appear (I think). Then when nothing happened, I thought I must have done it wrong and tried again. Stared long and hard again. Nothing.” She handled the ensuing barrage of questions very well, I thought. How would you type the number 5 “wrong”? How long did it take you to realise that nothing was going to happen? Did you stand up so you could get a better look from farther away? Do you know that this is insanely, indelibly funny? Etc. She is one of those people who is properly able to laugh at herself, and to handle being teased, and so she was less embarrassed than I’d worried she would be. She was more suspicious, though. It was all new to her, the knowledge that Ben or anyone else could see her typing “5,” and she took it hard. “I knew I was being had,” she said, “even as I typed it. I knew it was a trick.” I asked her what she meant by a “trick,” and she said that she believed that she had been the “victim” of “a scam to make people laugh at you.” “You type ‘5,’ and it shows up on everyone’s feed, and then everyone knows that you are the kind of idiot who presses ‘5.’” It was at this point that my understanding of the meaning of “5” began to expand and contract, and I started to feel the powerful metaphor in it, the unassailable mystery, the way it said something, surely, about the internet and our relationship to it here in 2019. About The Way We Live Now, even. “5.” Impossible not to imagine an anthropologist of religion writing about it in 1000 years’ time, in a version of the future that allows for the continuing existence of such things as anthropology departments. An academic whose area of focus is highly ritualistic cults, striving to make some kind of logic out of it, or situate it within an already existing theory of religious behaviour. Probing vainly, trying and failing to devise a methodologically sound explanation for what it was that compelled all these people to write 5 and watch what happens, one after the other, 5 after 5. Pressing “5.” Sitting. Looking. Nothing happening. “5.” Nothing. As I explained to my mum that she was not the victim of “a scam to make people laugh at you” (which, as an aside, is easily, easily the best definition of clickbait I have ever heard), but a “victim” of this thing called “like farming,” whereby someone “harvests likes” in order to “up their profile,” I realised that this explanation was no more satisfactory than the one she had come up with. I debated briefly whether to send her a very sassy article I had found about the whole “5” business, where the writer repeatedly describes it as a scam and says stuff like, “By creating one of these silly posts, sad and desperate little Facebook users can trick a lot of people into liking, sharing, and commenting on their material, thereby promoting their Facebook Page or Profile across the network.” I decided against it, and not only because my mum doesn’t need that kind of negative energy in her life. This wasn’t a scam scam, it didn’t seem like. After you press “5,” the only thing that happens is nothing. You are not being ripped off, not really. All that is being taken from you is the extremely dubious pleasure of seeing swirly lines on a grey block move around and maybe the number 5 appearing. That’s not what a scam is. She asked me what the point of it was, “other than to make fools of us,” and I said more about algorithms and “harvests” and then I kind of trailed off, because while she was wrong in the specifics, she was headed in the right kind of direction, and any explanation I could give her did not in any way account for the true mystery of “5,” and why she pressed it, why anyone did, and what actually is going on. There is no sense to be made of it, no logic to be derived, no sophisticated or intelligent interpretation. “A scam to make people laugh at you” is no more or less bizarre than a description of “like-farming” that I found, which says, “The ultimate dream of every like-farmer is for his post to go viral by accumulating as many likes and shares as possible from all over the world.” That sentence has the aura of a curse, like if you read it too many times or even think about it for too long you will die or go blind or start to hear horses speaking to you in English. There’s just something fundamentally unsound about it, something scary and weird and emblematic of these scary and weird times. “The ultimate dream of every like-farmer.” “5.” In many ways, this has been the year of “5,” a year when the standard explanations for why a thing happens turn out to be equally as useless as the most far-out conspiracy theories, when it comes to making sense of what has transpired. The Epstein saga had a powerful energy of “5” about it, for example. The straightforward or official explanation is stupid and inadequate and doesn’t actually hold water, not really. The explanations put forward by people with a suspicious cast of mind are risible at first, and then less so the more you think about it. There’s been an air of “5” around for a while now, this feeling that there is no good way to arrive at a nuanced and robust analysis of what is happening, whatever the fuck that thing might be. Even the most boring explanations are taking on a slightly otherworldly tinge. Why is Boris Johnson lying to reporters about doing maths at night? “Because he thinks the punters will love it” seems like a straightforward answer, but is it really, and is that what’s actually going on, and why does he have to be so unsettlingly peculiar on top of being so transparently evil? Can we find a way to answer these questions? We cannot. “5.” Why did Elon Musk call a cave diver a “pedo guy” and then lie about it, over and over, and then hire a private investigator with an almost over-the-top air of fraudulence about him and task him with the mission of “proving” his ridiculous, baseless allegations. “Because Elon Musk is a malicious person with incredibly bad impulse control, as well as being not too sharp” is the answer that immediately springs to mind, but is there not more to it than that? What kind of life is it that someone can just behave in that fashion? You don’t know. “5.” Prince Andrew off-roading in a BBC interview, talking gibberish about not being able to sweat after the Falklands War? “Idiot, ultimate upwards-failing weirdo, no one brave enough to let him in on the truth about how vastly he has overestimated his ability to charm his way out of a jam,” sounds okay, but then you mull it over and it’s just not good enough. You need more information, and you are not getting it, and you cannot be sure of whether that information even exists. “5.” Why is Donald Trump talking about “other elements of bathrooms” like that now, what does it mean, what is the purpose, who is in charge, what is all this in aid of. You don’t know. “5.” The sense of “5” hangs in the air like smoke, these days, and you are finding yourself on increasingly shaky ground when you try to come up with a good and coherent interpretation of the situation. Each explanation is as bad as the next, and you’ve got nothing. You are just sitting there, thinking about “5,” wondering if maybe something would happen if you pressed it a few more times, maybe. “5.”
The Year Inside My Car

I don’t have a title sitting in the car. There is anonymity in that moment, a complete lack of pressure. I’m just the driver, caught in a free, smooth space between eddies.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I have come to love sitting in the car. Sitting in the car might be the best state of being. It’s not exactly a here, because heres in my brain at least are places to be, places where I have a nameplate with a defined role listed underneath it. At home, I am Dad (subtitle: Dadding, sleeping). At work, wherever that is, the nameplate reads College Football Writer (subtitle: Charitably recounting the work of underpaid athletes, mild Photoshop work). I don’t have a title sitting in the car. There is anonymity in that moment, a complete lack of pressure. I’m just the driver, caught in a free, smooth space between eddies. I can inhabit all those things sitting in the car, but I’m also not useless. In fact, if I’m getting into the car, there’s a good chance I’m going to something necessary I’m supposed to do, or coming back from something important I’ve just done. I’ve just dropped the kids off and am about to go to the gym, or I’ve just gone to the gym and am on the way to work. This is me between my best adult things—not failing at them or worrying about them, but somewhere between one and doing another. It’s heaven. I can—and do—sit there for much, much longer than I should some days. I can play Allen Toussaint on my phone, and listen to “Last Train” three, maybe four times in a row if I need to do so. The drummer’s name is Ziggy Modeliste, and he’s a god in drumming who also happens to have the only name any drummer from New Orleans should ever have. He makes the hardest things sound effortless, floating along while keeping the kick-drum thumping along in unison with the weird left-hand patterns of Toussaint, who as a piano player is channeling Professor Longhair, who as a broke-ass kid from Bogalusa, Louisiana, learned to play on a piano missing several keys his hands never bothered to find on other, more complete pianos. I sit there and let my brain loop over that and sometimes notice how much the Recaro racing seats of my extremely stupid but wonderful car hug me into place. It’s a Ford Focus ST, an overpowered hot hatch. It isn’t the last of its kind, like muscle cars are now, dying out before the great culling of gas-swilling beasts who’ll die in the automotive ice age. The asteroid takes the big SUVs and Hellcats first. My car will sit around as the earth turns cold. Maybe it’ll poke at them a little before looking up at the big gray and wondering what’s next. It is a late-stage version of its car, for sure, not the penultimate in its class but definitely a character making a solid cameo in the final act. It has an amplifier to make the four-stroke engine sound louder than it is, and little nifty gauges across the dash showing the turbo turbo-ing. When it pulls away at a light it shoves me back into the seat a little like the hand of a gentle god, and on gravel it gets sideways and plants itself sliding with the confidence of a short-track speed skater. When the right music is playing and the sunroof is down, it feels like running a rally stage in the middle of an average day. Her name is Buttercup. She is the only car I have ever driven that gives me pure irresponsible joy, and I have to get rid of her soon. That will happen this year, sooner rather than later. A dad car is somewhere out there with my name on it. It will be something big, something hybrid, something more responsible, sober, and adult than Buttercup. The kids used to be able to swing their feet out of their car seats and straight into my lumbar in the space between the front seats and the back bench. Their knees press into the backs of the seats now, and when the younger one gets upset he can kick clear to the front seat from the back. (And does, mostly when I tell him he cannot have a milkshake with every meal.) They will keep growing until their shoulders crack the windows. Their heads will pop through the sunroof. That’s all coming. For now, if I sit in her between 8:05 and 8:20 a.m., she is a flower floating on the waters of a stream I can’t control. I don’t want to look around the bend. This may be the last flower on the water, and I am definitely a doomed ant riding her downriver. When I pull back, I try not to think about all that. If I did, I’d never want to be anything but this—here, in between things getting done, between toting babies and confronting a future of huge sons, captain’s chairs, and modestly appreciating retirement accounts extending toward but coming up just short of reaching the horizon. I could drive past every exit I am supposed to take. I could fill her tank with the dinosaur ghosts of the past and put the future on pause forever.
The Year in Healing

When I finally managed to get out of bed and return to my life, I was determined to be an expert on how to grieve. I was going to fuck grief up so hard.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt's writers reflect on the issues, big and small. We are living out the worst timeline and in this iteration of the universe, I have become a full-blown Vancouver wellness basic bitch. I quit Diet Coke and I've only had three alcoholic beverages this year. My current drink of choice is green juice. I do Pilates. To prevent foot cramps and alleviate tension in my jaw, I take a lemon raspberry flavoured magnesium supplement called Natural Calm. (So tranquil!) Wherever I go, I carry a stainless steel bottle as if the zombie apocalypse has hit and I need to guard my water source with my life. When I can't sleep, I lay on an acupressure mat and listen to true crime podcasts. I have seen every single vegan propaganda documentary available on Netflix, though this does not stop me from eating the occasional Totoro gingerbread at Liberty Bakery. This past July, I had to confess my wellness basic bitch shame to my friend Liz who was about to visit me from New York at my writing residency at Historic Joy Kogawa House. Liz knew me when I could drink five bourbons in a night and still make it the next morning to my job in children's publishing, where I would sit in my cubicle and eat processed fortified cereal in an attempt to absorb enough vitamins and minerals to offset all the alcohol coursing through my veins. This was before I read Michael Pollan's New York Times Magazine essay "Unhappy Meals" and realized all the scientifically engineered food I'd grown up believing to be oh-so-healthy was not as nutritious as eating copious amounts of fruits and vegetables. "Can it be true that we haven't hung out since Breaking Bad was still on the air?" Liz wrote to me in an email. (I did a fact check—we last saw each other one year after the finale of the TV show, when I was on book tour.) Then she recalled the time I'd tried to walk out of a bar in Brooklyn with a glass of whiskey in my purse because I could not finish it right then but I did not want to waste it. What can I say? I'm Chinese. We thrive on thrift. The bouncer was not pleased, but Liz found this turn of events very amusing. "You are such a legendary badass!" she wrote. I was about to disabuse Liz of my legendary badass status. After a prolonged bout of illness in 2015, I had succumbed to performing late-stage capitalist wellness routines to maintain my health. If I were to record what I eat each day, it would read like a budget version of the infamous Amanda Chantal Bacon food diary for Elle. (I own the Moon Juice cookbook. The recipes are delicious, unlike some vegetarian broccoli-forward offerings that taste like corporal punishment and smell like farts.) When it is warm out, my days start with smoothies that have no fruit and a fuckton of organic kale, raw cacao powder, soaked flaxseeds, almond milk, frozen avocado, and moringa powder. I discovered that two parts cacao to one part maca with a dash of vanilla tastes like a Wendy's frosted malt. I avoid refined sugar when possible, sweetening beverages instead with the plant extract stevia. Before I developed allergies to a long list of foods, I didn't care how much refined sugar I ingested. Now I carry a bottle of alternative sweetener in my bag, swag. How and why had I entered wellness basic bitchdom? This past January, I had endured an entire year without my father, who died on December 26, 2017, less than a month after he received a diagnosis of stage four cancer. On my dad's last day, I was lying in bed even though it was nearing two in the afternoon, wearing sushi-patterned pajamas, when I heard my mom screaming. I ran downstairs to the study, saw that Dad was convulsing, pulled my mouthguard out, slapped it on the desk (a true emergency—I'm a germaphobe and I would never put something that goes in my mouth on an unsanitized surface), and called 9-1-1. The dispatcher asked if I knew CPR. I'd taken first aid at work so I began the compressions, following the dispatcher's count. Time seemed to move so slowly as I pressed as hard as I could, but not so hard that I would break ribs. I was so certain that my dad was going to live and broken bones would really suck on top of having cancer, so I was careful. My arms were getting tired, but the overachiever in me was going to get this right. The dispatcher told me to keep going, the first responders were almost there, and I pushed through my exhaustion knowing that I was keeping my dad alive. I had a purpose. Nothing I had ever done in my life before this moment was important. I hadn't gone to med school—I'd only worked as an admissions clerk at the Faculty of Medicine at UBC right after I graduated from an MFA program—but maybe, even without fancy credentials, I could save a life. To my relief, a group of firemen showed up and took over CPR before I developed rhabdomyolysis from over-exertion. My brother arrived. At some point I changed, and my mom handed me an apple, so I was eating as I spoke to the paramedics. (My friend Lisa assured me later that first responders have seen it all and it isn't sociopathic to stop and eat during an emergency.) Before they gave my dad drugs to sedate him for the ambulance ride, they let me have a moment to tell him that I loved him and we were going to the hospital and my brother would accompany him. After this point, nothing I did made very much sense. I packed a bag, thinking we'd be staying overnight, but all I took was cashew nuts, a bottle of water, an iPad, and giant block of black tourmaline instead of toiletries or a change of clothing. Then, because I wanted air, I decided to walk to the hospital. I realize now my dad could have died in this fifteen-minute span, but lucky for me, when I arrived the ER doctor was working to stabilize him. We waited. I drank water. I did not put that fist-sized chunk of black tourmaline to use. A few hours later, the doctor informed us of my dad's options and we decided to end his suffering and let him go. What I had not learned during the first aid course, where we practiced on a mannequin known as "Rescue Annie," is that performing CPR on a dying loved one can be a traumatizing experience. This took a few days to register because I am the kind of person who is calm to the point of reptilian in an emergency (you want me on your apocalypse team during the first seventy-two hours—my will to survive is so strong that I once hiked eight hours with chicken pox while carrying a thirty-pound backpack before my parents drove 164 kilometres to bring me home). Then I crashed, binge-watched episodes of a satirical show about the British royal family called The Windsors—even though everyone was telling me to watch The Crown—and wondered how the Queen and Prince Philip were still alive. Last year in January, when I managed to get out of bed and return to my life, I was determined to be an expert on how to grieve. I was going to fuck grief up so hard. I went on a tour of all my friends who had beloved dead dads, read The End of Eve by Ariel Gore and Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala while listening to Mount Eerie's album A Crow Looked at Me on repeat. For the first time since graduate school, I was writing poetry; I needed a place to put my emotions and to understand grief. By June of that year, I gathered friends to work at a soup kitchen organized by Enspire Foundation as a memorial for my dad. There was a pain in my left shoulder whenever I felt sad. My right ankle hurt on long walks. I went to see my dentist, massage therapist, naturopath, osteopath. What I couldn't do for my mind, I was determined to do for my body—though I would have to remind myself the two were not separate. What I most wanted was to let go of all the suffering, to figure out how to live without my excellent father. At the beginning of this year, the grief was ebbing. I had come to the understanding that I did not have to define myself by sadness. I was not my emotions. I was certainly not grief's bitch. All I needed was to choose a path, any path, and do small things that would add up to one big thing: life. But then in February, my mom received a diagnosis: stage three cancer. From there, the year became a blur of activity. I accompanied my mom to day surgery thirty-six hours before I gave a talk called "Healing is a Political Act," during which I discussed how one way to heal is to tell stories, to take control of our own narratives. During Mom's chemo sessions, I read books for the Amazon First Novel Award (I was on the jury) and prepared for a writing residency at the University of British Columbia. One day, Mom mentioned in passing I should write about her life, but I said, "You can write about your own life." She was hurt by this response. What I meant was, "You are going to live." But did I really know that? No one, not even her doctors, could make such a pronouncement, but I needed to believe. Around this time, my naturopath recommended Gabor Maté's When the Body Says No. At the beginning of the book, Maté writes: "This is not a book of prescriptions, but I do hope it will serve its readers as a catalyst for personal transformation. Prescriptions come from the outside, transformation occurs within. There are many books of simple prescription of one sort of another—physical, emotional, spiritual—that appear each year. It was not my intention to write yet one more. Prescriptions assume that something needs to be fixed; transformation brings forth the healing—the coming to integrity, to wholeness—of what is already there. While advice and prescriptions may be useful, even more valuable to us is insight into ourselves and the workings of our minds and bodies. Insight, when inspired by the quest for truth, can promote transformation." I wanted to come to wholeness, to transform, but this seemed just out of my grasp. After I read When the Body Says No, I did some research into Somatic Experiencing. I went to see a therapist who instructed me to lay on the ground and thrash out my trauma. The entire process seemed strange and almost comical, but it worked. I had less pain. Spring wore on. My mom had two additional day surgeries. Then, to our surprise, the doctors cleared her to have major surgery a month earlier than expected. Her surgeon called me as soon as she was out of the theatre; he was very pleased with the results. The nursing staff said she was the most cheerful patient they had seen recover from her particular surgery. She was doing stairs at the hospital and demanding solid food, so they discharged her in under a week. At home, she had complications, during which time her pain made it seem like she was suffering from demonic possession. I swear, it was like The Exorcist. She kept telling me it felt like there was a knife in her back, that maybe the epidural had hit a nerve. I ran up and down the stairs of the house, fulfilling her many demands. I wondered if this was how the rest of our lives was going to play out, suffering and caretaking. When she was no longer able to get out of bed, we admitted her back to the hospital for more tests and interventions. For six weeks, I was unable to sleep well or work due to distress; finally, in August, I began to prepare to teach a graduate fiction class at UBC and edit a friend's novel. Liz came to visit, during which time I had one Old Fashioned before swearing off drinking once again. On a bright Friday in November, before a session with my writing group, I went with Mom to the Cancer Centre. We thought she still had six rounds of chemo to complete, but during this appointment one of her doctors said the word I had been waiting for: remission. Perhaps we weren't on the worst timeline after all. At that moment, some other Doretta in the multiverse had probably gotten horrible news and was stress-eating a bag of Doritos from a vending machine, but not me: I was already planning on having a celebratory almond matcha latte sweetened with stevia. Mom was puzzled though, unsure whether this was a moment for celebration. What happens when a months-long near-death experience comes to an end? There should be a ticker tape parade that lasts hours, but it just feels like a return to regular life. After the appointment, we got off on the wrong floor of the parking structure, something we'd done several times before. We may have even discussed what vacuum cleaner she should buy. We were embracing the mundane like champions. As we drove from darkness into sunlight, I understood for the first time that choosing to heal, to take the time to do a hundred little tasks along the path to embracing wholeness, is another way to become a legendary badass.