People call me Rick. Thanks for coming over! There is no theme or common thread to what will end up here, but I like to write about Cars and Cats and Birds and Beer. I also like to write about Writing.
People call me Rick. Thanks for coming over! There is no theme or common thread to what will end up here, but I like to write about Cars and Cats and Birds and Beer. I also like to write about Writing.
My boss is a pig. He expects everyone to call him ‘Chaz’. Nope. This morning, he asked me to bring him a coffee while looking everywhere but my eyes. What, am I his concubine? Fuck no.
Easy task, ridding the Accounts Receivable Dept of him, better relieving the earth of his dead eyes and slurping looks.
Jess told me it’s something they use at the vet clinic on horses and big goats when they get unruly. Chaz is unruly.
I can’t just get it from Jess. Can you see me?
“Hey Jess I need some of that tiletamine stuff.”
“Cool – here ya go.”
That’s conspicuous. Or it could get that way in a jiffy.
I only need about 100cc. And a big ass needle for the push.
That guy Jess sells it to has been sniffing around. I could let him diddle in my underwear a bit and then take it from him while he’s in an afterglow coma. He wouldn’t notice it missing. He buys a ton.
Chaz asks me out for lunch, coffee, happy hour, about once a week. I say, “no, thanks,” and he ribs me about my overprotective boyfriend. I don’t have one, but he thinks I do. And yet, he persists. Creep.
I could take him up on a happy hour, carefully. I’ll drive. Get him in the car, on the highway. Make his think he’s worn me down. Yuck. I’d rather drink bile.
While at speed, I’ll stick him with a fat dose in his flabby thigh. He’ll freak out for about 20 seconds. What’s he gonna do? Smack me? I might like that – definitely deserve it, but after a few bitch-slaps he’ll mellow a bit and drool.
Key is to leave my phone at home, stick to my pattern. They will find his phone pinging off the towers around the Miller road bridge, but they’ll never find his body.
The Tom Thumb is a sad place on a Saturday night. My roommate is gone, at her sex’s place, and I need some ice cream. I like to walk the aisle. And look at people. If you look in the baskets, and in the eyes, there’s a story.
A dude in work pants and a shirt with his name on it, brick of diapers under his arm, a box of maxis in his left hand. And 24 ounces of freedom in his right. Do they even have 40s anymore? Probably not in this neighborhood. From the look on his face, he needs a 40. Maybe an 80. Poor fucker slow-walks the magazine rack, pretending he can dream about a hobby. He sees me looking at him. His misery fades for a nano as he looks at my tits.
Couple, younger than me. Frozen peas, macaroni and cheese. Suitcase of Bud Light, Suave shampoo, stack of Hungry Mans (men?) up to the top rail, waffles, family pack of Trojans, eggs, chips, salsa. Just moved in together, obviously, invisible magnetism pulling them into each other’s pants in the frozen food section. He’s hoping tonight is the night she’ll let him do her in the butt. She’s hoping he’ll get too hammered to ask. At least he asks. It’s sweet.
40-something guy in short pleats and a North Face knock-off jacket. The kind you get from work. The kind of work that’s made up of two words that don’t go together but sound clever when forced into the same bed. Nexgenuity. Underestimataruim. Cocksickle. Something like that. No wedding ring. Confused brow, like he got lost on the detergent aisle. That’s where I find him anyway, shifting back and forth. No cleaning products in his handheld basket. I’m not attracted to him, I mean, not really. He is average like a regular 40, not fat or ugly. Definitely lost.
I follow him, lagging and trying to look normal like the rest of the Saturday night freaks. I stop off for my Cookies ‘n Cream and catch up with him at the self-check-out. (Self-check-out. I do that quite often, daily really. But in a naked mirror and with a flogger. Can’t really get there in the nasty grocery store. People walk in here with no shoes. Fucking bourgeoisie.)
40’s man does not agree with the self-check-out kiosk. She keeps telling him to put his scanned item in the bagging area. He tells her, with fervor, that he already did. She’s a computer. She, probably, is listening to him and secretly talking shit to the other kiosks about him, making fun of his short-pants. They all computer-laugh at him and his groceries. What grown-up human eats ramen noodles? Ga-Ga-Ga!
He finishes his business. I double-bag my ice cream. It’s going to be a tad melty by the time I get home. In the parking lot, I watch him fumble with his keys. He puts one in the door lock of his Accord. I guess his key fob battery is dead. Dude, I mean if that Golf-Digest mag gives you more pleasure than a working door lock button, rock on. He gets in and starts the car.
I run to mine and jump in, pitching my Blue Bell on the floorboard. He takes off and I follow him. I mean, I don’t have any plans tonight.
He lives in an apartment complex near mine. Once inside the gates we wind around the speed bumps like they don’t apply to us. He pulls into his premium covered parking spot, #24, and I pull up next to him, #25, uncovered on the end. We exit our cars at the same time, I smile at him, to disarm myself. He jingles his keys at a door.
His apartment is on the first floor. I walk between the buildings, like I’m going somewhere special, like I am excited to sit on my couch and catch up on my TMZ. Building 2 faces a pond. Trees dot the bank. It smells of rank moss and dog shit. I find a fresh mound as my right food gets slippery. Thank God Keds are machine-washable. A tree hides me as I wait.
A living room/kitchen combo floods the pond with light. 40’s man drops his bags on the counter and quick-walks to another part of his apartment. I bet he has to pee. About a minute later he comes back and loads his fridge and pantry. Still wearing the Digiteering jacket. After kicking off his shoes, he opens the back door and walks out onto his patio. He sits and opens the lid on his grill pulling a pack of cigs and a book of matches from the place where food is cooked. He lights one and smokes, looking at the pond, and unknowingly right at me.
I wait while he enjoys his special time. Behind a tree, I give thanks to whatever made me thin enough to fit behind an apartment tree. The jacket man stows his cigs in the grille. Inside, he sits on his couch and turns on the TV. I can’t see what he’s watching, but his face never changes. Just the flashes of blue and red lights on him, his eyes trying to follow the action. Probably Columbo reruns. Or Fox News.
My ice cream is surely melting so I need to shit or get off the pot. I tip toe, in more doggie-poo, up to his patio railing and reach over to the grill. It creaks a bit when opened, but he didn’t notice. I shake out a Newport and say fuck it and take the book of matches.
On the other side of the patio I notice a window, where I can maybe get a better look. I amble over there, both my feet now fully involved in shit-cake. I want to take them off, but then I’ll get shit between my toes – I can already feel the moist leech of dog feces through the soles of my shoes, but I have the illusion of a barrier. Shoes stay on.
I watch him from just beyond the trapezoid of light that spills out from his living room. He sits in the center of his couch, arms up on the backrest, proud, like he has two imaginary bitches with him. I light my cig and he watches TV. The cherry of the cigarette lights my face and blonde hair. Lipstick long since worn off, doesn’t stick to the butt, but I still taste it. The last drag is a big one and I cough on exhale. He turns and looks in my direction. I stand still like a traffic cone.
He walks to the window and looks out, bobbing his head, craning to see me. I want him to see me. He doesn’t. And that’s probably for the better. He isn’t interesting enough to kill. The world wouldn’t suffer a loss.
Speaking of loss – my ice cream.
I put the book of matches in my pocket.
I was scrolling through the notes section of my phone looking for some perfect phrase, probably a hyper-lyrical and pretentiously snobby way to describe a feeling, or a girl, or a gutter. The kind of crap that I expect to spark to the best prose I’ve ever written. The kind of junk that only comes at nighttime. Usually, utter garbage. Instead I found this:
I like your Wagon!
Word. I had a 73 242 when I was in HS – never should have sold it
Are you INTO Volvos?
It took me a beat to figure out just what the heck this rambling meant. Or when I had recorded it (obviously it was written under the influence of sunlight). Then it hit me. I was talking with Hunter.
Hunter is a guy I work with. Hunter is deaf. Like everyone else in the office, I converse with him by typing into the notes section of my device. I show him my phone. He shows me his. It’s an odd way of communicating with someone, really.
But, I know Hunter uses sign language. He brought his girlfriend to the company Christmas party, and they spent most of it off in a corner, signing away and laughing, kissing, being people. So, the next week I made a decision – I was going to learn how to say ‘Good Morning’ in ASL and lay it on him the next time we crossed paths, before noon.
I always tell myself that I’m going to do more than the bare minimum. It’s harder than it looks. I usually fail.
After choosing a random day at the end of a week, I got to work early, and sat in the car practicing what I had learned on YouTube. Good Morning. Good Morning. Good Morning. The more I practiced it, the more fraudulent I felt. I talked myself into and back out of it. Hunter pulled up in his Volvo. Right next to my car. It was thirty degrees outside and I was sweating all my courage out.
I got out of my car just as he did. We exchanged eye contact and our usual wave – that placeholder for ‘Good Morning.” He walked inside, and I stood there frozen. In that moment it hit me. I was afraid of his judgement. What if I did it wrong? Worse – what if he was offended?
Hunter was not the first hearing-impaired person I have known. In fact, I used to date a girl who was deaf.
In my early twenties, after college was finished with me, I came back home to Mesquite, TX to try and figure out my life. I had been hanging out with some new friends and they introduced me to this girl named Lindsey. It was low-key. Just friends at first.
Lindsey had an odd accent. Her ‘Rs’ were like those of a child first learning to speak, sounding more like sad “Ws.” Everything else rode on a slow and heavy lisp. But I could understand everything she said. She was funny and intense and had eyes like a hurricane sky. And she constantly touched my chin to make sure we were looking into each other’s souls as we talked. It was romantic, exotic even.
At least I thought it was until one December afternoon. We were hanging Christmas lights at my Mom’s house. It was windy and cold, and I was in a hurry to get back inside for more face-to-face snuggle-time. Lindsey had been handing me light brackets while I stood on the ladder. But she stopped after I asked her to open a new box. I asked her again. She bent down like she was tying her shoe. I climbed off my perch to see what she was doing, and I found her sobbing. But Lindsey was not sad. She was furious. At me.
I had been talking to her while looking away, she said. The bone head I was – I still did not get it. She didn’t have a phone. We only had daytime dates. She talked funny.
It hit me like a fist to the forehead. All that romantic eye-contact was nothing more than her need to read my lips. Man, I was a dumbass. I was almost-dating someone who was deaf, and I was too self-absorbed to even notice. I just thought she was different.
She left. I sulked. Now, this was years before text messaging was invented, so to grovel I had to go to her house, in person, and get past the gatekeeper – her mom. I didn’t make it far. Her mother handed me a letter and told me to go home and read it. It was sweet. I was a moron. We reconnected later that week and ended up having a relationship that lasted about six months. We made some nice memories that I’ll always cherish. It didn’t end well, but that’s a story for another blog post.
We take our culture of distraction, on the most basic level as people who can hear, for granted. Not to say that we are better off for having functioning ears. More the opposite. There is a level of intimacy, one that I’ll never understand, that comes with interacting with a hearing-impaired person. Yes, that sounds insensitive. And maybe it is, but I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone to be stuck inside their own head 24/7. To be that close to yourself. It makes me shiver.
Music is going, in some form, for about 80% of my waking hours. And I do this to keep some of the thoughts away, or at bay. To keep them from driving me off. If I didn’t have music I’d go insane. Or maybe I’d be a truly thoughtful and introspective person. But, that sounds dark and horrifying. I need noise.
About a week after I chickened out with the Good Morning thing, Hunter showed up in a different car, a non-Volvo. I jumped at the chance to talk to him about it. After a quick and dirty ASL internet lesson, I went and found him. I asked, sans phones, and in my best broken-ASL where his car was. He didn’t miss a beat and went right into signing-for-dummies (for my sake) and explained to me that it was at home because the transmission was broken. I asked him if he knew how to fix it and he said that he did – he was going to take parts from one of his other dead cars and get the wagon back on the road.
Hunter didn’t berate me or reply with a forehead-fist-bounce (the slang sign for dumbass). Really, he didn’t care. We just talked. About cars. Like people.
Since I was old enough to make decisions for myself I have lived my life based on Boolean logic. I suspect most use a similar conditional flow or ternary operation to govern thought and action.
If A equals B then C. If A equals Else then Else.
A = personal condition
B = action taken
C = result
Else = unexpected bullshit
If I’m unhappy with my health, I’ll eat better. Then I’ll feel better. (Magic)
If I’m dissatisfied with my job, I’ll get a better one. Then I’ll be satisfied.
It’s always worked for me. That is – until about six years ago. Something changed.
For some reason, getting out of bed in the mornings became a monumental task. Not just an “ugh I’m a non-morning person whiney-pants.” No this was a “maybe I can call in sick today and just become one with my sheets and the cats. I’ll read and write and catch up with friends on social media. I’ll be so recharged that I’ll be back to normal.”
It was weird.
So, I called on good ol’ George Boole(author of the 1854 book The Laws of Thought)– my If/Then buddy, to help me out.
If I’m feeling unmotivated, I’ll get up and do a kickass day anyway. Then I’ll feel motivated.
I got up. Drank some coffee. Read the New York Times (the whole thing). Took a shower (real hot, so long). Did the rest of my morning routine and drove to work. I sat in the parking lot of a job I liked. Where I got to do stuff I liked. And got paid well to do said stuff. I sat there for almost another hour. It took a combined effort of every cell in my body, working in unison, to make my muscles move and open the car door.
I went on in to work and had a fine time. But all day, all I could think about was not my loving wife, quirky-cool kids, great house, or my lottery-winning social situation. It was my bed – and the question, “how many hours/minutes would pass until I could get back in it?”
Something was off. This became my new normal. So, since insanity runs in my family, I kept riding the If/Then train.
If I call in sick today, then I can get a day to recharge, go to the gym and have some space to breathe. I’ll just bargain with myself every day – “just go in today, see if you feel better. If not take tomorrow off.” Sometimes I took tomorrow off. I never felt better.
I kept at it.
If I take this job at a cutting-edge tech company, I can finally feel respected in my profession.
If we plan a nice vacation, I’ll have something to look forward to.
If I buy this old car that all my friends think is cool, I can finally fit in with a group of people.
If I write a novel, I can get the demons out.
If I finish a novel, I’ll feel like I achieved something. (If writing a novel was easy, everyone would do it. Man, there are a ton of new books coming out every month. Maybe it is easy. Why is it so hard for me?)
If my writing gets chosen to be reviewed in New York by industry professionals (it did), I’ll be over the moon(I wasn’t).
If my Writing gets me to New York, I can finally be taken seriously by and fit in with a group of people.
Side note here – I finished a novel and feel like a fraud. I took it to New York and received validation that I’m not a hack and even left with two interested agents waiting on my move. Now I feel like an even bigger fraud (go figure).
If I could refocus my priorities and sell my car projects, buy a grown-up car, maybe I’ll feel more like an adult who has something to give back to the world.
If I had a strong mentor (I do), my writing could take off and really sing, man, sing like the sirens(ugh).
If I could stop eating meat, I could be more literal in my love and respect for animals
If I could get off these antidepressants my memory will get stronger and therefore my writing will improve (and maybe I wouldn’t cry at the Allstate insurance commercials – poor Allstate guy lives in someone’s attic, as a racoon, surviving on fiberglass insulation for Pete’s sake).
If I stayed off Twitter I would not be so sad for our country all the time
If I sit in the car for five more minutes and listen to the NPR piece about innovations in recycling glass, I’ll feel better about my recycling.
If I stay in bed for five more minutes, I’ll feel like getting up and taking on the day.
If I don’t open my eyes when the alarm goes off, I don’t have to get out of bed.
Through this process, I’ve veered off the path of finding out who I am, what I’m into, what I care about, why I even get out of bed in the morning. That’s why it’s so hard to get out of bed. I don’t know why I’m doing it.
What’s the point? If nothing helps me feel like there’s purpose to all of this, why try? Is this what we are supposed to do? Have I conditioned myself to “like” the things I like? Is that all being happy is? Conditioned satisfaction?
When I crack my car window at stop light to listen to a finely tuned Porsche next to me, is that just muscle memory? Are the tingles on my skin a conditioned response? Do I even like cars?
When I am filled with rage and embarrassment after reading a passage from Infinite Jest, am I truly humbled by the genius of Wallace’s writing or have I been conditioned to think that is the proper way to feel? I mean if you don’t feel insignificant after reading DFW who the fuck are you anyway? Not a person that’s for sure. Maybe you are a tree. Maybe I am a tree.
A tree who has a loving wife, amazing kids, a nice house, and a stable job that I don’t hate. Nothing to be sad about. And I’m not sad. Just uninterested in life. What’s my problem?
I suffer from high-functioning depression.
It’s a thing. And I won’t go so far as to say its normal, but it exists in me and I’m sure others as well.
So, if this is your normal – constant deal-making with yourself and scheming (screaming) to find a sliver of happy – you are not alone.
I don’t have the cure(obviously), but I have a plan. I’m going to be more mindful of what is happening to me and what I’m happening to. I’m going to label it. Put a pin in it and stick it on the cork board. I’m going to try meditation, yoga and maybe I can think my way out of it. Did I mention insanity runs in my family?
I’m not getting younger, but I have plenty of years left and I’ll be damned if I’m going to live them as a tree. Nothing against trees. They make nice oxygen. And shade.
I know how I am going to die. Like rock salt from a shotgun, the information hits me not all at once, but in stinging little pockets, searing into me the final piece of my future. The bits and pieces come together to form a nightmare I wish I could forget. Every day, sometimes many times, always inconvenient, I relive that which has yet to come. But there it is, like an old friend, reminding me.
The sinus numbing impact on the right side of my cranium comes first. Cracking, the bone conforms to something more resilient, more commanding of the need for space. As my skull gives way to a mass of pitted metal, bits of soil and rust fill my nostrils, pepper my eyes. On a hard exhale, involuntary to make room for fresh oxygen, ride human noise – primal, unmistakable. A desperate inhale stops short as my throat fills with cerebrospinal fluid. I choke on it. It’s acidic and thick. It doesn’t hurt. All I know is I can’t breathe and my head feels funny.
Life is floating, rotating, like a planet circling a star. One trip around is all we get. When the ride is over, after we made the revolution, we are supposed to get off and let the next paying customer have a go. But what happens when we stay on past our turn? The ride keeps going, making extra runs, taking us to places we’ve been – or places we should have gone but didn’t. Showing us the ghosts of things forgotten or the edges of a close call. The girl, the job, the path not taken, the death designed just special but snubbed, by chance.
Are these memories of things that could not possibly have happened? The person I know, I know, but can’t place. The feeling of predicting with accuracy, what is happening, play-by-play, milliseconds in advance. That stab in the gut telling me to turn around but for what unknown. The “I got a bad feeling about this” feeling.
The older I get the more I feel like I’m not supposed to be here. It’s like I’ve taken somebody else’s place, walking in somebody else’s shoes, doing a job I am unqualified to entertain.
I should have died as a baby, with a failed heart. But, with 1972 technology, my pulmonary valve was stretched open (after two tries) and deemed “repaired.” After a slit wrist while horsing around in high school, an unsuccessful mugging in college, a heart valve replacement ten years ago, and I’m sure too may close calls while intoxicated, I’ve had plenty of chances to just die, already.
I am living, wandering through life – trying to make it through another day without looking for a reason. Because the reason is lost on me. Yet here I am waiting for my skull to be crushed.
Hello, Friend. My story has changed significantly over the last six months. One major shift is my hero’s POV. He’s now written in first person. Here’s a little taste, somewhere around chapter 6 of The Dimming. Enjoy!
The streetcar moaned down to slow shag in front of the colleges, across from Audubon Park. Daggers on the cathedral spires pierced the arbor blanket and disappeared. I hopped off the car. Churches, in the old century, gave people hope. I needed more than hope. I needed a friendly face. I did not have the courage to call Olivia. Not yet.
Under foot, the marble steps leading up to The Holy Name of Jesus felt solid, unwavering on the muddy foundation. I pulled on the thick doors and let the scent of old wood and sweat wash over me. I dipped in the holy water.
My sneakers’ rubber soles squeaked as I snuck in, amplified by the cavernous shape of the building. The pews stretched out in aggravating symmetry, perfect with even wear where centuries of foolish-faithful backsides had left their marks. Stained glass drew blobs on the tile. Father Labone presided over a congregation of four, now five, from the altar. His face lit as he saw me. I sat and waited.
Father Labone’s droning Latin cuddled me back to my days in school. Andy and I used to sit in the pews just behind the confessional and listen to all the sins of our friends. All the lies. All the bullshit. It’s funny how, when confronted with the opportunity of complete absolution, we still lie. In the sixth grade, a boy we grammared with named Kyle used to finger-bang the hell out of Anna-Maria Knox after school. As two consenting children, it was not a big deal. Not until his mom found out. She made him promise to confess. Kyle agreed. Yet in the confessional, all he gave up was that the used to kick the neighbor’s cat when no one was around. Anna Maria didn’t believe in confessions. Kyle died trying to scale the Hanja wall a year later.
Labone. He would have the answer. He would understand.
After the worshippers filed out the side door, the good vicar motioned for me to join him. He disappeared into the sacristy. Whirring from the organ compressor vibrated the floor and the player warmed the pipes with chords in D minor. The guts of a Catholic church are most beautiful when empty. I walked up the steps, preforming the requisite genuflection as I crossed paths with the cold stare of the wooden man on the wooden cross. I ducked through curtains of thick velvet. Cool piles brushed my skin.
“Back here,” A muffled Labone replied.
Labone disrobed while I waited, revealing his obligatory uniform of a priest’s collar and faded jeans. He was never a proponent of rules. In school, he taught us that bad words were just words like any other. I thought he was so crisp back then, so cool and even. A man of the cloth needs his vices like any other man. Be it profanity or flesh or mind altering substances, we all need a thing that we do in private, just to feel like something, anything, is our own.
He pulled me in for a firm hug.
“What brings you into the church today, Ethan? How’s your father?”
My face must have answered his questions as I retreated from his embrace. His expression changed before I could even muster a word. “He’s gone,” I added to the thick buzz of the organ. Lacrimosa flowed from the pipes.
“I’m sorry for your dad. I was half-expecting him to pass on his last rights, anyway. He was an obstinate fucker,” Labone chuckled, “I trust it was quick?” he trailed off.
Quick. Was it? Or did I push him out with pain and dread? I added that to my list of unanswered questions.
“Fancy a smoke?” Labone walked down three stairs at the end of the room and unlatched the heavy door, pushing in outward. It creaked and dragged the ground, adding to the arc in the marble.
A smoke sounded nice. I hadn’t been out of my mind in a long while. I followed him through the door and up the musty stairwell three stories, winding to his chambers. As an altar boy, I had wondered what was behind the big brown door, where Father Labone disappeared after Mass. Now I knew.
His one room cell was small and simple. Bed, sink, toilet. The single window in the south tower overlooked the brittle crust of The City. He pulled up two chairs in the center and we sat. He packed a bowl of hash. I studied the grain in the wood underfoot.
“It’s older than the trees on St. Charles,” he said, clinking his lighter against the dove-shaped glass pipe.
“This church, and everything in it,” he lit, “A survivor,” he said with strained breath as he pulled in a chestfull of grass. He coughed and continued, “It’s nice to have someone to smoke with. I mean, being a clergyman exempts me from those little microscopic mechanical nightmares you have swimming in your blood and allows me to enjoy things such as this without repercussions. But with whom? Who the fuck wants to smoke-out with another priest? And Sister Cecilia is such a Goddamn prude, I can’t even get her to play mahjong, much less get high. It’s just me and the floorboards around here. Quite lonely.”
He passed me the bong and I hit it.
Sorrow for my fellow citizens oozed out in the release. For most, this act initiated immediate vomiting, ringing in the ears, piercing headache. Even though I had deselected the consequence boxes in my firmware, the first pull always made me pucker. I held it in, letting my lungs absorb, pushing back the urge to cough. A cough forces the chemicals, skipping the best part of the high – the gradual fade into depollution. I blew a column out and up. I shut my eyes as Labone took the pipe and resumed his THC-induced soliloquy.
“I’ve started to wonder, you know, why – why I ever got into this business. Back in the day, before the walls and the one-in-one-out populous act, I felt I was doing my part to keep us all honest. The idea of a loving, but firm God used to be enough. Like a stern parent. He loves you, but he will beat your ass till it bleeds if you step out of line. But he still cares. I’m beginning to question, you know, to ask myself, in quiet, if he is even listening. Much less if he cares.”
I opened my eyes a pinch and watched him load another bowl. He leaned in.
“You okay, Hammond?”
“I’m good. Just taking in the thrill.” In fact, it felt like I was meeting my hero for the first time, only not in the traditional sense. More like I had walked in on him taking a dump.
Labone turned up the volume on his words, “everyone knows God is an astronaut, man. He’s out there floating around in some sort of a prehistoric space-suit, wishing he could do something about this petri dish of horror shows and unthinkables. But he’s stuck like you and me. You and me and all of us. He’s not coming to help us and, I think, the people are starting to figure that out. You saw my congregation today. Empty faces, the few that came in. Same ones every day. This place is one missed payment away from becoming a museum of what we used to believe. That would get people in the door. But only to laugh at point at the fools we all once were.”
Labone took another rip on the shimmering dove of happiness. I’d never smoked with him and the results startled me. No longer did he stand with confidence and answers. He slouched in his chair, spilling his guts about his doubts, about everything. The only way we can know if our heroes are fit to be heroes is to see them from the inside and look out through their eyes. Labone had given me a glimpse of life through his lens. Scared, unsure, and alone. He was like me. He was me. Can you be your own hero?
As the line between entertainment and news blurs, Americans’ demand for actual facts has diminished in favor of sound bites, sometimes even settling on a meme as actual reporting. In the weeks following the massacre in Sandy Hook, I had a heated conversation with a friend who claimed it was a hoax initiated by the President to catalyze his anti-gun agenda. While presenting my friend with articles and links from respected news sources (NYT, LA Times, The Tribune, etc.) showing his outlandish ideas to be false, he claimed that his source held the actual truth and that all other agencies reporting on it were playing catch-up. His source – a single YouTube video put together not by trained journalists, but by a group of conspiracy theorists.
YouTube is an entertainment site. It’s a great place to watch cat videos, life-hacks, and train wrecks, but increasingly Americans are turning to their preferred media outlet as a catch-all for entertainment and news. Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, or any other app-supported pastime, the news is getting buried under quick-hit flash headlines that are taken at face value by the consumer. This is alarming. We all have a built-in Confirmation Bias and seek to consume “news” that we already agree with. Conservatives watch Fox and Liberals enjoy MSNBC for this reason. Both outlets pander. No surprise there. The issue growing right in front of us is that television, terrestrial or cable, is fighting a dying death against a more powerful technology – the smartphone.
So what can broadcast news outlets do to hang on? When the stations, local or national, get a few moments of our attention, they attempt to emulate what we see on our phones as we sit on the toilet or on the train. Quick headlines with little to zero fact backup and interviews full of lies floated as truth without a hint of push-back from the journalists are becoming commonplace. If one wants to fact-check something, there are a few places to go for unbiased information (factcheck.org, politifact.org, and others) but that requires more effort and, more importantly, a willingness to turn off our embedded confirmation bias. Preparing yourself to learn that your opinion is, in fact, wrong is not easy. No one likes to be misled by their personal choices. We must look inward and demand the truth. Fewer of us do this due to the way we consume our media. It is spoon fed to us by the outlets we choose and the entertainers we follow online. We have become lazy. And when confronted with opposing views, another phenomenon can strengthen the resolve to push back. The Backfire effect.
In 2005, The University of Michigan conducted a study wherein participants were presented with false magazine articles about subjects like the WMDs in Iraq, stem cell research, and tax reform. After the columns had been read, the participants were then presented with the factual articles, laying out the truth. The results showed that not only did the false articles support confirmation bias, but when presented with the facts (WMDs were never found, stem cells don’t come from aborted fetuses, and trickle-down economics has historically never worked), the beliefs of many involved in the study strengthened in the favor of the misinformation. This is the Backfire effect. We believe what we want to believe and when presented with conflicting information, we tend to believe it even harder. Why? It is threatening to be told we are wrong. It hurts.
Our current election cycle is ripe with misinformation on both sides and we should have seen this coming. Yes, blame can be laid at the feet of the technology, but it will move forward either way; there is no stopping it. We must take back the responsibility to be well informed. When I was growing up, the ten o’clock news was a stop-down in every household. So was the morning paper. Our parents got their news from reliable sources – ethical journalists, reporters, and news readers – on a daily basis and there was no need to go looking for a way to fact check or debunk a news organization. They had earned our trust. Now, much of what we consider news is just twisted words stuck on an unflattering picture of a politician put forth by someone with an opinion. And looking for facts is just hard. Please, do the work. The next four years is hanging in the balance.