Time to Put the “Social” Back in “Social Media”

A couple years back, a liberal writer friend of mine suggested we work together on a project: we’d take a cross country trip and keep a journal of our discussions. His elevator pitch: “What would a conservative and liberal talk about in the car on a road trip?”

I told him I presumed I would talk about the usual things I discuss with my liberal friends. Sports, movies, music, sandwiches, girls, work, funny drinking stories, how I got the scars I have, why dogs are great, mustaches, World War I, Twitter, Harley Davidson motorcycles, what animals you think you can beat in a fight, etc.  All the usual stuff.

In short, everything but politics.

(Also, this “cross country, cross-ideology road trip” idea was the conceit behind Michael Ian Black and Meghan McCain’s book, “America, You Sexy Bitch,” which I keep on hand in the event I ever plunge into depression thinking nobody will ever publish my book.)

The lesson, of course, is that as regular people moving around in the world, we all have interests that may overlap or diverge, but that have nothing to do with political affiliation. It’s find to have an ideology, but honestly – people who identify themselves politically before everything else are a total bore.

I was just thinking about this in the wake of rock star Chris Cornell’s shocking and saddening suicide last week. On social media, Cornell’s fans began to emerge to express their sadness and pay tribute – and it crossed ideological and cultural lines in way few things on Twitter or Facebook do.

I was particularly struck by an ode to Cornell written by conservative Weekly Standard writer Mark Hemingway, who I’ve always enjoyed following on Twitter. On most things we align politically, but sometimes we don’t.

But aside from politics, who knew Hemingway played in a rock band in Seattle in the early 1990s, or that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of grunge music? How many conservative writers can painstakingly break down the unique time signatures of Soundgarden’s biggest hits?

As a lifelong Cornell fan, I immediately felt a kinship with Hemingway in a way I never had before. And the same goes with progressives that began popping up on my social media timelines telling their stories about their Chris Cornell fandom. I’ve reached out to some of them and been able to talk about a common interest I never expected to share with them. (In 1992, I saw Soundgarden in Milwaukee when they shared a bill with Blind Melon and Neil Young; it was just after Cornell shaved off his famous long locks of hair, and thinking he looked awesome, I went right home and did the same thing. He looked like a badass – I looked like an eraser.)

That’s what makes Twitter and other social media venues such an odd thing; people are so desperate to lord their moral superiority over others, we miss out on the things we actually have in common. How many of the same people out there that are quick to slam my politics would have fun sitting and talking about how I think Pee Wee’s Great Adventure is the pinnacle of American movie making? Or my theories about how one day plastic surgery is going to be so good, we won’t be able to tell the young from the old, and people who look like teenagers are just going to start dropping dead in the streets? (That one’s kind of a thinker.)

I mean, I’m proud of being a libertarian-leaning conservative; but it’s really a small part of the things that comprise my brain. It seems we spend most of our time fighting over a small percentage of who we are, and we’re missing out on all the other connective tissue that makes us a society. We’re neglecting the “social” part of “social media.”

Of course, there are no people more irritating than the “can’t we all get along” hippies that complain about gridlock. It is incumbent on people who have ideas about government to fight for their convictions, and conflict is an important part of the system of checks and balances. As the saying goes, if you think government runs too slow, wait ’til you see the damage done by one that acts too fast.

But for too many people, politics is now all we know about them, and it makes them far easier to dismiss. Cardboard cutouts are easy to knock down – if you think people aren’t interested in your thoughts about culture or movies or music, you’re wrong. And you might be missing and important connection with someone who shares your thoughts, as weird as they may be. We’re all riding in cars of our own ideologies, never slowing down to meet the other travelers on the road to ask what they’re listening to.

In the early days of the internet, scientists marveled at its potential to bring people together; instead, it has fractured us over political lines. Or, as David Burge put it in a profound set of tweets in January, “10-15 years ago, the internet connected me with best friends I never knew; now it’s the least pleasant thing in my life.”

As Burge correctly counseled, “Shared politics are shitty basis for a friendship.” So stand up and fight for what you believe in, but always remember – literally the least interesting thing about you is your politics.

My Best Albums of 2016

Another year, another list of my favorite albums.  As always, these have been carefully selected through a strict scientific method; now that I have taken the lab coat off and turned off all the Bunsen burners, these are the 10 albums the formula yielded.  It’s just science.

10. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book”

All year, friends had been telling me to listen to this album, and I’m really happy I finally gave in.  A groundbreaking album in the “gospel hip-hop” genre, it’s steeped in the optimism America needs right now.

“Summer Friends”

9.  Laura Gibson, “Empire Builder”

My love for Laura Gibson is well documented.  Over a year ago, her New York home burned down, taking many of her valuable instruments with it.  I contributed to the fund to replace her belongings – now I’m just hoping I make her year-end Top 10 list of favorite fanboys.

“Caldera, Oregon”

8.  Mitski, “Puberty II”

This song will make you cry. That is all.

“Your Best American Girl”

7. Thee Oh Sees, “A Weird Exits”

Unapologetic psychedelic rock devoid of nuance.  They manage the rare feat of capturing the frantic energy of their live shows on their recordings.

“Gelatinous Cube”

6. Petal, “Shame”

Catchy guitar-driven pop from singer-songwriter Kiley Lotz of Scranton, PA.  Came out in January of 2016 and remained a lock for my Top 10 all year.

“Heaven”

5. Tribe Called Quest, “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”

Tribe has been out of the public spotlight for more than a decade, so it’s not like the public was clamoring for a new album.  But that makes “We got it from Here…” all the more impressive.  They had something to say and came back to say it – it doesn’t feel at all like a cash grab that you see from lesser acts.  Plus, the world needed to hear the late Phife Dawg one last time.

“We the People”

4. Russian Circles, “Guidance”

Instrumental, emotional nerd metal.

“Vorel”

3. Bleached, “Welcome the Worms”

Another stellar guitar-pop album from L.A. based Bleached.  Every song an earworm, front to back.

“Wednesday Night Melody”

2. Avalanches, “Wildflower”

A sprawling album in which each song winds into the next, mixing disco, hip-hop, soul and general silliness.  While not quite as good as the Australian band’s 2000 debut, it’s great to have them back after 16 years.

“Because I’m Me”

1. Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”

I know, I know – “White Guy in 40’s Likes Radiohead Album” isn’t exactly breaking news.  But the album deserves all the praise heaped on it during the year – it checks all the boxes that make an album great. And the fact that Radiohead is still breaking new ground after two decades makes it all the more remarkable.

“Burn the Witch”

The Perils of Being “Almost Famous”

Almost_Famous

The first Sunday I appeared on television as a political commentator, I was also scheduled to attend a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game later in the day.  It was March of 2008, and the show was on in the morning, while the game was in the afternoon.

Before the game started, I wondered whether anyone would actually recognize me from the show – it was, after all, on one of the four major networks in the Milwaukee TV market.  What if I said something someone didn’t like and they took a swing at me?  What if people wanted to talk to me about politics?  I briefly considered wearing some sort of disguise.

When I got to the game, in looking for my seats, I walked from one end of the stadium to the other.  I received not a single look, not a comment.  I then retraced my steps, walking the length of the stadium and back again.  Still nothing.  It appears my instant fame had somehow gone missing.

I would soon join a small, but interesting subset of people in the media: those who work in the public eye, but aren’t actually “famous.”

Humorist John Hodgman describes himself as a “minor celebrity.”  This is apt – he has a small, but intensely loyal following (among which I count myself).  But on the rungs of fame, there are people who are even below “minor.”  They are the people who live normal lives, who have regular jobs, but whose faces are in public from time to time.  They aren’t “famous,” they are merely “recognizable.”

Until last week, I hadn’t even been in the “hey, you’re that guy from that thing” crowd.  But a dad at my daughter’s basketball game started pointing at me and saying my name over and over.  It was the first time I had ever been recognized in public, and I pray that it’s the last.

I’ve had friends point out that complaining about being noticed in public is a “humblebrag.”  But being a marginally notable person is frequently unsettling.  Before people meet you, they often have preconceived notions of what you’re like and how you think.  I’ve had total strangers recite back personal facts I’ve written in my blogs that I had forgotten I long ago disclosed.

For the few people who know who you are, your public persona always precedes you – and you never know who might admire your work and who can’t stand you.  But they’re out there in the public, walking among us, and it’s impossible to tell who they are.

I’ve had local TV reporter friends tell me horrifying stories of people approaching them in the grocery store, commenting on their appearance or on-air demeanor.  Lisa Manna, who used to be a morning anchor in Green Bay, told me she once received a manila envelope filled with pornographic pictures.  The eyes were scribbled out and her name was written on the women.  The pictures were accompanied by a letter detailing the things this man would do to her, which earned her a police escort to work. And of course, this is all for a job that doesn’t pay a great deal – working in TV news isn’t exactly a license to print money.  Stations know there’s always someone else coming up the ranks willing to do your job for cheaper.

One female reporter who does frequent live reports from downtown told me there are some people who will watch the broadcast, then rush over to where she is to confront her about something she reported.  The most annoying thing, she said, is being recognized when she’s in an awkward place – like, sick at the doctor or at the gym after working out.

And, of course, in my line of work, not everyone is favorably inclined to your work.  Small cadres of anonymous critics frequently whip up online fiction in an attempt to demean me.  The comments sections on my stories are always full of people thinking I’m corrupt, or bought and sold by this group or that group.

Would they say that to my face?  Do I actually unknowingly talk to any of these people on a regular basis in real life?  It’s entirely possible – I’ve had creepy anonymous commenters say they’ve known me from working with me in the past, before they rip me in their diatribes.  Did I ever actually really know that person? I’ll never know – but they’re using our alleged interactions to bolster their supposed knowledge of how I “really” am.

These are the times when I think it would be nice to have a job that wasn’t so public.  I’ve often dreamed of a life just making sandwiches at Cousin’s Subs, where people wouldn’t flock to the internet to deride my hoagie making skills.  Would be nice to be able to accomplish something at work without being accused of being under the influence of Big Mustard.

Typically, being a notable person is seen as a trade-off; you put up with people recognizing you in exchange for wealth or influence.  But trust me, the marginally recognizable enjoy neither of these advantages.  Surely, Leonardo DiCaprio has his critics – but he can blow them off by spending a weekend churning through a private island stocked with super models.  The merely notable are resigned to having a drink, rolling up in a blanket, and watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, helping him in his quest to buy an extra island.

I do have several advantages, however.  The picture that accompanies my photo in the newspaper was taken before I needed glasses.  And as Superman has taught us, throw on a pair of thick rims and literally nobody – not even your love interests – can recognize you any more.  Also, I am frequently unshaven, looking as if I was off to do some modeling for the “JC Penney for Hobos” catalog.  (I also look like a lot of other people – if I ever got any public comment, I assume it would be someone saying, “man, Keanu’s really let himself go.”)

Oddly, enough, ancillary stardom is something more and more people now seek.  Young women armed with only cell phones now become “Instagram models,” which seems a little bit like being a “Twitter comedian” or “Facebook novelist.”  It used to be that one would create something worthy of notoriety, then benefit from that exposure.  Now, more people seem to believe fame is an end in itself.  Not for me.

Of course, none of this is enough to keep me from doing what I love for a living.  But being someone that other people form public opinions about is something I’m still getting used to – maybe I never will.  Until then, I’ll keep being a walking contradiction – a newspaper columnist that doesn’t particularly like attention.

Why I Love Being Old

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“Youth,” Oscar Wilde once said, “is the one thing worth having.”

As I exited my youth and aged into my thirties, and now forties, I felt much the same.  How nice it would be to once again get out of bed without my ankles shooting pain through my legs.  My belly button has begun to flee my abdomen as if it had just robbed a bank.  At age 42, a good bit of every day is devoted simply to being a human in the world – exercising, trying to eat well, finding new places I need to shave – all things one takes for granted in the prime of youth.  I feel like they should build a statue of me outside my house every time I successfully get my socks on.

But while most of our culture is geared towards making me feel terrible about succumbing to the horrors of aging, I’m starting to feel good about getting old.  In fact, I wouldn’t swap being 42 for being 21 for anything in the world.

So I thought I’d jot down some of the benefits of being a near-senior citizen.  Y’know, before I forget them all.

Having Money

Most of my early 20’s were spent with all my possessions in the back of my car, and all my money paper-clipped together in an envelope.  I worked primarily as a waiter, stuffing dollar bills in my back pocket after a shift.  I had no credit, no bank account, and couldn’t afford to pay attention.  The extent of my money management skills was knowing it was better to bounce one big check rather than a series of smaller checks, since you only have to pay the one-time bad check fee.

When you’re old, those days have passed – you typically have savings, can afford to eat, and can pay for a stable roof over your head.  I can buy the car I want, rather than my dad paying the neighbors $200 for a rusted-out 1981 Chevette with a bumper sticker that says “I Brake for Unicorns.”

And, of course, having money leads to…

Drinking Better Alcohol

There’s a reason I perfected the art of bonging cheap beer in college – because it was typically terrible, and I wanted to get it in my stomach with as little interaction with my taste buds as possible.
But when you’re old, you have no time for bad alcohol.  (That is, unless you are trying to be an Ironic Drinker, in which case the worse the beer, the higher your stature.)

The secret of “old drinking” is that the more expensive the booze you buy, the less of a hangover you end up with.  Drink all the 12-year old scotch you want – a couple of ibuprofen before you go to bed, and you wake up ready to wrestle an alligator.  If college students figured this out, it would bankrupt them all.

Old drinking is also preferable because people don’t judge you nearly as much for engaging in it.  If you drink a lot when you’re young, people worry about its long-term effects; it could cost you jobs, relationships, and keep you from reaching your potential.

However, once everyone sees you’ve pretty much maxed out on the potential scale, you’re free to pickle yourself as you see fit.  When you’re young, you drink to make new memories.  When you’re old, you drink to forget the memories you’ve made.

Once you hit 40, drinking at home isn’t a sign of loneliness, it’s an adorable personality quirk that doesn’t really hurt anyone.  People aren’t like, “aw, now poor Christian’s never going to be an astronaut,” they’re more like, “yeah, seems about right.”

Aristotle once said that “young people are in a condition like permanent intoxication.”  Clearly he said that before he turned 40 and he was in a state of actual permanent intoxication.

Knowing Things

Whenever I go back and read a column I wrote just a week earlier, I think of all the things I learned in the days since it was published.  And it feels like someone else entirely wrote the column.  I picture myself just a week earlier, being naïve about how the world works and not really knowing what I was talking about.

Now multiply this by a thousand weeks, and you get a sense of how much I feel I’ve learned in the past 20 years.  Would I give up all the things I’ve seen, all the events I’ve experienced, and the books I’ve read just to be young again?  Of course not.  To surrender my experiences would be to entirely change who I am now, which is way too risky of a proposition.

That’s not to suggest young people don’t know things.  I’m just partial to the things that I know.

The Wooderson Effect

Everyone remember the famous Wooderson line from Dazed and Confused – “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man – I get older, they stay the same age.”

What Matthew McConaughey’s creepy-but-still-cool character doesn’t realize at the time is that his own perception of the opposite sex will change as he gets older.

When you’re a young man, you’re obviously attracted to girls your own age – older women seem out of reach. (This seems different for young women, who are more open to dating older men.)  If you’re a 25 year old guy who prefers 40-year old women, you’re viewed as kind of a weirdo. But as you age, you begin to find women your own age attractive – your preferences grow older along with you.

So when you get to your 40s, more people are attractive.  Younger women are attractive, older women are attractive. Part of it is, the older you get and the more flaws you recognize in yourself, the more accepting of other peoples’ flaws you become.  Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where “My Cousin Vinny” Marisa Tomei and “The Wrestler” Marisa Tomei can exist in harmony?

No Wasting Time

In my 20s, I spent a lot of time experimenting with things out of my comfort zone.  I listened to all the music I could get my hands on, no matter how avant garde; at one point in college, I found myself listening to a CD of a German band who made music by banging on shopping carts with spoons.

When you’re old, you no longer need to pretend to be into things you’re not.  You are free to do what you wish with the few remaining years you have on this earth.  If all your young hipster friends demand that you like The National, you just shrug, and say “not for me” and move on.  Your time left on this mortal coil is too valuable to dabble in ephemera.  And especially not when “The Bachelor” is on.

Kids

When you’re older, you get to have children.  And the wonder of having kids narrowly cancels out the glory of not having them.

People generally think that having and raising children is a selfless act.  But it’s the exact opposite – having children is the ultimate act of vanity.  For old people, making children is the eternal selfie; you’re cementing your legacy for eternity with little people who look just like you.

Further, having kids immediately brings clarity and focus to your life.  No matter how disjointed or scattered your life was up to that point, once a child emerges, you know exactly what the purpose of your life is.  From then on, you cease to be the author of your own biography – your life story is being written by a 10-pound human.  And your only reason for existing is to take care of that mini-you.  You could pay a life coach a million dollars and they wouldn’t convince you to get your shit together like a baby does.

Feigning Ignorance of Technology

Even if you’re old and technologically savvy, you can always use your age to get you out of uncomfortable situations.  If someone from work texts you with immediate instructions, take your time – you can always say something like, “all these blinking lights confuse me!” or “what’s this internet I read about in the newspaper?”

People Listen to You

For some reason,  when you’re old, people automatically assume you know what you’re talking about.
It is true, that when you age, you have perspective.  If any one emotion characterizes youth, it is the belief that one is the axis upon which the universe turns.  But the older you get, the more you see the world around you and grasp your relative insignificance.  It’s nice knowing that fads will come and go, and the world will not cease to exist.  You just sip your expensive alcohol and enjoy the ride.

Connection to a Specific Time

Perhaps this one is more personal, but not only do I like being old, I like being old exactly at this time in history.  It means I got to be in college during a revolutionary era in popular entertainment – the “grunge” era – when artistry and skill was actually valued.  I wouldn’t trade the experience of being body passed to Jane’s Addiction at the first Lollapalooza for Mumford, his Sons, or his Grandsons.

I love that I grew up before the internet, so I know what it’s like to not have to feel like I’m missing out on every news story, joke or meme.  I can find my way to places without using GPS, and I can have arguments without having to dive into my iPhone for information to back me up.  I love that when I was ten, my parents would kick me out of the house with instructions only to be back by dinner time – a practice that led to a great deal of tree climbing, garter snake handling, fort building, and basketball shooting.

Christopher Hitchens wrote that “A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.”  It is true, nobody will know you like the friends that you had when you were kids.  They’ve seen you at your best and your worst, and kept you around for all of it.

But being older and having a strong connection to a specific era with someone else is actually a pretty decent stand-in for long-term friendship.  Meeting someone your age and realizing they, too, thought Pearl Jam was overrated is a solid foundation for future friendship; and the older you are, the more cultural touchstones you are able to share with other people.

So yeah, being old is good, but being old in 2016 is even better.

George Bernard Shaw is often credited with saying something along the lines of, “youth is wasted on the young.”  But I, for one, refuse to accept this as my fate.  The young can have their youth – I have my memories. If only I could remember them.

Albums of the year, 2014

Well look at that – it’s album of the year time again already.  My full discussion of these picks will soon be up at our podcast website, but here’s a quick look at my list.

10.  Grouper – Ruins

9. Beck – Morning Phase

8. Ex Hex – Rips

7. Jeremy Messersmith – Heart Murmurs

6. Alvvays – Alvvays

5.  St. Vincent – St. Vincent

4.  Wye Oak – Shriek

3.  Real Estate – Atlas

2. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else

1. Ty Segall – Manipulator

Some First-Rate Detective Work

As part of a potential work project, I’ve been going through some old newspapers from 1916.  Of course, there are plenty of odd anachronisms that catch one’s eye while reading papers from a century ago.  But this story, which is absolutely true, really caught my eye.  It’s from the February 11, 1916 Milwaukee Sentinel.

According to the article, Milwaukee police detectives Jacob Laubenheimer and Harry Ridenour were paging through the newspaper one day when they saw the following advertisement:

“Wanted: Strong, husky young men as private detectives.  Opportunity to travel all over the world.  Apply at Asiatic Pacific Detective agency, Room 713, Majestic Building.”

Thinking the ad was a bit too good to be true, Laubenheimer and Ridenour headed down to the agency to pose as potential enrollees.  There they met Brightley Severinghaus, who claimed to be the head of the agency. “You look like a detective and where it usually takes us a month to train candidates for our private force, I think I can get you through in about three weeks,” Severinghaus told Laubenheimer.

“Fine,” said Laubenheimer.  “When do I get my first lesson?”

“You will have to put up $5 and then the same amount every week,” said Severinghaus.

Laubenheimer fumbled around and found $2 in his pocket – Ridenour fronted him the remaining $3.  Laubenheimer then paid Severinghaus, and after receiving a receipt, put him under arrest.

“I thought you would make a good detective when I first saw you,” said Severinghaus.

Later, a court sent him to an emergency room to have his sanity tested.

For some reason, this made me laugh for a good couple of hours.  I’m sure Laubenheimer felt good about passing Severinghaus’ class so quickly.