Sunday, June 30, 2013

You Gotta Keep The Devil Way Down In The Hole

My first indication that I was taking The Wire too seriously occurred during a phone conversation with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. She asked me what was new, and the first thing I told her was that I had started watching The Wire.

In other words, a friend wanted to know what had changed in my life since the last time we spoke, and I told her that I was watching a television show. And it didn’t even seem that pathetic in the moment (although I am appropriately embarrassed about it now); rather, it seemed like the obvious response, given how much time I was devoting not just to watching the show but to thinking about it, talking about it and reading about it. Essentially, I had become the living embodiment of a Family Guy joke.

I really didn’t expect to get sucked in so strongly. I knew all about how great the show’s reputation was before I started watching it, but I had been making a conscious effort to take television less seriously ever since about a year and a half ago, when I got way too sad after an episode of How I Met Your Mother and wrote this. And when I watched the first two Wire episodes with some friends a few months before diving into the whole thing, I wasn’t that compelled. It looked interesting, sure, but I was mostly just confused.

So I’m not too sure why I decided to try watching the entire series this winter (probably because I’m pretentious, so if the critical establishment has decided something is great, it’s important for me to think it’s great, too), but once I got past the bewilderment of the first few episodes, I was hooked. Beyond hooked, really. All the reminders I had drilled into myself about television characters being fake and thus not worthy of too much emotional attachment quickly went out the window. I’m still not completely over Wallace dying, and any conversation I try to have about Randy or Dukie quickly devolves into a mixture of sad headshaking and muttered profanities.

This is mainly because, even though The Wire is ultimately just a television show, it was hard to view it purely as a work of fiction. This was driven home especially hard during season four, when the scenes of Prez ineptly trying to teach in a Baltimore middle school may as well have been documentary footage of me ineptly trying to tutor in a Boston middle school. The problems this show deals with are heartbreakingly real—excluding the occasional Hamsterdam or fake serial killer—making it all but impossible not to view the characters caught up in them as real, too.
So that’s why the journeys of Wallace and Randy and Dukie and countless other characters hit so hard. Their characters might be fictional, and the actors who play them may have moved onto Friday Night Lights and Suburgatory, but it’s still far too easy and far too disconcerting to know that there are several real Wallaces and Randys and Dukies out there, not just in Baltimore but in pretty much any city in the country. And that makes their fates hard to take, even when you’re just watching them played out by actors on TV.

Not surprisingly, the writers of The Wire managed to put this concept better than I did, so I’ll let them take over for a bit. From an essay they wrote for Time:

“…those viewers who followed The Wire…tell us they’ve invested in the fates of our characters. They worry or grieve for Bubbles, Bodie or Wallace, certain that these characters are fictional yet knowing they are rooted in the reality of the other America, the one rarely acknowledged by anything so overt as a TV drama.”

I still think it’s a little silly to get so caught up in a television show. And I’m still a little uncomfortable with how emotionally draining it often was for me to get through even one Wire episode. But if it’s going to happen with any series, it might as well happen with one that deals with something real.

And now, here are:

A bunch of Wire lists that will hopefully not make David Simon angry

Top 10 Characters (in no particular order because that’s too hard):
1. Bunk
2. Mr. Prezbo
3. Bunny Colvin
4. Daniels
5. Lester
6. Kima
7. Gus
8. Wallace
9. Carver
10.  Bubbles

Characters who deserve a completely separate category because they are named Omar, and trying to compare any other characters in The Wire to Omar isn’t fair:
1. Omar

Characters who are just the fucking worst:
1. Templeton
2. Levy
3. Templeton
4. Herc in Season 4
5. Templeton
6. Templeton
7. Steintorf
8. I could probably win a Pulitzer if I made up quotes and stories and lied about getting a call from a fake serial killer, too, Templeton
9. Namond’s mom
10.  Fuck you, Templeton

Most heartbreaking moments:
1. Kima getting shot
2. Wallace getting got
3. Dukie
4. “You gonna help, huh? You gonna look out for me? You gonna look out for me, Sgt. Carver?”
5. Prez shooting a cop
6. Pretty much everything else that doesn’t involve Bubbles walking up a staircase

Number of songs I memorized from the “Funny or Die” Wire musical:
1. All of them

Favorite versions of the theme song (in order):
1. Season 1
2. Season 3
3.  Season 4
4. Season 5
5. Season 2

Favorite seasons (in order):
1. Season 4
2. Season 3
3. Season 1
4. Season 5
5. Season 2

Phrases that I just sort of say now:
1. Oh, indeed
2. Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit

What I feel like eating:
1. Honey Nut

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Brief, Mostly Accurate Timeline Of My First Day At Governor's Ball

(NOTE: I obviously went to the bathroom multiple times throughout this music festival. However, they are not experiences I would like to relive in writing or through any other medium, so I have left them out for everyone’s benefit.)

2:30 pm: In spite of the steady stream of rain falling outside, my spirits are high as I prepare to make the sojourn to Randall’s Island. This may be because I am with some of my best friends. It may be because I am drinking a Red Bull/vodka for the first time in years. The point is, regardless of the reason, I am excited, as evidenced by my racing heart. Although I guess that may just be because of the Red Bull/vodka.

3:30 pm: We leave the safe confines of my friend’s apartment and begin trekking to Governor’s Ball in the rain. Spirits are still high, as I have made sure to prepare for the weather by wearing athletic shorts, a New Balance t-shirt, an old pair of running shoes, and my trusty green jacket, fast approaching its ten-year anniversary. The outfit is virtually impenetrable to water. I may as well be walking around in a giant, heated bubble.

3:35 pm: I make several loud, hilarious, loud jokes on the subway that everyone loves. Multiple agents approach me as I exit the car with offers for lucrative television deals, but my focus remains on the festival.

3:45 pm: We exit the dry safety of the subway to make the rest of our unholy pilgrimage on foot. The pathway to the island is pockmarked by a makeshift trail of empty discarded bottles left by our forefathers that extends from the beginning of the Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy Bridge all the way to the festival’s entranceway. Containers range from beer cans that once contained alcohol to bottles of orange juice that also probably definitely once contained alcohol.

Legend has it both flora and fauna were plentiful
on Randall's Island before the white man arrived. 
4:00 pm: I can hear the dulcet tones of Best Coast as we approach the actual stages. They are probably playing a song about how California is nice, as that seems to be the main theme of every band, person, and burrito that has come out of California since 1850. Unfortunately, their songs about beautiful weather fail to change the fact that Randall’s Island already looks like it has been getting rained on for approximately six presidential administrations. However, I am still not worried due to my wise choice of clothing.

4:30 pm: I begin to notice that, despite having taken the precaution of wearing a jacket, I am still becoming wet. This is true even after I put the hood up. Something is not right.

4:40 pm: We and several other mud-spattered refugees approach the tent of a gracious, benevolent company that has decided to give out free ponchos. I gratefully adorn their garment, secure in the knowledge that it is scientifically impossible for someone wearing two jackets to get rained on. The fact that I cannot remember the name of this company should in no way diminish my gratitude. The word “tea” appeared in their name somewhere, so everyone just go out and buy a bunch of tea.

4:45 pm: We wade toward the Governors Ball NYC stage and begin to watch our first actual concert, Of Monsters And Men. Unfortunately, they do not opt to play “Little Talks” over and over again as I had wished, but their set is still lively and entertaining enough to momentarily distract me from the fact that a small colony of mushrooms has started to sprout on my back.

5:45 pm: Of Monsters And Men stop playing. We decide to get beer before heading to Local Natives at the You’re Doing Great stage. As we trudge through seven feet of mud and rainwater, I begin to realize that wearing shoes with holes in them may not have been the best way to prevent my feet from become wet and gangrenous. I curse myself for letting down Lieutenant Dan as water, earth and E. coli completely overtake what were once a fairly passable pair of shoes and socks.

6:00 pm: I purchase and open a comically oversized can of Foster’s, Australian for "beer that I never saw anyone drinking when I was actually in Australia." It soon becomes difficult to tell whether I am drinking alcohol or rainwater, but I finish the can anyway, showing the kind of dedication and commitment I have become famous for.

6:15 pm: We begin to actually watch Local Natives, in the sense that they are playing on a stage, and we are standing kind of close to that stage. However, I soon become much more preoccupied with explaining to a group of British people why what I just said was funny and the flash flood warnings that have started to show up on my friend’s phone. Nevertheless, we decide to stay, as there is nothing better in this life than being young and carefree and outside and listening to music and ok, I’m actually getting really wet and cold, are you guys?

6:35 pm: It stops raining for approximately one minute. It is a very nice minute.

6:45 pm: We doggy paddle back to the Governor’s Ball NYC stage to see Feist perform “1234” and other songs that are not “1234.” I soon discover that no one except me finds it amusing when I mispronounce her name as “Feast” on purpose. This does not stop me from doing it many times.

7:00 pm: Feast performs approximately 1.5 songs, neither of which are “1234,” before leaving the stage for safety issues or some bullshit like that. I am rather upset, as is the small but productive colony of minnows that have recently set up home in my left sock.

7:10 pm: Did you know that one can actually enjoy music inside as well?

7:15 pm: We swim over to the Skyy Vodka tent and set up camp in a small riverbed to await Erykah Badu & The Cannabinoids. I do not know what a Cannabinoid is, but I hope they have the ability to control the weather.

8:00 pm: Erykah Badu begins playing. I’m pretty sure I am getting wetter even though I am under a tent. Rumor has it that the only one who can conquer this rain is an African-American demigod named Yeezus, but he is not due to arrive until Sunday.

9:30 pm: Erykah Badu stops playing. My body is now completely saturated. We debate whether or not to stay for Kings of Leon and Pretty Lights, in a battle that pits the part of my personality that is young and fun against the part of my personality that dislikes pneumonia. The bands ultimately make this decision easier for us by canceling.

9:45 pm: We don our scuba gear and begin trekking back to the 125th Street subway station. I glance forlornly back at Randall’s Island as we approach the bridge, certain that nothing will ever grow on this lifeless rock again.

10:00 pm: It continues to rain.

11:00 pm: We arrive back at my friend’s apartment. We attempt to burn our clothes, but they are too wet and ultimately end up overtaking the fire. The minnows are very angry with me.

11:30 pm: I realize I have not eaten anything in approximately 12 hours. I believe this is because I came down with a condition known as “being too wet to experience hunger.” (This may not sound real, but you can trust me. I have friends in medical school.)

12:30 am: We spend a classic “New York” night out eating pizza and watching reruns of old sitcoms inside a small apartment. There is honestly nothing else I would rather be doing.

1:30 am: Bedtime. Gotta go back tomorrow because that's what heroes do

Other observations:
  • One of the lines on Kanye’s upcoming album is “I just talked to Jesus/He said, “What up, Yeezus?” I am awaiting final results of the study, but I believe this is the greatest rap lyric in music history.
  •  I have no idea if I enjoyed the Guns N' Roses show earnestly or ironically, and I don’t think I ever will, and I’m totally ok with that.
  • The fact that there were phone-charging stations at this festival represents everything I hate about my generation. Having said that, I was terrified when I dropped my phone on Saturday, so I’m certainly not trying to put myself above anyone.
  • Silent Discos are really weird.
  • See you next year. Probably.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Was it worth it after all?

I graduated from Columbia Journalism School about a year ago, wrote this, and then forgot about it. But I just reread it, and I'd say I still believe it, so here you go:

My year at Columbia Journalism School is all but over, as are the seemingly endless number of assignments I’ve had to do since August. So last night, I decided to take advantage of my first free Monday since winter break the best way I knew how: by watching two episodes of The Simpsons with a fellow j-schooler. ("Krusty Gets Kancelled” and “Last Exit To Springfield.” Both are absolute classics).
Here is a picture of the journalism school.

Although a good portion of the night was thus spent staring fishlike at my laptop screen, we did manage to squeeze in some time for conversation as well. Granted, most of this was about The Simpsons and how great it is, but since we’re almost at the end of an intense yearlong program, it didn’t take too long for a certain question to inevitably come up:

Was it worth it?

This has been asked and answered countless times since the journalism school was founded, so I doubt I’ll be able to provide the definitive answer here. But I did just finish the program, so I figure I might as well give it a shot.

At the risk of channeling Bill Clinton circa-1998, I think it depends on what the meaning of the word “it” is. If we’re defining “it” purely in monetary terms, then the answer—at least right now—is an emphatic no. Yes, I’ll have a paid internship when I leave; yes, I’m excited about it; and yes, I got it at least partially because I went to Columbia. But I paid about $50,000 to go here, and suffice it to say I will not be making that back this summer.

But that’s a very narrow way to define “it,” and given how broad of a question “Was it worth it?” is, it’s also not a very satisfying answer. In fact, it’s a pretty shitty one. So let’s move on.

I think what my friend really wanted to know when she asked that—I think what everyone really wants to know when they ask that question—is why I thought it was a good idea to earn a master’s degree in journalism when I applied here and whether I still think it’s a good idea now that I’m done. Because there does seem to be an enormous and constantly growing body of evidence against doing so. A lot of successful journalists—like, for instance, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School—never earned one. The Internet has not been kind to print media, to say the least. And New York City is an expensive place to live, especially when you’re making negative income.

I thought about all of these things several times before I applied here, after I got accepted, after I enrolled, and while I was in the program (especially when journalists who had never earned a journalism degree came to the school to discuss how poorly most major publications were doing. I am still not entirely sure what we were supposed to get out of those talks apart from depression). I think about them now, too (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this). Because the realities of the industry are painful, and they did make me wish more than once this year that I had opted for a career in something like software engineering or advertising or panhandling. You know, something stable.

But I don’t want to do any of those things—at least not right now—so they aren’t options for me. I want to be a journalist, and since I was raised in middle class America, pursuing a career that you want is a luxury that was always encouraged. It seems like a very simple reason for coming here, and the part of me that likes pretending I’m some sort of amateur philosopher wishes I had something more profound to say about it, but this is really all I’ve got: I came to the Columbia Journalism School because I want to be a journalist. Crazy, isn’t it?

Now, was this a vital step to take towards becoming a journalist? I would have to say no, simply because I know too many reporters—either through fame or friendship—who have had/are having successful careers without a master’s degree. I’m not trying to enter a field like law or medicine, where official credentials and diplomas are necessities, hilarious Onion articles notwithstanding.

Still, when I think back on the year, a few things stand out that I can’t really deny:

·      I am better at writing and reporting now than I was in August.
·      I am good friends with a lot of people who didn’t know I existed less than a year ago.
·      I have had a lot of fun over the past 10 months.
·      New York City really isn’t that expensive if you don’t mind living in a room with no windows and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch every day.

Look, you don’t have to go to school to learn how to be a journalist. You don’t have to go to school to learn German, either, or to learn how to start a company or compose a symphony. But it doesn’t hurt, and it usually helps. And if you get to meet a lot of great people along the way and can graduate with a moderately reasonable amount of debt, so much the better.

There’s some quote about success that I can no longer remember the exact wording of, but it’s basic point is that the only wrong way to get to the top is by standing at the bottom criticizing what everyone else is trying (“There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s?” No, that doesn’t sound quite right). I know a degree from Columbia doesn’t guarantee a successful career in journalism, but this is what I decided to try. I have no idea if I’ll be making a living as a reporter five years from now, but that has very little to do with my decision to come here and a lot to do with me not being clairvoyant.

Anyway, regardless of what happens in the future, I don’t think it will—I don’t think it can—change the fact that this has been a fun and rewarding year. And with the way I idealize events in the past, I’m probably just a few months away from fondly reminiscing about the time Nicholas Kristof and I shared a laugh over cocktails at a swanky bar in Midtown, following which he gave me one of his Pulitzers, saying I had, quote, “earned it.”

So yeah. I think it was worth it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Musings On Boston, Newtown, Life, and "The Dark Knight Rises"

“Not a great few months for you, eh?”
-April 15 text from a friend

Well, I’ve had better. Although at least we got somewhat of a happy ending this time.

In December, the town where I grew up became the site of an international tragedy. On Monday, the same thing happened in the city where I live now. And on Friday, I woke up to a version of Boston that felt like it belonged in an episode of 24. Two homes, two heartbreaks, four months. If this pace keeps up, I will not make it to age 25 without developing a Prozac addiction.
This is Boston. Pretty cool, huh?

I don’t want this to be read as a complaint because, in a sense, I have been absurdly lucky. To have two horrific events happen in such quick succession in two places that mean so much to me but not lose a family member or close friend or even sustain an injury in either seems almost unfair. I am not a victim, and if I’m presenting myself as one, I apologize.

I guess I’m just tired.

I’m tired of getting the breaking news alerts and hoping against hope that everybody — not just the New York Post — is getting the story wrong. I’m tired of getting frantic phone calls and texts and tweets from friends and family, not because I don’t appreciate their concern but because I don’t want my existence to be a constant source of worry for them. I’m tired of events that are supposed to be celebratory, peaceful and safe being interrupted by madmen. I’m tired of seeing familiar, soothing landmarks overrun with police officers and media outlets. And, most importantly, I am tired of reading about dead children. I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but the thought that ran through my mind most often over the past week didn’t stem from sadness or anger but from exhaustion: didn’t we just do this?

I usually try very hard not to think about this because it’s terrifying, but the past week has made it too hard to ignore: what we normally consider “typical days” can become perilous in an instant. Getting out of bed is a risk. Leaving the house is a risk. Getting in a vehicle is a risk. But most of the time when we do these things — when we decide to live, in other words — nothing happens, which makes it easy to assume that nothing ever will. We learned again on Monday that this is not the case, and the fact that it occurred so soon after Newtown has helped me understand a very basic truth: the fact that I am alive is a miracle. There are so many things that could have killed me over the past 24 years, but none of them have, and this is nothing short of amazing.

I don’t appreciate this as much or as often as I should because of how easy it is to fall into the assumption, especially at such a young age, that I am going to live forever. But lately it seems like I’m reminded almost every day that this is not the case. Death exists. It always has, and it always will, and being a nonsmoking twentysomething doesn’t exempt you from it. The bad news is you don’t get to choose when it’s your turn to go. The good news is you do get to choose how to handle this knowledge.

Judging by the events of the past week, it’s pretty clear that Boston has chosen to handle it by being optimistically defiant. By now, you have a plethora of options when it comes to inspirational images that demonstrate this: people running toward the explosions instead of away from them; the national anthem at Wednesday’s Boston Bruins game; the interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The city is going to be fine. I knew that almost immediately after the explosions on Monday, when I walked by a homeless man singing a song about why people should give him change on my way home.

And if Boston can choose this, I think I can, too. To be honest, I’m not even sure what the other option is, but it probably involves never leaving the house, and judging by what I did on Friday during the city’s Dark Knight Rises-style clampdown, I would get bored with that pretty quickly.

Based on the moment of pure terror I experienced on Monday upon realizing how easily those two explosions could have hit me had I decided to leave my office and watch the marathon, I think it’s safe to say that I hope I don’t die for a very long time. But the fact is, I don’t know when it’s going to happen. I’m just not going to let it stop me from living.

I think this attitude is best summed up by a text my mom sent me on Friday morning when the manhunt was still ongoing:

“Text me when they catch him. Busy pouring wine.”

They got him Friday night, mom. No need to stop pouring wine.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

My Chemical Adolescence

One of the nicest things someone has ever written about me is also one of the funniest. It was a signature in my senior yearbook, and while I don’t remember the wording verbatim, the gist of it was that I was one of the only people my classmate knew who was completely unaffected by the stresses of high school, a quality she admired.

The sentiment wasn’t totally off the mark. I had a great time and a solid group of friends throughout high school despite being a huge nerd, probably because I managed to develop a sense of humor almost immediately after realizing how bad I was going to be at sports. (“Have a good sense of humor” is the first piece of advice I would offer to all young nerds out there. The second piece of advice would be “Do not take advice from me.”) And I think I always knew on some level that any problem an upper-middle-class suburban white teenage male thought he was facing couldn’t actually be a real problem, which helped me keep most of the stereotypical adolescent angst at bay. So, yes, my overall high school experience was fun and largely stress free, especially now that I get to filter all my memories of it through seven years of nostalgia.
This usually wasn't me. But I dabbled.

But there’s one image that comes to mind whenever I read that signature that makes it hard not to laugh about: 16-year-old me going on a run with “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” by My Chemical Romance blaring through my headphones on repeat, upset because a girl doesn’t like me and my world is ending. I may have dealt with the stresses of high school pretty well, but I certainly wasn’t immune to them.

“I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” was always my song of choice when it felt like being a teenager had become too hard. Apart from an early dalliance with Jimmy Eat World, I never really embraced the emo scene (mocking it was a lot more fun), but that track was the exception. Whether it was a girl issue, a grades issue, an I’m-not-having-enough-fun issue or something else, my coping mechanism was almost always the same: put on My Chemical Romance, and go running until I felt too tired to remember what was getting me so worried. It was surprisingly effective.

To be honest, I’m not sure what “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” is actually about. I usually tuned out most of the lyrics to the verses while listening to it and focused solely on the intense, guttural screams of “I’m not okay” that made up the chorus. That was the only part of the song that mattered because that was the only part that I sometimes felt like I needed to say. I’m 16; I’m happy; I’m healthy; but every now and then, I’m still not okay. I promise. I just don’t know why.

Anyway, I eventually got older and more emotionally stable, and my use of “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” as therapy became something to joke about with my older and more emotionally stable friends while we listened to super cool indie music by bands you probably haven’t heard of. And then, a few weeks ago, My Chemical Romance broke up, and I started thinking about that song again. It’s been a while since I’ve needed it as an antidepressant, and I’m much more likely to laugh than feel like the band is speaking directly to me when I hear it nowadays, but that doesn’t change the fact that when I was faking my way through adolescence, it was genuinely helpful in a way that not many other songs were.

So thanks, MCR. And don’t let anyone give you shit about “Welcome To The Black Parade.” Because that’s a pretty epic song, despite the confusing and kind of terrifying video.