Where Am I Going, Where Have I Been?

25 September 2022 ☼ PersonalMeta

I know Joyce Carol Oates is having something of A Moment these days, since a movie based on one of her novels just premiered, and apparently Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is still popular enough among high school English teachers that if you search up the story title, most of the links are to online study guides and downloadable sample essays. But it feels like the story itself used to have a fair bit of cultural power and no longer does. As if there was a once-upon-a-time where you could say to someone else, You know the creepy Joyce Carol Oates story about the guy who stuffs his boots?” and the other person would say, Oh, yeah!” Which may say something about the fragmenting of our culture, but it may have been inevitable even if our supposed culture had fragmented less. You either die the hero or live long enough to realize that that short story you wrote that got so much praise was published half a century ago.

Which brings up the question: how much of a shelf life should any given piece of writing have, anyway? And should the projected shelf life hold any influence over the decision to write the piece in the first place?

I get annoyed sometimes at the decision to write about ephemera, and yet most of what I do here is write about ephemera. Idol pop by design is very much of its time, and therefore ages quickly. Take just one sub-sub-category of idol pop, SM Entertainment male groups: it’s three very different sets of musical and visual choices in SHINee’s Lucifer”, EXOs Ko Ko Bop”, and NCT 127’s 2 Baddies”, despite all three songs essentially trying to do the same thing, for the same company, in a twelve-year span; and I’ll happily make the case for Lucifer” as immortal, but the video already has that patina of time gone by over it, and not just because Jonghyun’s there and no longer here. Any conclusions built on such flashes risk dating easily themselves. And when there’s already so much else to read about…

So I stopped writing for this blog for a while. Partly because writing about Korean idol pop has gotten less and less fun over time. (There’s plenty of evidence to discourage you from taking up an interest in Korean idol pop, should you want it: most recently a podcast with two former idols in which they describe the experience as one of constant stress and never enough time to shower, let alone sleep.) But even when I wasn’t writing about idols in probably unhealthy circumstances, it felt like I couldn’t justify the time. Any time I spent writing a blog post was time I could spend taking care of my family or my house (as I write this, my house is still a mess). The world did not seem to be, and still does not seem to be, clamoring for in-depth analysis of good-looking Kazkahstani dudes making music. I wasn’t making any money for my time, and what professional rewards I was getting seemed to be dwindling: the Singles Jukebox was gradually becoming less and less rewarding over time, and to be vague, a project I’d been excited about (no, not the Ninety One Series) went on life support and hasn’t recovered yet.

On top of all this, to continue being vague, while I wasn’t writing I had it gently suggested to me that the descriptor autistic” might apply to me. (Specifically, what used to be referred to as Asperger’s syndrome and is now known as Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1, or low-needs” autism.) Descriptor, not diagnosis; as best I can tell there’s not a lot of consensus on how to diagnose ASD in adult women, and there’s not a lot for me to gain in pursuing a formal diagnosis anyway. But when I found out that autistic (cis) girls and women often have the same intense approach to hobbies or subjects as autistic (cis) boys and men, just different subjects—as in, subjects related to people—as in, celebrities—that’s when I said to myself, Aw, crap.”

And then the self-consciousness multiplied. Maybe my intense focus on certain groups or topics was not simply unusual but off-puttingly weird. Maybe people weren’t reading and responding to my work not because I’m terrible at marketing (I am) or because there’s a lot of competition (there is) but because some kind of pathetic deluded neuroatypical miasma clung to my words. Maybe I was trying too hard and it wasn’t cute.

I should say: maybe I am trying too hard and it isn’t cute.

Oh, well.

Because when the Jukebox breathed its last last month, after months upon months of declining contributions, I mourned; and in mourning I had to articulate what I was mourning for. I ended up writing a very long Twitter thread. And as I wrote it I realized: what the Jukebox had initially given me, and what I had let slip through my fingers, was the confidence to write anyway. Not that I’m not weird or neuroatypical or uncute; but one, who wants a woman in her forties to be cute anyway? And two, and more importantly, why should that be reason enough to stop?

I mentioned in the thread that I’d been reading Richard Hanania:

For someone living in a modern first world country, the most important downsides to risk are gone. No matter how much you fail at life, unless you join an inner-city gang or overdose on fentanyl you’re probably not going to die as a result of your mistakes…. The things we feel nervous about on a daily basis like someone making fun of us on Twitter or a romantic rejection are treated by our defective brains as issues of life and death, when in reality they matter very little. At the same time, the potential upsides to taking risk — money, power, sex — are all still there for the taking.

My anxiety-riddled brain can, with very little prompting, come up with a scenario in which there are real negative social consequences to writing maybe-pathetic, probably-weird essays. (It probably doesn’t help that I started in journalism and moved from there to academia, the two industries with the highest probability, and the greatest amount of anecdata, of someone writing the wrong” thing and suffering real negative social and financial consequences.) Hanania would retort that my anxiety-riddled brain is being dumb and weak, and the rest of my brain, observing the anxiety churn in action, is inclined to agree with him.

Meanwhile the potential upsides” in this case are not money, sex, or power, at least not as a first-order effect. They’re more internal than that. Hanania doesn’t say this, he’s got other fish to fry, but anxiety is a process, a direction of energy, and one needs to exert an equal or greater force to redirect that energy. Anxiety and inertia are tied together. (Think of Steven Pressfield’s usual description of Resistance with a capital R.) And so it’s not enough to simply work on not being anxious. One can use tools to reduce the anxiety (I’ve used Lexapro and talk therapy in the past, and CBT tools; I’ve tried meditation but never been able to do much with it consistently) but my experience is, at some point you have to actively do something to combat the anxiety. A simpler, more self-centered way of putting it is: I feel better when I’m blogging than when I’m telling myself it’s not worth it to blog.

Jessica, you realize you’re taking life advice from the guy who argued that Russia would win quickly because the Ukrainians were wusses who don’t have enough kids? Yes! And I am very glad he was wrong on that point. And you’re proving my point, in a way. Hanania would think less of himself if he feared my judgment enough to withhold his opinion; so why should I withhold mine? Why can’t we both overcome our inner wusses, and then disagree with each other from respective points of less anxiety and more self-acceptance?

The point about having to take care of home, family, et cetera, still stands. In fact as I write this I’m debating whether I’m wasting valuable car-washing time. (We don’t have a canopy, so between the sun and the heat I’m bad about washing the cars in the summer, and both cars are looking positively grimy.) So let me wrap this up and outline how we’re going to revive this moribund space.

Earlier this year I revived the moribund space of my Tumblr. I’d abandoned it in the Yahoo! years but never actually deleted it, and some of my friends had hung on; by this year Tumblr felt quieter and less obnoxious, as a platform, than it had in 2014, or than Twitter does now. Also posting on Tumblr allowed me to do an end run around the anxiety without confronting it directly: oh, it’s just Tumblr, it’s just fangirling, it doesn’t count. It is fangirling: one of the reasons I went back was to have a platform on which to review every song Ninety One has ever released. But if I’m going to be a weird obsessive too-focused possibly-autistic et cetera et cetera writer, I ought to own it, and eliminate the just.”

But Tumblr isn’t a platform I control: if it suddenly goes offline or degrades, my words go with it. So my plan is to use Tumblr exclusively for small asides and Tumblr-esque things, such as reacting to photos, but posting longer pieces to both places. So next time I go off on a long analytic spiral about car shopping and conspicuous consumption in Kazakhstan (complete with followup), it’ll be here too. And if you find such writing weird, useless, pathetic, a waste of time, et cetera, et cetera, you are free to not read it. You are even free to call me pathetic and useless and so on on Twitter; I’m almost never there, so odds are I won’t see it, and if I did see it, the experience would probably be a useful exercise in teaching my anxiety-riddled brain that being disliked won’t kill me.

I’ve got a longer piece that I’ve been putting together in bits and pieces over the last couple months, and that should hopefully go up sometime in the next week or two. But before I posted it I wanted to address the long gap between entries here, and say, as much for my own benefit as any hypothetical reader’s: here I am, here I want to stay.