Blocked

For the past month, my inner critic and my inner censor have been throwing a house party upstairs. It is a rager.

If I manage to make it across the finish line awake at the moment in a day when I can sit down and work on some fiction, everything comes crashing down at the world building stage. I have an acquaintance—let’s call him Harvey—who has written a truly terrible-sounding novel. It sounds like a real jaw-dropping glimpse into the Walter Mitty world he is carrying around in that time bomb on his shoulders. I know this because every single time some poor, misbegotten soul at a gathering makes the mistake of engaging Harvey in small talk, like an innocent babe wandering into a dark wood full of camouflaged bear traps, Harvey finds any available opening to redirect and make the conversation into him talking about this book. He is not afraid to give you every plot point, and no one is brave enough to stop him by saying something like “don’t spoil it before I can read it, ha ha!” because they are terrified he will give them a copy.

Right now, when I try to sit down at the keyboard, the voice of those ideas is coming out of Harvey’s mouth at someone he cornered at a dinner party. So much for that.

Worse, every time I think I’m going to get the juices flowing by banging out a clever take on some opinion or personal anecdote, I’m immediately overcome by the tedium of it. “Are you really going to spend time doing that? This has all been done. Often by you.”

In short, every time my fingers tap the keys, the critic and the censor upstairs shout, “Keep it down in there. We’re trying to throw a party.”

I know what’s going on here. I don’t trust my ability to communicate with other human beings right now. My confidence is shot.

I'll bet you're not all that sorry.

I’ll bet you’re not all that sorry.

Every morning, I would drop my son off at preschool. Every morning as I headed out the door, the teachers would say to me, “Have a good day.” Every day, I would cheerily reply to the teachers, “I will if you do!” Factoring in my delivery of the line and body language, the teachers understood this statement as: “Good luck with my son as he crashes through the room like a cocaine cyclone, arms flailing wildly with no regard to the proximity of other people! Maybe you can do something with him. Adios, suckers!”

I did not mean that when I said that. I meant, “I hope you also have a good day.”

It seems the boy has been “hyperkinetic” with the other kids for a while. Nobody told us, because they assumed from the way I talked in the morning that I already knew and didn’t care. Then they eventually confronted my wife with that. It didn’t go anywhere great from there.

So now I’m in a Cold War with the preschool, I guess. (All good cold wars are about arms and where they’re pointed.) This is a direct result of me attempting to be as effusive and friendly with new teachers as possible. I had the “drop off the boy” job for maybe two weeks.

I think about the friend of twenty years who has me blocked on Twitter, though she has the kindness to lie to me about it (“I don’t really use Twitter much”). I think about the orthodox Catholic friend of fifteen years who unfriended me on Facebook for a while when I was in a particularly irreverent place. The jokes were too dark and not sufficiently jokey.

I think about the IM conversation I had the other day, when my tongue-in-cheek cracks about abusing my wife’s dog almost made the person I was talking to log off. She and I have been sharing gallows humor for years, but I misgauged the conversation so radically we weren’t even having the same one.

I think about the week after iFanboy dialed down their blogging operations. I browsed the other sites to see what people were saying about the end of that era; call it my grieving process. I was heartened by how warm the articles and comments (mostly) were, but I was also struck by how almost every negative comment I happened to see singled out my column by name.

dan ahn

Which… okay. A lot of time, I was trying to bother a certain type of comic book guy, and I can say pretty definitively that it worked. There’s that old line about journalism’s business being to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and while I wasn’t a journalist I always took half of that line to heart. There’s a type of “geek” who I look at and think, “Creatures like you are why I hesitate to let my friends and family know I do this,” and that guy started showing up a lot towards the end of iFanboy’s run. I wrote with him in mind a lot. That final month, I wrote a piece almost literally titled “Go Fuck Yourself.” The reviews were never going to be quoted in my obit.

Still.

In a life that has seen me take very few things for granted, I have spent quite a few years with a couple of basic assumptions about myself: I am an excellent communicator with a pretty good way with words, and when I use those words I can be pretty funny. More and more lately, I’m wondering if any of those things are true anymore, if they ever were. My batting average is plummeting. I may have had it all wrong this whole time.

I guess I have been too comfortable, and now I have to afflict myself.

The Self-Serving Reason Not To Feed The Trolls

Below is a heavily reworded excerpt from an e-mail I had to send to Josh Flanagan at iFanboy last winter after blowing my stack for something like the third time that month. I don’t know if the studies connecting internet use and depression are true, but I know as a matter of settled fact that the web is not good for me, and spending time dealing with anonymous opinions has a corrosive effect on my soul. I (used to?) have periodic flare-ups when the acid-spitting assholes in the ether would put me on the burner until my fingers were melting the keys; I would get so mad that these nitwits were ruining my playground and decide that if I couldn’t get them to stop dishing it out, it was my duty to at least make them take it too. I had completely forgotten what precipitated this e-mail until I looked it up; as it turns out, this one was not because I got into an unprofessional fight with one of the site’s users or accidentally started a dust-up with a comic book creator, but rather because I heard one of my bosses say something I didn’t like on his own podcast, so I started railing against him on the site he owned that employed me.

(I’m someone’s dad.)

That’s what I get like when it comes over me. At no point did it even occur to me, “You actually know this person. His number is in your phone if you have a problem with him.” I heard the thing I disagreed with on his web site, I was at his web site, so I banged “NO! WRONG, STUPID!” onto his web site right then and there. I’m a delight.

Luckily, I have- after trial and error and error and trial and trial and error- learned the stimuli that turn me into the Hulk and slowly conditioned myself to avoid them. I know that I can only spend a certain amount of time, and a certain kind of time, online. It has worked really well for me, except for the part where I work online for every moment the sun is shining.

I take it one day at a time.

In addition to the glowing impression it makes on the people who are close to me, I think this weakness of temperament also gives me more insight than I’d like to have into the inner life of my foe, the internet troll. Troll Town is like the strip clubs in East Saint Louis: I don’t want to go there, but I know how you get there from here.

The rule at iFanboy—the conventional wisdom among all right-thinking people—was “don’t feed the trolls.” I don’t need to tell you this. I did need to tell me this, over and over. I was pretty good at following the letter of that law once I represented someone else’s site, though the spirit of the law was another matter entirely and I faltered like clockwork. I got the logic behind it: these people are lashing out, and if you don’t provide them with the reaction they crave they will wither and head out in search of fresher blood. I got it. I just thought it was bullshit.

Some person online would come into my house and start turning over furniture, just being awful, and for a while I’d just shake my head and pity them for having to be that asshole every day. (Do you ever think about that instead of responding, by the way? Imagine what the world must feel like all day to someone who carries that bile around in his gut.) The longer it went on, though, the more the voice in my head I shouldn’t listen to would hiss insistently, “So… why exactly does a stranger get to try and ruin your day without anyone calling him on it? He just gets to piss on your shoes and go about his merry way while you stoicly walk around all day covered in the smell of him and squishing when you walk? He kicks you into the dumps, and in return you adjust your ‘Kick Me’ sign and change the subject? How does that work? Does that sound like the way this should work?”

So I started getting into it with people. I started to turn around, poke my nose in and say, “Hey! You don’t just get to walk around being a stupid racist asshole today,” or whatever it was. I can remember one time in particular when this little cuss got on my last nerve and I consciously decided, “I am going to log into Twitter and chew out this little prick until he thinks twice about showing his face online to pay his gas bill.”

And I made an important discovery: it is a terrible idea to do that.

It’s not cathartic. There is no triumph. You still have your baseline anger at the trolling, but then venting your anger at the troll just gets you a private dance. As it turns out, what you get out of engaging is not so much “satisfaction at having brought justice to the internet” as it is “a three-day heated conversation with a stranger you never wanted to know anything about in the first place.”

Yes, yes, you shouldn’t sink to their level and life is too short and the poor will be with you always and blah blah & so on. Never mind all that high-minded stuff! It will never fill the hole they’re trying to make inside you; it will only widen it. You cannot deal with a viper by wrestling with it.

Well, I mean, you can. But you’ll die, from all the poison. So, we learned that.